I spot another staggering shape moving toward the river. Then another. A horde of them lurch into view. Ten or twenty of them. More than I’ve ever seen. More screams ring out from the “virtuous” people of Meddestane.
“Tristan…” I trail off because Sir Tristan is already spanning his crossbow. He puts the nose of it against the toe of his boot and cranks the windlass that draws the cord back. I unsheathe my sword. The people in the river are slogging toward our bank. They stagger through the water, and I can’t tell the plagued from the healthy. Sir Morgan dismounts.
“Get back on your horse, Morgan.”
The dead feast in the narrow river. They catch the old and weak and kill them under the water. The heads of the dying disappear into the river. Sometimes the victims have an instant to cry out before the Medway swallows them.
Sir Tristan fires the crossbow. I don’t know how he can tell friend from foe. Perhaps he can’t.
– From THE SCOURGE by Roberto Calas
If you’re a fan of The Walking Dead, then you’re probably a fan of the crossbow-wielding Daryl Dixon. He’s one of my favorites, but I’ve often wondered how well a crossbow would really do in a zombie apocalypse.
I spent an unhealthy amount of time doing research and thinking carefully about just such a thing for my historical fantasy trilogy, The Scourge. And today, in this final chapter of our Zombie Survival Manual, I’m going to share with you the results of my unhealthy thoughts:
Killing from a distance in a zombie apocalypse is a …ahem… no brainer. I mean, why wade into the zombie stream when you can sip a beer and put holes into them from a rooftop? Well, for one thing, items that kill from a distance require ammunition (or, in some cases, *are* the ammunition). Also, killing from a distance require perfect aim. A body shot won’t kill a zombie, right? Join me for some fuzzy mathematics!
A head accounts for about 15 percent of the body. So, assuming you hit the zombie every time, you have a 15 percent chance of striking the head. But you won’t hit the zombie every time. This is a horror-movie come to life. You’re going to be panting, possibly sobbing, possibly curled in a fetal position. Even if you’re a stone-cold killer, you’re going to miss sometimes. And if you miss 20 percent of the time, you’re now down to a 10 percent chance to hit the head. And when you think that the brain accounts for less than half of the human head, you are now down to a 5 percent chance (2 percent if the person was a congressman or congresswoman). And really, you need to actually hit the brain stem, right? That’s what controls motor functions. So you’re not down to a 1 percent chance. For every one hundred shots you take from a distance, you will kill one zombie. Is that what you really want? Is it? IS IT?
(Don’t bother trying to correct my math. I’ve been officially declared mathematically disabled. Seriously. So if you try to correct me, I’m going to scream discrimination.).
Okay, so I may not have taken into account all factors (like marksmanship and training). And, yeah, if you hit pretty much any part of a zombie brain you’ll take it down. Even still, using a crossbow or similar ranged device is not as easy as Daryl Dixon makes it look. Below are some of the most popular pre-gunpowder devices you might use in a zombie apocalypse, and how they might fare.
Advantages: Kill things from far away (duh). Incredible power.
Disadvantages: Extremely slow reloading. Must have ammunition.
Since we started with Daryl Dixon, let’s talk about crossbows. And I’m talking about medieval crossbows, not the rapid-fire modern ones. A medieval crossbow was a thing of incredible power. Crossbows were the original weapons of mass destruction. Anyone could use them. They were lethal. They were extremely portable. And they were relatively easy to make. But crossbows were made to kill humans, not zombies. Hitting the head of a zombie, as I mentioned, is difficult. They walk funny, which causes their heads to sway from side to side. And a medieval crossbow doesn’t have a scope. Another problem? Reloading. There are a half-dozen ways to reload a medieval crossbow, and none of them are good. It can take a full minute to reload, which would be fine if zombies honored the “time-out” rule. But they don’t. And if the hungry dead get too close while you load, your time will be out.
Advantages: Range. Speed. Accuracy.
Disadvantages: Must have ammunition. Years to master.
The medieval longbow was a game-changer. This sort of bow proved to be even deadlier than the crossbow, as proven definitively at the battles of Crecy and Agincourt. A well-trained longbowman could put an arrow through a wedding ring at thirty paces. But you’re not a well-trained longbowman. Very few people are, these days. You see, it took about ten years to learn how to use an English longbow. And you have to start when you’re young, because pulling back the strong of a longbow is monstrously difficult. When bodies of English archers were dug up, most of them had deformities in the bones of their shoulders—deformities that allowed them to perform an act that normal men could not. But even if you find a longbow with a lower pull-weight (one that your feeble little-girl arms might be able to pull), you still have to place the arrow in the head. Which is feasible, but not always manageable. Reloading is far quicker with a longbow. If you train hard, you might be able to get off six or seven well aimed shots in a minute. So that’s a bonus. But if you fight for five minutes, that’s 35 arrows. Are you carrying 35 arrows? And many of the arrows will shatter when they hit –will you be able to replace them? Lots of problems with longbows, but definitely a good tool for back-liners or from the safety of a rooftop.
Advantages: Versatility. Powerful at close range.
Disadvantages: Inaccurate. One-shot.
Spears are versatile. They can be used in melee combat, and they can be hurled at opponents. But in a zombie apocalypse, they will never be more than auxiliary defense items. In melee, leverage and physics make it difficult to pierce a zombie skull with a spear. And a thrown spear is not exactly a finesse item. Hitting a head with a spear is like trying to land your pencil in the pencil cup from across the room. And if you do hit the head and kill the zombie, congratulations! You now have nothing to fend off the zombies with! But you can high five your friends as you die.
Advantages: Immobilize enemies. Easy to make.
Disadvantages: One-shot. Need plenty of room to use.
Bolas are not a typical medieval items. But in the interest of silliness, I have decided to include them. No, you can’t really kill a zombie with them. Well, maybe you could, but you can kill zombies with a chair too. And a chair might be slightly more functional. Bolas are tools used by early South- and Central American people to hunt (and are still used in Argentina sometimes). It takes balls to use a bola in a zombie apocalypse. No, seriously. Bolas consist of a series of cords with weighted balls attached to the ends. You swing the balls over your head and hurl the entire contraption at an animal to entangle its legs. Sometimes the bolas were used to take down birds in mid-flight.
Bolas are not very efficient against the hungry dead, but they are an intriguing accessory. Immobilizing a zombie is just as good as killing it. Of course, you’d have to have dozens of bolas to immobilize a herd of zombies. Not very feasible. Thumbs down to bolas. Even if Batman made them cool.
Advantages: Versatile. Coolness factor.
Disadvantages: Hard to throw properly. One-shot.
Axe. Another versatile tool. You can slash with it. You can throw it. You can wear it as body spray. Strong enough for a man, but made for a human (not a zombie). As mentioned in my previous post, axes are brilliant for the zombie apocalypse, unless you throw them. Because: A. If you’ve ever tried to throw an axe at a renaissance festival, you know how tricky it is send it blade-first into the target (so you’ll probably just end up bruising the zombie’s forehead with the shaft) and B. Even if you do land the blade in the zombie’s brain, now you’re empty-handed. And what happens when you are empty-handed in a zombie apocalypse? Do I even have to axe that?
Advantages: Unmatched killing power. Coolness factor.
Disadvantages: Ridiculously inaccurate against zombies. Reloading time. Ammunition is heavy.
The trebuchet is a big-assed siege device that hurls massive stones hundreds of yards. A lot of fun in a zombie apocalypse, but you can only really use it from behind a wall. Or from far, far away. But I’d really, really like to see one of these used against a zombie horde.
I have tallied the strengths and weaknesses of the assorted items and have come up with a scientific(ish) chart rating the various ranged tools that can be used against zombies. Feats your eyes below, where the English longbow seems to have run away with the show. So go. Don’t be slow.
I hope you have enjoyed Strongblade’s Zombie Survival Manual. Read each of the segments carefully. Study them. Feed your brain. Because when the hungry dead rise, you might as well give them a good meal.