All posts by Michael Schwarz

Q&A: Monster Hunting

If beheading was the surefire way to kill a monster (say, a vampire or a changeling) what kind of weapon would be preferable in a modern setting? I was thinking of something like an axe or a tomahawk, but would they be better than, say, a short sword?

In a modern setting? My first thought would be a 12 Gauge bolo shell. These are a pair of 12-15mm slugs connected by a metal wire. When fired, the slugs will begin orbiting one another, and the resulting projectile will cut through soft objects, like small trees, trash cans, car doors, and human bodies with relative ease.

There’s a simple problem here. If your monsters are superhuman, going into melee with them is a death sentence for an unmodified human. This is especially true if your monsters are significantly faster than normal, though superhuman strength that allows them to simply rip limbs off will quickly disarm your swordsman, no matter how good they are.

“Safely” dealing with monsters requires that you step back, evaluate your options, and pick the best tools for the job. With rare exceptions, that’s not going to be a sword. They may use a fireaxe to finish the job on a downed monster, but putting those things down will be much safer at range.

If your monster hunters have access to military grade hardware (and can use them without drawing heavy police scrutiny), then an excellent option would be FRAG-12 shells. These are a grenade round designed to load into a 12 gauge shotgun, and should be able to spread your unsuspecting vampire all over the walls.

If your monsters have particular weaknesses, then finding a way to deliver those at range will be far safer. For example: silver bullets are a real thing. They don’t make for fantastic rifle rounds, because the weight is lower than lead, impairing the ballistics, but if you need silver to get the job done, a handgun is a legitimate option.

Explosive and incendiary options can be delivered precisely, and at range. This can be anything from a Dragon’s Breath shotgun shell, which ejects flaming metals (specifically, highly reactive metals which ignite on contact with the atmosphere), or flare shells, to home-made explosive handgun rounds. (For example: Adding a fulminated mercury payload to a hollow-point round, which is an incredibly dangerous, but quite real, option.)

Hell, against a monster that’s unusually light sensitive, just chucking a flash bang in could seriously mess them up.

So far as it goes, a simple 12 gauge pump action shotgun, may be able to down a monster, giving your characters time to take its head off. Though, that is an inherently risky strategy, because they don’t know exactly how long it will stay down, and will need to get within arm’s reach.

There’s a slight difference here, between monsters and normal opponents: Humans, when presented with gunfire, will die. Monsters, particularly something that’s undead, may not. The basic idea behind a bullet is you’ll poke holes in something and let it bleed to death. If they thing you’re shooting can’t die from bleeding, there’s a real possibility that shooting them won’t get the job done. Makes sense. Except, that’s not the same thing as being immune to gunfire. A bullet that strikes bone will still break it. Shooting a vampire in the head may not kill it, but hosing one down with automatic rifle fire should still mess it up enough to put it down, at least for a few minutes (if not longer).

Incidentally, if you’re working with the idea of monsters that are, literally, fast enough to dodge bullets, long range rifle fire is your friend. Firing at ranges where the sound will not reach your monster before the bullet means they won’t know to dodge it. For example: A .50 HEAP round should be able to debone your monster from the next zip code over. Again, as above, this is military hardware, and the original intent for HEAP rounds were disabling vehicles and aircraft, but vampires are generally a lot less threatening when they’ve already been disassembled for easy storage.

As I mentioned earlier, for decapitation of a downed opponent in a modern setting, my money’s on a fire axe.  It’s nice, large, heavy enough to get the job done, and common enough that your characters could potentially grab one on the scene. If your characters aren’t squeamish, a sledgehammer to the skull may also finish the job (depending on your monster).

So, I’ve been talking about high end hardware, for the most part. If your monster hunters have the backing of some group that can kit them out. If your characters are just people off the street, faced with monsters, and have no protections, things can get a lot dicier. Dealing with cosmic horror, when you can potentially call in an air strike, is a lot less threatening, than when you’re dealing with the idea that your neighbor has come back from the grave, and is preying on your family.

If your setting is one where your monster hunters are just, “normal,” people, then picking your tools becomes more important, but you also have way less options, and anything they do will draw police attention. Luring a monster into an abandoned building, and setting fire to the place may kill it, but that’s also a good way to get arrested. Meanwhile, things like HEAP rounds, FRAG-12s, and FNX-45s loaded with Silver Bullets are way outside your budget.

If that’s the situation your characters are in, things like fire axes, or maybe an old 1911 are options, but if your characters have normal considerations, spending $30 a round, to load that .45 with silver is probably not a realistic option.

For writing this kind of desperate, street level monster hunter, one of my favorite reference sources is still Hunter: The Reckoning. There’s also some good advice on story-building mixed in, and the old World of Darkness remains an excellent urban fantasy setting, with a lot of moving pieces.

For government funded monster hunters (specifically vampires), Ultraviolet (the British TV series, unrelated to the 2006 American film of the same name) is an excellent examination of how modern technology can intersect with the supernatural. (Also, the first place I ran across Idris Elba.)

Regardless your approach, the best options for dealing with monsters in a modern setting are going to be getting creative with modern technologies. This may be as simple as tazering a werewolf, or chucking Molotov cocktails at a vampire.

-Starke

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

Q&A: Guns and Magic

In the story I’m writing, the overall feel of the setting is mid/early 1800s, technology-wise. There’s magic, and given the time period I’m having trouble justifying there not being guns, but I’m not sure how to have them present in the story without ‘just shoot the wizard’ killing the tension. My initial thought was to make them less advanced than guns were at the time, and expensive enough that they would be less common, but I’m not sure how believable that would be. Do you have any advice?

Well, one problem with simply shooting the wizard is being able to actually put a bullet where you want it. The 19th century covered a lot of technological development. When the century began, smooth-bore single shot, firearms were still the norm (though rifles did exist). While firearms did get steadily more accurate over time, flintlock muskets are not an example of that. Additionally, any missed shot means your character will be facing a long reload before they can fire again.

There’s also a lot of considerations with magic that can make firearms as much of a detriment as an advantage. First, gunpowder is exceptionally flammable. If your characters are using firearms, they’re carrying around a supply of improvised explosives, that a pyromancer could use to kill them on the spot.

If you have mages that can manipulate metals, then that’s a pretty serious threat for anyone trying to use a gun. (Or metal weapons and armor, for that matter.)

If your magic interacts with the physical world (which, honestly, magic in most settings does), guns are going to be physical objects, subject to magic in one form or another. You don’t need to fully remove them from the setting, but simply understanding this can give you options which can make firearms another tool, and challenge, for your characters to work around.

A lot of the fantasy genre today draws heavily from Tolkien’s work. He defined the genre, and his setting has become the base most writers work from. To the point that the phrase, “standard fantasy setting,” has inherent meaning. Modifying off of that template offers you opportunities to discuss things, or evaluate concepts, that you simply can’t otherwise use.

Modifying a fantasy setting with a specific technological threshold opens up a lot of technology you otherwise wouldn’t have. If you want a standard fantasy setting in the 1890s, you’re opening the door to things like revolvers, steam engines, trains, telegrams, photographs, electricity, and “all the wonders of the modern world.” That’s kind of the point.

Once you’ve done that, the best route is to ask yourself, “what would magic do to this technology?” For example: “how would magic have affected the creation of the telegram?” If your setting is one where magic allows for instant telepathic communication, then the telegraph is redundant. You could already go to a mage, and pay them to relay your message. But, that’s not quite the same thing, is it? It could be open to manipulation, or surveillance. Business interests who operate networks of telepath mages may work to discredit, or undermine the development of telegraphs as a viable technology, even if their own service is inferior.

On the other end of this is the basic firearms question. Would magic allow for more advanced firearms? It’s certainly possible. Mages may be able to concoct alchemical propellants that are more efficient, and cleaner than real world firearms, allowing for more mechanically complex weapons than the real world supports. It’s also possible that magic would allow for additional defenses against firearms. A spell that was originally designed to protect against incoming projectiles may be equally effective at stopping a bullet. These potentials may even interact with one another, where conventional bullets will stop, but (exorbitantly expensive) alchemical rounds will blow through the shield, hitting the mage.

Another possibility is that, where you have mages, you also have magical abominations, wandering the wilds. When dealing with things like that, it’s entirely possible that conventional firearms are ineffective, requiring something special to deal with the creatures.

If your fantasy setting has a legitimate reason to include firearms, my recommendation is to look at those as a challenge. The danger that someone could gun down one of your characters if they do something stupid, or don’t think through their actions is a fantastic motivator, and something that’s worth keeping around as a credible threat.

If your fantasy setting looks like it should include firearms, then, probably should. This is a technology that reshaped the world, and having to account for it challenging your setting’s history and traditions is entirely reasonable, and something you probably want to play into, rather than avoid.

-Starke

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

Followup: The Mafia

Thank you for the Mafia information. You mentioned the American/East Coast Mafia is defunct. Does that mean it would be inaccurate to write about them being active in present day? Because my research still brings up racketeering and drug/human trafficking cases.

It mostly depends on where you’re setting your story. So, there is a mea culpa here; I described as defunct, based on my experiences, and some quick, cursory research focused primarily on verifying names and dates.

In the late 90s, I lived in a city that had been mobbed up, and was still working out Mob influence. In retrospect, I kind of suspect that a few of the restaurants I frequented while there may have been mobbed up.

By 2000, most mafia holdings in the United States were gone. If you lived in one of the cities where they completely folded up shop, you could be forgiven for thinking they were entirely destroyed. This would be a mistake. The very one I made when I wrote the original post. So, for that, I am sorry.

Today, America’s Italian Mafia is a shadow of its former self. They started as East Coast immigrant street gangs in the late 19th century, transitioning into a fairly developed network of criminal syndicates by WWII. The post-war era allowed for explosive growth. American organized crime, effectively founded the modern incarnation of Las Vegas, and even had extensive holdings in Cuba (before the Castro came to power.)

There are a lot of factors which lead to their downfall. These ranged from backlash growing political aspirations, to the war on drugs, the RICO Act was a body blow for the Mafia, as it directly attacked many of their methods of operation. (Specifically, it allowed prosecutors to charge the heads of families for crimes they ordered, but did not directly participate in, closing one of the Mafia’s favorite methods for shielding their upper echelons.)

Today, the Mafia does still exist in a few places. The days when they had families running cities across the nation are gone. If you live somewhere like Texas or California, the idea of Mafia operating in your city is more of a novelty.

With that in mind, the Mafia still has holdings in New York, New Jersey, and Chicago. The places where they were most strongly embedded, and where they’ve managed to somewhat survive.

The other major difference from the Mafia of today, and the one from 30 years ago, is a transition towards contracting labor, rather than using their own people at street level.

So, with all of that in mind, asking if it’s accurate is a bit of a loaded question, and it’s probably worth evaluating what you’re looking at with the Mafia. I’m going to pull two specific films, because they do an excellent job of establishing the dichotomy of who the Mafia wanted to be, vs who they actually were.

There’s The Godfather, and there’s Goodfellas.

The Godfather is an opera. It’s a massive story about honor, duty, sacrifice, and all of these other virtues, layered over the Mafia of the 50s-70s. It’s also, entirely, a fantasy. I don’t just mean the events, I’m talking about the organization it presents. The Corleone Family is what mobsters idealized themselves as. This sort of shadow nobility, benevolent, and honorable (to a certain degree), never existed in the real world.

If you’re looking at The Godfather and saying that’s what you want, it’s a fantasy. It’s accurate insofar as it presents an idealized self-image of who the Mafia believed themselves to be, but it doesn’t square with the reality of who mobsters actually were.

Goodfellas is not an opera; it’s not even, strictly, fictional. The film follows the life of Henry Hill (who died in 2012), from his introduction to the Mafia as a child, up through his eventual role as a witness against the mob. It’s not completely accurate, because it does abridge a few details. Some characters have their names changed, or are composites of multiple individuals. In one case, the motive behind a crime wasn’t exactly what the film presented, though the inciting incident is accurate.

The vast majority of the film is accurate to the actual behavior and identity of the Mafia. This isn’t the noble image of shadowy benefactors guarding and shepherding their community. It’s a bunch of psychopaths, kept barely in line by the threat of further violence, who have no qualms about turning on one another to save their own skins, or over imagined slights.

In some ways, the Mafia you see in Goodfellas no longer exists. RICO prosecutions, have shrunk their influence substantially.

That said, Organized crime still exists. The players are new, and in many cases it’s transitioned to new techniques, but where there’s opportunity, criminals will find a way. Skimmers, credit card fraud, ransomware, and other cybercrimes are all far more profitable, and less risky, than pounding pavement, and threatening to rough up store owners for the contents of their till in an era when anyone can have a security camera feeding images to off site data storage.

Organized crime has embraced globalization. In some respects, this is nothing new. The cartels were moving product around in large volumes forty years ago, but, things like smuggling and trafficking are far more appealing options for the modern criminal enterprise.

The very short version of modern organized crime is, if you want to do something, you no longer need to be there in person, unless you’re moving product (this includes people) in or out. If all you want is money, you can hide halfway round the world, and let your fingers do the walking.

So, here’s a fun and scary thought: If you live in the US, you’ve got a better than average chance of having been solicited by an organized criminal enterprise in the last decade. I don’t mean a few guys showed up at your front door, I’m talking about emails. In particular, where someone would contact you asking you to accept a wire transfer, and then relay it to them. This was actually about money laundering. You receive the funds from a fraudulent credit card transaction, then move it through your account. When the charges get reversed, your transfer out is fine, but the money coming in doesn’t really exist. Another popular one, from a similar time frame, was to take delivery of items for someone (usually “away on business,”) then repackage the stuff for shipping. Again, you would be used as a cutout, when the fraud was detected. So far as it goes, some of those, “secret shopper,” programs were also not on the level, and you would have been furnished with a cloned card, and sent off to turn that into actual cash.

The trick is to get the money across national boundaries and into a safe jurisdiction that won’t assist in a foreign investigation as fast as possible.

Beyond that, most of the organized crime groups that get brought up do still exist.

The Chinese Triads are real. They’re still around. There’s roughly a dozen major Triads. For reference, the largest (if I remember correctly) is the Sun Yee On, which has somewhere around 55k – 60k members worldwide. They’re active in Asia, North America, and Europe. The Triads derive income from drug smuggling, trafficking, and counterfeiting. (Not just counterfeit currency, but also media, like books, DVDs, ect.)

The Japanese Yakuza is real, and weird. Weird, because it pops up in places you wouldn’t normally expect to find organized criminal activity. For example, it’s not uncommon for Yakuza members to own hospitals, or other businesses that usually don’t attract the attention of organized crime. The explanation for this goes back to the 80s. At the time, Japan’s economy was exploding, they were seeing unprecedented economic growth, and had more money than they knew what to do with. Japanese banks were incredibly liberal with loans, because the money was pouring in (from their perspective). This lead to a lot of Japanese businesses purchasing foreign assets, and a general anxiety that they would financially rule the world in the coming century, which you’ll find in media from the late 80s and early 90s.

Around 1991 or ’92, the bubble popped. Before that happened, Japanese banks were happy to pass loans to pretty much anyone, on the idea that it would lead to further profits. This included many members of the Yakuza. (As I recall, there’s a bit of a question whether loan officers knew they were dealing with Yakuza, or if their due diligence was just that lax.) While they did buy into more conventional organized crime fronts, like shipping or construction, they were still left with more money than they knew what to do with, and proceeded to buy their way into other industries as well. Today, Japan is still struggling to clean the Yakuza out of their corporate culture.

When the bubble burst, many Japanese investors were suddenly on the hook for massive debt they’d incurred during the previous seven years. This included Yakuza members. In the face of this some committed suicide, however, many more retaliated, killing bank loan officers and threatening bank officials. This has resulted in a bizarre situation where the Yakuza (and uncollectible loans issued to their members during the bubble) is still a major factor in their current financial climate.

So, like I said, the Yakuza is real, and weird. If you’re wondering what I meant by “economic” research on them, in the earlier post, now you know.

My reading on the Cartels is spotty. As criminal enterprise goes, they are fascinating, because there’s an entire distinct sub-culture that’s built up over the years, including a distinct musical genre called Narcocorrido (culturally this is somewhat analogous to gangster rap, though it’s stylistically related to Northern Mexican folk music.) Beyond the obvious drug trafficking, kidnapping has also been a major money maker in the region. I don’t know how tightly the Cartels are involved in that industry, but it is worth mentioning.

Major street gangs are another factor. Again, these guys are active, and real. They’re a bit too diverse to quickly categorize, ranging from small, local, criminal groups, up to transnational organizations with worldwide members in the tens of thousands. Depending on circumstances, they may be working for, or with, other organizations, or they could be operating in house.

As I said earlier, the Russian Mob is more of a catch all term for a diverse group of criminals who share a common language, rather than a true organization. That said, there are criminal organizations that come from former Soviet states, but it’s not a single monolithic entity. A lot of the cyber crimes I mentioned above, are popular money makers, particularly for organizations that never left home, and now have access to the world via the internet.

So, no, it’s not inherently inaccurate. At that point any question about accuracy comes down to how you present the thing, not if it exists, or existed.

 

-Starke

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

Q&A: Cults and Killing

So is there really such thing as a stereotypical lovecraftian cult (ie hooded figures in dark dungeons who preform human sacrifices)? And how would you respectfully portray these, while still retaining creativity?

No.

Though it might be more accurate to say, “sorta, kinda, not really.”

Cults exist. These are usually small, radical offshoots of mainstream religions. In the US, most cults you’d encounter would use Christianity as their baseline, and then deviate significantly. Often times, these are the product of an individual or small cadre of individuals, who have hijacked a religion and re-purposed it for their own goals. (To be fair, agnostic cults do exist, these aren’t strictly a religious exercise.)

Because cults deviate from the normal, “baseline,” of their surroundings, most will attempt to conceal their behavior and beliefs from the outside world. Usually, this is by withdrawing and refusing to interact with outsiders. Lovecraft plays off the idea of cults that have a large enough stake in their local community that they attempt to pass themselves off as normal, keeping their true nature under wraps. Again, this is somewhat true to life, with real world examples.

Additionally, cults can be dangerous, both to their own members and to outsiders, depending on how the cult is structured, and how far it is willing to go in order to protect its interests. Crimes tracing back to cults are somewhat unusual, but it’s not unheard of. I’d almost be inclined to say it’s, “expected,” even they appear to have stayed inside the law.

Most of the time, when there are crimes being committed, they’re more in the range of abuse. Years of emotional and psychological abuse can take a serious toll on former members who attempt to break away.

Beyond that, I can think of a few cults that ended with NFA violations (illegal weapons), and even a few that ran afoul of the IRS over tax evasion.

Human sacrifices, not so much. Ritualistic murders do occur, rarely. However, these are the result of individuals, not entire cults. They’re also not the crowd of hooded figures chanting, that you’d get from Lovecraft.

So, the two pieces do exist independently. They just don’t intersect. Extensive research starting in the 1980s has showed no pattern of ritual killings associated with cults or other secret societies in the United States.

The cult killings I am aware of tend to be more in the range of accidents. (I mean, actual accidents here, as in, “we needed to beat the evil out of him, and accidentally went too far,” not, “oh, he was going to expose us, so we murdered him and made it look like an accident.”) There are also mass suicides of cult members, like Heaven’s Gate in 1997, and of course Jonestown in 1978.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are (rare) groups like Aum Shinrikyo. The Japanese doomsday cult responsible for a terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995. Using Sarin gas, they killed 12, and injured over 4,000.

Now, having said all of this, it is important to remember that Lovecraft was racist as fuck. Lovecraft’s work plays upon early 20th century American xenophobia. His cults are centered on foreign, “primitive,” religions from distant parts of the world, transplanted to rural New England. The beings they worship are just punctuation on something that’s already, legitimately, pretty offensive. This stuff can be pretty easy to accidentally transplant when you’re picking through Lovecraft’s material looking for ideas.

There’s an irony here: Cosmic horror is probably one of the most philosophically interesting strands of the genre, but its iconography and structure is often saturated in hurtful, xenophobic stereotypes, or ghosts of the same.

Simply flipping the script isn’t really an option because of actual history. I mentioned extensive research into cults beginning in the 1980s. That was spurred by sensationalist reports of satanic cults engaging in ritualized child abuse, and blood sacrifices. Those reports led to extensive investigations, and in the end, the result was basically nothing to show for it. No mass network of ritualized killings. No massive, covert, organization. Even the initial reports were eventually debunked, but the result was, effectively, a modern witchhunt.

If you’re wanting to work within the genre, and using a modern setting, I would recommend reading up on real world cults, and working from that model. There’s no real way to be respectful, given the subject matter, but it will give you a much more concrete idea of what these kinds of groups are like.

-Starke

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

Q&A: Setting the Rules in Horror

One thing that always bugs me about ghost stories is how there doesn’t seem to be any consistency In how a Ghost operates. Theyre built up as scary only to have them be really incompetent. There’s this particular case in IT. Where one of the kids gets grabbed by Pennywise then just wrestles out and runs away. It makes Pennywise seem really incompetent. Other ghost stories do this. Where the ghost can hurt you. . . except when it cant. No logic behind it. How can a writer avoid this?

The short answer is: By making sure there are logical rules underpinning your setting. With horror this is a little harder than it seems, but I’ll get into that in a moment.

Start by writing up the rules for the monsters in your setting. How are they created? What are their powers and limitations? What do they want? How do they go about getting that?

To an extent, this is something you should probably do anyway, if you’re creating an elaborate setting. But, it can be especially helpful if you’re dealing with monsters, or other fantasy creatures.

Exactly how you format this is, obviously, up to you. There’s no strict list of things you need. If you’ve got multiple kinds of monsters, the document doesn’t even need to be uniform between them.

Also, if anyone’s wondering, there is no “One True Set of Rules for Ghosts,” or any other kind of monster. There’s a lot of variety in folklore, which gets even more diverse when you start taking other cultures into account. When you’re creating a monster, either from scratch or from some basic template, like a ghost, you have a lot of latitude to decide how they work in your story.

Once you have those rules, keep them with you when you write. Depending on how large it is, and how you work, you may want to physically tape it to your wall, or you might simply keep them open in another window while you’re typing on your computer. It doesn’t matter where the document is, just make sure you keep that stuff close and accessible.

So, I said this is a little harder with horror. Most horror, as a genre, thrives on fear of the unknown. Once you’ve taken the rules for a horror setting, dragged them out in the open, and poked them with a stick, the illusion collapses, and much of the fear escapes. If you want to scare someone, you need their imagination to do the work for you.

This means, you do not want to put those rules out in the open for your audience. Even in a normal setting, you’ll probably want to hold back a bit, and spool those out over time, as your characters learn, and discover new information. But, with horror, hiding those rules, while still clearly enforcing them is a difficult, but vital, skill to master.

There’s an important detail here. Even if you clearly infer a rule in your horror, so long as you don’t go out and explicitly define it, there’s going to be a degree of unease. Horror thrives on that space, where you should be safe, but you’re not completely sure.

The other set of rules you should keep in mind, are the ones your characters create for the monster. If it’s trying to kill them, they’re going to be trying to figure out how to avoid that. Looking for what the monster’s limits are, and trying to identify its methodology. After all, if they know that it can’t kill them under certain circumstances, then they’ll want to find a way to engineer that situation.

The thing about your characters is that they can be wrong. They can look at the information available, and make an entirely rational but incorrect assumption. This can create situations where the monster is suddenly able to “break the rules,” because the rules your characters worked out aren’t the real limitations you set at the beginning. This should send your characters back to the drawing board, looking for something they got wrong.

Now, obviously, if your character is a veteran monster hunter, then they’ll probably have a pretty good idea of what the rules are. Though, even with that, there’s a lot of room for a character to prepare for the wrong monster. To be fair, this kind of character doesn’t usually work well in horror. It’s not a hard, “no,” but it does make your life more difficult. This is because they’re likely to have a (mostly) accurate version of your rules internalized. Point of view characters like this can work, but it requires you to be a lot more creative. If you think you’re up to it, feel free to experiment. However, stories with characters like this will often trend more into supernatural action rather than horror.

One more vitally important thing: Don’t pull your punches. Not in horror. If there’s a monster out there in the forest trying to kill them, and it gets the opportunity to pick someone off, kill them. The only time I’d caution against this is if you’re late in the story and running out of characters to snuff. In those cases, I’d suggest stepping back a scene or two, and figuring out how to keep them alive by avoiding that situation entirely.

Even then, I’d still recommend you roll with a death, even if its your designated protagonist. As a genre, horror is an indiscriminate killer. The story will survive your favorites dying. Also, sometimes, the monster wins, and your story ends with the last survivor down. That’s okay. It’s far better than a situation where your monster loses credibility because it fumbles a kill. If you find the story really doesn’t work without them, then that’s what rewrites are for.

I should add, I’ve been approaching this from the perspective of a story where the monster is trying to kill the protagonists, but this isn’t a certainty. Sometimes in horror, the monster doesn’t want to kill your characters. If it wants something else from them, that can be even more horrifying. Another possibility worth mentioning is, sometimes you’ve got monsters that honestly do not care about your characters at all. They’re content to go about their business, oblivious to the damage they cause.

-Starke

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

Q&A: Assholes

I got a character who might be a “deadpan snarker”. She loves the have the last word, troll people with words, taunts those she dislike, makes snide and sarcastic remarks about flaws or situation, and can be very abrasive and rude when she is angry or demanding. Does this makes her an asshole? Do likeable assholes exist? She can and will be nice to the people she loves and conform them, but she still trolls them for fun occasionally. She is not a bully, nor has low self esteem, just a big ego.

Yeah, sounds like you might have an asshole there, not just someone with a dry sense of humor and a never ending store of sarcasm.

Can an asshole be likable? Yes… with some reservations.

It’s a lot easier to like an asshole, if you never have to interact with them. This might sound counter-intuitive: if you never interact with them, how would you know they’re an asshole, or why would you care? Thing is, the momentary actions from an asshole, the snide comments, the sarcasm, even the egregious behavior, can be pretty funny, if you’re never the target of it.

If you’re watching a show, where a character is tearing the guts out of everyone around them, and you’re not interacting, that can be funny. You can like that asshole, secure in the knowledge that they’ll never direct one of their rants at you in particular. The same thought process carries over into other forms of entertainment.

You can center a story on someone who is a horrible human being, and still entertain your audience. The inveterate asshole protagonist is a staple for sitcoms as a genre. They’re not mandatory, but they can be incredibly entertaining and cathartic. Even in a non-comedy setting, an asshole protagonist can (sometimes) be compelling in their human misery.

It’s easier to like an asshole if they’re selective. Alternately, you can call this filtering if you want. A selective asshole picks who they go after. It could be certain groups of individuals, like people who dress a certain way, fans of some pop group, people who own small dogs, or some wide reaching collection of groups. If you’re not one of the people they target, it’s a lot easier to laugh it off. It becomes harder to stomach when they’re going after you.

Depending on who an asshole targets, you might even empathize or agree with them. It’s entirely possible to have a character who goes off on some group you hold in singular contempt. It doesn’t make their behavior appropriate, but if it’s something you would do or wished you could do, then that can certainly be engaging to you.

Unfiltered assholes are very unpleasant people. They lash out at anyone who gets within easy reach. No one is safe; nothing is sacred. The only people who stay in their lives are ones who don’t have a choice, or refuse to give up on some idealized version of them. I could probably write an article on people having an image of someone else that has no relation to reality, but the short version is that this exists.

Again, if you’re outside of their life, looking in, an unfiltered asshole can be hilarious. You never know quite where they’re going to go next, or what will cause them to flip out. Note: I said, “can be hilarious.” It’s entirely possible for them to simply be temperamental human wreckage with no redeeming value. The fine line between these two states is if the writer (and or actor) can land the jokes.

Comedy is a defense mechanism. No, really. Humor doesn’t all come from the same place, but the kind of vicious comedy you’re describing is, very specifically, a defense mechanism. It’s your character either trying to drive everyone around them out of their life, and create a safe space to inhabit, and/or it’s an attempt to invalidate their own insecurity by taking the people around them down a notch.

You’ll run across a concept from time to time stating that: In order to be a good writer, you need to have had a messed up childhood. I don’t think this is really true. It is possible to become a good writer, through hard work, study and effort. The inverse is not true, having a messed up childhood does not automatically make you a good writer, as anyone who has taught creative writing can confirm.

A messed up childhood will make you hypersensitive to your environment. This doesn’t mean you’ll break down on a whim, but it does mean you are far more likely to pick up on small changes in your surroundings, or in someone’s behavior. With a background like that, you’re wired to pay far more attention to exactly how other people in your environment behave. For writing this is an important skill. For comedy, this is absolutely vital.

It doesn’t matter if you’re making benign jokes, or taking someone out at the knees, comedy requires you’ve gotten into a fairly messed up place, and hung out long enough to get familiar with the mindset. So, when I say, comedy is a defense mechanism, it really is. More accurately, it’s the third stage of a self-defense system for someone who’s been through some serious psychological trauma.

The first stage is that hypersensitivity. Now, this can be acquired through benign causes. It can also build up as an adult.

“What are you talking about? You haven’t been through anything fucked up, I’d know.”

“No, you don’t understand; I’ve worked retail.”

To be fair, if you start developing this awareness as a child, it will be far more refined by the time you’re old enough to drink.

The second stage is learning to operationalize what you see. It’s looking for irregularities, and then connecting the pieces. Usually, when something doesn’t fit, you’ll pick up on it much sooner than a happy, well adjusted, individual would.

Again, if you’re living in a situation where knowing things are about to go pear-shaped is critical to your safety, you’re going to cultivate that skill because your life depends on it. This is also where comedy starts.

A lot of humor begins when you start realizing that something doesn’t quite make sense, then finding a way to articulate that to people who haven’t quite gotten there. Stuff your brain picked out, you noticed it didn’t quite add up, now you’re looking for a way to put that out there.

The trick to being funny is getting there before anyone else did. Jokes don’t play as well on repeat because you’ve already pointed out the idiosyncrasy or weirdness. Your audience knows. Time to find something new. (In fairness, there are concepts about repetition to land a longer joke. Sometimes telling the same joke again so you can flip it around later is a thing. As with any other kind of writing, humor has a large collection of malleable rules.)

The third stage is affecting your environment. This is where you take a joke and actually use it. There’s a lot of ways these can play, and it’s entirely dependent on the jokes themselves, but let’s focus on two approaches for the moment.

You can tell jokes to get attention. Get people to look at you and say, “hey, I like that strange being.” If you’ve been neglected, or just isolated, this is probably your goal. The humor will take the tone of the group you’re trying to ingratiate yourself with. I actually typed, “inoffensive,” but these can actually get pretty messed up; the important part is that the humor helps you blend into the community you want to be a part of.

You can tell jokes to get people to go away. This is the, “fuck you,” of an asshole who has been the subject of direct abuse, and just wants to shove people in their environment out.

Depending on context, there’s a real possibility of the exact same joke switching between these states. (Also, as I said, there is a lot more you can do with humor, but, for the purposes of this specific example, I’m trying to keep things simple.)

Why your character cracks jokes will affect how they use their humor. Someone who’s using it as a weapon is more in the range of trying to push people out. Someone who’s attention seeking is going to try to find an in. Normally, the former would be an asshole, and the latter would not. This isn’t 100%, because context is king here, but the behavior you’re describing is solidly in the asshole camp.

Someone who’s dryly sarcastic can end up in either group. It’s a flavor of delivery, and somewhat agnostic for what you’re doing.

Similarly, deadpan is just a comedic delivery. Literally, the term simply means, “dead faced.” “Pan” was slang for one’s face in the 1920’s. For reference, that was also when the term was coined. You stand up, deliver your joke, but show no emotion or response. It’s almost entirely agnostic to the jokes.

So, this is a long road to get to saying, “yes, your character’s an asshole.” She might also be funny. I haven’t read what you’ve written with her. I’d also question the idea that she’s doesn’t have self-esteem issues, and isn’t a bully.

Now, I’m just going to step back and say, this isn’t automatically a bad thing. Like I’ve said before, your characters don’t need to be good people. They can be walking dumpster fires.

However, you need to be honest with yourself about your characters. They can lie to themselves about who they are. That’s fine, it’s a little messed up, but still it is fine. You can lie to your audience about who your character is. That’s also fine, a little tricky, but still fine. But, you need to remember who your characters really are, under the surface, flaws and all. Also, remember that your character is fictional. You do not need to advocate for them, that’s their problem, your job is to make their story interesting and compelling.

The behavior you’re describing sounds a lot like a bully. Not, the kind of schoolyard kid, who roughs up others. An adult with serious self-esteem issues who looks around, and seeks opportunities to bring others down a peg in order to feel better about themselves. The methods change, but the ultimate goal remains. Someone who looks at the world, and lashes out at the people in it in a desperate bid to feel better about themselves. Internally they may couch this as justified behavior, that their vindictive behavior is justified by prior actions. It’s not. But, they can tell themselves that if they want, and many real people do.

Normal assholes. The kinds who try to keep people out of their lives, can, and do, filter. Well, some of them can anyway. In those cases, it’s entirely possible for someone to have hard lines between people who they’ll go to bat for, and people they’ll take the tar out of.

This kind of approach is incredibly common among people who’ve had abusive childhoods, or engage with human misery on a regular basis, especially as part of their job. Cops, social workers, EMS, people who work retail on Black Friday. In each case, there are subtle differences to how they approach things. Occupational hazard. Because you really don’t want to talk about the drunk boating accident where the underside of the DUI’s hull was smeared into the faces of a dead family. It’s not funny. It’s just fucked up. “How was your day?”

The important thing to keep in mind, when you’re writing this kind of an asshole, is that their aggression needs to be laser focused. They have certain things that will set them off. Everything else can kinda slide. Someone who is this kind of a selective asshole may be an otherwise normal-ish person. It’s not the character you’re describing, but people like this do exist. Some of them will be reading this post.

Someone who started with a finely filtered flavor of asshole who’s letting their focus slip will likely see their life fall apart. People who used to be safe will be getting driven away. Their behavior may become erratic. And, yes, this can happen. Sometimes the strain of the job can lead someone to deteriorate.

At that point, the smart choice is to cut them loose before they snap and make the evening news. Of course, if this was your friend, or someone who’s turned out decent results for years, you might be inclined to turn a blind eye, or try to get them to come back. This can lead to an entirely realistic situation where someone has deteriorated into a complete asshole, but has yet to drive everyone out of their life.

Again, having a character who’s going through this kind of a breakdown, can be an element of a good story. So long as you remember that’s what’s happening, and are keeping track of the bridges your character burns. Having a character who’s at risk of alienating the people they need to do their job, is one way to create tension. Particularly if they started the fires before they realized they’d need them.

-Starke

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

Q&A: Mafia Training

Do you know anything about how the Mafia trains their members?

They don’t, really. At least not in any formalized way. The same is, generally true of most professional criminals. The mafia relied more on able bodies who they could trust, than looking for very specialized skillsets. When you look at the bread and butter operations in organized crime, this starts to make sense. Sending a couple guys into a business to rough up the staff, or engaging in vandalism isn’t going to require specialists. Whatever mooks are lounging around should be able to get those jobs done.

In Mafia families, you’d start seeing people with formal educations higher up the ladder. Again, this wouldn’t be training per say. You might have members who’d been sent to law school and passed the bar, who could operate as lawyers for the family when needed. In at least a few cases, lawyers like this would invoke privileged to impede criminal investigations. Another common profession that you’d see wrapped up in family businesses were accountants. Again, actual accountants who’d been educated, gotten a degree, and then worked for the family.

A third group that would get formalized training were police infiltrators or double agents. These were rarer, but did exist. These were cops. They’d gone through academy training. They may have had a military background. On paper they looked clean and had never been directly associated with the family. The biggest red flag would usually be that they’d grown up in a neighborhood that was mobbed up, though this was not a prerequisite. The most famous example is Special Agent John Connolly who was involved with Boston’s Irish Mob in the 70s, while working in the FBI.

Street level enforcers, or even hitmen couldn’t expect to receive any significant training. At various times, there were Mafia members with military backgrounds. They’d served in World War II, Korea, or Vietnam, came back, and went back to working for the family, but with far more extensive combat training. In some cases, they’d impart some of their learned lessons to the mobsters they worked with, but this was not the norm.

There is one other exception, but it doesn’t exclusively involve organized crime. Prison functions kind of like graduate school for career criminals. The perk of getting locked up with lots of other felons is that you now have the opportunity to network with and learn from one another in an environment where you can be pretty sure no one’s a cop. Networking was less important for a Mafioso, but access to criminals who had learned specialized trades, and the potential to learn from them, even if that required some form of payment, could be a major silver lining.

Now, I’ve been focusing primarily on the Italian and Irish mobs. East Coast, American, and basically defunct, so let’s grab a couple more off the pile.

As far as I know, the Yakuza doesn’t have any real formalized training either. Their cultural norms are different, so their social role isn’t exactly the same. To be fair, most of my research on the Yakuza has been economic, rather than street level operations. They’re extremely unusual, as organized crime goes, because during the 80s, they started pumping cash into businesses you wouldn’t normally associate with organized crime. This means, in Japan, you can find things like Hospitals or Software companies which are mobbed up. A lot of this folded when their economic bubble popped in the 90s, but some still persist.

The Russian Mob isn’t, really, a thing. Okay, let me back this up and explain. Frequently, it’s convenient to talk about Russian organized crime as a unified entity. Russian criminals willing to work together to achieve their goals are a thing. Large coherent organizations, not so much. These are, ultimately, more like freelance criminals, who came up during the Soviet system, and have that shared experience. This causes them to behave in ways that mimic organized crime elsewhere in the world, but it is ultimately a collection of freelance criminals who are willing to put their differences aside for a paycheck. As with any other group of criminals, you’re looking at a large range of potential backgrounds, which could range from uneducated street kids to ex-special forces, who went freelance when the Soviet Union stopped paying them in the ’90s. On unusual feature of Russian criminals is, they’re unusually well equipped. This dates back to the fall of the Soviet Union. The government stopped paying employees, and if you were overseeing a state run armory, you had a huge stockpile of weapons, but no food. So, they started selling arms, and bigger things. There’s actually a story floating around from the mid-90s where the Cartels were looking to take possession of a nuclear submarine from the Russian black market, though that deal fell through.

As far as I know, the Triads do not have much in the way of formalized training either. Though, I’ll admit, I’m not particularly well versed on them. Though it is worth noting, these are the largest criminal enterprises on the planet, by a significant margin. The Triads are massive.

Like the Triads, I’m not particularly well versed in The Cartels. As far as I know, there’s not much in the way of formalized training there, and it really is a distinct flavor of organized crime. It’s just one that I’ve never done a lot of reading on.

Finally, North American street gangs are an unusual situation. On the surface it’s similar to the other examples given, no formal training programs. However, in the 90s and 2000s a number of judges revived the old conscription punishment. Sending gang members into the US military. In theory this was supposed to, “set them on the right path,” but, what it actually did was introduce elements of those gangs into the armed services, and gave gang members training and experience on military hardware. When they mustered out, they now had connections that could get them military hardware, and the knowledge to use them, which were also shared with fellow gang members. I’m not sure on the full current status of this situation, but it is an unusual circumstance worth examining.

-Starke

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

Q&A: Improvised Weapon: Pickaxe

This is a rather crazy question, but how would a pickaxe fair as a weapon?

If it’s a weapon of opportunity, then fairly well. For example, if you have a character in a struggle against someone else, they’ve lost their weapon, and the only thing they can reach is a mining or climbing pick, that is going to mess someone up.

There’s a bit of a bonus here, the pick’s beak is an excellent armor penetration tool. So, in that very narrow tailored situation, it’s a good option for a single surprise attack. A lot of real weapons, including pole-arms and warhammers used similar pick designs for this purpose.

Depending on your setting, your character might carry a pair of ice axes. These are, basically, single beaked climbing pickaxes, designed for digging into and scaling ice walls. Again, not a weapon, but if it’s all your character can reach, they can still probably put one into the skull of an unsuspecting enemy.

A pickaxe isn’t a great weapon for a straight up fight. Limited strike options are the big issue here. You need to swing it in a fixed, linear, path, and against an armed opponent who can defend themselves, that just wouldn’t work.

The main difference between a war hammer, and a normal pickaxe is the weight and reach. These were (usually) longer weapons, with a single beak, a blunt face, and a head that could be used in linear thrusts (sometimes with an additional spike on the end).  This meant there were far more options to attack with one.

For whatever it’s worth, an ice axe is much closer to a warhammer in overall design. It still has an adz opposite the beak, but the overall design is much lighter, and probably more versatile than an actual warhammer. Ice axes have a spiked haft allowing you to (potentially) use it as a thrusting tool. To be fair, I am speculating a bit, and it would depend on the materials and design of the specific ice axe.

If the idea is, “my character has a pickaxe as their favored weapon,” then no. That wouldn’t work out. However, if the idea is, “my character is desperate, and the only thing they can get their hands on is a pickaxe,” then, yeah, there is some utility there. Especially against a foe who doesn’t see it coming.

-Starke

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

Q&A: (Not) Using Antique Firearms

So I have a character who collects antique firearms. Would a gun from the 1800’s , say American civil war era, still function enough to make it an effective weapon, provided it was well taken care of?

Yes, with some critical caveats.

Mechanically, firearms are destructive. I don’t mean the bullet is harmful; that’s also true. You have a piece of equipment designed to contain violently expanding, burning gasses. Powder is, often, corrosive, and of course, you’re setting it on fire, and sending that stuff everywhere. You’re also grinding pieces of metal against one another.

Guns have an operational life, (usually) measured in rounds fired. As you use them, components will wear out or break. In some rare cases, this can turn into a Ship of Theseus scenario, where you’re replacing the entire gun a piece at a time. (Unlike Theseus’s Pardox, this one has a concrete answer: It legally becomes a new gun when you replace the receiver.)

The important thing to remember is: Every single time you use a firearm, you’re dealing a little bit of irrevocable damage to your gun.

In most cases, you wouldn’t want to actually fire a civil war era antique firearm. Mechanically, they may still be sound, but that’s something you don’t really want to test on a firearm from the 1860s. This is especially true when dealing with some of the more mechanically complex weapons of the era, like the Colt Walker revolver.

I’m going to use the Walker as an example for a moment. There were roughly 1,100 of these guns produced in the late 1840s. 1000 of those were intended for a military contract, and the remaining 100 went up for sale to civilians. The original revolvers suffered a high rate of failure, somewhere around 300 of these were returned to Colt for repairs during the original operational life of the guns. Frequent issues involved soldiers overloading the cylinders, exceeding the intended pressure tolerances, and causing the cylinder to rupture when fired. (Fun fact: Exceeding the intended pressure tolerances in a firearm is a fantastic way to destroy it. Don’t do this.) There were also a number of semi-fragile components which would wear out or break after extensive use.

Walkers saw use during the Mexican – American War, during the Civil War, and in the hands of Texas Rangers after that. In short, there aren’t a lot of these guns left. They are also phenomenally expensive today. At auction, a Colt Walker in functional condition, with original parts can easily fetch $100k, with pistols sometimes selling for between $300k-$600k.

Your character, who is a collector, wants to put rounds down range through something that expensive? Especially given their history for mechanical failures?

Also, for reference, a Walker with a ruptured cylinder will usually sell for somewhere around $1k.

Now, in fairness, this is an outlier. Most guns aren’t going to be that valuable, nor that fragile. But, even if you’re talking about something relatively common, much cheaper, and hopefully more durable, like a Sharps Rifle, it’s still a valuable antique. (Rarer Sharps variants can auction for $10k-$20k.)

Another factor is that these don’t use modern ammunition. The Walkers were chambered to a .44 bullet, but these were muzzle loading black powder firearms. (In fact, most of the Walker’s cylinder failures were due to soldiers loading too much powder, and then loading the gun’s conical shaped bullets in backwards, resulting in substantially higher pressures than the cylinder was designed for.)

The mid-19th century did see the introduction of the first metallic cartridges. The Sharps Rifle fired a .52 caliber, black powder cartridge. There might be some place you can buy these prepackaged, but, I suspect, if you want to shoot a Sharps, you’re going to be hand loading your cartridges.

So, if you want to fire something like a Walker or Lamat, you can, theoretically do so. But, you’ll need a lot of associated equipment and preparation time. Loading either is a time consuming process. You need black powder, percussion caps, and the bullets themselves. So, it’s possible, but not a great option.

All of this said, there is another very simple reason to say yes, which bypasses all of these considerations. Modern replicas of weapons like the Walker, or Single Action Army (the Colt Peacemaker, which is not a Civil War era pistol, as it dates to 1873) are fairly common, durable, and functional. In the case of the Walker, there are some significant mechanical changes to allow the  revolver to accept modern cartridges, including the addition of a loading gate. Conversion Walker reproductions are something of a novelty.

In general, reproductions of historical firearms, particularly 19th century ones have a serious enthusiast community. It would be entirely unsurprising for a collector of rare and antique firearms to also keep a selection of replicas for recreational use. In fact, modern Colt Peacemaker reproductions are a semi-common sport revolver, because of the handling characteristics.

Replicas and reproductions also offer an entry point to the hobby, for a lot of enthusiasts. Very few potential collectors can shell out half a million dollars for a revolver, but modern replicas will only set you back around $300 – $400. Given it may also take modern ammunition, that’s a much easier price point for a potential collector.

Personally, I wouldn’t fire a gun that’s over a century old, if I had another option. This isn’t a hard number, but that’s a long time for factors like corrosion, to become a serious consideration. Like I said, I have no issue with modern reproductions of those designs, I’m honestly rather fond of Colt Peacemakers chambered in .357, and slightly less fond of 1911s, but I wouldn’t want to fire an original production version of either, simply because of concerns over damaging it.

A somewhat common problem for gun collectors is, having weapons which are historically or mechanically interesting and significant, but are too valuable to shoot. This is also true of elaborately engraved firearms. The simple answer is, you don’t do it. If you enjoy shooting, and also enjoy collecting antique firearms, those are going to be two separate collections. There may be thematic overlap, via reproductions, or they may also collect modern firearms for shooting, but they’re not going to be shooting their antiques.

There’s also a separate issue that I haven’t really addressed yet. With some exceptions, you wouldn’t be getting a particularly effective weapon. At least, not if you’re facing opponents armed with modern hardware.

The early cartridge rifles were game changing, because you could start producing weapons that could fire 8-10 rounds per minute. Early Revolvers were similarly amazing.

If your opponent has a pistol that needs to be reloaded after each shot, and you can put six rounds down range before having to reload, that’s a significant advantage, even if reloading will take far more time.

Today, most modern assault rifles have cyclic fire rates between 600 and 900 rounds per minute. That, 8 to 10 range doesn’t sound nearly as impressive in context. (Granted, the actual rounds fired per minute would be much lower for an automatic weapon.) Someone armed with an AR15 pattern varmint rifle can be much sloppier with their shots and still get the job done in less time.

Shot placement is critical. If you can get the job done with one bullet, then having extras is just gravy. But, semi-automatic weapons allow you to quickly correct and compensate for errors faster than a single shot weapon will allow. If you try to make a shot with a single shot rifle, you will spend more time, preparing for your next shot, than you will with a semi-auto rifle.

Reloading modern firearms is much faster than with a civil war era weapon. Compounded by the fact that they will need to reload after every shot. Even if your modern firearm has a small 5 or 10 round detachable box magazine, that’s a lot more firepower on a much faster reload.

I’ve said before, the 19th and 20th century saw an explosion in firearms technology. In less than 200 years, we’ve gone from firearms that needed to be manually reloaded, by pouring powder down the barrel, to weapons that can deliver 30 rounds, down range, in under five seconds. Modern guns are more accurate, easier to operate, more reliable, and in general, much more lethal. Now, someone who knows what they’re doing with a Peacemaker, or a Sharps could still come out on top, if they really know what they’re doing, but working with weapons like those, in a live combat situation, is a serious handicap.

It’s also worth noting that there are some, very old, firearm designs that do hold up, in their intended roles. The Peacemaker is one excellent example. It’s not a good carry pistol, but these are still remarkably accurate revolvers chambered in a powerful cartridge. There are better options for a revolver, but these will deliver.

Another pair of examples are the M1903, which is a very accurate bolt-action rifle, and the M1911, which has become an iconic handgun design. (Though, modern 1911s do have some significant design changes, to make the weapons more reliable, and user friendly.)

So, you have a gun collector, who has a lot of civil war antiques. They need to pull something from their collection to shoot someone. The best option would be if they have guns the use recreationally or for other purposes. These may be reproductions, or they could be more modern firearms. Your collector wouldn’t reach for one of their antiques, even if the gun was technically operable.

-Starke

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

Q&A: Lightweight Firearms

I have some characters that need to have lightweight firearms. Research is telling me that while aluminum guns HAVE been made, they require special ammunition to avoid misfiring. What other material options do I have? Carbon fiber?

There are a lot of firearms that incorporate aluminum alloy components to reduce weight. This is fairly common, though not as popular today as it was twenty to thirty years ago. There are still a lot of popular, well respected, aluminum frame pistols and rifles on the market, including the Baretta 92s (including the M9), and the SIG P226 (though there was a heavier stainless steel variant sold in small quantities). With rifles in the AR15 family, there’s a lot of aluminum lower receivers in circulation.

So, if you’re wondering how that works out, there’s a critical piece of information to remember: The Barrel, bolt, and battery will be steel. In most handguns, that means the entire receiver will be, though with rifles that’s less certain.

Weight is, already, a huge consideration for firearms. This is why a lot of pistols used aluminum frames, and their manufacturers have since moved on to polymer frames. Similarly, a lot of rifles have moved over to polymer furniture to reduce weight. Carbon fiber is an option for some common firearms, for example, you can replace the walnut stock of your Remington 700 with a carbon fiber variant. This will set you back around $600 dollars, though the actual weight reduction is debatable.

Off hand, I’m not aware of any pistols with carbon fiber frames standard. (Only a few high-end “designer Glocks.”) Though, that’s probably a matter of time as well.

There’s also some oddities like the Professional Ordinance Carbon-15. This was an AR-15 pattern rifle that had a bunch of its components replaced with plastics, including the lower receiver. The early examples were rather fragile, but it did deliver a 5.56mm rifle at around four pounds.

Beyond swapping out the materials, there are a couple things someone can do to reduce the weight of a firearm.

Porting is the practice of cutting out unneeded material. This may range from simply cutting into a slab of metal or plastic, or it may involve cutting full slots through it.

On rifles, one option is to remove or redesign the stock. At the extreme end, this can involve replacing the stock with a simple wire structure, or a sling system. Worth noting: this is not an option with AR15 pattern weapons, including the M4 and M16. These rifles incorporate their gas return system into the stock.

In contrast, the AK family of rifles have gas return systems that run over the barrel. This means you can completely remove the stock from AK pattern rifles without ill effect. To be fair, the AK takes this design decision from the StG44, and any other rifle that patterned off that design, like the FN FAL, or H&K G3 will (usually) have a similar gas system.

One quick way to do some of your work for you would be to look for paratrooper variants of existing rifles. These are designed to cut as much weight from the weapon as possible, without sacrificing structural integrity. These often feature shortened barrels and collapsible stocks to reduce the weight.

Another option, depending on your characters’ objectives, would be to use SMGs instead. These are (usually) going to be considerably lighter than full rifles, though you’re losing the power, and range of a rifle, in exchange for a lighter, more compact weapon. For example, an H&K UMP45 is a little over half the weight of a full sized assault rifle, and is already firing a subsonic round. You can’t use it at long ranges, but if your characters are slipping in undetected, it will be far easier to conceal and much lighter.

There are, also, already a wide range of weapons intended for clandestine use. It’s easy enough to come up with a scenario and say, “well, this is unusual, I don’t know how I can equip my characters for this.” But, when it comes to military hardware, it’s often helpful to remember that weird scenarios with strict equipment requirements are something special forces groups plan for. Beyond that, it’s often easy enough to find out that, “oh, this rifle variant was designed specifically for situations like the one I’m looking at.”

Hell, if your special forces operator needs a completely silent tool for picking off sentries they can request a crossbow or mechanical compound bow from the armory. These same guys are going to know not to use it in a firefight, but the tool is available to them.

Lightweight firearms are a real thing. In part because no one wants to be carrying around a 30 lb rifle, unless that puppy can put a round through the engine block of a ’57 Buick.

I mean, if it’s me, and I was looking at this, I’d check what their nation of origin actually uses for hardware, and then pick something like a SIG553, H&K G36C, or an AKS-74U. For reference, my laptop weighs more than any of those three rifles.

There’s an, unusual, example that fits your suggestion at the top, and it might be what you’re thinking of, even though it’s not exactly relevant to the discussion. In the mid-60s a company called MB Associates designed and sold a 13mm pistol and carbine using a self-propelled cartridge called a Gyrojet. These are fascinating historical footnotes. The weapons had a minimum kill range of around 10 meters. (This number is a bit fuzzy. The rounds might get to a lethal velocity before this, but getting reliable ballistic data for these pistols is a pain.)

The pistols themselves were made from a zinc alloy, and were incredibly light weight. This was partially because the pistol didn’t need to deal with the explosive forces a conventional firearm.

To the best of my knowledge a little over one thousand of these were produced. There’s at least four variants, two pistols (chambered in 13mm and 12mm) and a few rifle and carbine variants. I know of a few other prototypes, though I have no idea how many of those existed.

These days, unspent cartridges are exceedingly expensive ($100-$200 a round), and the extremely light weight can leave you feeling like you’re holding a toy, rather than a real, functional, firearm.

MB Associates was hoping to land a military contract, and some of the pistols did see use in Vietnam. Unfortunately, the minimum lethal range was a serious flaw. Beyond that, the rounds themselves suffered from production issues, resulting in wildly inaccurate shots. The bullets had four angled ports, which, once the propellant was ignited, would keep the round moving, and would cause the round to spin, stabilizing it. Unfortunately, on some production cartridges, one of those ports would be partially obstructed, meaning the round would corkscrew unpredictably in flight. I’m honestly unsure if this is more horrifying or hilarious.

I don’t have hard data on exactly when MBA went under. I want to say it was in the early 70s. Either way, this remains a weird historical footnote. It might be what you’d heard about, even though it’s not exactly relevant to your question.

-Starke

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.