Q&A: Anti-Cav

What would be the most efficient way to blunt a heavy cavalry charge? My characters are part of a larger unit wearing heavier armour and ready access to shield and polearms like spears, halberds, and the like. Would these tools assist in reducing the chance of being heavily disrupted?

The very short answer is: kill the horses. Heavy cavalry without horses are just heavy infantry. Still dangerous, still with a combat role, but nowhere near as threatening as they were on horseback.

This may sound callous, or even cruel, especially in a modern context, but it’s worth remembering that warhorses are equal parts weapon, and a member of the enemy forces. It is neither a pet, nor an innocent participant. It is actively trying to kill you.

Depending on the situation, the easiest way to deal with enemy cavalry may simply be entrenchment. Rows of sharp spikes mounted onto a log (called a Cheval de Frise) is one excellent way of making sure that enemy cavalry can’t simply charge into your forces. Improvised ones may be as simple as lashing crudely sharpened logs together.

In more offensive situations, making sure your front line, particularly along the flanks, includes squads equipped with polearms (usually spears or lances) can make the force far more resistant to incoming cavalry charges. If they deploy those weapons in a rough phalanx, the first line of any incoming horses will get skewered, and the ones that follow will have to navigate their own dead in addition to the battlefield. (Also worth noting that films have lied to you. Most horses, even war horses, will not willingly charge into readied spears, even if its rider orders it to.) These soldiers may be reinforced with heavy infantry, who can move in and replace them when the enemy infantry reaches the spear wall.

One primary value of cavalry is the ability to flank an enemy force. Somewhat obviously, the horse can move far faster on the battlefield, which more than makes up for the additional logistical concerns, and that, while traveling, heavy cavalry will actually slow the army’s movement overall. This means that effective use of the horse includes moving past the the enemy’s formation, and then strike from the rear, or sides of their forces. This can potentially result in a situation where both sides field flanking cavalry, who engage with one another out away from the main force.

Carefully deployed skirmishers can break up a cavalry charge before it gets started. Skirmishers are light units who may be deployed in advance of the main force, with the intention of disrupting and harassing enemy forces before combat begins. While it’s less of a sure thing, skirmishers armed with ranged weapons can begin softening up the incoming cavalry before the fight even gets started.

Mounted archers (and later mounted gunmen) were more of a specialized unit, so not every force fielded them, but they could be exceptionally useful in a skirmisher role, taking shots at enemy forces, while still maintaining their distance.

Terrain can also be an important factor to control enemy charges. Holding high ground, like a ridge, can make it much more difficult for cavalry to charge up to you. They’ll still be able to get there, but they’ll be far more exhausted by the time they reach you.

Dense forests can also be incredibly disruptive for horses, as it’s much harder to maintain formation when there’s a tree in your way. Combine that with uneven terrain, and it’s just a terrible place for mounted combatants.

-Starke

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Q&A: When You Know Nothing A Martial Arts Manual Can Be Very Confusing

I have a character that’s been trying to learn to fight by reading books. Aside from the fact that it’s a terrible way to learn (she doesn’t really have other options) is there a possibility that someone who was actually trained in the tradition of those same books would recognize what she was *trying* to do? When the character does start getting actual training, how much would her knowledge of theory actually help?

The answer is in that quintessential Yoda line:

“You must unlearn what you have learned.”

Unlearn what you have learned means throwing away all your preconceptions and starting from scratch. You leave behind what you think you know because the truth is at the beginning of the journey you know nothing. Only when you accept this as a truth will you begin to learn. Otherwise, your preconceived ideas of what the thing is will color your training. Doing this is much more difficult than it sounds. Every person comes to their training with baggage, no one comes in clean. It’s only after those are left behind, when the mind opens, that the training truly begins. In the case of Luke, this means redefining what he knows to be true about the universe itself and what he knows to be possible. Struggling with this idea in the beginning, learning to let go and leave our initial understanding behind is the beginner’s very first struggle.

The limitations are in what we think we know, and that false confidence is the first source danger which must be defeated. False knowledge, half-knowledge lead to misleading confidence, and that confidence is based on a false belief in their own ability. This is a very dangerous position for the individual. Enough knowledge to think you know what you’re doing, to get you into enough trouble that might actually become life threatening, but without the necessary skills to get yourself back out.

In some ways, as a beginner, it is easiest to start raw.  However, a person who truly enters into training carrying nothing with them is rare. Everyone comes with expectations, with bad habits, with misunderstandings of basic terminology, with pride; thinking they’ve mastered the little ideology they’ve had access to.

“What’s in there?”

“Nothing, except that which you bring with you.”

The most dangerous enemy of the beginner is themselves.

The Empire Strikes Back really is a fantastic movie for understanding core concepts of martial arts training. For what its doing, it is actually very realistic.

For your character, the best example from fiction I can pull out is the first training scene from The Mask of Zorro with Antonio Banderas and Anthony Hopkins.  Alejandro pulls out his sword, and Diego uses his to just slap the blade right out of his hand. The scene is played for laughs, but it has merit. Alejandro doesn’t know what he’s doing, he doesn’t even know how to hold the blade properly. The big thing to remember is that he thinks he does. After all, he saw Zorro fight as a kid. Like so many other kids, he practiced with the sword. He carries a sword because that’s what his hero did. His transformation under Diego is complete that Captain Love, who has encountered, fought, and totally defeated him before, takes forever to recognize him.

Your character is starting in the same place as Alejandro, except she has the added bonus of that she thinks she knows what she’s doing. She starts out with a little of that arrogance of someone who has studied the theory and thinks they know, even when they don’t know because they’re missing crucial context and the pieces she was expected to know before she read the document. This is what they don’t tell you about “How To Manuals” and demonstration videos: they’re supplementary. They’re great if you already know what you’re doing, if you’re a student with a teacher and has partners to practice the techniques with. They really suck if you’re starting from scratch. They won’t include basic detail because they’ll assume your training already included the explanation of why.

She’ll have spent at least the first day trying to figure out terminology, and she may never totally figure it out. Tempo or the use of time is a foundational concept in European fencing. Tempo directly relates to when and how the fencer has the opportunity to strike, it only loosely relates to a normal person’s grasp of time. For a fencer, the concept is so basic and ubiquitous that the manual won’t bother to explain, and a student reading the manual will be expected to already know what the manual is discussing.

Trust me, I’ve read lots of manuals written by seasoned professionals. They’re writing for a specific audience, and that audience is not the raw greenhorn.

The book won’t explain all the other little problems either, like vibration and the way that wears down the hand/wrist. How holding a sword at a specific angle for a prolonged period of time quickly wears down the  muscles. They probably won’t explain about the balance points within the blade. The problem is not that the sword is heavy. It’s the motion and stress on the limbs which wears you down. Hold your arm out in front of you, you’ll start feeling the drag of gravity on the arm. The  longer this goes on, the harder it gets.

Missing a practice partner, she’ll never learn about distance and the appropriate striking distances versus the safe distances. With a sword that lack of knowledge could get her killed right out of the gate. Theory is too far ahead of where she needs to be because she’ll skip past the basics. This leads to incredibly obvious flaws.

Alejandro gets the sword slapped right out of his hand. Why? He doesn’t know how to properly hold it, or angle his wrist, or brace his arm against an incoming attack. He’s either too tensed or not tensed enough, he’s not prepared for the hit, and the sword goes flying.

A training manual has just enough information in it to allow you to conceptualize the idea in your head, this will lead you to thinking you know what your doing and feeling confident. Understanding something mentally, however, doesn’t mean you understand it.

Now, once you know what you’re doing, then a training manual becomes extremely helpful. It can get you to think about the material and the techniques in new ways you didn’t consider before, offer up opinions, ideas, and philosophies which are in fact truly wise. The training manual can indeed help you, but only after you’re past the initial hump. So, when she’s an intermediate, what that training manual initially taught her will help. As a raw beginner, it will also trick her into thinking she knows more than she does and she’ll only begin to progress after she accepts this as fact.

My second suggestion is go over to Wikitenaur. You need to familiarize yourself with the special art of the written fencing manuals. “Wikitenaur” is a fantastic website filled with free translations of historical treatises written by the masters of their art. Read some for practice, and see how far you get without needing extra research to understand what it was you just read.

Take this passage from Le Jeu de la Hache (“The Play of the Axe”, MS Français 1996), written by an anonymous Milanese fencing master in 1400 and translated from French by Dr. Sydney Anglo.

[4] When one would give you a swinging blow, right-hander to right-hander. If you have the croix in front, you can step forward with your left foot, receiving his blow, picking it up with the queue of your axe and – in a single movement – bear downward to make his axe fall to the ground. And from there, following up one foot after the other, you can give him a jab with the said queue, running it through the left hand, at the face: either there or wherever seems good to you. Or swing at his head.

Tell me, what does this technique look like? What sort of axe are they using? Great axe? Poleaxe? Hatchet? One handed or two? Which end is the croix? Which end is the queue?

Some manuals have pictures, some don’t. Without pictures, you’re going to be even more at a loss.

I’ll take pity on you. This is about how to use a poleaxe. You’re essentially stepping forward and connecting at the head of the axe, switching directions to drive the blow to the ground and following up by hitting your enemy with the butt of your weapon which is the queue. If you didn’t know that the poleaxe is a polearm and therefore a staff weapon, you might’ve been completely lost. If you don’t know that you use both ends of a staff weapon, often interchangeably, you might still be lost. The end of a poleaxe is, after all, a metal spike.

The book in that second link has pictures and a much better explanation, but that explanation is an explanation of an explanation. Example Two here is unlikely to be the type of training manual that your character has access to, because number two is written from a historian’s perspective with the idea that the poleaxe is no longer a ubiquitous tool of warfare. Example Two is the one both you and your character needs, but that won’t be the one she has access to unless she’s reading a historian’s explanation of the fighting style; which is, again, not what she has.

Sun Tzu is a great example of a book entirely about theory and military philosophy, whose stratagems are so on point they’re still used as the beginner’s guide today. However, a book like this is thin on practical, because this book is written by a general writing to other generals about warfare. In terms of a character learning about generalized practical theory, The Art of War is a much better example than a technical manual. However, strategy won’t teach you how to punch someone.

The Book of the Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi. This is a very helpful book, and the five different books cover different aspects of combat from practical to spiritual philosophy. However, when it comes to practical technique, you’re still going to run into the same problems that we ran into with “The Play of the Axe”. These books are written for students who are already practicing the art, and not students who are considering whether or not they’re going to learn.

This is why I get much more out an instructional martial arts video found on YouTube than most of my followers do. I may get confused in places, but I come to it with a foundation which allows me to quickly grasp the concepts at play. This is a just matter of practice. I’ve spent more time with martial arts masters, I know more or less what to look for, and I understand the basics of language they’re using. A martial arts manual is not written for you, the beginner, but for the student. In this sense, the entire concept of a training manual or a “how to” book lies to you. You can ultimately end up more confused than you were than when you started, and, like Renaissance actors  and HEMA practitioners, you’re going to get nowhere without a lot of trial and error.

If this character lacks a training partner to test stuff out with then she never had a chance at trial and error. She only has what she knows in her head, and practiced with her body while under no duress. She has a fighting style filled to the brim with flaws that are just barely recognizable, and I mean they’re recognizable in the way a child trying to perform moves from a Jackie Chan movie looks like Jackie Chan.

So, could they recognize what she’s doing? Maybe. However, European training manuals were mostly created on commission by those with the money to pay for them. The masters themselves tended to be fairly secretive because this training is what they made their living on. The idea of sharing knowledge only helps the enemy. So, in the European set up, your character needs to have a relative who either purchased one of these (exceedingly rare) books or who commissioned one themselves from the master. Or who was a student of the master, or something.

These other characters, if they can tell what she’s doing is a bastardization of what they were taught, are going to be rather confused. They’re more likely to start off offended than feel a sense of kinship, and may transition to kinship but only in the way one feels toward an overeager puppy. Depending on how she behaves, they may view her as a pretender. She’ll need to earn her way in, and if she doesn’t have the coin to pay them for their time then she’s going to need to think of something else.

This is the second secret I’m going to blow, martial arts masters are always paid. Their teaching is a trade, and their skills are in high demand. Their disciples pay them in coin, with a position of prestige, or labor. Or, a combination of all of the above.

So, how is she going to pay for her training? (The standard one if she’s not rich is labor and can’t scrape together the coin to pay, as an apprentice which is a glorified term for an indentured servant.) It’s not just talent, it’s coin. This is a business. You’ve got to pay for the service, especially in the European tradition. Or be the servant of someone who hired the master and is paying for the service.  (Martial arts movies understand this one, but almost no one else does. Understanding this is key to writing a training sequence because physical labor like washing the sheets, cleaning the floors, and carrying water for the cook is a key component of your character’s training.) Begging is not out of the question. So, don’t shy away out of embarrassment or your character’s embarrassment. Embarrassment is actually a key part of the genre, a key part of training, and a key aspect of learning in general. Sometimes, you have to do silly things and get dumped on your ass. You’re going to get dumped on your ass a lot in martial training,  both metaphorically and physically.

A martial arts master is someone whose skills are in high demand, and the onus is on the character to prove why they’re worthy of being trained. Why should this master spend their precious time on them, especially if the master isn’t getting something out of it? The only time this isn’t true is the Chosen One dynamic, where the master is usually the volunteer, but even then the Chosen One has to take their lumps. Remember, your master is a character and not a prop. The same is true for the other characters who might or might not notice her.

-Michi

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Self-Defense: The Predator is Exploiting You

How practical are those self-defence (the kind learnt in a few lessons) moves being taught to women in a real life situation?

Editing Note: I, normally, never do this, but I’m culling out the rest of this question. There was some additional, irrelevant, inflammatory material tacked on, but this part is worth answering.

The very short answer is, “yes.” When you see someone practicing an adapted Judo wrist lock, or a throw on a YouTube video someone linked to your dash, it probably works. I’ve seen a few that don’t, but a lot of those are functional techniques that can be taught in an accelerated environment over 6 to 8 weeks. (Honestly, most of those can be trained, individually, in an afternoon.)

But, we don’t link those. Without exception, those techniques will not work without training. They’re also not going to be reliable if your only self-defense training was a six hour seminar fifteen years ago.

The most important lessons you will ever learn in a self-defense seminar are not about your body. They’re about your mind and your approach to a situation where you are in danger. People like to categorize this as “men” and “women”, but it’s not. Acts of violence are acts. Violence is about action. It is a choice made by one human being to do harm to another.  In these situations, you’re looking at an actor and a recipient of the action. The recipient is the victim, the recipient feels out of control, they’re startled, frightened, and they’re intrinsically playing catch up to a premeditated decision made by the other party.

This is the advantage of your attacker in any situation. Whether the abuse is physical or verbal, you must understand that they are decisions made by another person to do you harm. Because that decision precipitates the action, the attacker is already ahead in terms of mental calculations. A predator picks out their prey, they find a way to get close to their prey, they choose them. What you need to understand upfront is these acts are choices by an individual, and those choices are where their power over their victim resides. That’s what let’s them control the moment. Control, not strength, is victory.

Once you grasp this, concepts like strength become less important. A woman can overpower a man in a violent situation, a woman can be an attacker and an abuser. This isn’t because she’s necessarily physically stronger than the man, or because she’s an anomaly, but rather because she made the decision first. She got there first, she decided first. That’s her advantage. Those crucial seconds in decision making are the difference between victory and defeat, whether you are doing or having something done to you.

Self-defense is trying to teach the recipient how to be an actor. A good seminar is trying to train you to retrain your mind, the way you look at your environment, teach you how to make threat assessments, and how to quickly transition from paralyzing panic to launching yourself into action. That switch over within your mind is what will ultimately be the deciding factor in terms of victory or defeat. This is the major difference between a trained combatant and a civilian. Trained combatants are primed to go, often to preempt an attack and be ready when it comes. This doesn’t always work, but they’re better at it than the average person. They’re quicker on the mental rollover, and they know those crucial seconds at the beginning of a fight are the difference between victory and defeat. When it comes to male predators, active decisions versus panic, fear, and surprise is often mistaken for physical strength. They feel stronger because they’re attempting to initially overwhelm, and, once you’re overwhelmed, they believe you won’t fight back.

Self-defense training does work. However, like all training,  what you get out of it directly relates the effort you put in.

So, two parts. Simply seeing someone demonstrate a technique isn’t enough to replicate it. Practicing a technique for a few hours in a controlled environment isn’t enough to perform it reliably in a tense situation. This is the problem with those videos, and can be a problem with some self-defense classes.

For example: Yes, you can roll your hand out of someone grabbing your wrist, reverse it, and then use that as leverage to force them to their knees. Without checking, do you know where to put your thumb to make sure the second part of that actually works? Do you understand how to do the first part? Because it is simple, but it relies on an understanding of how the human grip functions, and which parts are strongest. You won’t get that from simply watching a couple in a .gif screwing around. That’s the technique you watched, but what do you do next? Because you don’t have much time to get your next action in motion before they’ll respond. It’s a good technique, and as part of a larger strategy it can, absolutely, save your life. However, it also requires you know what you’re doing, which you won’t get from watching someone from a video in 2014.

The second part is you need to practice your training. If you don’t practice until it becomes second nature, you will have to think about what you’re doing in combat. This will slow you down, and will get you seriously injured or killed.

Let me give you a concrete example of this: I can’t do throws. I mean, I understand the theory, in some cases I remember pieces of the technique, but I don’t actually remember how to do them. I can’t remember enough of it to make them work in a live situation. Now, if you’ve been around here long enough, and paid enough attention, you probably know my background is Police Adapted Judo. This is a martial art with a large number of throws. This is a martial art that will happily send someone to the ground, and then follow them there. Most martial arts won’t intentionally go to ground fighting and stay there, but this one will. I can’t remember the throws. I didn’t practice them after I learned them, and now, 20 years later, that’s gone. I could relearn them, and it would probably be easier than starting from scratch, but I cannot actually use those in a fight.

(To be fair, this isn’t entirely true, there are one or two Judo throws I still remember, but the vast majority are effectively gone.)

The entire reason why traditional martial arts training is slow, is because the goal is to “rewire” your reactions. You’re learning entirely new kinds of movement. You’re training new responses, and then working them in, until you get to the point where you can simply, “do,” the thing, and you don’t have to think about doing it. There’s no shortcut for that.

Self-defense, and a lot of accelerated combat training, turn the expectations around. Instead of working these new patterns into your movements first, and then learning to apply it, you start by teaching someone how to use this training, and then you get them to work it in on their own time. This results in a shorter turnaround, but you sacrifice versatility. You train to specific attack patterns rather than learning to assemble what you’re doing on the fly. It also results in training that is more volatile, meaning it’s easier to lose it if you don’t keep up with practicing what you’ve learned.

The end result is that, yes, the stuff you learn in those courses can be highly effective. Given time, training, and commitment, it can result in a martial artist who has an excellent skill set for ensuring their own safety.

There’s another, far less sexy, part to any comprehensive self-defense course: Risk assessment and avoidance. This isn’t about learning how to throw someone over your shoulder, or run your knee into their face, it’s how to avoid getting into those situations in the first place. Some of this is physical, for example, but a lot of it is teaching someone how to avoid being profiled as a potential victim. We cover some details of this from time to time. Things like maintaining situational awareness may not sound as cool as talking about how you could potentially break a dude’s wrist, but it is infinitely more useful in ensuring you can effectively avoid situations where you’d need to. These skills keep you safe.

Things like being able to quickly formulate an exit plan are also very useful , and any good self defense class will include them. As with the rest, this is an excellent survival skill, but it’s not about the violence; combat is simply one tool that you can employ to affect an escape.

As with all martial arts, the quality of your instructor will affect the quality of your training. However, assuming you have solid training, and you’ve kept up with it, this stuff can safe your life.

I mentioned people linking videos before, and honestly, there’s always something heartbreaking to me about those post. Someone always chimes in saying something to the effect of, “reblogging, because if I’d seen this, I could have prevented X.” I’m sorry, I really am, but, when it’s couched like that, it’s almost never true. If they’d known how to do that, then it might have made a difference, but watching an 8 second .gif is no substitute for training.

Training is not a panacea, but it does offer more options. It can keep you safe. What they’ve seen in a video is one of those options, usually an option of last resort that’s already somewhat risky, but it is an option.  However, taken by itself, one technique is not a universal solution.

Something else happens with martial arts training (doesn’t matter if it’s traditional, or accelerated) which can make you substantially safer: It builds self-confidence. This makes you less appealing prospect to people who are looking for potential victims. It will not eliminate all threats, but it is a major boon for giving you the ability to maintain control when others are trying to take it from you.

If those, “if I’d seen this,” comments resonate with you, either because you’ve been there, or you’re afraid of being there; I would strongly recommend finding a reputable self-defense class in your area and enrolling. Many colleges and community centers offer classes. Even your local police may run one as an outreach program. This stuff does work. It can save your life. But, you do need to learn the full skill set. Some local martial arts schools may offer effective self-defense training as well.

Self-defense and martial training in general are trying to drill into you the skills necessary to take the power back in a situation where your life is under threat. Those begin, first and foremost, in your mind. Your power lies in your control over the situation, in taking back the control from someone trying to wrest it from you, in taking ownership of the situation, and pushing back. To do that, you have to believe it. You can’t fight yourself and someone else at the same time. This is, ironically, where the quintessential Yoda quote comes in: “do or do not, there is no try.” There is no room for second guessing, for questioning, or wondering whether this will be possible. You must do. When you are in the middle of battling yourself, battling cultural conditioning, battling the inhibitors put on your behavior to prevent you from actively taking control, you won’t be able to effectively defend yourself from someone who has already made the decision to hurt you.

The difference between you and your attacker is in the Sun Tzu quote, “Thus it is in war the victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won, whereas he who is destined to defeat first fights and afterwards looks for victory.”

When you believe you’ve lost, well, you’ve lost. This is what the predator is banking on. They believe they will win, and you will accept that defeat is inevitable. When you begin with the assumption they’re stronger than you, you’ve let them fool you. You’re already well down that road to losing the fight before it ever began. After all, violence requires commitment. The predator is relying on your inability to make that commitment in the moment, to give up, and ultimately cede them control over what happens to you. The human predator is like every other. They aren’t here for a fight, they’re looking to exploit their victim for the easy victory. That doesn’t mean their victim is weak, either. A predator is looking for an easy victory because they are ultimately weak. They’re searching for a safe win. They want the odds stacked in their favor. They don’t want to deal with resistance. They want the situation to be under their control from the beginning to end because they don’t want to take any real risks.

After all, this isn’t about strength. This is about someone exploiting the way the human mind works under pressure, and the societal conditioning already in place. The predator isn’t stronger than you. He’s exploiting your natural behavior, he’s exploiting societal behavior, social norms, and expectations. He is structuring the situation to specifically put you at a disadvantage. The playing field is not level by intentional design. This has nothing to do with natural differences in physiology, and by thinking that way you cede them an advantage they don’t deserve.

They’re not stronger than you. They’re not better than you. They’re not smarter than you. They just made the decision before you did; knowing they could exploit your immediate, natural reaction. If you ever have to question what base instinct looks like in a human being, this is it. The predators are actively exploiting your fight or flight instinct with the expectation you will take the third option and freeze.

Before techniques, the the first truth you need to accept is that the scales are weighted unevenly by human hands; not by nature’s. Which means, you too have the potential to go and tip them right back into your favor. Or just break the scales.

You don’t have to fight by their rules.

-Michi and Starke

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Q&A: Yes, Kicks are a Thing

My cousin is a fan of the character Archer from the series ‘Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works’. He was curious if Archer’s habit of kicking a foe away from him to gain distance in a close-combat fight with weapons is something belonging to a particular martial arts style. Do you know if this is the case? How reliable would that tactic be in real life? Seems to me that there’s a big chance of your opponent grabbing your leg, after all.

It’s not a specific martial art, because nearly every martial art has their own variation on this one. Martial arts have a concept called distance, or range, which governs the ranges one can fight at with different weapon types. This runs from swords to knives to kicks to hands and then to grappling, and after grappling we’re on the ground. Unless specifically attempted to alter, combat invariably moves inwards from your feet to your hands to grappling and then the ground. Now, this means you have specific techniques which can be used at specific ranges and once you get too close or too far away those techniques become significantly less useful.

So, if you’re a warrior like Archer who relies on specific ranges in order to be effective then what do you do? You’ve got to find a way to get your enemy back into the range you want, which is away from you. Now, under normal circumstances, one would most likely consider using their hands. This is what most non-combatants are going to gravitate towards, because kicks require training to be able to pull off in combat. They’re powerful, but they’re also high risk. However, Archer needs his legs. He dual wields his blades in close quarters, he can’t use his hands without sacrificing one or both of his blades. Those blades cost mana to resummon, over time this will become costly to his reserves and takes time. He won’t drop them unless the situation requires it. So, he falls back to a secondary option by utilizing his legs and feet for defense/control.

Hence that specific kick. In Taekwondo, we call it the push kick. It isn’t about damaging your opponent so much as pushing them back. This kick is specifically utilized in getting your opponent into the range you want them, i.e. the range where you are more effective. For Archer, this means getting a melee enemy away from him and back into a better range for his weapons.

Here’s the thing to understand about kicks:

Strike to strike they are incredibly powerful. Power comes from your body’s momentum. Momentum is gained by torque, or twisting your body and joints in order to gain power to strike. The whole body moves. For a punch, this means using your shoulders and hips together at the same moment with your arm in order to connect. Kicks involve one of your legs taking flight, they’re heavier, stronger, faster, and utilize greater rotation than you will ever get off your hands and arms. They are a martial arts mainstay for this reason, even in the disciplines where they are not the specialty. If you ever wind up facing someone with a kicking specialty that knows how to properly utilize their legs, watch out.

You can catch a kick, you can block a kick, and they are riskier because they require more motion which is easier to see coming. If your opponent manages to capture your leg, then the fight is over for all intents in purposes. For this reason, a kick is often part of a finisher or at the end of a combination. They distract your attention with other techniques, and then the kick comes. Blocking a kick is also risky, not just because their powerful but catching a kick requires you be able to preempt it and catch it before  the leg enters extension. This means you have to stop the kick while its still in chamber stage, and you need to guess that they’ll be committing to risky business or else you just lost your defense to a feint. Blocking a kick rather than dodging a kick requires you move your hands or a leg to stop the kick. A push kick cranks all the way into the chest before it extends and acts as a shove outward, which means it can be done in tight confines like when in the hand range where most of the general kicks (in disciplines other than Muay Thai) become useless. You can also grab your opponent at that distance and crank your leg right into their stomach/chest. They can’t go anywhere and they’re forced to take the full blow rather than absorbing some into the stumble/fall. Take a roundhouse to your forearm and you’ll walk around with a bruise the size of your forearm for several weeks, at least. Time your block wrong, and that can easily translate into broken bones.

It’s easy to discount kicks if you’ve never seen them in action, and most self-defense experts will say you shouldn’t use them. This is because they take longer to master, are more dangerous, and have greater requirements in overall flexibility in order to be used effectively. You can’t effectively learn the sidekick in a two week crash course. However, the kicks are a defined pillar in the four pillars of martial arts. (Fists, Feet, Ground Fighting, Standing Grappling/Joint Locks.) Sometimes, it can be broken into five. If kicks were totally useless, or too risky, they wouldn’t exist as a focus.

  Kicks are powerful enough as techniques to be worth the risk.

For writers, especially writers without a martial arts background, this is going to be difficult. You’re not used to thinking with your feet, or utilizing the wide array of options which come with footwork and kicks. The key to understanding the utility of kicks lies in the if,  if they can catch your leg. If they can stop you. If they see it coming. If you miss.  But, what if you don’t?

The reward you gain in success runs about equal to the chance of failure. These techniques are high risk, high reward.

Now, envisioning this is going to be where most writers will run into problems. Hands are easy, you can wrap your mind around them as a basic concept. The strengths and weaknesses of the leg are similar, but its too easy to start seeing catching a leg coming at you full speed to be easy as catching a hand.

It isn’t.

A foot buried in your stomach in full extension is much more dangerous than a sucker punch, even if you tense your abdominal muscles a large portion of that force is going to go right through you. The timing risks are higher in failure with a leg than they are with the hands.

Archer is essentially performing a sucker punch with his leg on an incoming enemy, and then he’s saying, “get away from me.” He does this without ever having to lose hold of or sacrifice his weapons in a situation where he very well might have to. This is why warriors carry somewhere around two to four weapons on their person at all times. Total specialization in archery makes you next to useless when knocked into sword range, short sword range, or knife range. If you’re in a situation where someone else can hit you, they’re too close and you’ve ceded your advantage. You want to not be there anymore, or you want them to not be there anymore. Either way, you need the ability to either switch to a different weapon, or force them to be somewhere else. This kick is the definition of, “be somewhere else.” It creates the needed opportunity to move someone from standing grappling to kick range. Which is why lots of martial arts actually do use some variation of it or keep it in their back pocket as part of a larger tactical approach.

The one thing I can give the Fate/Stay Night anime series is that they excel at showing ranges for weapons and incorporating them into the different character’s combat styles. I mean, it is very Japanese, but studying up on Lancer versus Archer versus Berserker versus Saber is not a bad place to start if you’re looking to grasp how different weapon types can function when dialed to eleven. The characters do utilize strategies and tactics when fighting each other, which is nice. They’re usually, loosely, working off some real world combat concepts in the way the weaponry pairs off. The series is pretty good about balancing out the strengths and weaknesses against each other to create tension in the fights. Saber having trouble closing on Lancer is a real problem someone with a sword will face against a spear. I mean, the setting is war games with heroes from history in a battle royal martial arts competition.

-Michi

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Q&A: Secure Phones

If there was a secret organization, could they use regular cell phones to conduct business or would burner/pre-paid phones be the best option for staying under the radar when crime is involved? Do you know any about burner phones?

As with everything else, it’ll depend heavily on the nature of your organization. If your secret organization is just street level criminals or terrorists, then you’re probably looking at burner phones. If your secret society is a secret masters of the world, Illuminati style conspiracy, then they’d probably be using off the shelf secure phones, possibly with non-standard OSs and (maybe) firmware. There’s also a middle ground here, where you might be looking at some kind of NGO which could still use standard phones, with legal protections in place to somewhat mitigate the risks in using them.

A “burner” is a disposable cell phone. Technically, the term refers to the cell phone’s identity on the network, when you’re replacing the phone’s SIM card, you could easily end up with a top of the line smartphone that still functions as a burner, though that is a bad idea, because if the OS install is compromised, that doesn’t change when you swap out the SIM.

In this case, SIM stands for Subscriber Identification Module. It’s a small smartcard that, when slotted into a phone, gives that handset it’s unique network identity. It’s how the network can identify a phone when it’s trying to connect a call. When the SIM card has been replaced, the phone is effectively a new unit to the cell network.

Not that it matters for this question, but if you have two phones with identical SIM data, the network will connect with whichever handset queried the network most recently. In the real world, this is mostly useless info, but if you were dealing with time travel, dimensional copies, or some other kind of weirdness, then the cell phone connectivity might get a bit strange.

Additionally, first responders, such as fire, police, and EMTs often have SIM data that’s flagged for priority access in the event of mass cellphone congestion. Again, not a common occurrence, outside of the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack or major natural disaster, but a cop’s phone should work, when the network is otherwise overloaded.

So, if your secret organization is just a group of criminals, then all of this might not matter. Criminals are not a particularly bright group on the whole. It’s possible they could have a tech guy who understands how the phone network functions, but it’s also entirely possible they’d simply shuffle their SIM cards around on a regular basis (which has happened), on the idea that it would sufficiently conceal who they are. Also, most people without an intelligence or technical background are unlikely to know the full capabilities of surveillance and forensics.

If you’ve got a group that consults with law enforcement, but also engages in more direct behavior. For example, something Millennium, then it’s possible you might see ex-law enforcement, who know when to use burners, and how to work around police investigations when necessary.

At the far end of the spectrum, you’ve got a secret conspiracy that secretly runs the world, (or their little corner of it.) In a case like this, it’s possible that individual members may enjoy total immunity from prosecution for their actions, making any surveillance by mundane law enforcement meaningless. They may also have access to proprietary software and hardware that, while capable of interacting with the network, would be effectively immune to the methods I explained last week.

Loading malware onto a phone relies on knowing the operating system’s architecture. If someone were to hand code a new OS off of a new Unix fork, that would share enough with conventional phones to work with the network, while still having the potential of security. If you can’t run code on the phone, you can’t compromise it. Needless to say, this would be a serious undertaking, probably requiring a team of coders, so it’s not something that would be open to any small cabal.

Using Voice-Over-IP systems does allow for the user to make and receive encrypted phone calls. Technically, this can be done on existing systems as well, and you can use apps like Discord or Skype for mobile VOIP, but, depending on your data plan, this can get pretty expensive. Additionally, VOIP has the advantage of creating a phone that can go anywhere in the world, so long as you have internet access. (It also allows you to make and receive calls from your laptop or tablet, so there’s that as well.)

Additionally, some existing VOIP systems do offer end to end encryption. Usually, you’re talking about data plans that would be contracted to entire corporations. This would be somewhat expensive, but, it is possible with existing technology, and certainly within the budget of a major corporation or a massive cabal.

Secure smartphones are an existing market, aimed primarily at business and governmental agencies. These are not cheap, and the actual quality varies. However, they’re real, and available on the commercial market, if you’re prepared to pay for better equipment, the option is out there.

The weird thing about burners is, they have a home among professional criminals and spies, but as you wander out of those circles, the concept becomes much rarer. It never occurs to most people that their phones upload their geolocation data to the cell network on a regular basis, or that this info is stored. Hell, it’s not unheard of for amateur criminals who learn about burners to never ditch them, or only replace them when their plan is depleted, creating an even cleaner evidence trail.

That said, yes, proper use of a burner, will make someone much larger to track, via cell network data. Assuming they remembered to leave their main phone at home, and didn’t do something stupid like call a non-burner with that phone.

If your characters are trying to coordinate in the field, then some kind of secure communications system is necessary, but that doesn’t need to be phones (at least, not directly). As I mentioned earlier, VOIP services, particularly ones with end to end encryption, and chat room structures, would probably be more useful in the field. Though, there are other communication solutions, including short range radio handsets.

-Starke

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Q&A: Surveillance Operations

How do you start a car that you stole? I mean bc you see it in movies but I’d like to understand what’s going on there. Also, how do you track a car on your own knowing the license of said car without going to the police, and in the case of a cellphone? Is it posible that, if someone inserted a GPS tracker in someone’s phone but this phone ends up severely broken (so the GPS doesn’t work), the tracker would be able to know where was the last time the GPS worked?

So, a bunch of different questions, so let’s just take them all in a row.

Hotwiring a car refers to bypassing the key lock, and starting the ignition by manually connecting the circuit using the pulled wires. This would might have worked 40-50 years ago, however there’s a couple problems. Even on older cars, the ignition is better protected than most films would suggest, meaning getting access to that wiring is a lot more involved than just popping off the steering column’s shroud, and pulling a couple wires free. The second issue is that modern cars actually have ignition lockout systems. There are a wide variety of these, but the result is you can’t manually bypass the key with the ignition. In many cases, the ignition won’t even power up without the key present, meaning this entire approach to hotwiring is no longer valid.

On the other side of this, modern cars with keyless entry and ignition systems are vulnerable to wireless spoofing. With modern cars, the most common variant is “relay spoofing,” where a team of two will split up, one has a piece of hardware designed to pick up the signal from the wireless key fob, the other has a relay. The result will convince the car that it’s fob is in close proximity, and then unlock the car and allow it to start. Older cars (from the mid 2000s) are vulnerable to fob cloning, where the keyless entry and remote start broadcasts are captured, and then can be replicated later. This is no longer possible (in most cases), because newer vehicles use rolling, semi-random authentication codes. Though it may be possible to circumvent these with sufficient technical skill.

Tracking a plate requires going through the police or local government. Note, I said through, not to. Vehicle licenses and registrations are kept on file by your government. In the US, the police have access to that, as will state and federal databases. In theory, this stuff is kept confidential, and general civilians shouldn’t be able to gain access to it. In practice, that’s not entirely accurate. There are a number of civilian occupations that require access to these systems to do their jobs. Companies that perform background checks, and bail bondsmen would be examples. Additionally, someone with police connections may be able to get access to information they shouldn’t. The cliche example would be a dirty cop, but the reality can be far more benign. Someone who owns and operates a security company will interact with local law enforcement agencies on a regular basis and will seek to generate a rapport with officers they interact with regularly, often becoming friends. In situations like this it’s entirely possible for such an individual to go to their friend and ask for licensing information that, legally, they shouldn’t be privy to, but “given the circumstances…”

I’m ignoring the hacking route here, because it’s not particularly applicable most of the time. That said, many outside contractors who work with law enforcement, particularly companies that sell surveillance or IT hardware are going to have a better grasp of how the software and network systems function than you might expect. The idea of getting access to a Federal database may sound like the work of elite hackers, but the reality is, if you’ve got a piece of software which has to interact with thousands of agencies, nationwide, there’s going to be considerable security lapses if you know how the system works. If you know where to connect, and who you need to claim to be at login, reality is as mundane as ever.

When you’re pulled over in a traffic stop, one of the things the officer does, when they return to their patrol car after asking for your license and registration is to call their dispatcher and ask them to run your name and vehicle through the National Crime Information Center. The NCIC is a database maintained by the FBI, which tracks people who are wanted on warrants and checks to see if the vehicle has been reported stolen. Additionally the National Highway Safety Administration maintains the National Driver Register, which keeps track of issued licenses nation wide. In the case of the NCIC, data is only added if you’re wanted for some crime, or if your vehicle has been reported stolen, however the NDR tries to keep records of everyone. In both cases, you’re talking about software that needs to be accessible to a wide range of agencies, nationwide, including a number of technical Luddites who can barely sign up for their own email address. Again, knowing how to authenticate to the network is access.

There’s a number of ways you can track someone. With a modern smartphone, the simplest one is simply malware. Most cellphones produced in the last 20 years have some form of onboard GPS system. There are a lot of ways you can load malware onto a phone, but the short version is: If you’ve compromised their phone, then you don’t even need a GPS transponder; you can get their phone to tell you where it is. At that point, you might be able to configure monitoring software to tell you where the phone is and where it’s been, but that’s really the tip of the iceberg. On a compromised phone, you can have full system access, see what their camera is pointed at (without starting the ap), listen to everything said in the immediate vicinity, access any texts sent or received from the phone and listen in to any calls (along with full call metadata, such as who they’re calling). In fact, malware used by law enforcement allows remote activation of the phone, so even if you turn it off, it can still be rebooted, to function as a traveling surveillance device. To be clear, none of this is even custom, it’s all off-the-shelf software designed for, and sold to, intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

Let’s add another scary thought on here. Most of the time we talk about our phones being broken when the screen fails. The system’s been abused, the screen’s cracked, and the LCD won’t power up anymore. Thing is, that phone isn’t destroyed. You can’t use it, because the interface is damaged, but so long as the phone can still be powered on, a lot of the functionality I described earlier will still work. Now, if the battery was destroyed, or the CPU is fried, then the phone is completely dead, but any data it already transmitted is still safe, remotely, at the other end.

Also worth noting about your phone, GPS data can be stored. Your surveillance team wouldn’t just know where your phone is, they’d know everywhere it had been, with some additional hints as to where the phone had been before they picked it up. Beyond that, if you’re dealing with intelligence or law enforcement agencies, historical data regarding the GPS tracking will be accessible to them without even needing to compromise the phone at all.

To be clear, compromising a phone like this is fairly technical. It would require direct access to the phone for a couple minutes to complete the install, (though there are a number of ways you can get access covertly). The technical aptitude necessary means you’re talking about private security or intelligence agencies, as this goes well beyond what your average gangster or corrupt beat cop could pull off. Also, if you’re characters are up against intelligence agencies, then it’s entirely possible the compromising update could be pushed remotely by the telecom company.

I don’t usually cite my sources here, but given the nature of this, it’d probably be helpful for you to see a few, so you understand this isn’t just deranged conspiracy theories.

Here’s an Ars Technica article from last month documenting smartphone malware found in the wild. Also, the TechDirt article from 2013 that served as my crash course on the subject may be relevant.

On the subject of remote vehicle access, reports of people having their cars stolen start back in 2008, though those early reports aren’t particularly credible, to the point that Snopes rates it as mixed. However, jump to 2017, and you can watch security footage of thieves employing the relay technique in the UK.

I didn’t cover this earlier, but because of the interconnection on modern vehicles, it’s now possible to hack, and hijack control of vehicles via their onboard computers. The Uconnect exploit got some press attention back in 2015, and, Ars Technica has some nice specifications on that issue.

There’s a lot more to discuss on these subjects, but, that’s the very abbreviated version.

-Starke

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Q&A: Not Exactly a Good Person

If my character was attacked by an armed member of a group and shoots them unfatally (she had surprise on her side) would it be considered beyond self defense if she broke the attacker’s legs so that he wouldn’t be able to get back up and try to kill again? She also applies her idea of first aid- clean the bullet wound, pour bathroom alcohol on it, and tape gause over it- and gives him a painkiller (not the smartest move, but she is a teen who normally wouldn’t hurt a spider).

So, there’s problems here.

First, she needs to know how to break someone’s leg. Being able to so efficiently and effectively is somewhat specialized information. In general, human legs are fairly sturdy. They can break, yes, but they don’t under most normal circumstances. Once you’ve learned joint breaks they’re fairly simple on a technical level. Breaking the bone itself is possible, but takes far more force, and as a result is fairly advanced.

It’s certainly possible to break someone’s leg, but knowing how to do so requires a prior commitment to violence that an untrained fighter is unlikely to posses.

Easiest way would be to use the gun, or a crowbar, claw hammer, or other large blunt object to kneecap him. Most people can probably figure those out. But that’s a pretty horrific act, when you think about it.

If she knows how, then she needs to be willing to do so. This may sound like a minor step, but it’s a significant hurdle. It’s one thing to react to a violent situation without thinking and cause harm act. Looking at a defeated foe and deciding to inflict additional harm is something entirely different. That requires a kind of emotional detachment that most, generally well -adjusted, individuals won’t have.

So, your pacifist who has no history of violence ambushes someone,  shoot them in the back and then tools them up with a crowbar, before abandoning them in a gas station toilet? You see where this is, maybe, a bit of a disconnect.

Thing is, legitimately, she might consider killing him. Not necessarily be willing to carry it out, but she’s got a gun, there’s only about four pounds of pressure between her and putting a bullet through his head; making sure he never kills anyone else. Ironically, this is an easier threshold for her to cross. Taking this guy’s legs apart is going to require a serious commitment. In contrast, pulling the trigger is much easier. It’s momentary, instead of a protracted act of sadism.

To be clear, neither of these are morally good. They’re both deeply messed up, and at best, “ethically challenging.” Executing a fallen foe because they might come back for you later or because they may seek to harm someone else is horrific. But it’s still an easier action that looking for a tool you don’t have, and maiming someone.

Worth noting that none of this is going to qualify as self-defense. Shooting the guy the first time might qualify, depending on the circumstances, but given that she ambushed him, probably not. Self-defense requires an immediate threat to her life. Even just brandishing a gun is illegal in many circumstances. If he was about to kill her or someone else, then shooting him may be reasonable, but if he was simply threatening her, or picking up groceries, then that’s not justifiable.

If your character starts mutilating their attacker, then that character becomes the victim, and your protagonist becomes the aggressor in the eyes of anyone who examines the scene.

Something I know I’ve said before, shooting to wound isn’t a thing.  There is no, “safe,” gunshot wound, and no way to safely incapacitate someone with a gun. These are tools designed to remove other living beings from this plane of existence, and they don’t really go in for half measures on that subject.

I say this because gauze won’t do the job. Bullets, when they punch through soft tissue, tear things apart, they result in bleeding. Without medical treatment, they will kill you. You need to stop the bleeding. Pouring some alcohol over the wound, and slapping some gauze on the surface won’t cut it.

So your attacker hasn’t died, yet. Without medical care, they will die. There’s a simple threshold here: if the gunshot isn’t enough to put them down, then they might live through it. If the blood loss is enough to incapacitate them, it will kill them. They won’t be getting back up to chase after your character. Anything your character does to their attacker will be viewed as torture. That won’t play well when someone finds the body, especially if it’s the cops. Bandaging the wound might slow the bleeding some, and buy them some time, but, it’s not going to be the difference between living and dead. It’ll be the difference between dead in 30 minutes and 40 or 50. If she put him down with one shot, my unprofessional estimation puts his bleed out time somewhere between 300 and 600 seconds, but it could be as low as a minute. Gauze or no.

Something else worth considering about the usage of modern handguns: In the last paragraph I mentioned the possibility that the gunshot wouldn’t be enough to incapacitate them. This is true in some circumstances. You’ll put a handgun round into someone and it won’t put them down. This can occur because it didn’t strike anything vital, or it can occur because the blood loss wasn’t fast enough. This means, with most professional shooters, they’ll fire multiple times in quick succession. If your idea was to save a friend by shooting the guy who’s got them at gunpoint, firing once won’t reliably get the job done, and will probably result in them completing the execution before turning on their attacker. In cases like this, putting three or four rounds into someone is going to be necessary, but your character probably wouldn’t know that.

Now, you can write a teenager who would do something like this. Shoot their attacker, then break a leg, stuff some gauze in the wound, and then scamper off, leaving them to die. However, that wouldn’t be someone with an aversion to violence. That’s a character who’s gotten very comfortable with the idea of doing horrific things to people. For a lot of readers, that’s a very scary character. This isn’t automatically a bad thing, but it is something to consider.

I understand the desire to write characters as, “fundamentally good people in bad situations.” The problem is that, kind of a person will have a very different outlook when it comes to violence, as opposed to someone who views violence as just another tool to get the job done. They’re not going to gun someone down, torture them, and leave them to die with some liquor and gauze in the wound. Those aren’t the actions of a good person.

It’s okay if your character isn’t a good person, but if that’s the route you’re going, it’s something you need to be honest with yourself about. It’s also fine to have a character who lies to everyone else about who they are, so long as you are on the same page. If it’s your protagonist, the reader should probably be let in on that secret as well. If it’s a support character, you might hold it back for later. But, when that lie starts to leak out, it’s something you need to address. Because, when it does, it’s a huge betrayal for your other characters to deal with. “She was our friend, she’s not some psycho-murderer. That doesn’t even make sense.”

-Starke

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Q&A: Escaping Handcuffs

Could you escape a cuff around your ankle by breaking your ankle? Or breaking your hand to get out of handcuffs?

No, or at least, probably not. You could break your hand or ankle trying to escape from cuffs (thought that’s rare), but actually breaking one to escape relies on a couple things to go wrong. First, either the cuff itself has to be defective, or the person who cuffed your character didn’t know what they were doing.

Thing is, I can’t find any credible reports of this working. Which doesn’t mean that it’s impossible, just that it’s extremely unlikely. I suspect the answer is that, most people who’d find themselves in a situation like this are going to have better options open to them.

There are a number of ways to get out of handcuffs. Some rely on the person putting them on screwing up, such as where the escape artist will insert a small metal sham into the cuff’s teeth, to separate the locking mechanism and open the cuffs. Others, such as picking the cuffs, is very doable with a small amount of practice.

Normally lock picking (at least in the modern world) is a fairly finicky skill. You need time, the right tools, and a lot of practice. That doesn’t hold true when it comes to handcuffs. The locks on these are fairly simplistic, out of necessity, and as a result, they’re fairly easy to open, even without dedicated tools. In fact, most handcuff picking tutorials you’ll find online suggest using things like straightened paperclips or bobby pins. Yes, really.

The critical thing to understand about most handcuffs is that they’re not, really, locked. At least not in the way your front door or car locks. The key is just a standardized design that operates interchangeably between almost all commercially available cuffs. (There are some heavy manacle designs that do use a more secure key, but these are a rarity.) The keys even work across manufacturers in most cases.

The hard part is simply getting a tool which will interact with the lock mechanism itself. Again, this can be achieved with a paperclip in seconds. Literally, in seconds.

Now, if you’ve got someone who’s willing to seriously mangle their hand or foot, they might be able to get out of a properly configured cuff. But, we’re talking about self-mutilation to the point where that appendage is never working right again.

So, this leads us back to the big problem with this approach. If your escape hinges on destroying one of your limbs, it needs to be something you won’t need to actually escape. Breaking your heel and foot into enough pieces that you could slip out of a cuff would basically mean it’d be impossible to escape.

If you’re thinking of one of these, “you have time to cut off your foot before the car’s fuel line goes up,” kinds of situations, then serious dismemberment is justifiable, but it’s still unnecessary given how easy it is to pick a handcuff. But, unless you’re working off some kind of torture porn scenario (like Saw), there’s really no reason to do this.

There is another reason why this is a bad idea. Whenever you’re writing, you need to keep an eye on what will happen next. Especially when your characters are making plans. If someone’s in a situation where they need to escape from a pair of cuffs, it’s very likely those cuffs aren’t the only thing they’ll need to deal with. Even if it just means running a few hundred feet into the woods, that’s something which will require their feet. If they’ll need to deal with doors or operate machinery, that will require their hands.

When you’re making plans, you need to make sure you don’t do anything that will invalidate later steps. There is some validity to a, “we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” approach, and some people really do live that way, but in a situation like this, failing to account for what happens next can be fatal (for your character.)

This doesn’t mean you have to abandon the idea entirely, and it is possible for a character to see this as the only possible way out. But, it’s extremely unlikely, they’d be able to actually get their hand of foot free, even if they did break some bones in the attempt.

There is a legitimate point to characters making sacrifices, sometimes extreme ones. There are compelling moments to be had when characters make incredibly self destructive decisions because it’s something they won’t need to complete their plan. This is especially true if they don’t plan to survive. If your character is willing to die, they may be willing to take their hand off with an axe, in order to slip out of the cuffs, and then attack the person who put them there.

So, no, probably not. But, if you’ve got a character who legitimately planned for this, there are subtler ways out.

-Starke

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Q&A: Dynamite and Guns

Is it possible to light a dynamite fuse (1880s, thereabouts) with the muzzle flash from a gunshot at close range, like if they were holding it in their hand.

Probably. It’s also, probably a moot point, because the gunshot might simply detonate the nitroglycerin, turning your character into 180lbs of pulled people pork.

So, dynamite is (or at least was) really simple stuff. You had a mix of nitroglycerin and soft clay (though, other materials were used in some cases), wrapped, and with a fuse going in. Depending on the dynamite somewhere between 20% and 60% of the stick’s mass would be nitroglycerin. The clay? That’s only there to keep the stick from detonating spontaneously because you looked at it funny (or, more realistically, if you dropped it, or, say, fired a gun next to it.) You’d saturate the clay in nitroglycerin, and then wrap the whole thing up. The result is an almost stable version of a hilariously unstable explosive.

This is also why the concept of “sweating” or “leaking” dynamite is so dangerous. That’s the nitroglycerin seeping out of the absorbent medium, reforming in crystalline form on the outside of the tube, and dropping that will release enough energy to detonate it, which will in turn detonate the entire stick.

In very abstract terms, explosives are simply a chemical way to store energy. When you put energy in, you get that stored energy back out. Kind of like a battery… if your batteries decide they want to release their entire stored charge in an almost instantaneous reaction reducing everything in their immediate vicinity to shrapnel and paste. The more energy you need to put into an explosive to get it to detonate the more “stable,” it is, and generally speaking, the safer it is to handle.

On one end of the spectrum, you have things like plastic explosives which require very specific energy triggers to detonate, and can, otherwise, be safely mishandled to your heart’s content.

On the other end, you have things like nitroglycerin, picric acid, or fulminated mercury, which will wreck your day if you drop them. In particular, all three of those examples are entirely happy to release their energy (and explode) if you apply small amounts of kinetic energy to them.

Historically, the problem with nitroglycerin was that it was too unstable for use as an explosive. Alfred Nobel’s contribution to explosives was finding a way to stabilize the stuff enough that it could be stored and transported safely.

Not, “shot at safely.”

Gunpowder is another uncontrolled energy release. Particularly with black powder firearms there’s a lot of flaming material getting ejected from the gun barrel at high speed. Now, that can light a fuse (potentially), though it’s not 100%. Goofy as it sounds, you can miss, because the burning particles are getting scattered across an area, it’s not a literal cone of fire.

Now, I was talking about nitroglycerin being incredibly sensitive to kinetic shock earlier, thing is, this is a chemical that will detonate if you set it on fire (or heat it up to about 50 degrees Celsius (122F.)) Gunpowder burns at somewhere between 300C and 470C. (That’s specifically black powder, smokeless powders run somewhere around 1850C most of the time.)

Now, convection shouldn’t be quite fast enough to cause it to automatically detonate because it was in the vicinity of a gunshot (though sticking the barrel next to the fuse would almost certainly cause intimidate ignition), but if any powder residue lands on the stick, which isn’t out of the question, that stuff will be burning through the wrapper at more than six times the boiling point of nitro. The stick will go off before the fuse burns down, probably before your character can throw it, and hitting the stick is, ironically, more likely than hitting the fuse because it’s a larger target. (Also, burning powder will usually get ejected around 1-1.5m from the gun barrel, so maybe exercise some trigger discipline around dynamite.)

So, in short, yeah, you could certainly set off a stick of dynamite with a gunshot. Probably not exactly how your character was planning to, however.

I realize it didn’t come up, but putting a round into a stick of dynamite at, pretty much, any range will set it off. That’s more than enough kinetic energy to get nitroglycerin’s party started.

-Starke

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Q&A: Damascus Steel

Sorry to bother you, but I’m looking for a dagger that (I think) was mentioned on this tumblr. I can’t for the life of me remember what it’s called. I remember that how they were made has been lost, and that the blades have swirly patterns on them. I also know that there are only so many of them left.

You’re probably talking about Damascus steel. Technically, this wasn’t just used for daggers, there are some surviving swords as well. Damascus steel is part of a larger family of historic alloys called crucible steel, because of how they were produced. While we can easily produce crucible steels today, the specific process that produced Damascus steel was lost sometime in the 18th century.

I’m not an expert on smelting, so I’m probably going to botch some of the details here, but the basic idea with crucible steel is that you take multiple forms of iron or steel, usually of significantly different carbon content, stick them in a sealed clay receptacle (the crucible), and then melt them together into a solid slug. This often includes adding impurities into the material in the process to adjust the carbon content, or into introduce additional materials into the alloy, such as nickel. Because the metals have different melting points, the resulting mixture will not mix completely, and the result is a “banded” or “wood grain” pattern. (If you’d like to see some professionals smelting crucible steel, and forging it into a blade, the guys at Baltimore Knife and Sword had a Man at Arms Reforged video last year, where they created a replica Ulfberht.)

Research in the last couple decades has suggested that authentic Damascus steel was actually a superalloy, with carbon nanotube structures. While the smiths working it wouldn’t have known about that, the resulting metal did have exceptional characteristics that made it famous, and drove demand.

Specifically, Damascus steel weapons were renowned for being unusually durable, and applicable of holding very fine edges. As a result, their survival rate is pretty good in comparison to contemporary weapons. (That said, there aren’t a lot left, you’re correct about that.)

While there have been numerous attempts to replicate Damascus steel, to the best of my knowledge, none of those attempts have yielded similar compositions. Modern “Damascus steel” knives and swords replicate the visual appearance, and may actually be crucible steel, but lack the incredible durability, and hardness of the original examples.

The name itself is a little bit of a misnomer; while the smiths who forged weapons from the metal were in Damascus (or at least in the Middle East), but the material itself came from India via trade routes (and the technique originated in Sri Lanka sometime in the third century.) So, the forging techniques weren’t, really, lost. However the supply ceased. It’s unclear what the cause was. Theories include failure to transmit the process to new smelters, loss of some critical ingredients, the British Raj, and eventual occupation of India, or some combination of the above.

A lot of the time Damascus steel gets described as a lost technique, and that’s, kinda, true. But, it would be slightly more accurate to say, “we lost the recipe.” We still know how to make crucible steel, and we can certainly still forge weapons, but the exact process that resulted in that variant is lost.

-Starke

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Advice and suggestions for writing fight scenes.