All posts by Michael Schwarz

Q&A: Followup: Followup: What am I Doing Here Again?

I think you answered the wrong ask with the long rule of cool answer? The question was if flaming arrow or fire weapon were ever actually used?

That question was a followup to another question answered about a day earlier, which was a followup to yet another question about flaming weapons. It was essentially asking why flaming weapons get used in Hollywood so much if the ones shown aren’t historically accurate.

We get a lot of questions about setting weapons on fire, and my point was that the movies and media you consume aren’t about accuracy. You shouldn’t look to them for truth, not even most of the “historical” ones because their needs are different. Rather they’re a place to start your search into history, which is vast. Fire and explosions have both been part of historical military campaigns but not in the way Hollywood will show you. Not the way that gets propagated throughout various fandoms, and not the way we see it represented on screen.

When you’re imagining fire arrows, you’re not thinking of early grenade like explosives in fields mined with gunpowder or Genghis Khan demanding all the dog and birds from a city he intended to conquer and then setting them on fire before releasing them. They’re not imagining flaming oil poured down from the battlements or catapults lobbing whatever it was they set on fire into a town. When they’re asking about fire arrows, they’re asking about the fire arrows seen in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (as Robin Hood: Men in Tights succinctly put it, “every time they do one these movies, they burn down the village!”) Or the flaming sword from The Scorpion King.

Fire has its place in mass battles and riots when it comes to burning shit down.

A quick internet search will find you all kinds of traditional uses for fire as a military weapon, the problem is that they’re not the ones most of those who come into our askbox are looking for. They’re not looking for artillery, they’re looking for a way to make what they saw in a movie realistic because they’ve been told realism is paramount to writing good fiction.

When you’re looking at whatever media you’re consuming, you should pretty much always assume Rule of Cool unless otherwise stated.

I wrote the post because that is what needs to be said. As a writer, it is important to be honest with yourself when you sit down to write whatever you intend to write. If Rule of Cool is what you’re looking for (which is what the vast majority of people who write fight scenes want) then just take a breath and accept it. You’ll be happier, you’ll understand your needs better and know what to focus on. There’s been an obsession lately about “realism” in battle sequences that aren’t particularly realistic but somehow makes them more legitimate than ones that aren’t.

How viable is a tonfa in modern street fighting setting? (well, to be more accurate, Hong Kong during 1988, but I digress). I know that guns are going to beat it out regardless, because guns, but in the case they aren’t available, would it be a good weapon for a gang member to carry around?

Yeah, Hong Kong is a very different set of considerations from simply, “modern street fighting.” Specifically, firearms laws there are far more strict than in the US, and the danger of running into someone using a gun is much lower than if you set your story in 1980s Los Angeles.

Obviously, if your characters are going up against the police, then that starts to become a serious consideration again, but for street level combat, there’s a very real probability that the people they’re fighting won’t have access to firearms either.

Now my knowledge on the subject is strictly 1999, so some of this may have been different under British rule, but my understanding is that under the PRC, arms smuggling is a capital offense. Possession of an unlicensed firearm is a serious felony that can carry a life sentence.

What little I can dig up from pre-1999, suggest that even before the British left, it was extremely restricted. You could own a firearm, but you not allowed to own, or store, ammunition. You needed to purchase, and use it, at the gun club, where you shot.

There were exemptions for people who dealt with large quantities of cash, gems, or other untraceable wealth, as part of their job. That may have persisted, I’m uncertain.

Within that specific context, yeah, I could see the tonfa being useful for someone dealing with street level crime. Ironically, they might be better off unarmed and using whatever they can find in their environment opportunistically, simply because of law enforcement attention. The full list of prohibited weapons is a bit vague in places. Near as I can tell, the tonfa isn’t explicitly restricted, but an officer might class it under one of those headers and arrest your character anyway.

Incidentally, while writing this, the thing that keeps coming to mind is Sleeping Dogs. This was a criminally underrated GTA style game set in 2012 Hong Kong, where you played as an undercover cop infiltrating the Triads. It’s a little off what you’re talking about, but is still a fascinating examination of the tensions for a character who’s operating undercover in a criminal organization.


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Q&A: Lightsaber Physics

Regarding lightsaber physics, I believe the official version is that they basically have artificial inertia, because the blade is in constant motion (and as such does have an edge), and this is mainly used to justify really lengthy wind ups for attacks (like what Kylo Ren does). On the other hand, we see plenty of Jedi fighting like the things weigh nothing, so I think it’s a case by case basis to justify fighting styles, rather than fighting styles being derived from it


The specific logic is that lightsaber physics changed over time, during the development of the films. When Lucas was working on A New Hope, he approached it with the idea that the actual blades were quite heavy. As in the actual projection of light/plasma/whatever had substantial mass. Though from here on out, I’ll be talking about the actual props.

The stunt choreographers patterned, their fights off a mixture of 1940s Hollywood swashbuckler duels, modern fencing, and kendo. There were also other factors, including that the stunt blades themselves were quite fragile. (I want to say they were made of fiberglass, but I’m not completely positive.) I’ve also read that David Prowse had a bad habit of breaking his lightsaber blade on set. This is part of why the style in ANH is so tentative. The actors are trying not to break their props. Also, fun trivia, you can see them knocking dust off their blades when they come into contact in ANH.

Some of this logic carried over into Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. I’m not sure exactly how much, but you can look at all three as a coherent unit. One of the few big changes was much more durable lightsaber props.

In going back to do Phantom Menace, the stunt choreographers came to Lucas and said, something to the effect of, “look what we can do, if we one hand these things.” The result is much faster and flashier combat, which you can see in the prequels. As I recall, the specific justification from Lucas was that the Jedi were at the height of their martial training before the purge, so you’re seeing the best lightsaber practitioners in history.

To be fair, I don’t know what the thought process is for the lightsaber use in Awakenings.

The important takeaway is, that how lightsabers function has changed to fit the capabilities of the film production staff. So, trying to extrapolate something coherent out of that is going to be kinda tricky. Still, kudos to the EU writers who made a genuine attempt, and kept at it as the entire approach was reworked as the prequels released.


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Incidentally, TIL there’s a quick post keybind that I hit with my pinky when I went to hit backspace. I still don’t know what that keybind is, but at least I know it exists now.

Q&A: Blood in the Eyes

Hey! Is it possible to take both of an opponent’s eyes out with a single swipe of a sword without amputating the nose? Thanks so much in advance!

Not exactly what you’re asking, but cutting someone’s forehead so that they’ll get blood in their eyes, temporarily blinding them, was a real tactic. That does work.

Actually taking out the eyes in a single, linear strike, without hitting the nose? I don’t think so. To be fair, even a fairly deep cut to the bridge of the nose wouldn’t amputate, and a slash across the face that would sever the nose wouldn’t connect with the eyes, because of how they rest in their sockets.

Maybe I’m missing something obvious, in which case, I’m sorry. Still, if you want to blind your character temporarily, in combat, cuts to the forehead will do that.


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Q&A: Monster Hunting with Polearms

Do ya’ll have any input on weapons (Maybe a polearm type) against beasts? (Nothing that would be larger than a XL Draft Horse, so no house-sized dragons or bus-long wyrms) I’ve been considering a halberd for my MC, and he’s going to be faced with various types of beasts on foot.

That is one of the uses of polearms. Not fighting monsters, but dealing with potentially dangerous animals. Within that context, the halberd probably isn’t the best option.

The only thing that I’d be concerned about is that the halberd is a variety of poleaxe. Usually, they had a spike or piercing blade on the end, which would allow you to poke something, but the primary blade was used in chopping strikes. So your character wouldn’t be getting much use out of that. In turn this adds more weight out on the end of the weapon, making it harder to maneuver. I don’t want to say, “more ponderous,” because it should still work, and is a legitimate selection, it’s just that there are better options out there.

Specifically, weapons like the boar spear or spetum would probably do the job slightly better than a halberd. Possibly with an axe as his sidearm. Though, nearly any polearm will allow him to attack without being disemboweled, which is the important part, and why polearms were historically used as hunting tools.

Some of this is speculative, and would depend on exactly what he’s facing. I’m sitting here thinking of something like a bear or werewolf, but if he’s fighting some kind of cephalopod, and needs to lop off pieces, then a halberd may make more sense.


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Q&A: Followup: Amnesia


Wait… Can we get some love for Long Kiss Goodnight for amnesia spy who doesn’t know they’re a spy? A lady spy at that?

Yes. Yes, you can. I’ll admit, I don’t think of it often, but The Long Kiss Goodnight is a good action film. If you’re wanting something in the genre with a female lead, yeah, watch it. This film deserves a lot more attention than it got.

Also, True Lies comes to mind, in a similar vein. Though there’s no amnesia plot in that. In theory it’s a Schwarzenegger film, but Jamie Lee Curtis does a pretty good job of owning it whenever she’s on screen.


Q&A: Anti-Material Rifles

Hello, I don’t see a lot of resources for sniper gun injuries, especially that of .50 cal rounds. I have a character that had the bone at her lower leg (near the ankle) shot by a .50. How bad would the damage be when compared to the same bullet actually hitting the ankle bone or the leg muscle?

So, there’s a weirdness with the .50 round: It’s not supposed to be used for precision shooting. It is used that way. There are many precision rifles chambered to various 12.7mm cartridges, including the .50 BMG. But, they’re not really intended for use on people.

(To be clear, every time I’m talking about a .50 from here on out, I’m referring to the 12.7x99mm rifle cartridge. Incidentally, if you were to simply search for .50 wounds, you would probably get a mix of rifle and pistol wounds, since there are many distinct 12.7mm rounds in circulation.)

The .50 BMG was originally designed during the First World War, with the intention of use as an anti-aircraft round. These entered service in the ‘20s and saw extensive use during WWII as an anti-vehicle round. This is it’s intended role, even today.

In the early 80s, someone got it in their head to build a precision rifle around these things. The result were firearms like the Barrett M82. This 30lb monster is, probably, the rifle you’re thinking of.

Thing is, these rifles fire a round that was intended for taking out vehicles, not people. As a result, they’re designed to deliver a terrifying amount of force to the target. The point is you put one of these into a truck’s engine block to kill it. Which doesn’t work 100% of the time, but a few extra hits will usually get the point across. You put one of these into a person, they’re done.

I don’t have hard data on what these things will do to a person. There is an inaccurate myth that near misses can kill from the atmospheric shockwave alone, which isn’t true. There’s also stories about these things taking limbs off on a hit. Based on what I’ve seen with these rounds and ballistic gel tests, that seems credible. Put one into someone and you could easily end up looking at an eight inch exit wound.

Connecting with the ankle probably means the foot is gone. I don’t mean damaged irrevocably, “we’ll need to amputate.” I mean, anything below the point of impact is missing.

Traditionally, precision rifles used against living targets is chambered somewhere around .30. The classic examples are .308 and .30-06, though there are others, and I’ve heard good things about 6.5mm rounds. Even then, a shot to the ankle means your character probably isn’t walking again without reconstructive surgery. A shot to the bone will break it. A shot into the meat can cause some serious tissue disruption, but assuming it doesn’t nick something important, and the impact didn’t fracture their leg, they should be able to survive.

The use of a .50 rifle as a sniper’s rifle is for extremely long range shooting. These are the guns you break out when you need to hit something over a mile away. If you have a character that needs to put assassinate someone riding in an armored Limo, a .50 will do that. If your character needs to put a bullet in someone from the dark side of the moon, then the .50 is the right choice. Because, if it connects, there’s very little risk of the target getting back up.


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How viable is muscle memory that it trumps amnesia? Say, Jason Bourne who doesn’t remember a thing, but still knows assassin-fu? Thanks for your advice!

Bourne isn’t running on muscle memory. He suffers from a variant of retrograde amnesia which affects his ability to remember who he is, but doesn’t affect his skills. From what I’ve read on the subject, it’s entirely possible for an amnesiac to retain basic knowledge, in isolation from specific memories. Which is to say, this can happen.

There are details about exactly how Bourne’s amnesia manifests itself that may be unrealistic. An individual can retain general knowledge, and skills, but that doesn’t mean they’re not impaired, and when you’re talking about something like tradecraft, being in full possession of your faculties is a little important.

For whatever it’s worth, the only time I’ve ever interacted with an amnesiac, they were suffering from anterograde amnesia. This is the inability to form new memories after a triggering event. (You can see this one demonstrated in Memento, if you’re wanting a point of reference.) So, I can’t really speak to how accurate Ludlum’s work was when it comes to that element.

In a 1986 interview, Ludlum claimed that he came up with the idea
for the Bourne trilogy after suffering retrograde amnesia and losing
about 12 hours. The old advice is, “write what you know,” and apparently Ludlum did, in this case.

I know I’ve recommended it before, but if you’re thinking about writing spy fiction, The Bourne Identity is a book you really should read. The 2002 adaptation is also good, but it uses the same premise to tell a very different story.

Normally, I would strongly caution writers against using
amnesia in their stories, unless they have something fairly creative
they want to do with it. This has more to do with amnesia plotlines
being run into the ground, and becoming horribly cliche over the years. Memento uses it as a jumping off point for an interesting narrative format. Bourne uses it to play around with the spy as a character archetype. Bourne also uses it to play up the traditional mystery of a character who doesn’t know who they are, or who they can trust. That’s one of the approaches you probably want to avoid.

Because amnesia works so well for establishing a blank slate, and giving the audience a point of view character who is exactly as unfamiliar with the world as they are, it’s become cliche. I fully believe there are methods to use amnesia as a useful narrative tool for your work, but a lot of the more obvious approaches have already been done to death.


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Iron Sights Sniper

Is it conceivably possible for a character with enhanced eyesight to shoot a rifle with iron sights as accurately as with a scope? Or are there inherent limitations getting in the way?

Not, “inherent limitations,” but you would be giving up some functionality that isn’t common on modern iron sights.

Long range marksmanship isn’t about putting the cross hairs over someone’s head and pulling the trigger. There are a lot of factors which can affect the trajectory of a bullet.

Bullet drop is the simplest example of this. As a bullet travels through the air, it is also affected by gravity, and falls towards the earth. The further you fire, the father the bullet will fall until it connects with something. Some iron sights include rangefinders, which will elevate the rear sights to account for drop.

Because the bullet is a lightweight, physical object, it is still affected by things like wind. Again, this isn’t much of an issue at short range, but at longer ranges, wind can play a significant role in where the bullet finally comes to rest. When calculating wind in long range shooting, it’s not enough to know what direction the wind is traveling where you’re positioned, but also what the wind is like at the target. In situations like this a scope can be helpful for determining what the wind is doing over there. As with drop, some iron sights are designed to be adjusted for windage. It’s not incredibly common, but these do exist.

We’ve talked, before, about how most rifle rounds are hypersonic, and that the signature crack of a rifle is, actually, a small sonic shockwave caused by the bullet breaking the sound barrier. At extreme ranges, over 2,500 yards (if I remember correctly, this value is affected by atmospheric density, which is calculated based on altitude and humidity), friction will bring the round back down through transonic speeds (around 600-700mph), at this point the shockwave will usually overtake the bullet destabilizing it and severely affecting accuracy.

When you’re talking about a sniper, the least important part of their equipment is, ironically, their rifle and scope. Those are both useful, and high quality equipment will offer the best results, but the difficult part of their job are things that have nothing to do with the hardware itself.

Beyond that, the scopes are just optics, they help a marksman hit their target, but they’re not necessary. However, the benefits they offer do go beyond simply providing a firing point.

So, the short answer is, no, your character wouldn’t need a scope, but they would still be better off with one than without. The one exception I could think of is if the have some cybernetic augmentation which provides firing solution data to the user, which is more accurate than simple optics.


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Q&A: Flaming Weapons

How viable are non-magical flaming weapons? Like, coating the sword with a flammable substance and then setting it on fire. Would the trouble be worth it for the increased damage? Would they be more dangerous for the yielder? Would the fire negatively affect the blade?

No. At least not, that example. Also flaming arrows are out. The physics involved mean they either self-extinguish on launch, or they’ll ignite the user (I don’t remember which, and I kinda think it’s the former.)

That said, there are a lot of historical and modern military applications for flame.

The modern examples that come immediately to mind are napalm, dragon’s breath shells, and Molotov cocktails.

Napalm is, basically, jellied gasoline. It will burn, it will stick when it lands, and it will keep burning. Set something on fire and watch it melt. Napalm is, quite frankly, pretty terrifying stuff, and while the exact chemical formula is recent, the concept of launching burning liquids at people is not, going all the way back to Greek Fire. No one is exactly sure what Greek Fire was, but it would burn, could be lobbed onto ships or people you didn’t like, while burning, and would not stop burning once it arrived.

Molotov Cocktails are a medium ground here. You load a bottle up with alcohol, use an alcohol soaked rag as a fuse, light, and throw. There’s a little bit more going on here though. Alcohol solutions are only directly flammable if they’re more than 50% alcohol by volume. Most hard liquor is around 80 proof (40%), but, the vapors put off by the solution are still flammable (down to around 20%, if I remember correctly). So you can use a bottle of vodka as an improvised incendiary device. (Fair warning, it’s been a long time since I took a chemistry class, so those exact percentages may be a bit off.)

In spite of being named after a Russian Revolutionary, the idea of setting something on fire and chucking it someplace is not a new concept.

I know you can launch flaming payloads with a trebuchet, put them roughly where you want them, and set the area on fire. I’m not 100% sure of the military history, but it was used for centuries. Anything that will break apart on impact will spread the flame over a decent area and get a good blaze going.

Hot shots originally referred to cannonballs that were preheated before firing, with the intention of it igniting enemy structures or ships. This isn’t something we still think about (outside of the term “hotshot” seeping into idiomatic usage), but it did work, apparently.

The modern equivalent would be incendiary ammunition. There’s a lot of variety here, and they range from phosphorous rounds, which will ignite on contact with moisture, including the moisture in the air, to dragon’s breath shells which eject a mixture of highly flammable metals, such as magnesium, or potassium, which will ignite on contact with moisture.

Phosphorous was also a popular component for incendiary grenades, mortars, and other explosives. For example, one of the US military’s versions of a Molotov in WWII was produced by dissolving phosphorous and rubber (as a thickener) in gasoline). This mixture would self ignite on contact with the atmosphere (when the glass broke).

One variant of modern incendiary grenades use a Thermite variant
(called thermate)

to eject molten iron on detonation.

So far as it goes, most flare guns fire a 12 gauge shotgun shell. While the plastic ones won’t survive trying to put a conventional shell down range, the flare shell itself can result in horrific, and fatal, burns.

If you want a melee weapon to set someone on fire, you might be able to achieve that safely by heating the blade or using something like a thermal lance. The problem with simply coating a sword with oil and lighting it up is, they tend to drip. And, when you’re swinging the sword around, you’ll end up with burning oil getting splashed everywhere, including on the user. This is, “a very bad thing.”

Of course, shoving a torch in someone’s face is also a very bad thing, for them, and fits the definition provided.

So, the short answer is, yes there are a lot of real applications for setting someone on fire, especially when they’re all the way over there and walking is too much effort. Setting your own sword on fire is not a great idea, however.


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