The Right to Bear Arms
There was always great controversy among the men about which weapons were the best. They spent more time talking about this than any other topic I can remember, even more than the origins and morphologies of zombies, which is to say that they dedicated more time to outlining and deliberating the relative awesomeness of tools for dealing with the problem than they did examining the problem itself.
I can say, as any rational person should be able, that the very notion of a perfect weapon for a zombie apocalypse is absurd, because, in most instances, the best weapon is whatever weapon you were actually able to obtain. Even in those instances where options are presented, logic dictates that no two situations are alike and, therefore, the relative merits and drawbacks of any weapon should be considered (at least when time permits). I think most people can accept these statements as more or less true, and yet you would be surprised how often a man’s “inner boy” would lead him to make the most ridiculous, even laughable assertions about how “perfect” this or that weapon was or would be when dealing with zombies. As with anything, the roughnecks would nigh on come to blows over this, exchanging insults so scathing as to make the skin crawl (though that may have been lice).
That said, stupid as the conversation may have gotten at times, I think there was always an underlying current in this conversation that is worth taking seriously, a philosophical debate between the Cartesian view of the world as something to be administered, managed, and a much stronger primal sense like a scraping of approaching claws within the caverns of our subconscious minds telling us the universe is going to gnaw us down to particles no matter our political balms, no matter what techno-marvels we throw at it; which is to say the ongoing argument about weapons extends back way before the coming of the zombies, back before our culture’s heated arguments about the Second Amendment , the right to bear arms, and is, above all, a rattling of ritual bones to ward off evil spirits, men soothing their own anxieties by exhausting the long list of devices men had made for neutralizing ambient threats to existence.
A zombie, death incarnate, might be just outside the fence, gnawing on the galvanized links, his breath the very promise of your demise, but forget about that! here are a hundred different words representing a hundred different ways to kill death: 10-gauge, 12-gauge, adze, AK-47, AR-15, axe, axe handle, battle axe, big book, boulder, broadsword….
Yes, the astute reader will rightly say the need for weapons was quite literal and mundane, but I’d say that is so obvious as to almost negate the need for mention. Duh! of course weapons were necessary for killing zombies! But consider this: if the true discussion about zombie weapons had nothing to do with psychology and was only about physical necessity, wouldn’t men in peril limit such discussions to weapons they could actually expect access to—that is, weapons that actually existed? Of course. But they did not. In my experience, they always started with the realm of weapons they had a reasonable expectation of actually acquiring, but invariably these arguably practical conversations veered off quickly into those weapons it was more or less implausible for them to expect to see in their lifetime, and then, inevitably, betraying the strange, psychological underpinnings of their obsession, they would speak of things yet uninvented, entirely unpatentable, the bizarre, the fictional, the imaginary.
And, in that spirit, I submit the following thorough (though not by any means exhaustive) study, first of the Plausible, and then the Implausible, and finally the downright Imaginary:
§ Rocks. Let us return again to the Stone Age—to our beloved rocks. I believe there was a time after The Collapse when people still clung to the notion that humans are an advanced species, or maybe even that, as taxonomers, we are beyond taxonomy; yet if you are alive and reading this I presume that you eventually realized that you yourself have probably been a stone-chucker. I myself have chucked many a stone: I have chucked them through windows and into brambles to distract; I have chucked them at skulls to disorient; and, beyond chucking, I have hefted large, uneven rocks and brought them crashing down on skulls so that mantles of bone caved into brain, a brutal method, arguably the most brutal method, but I have done it, and can still see in my mind’s eye the face of every recipient. One thing ever in the rock’s favor? Its ubiquity. People tend to look back on the relatively short arc of human history as if we moved on from the Stone Age because evolution moves upward toward betterment, but while it’s true that technologies do become more advanced, each subsequent invention building on what came before, there is nothing in the concept of evolution itself that suggests advancement of this sort is a good thing. In the days before The Collapse you may have seen the bumper sticker that depicted man’s evolution over the ages in a series of silhouetted figures, stooped, knuckle-dragging ape on the far left proceeding in linear progression toward upright citizen on the far right, but you may also have seen a similar bumper sticker in which a new figure trumps upright citizen and walks on into the future supreme: the zombie. Oh yes, we are quite advanced! We hit our apex, moved from caves to skyscraping metropolises, made white phosphorous and hydrogen bombs, but still we ended up tearing each other apart with our hands and teeth? By comparison, the brutality of a rock? One sees the entire progression starting over again in a savage loop.
But, of course, rocks do have their drawbacks, and it would be a foolish eccentricity to limit oneself to stone play when so many other weapons abound in this apocalyptic landscape.
Take also the baseball bat: little more than a modified stick, a mere piece of wood or aluminum, it can be used to jab or bludgeon—and bludgeon and bludgeon. Also, to bludgeon and bludgeon until you hear that telltale crunch and wheeze. Yes, wrap the tapered lower end with several passes of athletic tape and you have yourself a fine, no-slip grip and a tool that will likely yield a few hundred if not a thousand fractured skulls. The aluminum version will come clean with a little wiping, but, as the varnish eventually wears away, the wood grain will eventually soak up some percentage of the fluids, like an oak cask absorbing red wine. There are many a man who will attest to the benefits of a baseball bat, or, in some colonial British circles, perhaps cricket bats, but this is largely nostalgia, a strange dissociative attempt to return to a carefree childhood of innocently whacking balls across fields of grass, the only impending darkness the setting of the sun at suppertime, the only threat encroaching on the horizon a mere patch of dreaded dandelions; yes, nostalgia, that aurora-like glimmering of long-dead pleasures, makes men seek out baseball bats, which leave one vulnerable after every swing, over their more primitive, but ultimately more effective, cousin, the simple hardwood stick, which, besides being swung, can be jabbed out almost as an extension of the most primitive weapon of all: the fist or foot.
§ Garden tools. There are many types of hammers, for instance—framing, finishing, ball peen, sledge, etc.—and so too do these many types have many different constructions so that some have solid wood handles that can be replaced (think of Grandpa’s toolshed and his collection of loose and rusty hammerheads) and others that are but single pieces of forged steel, head to handle, with pliable rubber cleaving to ergonomic hafts. They are most often used to crush craniums and so, in that regard, are as kindred to the rocks mentioned above—in the end, isn’t any alloy such as steel little more than rock humanified?—and yet they can be much more elegant to wield. Rocks are, almost as a rule, asymmetrical; and while lopsidedness has always had a certain aesthetic cachet in some artistic and cultural circles, it also has its own rather obvious downside: since rocks are not made to do anything but only to be, they more often result in glancing blows, whereas a skilled hammerer is known to strike with great focused force areas no larger than the heads of nails. Consider now the old saying that, to a man with a hammer, everything is a nail. Plus, many hammers feature a claw-end—for undoing mistakes one at a time.
There were others of these tools, those that had been repurposed in The Collapse: shovels, scythes, screwdrivers, pipe wrenches, pitchforks, etc. Anything that could be used to stab, impale, hook, or crush must have been utilized at one time or another, and yet there were those that seemed to gain more popular usage, particularly sawblades, or pry bars.
Before The Collapse, popular culture would have led you to believe that, in a zombie apocalypse, the chainsaw would be an ideal weapon, a thing you could whip back and forth, ripping flesh almost indiscriminately, and yet anyone who ever tried it quickly realized that the chainsaw may be a marvelous tool, but only for sawing wood or, at best, a lone lurker, bumbler, or anklebiter. They tended to get bogged down in fabric, especially synthetics, and, even if one managed to get the chain to bite into a skull, one would find oneself in the most vulnerable position in those vital moments between sawing into the zombie’s skull and watching him twitch down to quietude—that is, one’s own arms raised at an awkward angle, ribs, waist, and love handles exposed.
Jason told a story from the first days of the plague in which he saw a man trying to fend off a small gang in his front yard. This was in some small town in eastern Washington and the man had a good chainsaw, a new Stihl, its orange still crisp and bright in the morning light. But as the man buzzed the saw back and forth, the zombies did not do as humans might, did not feint and dodge, leap back in fear, but only pressed forward, directly into the screaming blade. Jason stopped running long enough to fire a few shots, dropped two or three of the man’s assailants, but it was already too late; he watched as the chain tore into the neck of the nearest zombie and even as he shredded through that arm in a cascade of blood and sinew, another was clutching his shoulder and leaning into bite. So, the mighty man, not yet undone, jerked back in a panic, whirled to tear into this one’s face, the machine’s bar in an awkward parallel to the ground; and here is where everything went terribly awry, because as soon as he went for this other one, the one whose arm he’d left dangling lurched ahead and grabbed his other side and the man, his attention flagging in that instant, made some small misstep. The chain bit at a strange angle into spine or skull and kicked back, as chainsaws are wont to do, so that that whirring cyclone of steel jerked back and chewed into the bone on the side of his own eye socket. The torrent of blood was immediate and prolific, and yet this wasn’t necessarily a deathblow.
Maybe an infection would have set it; maybe he would have turned, slowly, over days; or maybe he would have gotten lucky and made it through and had a hell of a scar to prove how close he had come—but there was no chance to find out, because the zombies were already tearing him apart, their teeth almost as extensions of that errant chain. Plus, you have to keep them in gas, tuned up, oiled, sharpened, and, while other weapons also require a lot of maintenance, any serious cost-benefit analysis of the chainsaw as a weapon shows it to be little more than an eccentric but ultimately useless dud—like a peacock.
The most common and generally effective garden-variety tool is probably the axe. Of course, there are many types of axes—felling axes, carpenter’s axes, broadaxes, Hudson Bay axes, firemen’s axes, hatchets, battle axes, etc.—each with its own benefits and drawbacks and, even within these categorical types, there are minor variations of handle curvature, handle material, and blade width more suited to one person’s or another’s preferences, so many that it becomes an overly cumbersome intellectual exercise to examine even 1/50th of the possible combinations and an exercise in idiocy to suggest one is inherently better suited to the task of splitting a skull, unless one happens upon a battle axe, which, as you know, was made for the express purpose of murdering people—but good luck finding one of those (or any other medieval weapon) in modern America! There are also other specialized sorts of axes or axe-like tools, like ice axes, mattocks, or splitting mauls, that are also preferred by some, and one is willing to accept this. I have never used the former, but can say from experience that a splitting maul requires almost no effort to stove a skull. The heavy head need only be lifted high enough above the head to get a good, gravity-aided drop, and it will split a skull nearly in twain—whereas some smaller axes, many designed for merely limbing trees or creating kindling, might require multiple thwacks. At any rate, I’ve heard it said that axes, in general, are problematic because they tend to lodge too deeply in a skull, and that, in the process of pulling it out, one runs the risk of being caught. True enough. But isn’t this largely a matter of usage, rather than any issue of objective merit? Let us not forget that, in better days, there were people among us who found it difficult to operate a can opener.
§ More traditional weapons. I have seen and heard about so many other weapons that it behooves me to just list them here and allow the reader to reflect before offering further commentary: sticks/staffs, pikes, bows, bats, blades, slingshots, traps, homemade bombs, or vicious animals.
There is a certain elegant simplicity to the staff or pike, obviously. You can whack one zombie off to the side and, in the right hands, pulverize another’s skull with but a sharp downward snap of the wrists. What’s more, without sacrificing the integrity of the weapon, one can easily sharpen or otherwise adorn both ends with blades, moving from the realm of the simple bow-staff into the realm of pikes or spears; this is a very common and utilitarian addition. Chucho was very much a proponent of the double-honed pike and claimed to have spent several months out in the wilds of America armed with nothing else. As he said, “It’s all run-and-jab, run-and-jab.”
The benefits of bows and crossbows are obvious: silence, reusability of bolts or arrows. But there weren’t exactly a lot of them around and, all too often, if you did find a bow, all you’d find were practice arrows, and maybe only a few of them—and those things wouldn’t penetrate bone. Maybe you’d walk around, as Ragnar, our resident Viking, said he did, for weeks with a nice compound bow, hoping to find a quiver of hunting arrows, but eventually have to abandon the extra weight. “But,” Ragnar added, “the second you let something like that go, you find what you were looking for. I found some in a second-hand store like that. No one else had took them either because there was no bow. Catch 22.”
Everyone around had blades, machetes or combat knives, hunting knives or cleavers, filet knives or even the periodic sword. Many a man wanted a sword, something heavy enough to swing and lop a head off, pointy enough to stab through a face, but these were so rare, most of the swords in America being knockoff katanas, or replicas of broadswords from fantasy movies and shows. Blades in general had obvious benefits, and no one would disagree, but these swords could prove disastrous illusions of security. I believe it was Lard Ass, our cook, who told the story of entering a normal, everyday suburban home in Lynwood and finding a beautiful broad sword with a steel blade forty inches long, a solid metal cross guard, a haft wrapped in soft black leather, the blade etched with a language that must have been made up by a mind in the clouds. He didn’t bother with the black cloak, but the sword had real weight to it, a solid heft, and he was a little dubious but, in the end, couldn’t resist the temptation, and went out into the world, a knight of some alternate dimension with that sword in a sheath, beating against his back.
“I bet you looked awesome,” Pippin, his assistant, had said when his friend told this story. “Like Aragorn!”
“But it broke into pieces though,” Lard Ass said with a sigh.
Ragnar had been listening quietly, and now he was nodding. “Like the shards of Narsil….”
“Buncha fucking dorks,” Huckleberry said.
“Maybe, but you know exactly what the fuck we’re talking about.”
Anyway, that was the main drawback of swords: there may have been a number of them out there in the man caves of suburban and white-trash America, all sorts, from broadswords to rapiers to scimitars, invariably cheap consumerist tokens paying empty homage to our culture’s many escapist hero epics, all of them nigh on useless, no less ridiculous than the half-dozen or so throwing stars Pippin kept in his fannypack, the ones people were always teasing the poor guy about, those black, five-pointed shurikens adorned with the white outlines of kicking ninjas, points so durable and sharp they could have taken down any zombie that happened to be made of crepe paper.
There were other random weapons you’d see now and then, even charming ones like slingshots or even simple slings. As with swords, some of these held a cultural significance that shouldn’t be overlooked, the slingshot because it harkened back to the youthful spirit of adventure, particularly in horror, as in Stephen King’s It, when the kids face the horror of their own dreams, or in Leprechaun, when a kid shoots a four-leaf clover into the mouth of the eponymous creature, but also in movies that inspired so many soon-to-be post-apocalypsers in their youths, Red Dawn, or in the videogame Angry Birds, in which the player used slingshots to shoot cartoon birds at and topple edifices so precariously elaborate as to foreshadow the very toppling of this nation’s architecture.
There were also simple slings in use, the kind where you have a little thong of leather on a rope and swing it around your head to fling a stone. I remember Buttplug saying he had never tried one, but very much liked the idea, because, as stated earlier, stones are everywhere, though it is also likely that a short stocky man such as Buttplug might have seen himself as a kind of David, zombies as a kind of collective Goliath, though that interpretation deviates pretty wildly from its source.
There were also traps, various snares and spring traps and, of course, those great clamping, toothy things commonly referred to as “bear traps.” These were few and far between in our times; while there were those who maintained right up until the apocalypse that trappers must keep their traditions alive by torturing and killing as many foxes and wolves and coyotes and bobcats and weasels and beavers and cougars and bears and curious family pets as the law allowed, there were far more who had abhorred the continued practice of such a cruel pastime whose chief benefit was furs to be made into hideously boxy and otherwise shapeless coats for rich old white ladies to wear and look like idiots as well as to hold out for that eventuality when food became scarce again and humans had to rely on traditional means of subsisting. As we know, that did come to pass. However, these manufactured traps are clearly no good at catching zombies, limited as they are to trapping one at a time. What a great quarry! one leg-dragger of ten thousand! way to thin the horde! Yes, of course they could be used for catching furbearing animals, for making coats with, for living as people once did off the land, like indigenes or Daniel Boones, but so too were conical traps, box traps, traps that weren’t cruel, these human brains capable as they are of finding alternatives when desire is present. Anyway. When it came to the zombies, one can’t discount too much the idea of traps. But better than the manufactured were the ones we designed: logs that swung down between trees, leveling a whole swath in one broadside swoop; logs that rolled down hills, the first knocking the feet out from under our dim-witted assailants, subsequent logs pulverizing their skulls; pits that opened up in major zombic thoroughfares so that they tumbled as lemurs into puddles of oil or diesel or simply beds of coals and timbers we could stoke from above; vast tangles of inescapable old barbed wire pulled from the ranges of America’s past, snagging legs, ensnarling swarms for however long it took us to arrive with pikes; the classic Honey, I’m Home!, in which a man would lead a whole neighborhood’s worth of zombies toward the front door of a mini-mansion, the object of the American Dream just before The Collapse, so that they’d crowd in after, pursuing him through the hallway and the living room and den and dining area as he escaped out the reinforced French doors to the back patio, the men closing the building off and torching the whole thing to the ground as they bumped around and were swallowed first by acrid black smoke and then, slowly by some lost slob’s heavily mortgaged home feeding on itself.
I can’t think of homes without thinking of dogs. Sure, I see feral packs now and then, hear them yipping among the ruins, but even as I know they are out there and multiplying, that our pets have made their own lives irrespective of our miseries, I can’t help but feel a sharp pang of loss when I think of them out there in the night, bedding down in the darkness, resting their heads on their paws, closing their eyes warily several times, lying over on their sides, taking in deep breaths until, eventually, they begin to jerk as they continue the long day of running in their sleep. Some have sought to weaponize them, taking as their thesis that many breeds were bred for violent purposes, as war-, guard-, and hunting-dogs—various breeds of mastiffs, American Staffordshire Terriers, German Shepherds, Doberman Pinschers, Irish Wolfhounds, Borzois, Airedales, etc.—so many breeds and so many centuries of history in their bloodlines. Consider how General George Armstrong Custer, our own captain’s namesake, loosed his staghound, Lee, on animals in the Lakota people’s sacred Black Hills, not only showing the ferocity of the animal but how it could be harnessed as a psychological weapon suggesting, as Custer no doubt intended to do, that Native Americans were as any other wild game to be taken down by the white man’s hounds. But once you point a dog at a zombie, how long does it take to train it to see the zombie as distinctly different than a human being, especially on those fringes where zombiehood and personhood seem to overlap or even to interlace, where it becomes hard to identify where an indifferent or apathetic or otherwise impaired consciousness has slipped into the realm of unconsciousness? Surely, our beloved dogs could know the difference, even when we couldn’t.
Now consider: BOOM! Yes, let’s not forget the homemade bombs, the pyrotechnics. It isn’t even hard to make a Molotov cocktail or pipe bomb or IED, to find the occasional stash of dynamite or that mildly explosive substance known as tannerite and affix this to bags of fertilizer left over from the days of landscaping and, with a shot from a high-velocity round, reduce a swarm of meatpuppets to mere meatchunks and flaps of skin wobbling like tofu from the tips of treelimbs. When death is closing in and all seems lost, there may be nothing more satisfying, nothing more relieving, than hearing a sudden pow! or better yet a deep whump! and an echo like thunder rolling back from a mountainside and seeing body parts scatter out from a sudden cloud of dust billowing up, mounding up on itself until it coils upward and collapses again, slowly, leaving a divot filled with viscera. The applause of Independence Day fireworks displays never approached what came in these moments when men who just a second ago thought they were doomed received a second chance to waste whatever remained of their lives. And yet what most often came of a hurled pipe bomb but a temporary pocket of air, the merest bubble of zombielessness in the middle of a horde, which was just as quickly displaced by all the others who, for all intents and purposes, were the very same ones that had just disappeared.
§ Guns. How could one even begin to understand The Collapse without accounting for them?
A full cataloguing might run to several hundred pages and further appendices laid out in complete volumes not only A-Z as well as several other alphabets, but I don’t know that I have enough years left in life to make such an effort—so I will just give a taste.
Guns are not sacred objects, though many fetishized them like they were. Don’t get me wrong: I survived death-by-zombie many times early on by firing a gun; it’s just that I cannot say their existence is what saved me. There is a chance that I unnecessarily risked myself because I felt an exaggerated confidence, that I put myself into positions that were inadvisable; likewise, there is no way to say whether a rock or a stick or a knife may have sufficed. This may be true of history as well. For all anyone knows, the advent of modern warfare, the one-upmanship from guns toward weapons of mass destruction, may have had something to do with the creation of zombies, tilting various unknowable scales in favor of this or that group, opening up possibilities that may never have existed otherwise. Do I think that? Not necessarily. But it is entirely possible that, had European settlers never marched across the continent gunning down men, women, children, and every last buffalo as they went, these very places we cling to tentatively now might have evolved into places of much deep and longer lasting happiness and joy—we might not be where we are today. But, of course, I do not know that either. Alternate history is not something you can claim to know so we’re left with what we’re left with, this hell on earth where we have to arm ourselves to the teeth and blow the brains out of any humanoid approaching unannounced.
Whatever brought us to this, all the catalysts of our history, construed our legacy and our legacy rings with an echo of a .30-06.
Speaking of the .30-06—or thirty-ought-six, for those who have never seen the numbers written—we all know those who will profess it to be the most utilitarian rifle ever made, for power, range, even just for the sheer ubiquity of cartridges—and among those was Custer. But for all its utilitarianism, maybe what drew him to it was its certain superfluous flair: the popular .300 or modified .308 could do roughly the same damage, some say with greater accuracy; meanwhile, the .375 has a similar versatility but more dropping power even at distance; and yet the .30-06 maintains a certain mojo that one can’t deny simply because of its vast name recognition, so that even a person who knew nothing at all about guns would know the numbers and associate it with something of a tradition, as if in the written form the numbers carried the history etched at an almost atomic level in the very graphite used to write them, and in the oral usage the strange insistence on using the outmoded word “ought” so that the very act of speaking the name of this rifle was to drop a heavy chunk of history like a granite tombstone in the dust. I might be going too far to call the .30-06 the Captain Custer of guns, but I doubt it. I think that is accurate even though, to my knowledge, the man didn’t actually use a rifle, but his pistol and 12-gauge (see below).
Strange how the history of guns parallels the history of colonialism, how the advances from harquebuses and flintlocks and muskets and rifles follows the same trajectory, both historical and geographical, as the expansion from the old world to the new, and how the advent of rapid-fire weapons from gattlings to tommy guns and pre-Collapse M-4s trace the movement from agrarianism to industrialization and consumerism, so that the long arc of the gun can be seen as intricately interwoven with the broader history of that movement out of feudalism toward the dueling systems of state capitalism and socialism.
And speaking of that duel, and speaking of machine guns, consider the disagreements among men about which to prefer and how those lines might be drawn along various ideological, rather than logistical, lines. The M-16? or its lightweight little brother the M-4 Carbine? or their commercial cousin the AR-15? These are popular American select-fire rifles with a smaller-caliber round. That said, they are also guns with a known propensity for jamming, an unnecessarily complicated design requiring constant maintenance, which defense contractors have been paid shitloads of money to manufacture, guns to be ordered by the million, making somebody filthy fucking rich—and richer with each subsequent war. About that smaller round: the 5.56 X 45 mm (or .223) was made for wounding and stopping an enemy but not necessarily killing him, which is to say these weapons were made in mass quantities to perpetuate war almost indefinitely all the while being billed as a “more humane” device for shooting someone in the chest, stomach, groin, and face. So, in all, we can say the most prevalent weapon in Plymouth, the AR-15, was a very popular, elegant and trustworthy-looking piece of Americana that, like the country itself, contained certain hidden, internal complexities that one would never guess by looking at its external expression, those inner dilemmas requiring constant tinkering just so it could continue doing its duty, day in and day out—duty, duty, duty—however doomed and fucked-up that duty might have been. Most like: Starbucks.
On the other side of the spectrum, what about the Kalashnikov? the world-renowned AK-47? This is a widely produced old Soviet rifle distributed worldwide, to almost every corner of the earth, except in America. Even when you leave an AK lying in the mud for a couple years, even when it seems like there is no way that thing could really still function, there’s a good chance it will still work and help some adolescent kid do some really heinous shit. The AK has very few parts, so any idiot (or child) with hands can disassemble and reassemble one in no time. Someone high up the chain was certainly getting rich in the manufacture of this weapon following the last year of WWII and the entry into the Cold War, though in the U.S.S.R. it was someone in government as opposed to, in the U.S., those who ran a corporation that simply wielded government as a proprietary tool to ensure monopoly, the money simply filtering through a different set of channels, tubes, and briefcases. It uses a larger caliber round than the M-4 or AR-15—a 7.62 X 39 mm, which is more of a straight-up killing round—and like Russians in general, there’s no sentimentality in it, no fake smiles for strangers.
Surely there can be a gentler way to shoot people, the American philosopher opines. Can’t we reorganize the world order simply by stopping rather than killing?
Hmmf! the Russian replies. Do not delude yourself. Armies kill.
Though Jason was not Russian, but from the Sierra Leone, and though he had been in the U.S. military and used American weapons over the past years, it was hard to separate him from the AKs he must have used as a child soldier, and, indeed, to think of him as any other weapon but the AK and its no-frills international efficiency.
Yet aren’t these, the AR and the AK, but two sides of the same coin? Flip it. It will land, either heads or tails, but does it really matter which is up? Either way there was always the exportation of death radiating outward from two monolithic world powers seeking to reshape the world in their image, one side shooting a single round into an enemy’s torso and blowing his guts out his back, the other side grouping three rounds in a cluster and letting his life leak out internally, and both sides firing shells from tanks and dropping bombs from planes behind banners of peace and happiness and prosperity.
Then there are heavy automatic machine guns, of course, the M-60, the M-240, the M-249, the M-2 .50-caliber heavy machine gun, etc., or, on the other end of the spectrum, submachine guns, the UMP 45, the laser-blaster-looking P90, or any number of variations on the Uzi, etc. That list could go on and on. We could add any number of machine pistols or automatic rifles from around the world all set up in different configurations and adjusted for so many street-level variables as to make the head spin, so many that I am tempted to dispatch with this whole section just to avoid the trap of endlessly combing letters and numbers, to simply say “to each his own,” or “a gun is a gun is a gun”; on the one hand, there is some truth to this thinking, at least if you pull back to a great enough distance, as in looking down on all mortal strife from the perspective of a satellite or space station, or maybe even from a plane; and yet I know from experience that each of these guns has its own particularized history of use, that any number of actual human beings, at the most desperate moments of their lives, have held them in their hands in the dark, felt their solidity, their heft, their particular curves, notches, and grooves, the body of these weapons the only things that seemed to be keeping them alive, or as if cooling, ticking barrels were their own beating hearts fading to a cold nothingness—and as soon as I think this I have a harder time ignoring the seeming equivocations of those who say, for instance, as an ex-soldier who called himself Tonka told me one night while sucking on an ancient watermelon Jolly Rancher: “I don’t know, dude. I think either one’s kinda overkill unless you’ve got a whole fuckin’ horde you gotta chew up. But if I gotta pick one, I guess I prefer the SAW [M-249] over the fucking 240 in most deadhead situations, cuz mobility’s usually more important, cuz, I mean, when was the last time you had a fuckin’ squad of zombies hitting you with a crew-fed gun? Hardyhardyhar! If they were marauders? Shit, it’s still hard to say, cuz the SAW’s probably still got your fucking shit covered anyway against most of these fucknuts out here, but then, you never know, cuz what if they do got their own 240 or M-60 mount on a truck or like sandbagged or somethin’? Then you want to hit hard from a fixed position. Lay it down. Give your boys some breathing room. Of course, an RPG’s got its own fuckin’ perks for that. Kaboom, ya know? Hardyhardyhar!”
I sometimes think back to a time before so many of us were so intimately connected to our guns and it all seems so sad, that people with the capacity for love have been driven to obsess so much more about the nuances of various firearms than they do about the nuances in the myriad shiftings and dilations going on in their lovers’ eyes.
Oh, I’d like to say it’s just a product of the zombies, but as I’ve said before, I can’t say for sure that our lives are a product of the zombies or if the zombies are a product of our lives, but what I can say for sure is that many men were just as obsessed with guns before The Collapse as after, that they would spend hours and hours pouring over gun specifications and arguing with strangers online about whether there were “significant differences” between commercial 7.62 mm rounds and NATO 7.62 mm rounds while their significant others drank wine alone in the dark in the kitchen and looked out the window at the moths butting against the streetlamp. Some nights I believe the American love of guns is, besides being philosophical, almost romantic, as in those troubling moments of love at its apogee, a secret longing for quick ends for things that, in our exhaustion, in our confusion, in our disillusionment, we allowed to languish for too many years—and now all that’s left is to close one’s eyes, recall the best moments of one’s life, inhale, exhale, and steadily apply three or four pounds of pressure.
How some would speak endlessly about sniper rifles! how awesome sniper rifles were! how you could shoot someone a mile away with a sniper rifle! And yet I never saw one of these “sniper rifles,” properly called, because, in a sense, any rifle wielded by a sniper is a sniper rifle, nor could I ever see a need for shooting a zombie that was yet a mile off. Even if one passed over the .300 Win Mag or the Remington 700 or the Lapua 338 Mag, all tried-and-true, and went for the gnarly 50-caliber Barrett M-82 in some dead collector’s case, taking a shot at such a distance would have been a useless waste of ammunition, accomplished nothing but locking more of them on your position, and primarily played to the infantile fantasies of a small group of men who liked to talk big and take pot shots at things while avoiding danger themselves.
Over handguns there was also continual debate: revolvers or semi-automatics; steel or polymer and which type of polymer; Glock 17, the smaller Glock 19, Colt 1911A1, Smith & Wesson Model 60 (only 5 shots but perfectly balanced and trusty and packs a serious punch), Smith & Wesson Model 29 (.44 Magnum w/ a number of barrel lengths ranging from 3” to 10.625”), Smith & Wesson M&P 9, SIG Sauer P226, Browning Hi-Power .40, Walther P38, Ruger MK II, Ruger GP-100, Beretta 92, HK P30, Walther PPQ, CZ-P09 (with its 19+1 capacity)….
This list isn’t even the beginning but only touches on some of the most popular, the ones most discussed among our crew, the ones owned by our crew, and indeed it is in the very ubiquity of handguns that I came to think the zombie experience in America was probably much different than in much of the rest of the world. Consider Canada, or what was once Canada; wearing headphones, keeping one’s eyes blurred, an outsider might have been hard-pressed before The Collapse to tell the difference between the two western nations; but watching the news in the U.S. any day of the week would have shown significant differences in the sheer volume of handgun deaths. In Canada, very few people had them; in the U.S., quite a few; and in the last years before The Collapse, the gap was increasing; an article I pulled from the New York Times archives here in my library shows that fewer Americans were buying guns in those latter years but those Americans who were buying them were buying more than ever so that the total number of guns in the U.S. was increasing disproportionate to the percentage of people who owned them, betraying either a prophetic streak in about 30% of the population about what was about to hit us or, alternately, discounting the likelihood of zombie prophecy, paranoia (justified or unjustified) about other factors of security in this nation. At any rate, there weren’t many people armed in Vancouver, B.C. with sidearms, but across the border, say, down in Vancouver, Washington, there were plenty.
I myself had a Smith & Wesson model 60 with a 3” barrel, which could chamber .357 Magnum rounds or .38 specials. It was stainless steel, virtually indestructible, small in the hand but powerful, as accurate as I could be, and was usually relatively easy to find ammo for, especially early in The Collapse. But there were times even early on when I ran out and had to pack it around in my shoulder holster for months unable to fire a shot and, eventually, as ammo became harder and harder to come by, I had to abandon it, as I did so much other baggage, and rely ever more on my wits than my ready access to firepower.
Chucho carried a Walther PPQ M2 9mm with a suppressor, a stalwart and striking semi-auto with an unusual ergonomic grip covered with crosshatching that never failed to remind me of the lines and flourishes of his tattoos.
Neo carried a Glock 17, perhaps the most common semi-auto pistol in the days before The Collapse, partly because it was widely adopted by law enforcement agencies and partly because it worked well but wasn’t all that expensive.
Buttplug had carried a .44 Magnum with a 4-inch barrel, stainless steel, with wooden grips. It was an unnecessarily powerful revolver that, as the titular character of a movie called Dirty Harry said, could “blow your head clean off.” But zombies could not be shocked into fear and submission via showers of gore, not the way men could be, a lesson lost on stout little men like Buttplug, who must have found comfort in the gun’s kick and thunderous booms.
Ever the nouveau cowboy, Huckleberry carried a pair of nickel-plated Colt Python .357 Magnums in hip holsters. His had 4-inch barrels and an intimidating look about them, though one always got the sense that, if he’d had a choice, he would have worn a pair of ivory-handled Colt Peacemakers and that these two hand-cannons were little more than stand-ins for the day when he found a time machine with the dial set for 1875.
Ragnar had, so we heard, been part of some Aryan gang in prison and so, one assumes, his buddies had a penchant for all things German and Nazi-sounding. Maybe that was why he carried a beat-up old Luger, though he didn’t seem to have any clear affection for the gun, as if its ownership was just a matter of convenience as, perhaps, his prison affiliations had been.
Chief carried a .22, but his was a dull black revolver of no discernable make or model. The thing didn’t even have a proper grip, one side having fallen off sometime in history. He’d raise the gun casually, offering a playful little pop, and a zombie’s head would hardly even lurch back. The bullet most often didn’t even exit the skull, but only ricocheted around in there, mincing the brain until, a moment later, the thing got a confused look on its face and it fell. The big Indian, perhaps more wisely than anyone in the convoy, had selected this tool for an obvious reason: he could carry a metric shit-ton of .22 cartridges and you could still find them pretty easily.
Custer, for his part, carried a Beretta 92FS Inox 9mm, a stainless-steel version of the popular military and police pistol. There were those who, I suppose, saw Custer as uniquely American, perhaps because of his name and its associations with history, or because of his tough, martial bearing, and yet he didn’t carry some cowboyesque revolver or for that matter an American gun at all, but rather a semi-automatic pistol made in Italy—and, at that, a flashy version with a satiny silver finish. In some ways it seemed out of character for him, and yet there were deep traces of him in that gun, in its carefully crafted appearance, the juxtaposition of that external artfulness with its violent purpose and history in the field; in its accuracy and dependability; and even in the fact that it could utilize every variety of commercial 9mm parabellum ammo still out there in the wastelands—yes, it was a beautiful and almost archetypal gun for times of scarcity.
But enough about handguns. There are so many other types of guns.
Take, for instance, the shotgun. This was a favorite among many men and Plymouth had plenty, mostly 12-guages but also a few 10s and 20s, and I once even saw a man in a field with a little 410, popping zombies rising from the grass the way one might have pheasants in the 1940s. Custer carried a Browning A5 12-gauge, a quick-loading automatic with wood stock and elaborate engravings on either side of the receiver that reminded me of the scrimshaw on his zombie-ivory leg. The stock was cracked through and, kind of like the captain himself, rigged back together with tape and screws and yet even in this flaw one could see the glimmer of something substantial but also a confused sense of awe about the outdoors. Indeed, the scrolling mentioned above featured ducks on one side, pheasants on the other, and this seemed so altogether strange to me to see a tool that at once expressed an artistic gesture toward the grandeur of these wild creatures but at just that spot on the gun where you slipped in shells meant to blow beautiful ducks out of the sky. How very Custer. If only it had been engraved with little zombies that, catching just such a light at the end of a long day, for just a fleeting moment, appeared white as albatrosses.
There were other, heavier guns that, while plausibly accessible, were very unlikely and which, if you asked most men, would have been rather unhelpful anyway, like 50-caliber machine guns with armor-piercing bullets. Yes, they existed, and I could go as deep into these as any other, but there is nothing really to say about them except that these had been made at a time when war was a matter between nation states, not bands, not factions, and certainly not against walking bodies that could be severed in two and keep coming. If the threat had been aliens, then perhaps I would speak differently now; perhaps we could have aimed our heaviest machine guns into the heavens and brought down a few flying saucers in spectacular, fiery displays; but it’s safe to say that even as this nation churned out the big guns, the real threats were never of that sort, which is why we could mobilize entire technologically superior armies against sheepherders with nothing and still come up empty handed. Zombies were even less sophisticated at war. They marched on you but with no plan, no weapons except their bodies and their numbers. It’s questionable if our guns did anything but postpone the inevitable, the slow overtaking of every consciousness by those untiring waves of the unconscious. Our guns, all of our weapons, were at best prophylactics against a depressing but inescapable death, a false sense of security against the ravages and ignominies of our age.
There were any number of weapons that were, technically speaking, possible to get, but altogether so far out of the reach of the common human person that they might as well have been made up. I count among these: anything resembling a flamethrower but the crudest garden blowtorch or hairspray flame-shooter; augmented attack vehicles of the kind that might have chainsaws buzzing around the edges or any other destructive whirligigs; cannons; missiles; tanks; weaponized drones; battleships small or large; jets or helicopters; sulfuric or hydrochloric acid; large weaponized animals like elephants, lions, tigers, or bears; weird military robots with weapons; etcetera and etcetera. I don’t think I need to explain most of those, but only to say that many a man liked to speak of them, and dream of the day when he might stumble upon some long-forgotten stockpile with a note that read “Break glass in case of zombie apocalypse,” and that holding out this kind of hope in advanced weapons technologies only really betokened a sincere and longstanding belief that all that was needed was some good old American ingenuity and know-how, that our engineers had already solved all problems and we were all invincible already and simply awaiting the day when this became obvious to everyone else. Really, that technophilic thinking was just sad, delusional, and probably stemmed from a century of inescapable nonstop market propaganda. It most reminds me of the way pharmaceutical companies used to advertise to us, telling us how their new $1,200 per ounce cream might spare us the ravages of getting old . Well, what do I need to do? Just ask my doctor? Done and done!
There were other implausibles that we did happen to see, however, things like certain explosives, grenades, or RPGs, or even attack helicopters, all of which could show up with outfits that had unusual access to military stockpiles, such as our own mercenaries boasted. And then there were unusual handheld weapons people spoke about with an almost religious reverence at times, those mostly foreign blades that had not been designed to fight zombies but either happened to work particularly well or were simply imbued with such a strange aura of foreignness and mysticism that it seemed like one American ninja wielding one of these might take out every zombie that ever existed, but which, let’s be honest, we were about as likely to find as a silver bullet:
§ Trench knife. These were double-sided blades that gained notoriety in the first world war, and featured brass-knuckle hand guards, sometimes with spikes. They were made for hand-to-hand combat in the trenches, and their benefits are obvious, but I’ve never actually seen one in use, probably because they were illegal, if not in all states, then at least in most. You know people had them. But where? and why? What demoniacal mind fantasized about the day when such a weapon “came in handy”?
§ Gladius. You’ll know the gladius as the stubby swords of the Roman legions. These short, sometimes bulging blades were well-balanced and perfect for close-range combat, but good luck finding one. I saw only one, in an outpost outside Bozeman, Montana. The man carrying it had wide, distant eyes, long, matted hair, a ratty beard; his face was painted with blue streaks; and he looked like an ancient Celtic warrior who had beaten a Roman centurion to death with a rock, then claimed the sword of the conqueror for his own.
§ Kukri. A kind of Nepalese utility knife, similar to a machete, that were long used in war. These are forward-curving blades, often with a somewhat tear-shopped shape, used primarily for slashing, but the balance of the kukri is what I hear people tend to like—it just feels right. I only saw one in my years on the road, and the man who wielded it said it was his favorite knife ever, but wouldn’t let me hold it. Others told me the main character in the Resident Evil zombie movies had a pair of these, a fact that might be interesting but neither affirms nor disaffirms the utility of the weapon.
§ Bart jam dao. Also known as butterfly knives, these wide bladed Chinese knives were usually used in pairs. They featured full hand guards, rather than simple tangs. They were supposedly elegantly-balanced, almost as natural extensions of the hands. Other than that, I don’t know much about them except that I heard several people mention them, including Neo, who, stoned out of his gourd one night, said, “I’d love to get a set of those bart dam jos, dude.”
§ Shaolin spade. This is a long pole weapon used by Shaolin monks in China. On one side, it featured a thin, rounded spade, and on the other a crescent shaped blade. While pikes and spears were problematic because you had to poke and gouge so damn hard and so many times before you ever drove the point home, the spade could have been driven into the face or the base of the neck, the crescent to decapitate or even to split the face in two. It is listed in a book in this library, The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead, as a weapon of choice, but of course I have never actually seen one of these, as there were probably three in all of America. But that may be very different elsewhere in the world and one savors the thought that there is a sect of Kung Fu monks on the other side of the world, warriors of patience and temperance, and Plymouth’s polar opposites.
§ Trident. Honestly, I doubt any of these exist except in the hand of Poseidon. But what the hell do I know? Maybe they do. I have heard people say they’ve seen them, even if they are just modified pitchforks or made from poles and parts on hand, and one can imagine certain advantages over spears or pikes. Zombie steps forward, trident jabs out into its face. Three pokers are probably better than one.
§ Flanged mace. I once saw a medieval flanged mace in a museum in Minneapolis, long before The Collapse. It was a brutal-looking war club with small metal flanges coming off the heavy end, the kind of thing that might have fractured a skull into chunks with a single swing, and I expect that’s how knights and far-eastern warriors like the Mongols used them as they rushed by their enemies on horseback. I have seen clubs, maces. But they are almost invariably handmade affairs, baseball bats with steel or iron bolted to the ends, if not adorned with crude spikes, never one with the solid heft of the one in the museum, which gave me a headache just looking at it, a weapon one simply could not pretend existed for any other purpose than crushing a skull and leaving a body to spasm and seep out in the soil.
Ah, but at last we come to that category of weapons that gave the men the giddiest feeling to describe, the ones that were so altogether far-fetched and impossible that the very act of talking about them seemed to negate the reality of our situation, rendering them kids again, if only for that fleeting moment. It was the imagination behind these kinds of weapons that interested me. Indeed, who, in a world full of real and present dangers, came up with this shit? All of them. Without exception. They used the word “Utopian” as an epithet, mocked each other for their notions about actual weapons, but rocked back and forth in excitement or giggled like a bunch of little schoolgirls at all these made-up contraptions and magical powers.
I’d bet my remaining nut that the fact that everyone was laughing, the fact that no one had any expectation of being right or winning some manly competition of wits made them feel like it was okay to let their last browbeaten hopes rise, stretch their weary legs, let the sun shine warm on their faces, and just give in to the all-too-human capacity to imagine shit that just cannot be, to play What If?
Just consider what each of the following men conjured in those weirdly safe spaces and what it said about them and how sad they must have been beneath:
§ Starbucks. “Wait! What if we made a zombie whistle? like learned the right frequency and Pied Pipered them? except instead of leading them somewhere else, it just made all their heads explode? or implode? all at once?”
§ Christopher Martin. “Or what if we could breed giant insects? like some kind of giant praying mantis that bites the heads off zombies? and could tell we weren’t zombies? with its antennas or googles or whatever?”
§ Buttplug. “Or what if we made suits that could fly and had cannons and shit?” “You mean like Iron Man?” someone asked. “Yeah, except fuck Iron Man,” Buttplug said. “Why’d he have to go against Captain America ?”
§ Neo. “Or what if we made a bunch of robots that could go do it for us? I mean, the dipshits wouldn’t even notice. They’d just roll up all R2D2 and be like Snip, snip! laser to the brain!”
§ Jason. “I have put a lot of thought into this and wonder if there is a way to make a substance, like cellophane, or a plastic wrap, which you could envelope them with. It would tighten on contact, could be dispatched at various sizes so that you could maybe wrap an entire horde into a convenient bundle. What do you think?”
Everyone was surprised by this because, usually, Jason was so smart, his plans so practical, efficient, and this was just … weird as shit.
“So you want to wrap them up like muffins?” someone asked.
“Why not? It seals in the flavor.”
§ Chucho. “What if there was some kinda zombie EMP that you sent out to like disrupt their—?” Chucho once started.
“You gonna DJ a rave for the party people?” the fuel truck driver asked, confused.
“What the fuck are you talking about?” Chucho said.
“Unce unce unce unce….?”
“That’s EDM. As in Electronic Dance Music.”
“Isn’t that what you said?”
“No, but maybe I should have. It’s funner.”
§ Chief. He didn’t say any of this, but only drew us a diagram on a piece of cardboard. A cartoon character, a perfect caricature of himself with braids, wearing a t-shirt that read Chief, with a kind of force field around him, a clear bubble conforming to the contours of his form. The zombie touching it was getting electrocuted, charred to a crisp.
“I didn’t know you could draw!” Pippin cried. “That’s so good!”
Chief smiled, nodded thanks.
§ Ragnar. “What if it wasn’t just one thing? if we all had our own individual abilities? like the X-Men? like I was ice? and Custer a lighting storm? and Chris Martin could clap and all the Zs he could see would drop in this great big shockwave?”
“That’s comicbook bullshit, man,” Huckleberry said.
“You didn’t hear which power you’d have.”
“The power to go fuck yourself.”
§ Huckleberry. “Funny. But, seriously, what if we had the power to just go back in time? back before they came? when things were right in this country?”
§ Lard Ass. “What if we could just do a magic head vise?”
Lard Ass held up his thumb and forefinger, sized up Huckleberry’s head between them, and pretended to smash his skull between them.
§ Pippin. “Or what if we could make a zombie zombie….?”
“Like a zombie that eats other zombies?”
“That’s a good idea, too, but no. I mean more like—like you know how people die and become zombies? well, what if a zombie died and became another thing that was like a zombie to zombies? like it ate zombies instead of people? and all the zombies were running around scared just like we are? getting chased? and maybe it was us? like maybe that’s us right now? and we don’t even know it?”
§ iZhmael. What did I think of? I actually didn’t have any fantasies anymore about our ability to fix our situation. At the very least, America was done. Poof! And for all I knew the reign of humankind itself may have been over. Adios! Bon voyage! Sionara! Still, it’s through this lens that I was able to better understand why others were sitting around sharing their fantasies of salvation and redemption and dominion over the universe. None of us believed or even half-believed. We all knew we were at best holdouts against the inevitable conclusion, as if we were on a beach, watching the tidal wave come in from the sea, knowing it was too late to run, accepting the moment had come, and so doing the only thing left in the face of annihilation: a silly little dance. So, in that spirit, one night I said, “What if we just made a way to teach the others? Maybe a ray gun we pointed and blasted them with the power of education and self-reflection? so that we didn’t kill them but only made them realize the full implications of what they were doing and the error of their ways?”
“Like an education gun?”
“Exactly! we could shoot them with it! then do ourselves!”
§ Custer. Out of nowhere one night, after an intense fight, as the rest of us stood around checking each other over for bite marks, when no one else was even prepared to speak of inventions, the captain, arms crossed tightly about his diaphragm, his face covered in a dark and quickening mask of someone or something else’s blood, offered, apropos of nothing, the following loopy schematic: “What if there were a device where you could push a button and freeze time? Out there, an entire horde, dozens of hordes, hundreds of hordes, the entire goddamned lot of our lost humanity frozen, just like that. Imagine openly walking among them. What expressions you see! I can see one from tonight, frozen, just like I’m saying! lean in! look at her! she could have been my own mother. Something so familiar in those deep etchings and lines. Yes, just press the button and bzzzzz!—even the smell would be frozen, down to the minutest particle. All but you. All alone. Again. Yes, you could just walk around among them, couldn’t you? take as much time as you needed? None of this rushing about. None of this flailing panic. No more agonizing screams in the night. No more this. Eventually, in the great din of silence, you’d find exactly who you were looking for. Ah, yes. There he is. I can see him now. But no need to rush….
“Anyway,” he sighed after a long pause, then lightly touched the blood on his face.
“Somebody get me some water and a rag. This mask. I can feel it starting to crack.”
 “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” How many arguments and fights might have been avoided if the drafters of the Constitution, those genius heroes who had to be cajoled into adding a Bill of Rights as amendments because they failed to do so of their own volition, had written the right in one of the following ways: 1) "A well-regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state, so the right to bear arms shall not be infringed” or “Because a well-regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state, the right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed” or “Since states gotta have well-regulated militias to stay free, you can’t stop the peeps in those militias from keeping and carrying weapons"; 2) “The parallel rights to (a) keep and bear arms and (b) form well-regulated militias shall not be infringed” or slightly different "The parallel , well-regulated rights to (a) keep and bear arms and *b) form militias shall not be infringed" or “Peeps can keep and bear whatever arms they want and form militias and ain’t no feds gonna say shit about it.” It is doubtful, however, that the arguments would have abated much. The phrase “well regulated” can, and did, after all, offer itself to an endless variety of interpretations, for what does it mean to regulate something well? The word "arms" poses similar difficulties, for what counts as an arm, and which types are permissible? Knives? Sure. Guns? It gets thornier. Tanks? Bombs? You see the dilemma. Beyond that, it was always possible, if difficult, to amend the Constitution, so it was always possible that the zeitgeist might carry us toward even newer interpretations so that in some distant future there might be an infinitely long list, not unlike this appendix, detailing each of the specific arms one might want to keep and bear against an ever-growing—nay, neverending—host of existential threats, not the least of which is ourselves.
 Side effects may include the complete collapse of civilization and irreversible zombism in 85% of the population.
 Such were the days before the end of The Collapse that more than half of all movies featured superheroes and/or apocalyptic scenarios. I present to you 2016, during which we saw at least three movies featuring superheroes in which the world was going to shit, even for said superheroes: Captain America: Civil War, X-Men: Apocalypse, and Batman v. Superman.