What killed the duel?

Wednesday, January 27th, 2016

Eric Raymond considers himself an expert on the history of the duel of honor:

First, the undisputed facts: dueling began a steep decline in the early 1840s and was effectively extinct in English-speaking countries by 1870, with a partial exception for American frontier regions where it lasted two decades longer. Elsewhere in Europe the code duello retained some social force until World War I.

This was actually a rather swift end for a body of custom that had emerged in its modern form around 1500 but had roots in the judicial duels of the Dark Ages a thousand years before. The conventional accounts attribute it to a mix of two causes: (a) a broad change in moral sentiments about violence and civilized behavior, and (b) increasing assertion of a state monopoly on legal violence.

I don’t think these factors were entirely negligible, but I think there was something else going on that was at least as important, if not more so, and has been entirely missed by (other) historians. I first got to it when I noticed that the date of the early-Victorian law forbidding dueling by British military officers – 1844 – almost coincided with (following by perhaps a year or two) the general availability of percussion-cap pistols.

The dominant weapons of the “modern” duel of honor, as it emerged in the Renaissance from judicial and chivalric dueling, had always been swords and pistols. To get why percussion-cap pistols were a big deal, you have to understand that loose-powder pistols were terribly unreliable in damp weather and had a serious charge-containment problem that limited the amount of oomph they could put behind the ball.

This is why early-modern swashbucklers carried both swords and pistols; your danged pistol might very well simply not fire after exposure to damp northern European weather. It’s also why percussion-cap pistols, which seal the powder priming charge inside a brass cap, were first developed for naval use, the prototype being Sea Service pistols of the Napoleonic era. But there was a serious cost issue with those: each cap had to be made by hand at eye-watering expense.

Then, in the early 1840s, enterprising gunsmiths figured out how to mass-produce percussion caps with machines. And this, I believe, is what actually killed the duel. Here’s how it happened…

First, the availability of all-weather pistols put an end to practical swordfighting almost immediately. One sidearm would do rather than two. Second, dueling pistols suddenly became tremendously more reliable and somewhat more lethal. When smokeless powder became generally available in the 1880s they took another jump upwards in lethality.

Moral sentiments and state power may have been causes, but I am pretty convinced that they had room to operate because a duel of honor in 1889 was a far more dangerous proposition than it had been in 1839. Swords were effectively out of play by the latter date, pistols no longer sputtered in bad weather (allowing seconds to declare that “honor had been satisfied”) and the expected lethality of a bullet hit had gone way up due to the increased velocity of smokeless-powder rounds.

I’m not sure that’s a new idea.

Why We Picture Bombs As Round Black Balls with a Burning Wick

Sunday, January 24th, 2016

The iconic bomb entered the public imagination after the Civil War:

Ignited, uncontained gunpowder will burn, but for it to explode the gas pressure needed to be built up in a sealed container. Often, a spherical one made the most sense, since the shape was aerodynamic and could be made of two halves with one seal, instead of a box with many sides.

They were also dark, being made of cast iron or other metals, both to ensure sturdiness and to maximize shrapnel after the explosion. The only thing inaccurate about the cartoon depiction of bombs is the string wick, says Kelly. “Fuses were made of wood and they’d be drilled down through the center, and they’d be packed very solidly with gunpowder that would burn at a predictable rate,” he says, “The idea of a string fuse coming out of the bomb is really a fantasy.”

If the Civil War was the last gunpowder war, given the sheer number of Americans involved, it seems likely that many would have some familiarity with an explosive of that kind. But another aspect of American culture helped to popularize that image — editorial cartoons.

By the mid-19th century, many papers across the country featured editorial cartoons. The most famous was probably Harper’s Weekly, often considered the most widely read publication during the Civil War. Their illustrations featured caricatures of politicians, depictions of the treatment of slaves, and of course, battles. In one cartoon, a smoking bomb with the face of who appears to be General Scott is lobbed toward Jefferson Davis. The bomb is round with a skinny, string wick sticking out of the top. Comics like that made it pretty clear just what a bomb looked like.

In 1867, Alfred Nobel invented dynamite, which Kelly said was quickly and widely “publicized at that time as the weapon of the people,” something easily accessible and easy to make at home. It seems that spherical gunpowder bombs would be on their way out. But another widely publicized event may have sealed their images in the minds of the populace. In 1886, a labor demonstration in Chicago’s Haymarket Square was thrown into riot by a dynamite bomb, but one that reportedly resembled a stereotypical mortar bomb. According to the New York Times accounts of the riots, a group of men arrived on a wagon, and from it “something rose up into the air, carrying with it a slender tail of fire.”

Three days after the bombing, police searched the house of anarchist Louis Lingg, who was suspected to have made the bombs, and found two spherical dynamite bombs with metal casings. Given that dynamite is enough of an explosive, the metal casings were likely not used to hold in pressure, but to cause damage as metal shards flew into the crowd. The prosecution used these bombs as evidence in the trial of eight suspects, and testified that they matched the chemical makeup of the bombs used in the Haymarket riot.


The trial was heavily covered in the press, and again Harper’s Weekly provided images. In one, a bearded anarchist is seen standing over a spherical bomb, and in another Lady Justice holds one labeled “law” over a panicked crowd. It didn’t matter if they were gunpowder bombs or not. The image was the same.


Special Computing Subsystem 24

Friday, January 22nd, 2016

The Russian Air Force, now known as the Russian AirSpace Force, has been able to maintain a high tempo of operations in Syria, launching a high volume of precision munitions surprisingly cheaply:

Instead of mounting a kit on an old bomb and lose the kit every time, the Russians mounted a JDAM-like kit, but on the airplane.

Introducing the SVP-24:


SVP stands for “special computing subsystem”. What this system does is that it constantly compares the position of the aircraft and the target (using the GLONASS satellite navigation system), it measures the environmental parameters (pressure, humidity, windspeed, speed, angle of attack, etc.). It can also receive additional information from datalinks from AWACs aircraft, ground stations, and other aircraft. The SVP-24 then computes an “envelope” (speed, altitude, course) inside which the dumb bombs are automatically released exactly at the precise moment when their unguided flight will bring them right over the target (with a 3-5m accuracy).

In practical terms this means that every 30+ year old Russian “dumb” bomb can now be delivered by a 30+ year old Russian aircraft with the same precision as a brand new guided bomb delivered by a top of the line modern bomber.

Not only that, but the pilot does not even have to worry about targeting anything. He just enters the target’s exact coordinates into his system, flies within a defined envelope and the bombs are automatically released for him. He can place his full attention on detecting any hostiles (aircraft, missiles, AA guns). And the best part of this all is that this system can be used in high altitude bombing runs, well over the 5000m altitude which MANPADs cannot reach. Finally, clouds, smoke, weather conditions or time of the day play no role in this whatsoever.

Last, but not least, this is a very cheap solution. Russian can now use the huge stores of ‘dumb’ bombs they have accumulated during the Cold War, they can bring an infinite supply of such bombs to Syria and every one of them will strike with phenomenal accuracy. And since the SVP-24 is mounted on the aircraft and not the bomb, it can be reused as often as needed.

(Hat tip to Randall Parker.)

Modernized Nuclear Weapons

Sunday, January 17th, 2016

The US has been using precision munitions for decades, but it has only recently moved to modernize its nuclear weapons — adding not only precision guidance but also a “dial-a-yield” feature whose lowest setting is just 2 percent as powerful as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

B61-12 Diagram. Modernizes Nuclear Weapons, ‘Smaller’ Leaves Some Uneasy - The New York Times - Google Chrome 1122016 100707 AM


Flash, then Bang

Wednesday, January 6th, 2016

If you’ve ever watched a professional fireworks display, you know that the bright flash precedes the loud bang by a few seconds.

If you watch an atomic bomb blast, the bright flash precedes the loud bang by half a minute:

By the way, that bright flash is bright enough “that people can see bones showing through hands covering their closed eyes,” and that loud bang comes from a pressure wave of 0.2 psi, “an immense punch to the whole body” at 10 km.

Also, it is a bang, rather than a boom:

The sound of a nuclear blast is distinctive as more of a bang than a boom because thermal energy is directly proportional to low frequency absorption. or heat soaks up low frequencies. There is a hell of a lot of heat in a nuclear bomb — hence the higher pitched bang sound than you would expect from such a massive explosion.

Over at the Glasstone blog — “a blog all about contradicting the widespread superstition that nuclear wars are unsurvivable and debunking hardened dogma of exaggerated nuclear effects” — our Slovenian guest asked, which comes first, the shock wave, or the bang?

A simple calculation of the arrival time of “sound” corresponds roughly to the arrival time of zero pressure after the shock wave! At very long distances where the shock velocity decays to sound velocity, the blast duration peaks and ceases to increase further. So you can get an idea of the blast wave or sound wave duration by subtracting the calculated sound wave arrival time from the shock wave arrival time!

Some examples. Sound takes 4.7 seconds to travel one mile. So if you are at 10 miles from a 1 megaton low air burst over Trafalgar square, the shock front arrives at 40 seconds after the first flash of the explosion, and zero pressure (sound arrival time) is about 47 seconds, so the total shock duration is around 7 seconds!

There’s some interesting physical mechanisms. Because sound is a longitudinal pressure wave, and is not a transverse wave, it is basically an outward force (pressure = force/area). So you get some simple basic concept physically, like Energy = Force x Distance, or more precisely: Energy = Integral of Force over distance. The distance here is the distance of the outward pressure phase of the shock. Then by Newton’s 3rd law of motion, you get the prediction of the negative (inward directed) pressure phase, which has lower peak (negative) pressure, and so has a somewhat longer duration. Of course, in the very early phase of the blast wave there is no negative pressure, because when the pressure wave is isothermal, Newton 3rd law reaction force consists entirely of the blast going out in the opposite direction, e.g. before the negative phase sets in, the reaction force of the blast force which is going Southwards is simply the blast force that’s going Northwards. After the pressure in the middle drops to ambient due to outward motion of most of the air in the shock front, this reaction force is replaced by the negative phase (reversed blast winds). So it’s possible to get a physical, intuitive feel for the physics of all the details of the blast wave.

The first sound in actual nuclear blast, regardless of the blast duration, is like a pistol shot, according to Jack W. Reed, who saw more atmospheric nuclear tests than anyone else in the West while in the Nevada long-range nuclear blast prediction unit (which had to predict blast reflections from atmospheric temperature inversions to prevent broken windows and injuries in Las Vegas, etc.). Humans can only hear sounds with frequencies of 20 Hz – 20 kHz, so a 1 second blast duration is 1 Hz and is too low to hear. So all you hear in a nuclear explosion is:

1. The crack-like (pistol shot) sound of the abrupt rise in pressure when the shock front arrives (if it takes 1 ms to go from ambient pressure to peak overpressure, that is a frequency of around 1 kHz).

2. The sound of the wind blowing behind the shock front (which is only 40 miles/hour peak wind speed at 10 miles from 1 megaton, but is much higher closer in).

3. Sounds from damage caused like breaking windows, impacts of blown debris.

Travis Tomasie on Mythbusters

Sunday, December 20th, 2015

Adam and Jamie from Mythbusters try to shoot and reload rapidly. Then they bring in an expert:

Jerry Shot First

Friday, December 18th, 2015

Jerry Miculek has some fun shooting a replica DL-44 blaster — based, of course, on the Mauser “broomhandle” C96:

Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle

Saturday, December 12th, 2015

The modern Taser was named after Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle. The name is an acronym for Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle. And it rhymes with laser, of course.

If you haven’t read any of the original Tom Swift novels, be warned: they could not be more dated. I particularly enjoyed this passage from the 1911 novel:

That’s just what I want. Elephant shooting in Africa! My! With my new electric rifle, and an airship, what couldn’t a fellow do over in the dark continent!

His new invention is not a stun gun, by the way.

What Really Happens When You Get Shot

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015

So, Wired has a decent article on what really happens when you get shot — summary: “bullets are magic” — but what caught my eye was the accompanying photograph:

Pistol and Round

Is that CGI? Is that even a bullet? It’s way out of focus, but it looks like a rimmed brass casing. It also looks bigger than the muzzle opening, which oddly lacks any burning gasses. The slide isn’t reciprocating, either. Oh, and there’s no finger on the trigger. Who painstakingly makes such an image?

Firearms, Kings, and the Emergence of the Peaceful Life

Monday, December 7th, 2015

The United States has a higher homicide rate than most other developed countries, and it has more civilian gun ownership — but the causality isn’t straightforward:

There are large gaps among the states when it comes to homicide, with rates ranging all the way from about two to twelve per 100,000 in 2013, the most recent year of data available from the CDC. These disparities show that it’s not just guns that cause the United States to have, on average, a higher rate of homicide than other developed countries do. Not only is there no correlation between gun ownership and overall homicide within a state, but there is a strong correlation between gun homicide and non-gun homicide — suggesting that they spring from similar causes, and that some states are simply more violent than others. A closer look at demographic and geographic patterns provides some clues as to why this is.

The first major factor is race. Blacks lacked the government’s protection from violence through most of American history and even today have higher rates of homicide than other racial groups do. Despite being 13 percent of the general population and owning guns at just half the rate of whites, blacks commit about half of murders, overwhelmingly against other blacks. Drawing on recent CDC data, the website FiveThirtyEight has reported that while blacks suffer homicide at a rate of 19.4 per 100,000, the rate for non-Hispanic whites is just 2.5 — “not so much of an outlier” in the international context, FiveThirtyEight notes.


Whites in 14 states face a roughly European level of violence, with an annual homicide risk of no more than 1.5 per 100,000. Confusingly, these states don’t appear to have much in common culturally. They include liberal states known for gang violence in poor minority areas (New York, New Jersey), mostly rural red states teeming with firearms (Idaho, North Dakota), Upper Midwest states with strong hunting cultures but also large urban areas (Wisconsin, Minnesota), and gun-loving states either purple (New Hampshire) or solidly blue (Vermont).

But there is, in fact, a common thread: They are all in the northern United States. Cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, documenting this pattern in The Better Angels of Our Nature, ascribes differences in state violence to a North–South divide reflecting “historical routes of migration.” He notes that “the Chesapeake colonies of Maryland and Virginia started out more violent than New England.” As Pinker and countless others have discussed, inhabitants of the North were relatively quick to establish the rule of law and allow the government a monopoly on violence, while the South developed a “culture of honor” in which individuals took personal slights seriously and handled their disputes themselves, sometimes resorting to violence. This difference suggests that there will be higher homicide rates in the South, regardless of the prevalence of guns. In fact, whites in the most violent states — mainly in the South and Southwest, where gun ownership is high — have non-gun-assault death rates around 1.5 to 2 per 100,000, enough to put them above the total rates of the least violent foreign nations and of white Americans in peaceful northern states. Similarly, to return to the previous topic, blacks nationwide have a rate of non-gun-assault death above 3.5 per 100,000.

Definitely read the whole thing.

ISIS in Afghanistan

Friday, November 20th, 2015

I watched the latest Frontline, ISIS in Afghanistan, and had a few thoughts.

Frontline correspondent Najibullah Quraishi seems rather… credulous. Apparently Afghan fighters are defecting from the Taliban to the new, better-paying Islamist group, ISIS — and ISIS is running schools where they teach the children how to fight unbelievers.

Only no one at the school they visited seems to know much about gun-handling. The boys at the ISIS-run school have clearly never handled the guns before, and the teacher doesn’t seem to have many technical pointers to offer.

Also — random thought — I can remember reading years ago — in Matt Ridley’s The Red Queen, I believe — that blond hair is attractive because it suggests youth, and that seemed odd to me, because I hadn’t noticed kids being blonder than adults while growing up. In Afghanistan, on the other hand, the difference in color between children and adults is stark. Almost all the adults have dark hair and skin, but many of the children are blond.

How Gun Traffickers Get Around State Gun Laws

Saturday, November 14th, 2015

The New York Times is shocked — shocked! —  that gun traffickers get around state gun laws by buying guns one state over — and get around federal laws by not buying them legally at all:

Many guns follow a complex path from the original sale to the underground market. Most guns are originally bought from retail stores, but people who can’t pass a background check typically obtain guns from friends, family or illegal dealers.

According to an anonymous survey of inmates in Cook County, Ill., covering 135 guns they had access to, only two had been purchased directly from a gun store. Many inmates reported obtaining guns from friends who had bought them legally and then reported them stolen, or from locals who had brought the guns from out of state.

What a U.S.-Russian War in Syria Would Look Like

Wednesday, October 28th, 2015

Joe Pappalardo imagines what a U.S.-Russian war in Syria would look like:

The escalation begins with a strategic sacrifice. Russian helicopters in Syria are loaded with fuel drums and flown on a flight profile that mirrors a barrel bomb mission. The Raptors take the bait, immolate the Russians in midair, and give the Kremlin a talking point about “slain Russian troops.” Now it can say the Americans fired first and cast its next steps as self-defense.

The Moskva‘s radar spots the tankers easily as they make racetrack patterns in the sky. The refueling aircraft are 135 feet long and have virtually no defenses. They fly without escorts. The Russians wait until fate deals them a good hand—one aerial refueler from Greece is heading back to its base, over the Mediterranean. Another is loitering near Aleppo, tanking U.S. fighters. All are within range of the Moskva‘s 48N6E2 missiles.

The Med is crowded with warships. The United States has four Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers off the Syrian coast, and part of their job is to shadow Russian warships. They’ve followed miles behind as the Moskva creeps along the coastline, north of their new airbase in Latakia.

And when the pair of SAMs rise from the Moskva, the crew on the bridge knows this war has entered a new, scary phase. They go into combat alert and radio to their base in Rota, Spain. By the time the news reaches commanders, the refueling aircraft are obliterated, the eight crew members onboard killed instantly.

Any tankers readying for takeoff are held on their tarmacs. Combat sorties are canceled. Airborne fighters and bombers are ordered to return to airbases. One fighter runs dry and flames out on the way and the pilots eject into Kurdish territory.

The Air Force operates more than 400 KC-135s, so in theory, losing two should not cripple an air campaign. Yet the threat alone keeps them grounded. And with tankers grounded, very few missions to support anti-ISIS and anti-Assad forces can proceed. (B-1 bombers flying from Turkey still operate over northeastern Syria, but only out of the range of the Moskva’s missiles.)

While Russia claims its right to self-defense and takes to the world stage claiming its “limited actions” are meant to deescalate the conflict in Syria, Pentagon planners are preparing a response within hours. The humiliation of the attack and forced cessation of combat missions are just too great.

Orders are passed to the American guided missile destroyers. The Mediterranean is about to erupt.

South Carolina Toddler Shoots Grandmother in Car

Monday, October 26th, 2015

A two-year-old South Carolina boy found a gun in the car he was riding in and shot his grandmother in the back:

According to police, officers were called to the 1100-block of Stanley Drive Sunday afternoon around 1:24 p.m.

Officers met with a woman who says she picked up her great-nephew and was driving him around, with his grandmother in the passenger seat.

While she was driving, the young boy found a .357 revolver in the pouch on the back of the passenger seat. He then accidentally shot his 40-year-old grandmother through the passenger seat.


“It was in a pouch behind the passenger seat, somehow the child reached in and got ahold of it, that’s something our detectives are working on today,” Bollinger said.

Who would leave a loaded revolver in the pouch behind the passenger seat? With a little boy back there?

I don’t know, but I will note that the 40-year-old grandmother was in the passenger seat of an orange Camaro — and the two-year-old, in the moving car, apparently was not in a car seat, or belted-in, for that matter. Hmm…

Naturally Boing Boing illustrates the problem of toddlers shooting people with photos of middle-class white children receiving responsible gun-safety training, like this girl holding an airsoft pistol, with her finger off the trigger:

A man shows a girl how to hold an airsoft gun during the NRA Youth Day at the National Rifle Association's annual meeting in Houston, Texas

A Not-So-Skeptical Look at Gun Control

Monday, October 19th, 2015

Michael Shermer drops his usual skepticism to argue that we’re better at killing Americans than our enemies are:

If your gut tells you that mass public shootings are alarmingly common, your gut’s right.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation defines a mass murder as four or more deaths during a single incident with no distinct time period between killings. By this definition, according to Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox, between 1980 and 2010 there were an average of 20 mass murders per year, or an average of one every 2.6 weeks.

I would expect a skeptic to point out that those are really small numbers in a population of over 300 million, with 15,000 homicides per year.

If we could easily stop the hundred or so deaths per year by previously law-abiding young men who are legally sane but alienated, that would be wonderful, but that leaves the other 99.3 percent of homicides by common criminals.

This is the least skeptical argument though:

In other words, the fantasy many of us have of facing down an intruder with a firearm is belied by the fact that a gun is 22 times more likely to be used in a criminal assault, an accidental death or injury, a suicide attempt or a homicide than it is for self-defense.

Guns aren’t randomly sprinkled amongst the population. They’re owned, illegally, by common criminals, they’re bought by suicidal men, and they’re owned by a third of ordinary Americans — who range from extremely conscientious to extremely negligent, with most in between.

Gun ownership isn’t the cause of gun-homicides, gun-suicides, or gun-accidents, and buying a gun does not mean that the gun is likely to be used in a criminal assault, etc. It depends on who is buying the gun and what the buyer’s intentions are.

For most owners, a gun has a negligible chance of going on to be a part of a homicide, suicide, or accidental death.

In the other direction, is a firearm useful for self-defense? Not if you accept Shermer’s straw man:

If you own a gun and keep it safely locked up and unloaded with the ammunition somewhere else (recommended by gun safety experts), do you really think that, in the event of a break-in, you could get to your gun, find your ammo and load it, engage the intruder, accurately aim and kill him, all before he takes your things? If you do, you’ve been watching too many movies. Go to a firing range and try shooting a handgun. It isn’t easy to do. It requires regular training.

If a gun is going to be out of your control, you keep it unloaded, etc. If it is going to be in your control — say, in your holster — you keep it loaded. If it’s going to be somewhere in between — say, on your nightstand — you can keep in an in-between state of readiness — say, unloaded, but with a loaded magazine in reach, or in a quick-opening safe.

A well-practiced shooter can load a magazine and be ready to shoot in a couple seconds.

Shooting a handgun quickly and accurately does take practice — and tens of thousands of shooters do practice regularly. But even “naive” shooters can shoot quickly and accurately across a room.

I’m appalled by the inverted skepticism of this claim:

A 2009 study corroborated these findings. Conducted by epidemiologists at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and published in the American Journal of Public Health, it found that, on average, people with a gun are 4.5 times more likely to be shot in an assault than those not possessing a gun.

Perhaps people who are likely to be shot in an assault choose to go get a gun?