Category Archives: Followups

The Mafia Gas Tax Skim

Didn’t the NY Mafia sort-of try this, I may have the details wrong but in the mid-late 70s they began operating “fake” gas stations. Something on the order of close to a billion dollars in unpaid taxes? Correct me please, it’s late and I’m too tired after work to be bothered googling

dumnhpy

You’re very close, and the details are pretty interesting. There have been multiple rounds of this, the one you’re talking about was the late 70s early 80s. It popped back up around the turn of the millennium, with Russian mobsters.

The issue wasn’t fake gas stations, it was fake gas distributors. These are the companies that sell gas to the stations themselves. At the time, they were responsible for collecting any sales taxes on the gasoline. So, a real station would buy gas from the distributor. The distributor would keep the 9 cents a gallon, to hand over to the IRS and any relevant state revenue services.

In the mid-70s, some people in the distribution industry realized that there was a potential loophole. If the distributor that collected the tax money no longer existed or was bankrupt by the time tax collectors came for their payout, there was no money to take.

There were (at least) four geographic areas where this scam started gaining traction, Southern California, Southern Florida, Houston, and New York City. I don’t have firm numbers on how long this continued undetected. By the late 70s, a couple of The Families had learned about this, and muscled their way in. At that point, the Mafia started skimming off the stolen tax money, so for roughly five years, the Mafia was getting one cent for every gallon of gas sold in the Tri-State area. (I’ve seen some conflicting numbers for how much money was taken, though estimates put this at a billion dollars over the life of the skim, though I’m unsure if that was the Mafia’s cut, or if that was the total skim.)

So, it wasn’t a Mafia plan, so much as the Mafia sniffed out corruption (which they are very adept at), and then inserted themselves into the processes. (It’s also worth noting that the operations in SoCal, Florida, and Texas never came under Mafia control. Those remained independent operations.)

It’s a little unclear whether Mafia involvement accelerated the skim’s discovery. There were already criminal investigations going back into the 70s, trying to figure out where the money was going. At the same time, the Mafia brought their signature degree of violence, and lack of subtly.

By the mid-to-late 80s, this was mostly exposed, and shut down. There were changes to make this kind of skimming operation more difficult. As mentioned earlier, it didn’t completely prevent this kind of skim, and there was a brief resurgence twenty years ago, again in the Tri-State area, but it failed to take hold and remain undetected.

It is an interesting footnote and worth digging up. As I mentioned, the Mafia had a real knack for sniffing out corruption or graft and then inserting themselves into the process.

-Starke

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Q&A: Critical Veracity

I apologize if this seems too blunt, but this is a blog about writing. I would have hoped to see you address criticism in a way that is less reactive and more open. Your last post in particular seems rather angry when I felt there were better ways to deal with the topic that invited understanding and education.

If it makes you feel better, I can assure you, I’m not angry. In fact, posting while angry is a bad idea, and something you should want to avoid.

The author of that torture question annoys me. She comes back a couple times a year, and more often than not we simply deep six her posts without comment. We’ve gotten pretty familiar with her writing, and can usually recognize it on sight. In particular, any asks where she tells us to direct our followers to her blog will not see publication.

It’s important to understand that, not all critique is valid. Not all opinions have merit. In this particular case, this is a very significant factor. As I’ve said, my degree is in political science. When you get into international politics and the use of coercive force, torture comes up a lot. In contrast, the ask author’s background did not prepare them to address torture.

I made an off-hand comment comparing them to an anti-vaxer, and that analogy is more solid than it initially appears. They are, literally, telling an expert that he’s wrong because they prefer their cherry picked, and intentionally misrepresented source.

They are an amateur telling an expert to sit down, shut up, and let them do the talking because they feel morally superior.

To which, I said, “no.”

Similarly, when someone accuses you of something you didn’t do, that critique is invalid. They’re not criticizing you, they’re inventing a version of you that they can attack. This is a dishonest debate tactic called a “straw man fallacy.” They cannot win in an actual argument, so they create an artificial, and untenable position, and attempt to force their opponent to defend it.

To be fair, they’re not very good at setting up straw man arguments. Most of their fabricated positions fail to appear legitimate if you have a functional memory. Several of them can leave you scratching your head going, “where did you get that idea?” More often than not, it leaves the impression that they have very poor reading comprehension, rather than that they’re intentionally dishonest.

For example, their accusation of, “you’re a torture apologist!” as a response to, “torture is evil.”

The expectation is that you won’t realize you’ve been maneuvered into defending a different argument, and won’t be able to evaluate the weaknesses of that new argument.

Except, they’re not that subtle, and as a result, their attempts to manipulate the discussion tend to be more baffling than effective.

Remember, there were a lot of accusations in that ask regarding behavior that never happened. That’s pretty solid tip off that the author is coming to the discussion with unclean hands. They didn’t want an open and honest discussion.

Their entire goal is to get us to shrink back into corner, and allow them to speak for us because we’d be too afraid to offend someone, or too busy pleading, “please don’t hit me anymore.” If you’ve spent any time reading our work, you can understand that their goal wasn’t realistic.

There’s merit in saying that there are better ways to address asks like that. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to believe the best in people. However, in this case, that ask was not what it appeared to be. If you wanted to say that I simply should have nuked the ask without comment, that’s valid. Michi almost did until I stopped her.

In an environment like Tumblr, you are under no obligation to give someone a platform to attack you through misrepresentation. If you get someone in your inbox who is accusing you of something you didn’t do, you can simply block them.

I chose to respond, because I felt there were meaningful comments to be made along the way. Not because I was upset.

Personally, I really enjoyed writing that post. In your defense, I don’t often go for the throat on this blog, so there’s no fault in being surprised by that response.

-Starke

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Followup: Runtime

The False Flag story involving a South African was from The Fourth Protocol by Fredrick Forsyth. They made a film of it with Michael Caine and Pierce Brosnan.

Thanks, I couldn’t remember. I think I’ve griped about this before, but there’s something really unfortunate about The Fourth Protocol‘s film.

It’s fairly common for multiple edits to exist of a given film. Usually we think about this in the context of theatrical and extended cuts. The former is the version seen in theaters, while the latter is a longer version saved for home video release.

Sometimes there’s dependencies between the director’s preferred version of the film and what the studio releases to theaters, resulting in a an eventual director’s cut. Ironically, these have become something of a marketing ploy to drive home video sales. The marketing idea is, “this is what the director intended for you to see,” even in films where the theatrical cut really was the director’s vision.

In rare cases, the theatrical and director’s cuts will be radically different films. Payback (1999) is one of the rare examples where we can see both versions of the film. The studio, at the direction of Mel Gibson, fired the director and reedited a crime film into a borderline comedy. DVD releases exist for both films, and director Brian Helgeland goes into detail in his commentary track. If you want to see how much editing and some reshoots can change a film, this is an amazing example.

Beyond that, there are also frequently multiple TV or broadcast cuts. These will trim the film so that it can broadcast with commercial interruptions and fit in a standard time slot. These is they have very strict time requirements. In the US, the film needs to be in increments of 45 minutes. (45m, 1h30m, 2h15m, 3h, ect), in the UK the magic number is 50 minutes. (So, 50m, 1h40m, 2h30m, 3h20m.) Once you add commercial breaks, these will lock down to full hour time slots. So, in the US, if you have a film that runs for 1h43m, and you want to put it on network TV, you need to cut thirteen minutes to fit into two, one hour timeslots.

There are extremely rare exceptions. In ’97, there was a (mostly) unedited airing of Schindler’s List (1993) on network TV. From what I remember, the only advertising were unique 15 minute commercial slots from Ford before and after the film. They may have also run one during an intermission.

Outside of that kind of exception, you can’t cut the ads. That’s how the networks make money. So, if it’s a choice between cutting parts of a film that are necessary for it to make sense, or cutting back on ad buys. The film is a secondary consideration.

In rare circumstances a film will run longer on TV than in theaters. Usually this is because the film is running close to moving up a bracket. So, if you have a film that’s got a run time of 1h28m, and you’ve got some random footage you can splice in, you might add two minutes of material to the film so can be sold to TV markets. One example of this was Heat (1995), where Michael Mann was offered the option to add 17m of material to bring it up to a four hour time slot. Mann declined, and the network cut 40m to take it down to a three hour slot.

Length is also a serious consideration for the theatrical runtime. The longer a film is, the fewer times a theater can show that film on a given screen in a single night. This is why theatrical run times over three hours are exceedingly rare. A theater needs have time to run the film, clean up the theater after a showing and prepare for the next showing. When films get above 3 hours, that starts to seriously cut into how many times a given film can be shown per screen, per night. Meaning, the less money the theater makes. You can see this in action if you look at the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings films. Fellowship and Two Towers are two minutes and one minute short of three hours long, respectively. Return of the King coming off the previous two blockbusters managed to sneak up to 3h21m, but by this point the theaters were comfortable with the idea that the film would be a reliable moneymaker for the 2003 holidays, and was worth losing screenings.

Lord of the Rings is also an example of how studios could break away from that requirement by having extended versions released on multi-disk sets after launch. Now, the specific example was a bit complex, because the three films were shot together, there was a three year release schedule to begin with, and the extended cut DVDs were a blatant marketing tactic to keep people paying attention to the films throughout the year.

So, what does all this have to do with The Fourth Protocol? I really want to be able to recommend the film. In my, entirely subjective, opinion, this is the best performance I’ve ever seen from Pierce Brosnan. He plays a better James Bond here than in the actual Bond films. (And, by that, I mean, more in keeping with the literary version of the character, rather than the cinematic version.) This is a film where he’s playing the villain, and delivers an excellent performance.

Michael Caine is great. That shouldn’t be a surprise, he is a fantastic actor, but he is in his element here as an aging intelligence officer who’s being pushed to irrelevance.

So, it’s a really good film. But, it’s impossible to see. Or, at least, it was the last time I went hunting for it.

The version of The Fourth Protocol available on DVD today is a seriously shortened cut. I watched a cable TV version back in the mid-90s, and there was a lot of material that was completely absent from the DVD version when I tried to introduce Michi to it a few years back.

I don’t know what happened. My original thought was that the version I saw on TV must have been extended for an extra hour. This is plausible, because the film’s official runtime is 1h59m, meaning it would need to split up over a third hour, with an extra 16m of footage for American TV. Except, I think the version I originally saw, on TV was close to the theatrical cut, while the version available on DVD is (for some reason) a TV cut. It edits out a lot of important plot points, and the entire film suffers for it. One specific example that comes mind was Matt Frewer’s character basically just disappearing without warning. In the 2012 DVD cut, he literally stumbles off screen drunk, and disappears from the film entirely. There is a lot of missing content, and it wouldn’t surprise me if that version of the film is missing 30 minutes of material. (I can’t find the disk to verify the run time, and Amazon insists it’s a complete cut, which is not the case.) Which sucks. It’s definitely a product of the mid-80s, but there was a lot to recommend the film. It’s just really unfortunate that there’s a garbage cut getting passed off as the theatrical version. Among the things that were cut, we lose a lot of interesting depth to Brosnan’s performance, and even Caine’s character gets reduced to more of a cliche.

In case it’s not apparent, this disappoints the hell out of me. A lot of times, this kind of thing happens because no one checks the data. A production company has, “a copy,” of a film or TV series they released, and then doesn’t check to see what the state of that is. This isn’t even situations where the originals were lost, it’s simply a substandard version got added to the pile as, “the official,” copy.

So, this doesn’t mean that original cut of The Fourth Protocol is gone forever. Just, the last time I went looking, I was very harshly disappointed. I would have chalked this up to a faulty memory. It wouldn’t have been the first time I misremembered the plot or individual scenes from a film I caught on TV once. However, when I went looking for it, I found I was not the only one who remembered a longer cut of the film.

If you can get the full cut, I do strongly recommend Protocol. It’s a better film than you’d expect. It’s certainly a product of late Cold War anxieties, but it is a solid film. Unfortunately, I’m not sure you can find an intact copy today.

-Starke

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Follow-up: Rey is Kinda a Problem

If you wanted to highlight a Mary Sue/Gary Stu style character on your blog, you could have chosen Luke instead, as his instant skill with lightsabers/the force is much less believable than Rey’s. The fact that you went after a rare sci fi female lead and echoed the voices of so many misogynist male fans is just disappointing to me. This is not what I’ve come to expect from this blog.

seekingidlewild

Luke is, actually, a pretty good counter example. His, “instant skill with a lightsaber,” consists of pointing it at his own face as soon as it is handed to him.

In A New Hope, the height of his demonstrated ability is to avoid lopping off his own limbs while trying to learn how to parry blasts from the remote. In the first film, Luke’s preferred weapon is an E11 Blaster Rifle. The first time we see him use his lightsaber in combat is a single swipe with it on Hoth in Empire Strikes Back. Luke doesn’t use his lightsaber in combat in the first film.

So, in ANH he gets limited training from Obi-Wan. This is enough for him to start learning Force Pull, though he clearly struggles with it. Having been, “learning on his own,” for three years, he still struggles with very basic Jedi powers, and this is as someone who has been told that The Force exists, and received some introductory training. He barely manages to pull the saber to him in time to save his own life from a wampa.

Rey has the ability to override a Sith Lord’s Force Pull. She has the ability to use Affect Mind, and she has lightsaber proficiency on par with, again, a Sith Lord.

So, back to Luke, he goes to Dagobah receives training from Yoda, a Jedi Master, and returns with a slightly stronger grasp of how to use The Force, and operate a lightsaber. Vader immediately hands him his ass.

The duel on Cloud City is a bit of a sham. It fits what I said about balancing your challenges against the strength of your heroes. Vader knows Luke is his son. He spent decades cleaning up the remains of the Jedi Order. He’s able to go toe-to-toe with Obi-Wan without issue. Luke has a couple weeks of training under his belt. The only reason he’s able to survive is because of two conflicting factors. The Emperor wants Luke alive, “as a prize,” and Vader is having conflicting ideas about killing his own son.

Jump ahead to Return of the Jedi, and we see that Luke learned force choke, and has learned affect mind by this point. However, the finale still runs into another duel against Vader that’s a sham. Again, the point isn’t about killing Luke. Vader doesn’t want to kill his own son, he wants to turn Luke to the dark side, turn on The Emperor together, and take control of The Empire. Luke doesn’t want to fight his father, he’s trying to turn him from the dark side. Palpatine wants Luke to kill Vader and take his place, but he’d be fairly happy so long as one of them takes a dirt nap.

Again, this is not about Luke being a godlike fighter, it’s about him working through his incredibly dysfunctional family issues.

Rey’s got none of that. Kylo is a psychopath who has no qualms about waxing his own father. He doesn’t care about her. He’s a weak, and whiny villain on his own merits, but he is still A Dark Lord of the Sith. He has completed force training. He’s gone toe to toe with with trained Jedi and somehow avoided dying. There is nothing to keep Kylo from killing Rey in the first film except her inexplicable use of active Force powers and specific Force related combat skills (like fighting with a lightsaber) at odds with every other screen canon protagonist.

Let me break this down:

Luke: minimal training, struggles against wildlife, captured by possessed teddy bears, loses his hand in domestic argument. Dude never has his shit together.

Anakin: significant training, holds his own against other Jedi and Sith, but can’t beat Sith without a tag team. Loses limbs during academic dispute.

Rey: no training, no prior knowledge of the Force, defeats Sith Lord on first outing.

Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, and Rey are the only characters in screen canon who can beat Sith Lords in single combat. I don’t know about you, but something is off with this list.

This is unfortunate because Daisy Ridley is actually really good. So is Adam Driver. There was a lot of excellent casting in those films, but they’re undermined by shoddy writing. There’s roughly two thirds of a decent film there, and then everything derails.

J.J. Abrams and George Lucas have something in common. They’re both extremely fond of emulating material they found elsewhere, repackaging and re-purposing it. This where you’ll find a lot of Kurosawa “homages,” in the original trilogy, and why The Force Awakens is almost a beat for beat retread of A New Hope. In the process, something got seriously scrambled.

The version of Luke that you’re thinking of, the egregious Mary Sue, doesn’t actually exist on screen. It’s pop culture gestalt, conflating the original trilogy into a jumbled clip show bereft of context. Parts, the duels with Vader lose their narrative context. Parts from Anakin in the prequels may get meshed in for good measure. (There is a legitimate argument that Anakin is a Mary Sue in The Phantom Menace, and the only reason I don’t want to delve into that topic is because it involves thinking about TPM for more time than is absolutely necessary.)

The worst part is, those misogynistic shitheads aren’t threatened by Rey. Rey doesn’t have the potency to hold their attention. They’re pissed with Captain Marvel. Carol Danvers drives them into a frenzy, because she is a very powerful character, and their only attack is to accuse her of being a Mary Sue.

The point we’re at now, a small cadre of fans who’ve gone off the deep end have no response to critique of Rey beyond crying about how it’s misogynistic. Which, doesn’t help your case.

You can do better. There are much better female leads in Science Fiction and Fantasy. Off the top of my head, Ellen Ripley (Alien, Aliens) and Sarah Conner (Terminator 2) set a much higher bar for female protagonists in science fiction who completely own their space. I already mentioned her, but Captain Marvel is easily another example from recent years. Moving beyond that you have characters like Aeryn Sun (Farscape), Ambassador Delenn (Babylon 5), and Captain Janeway (Star Trek: Voyager). And if one second you think Aeryn or Delenn aren’t leads, because they’re not getting top billing in ensemble shows, you really need to sit down and actually watch those.

If you want to see why old guard Star Wars fans are pissed with Rey, grab a copy of Heir to the Empire, and then realize that Disney erased all of that from existence to pave the way for Rey. We lost the version of Leia who became the leader of The New Republic. We lost Jaina Solo and Mara Jade. They destroyed all of that so J. J. Abrams could regurgitate a stale rendition of A New Hope without competition.

So, no. Fans who lost decades worth of characters they loved are going to be a little upset, especially when the replacement is breaking all the rules in a setting they adore and still can’t manage to make the stage. More importantly, if a female character needs to break the rules to appear powerful in their setting that’s not feminism or girl power.

This is an exceptional post, but perhaps consider that Rey raised herself on a desert planet? She probably learned to tap into the force to survive, even if she didn’t know exactly what she was doing. I wouldn’t call her a Mary Sue for that. Unless you’re going to call Luke a Gary Stu for being able to destroy the death star while flying an x-wing for the first time. If a character is believable if you switch the pronouns, the character isn’t the problem.

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The irony here is, there’s elements for both parts. We know from the three untrained Jedi we encounter in the films that force sensitivity manifests with heightened skills. Being force sensitive makes you unusually talented at the things you focus on. Of those three, Luke is the least egregious. If we were to ignore the active force powers and lightsaber proficiency, (and inexplicable piloting skills), Rey would be fine, unfortunately, we can’t.

With Rey, we do see that she has an unnatural aptitude for finding and maintaining scrap on Jakku. That she’s been able to survive as long as she has is a pretty good sign that she’s force sensitive, and that’s consistent with what we’ve seen before. That part is absolutely fine. The problem is the situations where her skill hasn’t been set up.

When we first meet Anakin in TPM, he’s already a supernaturally skilled podracer pilot. I’d like to be able to purge the entirety of the podracers from my memory, but we’re all here together now, and I’m pretty sure Sartre only said what he did about hell because he didn’t know that TPM would exist one day.

All these years later, I still have issues with Anakin piloting a fighter for TPM‘s finale, but, I’d be lying if I said the vast majority of that film isn’t a massive, painful blur for me.

What we see from Luke is reasonable. We’re told he wants to be a pilot, and it’s something that he’s been training for. His initial goal is to leave Tatooine, and enroll at The Imperial Academy. He claims he’s “not such a bad pilot.” We’re later told that he’s been practicing precision shooting at high speed using a sub-orbital fighter. (It was later stated in background material that the T-16’s controls and handling were similar to the X-Wing, though I suspect Lucas was thinking of piloting as a kind of universal skill, and the connection between the T-16 and X-Wing were retrofitted on later.) We see Obi-Wan teaching him to use the force in a way that specifically sets up the trench run. The biggest offender here is, simply, that there’s a lot of telling rather than showing. When you dig into earlier drafts of the script, there were scenes outlined that couldn’t be shot in ’76/’77, so the resulting development was dumped back into exposition. As a writing decision, this is something you’d want to avoid, but when we’re talking about a film, shooting considerations may require less optimal solutions.

Switching the pronouns doesn’t fix anything. There are plenty of male Mary Sues, just like there are plenty of powerful female characters who are not Sues. A female version of Luke wouldn’t be a Mary Sue; a male version of Rey would still be one.

I don’t fault Rey for having an intuitive grasp of The Force. I fault her for having fully developed Force powers, and lightsaber proficiency, without training.

But…Rey does do force training? What the fuck? This is a strange post

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With whom? Han may believe in the existence of The Force, but he’s no Jedi. He can’t teach her how to use the force. She has no one to train with in The Force Awakens. You’re thinking of the second movie, That Which Shall Not Be Named, the rough draft from Rian Johnson where she gets her training with Luke. She fights Kylo in the first film completely unaided. This is where her Mary Sue rep comes from and why she never shakes it.

What she does is spontaneously manifest Force abilities. By that point, we had six films that hammered home the idea this not how you gain force powers. If that was the case, Vader’s crusade to exterminate the Jedi Order would have been fundamentally impossible, as the Order would be reinforced by spontaneous Jedi popping up. This retroactively makes all of Palpatine’s plotting from The Phantom Menace to Return of the Jedi both pointless and incomprehensibly stupid. Makes you wonder why the Jedi need to recruit kids young if Jedi just pop up fully formed like daisies.

This is before we look at the lightsaber. That is an incredibly difficult, and dangerous to use, a weapon, which Rey has no problem operating, in spite of having no formal combat training of any kind. Much less fighting on an even keel with a trained Sith Lord who has been handling one for most of his life.

This is like a character who hears about the existence of martial arts, and then instantly gains advanced combat proficiency… by shadow boxing for a few minutes. Yeah, that’s a Mary Sue. (And, the comparison of Jedi training to martial arts comes Lucas himself.)

My point is: Rey is not the representation you’re looking for. There are a lot of fantastic, well-rounded, and well-acted female characters with a wide variety of personalities and outlooks in the science fiction genre if you’re willing to look for them. Daisy Ridley does her best, but she can’t save Rey. That’s unfortunate, but crying misogyny or trying to rewrite the films doesn’t help your argument stand up to scrutiny.

-Starke & Michi

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Followup: Practical History

Thank you for breaking down the types of martial art schools. My brother and I attended the same school, but our focus made us take different classes with different instructors. I was being bullied and hit every day, so I took a lot of sel-defense and practical applications classes. I still learned katas, but they were secondary to my goal. My brother learned how to do beautiful katas, but he hated getting in a ring. Outlook and preparedness is everything, and something people overlook.

You’re illustrating something that I accidentally skimmed over; almost any martial art can be taught with a practical outlook. This isn’t just things like Muay Thai, where the application is obvious, it includes martial arts you wouldn’t expect, like Tai-Chi.

The key here is having an instructor who can teach you to apply what you’re learning in a real world context.

Karate is an easy example to dogpile on. Almost all practitioners you’ll find today will be recreational ones. You will find a great many who can’t apply what they know outside of the Dojo. Except, Karate wasn’t developed for self-defense, it was developed for guerrilla warfare.

Karate is not a Japanese martial art, it’s Okinawan. It’s easy to conflate these now, but this becomes a very important distinction when you look at Karate’s history. Okinawa was formally annexed by Japan in the Nineteenth Century, and the original Japanese invasion and vassalization of Okinawa dates back to the early Seventeenth Century. (I’m skimming over a lot of the history; if you’re interested, you should read up on this.)

Because of this, the Japanese were seen as an occupying force, and Karate was specifically adapted to kill Samurai. (Okay, I’m being a little reductive here, Karate technically dates back to the Ryukyu Kingdom, though, much of what we have today is a result of these adaptations.)

The modern incarnation, dating back to the Japanese vassalization of Okinawa, is designed to interdict and preempt entire segments of a Samurai’s combat training. Not all of this will be relevant today, and I wouldn’t recommend a low strike to prevent your opponent from cross-drawing a gun, but it will directly block an Iaido practitioner’s draw. (Note: I’m extending the definition of, “modern Karate” further back than normal. “Modern Karate,” usually starts with the founding of Shotokan in the mid-twentieth century,)

When we’re talking self-defense, Karate’s probably not going to be the right tool for the job, But, this is a martial art that was originally developed to kill people, and some of that can still be applied to interrupt and disable an assailant. The underlying combat philosophy of preventing your opponent from attacking with preemptive strikes has real applications. If you can understand how to bring this stuff into the real world, it’s viable. However, because it requires staying ahead of your opponent, you really need to know what you’re doing. That’s the weakness, this was designed to deal with foes who would act in very predictable patterns. If you don’t know what your opponent will do before they act, the value suffers.

That’s an example I’m personally familiar with, however, there are a lot stories like this, where a martial art started out as a method to kill or incapacitate your foes, and has gradually transitioned into something else. Again, if this stuff interests you, read up on it. Some martial arts have fascinating histories.

-Starke

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Followup: Recreational Martial Arts is not Combat Training

Starke, as a recreational practitioner whose teacher is ex-police (and another who’s ex-Spec Ops), it may be worth noting that while military does put a premium on martial (in combat roles at least), MANY cops do only the bare minimum hand-to-hand & weapons training, and depending on jurisdiction that minimum can be a VERY low bar. I know plenty of ppl who only practice recreationally but could absolutely kick a beat cop’s ass 1-on-1

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So, if your instructor is ex-police, or a former special forces operator, that’s not a recreational martial artist. They may be teaching recreational martial arts, but their own background started with the idea that they’d be using their training on someone else.

I’ll say this again, in case it’s unclear: Someone who spent eight years in The Corps, mustered out, returned to civilian life, and practices Shotokan in the park once a week, is not a recreational martial artist.

It wouldn’t surprise me to learn there are lazy cops out there. In fact, thinking back to what a friend of mine went through trying to find a missing police cruiser, I know full well there are lazy cops.

Could a cop get away with blowing off their training? Yeah. If their superiors don’t care, and let things slide, it’s certainly possible. Here’s the problem with this thought process: Hand-to-hand training isn’t a luxury for a LEO, it is a vital survival skill. A cop who is lazy enough to blow that off makes me worry. Not for their safety, but, that they feel safe without it.

Police have more options than just hand-to-hand. They have tazers, they have firearms, and most importantly, they have more cops at the push of a button. If your goal is to pick a lazy cop from the crowd, you’re going to take a bullet. You don’t want lazy cops, you want responsible ones who take this seriously, because they are less likely to resort to “easier” solutions to their problems.

Recreational martial arts does not prepare you for combat. Full stop. A lot of recreational martial artists think that it does. It’s a lie they tell themselves. It’s a lie that most competent martial arts instructors will try to dispel. The real tragedy is that the world is littered with the corpses of martial artists who thought, “I’ve been training for this, I can take that guy,” and paid for that thought with their life. A fact that any responsible cop would have drilled into your head.

Want to know how to quickly identify a martial artist who cannot take a cop in a fight? It’s the guy who says, “I could beat that cop’s ass.” They haven’t thought it through. They don’t understand how to operate in a real fight. They’re still looking at it like it’s some kind of Hollywood showdown. They don’t understand that this is not a duel. They’re thinking about fighting the cop like it’s a test of skill, where the worst thing that can happen is you get some bruises, a chipped tooth, and a night in lockup.

The guy the cop should worry about is the person who looks at them, sees them as a problem that needs to be removed, and looks for a way to achieve that goal. That is not a recreational martial artist. It doesn’t matter if their hand to hand background is recreational, because their methods won’t be.

Here’s your problem: In the moment you attack, the cop can’t tell these two apart. They don’t know you’re expecting to engage in an honorable, pugilistic duel. They just know you’re trying to kill them, you suck at it, and you need to be dealt with immediately.

If your training was gearing you towards practical applications of force, that ex-operator of yours would tell you that there’s no upside to letting the other guy fight back. You ex-cop instructor would be telling you that, “what you’re doing right now won’t help you in a fight.”

If you do get into self-defense, the priorities will be on creating an exit and getting out before you get seriously hurt. There is no benefit to continuing a fight. The is no legitimate reason to let a fight go on for a moment longer than necessary. In the real world, fights are dangerous, and the longer you stay in them, the more dangerous they become.

Every martial arts instructor I’ve had has been a cop. When I say this, “I could take them in a fight,” attitude sets me on edge, because this gets people killed. Not cops. Recreational martial artists who thought that good in the dojo meant good on the street.

I know this guy. He’s a fourth degree black belt in Taekwondo, has at least a year’s worth of Ninjitsu under his belt. Dude goes to college, signs up for boxing. He’s a fourth degree black belt, in his mind, he’s that damn good. According to one of the judges, his technique was beautiful. First round smeared by a USN cadet. Thing is, it’s boxing, the rules are set. He lived. By normal logic, he should have triumphed. Dude’s been practicing martial arts since before he could read. Recreational doesn’t prepare you for a fight, in the ring or out, no matter how bad ass you feel. It’s a different mindset. Dude came to kick someone’s ass, the cadet came to neutralize a problem.

I meant what I said, a recreational martial artist will be at a significant disadvantage when they go up against someone with a practical background. The recreational martial artist wants to win a fight, that impulse will get you killed. If this is new information, you might want to take a long look at your instructors.

-Starke

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Pain, Pain, and a German Existentialist

I mostly agree. Here’s the part I think needs to be emphasized, pain from working out is different from injury pain. My pain however is not making me stronger. My lupus makes things hurt for no reason while my body is trying to destroy itself. I have a limit to how strong I can be and that limit goes down as time goes on and there’s nothing I can do about that. I love the pain from working out, it makes me feel good. The pain from my intestines not working? Not so much.

So as much as I agree with most of your response, I also agree with the person asking. It romanticizes pain and I hate it. It is the absolute worse thing to say when I feel like my bones are breaking every other night. You can recover from a broken leg. You can’t recover from lupus

silverwhisperer1

There’s two things here, first pain, and second is Friedrich Nietzsche.

Usually we say there’s to kinds of pain: Discomfort, and actual pain, the kind of pain that tells you something’s gone seriously wrong. However, you’re illustrating a third kind; chronic pain.

Discomfort is the kind of pain you should, probably, learn to push through. It’s your body saying, “something’s wrong,” But, it’s not being honest with you. There are valid reasons for it to do this. It’s trying to stop you from engaging in behavior that endangers you. However, it is an artificial barrier. I dislike calling this, “pain,” because it’s not. Your body is telling you, “this hurts,” but it’s not really pain. However, that’s the term that people understand, and it’s where we get meat-headed axioms like, “no pain, no gain.”

Actual pain is not something that should be ignored. If you’ve been injured, “rub some dirt in it and push on,” is not valid advice. Ignoring actual injuries can aggravate them, and can cause further harm. Sometimes you may find yourself in situations where you must push on; where the risk of increased injury is the least dangerous option. However, leaving wounds untreated, or trying to, “walk it off,” is rarely a viable option.

Learning to differentiate between these two experiences is important. Especially if you’re engaging in strenuous, physical activity. This is the line between discomfort, which you may want to ignore, and pain that you should not ignore.

Chronic pain is an entirely separate beast. It is a sign that something has gone seriously wrong, but there’s nothing you can do to stop it. It’s simply there. It’s also corrosive over time. It is difficult for people who’ve never experienced chronic pain to understand how it wears on you over time. There is nothing to do about chronic pain except endure it. It sucks.

There’s nothing romantic about pain. A lot of the romanticism seems to stem from discomfort, and people who don’t understand that discomfort is distinct from pain. I also blame the English language for conflating both together as, simply, “pain.” The reality is that sometimes, “it hurts,” is not the same as, “it hurts.”

Conflating things brings us around to the Nietzsche axiom that started all of this. “Was mich nicht umbringt macht mich stärker.” Generally, the accepted English translation is, “that which does not kill me makes me stronger.” Nietzche wasn’t writing a universal truth about human nature. This isn’t Descartes trying to prove the existence of God by running out of things he can be suspicious of. This is a declaration.

Facing adversity requires strength. Sometimes, that strength is physical, but far more often it’s not. Facing challenges requires a strength of spirit. It requires a force of will. It requires you to look within and find the power to say, “not today, motherfucker.”

This may sound hollow, but I commend you. As you said, there is no cure for Lupus. Your body is, quite literally, tearing itself apart. And based on your comments, you have refused to let that break you. That is strength. That is the kind of strength that Nietzsche was describing. It doesn’t mean that every day will be a good one. It doesn’t mean that you’re somehow immune to pain. Pulling yourself through hell doesn’t grant you superpowers. This is, in no way, a fair trade. However, you are still here. You are still alive.

You’re living, day to day, with a serious medical condition, which will be there for the rest of your life. You’ve done that without letting it destroy who you are. Which leads me to believe, you are far stronger than you give yourself credit for.

-Starke

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Q&A: Platform

Fanfiction is good for creativity and can lead to great works. Which is good, I believe it (I’ve seen it). But how did 50 Shades get published?

angel-starbeam

In the specific case of E. L. James, she got there because of the enormous traffic that Fifty Shades of Grey generated over the years. Both as a Twilight fanfiction, and later after it was rewritten and published as e-books and in PoD variants. It spent roughly a year in that format before a publisher looked at the sales numbers and picked up the license for the trilogy. (For what it’s worth, I don’t know whether E. L. James approached Vintage Books, or if Vintage pursued the license based on buzz and PoD sales.)

So, how did this happen? A couple of things worked together. The original fan fiction was very popular. Popular enough to get readers to migrate onto a private site to read it. That’s a big deal. It’s relatively easy to cultivate a following on a social media site, but most people won’t jump to a separate site (even if they’re following a link.)

Fifty Shades hit a market niche that wasn’t being served. For our purposes now, it’s enough to understand that E. L. James’s specific take offered something that was absent in the mainstream romance genre. It is also important to understand that the romance genre is incredibly popular; so while Fifty Shades isn’t to my taste or (apparently) yours, a lot of people were willing to pay for it.

The short version is that Fifty Shades is a little bit of an anomaly. However, not as much as you might think.

The traditional publishing model was: You’d write your book, take it to agents, find one who’d shop it around to publishers and get it in print. With the growth of the internet, it’s become increasingly common to see new authors publishing their first works on their website. Authors such as David Wong and Dmitry Glukhovsky took similar approaches, publishing (what would become) their first novels online, with print releases coming much later, after their success was demonstrated.

One way to tilt the original model in your favor is by being able to show agents and publishers that there’s already a market for your work. If you can approach an agent and say, “I’m popular over here, and it will lead to sales,” it will make you more attractive. (If you’ve ever wondered how people like William Shatner or Snooki got published, here’s your answer.) This is a new way to demonstrate that. If fifty-thousand people will read your novel online, that tells an agent that there is a market for your work.

Self-publishing to your website isn’t a sure thing. Using the example of David Wong above, he was able to accrue around 70k unique hits during the time that John Dies at the End was on his website. That wasn’t enough to immediately convince publishers that the book was worth their time. (I can’t find full citations for those numbers at the moment, so treat the statistics with a grain of salt.)

Platform building can be a very important part of selling your book. Being able to say, “these are my fans,” can go a long way towards convincing an agent, or publisher, to take you seriously. The shape your platform takes is less important than the people on it. This can include fanfiction. A good example of that is Cassandra Clare, who got her start writing Harry Potter fanfics. She built her platform off that, and was able to bring in numbers that, when she was ready to jump over to original content, got the attention of publishers.

I’m focusing on the success stories here because we started with a discussion about E. L. James. For most people, the traditional model offers you best odds. An experienced literary agent is better equipped to advocate for your interests when negotiating with a publisher. A publisher who stands behind your work is better able to promote and distribute your novel.

E. L. James succeeded without that support, which is an extraordinary feat. Whatever your feelings on Fifty Shades, it was already success before it got in the door.

-Starke

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Q&A: Throwing Knives Versus Throwing Knives, and Other Projectile Weapons

Anonymous said to howtofightwrite: First of all, your explanation upon the dagger vs. sword battle is TRULY HELPFUL in my writing as I have no idea what to do about that kind of situation when one of my characters is in that scene. However, as you have stated, one shouldnt just carry a single dagger or a sword or a bow, and you must carry at least a bunch of weapons— So, what about someone who carries a handful of knives and is skilled in throwing them against someone with a sword? No matter the distance?

Are we talking about throwing knives or actually throwing knives, because one of those is a specific weapon type designed for projectile throwing and the other one is someone who likes to give their knives away. As a great Marine once said, “when you’ve thrown your knife, you’ve given your opponent your knife.”

Distance always matters. The type of projectile you have, its weight, is relative to understanding it’s effective range. I know you brought up throwing knives to get away from the range discussion, but, you know, different projectile weapons have effective ranges too. This is a question of force and momentum versus inertia and wind resistance. The weapon needs enough force behind it to not only reach its target but also impact at high velocity, otherwise it doesn’t do much.

A thrown weapon has a shorter effective range than a bow or a crossbow. The throwing knife has the additional problem of being much lighter than other throwing weapons like the throwing axe and the javelin, meaning it can’t travel as far. They’d still have to be decently close to the sword guy for their knives to maintain effect. A standard knife is even less aerodynamic than a throwing knife, meaning you need to be even closer. That’s not the only issue with throwing a knife though.

The combat problem with throwing knives as a weapon is they fit a specific niche and are, basically, trick weapons. They can be dangerous but only under specific circumstances. You can use them against someone who is unarmored, but you’ll just annoy an armored opponent. This will include the city guards, local knights, and anyone with a dense wool coat. If padded armor can stop an arrow, a throwing knife has no chance in hell. They’re among the weakest of the projectiles, both in speed and force. A swordsman who has experience dealing with projectiles could parry them without much cost. For reference, they lose out to the throwing axe and the javelin.

Throwing axes can be parried in flight, but due to the weapon’s weight combined with its momentum it has a higher cost to stop. Martial combat is all about physics, which is a discussion about weight, inertia, momentum. Even when you successfully block, parry, or clash with an opponent, you take a portion of that force into your body. This is to say, vibration. A little like what you feel after hitting a large metal bell with a hammer. So, “ouch!”

In case of the javelin, the Northern Germanic Tribes used to catch those in flight and throw them back at the Romans. They played a game as children where they would throw sticks back and forth, and that translated into catching and throwing Roman javelins. Turned out to be an ugly surprise for the Romans.

You’ll run into a similar problem with knives, especially if you’re just throwing regular knives. Knife throwing is a common parlor trick. The further back into history we go, the more common it becomes. People used to (and still do) play knife throwing games similar to darts. Bored soldiers and sailors liked to throw their knives at things. The knife is a small weapon, doubling as a utilitarian tool, and less vital than some others so soldiers would play with them. They shouldn’t, but they did. Modern soldiers still do. So, the chance your character would run into people completely unfamiliar with knives and the throwing of knives is unlikely. Given how weak the knife is as a projectile (especially one not designed for throwing), the worst thing that can happen isn’t that another character catches the knife and throws it back, but they take the knife and keep it. Now, your main character is down a knife and that knife may be used against them next. Besides, knives aren’t exactly cheap to replace. This is doubly true when talking about specialized projectiles that aren’t regularly requested from the local blacksmith.

They’re going to need money to support their hobby. Throwing knives aren’t like arrows which can be produced easily, cheaply, and are more in demand. You’re more likely to find a local fletcher who can make good arrows than a blacksmith who’ll reproduce a carefully crafted throwing knife from a set of throwing knives. The less common the gear, the harder it is to replace.

Crossbows and bows have the reputations they do for a reason, they were warfare mainstays. The longbow, in particular, served as the artillery of their day. Eventually, generals replaced bowmen in the back lines with cannons. I understand the resistance to utilizing the bows or crossbows, especially if culturally stereotyped Archer doesn’t fit the archetype you have in mind for your character. However, it’s worth remembering that there’s often a vast gap between media and real life. In fiction, dangers presented by archery is often downplayed. The upper body strength question is also usually ignored. Bows are given to lithe, skinny people like Legolas (who is an elf and supernaturally strong), our cultural ideal of Robin Hood, or female characters like Katniss. In a lot of fiction, the bow (even more than the crossbow) is treated like the equivalent of a gun. Which, no. The bow isn’t at all like a gun.

For one thing, the bow requires a lot of conditioning for upper body strength. Different bows have different draw weights, so you should always investigate the type of historical bow you envision a character using. Unlike swords and other melee weapons, the draw happens in the shoulders with the most strain placed on a single arm. With medieval longbows, you’d be looking at a draw weight between 90 to 160 pounds. They require a lot of upper body strength in the shoulders to draw and wield effectively. They also require a lot of care on the part of the archer to maintain combat readiness. The English and Welsh archers of their day could draw and fire roughly eight to ten arrows per minute. The crossbow was slower with one to two bolts per minute. Modern bows, comparatively, you’re looking at 30 to 60 pound draw weight. A lot of advancements in technology make the drawing easier while applying greater force.

The strength of the bow is you can fire a single shaft, carrying a lot of force that impacts on a single point. The end result for the weapon’s effectiveness is the amazing power of physics. The bow still sees occasional use in modern warfare today because, unlike a gun, it’s a truly silent killer.

Despite what anime and some fantasy narratives will tell you, bolts and arrows cannot be parried by a sword mid flight. They are too fast and have too much force behind them, especially arrows. Arrows and bolts, depending on type, can go through armor. It isn’t guaranteed, but they can. Arrows and bolts never completely invalidated armor, including plate armor, the way firearms eventually did. Bolts from crossbows have a shorter effective range from arrows. While crossbows fired more slowly, but they were easier to use.

Both Lindybeige and Scholagladiotoria have some great videos about arrow ballistics, bows (longbows specifically), and (English) warbows. Which I recommend watching, if you’re interested in historical archery either for writing or just in general. I really recommend watching the Lindybeige video for an in depth discussion on the additional gear your archer would wear to avoid the injuries they might get, along with proper posture, and Hollywood cliches.

You might assume, due to common assumptions that body types are static rather than changeable, if you weren’t born with the ability to easily build muscle in your upper body (like a man, unlike women who build muscle more easily in their legs) or aren’t a big, brawny sort of person that you can’t wield a weapon that requires a lot of strength.

This is wrong.

Very few people have all the correct muscles preconditioned for success and seamlessly learn to perform any sort of martial arts without effort. Training is what you need, specifically conditioning, to build specific muscles you’ll be regularly using. Outside your bone structure, which isn’t as malleable, athletics change your body. In fact, some health and fitness gurus have developed programs and exercise regimens which will help you achieve a specific type of body rather than just the healthiest version of you. Fiction will tell you that the type of body have will decide what sort of heroic profession or martial type you’re best suited for. That’s crap, straight up.

Some women and men might face more difficulty learning to use a bow in the beginning, or take longer to build up muscle for bows with heavier draw weights, but a slow start never negates a strong finish.

What separates the skilled from the unskilled is enthusiasm, being unwilling to give up in the face of difficulty or challenge, and lost, and lots, and lots of practice. They might have natural talent, but skill is the product of hard work. Conditioning is the part of your training which builds up your wind, your muscles, and your flexibility. These are your runs up with the hill, your wind sprints, your jumping jacks, your push ups, your pull ups, and other exercises.

I do recommend watching Lindybeige’s Three General Principles of Combat as he does a good job of going over the basic principles. Though, one thing he neglects to mention when discussing ideal ranges is that the size differences between two children are actually greater than the size differences between adults. So, it is much easier to get to your ideal range in a fist fight. Hand to hand ideal ranges are defined less by size, and more by the type of discipline you practice.

Different martial arts have their ideal ranges for where specific techniques are most effective, translating loosely to kicks, fisticuffs, standing grappling, and ground fighting. While most martial disciplines cover all four, they often specialize in only one or two. A Taekwondo specialist will prefer to start further away from their opponent so they can make good use of their legs versus a boxer or a wrestler who’d rather be up close. There are outliers like Muay Thai, where the kicks and stances have been adjusted to be effective in the hand range, but we’re discussing general principles.

That said, however, there are historical examples of individuals unscrewing the pommels of their swords and chucking them at their opponents to win duels at tournaments.

So, you know, anything’s possible.

(If you’re questioning the validity of pommel throwing, understand they did it as a method of distraction rather than immediate victory. It’s a specialized dueling tactic where you’re technically not cheating by bringing a second weapon, but you’re cheating. Throw pommel. Distract opponent. Gain the initiative. Hit first. Win.)

-Michi

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Q&A: More Bronze

I saw that recent ask about materials and it made me wonder… how much of a difference does the material of equipment make? Bronze versus steel, for example. Would having better materials convey any measurable advantage in a fight?

It’s significant.

There are a couple big things that happen when you’re switching materials, and jumping from bronze to steel is probably the best way to illustrate them.

First: Steel will hold an edge. You can sharpen bronze. Hell, you can sharpen silver, and some do still use silver cutlery. However, when you sharpen steel, that edge will stay much longer.

Second: Steel allows for much more mechanically demanding designs. The big thing here is armor, but this is also true with weapons as well. (Even if this isn’t what you’re thinking of when someone calls a weapon, “mechanically demanding.”)

Creating a structurally stable blade out of bronze is limited to a fairly short blade. I forget the exact length, but it’s somewhere around 24-36 inches. In modern terms, this is a shortsword. While the Celts tried to make bronze swords much longer, the result was not ideal, and the weapons would, “collapse.” in combat. A lot of this comes down to, bronze is a much softer metal. In contrast, early modern steel swords, like the Zweihander could exceed seven feet.

We’ve talked about combat range before, and how having a longer melee weapon is a significant advantage. In comparing bronze blades to steel ones, we have a return to the daggers vs longswords scenario. Someone with a bronze weapon can’t get close enough to stab someone defending themselves with a steel blade.

There is a major element here I’m skimming over. The predominant infantry weapon of the bronze age was the spear. So this isn’t quite as one sided as it looks. But, the advantage still stays with steel, as the sheer variety of polearms would explode with evolving smithing techniques.

Armor is a, mostly similar story. Bronze armor cannot replicate the mechanical complexity of articulated steel plate, and then take it into combat. Bronze being softer, the armor will wear and deform faster, and suddenly those articulated joints will jam. I’m making an assumption here, but I suspect the sophistication of armor designs advanced in step with the advancement of armor materials. This was true with weapons, and just looking at what you can do with bronze vs with steel, you can’t engineer that down to lower quality materials in most cases.

So, the end result is, you can make significantly better weapons and armor out of steel. Even when you’re replicating bronze weapons in steel, the result will be a more durable and effective.

The bronze to steel thing is a bit of an extreme example. You can see this more granularity when you’re looking armor and weapon advancement as the quality of the steel alloys improved.

To be clear, would a copper or bronze weapon BREAK from a single strike of a steel weapon? Or would the copper and bronze weapons/armor just need to be replaced more often than steel ones?

Probably not in a single strike, but there’s a few things I should address here:

First: You never want to parry blade to blade. Doesn’t matter what your weapons are, you’re going to risk damaging, or breaking, your own weapon.

Similarly, you don’t just hack away at someone’s armor; that’s also destructive to your weapon. Instead you’re looking for ways you can get your blade into vulnerable parts of their armor. So, joints for example. (There’s an exception here: If you have a hammer, just pound on them.)

Second: Weapons aren’t really disposable. You don’t travel around with a golf bag of blades and just swap to new ones as the old ones shatter. Historically, soldiers would carry a few backup weapons. A sidearm (usually a sword, or a handaxe), and a dagger, in addition to their primary weapon (usually a polearm), but people didn’t walk around with five or six swords strapped to them.

Most combatants would maintain their weapons, so it’s not like you’d just take a sword and keep using it until it broke. (At least, not if you knew what you were doing.) You’d be careful with its use to minimize the damage it suffered. You’d want to make sure that any minor damage was repaired to the best of your ability. That blade was kept clean and sharp. You never want to run a weapon until it’s destroyed.

Third: Bronze will not hold up in combat against steel weapons. That goes for both the armor and the weapons. I’m not sure a single strike would mangle a bronze weapon to uselessness, but it would not be in a good state, and a few solid hits would probably destroy it. (I’m a little fuzzy on exactly how much abuse it can take, because I don’t have a lot of experience working with bronze.

Ironically, that first point isn’t completely true if you’ve got steel weapons and going up against someone with copper (and possibly bronze), you might get some minor nicking along the blade, but it’s going to hold up far better than your experience would suggest.

Now, as I said, I don’t have a lot of hands-on experience with bronze, so I’m not 100% sure how durable it is, beyond, “not very.” I’m familiar with the history, but this specific match up never happened, which is part of why I’m shying away from saying, “yeah, it’ll take X number of hits.”

The thing to remember is that there’s a huge technological advantage in the materials your smiths can work with. This is at least as significant as the kinds of weapons you have access to. Also, the kinds of weapons and armor you can produces are, functionally, “gated,” by the materials available. The reason no one in 5AD had a greatsword isn’t because they couldn’t imagine the weapon, they couldn’t make with the materials available.

-Starke

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