All posts by Michael Schwarz

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 In many cases, the ignition won’t even power up without the key present, meaning this entire approach to hotwiring is no longer valid.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.


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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.”


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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.


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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.


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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.


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Q&A: Acrobatic Shooting

Guess that using firearms contemporary or futuristic, with acuracy is quit impossible during acrobatics jumps, right?

Pretty much. Even putting a round where you want it while moving is difficult. Doing so while you’re bouncing off the walls is effectively impossible, without some kind of extremely sophisticated auto-targeting system.

That said, if your character explicitly has some kind of superhuman affinity for firearms and ballistics, they might be able to make it work. I’m talking about superheroes or maybe some kind of cyborg or android. Not something a normal person could do, though.

For what it’s worth, the idea of simultaneously firing dual pistols at separate targets is a similar situation. You could, if you wanted, use a pistol in both hands, alternating between them, but firing at guys who are on either side of you with a pair of pistols wouldn’t work without some ability to track exactly where the gun is pointed without looking.

Something like Shadowrun’s Smartguns, which link a camera feed to the user (either with a helmet’s HUD, or cybernetically), could theoretically allow for precision blind firing, and (with additional cybernetics) might allow for precision shots during acrobatics. So, when you open up the gates on future tech, this might be possible, but, probably not in the near future.


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Q&A: Off Hand Shooting

Can you aim a handgun with your off hand?

I’d be pretty screwed if I couldn’t.

The short answer is: yes, you can train yourself to switch hands with firearms. For a lot of shooters, myself included, this is a fairly important skill, because many guns are designed for right-handed users. In some cases, the fire controls (safety, fire select, magazine release, ect) only on one side. In other cases, the grip and or stock will be contoured for the right hand, and attempting to use one of these with your left hand will be unpleasant or impossible.

What this won’t do is help you dual wield handguns. That really doesn’t work. Guns are, still, two handed weapons. You need your second hand to stabilize and manage reloading. So you’re sacrificing accuracy to burn ammo faster, for no real benefit. More than that, you really can’t sight two pistols at the same time. Getting them in line with your eyes will put the barrels way too close to one another, resulting in bashing the guns into each other when firing in tandem. This is one of the few situations where a laser could be useful, but even just the longer reloads, and loss of precision, mean dual wielding isn’t advantageous.

One variety of dual wielding that was entirely viable, was a sword and pistol combo. This was more common in the 17th and 18th centuries, with inaccurate, single shot firearms. During naval boarding actions, and other close quarters combat situations, it was fairly common to fire a shot from a pistol, before following with the sword. In these cases, the pistol would usually be carried in the off hand, with the sword in the dominant one, because it is far easier to shoot with your off hand, than it is to wield a sword in your off hand.

With firearms in modern situations, it can be advantageous to switch hands for a number of reasons. The specific example that comes to mind is cornering. When turning a corner to your right, if possible, you want your firearm in your left hand. This will give you a clear line of fire, while minimizing your exposure. Conversely, when cornering to the left, you want the firearm in your right hand for the same reason.

Being able to switch hands fluidly in a CQC situation is one of the many ways some gun disarms can go wrong. Many disarms rely on locking up gunman’s dominant arm. Against a shooter who has significant experience switching their weapon between hands, these techniques can quickly turn lethal for the person attempting the disarm.

So, yeah, I can shoot off hand. I’m not particularly accurate with my right hand when operating a pistol (I’m fine firing rifles right handed, go figure), but that’s just a personal issue.


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Q&A: Superheroes Creating Their own Villain

Do you think real life masked superheroes would ‘create’ villains? I liked what I heard of Mr. Ravenblade and people who dressed to give food to the homeless but do you think this type of activity would bring out villains/criminals as some people say?

Kinda, sorta, not really.

So, the theory is that superheroes like Batman face so many villains because they, “create” them. That is to say, when you’ve got a mentally unstable guy dressing up as a bat and beating the snot out of criminals, that will encourage other mentally unstable individuals to pick similarly bizarre themed costumes, and then join in the fun.

With some characters, particularly Batman and Spiderman, there’s a direct correlation between their actions as superheroes, and their rogues galleries. With others, the connection is a bit more tenuous.

Even in a real world context, this is fairly plausible. Someone engaging in extraordinary acts of violence will provoke others. Either to oppose them, or to aid them. For example: a vigilante hunting Mobsters would encourage the mob to look for specialists to deal with their masked psychopath problem. They may also provoke other, more aggressive, criminal syndicates to move in and set up shop in the city.

So, why isn’t Seattle currently dealing with real life super villains? Because, people like Phoenix Jones and Mr Ravenblade (no matter what Mr Ravenblade liked to call himself) are not superheroes.

To be clear, both Phoenix Jones and Mr Ravenblade are Seattle based individuals who style themselves as superheroes. Ravenblade claimed membership in the “Real Life Superhero Movement,” while Phoenix Jones was a member of the “Rain City Superhero Movement,” until it disbanded in 2014. Since then he’s been operating under his actual name, Ben Fodor. (As far as I can tell, Mr Ravenblade is completely inactive now.)

As with so many other things, the reality is far from romantic. Ben Fodor is a professional MMA fighter, who spent four years wandering the streets in body armor with a can of pepper spray. He never became involved in anything big enough to really test the super-villain theory. (Though he claims to have prevented a bombing during the Occupy Seattle protests in 2012.)

To be fair, if you really want to look at the entire superheroes create villains theory in a serious way, I think it’s far more likely that the relation runs, primarily, in the reverse. If you had costumed villains, you’d be far more likely to see a spike in the hero population.

The problem for people like Ben Fodor is a search for purpose in their superheroing. There’s a kind of implicit promise in the genre that you go out, put on your costume, and foes will pop up for you to fight. As the RHSM has proved, that’s an unrealistic expectation.

The theory does have some legitimate basis. In the real world, threat-response patterns occur, both at an individual and organizational level. So, if superheroes posed a real threat to street level crime, then you would see individuals specifically targeting them. As is, they’re just not relevant enough to create their own villains.


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Q&A: Handloading

how hard would it be to make bolo shells? i have a post-apocalyptic setting, and bolo shells sound like the perfect ammunition for the story (vampires), but idk the logistics of my character getting her hands on them or if it could be practical for her to make them herself.

As far as I know, it should be fairly easy. Shotguns shells are, generally, more forgiving to handload than most firearms. The hardest part would be making the bolo itself, which should be doable if you’re familiar with making bullets, have a suitable supply of metal, and some steel wire to connect the weights.

So, let me explain terminology here, quickly.

Handloading is the practice of manually preparing your own ammunition for a modern firearm. This requires a few supplies. You need casings (sometimes called brass, though with modern shotguns these are plastic), bullets (as in the actual projectile you’ll be firing, sometimes simply called, “lead”), powder, and primers.

In this case, your character would be making their own exotic projectiles. When you’re looking at a normal firearm, you’d usually want to get your own supply of unused bullets, though with some practice it is possible to make your own lead. It is possible to make bullets from materials other than lead. For example, you could use tin, copper, or other soft metals. Depending on density, they’ll have different ballistics from conventional rounds.

It’s technically possible to melt down harder materials like steel, and make bullets from those, but the resulting round would damage the firearm’s rifling when fired. These are sometimes used, with a soft metal “jacket” layered over the harder core for armor piercing rounds. (These work because the harder core will not deform as easily on impact, and will deliver more force to a single focused point, rather than expanding out, distributing the force across a wider space.)

With powder, it’s worth remembering that modern firearms do not use black powder. If you’ve found a recipe for gunpowder that calls for potassium nitrate (strictly speaking, any nitrate will get the job done, saltpeter is just the most common suggested ingredient), sulfur, and charcoal (sometimes you’ll see this referred to as just carbon, but you do need some of the unburnt wood cellulose for the chemical reaction), that will produce black powder. Now, this stuff does work as a primary propellant, but it will also cause any firearm more mechanically complex than a revolver to foul fairly quickly. The issue is that black powder burns less efficiently than modern smokeless powders. This means your unburnt powder will form as residue in your barrel and in any exposed mechanical components. Additionally, the sulfur is mildly corrosive, meaning it will also damage your weapon from prolonged misuse. Not that it matters, but black powder also delivers less force, so your bullets would have less range, and penetration.

It is (theoretically) possible to synthesize your own smokeless powder after the end of days, but it would require getting access to some fairly specific chemical supplies, and some fairly sophisticated lab work. Primers are a similar situation, not impossible if your character has a strong background in chemistry, but not exactly the kind of thing you or I could whip up in a desperate moment.

That said, handloading is fairly common among some gun enthusiasts, so the supplies are out there. How long those would last after the end hit would depend heavily on how long people were able to hold out before dying. If the apocalypse claimed the vast majority of its victims in the first few hours, the existing ammunition supplies could last for decades. On the other hand, if the apocalypse was slow, and people were dying out over the decades, then these supplies could be incredibly scarce.


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Q&A: Splitting the Party

How do I sideline my powerful fighters without sloppy excuses? My story is rooted in Asian mythology and there are powerful gods and creatures as well as weapons and shields.

The simple answer is: By making sure you have carefully thought out reasons, rather than simply trying to come up with an excuse at the last minute.

So, let’s talk about writing for a minute.

Your rough draft is when you first sit down and start typing up your story. Nobody’s rough drafts are perfect. Rough drafts are, by necessity, kinda sloppy. Stuff won’t always fit together. Ideas will get kicked around, and abandoned, sometimes mid-draft. There will be plot holes. That’s fine.

Then you start writing. When you go back and rewrite your draft, you know what your story is doing, where it’s going, what’s happening, and, most importantly, exactly what will happen. If you know you want a character split off, you know you need to start setting that up.

In some ways, this is the definitive answer: How do you avoid sloppy writing? By going back and rewriting once you’ve written the piece. Writing really is rewriting. First drafts suck. That’s not on you, it’s a truth every author needs to acknowledge, and remember, “you’re not stuck there.” Once you know what you’re doing, go back, and improve it.

So, how do you sideline your characters? There’s a lot of options, but a simple one that will almost always give you more material to play with is, give them something else to do.

In very broad strokes there’s two sub-categories here. They can act in their own interests and pursue personal agendas, or they can work towards the benefit of the group, they just need to do it somewhere else. These can lead to very different characters, and vastly different stories, so let’s look at both of those.

Remember, your characters are distinct simulacra of people. They have their own wants, dreams, and goals. Depending on who they are as a person, those may take priority over helping your hero. (Or, if we’re talking about your hero, this may take priority over loyalty to their allies.)

If your character has spent centuries questing to find their lost love, they may abandon the party of wandering heroes they met in an inn a month ago when they find a lead. If they’ve been exiled from their home, they may even turn on their allies if it means they could go back. They may betray their allies because they’ve become convinced that your heroes are more destructive harmful than the forces they oppose.

There’s an unlimited number of potential permutations here, ranging from the selfish to altruistic. These are also incredibly contextual. Choosing how to fit these pieces together will come down to assessing your characters, their world, the forces they’re opposing, and figuring out who your characters are.

These kinds of events tend to be irrevocable. If your characters are betrayed by someone they called a friend, you really can’t walk that back, even if they come to regret their actions.

The alternative is that, sometimes, you just need to be in two places at once. One or two characters may need to split off from the rest to accomplish separate goals. A cadre of heroes may stage a doomed assault, to create enough of a distraction for one of their members to sneak in and assassinate a leader, or deliver some critical plot coupon.

Events like this can be thrilling. You’re putting a lot more weight on your characters’ shoulders. If anyone fails to carry out their plan, then everything will go horribly wrong.

Again, there’s an infinite number of possible permutations on this concept. They may not be killing someone, they may not even be in the same area. They may have split off awhile back to deal with something privately, but now, when needed, they’re leagues away.

There’s also a lot of options to blend across between these categories, and there are a lot of other possibilities. For example: A character who’s been poisoned by some mythical substance and put into a coma isn’t going to be much use in a fight.

This is your story. You’re only limited by your imagination. Look for conflicts of interest that will test your heroes. Look for the consequences of their past actions. Don’t worry if your rough draft seems off. That’s why, “writing is rewriting.”


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