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May 232012
 

The concrete block in the upper image is shown again in the lower image, totally destroyed after only two .308 rounds hit it. See below for linked article.

There are two distinctive things about your retreat that sets it aside from most normal houses.

Firstly, it is possible it may be uninhabited for months at a time when life is proceeding happily as normal.  It may also be in an out-of-the-way location.  A very tempting target for burglars.

Secondly, when things do all go to hell in a handbasket, and you are living there during a Level 2 or 3 situation, you’ll need to have a much more robust defense against attackers than just a lock and safety chain on your front door and catches on your windows.

Let’s discuss these issues.

No-one Home Security Requirements

There’s nothing a burglar or a vandal likes better than to find an empty house in an out-of-the-way location.

With no neighbors or passing cars to observe them, they can take their time breaking into the place and doing whatever they wish to do.  Indeed, the longer it obviously is since someone was last there, the more inviting the place becomes to burglars and others with evil intent – once inside, they might even decide to stay overnight or longer, feeling no pressure at all about the possible return at any moment of the owner.

Even if they can’t manage to gain entry to a locked retreat, they’ll probably smash a bunch of windows in their frustrated efforts to get in, thereby opening the interior up to the outside weather and to wildlife – creatures that might do as much damage as people.

Although you might say – and be correct to say – that in reality, there are very few structures that can’t be opened by a group of motivated determined skilled burglars with time on their hands, the chances are that uninvited visitors to your unattended retreat will be more likely to be just casual passers-by seeking easy targets of opportunity.  They won’t have safe-cracking type tools with them, and they’ll probably not have skilled locksmiths with them either.  If some work with a crowbar and axe won’t get them through the doors/windows (or exterior walls) they’ll probably give up and move on to the next tempting target instead.

Nonetheless, it would be excellent if there were a way to get a remotely monitorable alarm system at your retreat, so that if the alarm is triggered, you can then look at a real-time video feed and decide if it is a benign passing deer, or a not so benign would-be intruder.  If the latter, you can maybe call the local county sheriff and have them send someone out.

This also assumes you have not done anything to suggest your retreat is of unusual interest or has anything of value inside.  We’d suggest its exterior be nondescript and plain rather than flashy and fancy.

You need to appreciate that most normal home construction is designed to prevent honest people from mistakenly entering the wrong house, uninvited.  It won’t do any good at all to a burglar armed with an axe and a crowbar.  The fancy lock on your door can stay locked – the burglar will just remove the door from its jam!  And needless to say, any areas of glass are almost certainly liable to be destroyed by a few good blows from something heavy like an axe.

You can’t build your retreat using normal construction methods and make it truly burglar proof.  If you buy an existing dwelling, you almost have to consider tearing it down and rebuilding from scratch – or, alternatively, adding a new exterior protective layer all the way around.

Level 2/3 Scenario Defense

The other situation is WTSHTF and you need to bug out to your retreat.

Sooner or later, you will have an armed group of attackers keen to separate you from your food and other goodies.  They might ask you politely first, but if you refuse – as you certainly should – their next move will be not nearly so polite.

Figure on being found, sooner or later (see our article about the inevitability of your hidden retreat being found).  Now, what happens after you’ve refused the request/demand for you to hand over all your food (and everything else of value or use)?  It is hard to imagine these people will just walk away empty-handed.

They’ll either lay siege and try to starve you out, or in the more likely event they’re not so patient, they’ll actively try to force your surrender and/or attempt to force their way in.

Yup, there’s going to be some shooting, isn’t there.  And, for your part of the shooting, you have two requirements.  The first is to be able to be protected from incoming fire, and the second is to be able to shoot back from advantageous positions of relative safety.

Now, just as normal home construction makes it easy for bad guys to break in, you’ll probably be unsurprised to learn that normal home construction does not normally consider making a residence’s exterior walls bullet proof.

Let’s understand just how powerful rifle rounds actually are.

Penetrating Capabilities of Rifle Rounds

Although pistol and shotgun rounds can also be a problem, your real threat is from rifles.  Not so much from ‘special’ rifles and not even from special bullets either.  Just from regular standard hunting/sporting rifles, chambered in any of the very common calibers, including .30-06 and .308 and to a lesser extent, even the .223 round as well.

A regular 5.56/.223 round can penetrate through 12 sheets of pine (see this site).  Metal covered doors are so useless that even a tiny pocket pistol can shoot through them (see this report).  Rifle rounds can also go through 15″ of phone book pages (see here).  Here’s a web page that shows a 7.62/.308 round going through 8.5″ of tree trunk then on through sort of 6.5″ of phone book and still having energy after having traveled through that.  Another person reports shooting his 8mm Mauser through 16″ telephone poles.

Here is an interesting study on many different exterior wall surfaces by many different rifle rounds.  Most rifle rounds penetrated most materials, and those that didn’t would generally cause major damage to the exterior cladding to make it more susceptible to penetration if a second round landed in the same place.

Here are two excellent pages (one two) showing the results of shooting at CMU blocks (concrete masonry units) with a range of rifle and pistol rounds.  Read the descriptions and look at the linked pictures (the picture at the top of this article was formed from a ‘before’ and ‘after’ picture on those pages).  These are vivid indicators of how weak filled concrete blocks will be when confronted with rifle fire.

The bottom line is simply this – Rifle rounds will go through pretty much any amount of wood and/or plenty of concrete and still be dangerous to you inside.

Bullet Resistant vs Bullet Proof

So you need to upgrade your exterior walls to make them somewhere between bullet resistant and bullet proof.

What is the difference?  There is an important difference in these terms.  A bullet resistant barrier will not allow a single round to penetrate, and neither will it allow for ‘spalling’ (ie bits flying off the inside of the barrier) to occur.  But, if you fire several rounds all in the one spot (or within a reasonably close distance of each other) the barrier will successively weaken and after sufficient hits, it will give way in that area.  The concrete block shown at the top can be considered bullet resistant.

A bullet proof barrier on the other hand can calmly accept incoming fire all day in the one position and not weaken at all.  The backstop of the gun range you train at is bullet proof.

In practical terms (because bullet proofing is impressively expensive), you’ll probably settle for some type of bullet resistant exterior wall, and ideally one that can be repaired and restored back to 100% integrity at the end of an encounter.  Maybe some of the obvious ‘bullet magnet’ points will be given extra strengthening, but for the rest, you’ll hope that the bad guys give up after some hundreds/thousands of rounds, most of which randomly distribute themselves fairly evenly around your exterior walls.

Bullet magnet points would be anything that looks vulnerable/weak/openable, and anything that you’ll be shooting from.

Your choice of materials will be influenced to an extent by your budget and just exactly how thick you want your walls to be.  We will discuss building construction materials in other articles.

Something to consider is whether you want your retreat to have a sturdy impregnable fortress look to it, or if you’d prefer it to be a ‘stealth’ secure location.  Opinions differ as to which is the better strategy.

An obviously strong resilient fortress might discourage casual looters from mounting an attack.  On the other hand, it might also signal ‘Hey, we’re well prepared here, we probably have lots of goodies inside’.  And a fortress type structure might encourage a stealth/sneak attack rather than an open/overt attack (on this point, we suspect most attacks will be semi-stealthy anyway).

There is no way of knowing what your attackers might think or how they will behave.  In fact, we suggest it would be foolish to try to come up with the exact set of thoughts and actions an attacker would have – see our article on not being able to predict how people will behave WTSHTF.  Instead, you should plan and prepare for all types of behaviors, both sensible and stupid.

Windows

We suggest your retreat have as few windows as possible.  They are a security risk and also increase your need to heat your building in winter and cool it in summer due to probably having less insulating properties than the rest of your exterior walls.

You will want some, because they will do double duty as places for you to observe the outside and to shoot from.  These should be high up and small.

Being high up means that people from the outside, shooting in, will have to angle their shots upwards.  Any rounds that penetrate will tend to go up towards the ceiling and beyond rather than travel through the house, hitting anyone in its path.

Being high up also makes it harder for someone to come along and look in, break in, and climb in.

Being small will make it harder for people to climb in the window, and it will slow them down and make them vulnerable while they are climbing in.

It is also easier to protect a small window area and to provide back-up levels of resistance so that if (when) the glass is shot out, there is something else – maybe a hardened steel plate – to protect the building interior.

The Risk of Fire

The most dangerous thing that worries a sailor?  Fire.  That might sound ridiculous when you’re on a boat surrounded by water, but it is for sure the truth.  More boats have been lost as a result of fire that from any other cause (assuming moderately competent seamanship).

The same is true of your retreat.  It goes without saying that the friendly local fire brigade will almost certainly not be functioning as normal in a Level 2/3 scenario.  If you have a fire, you’ll have to control it yourself.

Now that will be stressful enough in the normal course of events, but what if the fire was deliberately caused by people who are attacking you and laying siege to your retreat?  If they’ve set fire to your building exterior, and maybe its roof, and possibly managed to get some Molotov cocktails in through windows as well, and now they’re waiting to pick you off as you rush out of the burning building, all of a sudden your retreat is not a safety structure for you, it has become a death trap instead.

Okay, some people might design a bolt hole/cellar they can retreat to, and others might have a secret tunnel/exit from their retreat.  But that’s not really the point, is it.  Maybe you escape, but you’ve left behind everything you owned and possessed – you’re no longer one of the well prepared survivors, you’re now one of the homeless horde of desperate predators.

You need to ensure the exterior of your dwelling is impervious to fire.  An accidental fire can be started from any one of way too many causes – even natural ‘Acts of God’ like lightning strikes.

A deliberate fire might be started from one of two main sources – either as a result of someone shooting incendiary or tracer type rounds into your structure, or as a result of someone using Molotov cocktail type weapons to initiate the fire.  Both your roof and your exterior walls are vulnerable, and if your windows can’t be kept securely shut, the rooms they open into are also vulnerable.

So – no wood on the exterior of your building, right?  Brick, metal, stone – all these are good.  Concrete is moderate.

If using metal (and you probably won’t be) note that it would conduct any intense heat on the outside to the inside, so if you had wooden framing up against a steel exterior wall, the wood framing would be at risk.

Generally however, the type of Molotov cocktail type fire starting device that would likely be used won’t burn for an extended time or intensely.  If it can get something else started burning, it has done its job; if it can’t, then the pint or quart of fire starter contained within it will burn quickly and then burn out.

To protect against this type of attack, you also must make sure there is nothing that could burn close to the exterior walls on the outside, either.

Summary

The chances are that at some point, you will have burglars try to break into your retreat, and at some point, you will have people shooting at you while you are in your retreat.

The design considerations to protect you against burglary also get you half-way towards protection against violent assault.

You need a structure that is burglar proof, bullet-proof (or, at the very least, repairably bullet resistant) and also fireproof.

This is more difficult than you might think.  Normal rifle bullets will penetrate more than 12″ of wood and still be lethal the other side, and three or four rounds landing on a typical 8″ x 8″ x 16″ concrete block (even if the hollow spaces have been filled with concrete) will demolish the block completely.

Difficult – yes.  Impossible – no.  And, also, essential for the security of your retreat.

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David Spero[suffusion-the-author display='description']

  5 Responses to “Two Things Your Retreat Exterior Must Be”

Comments (5)
  1. Are there any companies out there that specialize in building retreats that meet your criteria. My wife and I are looking at building a 2000 square feet retreat over a basement. The wife would like a log cabin but we are open minded.

    • Hi, Bruce

      There are certainly many companies that claim to ‘specialize’ in survival retreat type construction, but I have little confidence in the bona fides of many of them.

      In any case, the key thing is not so much the builder, who simply works from a plan, as it is the designer of the retreat. That’s the expertise to focus on.

      Yes, I know what you’re going to say next. Do we know designers who specialize in retreat designs? Ummm. No.

      Well, actually, a longer answer is ‘maybe’. Where in the US are you planning to locate your retreat?

      A comment about log cabins. They look lovely, but if you’re going to do a log cabin, you are exposing yourself to fire risk. Even if you treat the logs with twice as much fire retardant as specified, you’re still at risk of fire – it just takes longer to burn, but if an adversary heaped some regular wood on the side of your cabin and started a fire, sooner or later they’d burn into your cabin and destroy it.

  2. I would love to hear how the compressed earth blocks, or another alternative you suggest, holds up against the type of attacks you envision! My husband & I had been thinking of maybe digging a hole (basement) and lining it with concrete block and/or poured concrete, with possibly a small above-ground structure also made of concrete or concrete block. But, from what you are saying, it might not hold up all that well?? Given that we do not have an unlimited budget, and hope to do a lot of the work ourselves (to save money, as well as use as few outside contractors as possible, if any), would you say that concrete block is at least better, compared with standard frame housing or even thick log construction?

    What about roofs – would a steel roof be better than using asphalt shingles? (I had been thinking of using steel anyway, in order to have a better quality of water collected from rain runoff.) Or is there some other type of roof you would suggest? The only other type I can think of that might work well, would be whatever would support a foot or more of soil covering over an underground house, or shelter; that would act as camouflage as well.

    And while the number of largish granite boulders or outcroppings on our property would probably tend to prevent an extensive tunnel system between buildings, I was also thinking of having more than one structure on the property: the easier and cheaper to build wooden ones able to be abandoned, with at least one concrete “bunker” that would be the primary shelter.

    • Hi, Julia

      My thought about exteriors is that whatever you choose needs to be :

      Resilient to bullets
      Repairable
      Fireproof

      Concrete blocks tend to shatter and break up, and are difficult to repair. Compressed earth blocks allow for repair, and perhaps my favorite material at present is aggregate – small to medium rocks – held into a frame by chicken wire or whatever. That’s the easiest thing of all to repair. You would probably have another layer of something on either or both sides of the aggregate, but the aggregate would be your main defense.

      As for roofing, again it needs to meet the same parameters as the exterior walls, plus also be amenable to water collection. Asphalt shingles are dismayingly fragile and of course of finite life, steel is much longer lived.

      Note that camouflage considerations will almost surely be compromised by any solar cell array you might be considering. That needs a nice clear view of the sky.

      Tunnels, of the ‘cut and fill’ shallow type and simply using boulders as part of the tunnel roof, are lovely things to have. But remember tunnels work in both directions – they can help the bad guys too if the tunnels are discovered and compromised.

      Multiple buildings, some semi-sacrificial, are sensible.

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