Tag Archives: writing assassins

Q&A Followup: Assassins and Spies: Famous in Government

I’m not aware if you do part 2’s to Q&A’s but with your other post about being a famous criminal would it be under the same terms if the only the government was aware of the assassin existence?

Yes. Ironically, this can go either way, depending on the structure and scope of your story.

If the government who knows about your assassin is friendly, (as in, the assassin is a covert operative for them), then you have the situation where a character could safely build a reputation privately.

If the government is hostile to your assassin, then you have the normal downsides of your criminal’s behavior being well documented.

The irony is, both of these states would probably be true simultaneously. With the government (or at least the intelligence community) your character works for being aware of their existence, while simultaneously, hostile governments would be aware of, and on the lookout for them.

This is something that is sometimes capitalized on with James Bond. He is incongruously famous for a spy within his world’s British government, but, simultaneously, some of his villains are able to instantly recognize him, even though his cover is technically intact.

I didn’t specify this during the previous post, but that is a real problem for spies (and probably would be for assassins as well.) As a spy engages in espionage, they will get added to databases and official records. Intelligence agencies are notorious for maintaining files on anyone who ever catches their attention. As a spy’s career advances, and they are involved in more and more places, those dossiers will gradually out them, and it will become more difficult for the spy to operate covertly. I don’t know if this would also be true for an assassin, but it seems likely. Especially if they took on targets who were protected by government security services.

To a certain extent, it’s irrelevant whether an assassin (or any criminal) is publicly famous. The real question is whether the authorities know who they are. So, asking if the government knows, is really just cutting this one down the people who matter for the purposes of consequences.


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Q&A: The hazards of Fame for a Professional Criminal

Are infamous assassins bad and are they more likely to be caught? Is it better to have an assassin who rather unknown than one who is infamous.


This applies for almost any professional criminal: Their job will be easier and safer if no one knows who they are.

Realistically, being a world famous assassin or thief would be a nightmare. They’d be the first suspect whenever anything high profile happened in their general vicinity. They’d also be under tighter scrutiny, if they went anywhere publicly, they’d be carefully watched. (Either by the authorities, security, or both.) It would be significantly harder, or impossible, for them to do their job.

There’d be a real risk of being implicated in crimes they had nothing to do with. Fabricating a case against a famous assassin or thief would even be an effective tactic for anyone who wanted to neutralize them (either for revenge or to further their ambitions.)

It’s also, legitimately questionable how these characters could build up infamy. Murdering someone is, as you may be aware, somewhat frowned upon by polite society. So, if you have a character who’s built their reputation by murdering people, it raises the question, “How have they avoided the consequences?” The real answer would be, “by avoiding detection,” but being sneaky and escaping attention is the opposite of how one builds a reputation.

In the real world, there’s debate whether any, “master-class,” assassins actually exist. The entire nature of the job requires that they avoid detection, and if they’ve done so successfully, they’re effectively unknown. The assassins we do know about are the amateurs, and low-skill professionals, because they are identified and prosecuted. In that sense, becoming infamous as an assassin is somewhat analogous to being bad at your job.

Things could be a little different if your setting has some kind of legalized assassins guild. “World famous,” assassins are a staple in certain flavors of fiction. Some kind of secret society of assassins would give its members a safe space to develop their reputations, but they would be virtually unknown outside of their organization, (and groups it associates closely with.)

So yes, being famous (or infamous) would make an assassin’s job nearly impossible.


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Q&A: Assassins vs. Spies

Not sure if this is the right place to ask and sorry if this is a dumb question in which it seems fantasy like. But is it possible for an assassin to have a to kill a spy who is undercover, not that the assassin is aware of that. Sorry if this is broad.

It depends on the degree of fantasy, but this scenario could play out. It’s entirely plausible someone could be contracted to kill an undercover operative without either the assassin or the client knowing the target’s real affiliation. This could even be a result of the spy’s activities being identified as a threat, without realizing that they’re a professional.

For example: Organized crime corruption could incorrectly identify a spy as someone gathering information for law enforcement, rather than a foreign power. Similarly, an operative’s activities could interfere with organized crime (either intentionally or not), and become a target without the organization knowing what they’re really dealing with.

It’s also possible someone could hire an assassin to deal with a spy, but not tell their assassin about the target’s true occupation.

There’s two problems with this question, the first is simply, “what do you think an assassin and spy are?” The second is the phrase, “have to kill.”

“Have to kill,” is a little strange, as phrases go. It implies that they need to kill their target, rather than they were simply hired to do so. There are situations where this could happen, such as if the spy was a witness, or if the assassin’s target was someone the spy was close to, and the assassin doesn’t know anything about them except that they need to be dealt with. However, in a lot of cases, if the assassin realizes they were hired to go after a spy, and that information was withheld, it’s entirely reasonable they’d cancel the contract when they found out (and depending on their status, maybe even blacklist the person who took out the contract in the first place.) Though, obviously, that might not an option if the assassin isn’t a freelance killer.

Spies and assassins are both careers that are radically distorted in popular culture. The James Bond style superspy is a superhero variant, with about as much relation to real world espionage as Batman does to being a functioning, well-adjusted adult. Similarly, master-class assassins like 47 or John Wick don’t appear to exist in the real world. (There have been a handful of assassinations which are hard to pin down, but at the same time, the entire point of being an assassin is to go undetected, and it’s the amateurs who fail to get away with murder.)

With that in mind, depending on the level of fantasy you’re imposing, your spy could just be an individual with exceptional social engineering skills, and a technical background slightly more advanced than you’d expect given their cover story. They could also be a superhero, living a double life, with a suite of implausibly advanced gadgets hidden in their home.

Depending on the level of fantasy, your assassin could just be some guy with a .38 and a dream, or they could be a professional contracted by a shadowy international organization, with decades of experience, with an access to an arsenal of hardware that starts with “top-of-the-line,” and quickly ascends into borderline sci-fi.

There’s room for stories at either end of those spectrums, though mismatching them could have peculiar results. Somewhat obviously, a superspy vs superassassin story is going to be very different from an accountant with social skills vs a cheap hitman. There’s also room for either character to be the protagonist in those stories.

It’s also worth remembering, when you’re looking at the skillset of characters like Bond and 47, they’re both very similar. Bond isn’t an assassin by trade, but he has the skillset, and assassinates people on occasion. 47 isn’t a spy, but, he is incongruously skilled blending into a crowd, (to the point of parody.)

Ironically, an excellent example of this similarity is Jason Bourne. In the novels, he’s a spy undercover as an assassin (when he loses his memory), while in the (Matt Damon) films he always was an assassin.

On the low end, with a, “realistic,” spy, it’s entirely possible that their killer never learns about their real job. On the superhero end of the spectrum, that would be need-to-know information, and the assassin could be reasonably put out with their employer for withholding that detail.

While not 100% reliable, if you’re an evil mastermind, it wouldn’t be the worst way to dispose of an assassin who was becoming troublesome. Send them after some James Bond proxy’s cover identity and let the problem sort itself out. Worst case: You’ve dealt with one annoyance (either the assassin or the spy.) Best case: They’re both dead and you can go back to your evil masterminding business uninterrupted. I mean, it’s not like they could team up and come after you together, that would just be silly.


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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.


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Q&A: Picking an Assassin’s Sniper Rifle

What would be the more suitable sniper rifle for my assassin protag? A semi-auto 7.62×54mmR SVD Dragunov or a bolt-action 7.62×51mm NATO Accuracy International?

So, I’m going to start with a pair of nitpicks, which are kind of important to know.

First, Accuracy International, technically, doesn’t make any rifles chambered in 7.62mm NATO. They primarily make .338, and .308 rifles. There’s also some .300 Winchester Magnum, .223, and .50 BMG variants.

Now, .308 is mechanically compatible with 7.62mm NATO, and you can load 7.62 into a .308 rifle, however, you cannot safely go the other way. The difference is that .308 is a hotter load, and it can overpressure a 7.62 NATO chamber.

From what I understand, the British Military used 7.62 NATO in their L118A2s, and it’s certainly possible that the Swedish military did the same with their Arctic Warfare rifles. AI designed their rifle to handle a .308 Winchester cartridge, but logistics just threw 7.62 at it and called it good.

Second, Accuracy International is the manufacturer, not the model. I’m assuming you’re talking about the Arctic Warfare, which was chambered in .308, though my first thought from AI is the L115A3, which is chambered in .338 Lapua Magnum.

I’ll admit, a lot of AI’s weapons do run together a bit. Their rifles are very iterative on their previous designs. That said, they do run together a bit.

Moving away from nitpicks, the SVD and the L115A3 are not even remotely analogous weapons. The longest range confirmed kill with an L115A3 is over 2.4km. This is, literally, a rifle you can use to remove someone over a mile away. In comparison, the SVD’s record is, “only,” 1.35km.

The SVD is a semi-automatic rifle. While the Russians use it as their primary sniper platform, it’s more analogous to NATO DMRs, such as the Mk 14 EBR (Enhanced Battle Rifle), the long barrel variant of the FN Mk 17, or the M110.

This doesn’t mean the SVD is a bad rifle, just it’s designed for an entirely different application, and comparing an AI rifle to a Dragunov is deeply unfair (to one rifle or the other depending on the criteria.) The L115A3 is designed for putting down a target at extreme range. The SVD is designed to deal with multiple targets at long range.

If those were your only two options, picking the right rifle would really depend on what the job required. If you need to take someone out at over half a mile, the L115A3 is the better choice. If you’re going to rapid follow up shots, especially at shorter ranges, the SVD becomes the more attractive choice.

Except, there are larger considerations. If your assassin is a freelance contractor, they’re going to be responsible for obtaining their weapons and ammunition. That means, they’re not going to want to reuse hardware unless they absolutely have to. It’s difficult for law enforcement to connect a string of unrelated killings, but if all of those killings are using the same weapon, any evidence left at one can be cross-referenced against the other investigations.

Given they’d be replacing their hardware, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to drop the money on a high end AI rifle when it’s not needed. (An AI rifle will set you back somewhere north of $4k.) Similarly, getting their hands on an SVD and Warsaw Pact ammo would be much harder in Western Europe or North America (where it’s a collector’s item), but might be the way to go if they’re operating in Eastern Europe, or Asia. It depends on what weapons are readily available wherever they go.

If your assassin doesn’t need the range of an L115, they could probably get away with just using a Remington 700, it’s much cheaper and far more disposable. If they’re in a NATO country, and can get their hands on DMR used by the local law enforcement, that will be a more anonymous weapon. If they really need extreme range, then the .338 and .50 rifles start to make sense.

The critical thing here is that an assassin’s tools should be as anonymous as possible. They can’t (or at least, really shouldn’t), keep their weapons between jobs, because eventually the police will realize the ballistics match, consolidate the investigations, and make things very sticky for the assassin. At that point, being able to replace a consistent model of weapon is a viable option, and having a (relatively) cheap, and reliable weapon wins out over having, “the best.” This is where the SVD really shines. If your character is in a part of the world with a lot of surplus Soviet hardware on the black market, getting fresh SVDs should be pretty easy. If you’re in the States, getting commercially available hunting rifles means rifles like the Remington 700 is probably the way to go.

These considerations also apply for nearly any other weapon an assassin uses. If they’re carrying a handgun as a backup, they’ll need to dispose of and replace it after any incident where they use it. Shotguns are a little more forgiving, because you can’t get a ballistic match on buckshot, however the spent shells can be matched to a general model of shotgun. (In this case, simply having something common, like a Remington 870, or a Mossberg 500, makes that match basically meaningless.) Also, because of the loading processes, there’s a real risk of fingerprints on the spent casings.

Also, as a personal bias, I’m not wild about trying to carry out an assassination with a shotgun. There’s certainly precedent, particularly with Mafia hits, but it’s not a weapon that strikes me as a good choice, even remembering that shotguns can be suppressed, and knowing that they’re lethal beyond handgun ranges.

So, which is the better option for your character? It depends where they’re operating, the resources they have access to, and what they’re trying to do. It is important to remember, when you’re writing a career criminal, their weapons and other gear are disposable. They cannot afford to keep anything that could tie them to their crimes. If something they use is compromised, they need to dispose of it as quickly as possible.

On the other hand, if your assassin is above the law (because they’re backed by the government, a conspiracy, or whatever) you can go wild. Give them a Walther WA 2000 if you want. Sure it’s a $75,000 rifle, and there are less than two hundred in existence, but it’s got style, and your character is above petty concerns like money, or cops knocking on their door.


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Q&A: For Fiction, There’s No Superior Fighting Style

slutside-out said to howtofightwrite: Are there any fighting styles that are vastly superior to others? In other words where one person’s very skilled in one form of fighting but would just be completely outclassed by someone who’s skilled in another form. I’m writing a story and there’s a scene where one of the best hand to hand fighters in the group is just completely ruined by an assassin sent after him.

“Superior Fighting Style” questions are one of those which can easily devolve into fanwank. (See: katana fans.) Basically, contextualize this question as any of the loaded questions you would avoid asking about like “who is the show’s best character?” or saying “this couple is perfect and all other pairings are trash” when discussing your favorite television show. Expect heated debate with some (or no) validity, littered with good points and many inaccuracies, that eventually devolve into ALL CAPS yelling on some distant forum board.

There is no vastly superior martial art. The military martial combat forms are kept on the cutting edge for warfare in the modern world. They could (depending on definition) be considered “the best”. (Even so, you’ll still be getting into arguments about various Armed Services divisions about who is the most effective, like SEALS versus Army Rangers versus Force Recon versus Delta versus the Green Berets, etc. That’s before we start comparing different countries.) However, these martial arts are superior because they have been adapted to serve in the current environment and not because they are all the best all the time. There are plenty of other martial arts which will work better as a reference point for the character and their outlook. There are a lot of martial arts and martial combat forms with stellar reputations. There’s no unified consensus.

The superiority answer will change depending on who you talk to, and usually they’re overlooking some crucial detail the other martial art they’re degrading offers. You’ll get a flavor of the month answer like Krav Maga, Silat, Ninjutsu, Muay Thai, which is a disservice to the others like Hapkido, JiuJutsu, Judo, Taekwondo, Sambo, Northern Shaolin, Eskrima, Capoeira, and thousands of others. Taekwondo gets derided a lot by Mixed Martial Arts fans for its popularity, but the truth is that when it works, it really works.

Ultimately, mindset makes the warrior. The answer is never in the secret techniques but in the skill of the individual who wields them and their ability to face the unknown.

I’m pointing this out because I’ve seen a lot of writers fall into the secret or superior martial arts trap. There’s an initial urge to ask for the best fighting style for a specific body type or the best weapon for a character to use that’ll give them some sort of statistical advantage. The practical answer of whatever works best for you is a freeing one, but not usually helpful when you’re in a state of not knowing where to turn. You have to start somewhere.

So, where do you begin?

Start with this: your audience will judge your character based on their ability to act in keeping with their profession.

“There’s no different angle, no clever solution, no trickety-trick that’s going to move that rock. You’ve got to face it head on.” – Avatar: The Last Airbender

The application in the above quote is that only you as the author can prove your character’s bona fides and establish them by their actions. The martial art they’re using doesn’t matter. The martial art and knowledge of it is a reference point for you while you construct your fight sequence. As a writer, you don’t have to worry about visual accuracy. You need to provide enough direction for your audience to imagine the scenario. Understanding practical application and theory will take you far, even if you don’t have the option to take up a martial art yourself.

So, pick what you like. Go on YouTube and follow different martial arts professionals who discuss practical application, there’s a lot of good short videos from professionals in the self-defense field. Lots of martial arts specialists in various fields post videos both of techniques and discussing them in comparison to what’s shown in movies and television. The Black Belt Magazine’s YouTube Channel will introduce you to a lot of professionals in various fields from self-defense experts to martial arts masters.

What you’re doing here is performing a classic narrative beat where you establish the danger presented by a new antagonist through their sound beating of the team’s strongest member.

Here’s a quick list of things to keep in mind:

1) Strategy and Tactics: Plain Clothes Ambush

While the Assassin Archetype fits a wide array of combat backgrounds and ideologies, they are usually portrayed as being underhanded and ruthlessly efficient. The group coordinating and working together is the Assassin’s biggest threat, not the technical skills of a single group member. The best way to impact squad morale is to first remove the one who is perceived as the toughest. The strategy is sound, you take down your biggest single combat threat (especially when supported by the others) and freak the squad out. The best hand to hand fighter might be viewed as their linchpin. Group cohesion fractures, they stop working together, they start panicking, and they scatter. It’s much easier to target or fight individuals one on one, if it becomes necessary.

Remember, assassins aren’t warriors. They don’t prefer fisticuffs. They like weapons. They strive for single strikes in planned ambushes from a previously scouted area where they know their target will be.

For maximum effect, this assassin starts with a walk-up ambush and doesn’t give the “best fighter” the opportunity to even fight back.

2) The Skill Factor: A Killer’s Instinct

For the sake of narrative, you want to establish that his assassin beats the group’s best fighter because they’re better. The assassin beats the group’s best fighter because they’re more experienced, they’ve seen a wider range of fighting styles and can derive better counters as a result.

I’m not going to ask why this Assassin is fighting with fisticuffs or going in hand to hand as opposed to carrying a concealable weapon like a knife or if this best hand to hand fighter survives.

It can be a huge blow to the Assassin’s credibility in their introduction (especially a violent one) if you don’t let them kill. Killing their assigned target is their job, sure, but a dead witness is better than a live one and can muddy the waters of an investigation. Assassins are professional killers and, unlike other combat professionals, their credibility is defined by the bodies.

Film usually introduces an assassin finishing a prior job (effectively killing someone the audience doesn’t care about) to establish their skill and credibility. In your novel, you can’t rely on hearsay.

You might want to consider driving the point home by feeding one of your characters to them. (This “best fighter” character, for example.)

3) Cost & Benefit Analysis: Death is Better

In every engagement, your combat oriented characters will be running a cost versus benefit analysis both before they go in and also during the battle itself. This asks if the risk of engagement is cost-effective for their goals, and if they do engage what they need to do in order to both win and undercut any potential fallout.

Cost = the energy and resources expended to achieve victory.

Benefit = what they get from fighting with or removing this individual.

Risk = the risk of injury, and other immediate dangers the engagement presents.

Fallout = this is the negative results. Alerting law enforcement to their presence, making the achievement of their overall goal more difficult. Fallout can come from the noise of the fight, the number of witnesses, accessible cameras, having nowhere to dump the body, etc.

Death removes the possibility of witnesses, making it more difficult to identify them. Death means they won’t have to deal with the same skilled combatant again, which benefits them. If the skilled combatant is dead, they can’t provide insights into the assassin’s methodology, fighting style, or strategies; keeping any others trying to protect their target in the dark. An assassin doesn’t want their target afraid, they want them complacent. If their target is aware of a threat, they don’t want them to know they are the threat. You can’t build an effective strategy for countering the unknown.

For an assassin, if they are forced into situation where they have to fight at all, killing their opponent is the best outcome. Assassins generally view bystanders as ambulatory obstacles in the way of their target instead of as people, making it easier to kill them.

However, assassins prefer not to kill anyone but their target. That is the path of least resistance and the one which is most beneficial to their future. Their goal is to complete their mission, escape undetected, and leave no evidence that they were the ones who killed the target. They want to retain their anonymity because anonymity is necessary to do their job. Their target is their goal, any cost/benefit analysis be calculated around the death of their target, and adjust based on how their actions impact those chances.

4) The Number of Moves: 1 to 3

In the world of film fight scene choreography (and real life), you signal one fighter is better than the other through the length of the fight. For maximum impact in a complete shut out, the fight part of the scene will last about a few sentences. “Getting wrecked” translates into your group’s best fighter being taken down in one to three moves. The three is part of the opening combination, rather than retaliatory. 1) Destabilizing strike, 2) Follow-up hits somewhere more devastating/sensitive, 3) Last hit (usually with the opening strike’s hand) is the due final diligence to make sure they don’t come back/puts them out of the fight.

For killing blows, this is 1) destabilize on the exterior/hit somewhere vital, 2) finishing kill/an even more vital place, 3) making sure they’re dead/another vital place.

You can do this with a knife in simple combination:

  1. Make a forward approach with the knife hidden by the body’s profile or the arm.
  2. When in range, slash on an upward diagonal across the throat.
  3. Rotate the knife (if the knife is in a forward position, not necessary if the knife is already in an icepick grip), and come back in to puncture the carotid with blade tip.
  4. Knife through the back of the neck as you move past, severing the spinal column.
  5. They collapse, dying. On to the next.

This is a simple combination which makes use of the blade’s position in the hand (the ice pick grip). You distract them with the first injury (slash) which likely landed painful but superficial injuries, to strike the vital point (the artery) ensuring a fast bleed out, and the final blade strike through the spine paralyzes their entire body. Paralyzing them ensures they cannot staunch the blood flow to buy themselves time. They have no choice but to lie there and bleed out. This strategy also benefits the attacker because the more emotional and less experienced members of the group might break to protect their friend.

This is also just one potential option, there’s a wide array of possibilities when ambushing or striking with a variety of hand to hand techniques/weapons.

The only problem with this scenario and approach is that if the assassin’s target isn’t the squad itself but a single member or someone they’re protecting then attacking head on doesn’t really benefit them. A competent group will sacrifice one or two soldiers upfront to stop the assassin, while they hustle the target to safety. Bodyguards always prioritize their protectees over stopping the assassin. Attacking this way, in clear view, the assassin reduces their chances of completing the job.

When setting up this scene, keep the assassin’s goals in mind. It can be easy to try and structure a fight scene around what you want to happen, but always make sure the character motivations are backing that up. If you’re imagining a Byung Hun Lee type assassin from R.E.D. 2. (By the by, that’s Taekwondo.) Or John Wick, both are the typical Hollywood badass assassins. (The first John Wick film is notable for its use of modern shooting techniques like CAR. (Center Axis Relock), it’s worth looking at if you want to write gunfights.) Or like Lucy Lawless in the Burn Notice episode False Flag, you want to watch the full 16 minute clip or the full episode for even more good tradecraft to build off of. This episode centers around what you can expect when dealing with an assassin in the real world, the tactics and techniques they use, along with how to counter them. Another really good example of an assassin hewing closer to what you’d find in the real word is Vincent from Collateral. (Michael Mann’s films are also really good examples of professional shooting.)

I really recommend watching the False Flag episode and Collateral even if you’re planning to go with a Hollywood badass assassin.

Be honest with yourself about the type of narrative you want to write and the violence you’re looking at implementing in your novel. Honesty goes a long way toward narrowing your search. There are a lot of different approaches which are valid, what’s most important is finding the kind which interests you and then learning the applicable practical theories.

Last Note: If you’re interested in learning more about US Armed Services training, all their manuals (including special forces) are available online for free. It may take a few internet searches, but you’ll find the right PDFs.


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Q&A: Cleaning up the Cleaner

Hi! I really enjoy your blog and it’s always useful for my WIPs! I stumbled upon your assassins posts recently and I’m wondering, what is the way to kill an assassin, realistically? Maybe intentionally, or by accident? Thank you so much for all your helpful posts!

The good news is, your assassin is basically just another person. When it comes to accidental deaths, they’re as vulnerable as anyone else. A previously unknown food allergy, an auto accident, or any number of other things that could kill a random person will also end them.

If you’re talking about engineering an “accident,” then, the same rules apply, but this stuff is a lot harder to pull off in the real world, so it’s less of a consideration. Though, your characters who were hired to kill the assassin could start by engineering a car crash, to soften them up. Then, when they’re recovering from their airbag going off, execute them and leave.

As for the best way to kill an assassin? A rifle at long range. Preferably on a semi-auto with the ability for quick follow up shots, and a shooter who knows how to use it. That’s a lot of options.

Note, I didn’t say “suppressed,” up there. Even a block away, firing from a window, the sniper’s going to have time to vacate before anyone comes looking. So, the suppressor just buys time they don’t need, and messes with the ballistics. A couple clean shots and they’re done. Maybe have a support team on the ground closer to the target to finish them off if the sniper doesn’t get the job done.

I mean, ultimately, assassins aren’t superhuman. Even when we’re talking about the mythical master assassins that may not even exists, they survive because no one knows who they are. If you strip that anonymity, they’re as vulnerable anyone else to being killed.

So, let’s step back from tactics, you need an assassin dead. You have options. First, you need to know who’s hunting your assassin, this sets the ground rules that will determine how effective your assassin’s tradecraft will be. Second, your hunters need to ID your assassin. Finally, once you have those two pieces of information, your hunters need a plan.

There’s a lot of people who could want an assassin dead. Who they are will determine what they can bring to the table.

Private citizens are, probably, the least dangerous over all. If your assassin is no longer in the same zip code, their options are going to be limited.

A cop (corrupt or not) is a little more dangerous. If your assassin is operating in their jurisdiction, they can probably call in a SWAT team, or something similar. They’re also dangerous because they’re specifically trained to investigate crimes. They have the best training and skills to track down your assassin after the kill. They may also have the training to kill your assassin, but if they don’t they can make a phone call and get people who do, and they will. Police don’t operate alone. A stray detective figures out who your assassin is, and next thing you know, every cop in the city will be aware of this, and keeping an eye out.

Finally, while a cop can’t hunt your assassin around the globe, they can share their information with other police agencies. In some cases, they may even be able to travel and explain the situation to others in person. They won’t have enforcement authority, but when it comes to investigating your assassin, they don’t really need that if they can cultivate a good working relationship with the locals.

Also, since we’re talking about globe hopping, it’s worth remembering, INTERPOL agents are not an international version of the FBI, they’re liaisons between national police agencies. They have no arrest or enforcement authority. Their job is simply to alert and inform police about criminal actives that have jumped borders. They’re a recognized organ of the UN, but they are administrative, not enforcement.

Ironically, organized crime figures have similar limitations to the police. If the assassin stays out of areas they have influence over, they’re (basically) out of reach. They’re not as well trained to investigate an assassin, and they don’t have the same resources. The difference is, that organized crime figures may have access to corrupt cops. How much control may vary, but it’s possible they could point the police at your assassin, just to make things messier. They’d benefit from some of that investigation, and might be able to turn that into useful information.

A spy with access to their agency’s intelligence resources is probably one of the most dangerous foes to have hunting your assassin. They will have access to highly trained specialists, their investigative skills are probably on par with the local police. In some cases they may even be able to direct local law enforcement or military responses. Worse, these guys can go (pretty much) wherever they want to pursue your assassin. Your assassin hops a flight out of the country, and for most cops, that’s the end. An intelligence officer has people on the ground there already.

An intelligence agency also has the resources to start putting together the entire picture. If your assassin’s been flying under a dozen assumed identities, given time, and resources, an analysis team can blow your assassin’s covers, and find out where they’re going before they get there.

For an agency to get involved, two things need to happen. The assassin needs to target someone that warrants the agency to look into the killing. (Or attempted killing.) We’re probably outside of the range of simple political hits, or witness cleanup here. The assassin was paid to kill someone who was important, whether they succeeded or not. Also, the assassin needs to be exposed as an assassin. This might sound obvious, but when we’re talking about “master-class assassins” in the real world, there’s significant debate whether they’re even real. So, to get an intelligence agency hunting them, their existence needs to become credible, at least to the spy and the people they report to. (This second part isn’t a particularly high bar to hit, but it’s worth remembering this stuff, “doesn’t happen,” in the real world.)

Once you know who’s hunting them, you can start evaluating how hard it will be to ID them. The reason is because people hunting your assassin will have radically different resources and skill sets at their disposal. Much like the above groups, the kind of assassin we’re dealing with will determine how well protected they are.

I’m using the classifications from that UK article in 2014, (which was paywalled sometime in the last five years.) You can find an article we wrote on the subject here.

A lot of amateurs (both Novice and Dilettantes if you’ve read the link), don’t really hide their identity. You want them dead, you can just find and kill them. This includes most hitters working for organized crime. They’re only interested in hiding from the police, not from their own community. So, if you’ve got someone who was hired to kill a mobster without family approval, finding them is going to be relatively easy if you have mob connections. Ironically, in a case like that, the hard part would be getting to them before the cops.

Because they don’t travel, Journeymen are also pretty easy to track down and eliminate. If someone has a reputation as an assassin, you’re in the know, and recognize their work, you know where to find them and who to kill. These guys are legitimately dangerous, as they likely have a military background, but there’s not much one person can do against an organized squad with similar training, sent to kill them.

And before someone asks, yes, I’m entirely familiar with the cliche where one person picks off an entire squad of assailants. That’s mostly fantasy. A squad that actually behaves and moves like a squad, will be able to outmaneuver and eliminate any a single foe who lacks superpowers.

I’m guessing we’re talking about someone more insulated. If your assassin is one of these master-class types, who’s working through cutout connections, they may be pretty well protected. Your people never meet the assassin, they meet a representative somewhere. That representative passes the contract to the assassin, and there’s never any direct connections between them. IDing them later could be tricky. You can’t take a city like New York or London and scrutinize everyone that came and went on a given day.

You need a plan to find out who this is. There are options here. Luring the assassin into a situation where you might be able to collect evidence on them, leading to their identity. Trying to use them multiple times, in different places, while trying to collect evidence on people who were in all of those places. (Problem here is, like I mentioned, it’s hard to filter individuals out the mass of people moving around the globe at any given moment.

I’m making this more complicated than it needs to be, though. If you’re wanting to burn an assassin, all you need to do is make sure your people are there, and can respond, to take out them out when they strike. Put a hit on your friend, warn their security detail, beef it up, give them the time frame. Assassinating someone who’s well protected is dangerous work to begin with. A trapped contract is an entirely legitimate danger, and one that will be hard to account for before hand. Bonus points if you’re supplying the means to get through the security cordon, because at that point you can rig “silent alarms” to their access, letting security know that the assassin is on the premises, and it’s time to start clearing the place.

Another solution is to pull them out of their comfort zone, sabotage their exit strategy, and hunt them down. With enough corruption or the right incentives, this may be possible in some metro areas around the world. Though, the “standard” answer would be someplace isolated, in the wilderness. Send them out there to kill someone, then hunt them down using advanced technology.

Of course, you could just hire someone that knows them. Though, that could get tricky when you’re evaluating their loyalties. Will they kill for you, or will they just warn their buddy?

So, when I listed intelligence agencies earlier, this is the only kind of assassin they’re likely to be facing. Even journeymen can be dealt with by local law enforcement, someone operating at this level may warrant that kind of attention. This kind of a threat can bypass a lot of basic tradecraft that an assassin may employ. That whole cutout thing might not work if the people hunting them can set up a Stingray without oversight or pull their all of the cutout’s satphone data via a National Security Letter. The kind of security necessary to prepare for this kind of scrutiny would directly interfere with your assassin being able to do their job.

As for a plan to kill the assassin once you know who they are and where they live, that’s the easy part. They’re just human. Find them, put a bullet in them. Maybe put a few more in just “to make sure.” I mean, you can get more creative, but the efficient methods will, usually, be more reliable.

So, goals are to look for places where the assassin will be unprotected (basically outside of their home, and familiar haunts.) Hitting them on the road is a good way to achieve that, as everyone has to go somewhere sometime. You can also exploit this, if you have enforcement authority over a zone that normally prohibits weapons. For example: An airport; you can lock the place down, and hunt them in an environment where they’re not normally able to arm themselves, and they cannot flee.

Like I said, they’re not superheroes, you can gun them down like anyone else. The only hard part is finding the assassin, not the actual killing.


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Q&A: Custom Sniper

setting aside the wisdom of “signing” one’s kills, how effective would a rifle chambered for a unique custom round be as a signature?

clarifying, i don’t mean like a special payload or anything like that. i mean like a rifle chambered for a bottlenecked 10x80mm cartridge


The issue is, you’re making a custom round for a custom built weapon. Because there is no existing cartridge, you’d need to make almost all of this from scratch. And, you’re doing all of this to create an (almost certainly) inferior analog to a CheyTac Intervention chambered in .408 (10.36x77mm.)

A 10×80 cartridge would be one of those hybrid sniper/anti-materiel rounds, along with rounds like the .338 Lapua, the .416 Barret, and at least a half dozen other relatively modern rounds. Designed in an attempt to bridge between 7.62mm NATO and .50BMG, a lot of these have been designed in the last 20 years. These are used at extreme ranges (around a mile).

This means your character, or their gunsmith, needs to be able to flawlessly design and fabricate the entire weapon from raw materials. Now, that’s not, technically, impossible, but it’s the next best thing. Converting an existing rifle to a custom cartridge is possible, but would also be extremely difficult. This is after you remember that messing around with any of these rifles requires a skilled gunsmith.

Doing full R&D to create a rifle like that from scratch would cost millions of dollars, and might be equal to an off-the-shelf L115A3. Also, bonus points in that, while the L115A3 isn’t civilian purchasable, .338 Lapua has made it onto the civilian market, so your character could get ammunition for their rifle without difficulty.

So, let’s step back from the 10x80mm for a second. If your character is using a milspec rifle chambered in one of these rounds, it’s very likely they’d be handloading their own cartridges. This can result in better performance than a mass produced shell, and gives the shooter the ability to fine tune a lot of factors in how their rifle will perform. In cases like this, the handloaded round will outperform off-the-shelf cartridges.

There are a lot of custom guns out there. In particular, some manufacturers offer high end custom pieces, so it’s possible you might see a one-of-a-kind rifle, usually modified off of a venerable pattern. Though at that point, it’d be extremely unlikely it’d be chambered in an experimental cartridge.

Realistically, there’s three combat applications for this kind of a round. Your character is a sniper, at which point, there are better, significantly cheaper, options. Your character is a government-backed assassin, at which point having any signature is a horrible idea, as it makes it easier to tie their actions together. Your character is a criminal assassin. I know we’ve talked about the problem for a hitman reusing the same gun, but, “there’s only one person out there who uses a 10mm rifle round,” is far worse. Though, to be fair, it’s not as dumb as someone blithely saying, “there’s only one man that uses a Walther PPK.” Fox Mulder? No, Robert McCall? No, wait, I’ll get this one eventually.


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Q&A: Masks

I’m really sorry if you’ve answered a similar already and I’m just dumb but what do you think about a warrior who fights with a mask? I assume that even if the eye holes are big enough theres still a bit of an impediment but? Or the kind of mask that sits under the eyes and hides the lower half of the face? I really need my nano character to wear a mask for… reasons but she is a warrior first (assassin) so I want to make sure that it’s right

Masks are a thing. The only major issue is making sure the mask doesn’t obstruct their peripheral vision. Covering one’s face in combat isn’t that strange.

Even in the modern day, it’s entirely reasonable for combatants to wear bandannas or balaclavas when fighting in cold or dry environments. Or, when protecting their identity is a factor. So, in that sense, we come back to your original point.

Can someone wear a mask to protect their face in combat? Yep. No question, no ambiguity, this is an option. Particularly half masks. There’s normally no danger of these obstructing your vision, though, depending on the setting, separate eye protection may be advisable. Also, this won’t do nearly as much to conceal your identity, as the upper half of your face remains visible.

There’s also ballistic masks. These are armored face masks, though they are rarely strong enough to stop a bullet, however they can protect against flying shrapnel. Specifically, these are usually designed to avoid limiting the viewer’s vision as much as possible, and some are designed to fit onto a conventional combat helmet, with ballistic goggles to allow greater visibility.

One final possibility are face masks, like Corvo’s from Dishonored, which are specifically there to augment the wearer’s options in combat. This is more of a specialty case, but if your character’s wearing a mask designed to give them greater vision, or alternate vision modes, that might be a viable option within the rules of your setting.

The major consideration for an assassin is, if the mask can be easily hidden, of if it’s something that is socially acceptable. Otherwise they need to maintain complete invisibility, which is an unreasonable goal. An assassin needs to be able to blend in with their environment. So, let’s dig up an old joke:

You know ninja gear? That full body black suit, and full face covering? You know what that is?

It’s stagehand garb.

So, real ninjas would dress up as day laborers, servants, farmers, and other common professions. People who would not draw attention to themselves. No mask, no superhero costumes. Just, people that should be wandering around, wherever they were. They may be the courier, they may be a member of the cleaning staff. You wouldn’t know you were looking at a ninja until the last possible moment. Which is the point.

It’s far easier to pretend to be someone mundane and slip pass security, than to claim to be a super-secret assassin, bouncing in the shadows like a methed up squirrel. Best of all, when someone drops dead, security is looking for people who don’t belong. They’re not looking for the delivery guy.

So, why dress up a stagehand? Because, in Japanese plays that included ninjas assassinating characters, it became a kind of joke. The audience was conditioned to ignore the stagehands moving around the actors, they’re not part of the play, they’re the mechanics to make it happen. In that sense, it’s exactly what the ninjas would normally do, pretend to be someone that would be ignored until the last possible moment. Taken out of context, or dropped into a film, the ninja outfit is a joke. It’s a stagehand, someplace they shouldn’t be, but you’ll ignore them because they’re a ninja.

It’s also probably worth remembering that a warrior and an assassin are entirely different professions. Assassins aren’t combatants in the conventional sense. Their skillset is probably more focused on infiltration and quiet kills, rather than full on combat. It’s a minor point, that I’m not too worried about hammering on. It’s also possible you’ve got a character who does do both, maybe they served as mercenary before moving on to killing people. But, remember, these are different jobs. If your character is both, you may want to spend some time exploring that.


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Followup: Mafia and Children: The Camorra


Interesting, since I was just reading an article in the Economist about Naples’ mafia, the Camorra, using kids as hitmen: https://www.economist.com/news/europe/21723865-camorra-turns-teenagers-enforce-its-rule-organised-crime-naples-hit-men-are

Okay, this is worth quickly talking about, and yes it is interesting. The very short version is that, the Neapolitan Mafia (called the Camorra) has been pushed to the edge of extinction in recent years by police.

The senior leadership of the Camorra are in prison, and command has passed to their children, literally. This means that at present, segments of the Camorra are being run by teenagers. In turn, they employ other teens, and we get the headline up there.

There’s another wrinkle in that, In Italy, children under 14 cannot be held criminally liable for their actions. At the extreme end, that (apparently) means they cannot be charged with murder if they kill someone.

So, what we have is equal parts desperation by the Camorra, an unintended consequence of successful policing, and a lack of adult supervision (in the organization itself.)

Now, one thing that is happening here is a kind of Lost Boys effect, where you have kids leading younger kids. This has never been a factor in the American mafia, but it does appear with street gangs. I think Michi wanted to do a full post on that, so I’ll let this sit there. This is a good find, though, lirenel.