We all know that war is hell: It is an unrelenting barrage of horror and tragedy, and lots of people die screaming in the mud. It’s always been that way, back to the birth of man — but hey, it sure looks cool, doesn’t it? Without war, we wouldn’t have clashing sword duels or high-stakes dogfights or raging action heroes mowing down wave after wave of ethnic stereotypes. Well, you might want to put on some comfy pants and get out a tub of consolation ice cream, because we’re about to let you way, way down. Turns out real war looks nothing like the movies, and for the most part, it’s just a bunch of quiet people concentrating really hard until it’s time to push a button.
The sniper is the one military role that video games might actually adequately prepare us for. It’s mostly lying down far away from the fight, lining bad-guy faces up with the scope and using some simple hand/eye coordination to blow them away. Even super realistic movies like The Hurt Locker don’t make it look all that different from playing a game of Callfield: Battleduty.
Actual sniping is less about lining up the cross hairs and more about having a complex understanding of physics. It’s one thing to shoot a guy standing 20, 50 or 100 feet away. It’s another thing entirely to make that shot from 1.5 miles away, as Canadian sniper Rob Furlong did.
At that distance, you have to take wind resistance into account, because it’s going to slow your bullet down. And you also have to keep in mind that your bullet will drop while it’s in flight. Furlong’s shot may have taken up to four seconds to hit, and dropped 256 feet on its way to hitting that terrorist. This means that he had to aim several hundred feet above the head of his target to make that shot. Wind resistance and drop aren’t the only things to keep in mind, either. Gunpowder burns at a higher rate when it’s cold and a lower rate when it’s warm, which causes bullets to hit high in warm weather and low in cold weather. And while you’re checking on the weather, make sure to pay attention to the elevation — the thin air at higher altitudes makes your bullets fly faster and flatter.
“Sir, I’m packing up. All I’ve shot in the last four hours are two scientists, a climber and a few penguins.”
Sounding a lot more complicated now? Because we haven’t even gotten into how the length and “twist” of the barrel will affect your shots. Or how the rotation of the Earth can mess things up. Snipers aren’t deadly because they carry the biggest guns; they’re deadly because they’ve learned how to weaponize math.
Furlong didn’t do something as trivial as point a stick really well; he figured out the calculations necessary to arrive at the coefficient of death in the middle of a goddamn gunfight. Now, he didn’t do it entirely in his head: Professional snipers have cheat sheets of data and theorems that inform their shots. They also often assemble DOPE logs (Data on Personal Equipment) to catalog and compensate for all the little variables in their own equipment. But whether or not they’re using cheat sheets, a shot is not just pulling the trigger — it’s factoring in an astronomical number of variables and arriving at a mathematically sound solution, and then using that math to explode somebody else’s head.
Wait, what could you “get wrong” about sword fighting? There aren’t that many ways to swing a sharp piece of metal at another person. Check out scenes like this fight from Kingdom of Heaven:
Or this classic melee from Kill Bill:
Or any of the wonderful duels in the Pirates of the Caribbean series.
Looks good to us. We watch those scenes and think “That is indeed how I would swing a sharp piece of metal at another person. This checks out.”
Here’s the thing about swords or, really, any blade: When they hit too many hard things, they stop being sharp. In real life, those photogenic edge-to-edge parries quickly turn razor-sharp blades into glorified crowbars. They also cause extreme stress to the metal, which can easily snap a blade in half. All of this probably explains why medieval and renaissance fencing manuals devote zero time to the edge-on-edge parry — seriously, they devote more attention to accessorizing frilly pantaloons than stationary sword blocking.
“And then, bam: Now you have two knives instead of one sword!”
Check out this video of a Viking-era re-enactment sword fight. Note how physical the fight is, how much they use their shields and how neither of their swords ever makes contact:
But what about those armored medieval knights with their big, fuck-all, split-a-dude-in-half swords? Those blades aren’t fragile flowers — surely they could just hammer away at each other, right? Apparently not: Most of their fighting styles avoided contacting blades whenever possible.
Instead of Princess Bride-style elegant sword dancing, it turns out most real sword fighting looked more like your standard bar fight and sounded like somebody tied a bunch of tin cans to the back of a car.