Thursday, October 31, 2019

The Guns of Babylon

When writing a tactical thriller with heavy action elements, you have to get around to talking about the hardware. Tools drive what the characters can and can’t do, and weapons are a big part of that.
Also, guns are cool.

When writing guns in fiction, a common approach is to simply drop generic terms like ‘rifle’ or ‘pistol’ and leave it at that. Some slightly more sophisticated writers drop brand and/or gun names: FN SCAR, Beretta M9, Barrett M82. It may well work for them. Most readers just want to get on with the action without being bogged down in too much detail. But I prefer a more sophisticated option.

A character’s choice of weapons reflects his capabilities, needs, preferences, and perceived mission and enemies. Weapons that are issued to him speaks to his organisation’s requirements, missions, policy, culture, and, most importantly, budget. A character’s weapon in a scene reflects his character and/or his parent organization, defines his capabilities in a scene, and drives his tactics.
When I write, I write weapons as though they are extensions of people and organizations. That’s because in real life, they are.

Your average American criminal doesn’t care about quality or range or whatever; he wants something that is concealable, readily available on the black market, and dangerous-looking enough to intimidate victims and blast away at rivals. Thus, we see that the most common firearm used by American criminals is the 9mm handgun, usually a Glock, due to its widespread availability.

In contrast, your average police officer must use either his department-issued weapon or, in larger cities, choose from a list of department-approved weapons. His weapons reflect the needs of the department. Any sound PD would place reliability as its top priority, quickly followed by (reasonable) accuracy: firearms are used in the gravest extreme, and they must work when called upon—and that may well mean taking a hostage rescue shot. But a department is also constrained by its budget, which means you won’t see top-end gear for the rank and file, only gear that is deemed good enough (and, to be fair, in modern times, ‘good enough’ gear from reputable manufacturers is actually excellent).

Uniquely to America, police departments are held liable for the actions for their officers to a far greater degree almost anywhere else, and as such department liability sometimes drive purchasing decisions. The NYPD infamously issues the ‘New York trigger’, a spring which increases the pull weight of its issued Glock pistols from five pounds to twelve pounds. Such a long and heavy trigger pull reduces the possibility accidental discharges, and therefore liability in the eyes of the police brass and politicians—but I repeat myself. At the same time, it makes it extremely difficult to shoot accurately under stress, leading to missed shots—and, perversely, increases legal exposure. The NYPD itself acknowledges that heavier trigger pulls reduces accuracy. But it hasn’t changed its policy. The most charitable interpretation is that it views the risk of a negligent discharge as greater than that of missing a suspect in a gunfight. Fundamentally, the NY trigger is a half-baked hardware solution to a training issue, mandated by politicians who either don’t know much about weapons or push to ban them altogether–but again, I repeat myself.

A gun is a gun. But in fiction, it is more than a gun. To readers in the know, a gun tells them something about the user, reinforcing his characterisation.

I, being cursed with such knowledge and an obsession to pursue it, dedicate a lot of time and energy into choosing weapons for characters and organizations. Babylon Blues, being an action-heavy saga, will features weapons and tactics prominently. Being the secondary stars of the show, choosing the weapons is a delicate and often frustrating process.

But, all things considered, it worked out nicely.

M83 Carbine

The M83 carbine is the standard weapon of the Special Tasks Section. In keeping with modern tactical police trends, the STS issues rifle-caliber weapons to its operators. Unlike regular SWAT in our world, the STS hunts down terrorists with supernatural powers, cultists who have fused with gods, monsters that wield lethal magics. Showing up with a lesser weapon is a recipe for failure. The carbine is the defining weapon of the STS, the one it uses most often, and therefore the one that I have to pay the most attention to.

Small wonder that it was also the most frustrating weapon to create.

The carbine originally began life as the LSW192. After watching the original Cyberpunk 2077 trailer, I had a vision of a futuristic rifle. It would be a compact bullpup with a 20-inch barrel, the better to navigate the tight confines of a megacity, with the option to use shorter barrels and handguards a la the Tavor. It would eject forward like the F2000, and its fire controls would be mirrored on both sides for one-handed use, allowing for full ambidextrous use.

Then I stopped to think about what the STS really needed.

The STS is a cross of BOPE and the FBI Hostage Rescue Team. They hunt down the most dangerous street predators of Babylon the way BOPE combs the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, but the mission is to save lives like the HRT. They need a hard-hitting weapon, but they also need an exceptionally accurate weapon, because they will be working within densely-populated areas.

Rifle accuracy is measured in MOA, minute of angle. A rifle capable of shooting 1 MOA can place a group within 1 inch at 100 yards. The US military’s acceptance criteria for its M4 carbine is 5 MOA. This will allow the carbine to hit a man-sized target at 300 yards. This may be adequate for general purpose use—but not necessarily for special operations. Contrast this with the HK416 carbine, designed in collaboration with the US military’s elite Delta Force, which has an accuracy of 2 MOA from a 16 inch barrel.

A bullpup rifle places the magazine and the firing mechanism behind the grip. This makes for a long action with multiple linkages, and a long action comes a long and mushy trigger pull—which tends to reduce accuracy. It’s telling that bullpup rifles tend to be less accurate than conventional rifles.
This problem of a mushy trigger can be solved with laser ignition. Indeed, the LSW192 called for one. This replaces the mechanical firing action with a computer, a laser, and a switch. Without mechanical actions, the trigger can be clean, crisp and light. It would have been the perfect solution.
Just one problem: the STS fights monsters, not men. Including monsters with the ability to manipulate light and electricity, as seen in the story THE WHITE CROSS, exclusive to the BABYLON BLUES collection.

More than accuracy, the STS prizes reliability. The gun must shoot, even in the face of monsters and madmen attempting to rewrite the laws of reality. That means the STS’ carbine must feature a mechanical-only action and must have backup iron sights.

In addition, the monsters the STS faces may be heavily armored and/or possess magical shields, so well-protected against small arms fire even armor piercing rounds can’t defeat them. The only way to stop them with man-portable weapons to shoot their weak points. And if these monsters have regeneration powers too, then the weapon must be able to put repeated shots into these weak points until the monster finally decides to die.

In practical terms, this means the STS-issue long gun must be capable of making headshots out to at least 300 meters, preferably 500 meters, with 95% confidence level or greater.

Can a bullpup rifle do that? Possibly, if combined with FUTURE TECH. We know today that the Steyr AUG A3, a bullpup rifle, is capable of 1.5 to 2 MOA accuracy with ball ammo. With premium match-grade rounds, it could even achieve sub-MOA accuracy, sometimes. This a comfortable margin for a headshot.

Accuracy and reliability aside, however, the STS has a third criteria: mission adaptability.
STS operations are highly dynamic. They may make multiple hits in the same job. Their target may be mobile, or even break free from a police cordon, requiring the STS to go mobile.

The situation may change rapidly over the course of a mission, and the team must adapt, as seen in THE BLACK WATCH.  The ability to rapidly reconfigure weapons on the field is a huge plus, and indeed when an STS team goes on a callout, they carry multiple parts kits with them in the field. An operator may have to transition from close-quarters assaulter to precision marksman in the same op.
The baseline accuracy standard for a modern sniper rifle is 1 MOA. Top-flight counterterrorist units that will be called on to make difficult shots (such as the STS) would demand sub-MOA accuracy. This level of accuracy is very difficult to achieve with a bullpup, due to the linkages in the firing mechanism and the mushy trigger. I’ve only heard of a couple of bullpup rifles capable of consistently achieving 1 MOA or better, versus the larger numbers of precision rifles with a conventional layout.

In the end, it boiled down to this: either have a bullpup platform and a separate dedicated sniper rifle, or a single family of weapons that can be reconfigured on the fly.

The STS would go for the latter. It is cheaper and easier to train on a single family of weapons than to maintain two platforms. Moreover, it is easier for the reader to track a single family of weapons than two platforms.

The new weapon system for the STS had departed so far from the original design that I gave it a new name: the M83. A boring, staid name, in line with American naming conventions, reflecting its conventional nature, instead of the exotic ‘LSW’.

This isn’t to say that the LSW name won’t show up again, only that this design doesn’t fit this universe.

The M83 drew inspiration from two designs: the LaRue Tactical Optimized Battle Rifle and Textron’s  Next Generation Squad Weapon – Rifle prototype. The LaRue Tactical OBR is a precision rifle that can be run like a battle rifle, capable of sub-MOA accuracy in hard use conditions. Exactly what the STS needs. The NGSW – R was taken because of its calibre: the 6.8mm General Purpose Cartridge.

The world of Babylon Blues is far more dangerous than ours. Heavily armored monsters walk the streets. Lightweight rifle-grade armor is commonplace. The traditional military answer to body armor is the generous application of explosives.

It is not an option for a hostage rescue team.

In our world, the US Army’s 6.8mm GPC was driven by a desire to defeat Level IV body armor out to 500 meters, a questionable design choice among gun guys. In the land of Babylon, the 6.8mm round was designed to kill giant armored monsters without causing collateral damage within a densely populated megapolis. Both military and law enforcement would push for the development of such a calibre, practically guaranteeing its adoption.

There are presently three main variants of 6.8 GPC: a cased telescoped round, a hybrid metallic-cased round, and a polymer-cased round. At the time Babylon Blues was conceived, the first was widely touted and the latter barely known. Indeed, the latter two emerged only through the NGSW competition, which provided the 6.8mm bullet but let manufacturers design the rest of the cartridge.

I chose the cased telescoped bullet because, well, it was SCI FI. But a cased telescoped cartridge doesn’t have a rim, so it needs a novel ejection system that pushes it forward out of an ejection port. This leads to the bulk you see in the Textron NGSW – R, the same bulk replicated and described in BABYLON BLUES.

Was it the right choice? I don’t know, to be honest. I threw in cased telescoped ammo into the manuscript without thinking about how it would affect the aesthetics and possible ergonomics of the weapon design – although, to be fair, I don’t think anyone outside the Textron design team understood how CTA would affect the design of a conventional weapon until the prototype was revealed.

Another challenge that emerged was the increased bulk of the 6.8mm cartridge. Textron’s NGSW – R’s prototype ships with a twenty-round magazine. So does its competitor from SIG. Contrast this with modern assault rifles, which have thirty-round magazines. A 30-round 6.8mm mag would be too long to be used comfortably when shooting from the prone. Once again, I didn’t anticipate this, and The Black Watch was written with carbines sporting 30-round 6.8mm mags.

And an automatic rifle with a 20-round magazine isn’t exactly suited for auto fire.

But, this being sci fi, there are two ways around this.

The simpler approach is introduce more powerful and efficient propellant. This allows the cartridge to be much slimmer than modern cartridges. These high-efficiency propellants do exist today, as prototypes, and offer up to 52% volume reduction, making it easy to squeeze 30 rounds into a 20-round mag.

The second approach, and the more intriguing one, comes from True Velocity / General Dynamics’ NGSW submission, which uses a 30-round magazine.

I don’t know how they did it. It could be a byproduct of the novel case design, which mostly eliminates the shoulder and neck from a conventional cartridge, thus reducing volume and length. It could be new propellant. It could simply be a magazine well and chamber mounted higher on the rifle than in a traditional AR-15 design. But it showed me that a 30-round 6.8mm magazine is possible, for a rifle that doesn’t look as ugly as Textron’s.

Will there be more changes to the M83? Maybe, maybe not. The basic layout, design and mission remain unchanged. But the rest deserves a second look.

M99 pistol

When I conceived of series protagonist Yuri Yamamoto, I saw his favorite pistol. A hammer-fired high-capacity handgun, derived from the CZ P-07 line of pistols.  I even had a line for it: “In a world of polymer striker-fired handguns, he believed in steel and hammers.” It reflected his main character theme, which is a seamless blending of old and new.

It even dovetailed with what I knew of HRT and Delta Force, the units I used as the model of the STS. They used customized M1911 pistols, ultra-accurate, supremely reliable, the finest fighting handguns ever designed.

Then I did my research.

It turned out that Delta, and to a lesser extent HRT, had transitioned to Glocks a while ago. The custom M1911s were, and are, superb, but they went through such a beating in high-intensity training and operations that they required constant maintenance and parts replacement. Glocks, in contrast, kept running and running and running.

Reliability is far more important than accuracy, from the perspective of the operator, the armorer, and the accountant. And if the pistol can confidently deliver a hostage rescue shot at expected combat range, it was good enough.


Glocks are boring.

Imagine a plastic block with an angular plastic handle and a square hollow box. That is a Glock in a nutshell. It will never win any cosmetic awards, which, depending on your needs, may or may not be a good thing. When you’re writing cyberpunk, though, style is as important as substance.
And there are better designs out there.

I went with Laugo Arms Alien pistol. In contrast to the staid conventional design of the M83, the Alien pistol is a handgun of the future. It features a fixed barrel with interchangeable slide unit, a mounting for a red dot sight and ultra-low bore axis. It represents genuine innovation in the field of pistol design, and it looks like it stepped out of a cyberpunk movie.

Thus the M99 was born: a futuristic, battle-proven Alien pistol, marrying the accuracy of a competition gun with the reliability of a service weapon—and built of steel, with an internal hammer.
Could the Alien pistol achieve this dream in our world? We know that its native accuracy makes for a superb race gun. We don’t know anything about police or military tests yet, if there are any at all. It could well be that the Alien is fit only for sport, unable to stand up to the rigors of extreme duty use.
Fortunately, I write fiction.

M585 Personal Defense Weapon

The STS doesn’t use submachine guns. Neither do many American police or military units, at least not as a default weapon.

In the late 1980s to early 2000s, an SMG offered accurate firepower in a compact package. Today, however, modern carbines are of comparable length to an SMG, sporting a more powerful calibre. Further, a 9mm SMG tends to penetrate interior drywalls much further than a 5.56mm carbine, an important consideration for police forces. With the increasing proliferation of body armor and active shooters, military and tactical LE units had switched to carbines long ago.

Given the mission of the STS, any weapon that cannot defeat body armor is a non-starter. SMGs were right out.

With that said, there is still a niche for a compact, high-capacity full-auto weapon, not necessarily in a rifle calibre but still capable of defeating armor. Babylon is a sprawling cyberpunk city, with claustrophobic rooms and corridors and small spaces. To search and clear such spaces, the usual response is to transition to a pistol. But missions can take place entirely inside confined spaces, as in the case of Fortune City in BABYLON BLUES and a cult headquarters in THE WHITE CROSS. Given the threats the STS faces, they will a weapon more powerful than a mere pistol.

Enter the M585.

Compact as a machine pistol, with the armor-defeating capabilities of a carbine, it was a personal defense weapon. Figuring out its design was easy: I just took the MP7, borrowed the see-through magazine and grip of ST Kinetics’ CPW, and called it good. After all, it wasn’t going to see much action anyway.

The tricky question was the calibre. The terminal performance of the 5.7mm and 4.6mm rounds is perfectly disappointing. The 5.7mm has a mixed record in police use, with some users reporting excellent terminal performance and others claiming poor performance. As for the 4.6mm, it is a truism among special operators wielding the MP7 that if you couldn’t nail a headshot, you had to shoot the threats lots of times.

Real-world PDW calibres aren’t acceptable to an agency that deals with berserk beasts in close confines. In the end, I bumped up the calibre to the 7.92x24mm. This is the calibre used by VBR Belgium’s PDW design, adapted for the needs of Babylon. This calibre offers the performance of the time-tested 9mm, but with increased magazine capacity and novel armor piercing designs.

Given the small size of this calibre, I also chambered the M99 in this calibre. An organization would seek to maintain as few calibres as possible to reduce logistics costs, and having a pistol and a PDW that fires the same ammo would be a godsend. And in the STS’ line of work, an armor-piercing pistol is a necessity.

Other Guns

A plethora of other firearms are mentioned in passing. Shotguns, submachine guns, other generic rifles and pistols. There’s enough firepower for the army of a small nation packed in the saga.
A gun fanatic would name and spec them all. The wise writer wouldn’t.

The weapons of Babylon are all fictional. If I say a character is holding an Erebus Arms LM1920 rifle, what does it mean to reader? Nothing more than a bunch of words. These words would only grow in significance if the story spends time exploring and describing the weapon and its capabilities.

If the story doesn’t require an in-depth exploration of a weapon, there’s no need to waste words describing it – not to mention the time and energy needed to research and craft it. If a generic ‘pistol’, ‘rifle’ or other such weapon word would do in a story, I’d prefer to just slot it in and continue writing.
Ultimately, the purpose of researching, crafting and designing fictitious guns is to entertain the reader. To create an emotional connection, to set up future scenes, to hint at the needs and circumstances of a character, his network and his mission. Anything more than that is superfluous.

Gearhead I might be, but many of my readers most certainly aren’t.

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