All posts by Michael Schwarz

Q&A: The Historical Reasons for Conscription

I have a question about mandatory soldier conscription. Are armies REALLY going to send incompetent, poor, uncooperative soldiers, or especially ones who don’t want to be there out to fight? They’d get thrashed if the enemy are only sending out soldiers who voluntarily join, pass tests with high score, and get selected. What nation wants a high body count because they have piss poor soldiers they forced to join??

So, to answer your first question, “yeah.” In answer to your second, “The 28th of July, 1914.” So, let’s unpack.

Economically, it’s not viable for most feudal states to maintain a significant standing military. This was the general problem for European warfare for over 1000 years. During that time, conscription of the peasantry was used to quickly assemble an army, and then disbanded when they were no longer needed (and could no longer be paid.)

The results were large armies of disposable shock troops backed by small cadres of elite forces (such as knights, and mercenaries), composed of professional combatants. This structure works surprisingly well when paired against a similar force, comprised of a large expendable infantry, backed by a small elite cadre.

Throughout much of European history, the number of troops you could bring to the battle was considered more important than the individual quality of those soldiers. If you can only field a few hundred elite troops, and your enemy can field ten thousand disposable fighters, you’re screwed.

Now, someone is going to read that paragraph and cite The Battle of Thermopylae. There is one very important concept about melee based warfare, the number of soldiers you have in total is less important than the number of soldiers you can put into contact with the enemy. Thermopylae was about the Greek soldiers constricting the Persian advance so that only a small number of soldiers (on either side) could engage at any given moment. This effectively negated the numerical advantage of the Persian forces. (And, yes, Greek. While discussions on the Battle of Thermopylae tend to focus on the Spartan fighters, they comprised a fraction of the Greek forces present.) This isn’t relevant to the overall discussion of conscription, but there are ways for a numerically inferior force to overcome a numerically superior one even before we get into technology.

The major takeaway for conscription, as historical behavior, was that, it worked. As with much of Europe’s military history, armies on both sides were using roughly similar military doctrine, and if both forces are relying on conscription, you’re going to be throwing equally unprepared soldiers at one another.

In the early modern era, militaries started transitioning to maintaining standing forces in peacetime. The example that comes to mind was the Prussian Army, which also functioned as the beginning of modern military training practices. This also saw the expansion of professional officer corps, and even standing militaries. However, conscription persisted (in a number of forms.)

The other major change was technology. So, let’s look at those dates I listed earlier, and why they matter.

On June 28th, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo. This triggered a declaration of war, which then triggered additional declarations of war based on existing defensive treaties between the various European governments, beginning the first World War one month later to the day. (I’m being incredibly reductive here, and if you want more detail, I’d strongly suggest you take some time and read up on the geopolitical situation, because I cannot do it justice in a couple paragraphs.)

In the decades before World War I, there had been skirmishes between European powers, and in some ways the writing was on the wall for what was about to happen. However, there hadn’t been a war on the continent between the major powers in nearly four decades. (Yes, I’m cherry picking a little bit for this statement, and trying not to get bogged down under a string of, relatively minor, border skirmishes. If you want a takeaway from this aside, Europe was not a stable place in 1914.)

If you know your firearms history, you’ll remember that there were significant technological innovations in the 19th century. The European powers had been taking advantage of this technology, against non-European powers. They’d used early machine guns to quell resistance in their colonial holdings, but military leadership (at least among the British) failed to grasp how much these had changed warfare. They were content to attribute the force multiplier from automatic weapons to their own troops “superiority,” rather than address the idea that these weapons functionally negated contemporary military doctrine. (This is in addition to other new technologies, including the deployment of chlorine gas, the use of airplanes in war, and the introduction of instantaneous, electric communication via the telegraph.)

I’m going a very bold statement, and I realize I haven’t evidenced this enough to fully back it up. In fact, if someone has a better suggestion, I’d love to hear it. The exact moment that mass conscripts lost their value came sometime in the fall of 1914. If you really wanted, you might be able to pin this down to specific battles, maybe even identify a specific day. “This is the moment in history, when mass conscripted shock troops were outdated by technology.” You might also prefer to shift the date back to the development of the Maxim Machine Gun.

Historically, conscripted soldiers had value as cannon fodder. Conscripted soldiers would chew through enemy resources. They would protect more valuable fighters from enemy attacks. They’d literally soak incoming fire (hence the term cannon fodder. “Food for enemy cannon fire.”) While they wouldn’t be effective against the enemy elite forces (unless a conscript landed a lucky blow), they would slow and wear down enemy combatants. There was a real point to fielding large numbers of troops.

Then World War I.

If a small number of soldiers with ready access to ammunition could effectively negate entire masses of enemy troops, there isn’t nearly as much point to throwing out as many soldiers as possible. In fact, the proliferation of firearms actually flips the logistic economics. There’s a significant danger of conscripted troops being non-lethally injured by incoming fire, and requiring medical attention, straining the army’s medical corps (whatever name it’s working under.) At this point, cannon fodder becomes an actual liability.

As for high casualty rates? Most nations that sustained massive casualties didn’t particularly care about their losses. At least, their military leadership didn’t. If we’re looking back at the medieval levy system, the peasants called up to serve were viewed as disposable by their leaders. Similarly, even as recently as World War I, heavy losses were expected, it was simply the volume of casualties that military leaders weren’t prepared for, and political leaders had difficulty spinning.

While I’m saying this universally, the American military didn’t get especially sensitive about their casualty rates until Vietnam. The presence of press on the front line, with extensive footage being broadcast on the same day, combined with the continuation of the draft (along with other factors) helped to contribute to a sensitivity about about casualties (and also press access in wartime), that hadn’t existed before that. It wasn’t even that the numbers in Vietnam were particularly high, it was the war’s unpopularity and media coverage. (There’s a lot more to unpack on this subject that I can’t go into right now.)

So, to be brief, conscripted forces used to have a function. It was a horrific function that viewed them as expendable resources. It’s an important part of the discussion on standing military forces, and some of that persists today, even in volunteer forces. In some cases, soldiers (even those who choose to enlist) are viewed as expendable. Especially by the bureaucracy.

Nations conscripted because they needed bodies and didn’t care about the quality. (I’m specifically not addressing nations that require some form of civil service, potentially including military service as an option, from their citizens, that’s a little different from what you’re talking about here.) It used to be there were real considerations behind it. That’s less true today, and conscripted shock troops have very limited applications today.

-Starke

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I Can’t Answer This (Hunting People for Sport)

This might seems strange, but how would I go with a story that takes place in an abandoned industrial complex, where a person uses their cash earned ‘in game’ to defend against their killer, who has their eyes set on taking them out for a sizable reward? Sorry for the bad explanation, kind of a bounty hunt type of scenario spanning over a week

I don’t mean to sound overly harsh, but there’s no real question here. This is a scenario, it’s your scenario. While I can pick at the details, you’re not asking for clarification on a specific point. “How would I write that?” I’d start with a lit review. Look at other material in the hunting people for sport subgenre. For a subgenre, there’s a surprising amount of that out there, ranging from books, to movies, and even games. It’s a very open setup, with a lot of potential elements.

I realize I have a habit of saying, “do a lit review,” without explaining what that is, and I also realize I’m actually misusing the term very slightly. So, a lit review is when you take a subject, and then research the existing scholarly research on the topic. I continue using the term, because that’s my background. It is still relevant advice. So let’s examine the process.

If you want to write something, research the other stories that fit into that genre, and look at what they’ve done. Take notes. (Seriously.) If you see something that you like, make a note of it, if you see something that you don’t, make a note of that as well. This doesn’t mean you need to read everything in the subgenre, sometimes simply skimming a synopsis is enough, though there is a value to reading the material directly.

The more you read, the more you’ll notice patterns. Things popping up repeatedly, and sometimes, you’ll see a writer who inadvertently demonstrates why those elements are important by omitting them. Sometimes you’ll see a writer illustrate ways around those elements. Sometimes you’ll see a writer who points out just how ridiculous some of those conventions always were.

Read stuff you like. Read stuff you don’t. Take notes. Review as much of the relevant literature as you can.

I know we’ve said, in the past, that we can’t write your fight scene for you, and that remains true. I don’t often point at Patreon (outside of the thank you at the end of each post), but if you really want someone in the community to help you focus your work, then you’ll want to get into the Discord server to workshop there.

Beyond that, there’s a few things I’m going to point out:

First: Industrial areas are surprisingly lethal on their own. There’s a lot of heavy machinery that needs to be handled very carefully because it can critically injure or kill you with little warning. When I was younger and working in a facility that will go unnamed, the employees were repeatedly reminded that the conveyer belts which ran throughout the building could seriously injure or kill you with very little warning if they were not treated with respect, and there were several stories of managers or workers who had suffered injuries from moments of missed attention.

Abandoned industrial parks are a thing, but they’re far rarer than you’d expect. There’s a lot of expensive hardware in there rusting away, and it doesn’t make sense to abandon that without a very good reason. Now, it’s possible someone sufficiently wealthy bought everything, sealed the area up, and converted into their personal murder playground, but this is a fantasy. Most of the time, when the property value drops far enough, people will buy the area. That will happen if the equipment within is worth more than the price on the building. Even if it was just a developer buying the place, selling the equipment, and converting the buildings into something else (like an office park, storage, or residences.)

Second: Game reward systems are a complex subject. What’s important to understand is, if you designing a game reward systems (such as paying out currency to participants) can be used to influence player behavior. However, if you’re talking about hunting people down for sport, you don’t need that kind of a reward mechanism.

The hunters will hunt because killing people is their reward. The survivors are trying to survive, because not dying is their reward. In a free-for-all battle royale (even if it’s team based), you’ll have a mix of these two impulses, but, again, the game itself offers its own reward. If you want to see next week, you need to survive.

You do see games without internal reward mechanisms fairly frequently. Chess is a good example of this; there are no positive reinforcements for performing well during a match. You’re either playing for the game itself, or you’re playing for the victory.

If the purpose of the battle royale is to coerce the participants into killing each other, then adding an additional reward mechanism beyond, “you get to live,” confuses the messaging.

If your game features dedicated hunters, who are so disaffected that they simply want to hunt people for sport, you’re not going to entice them with money; they already have that. You’re also not going to entice them with an, “even playing field,” because why would they give up their toys to participate? So, they roll in with whatever hardware they want, and start picking off the prey. It’s distinctly possible they’re even paying for the privilege. There’s also no incentive to give the prey anything to defend themselves with, it endangers the hunters, and remember, the hunters are the paying customers.

The difference with games (video and board) is that you do need to incentivize behavior. In a PvP bout, if a player decides they’ve had enough and simply want out, death is a viable option. You can use currency payouts to discourage that, but you cannot kill the player. When they’re making their assessment, they know they’ll live, and can get into another match later.

The problem with paying players based on PvP success is a, “rich get richer,” scenario. If you’re good at PvP, and you get rewarded, you’ve demonstrated that you do not need the benefit of those resources to win, but now you’re getting resources which will help you perform even better.

Now, it does depend on what those resources offer you, and depending on the game it’s entirely possible that those resources will not offer anything that significantly affects your performance. But, that’s not the case here. You have a character buying mid-match equipment from winning like it’s Counterstrike.

Without a more focused question, that’s about the extent of what I can offer at present. Also, remember, if you are a Patron, you can link your Discord account, and get access to that server.

-Starke

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Q&A: The Right Tools for Monster Hunting

Hi! What would be best weapons for a magical creature hunter (just like Supernatural hunters)?

I’m going to assume you’re talking about the TV series, Supernatural, though it is a little unclear. This means we’re dealing with a modern setting, though some of this will apply in any setting.

While it’s not particularly satisfying, there’s a pretty solid argument to be made for, “knowledge is the best weapon.” In most myth, folklore, and fantasy, monsters can’t be overpowered through brute force. At least, not the monsters people are worried about. Frequently monsters are cited with specific weaknesses, and also have well defined patterns of behavior. The harder it is to identify and exploit those weaknesses, the more dangerous the monster is.

Let’s look at the classic Eastern European vampire for a moment. These are not especially dangerous. You have the aversion to garlic, the inability to cross running water, the inability to enter a home uninvited. These are creatures with clear boundaries. Getting rid of them (once detected) is fairly safe and easy as well if you don’t mind a little exhumation.

Now, let’s look at the modern, “pop culture” version. This is derived heavily off of the Eastern European vampire. A lot of weaknesses have been lost. The fear of holy symbols, barrier against entry without invitation, aversion to garlic, inability to cross running water, and many other behavioral barriers are discarded as, “myth.” Leaving one of the only consistent weaknesses as sunlight (a weakness that isn’t universal in the classic versions.) Similarly, getting rid of them is easier, up to a point. You no longer need to enact a complex ritual to dispatch them, no decapitation, no stuffing the mouth with lemon, a simple stake through the heart will work (sometimes.) However, this also means the vampire hunter is more likely to be forced into combat with the creature. Related to that, suddenly there is (sometimes) a material weakness to silver, or a vulnerability to fire, which facilitates weighting combat in the vampire hunter’s favor. The result is a much more powerful and dangerous creature. One that is no longer bound to a specific place, is free to wander, and staying in your home at night is not a safe way to avoid its attention.

This should illustrate the issue with this question. What’s the best weapon to deal with a vampire? It really depends on the vampire. (And, I’m not even addressing the wide variety of vampire folklore from around the world.)

Then you expand to other monsters and the idea of a single, “best,” weapon becomes untenable. There is a lot of weird creatures in folklore, and getting a single weapon that would be the best, when dealing with vampires, werewolves, trolls, fairies, ghosts, and all the other weird creatures of the world, to say nothing of cryptids, is functionally impossible.

So while, “knowledge is the real weapon,” is cliche, it’s also kind of true in this case. Monster hunter is a job that covers a vast array of different creatures, each with their own rules and vulnerabilities. There’s a lot of potential material to be had in sorting what to use in a given situation. At the same time, universal weaknesses undermine that because it can degenerate into, “everything’s a nail,” territory.

I’ll, straight up admit, this is personal bias, but in my opinion the investigation into the monster, the process of eliminating possible creatures, and identifying potential weaknesses and strategies is the strongest part of a monster hunting narrative. If the audience knows, from the beginning, what the hunters tracking, the story can easily become rote. This is especially true when you’re dealing with monster hunters who only handle a single kind of supernatural creature.

In the same vein, as a writer, you have a lot more freedom to sketch out your monsters if your characters are painstakingly examining the aftermath of attacks, sifting through evidence, and generally investigating the monster’s activities before they go in for the kill.

What’s your best weapon? Your mind.

-Starke

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Q&A: Extreme Medical Experimentation and Torture

A big part of my story idea involves my characters, who are vampire and werewolves, being put through extensive torture through experiments and dissection, over and over again, but not enough to kill them. (I know there is media that has covered this, but it never seems to get deep into the experimentation of it all) I was wondering what research I should read or look for, and also if you have an opinion on what is to much, or going to far with the torture?

I don’t usually say, “this is a bad idea,” as my lead in. I think this is doable, but it is going to require a very delicate balancing act. If the experiments aren’t severe enough, then the entire scenario loses plausibility. On the other hand, if you go too far, you can completely turn off your audience. Extreme violence will cause the reader to disconnect from the work, and you’ve lost them.

We don’t talk about audience disconnect often, but this is a real concern for writers. It is incredibly easy to go too far with violence. (Not just in this specific context.) There are a lot of potential causes, including trying to include extreme elements for shock value. However, whether you’re going for shock value or not, you’ll want to gradually build up intensity throughout your story. If you ramp up too fast, the audience disconnects. This becomes a balancing act, as you need to increase the intensity at a pace which keeps your readers engaged, without driving them off.

So, when you say, “torture,” this is going to be a very difficult mark to hit. Realistically, an organization engaging in extreme medical experimentation on non-human, “monsters,” is going to be pretty horrifying on its own. If you whiff that, the organization loses credibility as villains.

There’s already plenty of history with humans doing borderline unspeakable things to one another under the guise of medical experimentation. I’m not going to dig into the history of crimes against humanity today. We’ve talked about in the past, and I don’t think this week really needs delving into that rabbit hole.

What is important is that this kind of torture for medical information already has a template in the real world. If your werewolves revert to human form on death, any meaningful anatomical analysis would need to be done through vivisection. Similarly, your vampires would need to be autopsied while still un-living, because, once dead, they’re just another corpse (assuming they don’t rapidly decay on death, in which case, we’re back to the same fundamental issue as with werewolves.)

There are a few major considerations that can help you significantly.

First: Your characters escape (or are rescued) before things get out of hand. We’ve said it before, but torture is about the threat of what comes next, not the actual damage being done. In the same sense, you can threaten much worse things but then interrupt the process without paying off those threats. Important to remember, just as anticipation is part of torture, those threats can be enough to cause the audience to disconnect if they’re too explicit. However, it is much more manageable to have a villain threatening to carve up your protagonist’s best friend, than to actually deliver on it.

There are a few problems here, if you’re wanting to torture them repeatedly, that will turn off the audience. The repetition doesn’t build tension, and once you’ve brought a character out the other side, doing so again doesn’t contribute to the story. However, each new session is another opportunity for the audience to get sick of what’s happening and walk away. This doesn’t mean the event is one and done, but you probably don’t want to depict multiple sessions unless there’s something significant about them.

Also, torturing them repeatedly won’t generate useful information, unless the methods change dramatically. For example, burning this week, poisons next, surgical examinations on Tuesdays at 5pm. There is an element where simply having a mundane schedule for this can be very disturbing through minimal effort. If you’re wanting to work with this you need to ask yourself what they’re trying to learn from each test. If this is for the purpose of developing a greater understanding of how these creatures operate, then reverse engineering the scientific method will go a long way towards establishing the monster hunters as a real, plausible threat.

As a quick aside, the scientific method is: 1 Form a hypothesis, 2 test the hypothesis, 3 evaluate results, 4 if the results are not consistent with the hypothesis, go to 1 and refine it. If you want this to work for your story, you need your monster hunters to be actively learning about the creatures they’re hunting.

Second: You don’t need to see this. Finding a character who has been butchered is going to be less traumatic (and will have less risk of disconnect), than depicting the act directly. This can also sell the threat of the organization very effectively. Placing scenes like this needs to be carefully considered if the victim is an established character. If the victim is anonymous (no one your characters know), the impact on the audience will be diminished. As I said a moment ago, this needs to be managed carefully, but, it can be a relief. If a character has been captured, and the other characters find a corpse, learning that it isn’t their friend (and isn’t someone the audience knows) will be a temporary relief for the audience, (though not so much for the characters.)

Third: Flipping the script can make these behaviors uncomfortably palatable. Specifically, stories from the perspective of the monster hunters can get away with some really horrific behavior directed at the monsters because, “they’re monsters.” If the story is told from the perspective of the humans hunting vampires, and they’re engaging in horrific experimentation to probe vampire limitations the audience will be more sympathetic. If you start humanizing your monsters, audience support for this will quickly break down. This can (potentially) be used to move audience sympathies from the humans to the monsters, though doing so will still require a delicate touch.

One piece of fiction that plays with this very deftly is the British TV series Ultraviolet. The human vampire hunters are somewhat sympathetic because they’re human, but their methods are just uncomfortable enough to keep things on edge. At the same time, the vampires are just human enough to keep the overall tone surprisingly balanced, while being monstrous enough that trusting them is a mistake. It also has my favorite performance from Idris Elba. It’s an excellent series, and does get into medical experimentation in a way you don’t often see in vampire fiction.

In the end you to balance three things. The audience’s tolerance for what they monster hunters are doing. If you ramp up too fast, you risk alienating your readers. Your monster hunters’ goals and methods. If their actions are a major focus of the story, you need to structure what they’re trying to learn. (At a disturbing level, it’s possible they know more about your characters’ physiologies than the vampires or werewolves.) Finally, you need to remember you’re dealing with some very complex, and difficult subject matter. There are legitimate reasons to tell this story, and there is a lot of potential ways to present it. However, this will be difficult, so prepare yourself for that.

-Starke

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Q&A: The Difficulties of Recording High-Speed Video

There have been a couple of posts about film cameras losing frames when really good martial artists do their awesome. Do you know if anyone has ever used one of those extreme high speed cameras to capture one of them, then slowed it down so that you could actually see everything? Not immediately finding anything, but your search!fu is probably better than mine on this subject…

phantomjedi1

The footage exists, you find some on YouTube with a little searching. Usually, what you’re looking for is going to be labeled as, “slow motion,” or something similar. Most of this stuff doesn’t get much above 300fps, but that is more than enough to track the motions, especially when it’s slowed down so that you have the time to really watch what’s happening.

The footage isn’t extremely common because high speed video is kind of a pain to record. This is a moment when I’ll have to admit, I have not spent a lot of time with digital photography, especially on the high-end of the spectrum, so it’s possible this is easier today than it was twenty years ago with film cameras. This is going to seem like a strange tangent, but bare with me.

Taking a photo is about balancing two resources, Light, and Time. Time is measured in fractions of a second, and light is measured and managed with the lens’s aperture. Undeveloped film is extremely sensitive to light, and the entire technology behind cameras was based around that.

To capture an image, film needs to be exposed to light for a very precise amount of time. If you don’t get enough light on the film, the result will be underexposed, and too dark. If you get too much light, the image will be overexposed and blown out.

As a quick aside, some minor exposure errors can be fixed during development of the photo. This is easier with black and white film as you can salvage B&W negatives that would have been completely wrecked if you were using color film.

Now, here’s a problem. When you’re out in the world, you can’t control how much light is present. If you’re in natural daylight, or on a city street, the light that’s there can’t be removed. You might be able to add more to a specific object, but you can’t (practically) make the entire street brighter. What you can do is change how much light the camera admits to the film, OR you can adjust how long the film is exposed. An SLR camera (which used to be the standard for analog photos) allows the user to adjust the exposure length. These will range from 1/32nd of a second up to a full second, with a “hold,” or, “bulb” option that will simply expose the film until you release the shutter control.

The advantage of a shorter exposure is that it will better capture movement. If you’re trying to take a photo of a bird in flight, or a car driving down the street, you want that short exposure time. If you attempt a longer exposure, and the subject moves during that time, the result will be a blur. The film recorded the object in multiple placed and none of those points resulted in a clear image. (Also, longer exposure times are more difficult to use freehand, because any camera shake will be recorded by the entire image.)

For example, if you wanted to take a photo of a parked car in dim light, the answer would be to keep your aperture fairly small (I’ll explain why in a moment), and have a long exposure. (Possible even up to the full second, depending on how much light is available.) If it was an especially long exposure, you’d probably want to mount the camera on a tripod to stabilize it.

So, I said time and light, and I’ve been explaining how you can extend the time, but I also said you can’t change the amount of light, which isn’t entirely true. You can’t change how much light is in the environment, but you can change how much light gets onto the film by adjusting the aperture.

A camera’s aperture is, literally, how much the shutter closes down while taking a photo. The smaller the aperture the less light is admitted through it onto the film. The wider the aperture, the more light hits the film. There’s a side effect, your aperture also affects depth of field.

Depth of field is the plane in front of the camera that is in sharp focus. With a very low F-stop (so, a very open shutter), you can take photos that will put one specific point of an object into focus, while letting the rest of the world dissolve into an indistinct blur around it. This also has the advantage of being a very short exposure time, because a lot of light will be hitting the film.

A high F-Stop (so a very tight shutter) will have a large depth of field. This is ideal if you wanted to take a photo of a street, and keep as much of it in focus as possible. The weakness is that these will result in much longer exposures.

Looking back at the car example, this is why, you probably want the entire car in focus, so depending on how much light, you’d want a higher F-Stop to get the car in focus, and because it’s not going to move, you can extend the exposure to compensate.

There is one last part that affects both of these; the film itself. Not all film is created equal. Film has an ISO rating, which correlates to how light sensitive it is. The problem is, high ISO film, which requires less light, results in grainy images. So, you’re trading the speed you can take the photo at for the quality of the resulting image.

(There’s also three different kinds of color film, Daylight, Tungsten, and Fluorescent, these are color balanced for use under those light sources, and using one under a different light source will color shift the image.)

The reason I’m going through all of this is because still photography and cinematography operate off the same principles, with one key difference. A video camera has a fixed exposure length that cannot be changed because the camera has to capture the next image on schedule.

So, it used to be when you wanted to get very high speed footage, you needed to do a couple things. In addition to a specialized camera that supported the higher feed rate for the film (and shorter exposure times), you also needed to absolutely bathe the environment in light, and you needed very light sensitive film which would produce less than ideal images.

So, the high speed camera is expensive, the film you’re burning through is expensive, and the light rig is also expensive. Meaning, this isn’t cheap. You might see this employed occasion in film or advertising, but in most cases, historically TV was shot and broadcast at 30 frames per second, and film was shot at 24 frames per second. You might record at a higher rate specifically to produce a slow motion effect, but there wasn’t any point to going above this because the images couldn’t display.

So, that’s the past. Where we are now, digital cameras have become the norm, and it is much cheaper to record high speed video today than it was twenty years ago. Most modern TVs can refresh at 60fps without issue (and some support much higher refresh rates, even if broadcasting hasn’t caught up to those standards.)

Depending on your digital camera, you may be able to adjust the ISO rating on the fly depending on the sensor’s capabilities. Once you have a digital camera, you’re good to go. Hardware that would have set you back more than $10k 20 years ago, can now be replicated for less then $300.

This is a long way to say that when Bruce Lee was appearing on TV, the technology either didn’t exist yet or was prohibitively expensive. Today, it’s not that difficult to get slow motion videos of martial artists demonstrating techniques at 300fps, slowed down to something you can examine in detail. If you ramp that video back up to normal speed (by dropping frames from the playback, rather than just having an absurdly high refresh rate on your monitor), you’ll have the same experience.

A YouTube channel called The Slow Mo Guys shot high speed video (1,000fps) of the Kukkiwon Taekwondo Demo Team in 2019. High speed video is their area of expertise, and the resulting video is the most professional I was able to find on short notice.

-Starke

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Q&A: Overpenetration

Suppose three people are standing in a line: A – B – C. A and B are about two meters apart. If person C shoots at B with a hunting rifle, is there a danger that the shot will pass through B and also hit A? I’m trying to construct a scene and wonder if I have to rearrange the way those three are standing. Thank you for your help!

Yes. There are some situations where a bullet might not fully penetrate, but, overpenetration is a thing.

Anytime you have a gunshot wound that creates an exit wound (which is most of the time), the bullet has passed through the victim and continued traveling. This means it can potentially hit someone else.

Hitting multiple people in a row is possible, with a few important caveats. It’s possible for the bullet to strike bone and deflect off in a new direction. Similarly, it’s possible for the bullet to strike bone and shatter, creating multiple exist wounds, any one of which could potentially strike others. It is possible for the bullet to strike bone (or another solid object), embedding in it and stopping it’s travel. (This can also break said bone.) It is possible, though extremely rare, for bone fragments to be ejected from the victim, causing further injuries down range.

From a safety perspective, expect overpenetration. There is a real risk of a round, especially a rifle round, passing through the intended target and striking someone (or something) behind them. As a result, shooters are advised to keep track of their background, (the area behind their target), when firing in an uncontrolled environment.

However, because of the risk of deflections, and bullet trajectories generally being somewhat difficult to fully predict in the moment, you cannot count on overpenetration doing what you want.

It’s also worth knowing that bullets do lose a lot of velocity when they’re punching through meat, so while overpenetration is a thing, it’s not especially likely that a single shot will just keep going through people. It’s possible the second victim wouldn’t have an exit wound (which can a very bad thing.)

So, yes, it could pass through the target, striking the person behind them. At very short ranges, with a high power rifle, that’s the likely outcome. At 2 meters, this can happen with most handguns, rifles or even shotguns (depending on the load.)

Overpenetration is real, and I’ve been dinged in the past for overstating it. However, from a safety perspective, standing behind the target is not a good idea. From a practical perspective, it’s less of a certainty, but given your scenario, it’s quite likely.

-Starke

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Q&A: Murder in Bulk

I’ve been reading through your assassin tag and I’m sure it’s circumstantial but what would be the time range for collecting the information they need to murder their target? Is it realistic for someone who’s been working 4-6 years to have accumulated a few hundred kills?

This is more of a world building question, because it hinges heavily on the organization your assassin is working for and the world they operate in.

In anything approaching the real world, probably not.

Okay, let’s run the math for a second. If you’ve killed three hundred people over four years, that’s going to roughly work out to a murder every four to five days. (If that’s spread over six years, it’s going to work out to be a murder every week.)

It’s probably feasible to have that volume of work, especially with contracts taking variable amounts of time to complete. However, that’s not the problem.

To put it mildly, murder is treated rather harshly by modern laws, meaning killing for hire is a fairly risky proposition. If you’re not being paid enough to take a vacation, you’re not being paid enough to kill people for a living.

Organized crime is a little different, and the overall volume can get that high. During the 1930s, it’s estimated that the New York Mafia carried out over a thousand assassinations. However, that wasn’t the work of a single individual. Which does raise a distinct possibility, an agency of assassins could potentially get into the range of a hundred hits a year, but it probably wouldn’t be an individual assassin.

Then there is Julio Santana, who has claimed to be the worlds most prolific hitman. He claims that he killed over five hundred people during his career, which spanned thirty-five years. (This works out to slightly over fourteen hits a year, which is extraordinarily high compared to other documented assassins.)

For a, “normal,” hitman, a kill per month is probably pushing it. The last thing an assassin needs is law enforcement realizing they’re active simply because the sheer volume got out of hand. More murders mean more evidence, and more risk of the police identifying a common pattern. On a long enough timescale, the probability of law enforcement putting everything together approaches 1.

I suspect there’s also a limiting factor with contract availability. Killing people is one of those professions where you really do need the customer to come to you. Just because your assassin could kill someone every week, that doesn’t mean they will have a contract every week. This brings their kills into further question when you consider that contracts wouldn’t be evenly distributed. I suppose it’s possible that a sufficiently infamous assassin could have a wait list, but fame is a very bad thing for an assassin. “Who killed this man?” “Maybe it was the world famous assassin sitting over there.”

(Actually, as a quick aside, fame is toxic for basically any profession that relies on being able to operate covertly. It doesn’t matter if you’re an assassin, a thief, a con artist, a spy, or even just an undercover cop, if you’re famous, that makes it effectively impossible to do your job.)

In fictional worlds, it is quite plausible, if the setting supports it. In some kind of fantasy or sci-fi dystopia, where an authoritarian state has sanctioned assassins, you could easily see a situation where an assassin has racked up a triple digit body count after a few years on the job. In that case they probably wouldn’t be doing their own research, instead taking what their organization handed them, and running with it. The staggering pace of kills would also be consistent with someone who’s simply taking assignments, and (relatively) poorly paid, because the work is legal and the risks are minimal.

A possibility that hews a little closer to reality would be a military sniper. Again, the body count is excessive, though there is historical precedence. Simo Häyhä was a Finnish sniper. During the Winter War (1939-40), he killed over 500 Soviet troops. This is even more impressive when you realize that the war only lasted 104 days. Häyhä is the record holder here, and racking up hundreds of kills in just a few years would still be fairly noteworthy. Very few snipers kill that many people, but it is possible.

One messier possibility would be an assassin who’s not particularly concerned with collateral damage, and uses explosives. A few well placed fertilizer bombs could easily get them into triple digits. Granted, this is more in line with a terrorist assassination, and not what you were thinking of, but it is one way you could see that many victims.

So, is it plausible for an assassin to be killing that frequently? Probably not, unless there are specific justifications. This doesn’t mean that it’s impossible, just extremely unlikely. Judging by what I’ve seen with ex-Mafia hitmen, forty to fifty is probably more in line a very busy assassin who’s been in the business for half a decade.

-Starke

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Q&A: The English Longbow

So say I had a female protag in a medieval setting (like game of thrones) and they’re handy with a long range bow. Is there any details I should consider?

Remember that she’s going to be ripped. Contrary to the popular image of archers in fantasy, drawing a bow is (basically) heavy lifting. When we’re talking about a longbow, you’re effectively having to pull the full weight of the draw. This means we’re talking about a character who can casually lift over 100 pounds with one arm.

I say, “casually,” because she’d need to be able to keep drawing the bow with minimal fatigue for hours. This is a character with incredible upper body strength.

Combat archers were not willowy, fragile, little things stuck behind enemy lines.

At least for English and Welsh longbowmen, this was a lifetime vocation. They’d start as children; the bows they’d learn to shoot with would scale as they grew. By the time they were adults, they were using bows that were functionally inoperable for archers who lacked that background.

Now, it’s possible her bow wouldn’t draw quite that hard. It might be shorter than an English Longbow, but you’re still talking about a character who is pulling at least 80 pounds with every shot.

Also, for range, on an English longbow, you’re looking at being able to punch through iron armor at over 300 yards. The kill range for steel armor would be shorter (though I’m not sure exactly how far out.) Also, the maximum range would vary based on the archer’s skill, so 300 isn’t a hard number.

The other major thing to remember (or at least look into) is historical context. This is frequently absent from fantasy, and results in a lot of technological anachronisms.

Game of Thrones is based on The War of the Roses, which occurred during the English Longbow’s final years. In fact, The War of the Roses is contemporary with the introduction of gunpowder weapons in Italy.

It’s worth remembering that, “medieval Europe,” involved over five hundred years of military technological development, and that it was never just a homogenous, “these are the weapons and armor we’ve always used.”

-Starke

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