Ballistics by the inch

Grim-faced men and women.

“What’s that?”

“Oh, I got it for giving a donation to the snipers.”

I looked again at the pewter skull, about the size of a silver dollar, hanging on a thin ribbon on my friend’s chest. There was a hole in the middle of the forehead, through which the ribbon ran.

A shudder ran through me.

* * * * * * *

The SHOT Show was huge. Massive. Some 50,000 attendees. I heard that if you walked all of the paths through the various booths and displays, you’d cover something like 34 miles.

Big chunks of the show were dedicated to booths catering to “Law Enforcement,” though there was more than a little para-military stuff in these areas. Not surprising, given how much police agencies deal with para-military tactics; they need para-military equipment.

I wandered through these areas, along with pretty much all the rest of the show. Not that I have any real interest in any of the stuff most of them were featuring – I don’t have a ‘wannabecop’ mindset. I was just curious. And it was . . . educational.

* * * * * * *

Ballistics by the inch? What’s that all about?”

The man stopped next to my table in the food court, looking at my name tag. It was early evening, but I was beat from walking most of the show and dealing with the crowds. I don’t do crowds well. My ‘extrovert batteries’ were worn out, and all I wanted was just a light dinner before going to hide in my room and charge up again for the next day of the show.

But, he was smiling, and seemed nice enough. I gestured to the empty chair across from me. He set his tray down, and we introduced ourselves.

“Well, BBTI is a project myself and several friends did, testing how muzzle velocity varies according to barrel length for 16 different handgun cartridges.” I handed him a card.

“Just external ballistics, then?”

“Yeah. But we’ve put all the data online for people to use freely. We launched the site about 14 months ago, and we’re now approaching 2 million hits.” I’d given this little spiel enough times already at the SHOT Show that it pretty much rolled off my tongue automatically. “Why?”

“Well, I’m into ballistics, too. Though that isn’t my ‘day job.'”

* * * * * * *

One of the major reasons I went to the SHOT Show was to make contacts, to meet people with whom I had corresponded. One of these was Kathy Jackson, editor of Concealed Carry magazine and the person behind the excellent Cornered Cat website. I had chatted with Kathy many times over the years, and we worked with her on the great article that Concealed Carry did on the BBTI project.

Anyway, when we did finally have a chance to meet in person the last day of the show, it was a delight. There were four of us, all chatting together. In the course of the conversation, she asked “what is the silliest thing you’ve seen here?”

There was, truth be told, a *lot* of silly things at the show. There was the odd little bayonet which was supposed to affix to your pistol. There were the “mall ninja” toys and people who wore them. There were the science fiction/fantasy themed custom knives which would be useless in the real world. But I said “All the grim-faced men and women in the advertising photos and banners in the LE section of the show.”

* * * * * * *

“What’s your day job?”

“I’m a research scientist. We do a lot of work for NASA and the various aerospace industries, mostly things like orbital mechanics.”

“What brings you to SHOT?”

“Launching a new ballistics calculator, for long-range shooting. Really long range shooting. Stop by the AI booth tomorrow, and I’ll show you.”

We chatted from there, comparing notes on the show, discussing our respective backgrounds in shooting and what got us each interested in the projects we developed. Smart guy. Very smart guy.

* * * * * * *

There was a very interesting post last night on MetaFilter. I know I mention MeFi a lot, but that’s because I am frequently impressed with the quality of the discussions which take place there. This one was about Simo Häyhä, one of the most deadly snipers in history with over 800 confirmed kills during the Finnish “Winter War“. The whole thread is here, but what caught my attention was the discussion which ensued concerning the ethics of being a sniper.

Several people commented that snipers were little more than sociopaths who took some pleasure at killing. Here are two such comments:

How does it feel to have personally murdered that many people?
posted by monospace at 9:11 AM on January 28

And:

Also, the idea that “legalized killing” is really conceptually different from illegal murder would seem to imply that the people who are best at “legalized killing” are temperamentally unrelated to those who murder. I do not buy this. Häyhä’s lack of retrospective remorse is no doubt related to the fact of why he was such an effective killer in the first place: hurting others didn’t have much of a negative emotional effect on him. He probably enjoyed hurting people, which is how he was so calm and good at doing it.

It’s not a stretch to believe that the dispositions that make the best soldiers/snipers are identical to the dispositions of the worst rapists and serial killers. The only difference might be a slightly different life context. The difference between a certain person being celebrated as a war hero or reviled as a serial killer might come down to the chance event of a war happening at a certain time.

posted by dgaicun at 1:59 PM on January 28

There was a lot of push-back against this mindset. The best is from a woman who lived through the siege of Sarajevo. Here’s an excerpt from her:

Sarajevo was a city with a mixed Serb, Croat and Muslim population, as well as significant numbers of Jewish and Roma people. Probably the most obviously “multi-ethnic” city in the former Yugoslavia. It was also a peaceful, cosmopolitan place. This made it a particularly significant target for those Serbs who used ethnic hatred and “the practical impossibility of people living together” as justification for genocide and violent aggression. Sarajevo’s existence proved that to be a lie. Naively, many Sarajevans – myself included – assumed that our solidarity as a city would magically ward off any attacks. Wrong!

Because Sarajevo is in a valley surrounded by mountains which quickly were controlled by Serb forces, we were in an indefensible position. We didn’t have much to defend ourselves with in any case. We were, at first, a purely civilian population. But we were shelled and massacred anyway.

Slowly, some of the men in town who owned rifles (for hunting) realized that one of the only ways to defend themselves was by becoming snipers. These were the same guys who – only weeks or months earlier – argued that only through pacifism would we survive and show the world. We soon discovered the world didn’t care much. As many of us lost family members and started starving, we realized that if snipers would slow the numbers of civilians being killed, that’s what needed to happen. There wasn’t any other choice.

I lived frighteningly near the frontline. So much so, that in quiet moments, there would occasionally be dialogue between “our” snipers and the Serbs shooting and shelling us from the hills. Usually, it was our guys shouting at the Serbs in the hills to lay down their arms. (Most of the Serbs were “local” and frequently each side personally knew the guys on the “other” side.) These requests were quite obviously ignored. It didn’t stop our guys from trying, and they were heartfelt pleas. Our snipers were engaged in self-defense, and I’m amazed that people are so ignorant of war – even in secondhand terms – that they see no difference between self-defense and aggression.

posted by Dee Xtrovert at 4:26 PM on January 28

And another from the same comment:

I can’t idolize a sniper, no matter how tough he was. To be a sniper you have to be no more than one notch away from a psychopath. To kill 800 people, looking at each of them in the face, you have to be dead inside.

How can I say it? That’s just fucking stupid. Maybe, if you know you’re firing on civilians in an act of senseless aggression, it takes a kind of heartless person to do that. But that certainly wasn’t true for Häyhä, who was defending his country and people and likely saved many more lives than he took. Unlike probably everyone else on MetaFilter, I have been a victim of snipers twice, with scars to prove it. That’s not including a shelling that killed my parents, broke my scapula to bits and put me in a coma for weeks. Or the white-hot shrapnel. So if anyone has a right to judge snipers harshly, I am her. But I make the distinction between the people who shot me for no good reason and those who were defending a peace-loving, multi-ethnic city. Because there is a difference.

* * * * * * *

We stopped at the Accuracy International booth, and the fellow gave us a demonstration of the ballistics calculator he’d developed. I don’t want to go into a lot of detail, but suffice it to say that this hand-held device was extremely well designed and robust, capable of holding up to the worst kind of weather and, um, ‘field conditions.’ With it, a capable marksman with the right kind of gun could easily hit a moving target at the range of thousands of yards. Indeed, it is so sophisticated that it will calculate air density differentials according to elevation, and the effect that they would have on the flight of a given bullet at a given angle, because it was meant to be used for making shots up or down the sides of mountains. It’s such a powerful tool that it actually falls under the US laws concerning weapons technology transfers.

* * * * * * *

My comment about the grim-faced men and women was missed in the general chatter, and I’m glad. I meant it, because using those images was so over-the-top in many applications as to be absurd. You know, the whole ‘warrior’ images being tied to a particular flashlight or type of boot. Just . . . silly. Those I know who have been in real grim situations seldom celebrate the fact or try to draw notice to it.

But it is easy to misunderstand that. Sometimes a little black humor is entirely appropriate.

Before I left the show I stopped by the sniper’s table and quietly left a donation. They were out of the little skulls. Which was just fine by me.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to Communion of Dreams.)

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January 29, 2010 - Posted by | Anecdotes, Discussion.

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