Category Archives: Weapons

Arms and the Writer

weapons2

Historical fiction author Kathy Owen has a must-read post at Jami Gold’s writing blog. Owen reminds writers that readers of historical fiction KNOW THEIR HISTORY, so any mistakes in your story will turn off the very people you’re trying to reach.

Of course, that advice is true of any genre. Not long ago, in a manuscript I was critiquing, I read how the protag raised a 2×4 over his head to protect himself from a street thug’s nunchaku attack, but the “numchucks” broke the board in half.

No. Not even Bruce Lee could whip a flailing weapon hard enough to do the work of a sledgehammer. I’ve been studying martial arts for thirty years, and though I don’t compete any more, I still do katas, both empty handed and with kobudo weapons. In the picture above are my favorites. From left to right, we have the sai, short stick (a length of pipe, ’cause I’m cheap), tonfa, nunchaku, and staff (bo).

Over the years, I’ve also learned how to make and use the sling, the atlatl, and bola.

Fantasy fiction fairly bristles with primitive weapons, including dirks, daggers, swords, staffs, and many others. Many of your readers will know the capabilities and limitations of those arms. Some details in a story can be faked, but many cannot. And if you are truly fascinated with your subject, you’ll want hands-on experience, experience that will make your stories come alive. Jean Auel amassed a vast knowledge of primitive survival skills after she determined she wanted to write about prehistoric peoples. I, on the other hand, was taught tracking and hunting skills as a boy, and later took up backpacking. In my early 20s, I studied Isshin-Ryu karate. Only much later did I write fiction based on those passions.

The point is that you have to have not only practical knowledge of your subject, but a love for it. The reader can sense that, and will enjoy your story more as a result.

There’s a scene in Aztec Midnight when Jon Barrett, the protag, must escape his captors and find his kidnapped wife. With only seconds to act, and with an armed guard nearby, he improvises a bola:

There was no time to breathe, no time for a second try. I hooked a weight from the scales into the hole at the end of my leather belt.

Gabriel groped under his vest.

The hook on the second weight slipped into the hole on the other end of the belt.

Gabriel had the gun in his hand.

I dropped forward, crouching on one knee, and used the momentum to swing my bola toward Gabriel.

It snapped in my hand, and I released it. It spiraled through the air and across the room.

The pistol fired and filled the room with an ear-splitting crack.

The bola slapped against Gabriel’s knee and coiled around his legs. The second weight whipped around and smashed into his calf.

Gabriel bellowed and dropped to his knees, eyes clenched shut. I saw him open his eyes, eyes wrinkled in rage and pain, and he leveled the gun at me for a second shot.

I think that worked nicely. It never would’ve sounded believable without 1) my fascination for the subject and 2) knowing what I was writing about, which gave me the confidence to tackle such a scene.

5 Surprising Facts About Arrowheads

Clovis

My interest in primitive weapons — essential lore for any sci-fi/fantasy writer — began when I first found arrowheads in the freshly plowed fields on the tobacco farm where I grew up. From my first encounter with them, these amazing artifacts exerted a hypnotic fascination over me. After all, they were survivors from a past unimaginably different from my own world. They were weapons that were essential for survival, and at the same time, beautiful works of art.

Bookish kid that I was, I absorbed every field guide to North American archaeology the High Point Library had. Here are some of the things I’ve learned over the years:

1. They’re not all “arrowheads.”

Although we tend to associate American Indians with the bow and arrow, they didn’t develop that weapon until about 500 AD. In fact, “arrowheads” or, as archaeologists prefer, “projectile points,” tend to be quite small. And a hickory bow couldn’t generate the potential energy required to kill a bear or cougar — much less a mastodon.

Atlatl

Larger game required a powerful weapon, and the atlatl fits the bill. North Carolina’s Sissipahaws, Catawbas, and Tuscaroras mastered this ingenious and tricky weapon. I’ve made and used atlatls, and believe me, they have a long learning curve — harder to learn, in my opinion, than the sling. They’re easy to throw but require many weeks of practice to learn to aim properly.

Atlatl

Think of it as a custom-made lever for throwing darts. The power of an atlatl must be witnessed to be believed.

Knives

Larger points were generally used as spear points and knives, which were fitted with wooden handles, as I’ve demonstrated below. A flint knife with a good edge makes a very effective means of cutting and skinning. (You can click any image to enlarge it.)

Knife

2. They’re older than you think

The Clovis point, as illustrated in the first photo above, dates to between 10-15,000 years ago. It was introduced into North America with the migration of the Clovis people who continued down into South America.

3. Distinctive styles emerged over time

As the migration of Siberian peoples continued in the Americas, local cultures arose, which produced their own unique weapons. Over time, projectile point styles changed.

When I visited the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, my favorite display was an arrangement of flawless points sorted by time period. Clovis points came first, followed by styles that resembled those that immediately evolved from the Clovis in North Carolina, which in turn were followed by styles distinctly different from anything I’d ever seen. So once you’ve identified a point’s style, you know its approximate age.

4. There’s purpose in their beauty

Just as the SR-71 sports a design determined by its purpose, so do projectile points. Check out this Guilford rounded base point from my collection:

Guilford

This seemingly delicate creation was meticulously formed using pressure flaking, a slow process of sharpening the edge by pressing it with a pointed instrument, as opposed to striking the point. Its perfect proportions ensure a smooth, accurate flight.

5. Growing reliance on European technology tainted the quality of projectile points

Hatchets and projectile points made from metal, and of course, flintlocks, gradually replaced traditional Indian weapons. Take a look at these Randolph points I found, which date back to the early 1700s:

Randolph

Not quite as elegant as their ancestors, are they?

American Indian weapons have popped up in some of my works, including Gooseberry and Aztec Midnight. There’s a raw, elemental allure to primitive weapons that’s inspired many works of fantasy fiction. Learning about them connects us to a past that deserves to be remembered.

Want to be the Daniel Day-Lewis of writing?

Daniel Day-LewisBy Jaguar MENA

Steven McIntosh, writing in the BBC News, poses an interesting idea for writers looking for that little something extra:

Could writers benefit from the same tactics as method actors, who immerse themselves in extreme surroundings in order to prepare for a role?

Every February, as the Oscars roll around, movie fans revel in stories about actors who have gone to extreme lengths to prepare for parts.

Daniel Day-Lewis learned to track and skin animals and fight with tomahawks for The Last of the Mohicans, while, more recently, Leonardo DiCaprio plunged into an icy river and sank his teeth into a hunk of raw bison while filming the Oscar-nominated film The Revenant.

Actors going to such lengths has become more common in recent years and a cynic might argue it certainly did not harm their film’s publicity, but given the apparent success of their technique, could working in a similarly immersive way also benefit novelists?

While I’ve always thought there’s much common ground between acting and writing, what McIntosh is suggesting takes the idea a step further. I think he’s right. Knowing how to do the things you describe your characters doing certainly adds visceral detail to your story. I’m reminded of the research Jean Auel did for The Clan of The Cave Bear. Like her protagonist Ayla, Auel can weave baskets and make her own stone tools. Auel has said that mastering such skills gives her writing an “informed subjectivity” that she could not otherwise achieve. I agree.

I thoroughly enjoy researching my stories, and sometimes that involves more than simply nailing down a particular fact. Despite many years of hunting, backpacking, and hiking, I’d never rappelled before I taught myself while writing my flash fiction piece Cameron Obscura. In fact, all life experience can be put to work in your writing. My career in computer programming and artificial intelligence in the insurance industry no doubt informed my sci-fi pieces, and certainly prompted my misgivings about the dehumanizing effects of technology, as expressed in Snake Heart.

And I have no doubt that my travels in Mexico, as well as my experience with firearms and primitive weapons, livened up my novella Aztec Midnight with sensory details and authenticity you just can’t get from online research.

Maybe that crazy Daniel Day-Lewis is on to something …

Swordmaker Instructed In Dreams

Swordmaker

The latest Ancient Origins features Chen Shih-Tsung, a passionate modern-day citizen of Taipei who’s revived the ancient Chinese art of fine swordcasting:

Chinese legends tell of a kind of infallible sacred sword, forged from meteorite material, that gave its bearer an apparently supernatural advantage over his opponents. The creation of such a sword seems beyond the capabilities of ancient technology, but modern sword-maker Chen Shih-Tsung has revived the art successfully—guided, he says, by instructions imparted to him by celestial beings.

In making the swords, one’s heart has to be incredibly calm, Chen explained. He sits in meditation for an hour before starting a grinding session. Casting swords of this kind has an irreplaceable human and spiritual element.

Chen is in the process of teaching his sons how to grind swords, and it sits on their shoulders to carry on the tradition.

It’s a heavy weight, too. The tradition of swordcasting is enormously significant to Chen. “The value of a masterpiece sword can never be calculated in money terms,” he explains. “It is an invaluable treasure which ought to be an heirloom for future generations to admire and cherish.”

Chen embodies Charles Dickens’ prescription for how a humane and fulfilled person should live: “in the Past, the Present, and the Future.” By reviving an old tradition, he has “made it new,” thereby enriching and expanding the present with “an invaluable treasure” that will inspire future generations. That’s quite a feat.

Messages on missiles: Here is a Sugar Plum for You!

Sling bulletsAncient Greek sling bullets with engravings. One side depicts a winged thunderbolt, and the other, the Greek inscription “take that” in high relief.

Ancient Origins has a great introductory article on slings.

I’ve long been fascinated by primitive weapons, and I think every fantasy author should know the basics of the ones he writes about. Not only does such knowledge add authenticity to the story, but helps the author get a feel for the artistry and discipline involved in mastering such a weapon. You don’t just pick up a sling and start hitting your target. The video below of a slinging competition will give you an idea of the deadliness of this elegant and simple weapon:

In my novella Aztec Midnight, the protagonist, Jon Barrett, learned how to use the sling from an elderly Mescalero Apache in Texas. Alone and defenseless in Cuernavaca, he must track down the drug cartel members who have kidnapped his wife. Barrett constructs a sling on the run, and approaches the cartel’s hideout. It’s night, and he can hear a guard treading back and forth on the dark front porch. How can Barrett take the guard down without alerting the others inside?

Precious minutes slipped by. Nothing stirred. In the distance, another train approached Cuernavaca station. Its whistle barely rose above the subdued rumble.

A ghostly silhouette appeared at the end of the porch. I realized the guard had moved in front of a shaded window. Its glow barely formed an outline. I had to take my chance. After placing the roundest rock in the pouch, I stepped forward and swung the sling. The release felt perfect.

The outlined figure did not react. Then the speeding rock tore into bushes and trees on the other side of the yard, and the guard jerked his head toward the sound.

This was my last chance. I took another step forward, slipped a rock into the pouch, swung as smoothly as I could, and released the string.

That passage still makes my blood pump.

Okay, I’ve worked at the computer long enough. Time to change, grab my sling kit, and jog down to the park for some target practice.

Battered remains of medieval knight discovered in UK cathedral

Castle

If you get a kick out of medieval combat — and who doesn’t? — this is cool:

The battered remains of a medieval man uncovered at a famous cathedral hint that he may have been a Norman knight with a proclivity for jousting.

The man may have participated in a form of jousting called tourney, in which men rode atop their horses and attacked one another, in large groups, with blunted weapons.

Archaeologists uncovered the man’s skeleton, along with about 2,500 others — including a person who had leprosy and a woman with a severed hand — buried at Hereford Cathedral in the United Kingdom. The cathedral was built in the 12th century and served as a place of worship and a burial ground in the following centuries, said Andy Boucher, a regional manager at Headland Archaeology, a commercial archaeology company that works with construction companies in the United Kingdom.

Turns out the dude was about 45 when he died. Though it’s impossible to tell for sure, forensics suggest he was recuperating from fractured ribs he may have received in a tourney, which was pretty much the hockey of its age. One gang would go against another with blunt weapons rather than pointy ones. Just because there were no sharp objects doesn’t mean it was a harmless pastime. I can tell you that blunt force trauma really, really hurts.

Science Fiction for the Fourth Generation

There will be no more Gettysburgs; there will be no more Stalingrads. Gettysburg, the biggest battle to take place in North America, pitted the largest army in the world at that time against the world’s second largest. A massive and prolonged artillery bombardment — what Robert E. Lee hoped would create a Napoleonic “feu d’enfer” or “Hell’s Fire”– combined with a direct charge at entrenched infantry (Pickett’s Charge), and a total lack of appreciation for the implications of the rifled Minie ball made horrendous casualties inevitable. 50,000 soldiers would be killed or wounded.

And despite all that, the rules of engagement limited civilian casualties to one. Yes, you read that right — only one civilian died at Gettysburg.

Nor will there be another Stalingrad. The era of industrialized armies trying to grind each other into submission, resulting in a clear winner and loser, is also a thing of the past. We are now in the age of Fourth-Generation Warfare (4GW), characterized by non-State combatants fighting as much for hearts and minds as for battlefields — and “battlefields” are no longer places where tanks can maneuver; instead, they are chosen more for their public relations significance than military expedience. There will be no innocent bystanders in a guerilla/public relations battle for hearts and minds. Understanding the new way of war will be essential for policy planners, military strategists, and, yes, for writers.

So Vox Day’s latest venture, Riding the Red Horse, guarantees to be fascination reading. It combines sci-fi tales of future warfare with non-fiction essays on emerging trends in warfare, including work by William Lind, a leading scholar on 4GW. This review in TakiMag provides a good introduction:

Riding the Red Horse, edited by fantasy star Vox Day and Army Ranger vet Tom Kratman for Castalia House, is a tailor-made compromise for those time-pressed souls who find the consumption of unalloyed fiction to be too useless a practice in which to indulge. It’s also a treat for sci-fi readers who retain an interest in the world around them—and the two groups’ overlap is large enough to make it a very good idea indeed.

If you want to write realistic future battle scenes, this volume will be essential. I know what I want for my birthday.