Monday, September 24, 2007

So You Want to Write About Guns - Part Two: Dual Wielding

Recently, it has become quite fashionable to write characters in fiction; as carrying, and shooting, two guns, or a gun and a sword, simultaneously.

The scene above is from the 2002 sci-fi shootemup movie "Equilibrium", featuring the central dramatic device of the movie, the "Gun Kata". This is a term now used generally to refer to this type of stylized action scene where firearms are employed in a style reminiscent of eastern martial arts melee weapons (in fact most similar in visual and physical style to sai or chabang). Notably, this style almost always features dual wielding (where one actively wields a weapon in each hand).

This style was of course popularized in the U.S. by the films of John Woo, featuring Chow Yun Fat; notably "Hard Boiled" and "The Killer" (which by the way I consider Chows best work). The influence of the Hong Kong action style began however with the first wirework martial arts movies of the 50s; and has merely translated itself into more modern settings with guns in the past 20 years.

This style is visually amazing. It's graceful, it's elegant, it's breathtaking to watch....

...And it's completely ineffective. It doesn't work at all, in any practical way. In fact, even if one were to train extensively and exclusively for decades to use weapons in such a way, it would be markedly inferior to conventional pistol techniques.

Back to that in a minute.

In this series of posts, I am speaking to writers of fiction (and to some extent non-fiction, though I hope the facts would speak for themselves). I'm hoping to better educate writers about what works, what doesn't, what's just plain dumb, and what's realistic when it comes to guns, self defense, and certain aspects of combat.

Now, I understand, story is more important than gun details (unless your story is about gun details of course); but when you get things grossly wrong, it just irritates your audience, and it breaks the suspension of disbelief that immerses audiences in your work. Conversely, getting the details right enhances that immersion; and for those of us who notice such details, it greatly enhances our enjoyment of the work.

Directors like John Woo, the Wachowski Brothers, Paul Anderson and the like... and pretty much the entirety of Anime... get a partial pass on this, because clearly the gun kata (and dual wielding in general) aren't meant to be taken as literal representational fighting styles. They are used as a device for visual impact, and to relate gun combat to traditional martial arts; because lets face it, the mechanics of modern gun combat aren't very visually exciting, or evocative. There just isn't very much poetry or dance to it in comparison to traditional eastern martial arts.

For the writer though... there is no visual impact in written fiction; except that which is created in the mind of the reader, and if you break immersion... poof it's gone. Basically, there is no excuse for doing this in writing, or even in visual media outside of highly stylized action films. It puts your work into the category of silly or stupid.

There is one exception to this for writing, and it's related to the movie exception above: Pulp fiction and comic books are ALWAYS stylized, and they mostly get a pass. No-one expects the saint of killers to use guns in a realistic manner. A friend of mine writes for "The Executioner" series (Mack Bolan), and they also bend gun-reality (to a lesser degree than comics at least). That said, these types of writing are much better when they take realistic function and physics and simply bring it to larger than life standards, rather than ignoring reality entirely.

An Aside: The recently released action film Shoot'em'up used all of these ridiculous excesses and cliches to paint a broad farce of the entire genre; quite successfully. Though someone who was looking at the movie with an uneducated eye might just see ridiculous excess; if you know what you are watching, the fact that it is satire is readily apparent, and to my mind hilarious. I was laughing from the first minute of the movie, and didn't stop 'til five minutes after the movie was over. I think it was the funniest movie I've seen in years.

So unless you are writing for a "comic book movie", or an actual comic book; just don't do it. Please, as a writer, and a gun lover, I'm begging you. It ruins the experience for me, and a hell of a lot of other people... and we're your target audience.

Ok, now here's why.

Let's talk about dual wielding for a second in more general terms. Dual wielding, as I describe above, is where a single person engages in combat with two weapons, one in each hand. These weapons are usually matched, but you will sometimes see different types of weapons paired together. For example, in pirate movies, one often sees pistols and swords employed together in a dual wielded mode.

Now, dual wielding of certain weapon types can be quite effective; but a sword and a gun simply do not match.

Of course you can very easily carry, and maneuver with a gun and sword in hand (or rather hands); I've done it for demonstration purposes (I have been a live steel fencer for nearly fifteen years - in part of my practice of both eastern and western martial arts). Wielding either, both simultaneously and effectively on the other hand (unintentional pun there sorry), is flat out impossible; because they use opposing musculo-skeletal support postures.

You could perhaps shoot effectively one handed, while carrying your sword in your off hand; but you simply cannot shoot a gun accurately, while swinging or thrusting a sword. This is because the motions and balance necessary to do either, oppose each other.

This is historically accurate by the by. Often in the 18th and even through the 19th century, men would go into close battle with their sword in their off hand and pistol in their strong hand. This was so they could discharge their pistol, then put (or throw) it away, switching quickly to their sword; not so that both could be wielded simultaneously.

Some soldiers (particularly cavalrymen), would also carry braces of pistols (as many as 12, tucked into sashes designed for the purpose), which they would use with their off hand, to keep other attackers off them while they concentrated on slashing sword attacks on their primary target. This wasn't however simultaneously attacking two targets with two weapons, or even one target with two weapons; it was essentially firing for effect, to keep the other attackers under cover.

The important thing to note here however, is that in these circumstances the pistol wasn't considered a primary weapon.

Most of the pistols of the time (at least up 'til the late 1840s) were large single shot affairs designed to be fired with one hand (and in fact gripped in that fencers grip I mentioned above); and they had rudimentary if any sights, intended to be accurate only at a few feet.

Up until the popularization of the modern revolver, pistols were not considered precision weapons (with a few exceptions, such as Mantons dueling sets and the like); and were regarded as suitable only for last ditch defense, or a distraction to attackers while you were using your primary weapon, your sword. No-one of the time would have really considered utilizing both a gun and sword as primary offensive weapons.

Now, a main gauche, or short poingard, and an engagement range of less than 5 yards... I could see the possibility of effective use of a thrusting blade and handgun simultaneously at melee ranges (using a punching point shooting technique perhaps). I've seen instruction on defensive techniques for use against someone with both a gun and a knife for example. It seems unlikely, and it's certainly a poor idea, but I'll concede it is possible.

Honestly though, guns and blades together just don't mix; at least not simultaneously wielded... and actually, not when put together either.


Lemme explain that one.

Throughout history, there have been numerous attempts to produce "gun blades" (prior to Final Fantasy), with varying degrees of failure ranging from partial to abject. Though, funnily enough, the modern pistol grip derives it's shape (and its name) from an Italian/Spanish fencers grip of the 16th century; the combination of sword and gun always compromised the effectiveness, and reliability, of both.

Actually, the only really effective blade and gun combo in history has been the sword bayonet on rifles used up until World War 1 (bayonets were made much shorter after ww1, because the bayonet charge was largely deprecated). Fixing a sword bayonet essentially turns a rifle into a glaive (or in the case of spike bayonets, a spear); and they were not meant to be used as a blade while discharging the rifle. In the days of single shot muzzle loading weapons, and mass ranked armies; one would fire until the enemy were too close for you to reload; then fix your bayonet and charge them as a dlaiveman or spearman. In any event, this resulted in a combined single weapon rather than dual wielded weapons.

There are of course some very effective two weapon melee combat styles, including mixed daisho styles, florentine styles, several Spanish fencing schools, Escrima (which isn't just sticks by the way) and Kali; and other southeast Asian and pacific rim bladed combat styles.

These are effective because not only are the two weapons fighting positions not biologically opposing, they are biologically supporting. The motions of both weapons (and limbs) are complimentary; and the balance and stances used are supportive of each other.

Unfortunately, fighting with two matched guns isn't so effective; though it apes those two blade styles visually. We wont even consider dual wielded long guns, because the concept is patently ridiculous. Handguns, are not much more useful in this mode however.

Under the best of circumstances, handguns are difficult to shoot accurately; especially while moving or while shooting over great (or even moderate) distances. The best action shooters in the world (Rob Leatham, Doug Koenig, Jerry Miculek and the like) make mediocre scores while shooting on the move at distances greater than 15 yards; and that is with fully supported grip, and intense focus on a single weapon, that has been highly modified an specialized just for such types of shooting.

Two gun shooting is the province of trick shooters only; because it is simply not effective. A trick shooter with two guns ma look quite impressive, but a good pistol shot can EASILY put more rounds, on more targets, in less time, out of one properly wielded pistol; than could the best shot in the world with two pistols.

Jerry Miculek (who is the fastest pistol shot in the world) can shoot 6 shots on 6 different targets at 10 yards from his custom S&W 625 revolver, reload, and fire 6 more shots on those targets; all in under 3 seconds. With his 627 (an 8 shot .357 revolver) he can put 8 shots into 4 different targets (2 shots per target) in 1.06 seconds, and six shots into a single target in 0.40 seconds (yes, four tenths of a second). He uses a revolver because he is so fast, that a semi-automatic pistol like the 1911 would slow him down (a revolver can fire as fast as you pull the trigger, a semi-auto has to cycle the slide first. Most people are faster with a semi, but a few can pull the trigger faster than a semi can cycle).

You simply cannot do that, or anywhere near that, with two guns (in fact Jerry can't even do it, and he's tried). You could blaze away and put as much lead in the air; but that's exactly where it would go, in the air.

Even the best trick shooters don't generally bother trying to hit accurately with two guns at more than 15 yards or so; and that's standing still. Shooting two handguns accurately while moving, at more than 5 yards range, is nearly impossible.

So writers, please, have your characters shoot one gun at a time; and concentrate on shooting that one gun well. Front sight, trigger squeeze, followthrough; that's how you shoot well, and you can't do that with two guns.

It does look damn cool though, doesn't it?