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Shooting To Live

This month we’ll be launching the fourth installment of the Champions of 1941, Mandarins. Teasers and excerpts for that novella are still to come, but for now I want to highlight one element vital to the story: we’re going to spend extra time with Stephanie Shylock, and learn more about her particular skills.

By now it’s well established that Stephanie is a natural shooter. If it has sights and a trigger, she can make it work –– one of the legacies of her upbringing on the American frontier of another planet, with a slightly notorious gunfighter for a godfather. Her ability to shoot, combined with her rather impressive intellect, have allowed her to chase into danger alongside Alex… and to survive.

In Mandarins we’ll get a closer look at how she’s managed that, and hopefully get a hint of how difficult it can be. Constantly working both on herself and her tools, just to be able to keep up, is not easy, and she deserves immense credit for being so extraordinary. Unfortunately, I think such skill is easily taken for granted.

It’s very simple for a writer to announce that a certain character is a spectacular warrior, without really being able to explain how (I know this because I’ve done it –– that hack from Defense Command, anyone?). If being that elite warrior involves guns, it gets even easier: we can simply tap out assurances that so-and-so is a great shot, and when push comes to shove, our keystroke makes his or her bullet hit the target.

But such inaccurate handling of firearms in the midst of fiction strikes me as problematic, even if it is unintentional. Unfortunately, too much of what we ‘know’ about guns is a product of popular culture –– be it movies, television, games, or books. We come to assume that the person who looks coolest knows best how to use a gun… and we assume that the physics on display are accurate. The reality: pitting screen gunplay against combat shooting would be like setting stage fencing against Kendo. Don’t try this at home.

I suppose it can be argued (perhaps convincingly) that getting the details wrong isn’t a big deal. Surely the fact that hiding behind a car door in real life would have gotten him killed is irrelevant; that her fully-automatic rifle should have emptied itself in five seconds doesn’t matter! But alas, I always get hung up on accuracy –– historical or otherwise –– so since leaving the safe confines of science fiction (mags and energy rifles blissfully do whatever I tell them to), I’ve had a lot of research to do.

These days, genuine facts about guns are often lost amongst agendas, so you have to be very careful about the information you take on board. I discovered this when beginning research for His Majesty’s New World –– after a few Google searches my head was spinning. After discovering countless inconsistent details that had literally no place in the world of 1919, I decided to go straight to the horse’s mouth.

By which I mean: the gun range.

A good friend took me out for my first experience firing a gun that didn’t shoot water, a laser, or a foam dart. It was hugely informative. Who knew that the barrel of a Webley revolver would get so damned hot, so quickly? Imagine shooting desperately to survive against a horde of savages, but then giving yourself serious burns when you tried to reload without gloves. Only rarely does such a thing happen to an actor in a movie… and to be fair, I stopped short of doing my hand any harm. I learned quickly, so the officers of the Newfoundland Regiment knew better. It was a small detail, but to me it mattered.

For Champions, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to turn myself into an expert combat shooter –– Stephanie had been doing it since she was a toddler, and I could never catch up. Instead, I imposed upon World Champion pistol shooter Julie Golob, who has been terribly good with her time and her insight. Her help has allowed me to get to know this part of Stephanie’s life a bit better, and has yielded many of the details that are not-so-subtly on display in Mandarins (any mistakes naturally being my own). As I’ve said before, it definitely helps when you ask the right people:

But here’s a question: Julie Golob is a World Champion modern pistol shooter (literally, she’s written the new book on shooting –– it’s called SHOOT). The experience she shares is invaluable when it comes to the fundamentals, and specifically to some of the experiences of a female shooter… but it’s also 70 years too new. Stephanie is a world-class pistol shooter from the 1940s, so if I’m trying to be accurate, how do I reverse-engineer Julie’s insight to match Stephanie’s era?

YouTube, obviously. And some other research, I guess.

Previously in Champions, I’ve mentioned a book called Shooting To Live, which was written by Britons William E. Fairbairn and Eric Sykes in the 1930s. These two men, along with an American named Rex Applegate, basically invented modern western combat training… and they did it the hard way.

Fairbairn was an ex-Royal Marine who joined the British police force in Shanghai –– not a good town for a foreigner to police during the new Imperialism (I have no idea how it stacks up today). After countless gunfights and knife fights at brutally close quarters, he learned how to stay alive, and then he wrote the book so others could learn from his experiences.

When World War Two began, the Allies grabbed both Fairbairn and Sykes for training roles, allowing them to pass on their secrets to British, Canadian, and American troops, as well as the Commandos and the OSS. Some of their training films are now in the public domain, and naturally, on YouTube. When you watch one, it’s easy to pick out Fairbairn; he sometimes wears British battle dress (like Stephanie’s)… and he’s the SCARIEST GRANDPA EVER:

I agree with the top commenter on this video: before Chuck Norris goes to sleep, he checks under his bed for William Fairbairn. By the time I was growing up, the notion of a ‘Karate chop’ became something of a gag, but I suspect if you got one from Fairbairn, you’d remember it. If you were lucky…

Anyway, when you research these old training films, and cross-reference them with the insights from a modern expert like Julie, reconstructing Stephanie’s training and techniques becomes manageable. You discover that many of the unglamorous truths are consistent… and getting back to the earlier point of ‘don’t try this at home’, it rapidly becomes clear that what Hollywood shows us about guns is often dangerously inaccurate. The reality looks more like this:

Don’t expect to see Stephanie dual-wielding pistols Akimbo-style, or doing a dramatic spin before opening fire. At the risk of looking uncool, she’ll maintain a crouched position with a straight shooting arm, while relying on solid balance, a good sight picture, effective control of recoil, and most importantly, good judgment. Those were some of the keys to Fairbairn’s method, and though things have evolved since his time, they’re at the heart of Julie’s success too.

But having said all that, I must conclude with the most important truth: no matter how skillful one happens to be with a firearm, strength of mind remains paramount. Be it today or in the 1940s, deciding when and how to use force, and then grappling with the consequences, might prove a greater challenge than simply shooting to live. How will Stephanie cope when she must continually apply her skills in the field –– and witness the outcomes?

Time will tell. For now, we’ll see how things turn out in Mandarins