Friday, 14 October 2011

Hallo, hooray. There's a price to pay...

The other day I bought a Nerf gun.

(Serious wargamers, bear with me please. There's a long chain of thought that eventually comes back round to relevance, honest.)

If you've never heard of them, Nerf is a brand of toy weapon that fires soft foam darts that are as safe as any possible projectile could be. They are generally made of bright, primary coloured plastic, which obviously means that repaints and customisations are very popular. They are also quite popular in the Steampunk community as the basis of costume weapons, as the basic Nerf pistol, the "Maverick" already looks like a weird-science gatling pistol.

The reason I bought a Nerf gun, if ever a single 41-yr old ever needed a reason to buy an expensive toy aimed at tween-age boys, is that next year's Asylum Steampunk festival will include a live-action Zombie-hunting event, for which the only approved weapons for hunters are those in the Nerf N-Strike range. Since my current costume weapon was merely a light and sound raygun, I needed to re-arm for next year's event. When on a shopping trip to Costco I spotted a Nerf Stampede ECS at a knockdown price, I picked one up on an impulse buy.

Now the Stampede is towards the top end of the range and is a fully automatic rifle. All nerf guns fire the darts with compressed air, normally generated by some sort of pump-action. The Stampede uses battery power to drive a piston, which lets you fire a couple of rounds per second, a very high rate of fire by Nerf standards. The Stampede is also one of the Nerf "Clip System" guns, which means it takes a box magazine (unlike the Maverick, for example, which is a revolver) The standard magazine size is six rounds, but the full-auto Stampede comes with three triple-sized magazines.

So after unboxing and assembling the gun, and after test firing and, of course, giggling like a schoolkid at the result, I sat down to think about how I'm likely to use this firepower in the "real combat" of the zombie hunt. The hi-capacity mags are great, but I wondered if there would be a risk in combat of losing track of how many rounds had been fired. When the gun goes empty, it continues to cycle and "fire", and it might take a couple of blank shots to realise that there were no darts being fired. Which could, of course, prove deadly when faced with a horde of slavering undead nipping at your heels.

So then I started thinking if it might be better to stick with the smaller 6-dart magazines for normal duty, switching over to the 18-dart magazines only for the heaviest fighting.

(Seri0us Wargamers - Here we are at the relevant bit)

Which was when I realised, in a lot of ways I was retreading some of the same debates that went on over the introduction of rapid-firing rifles to the 19th century military. Pundits feared that presented with a rapid firing magazine-fed weapon, ordinary soldiers would most likely fire off all their ammunition too quickly and ineffectively. Many insisted single shot weapons were effectively superior because they encouraged fire discipline that would be lost if the soldier could just blaze merrily away. There was at least one weapon I've heard of that came with a blocker in the magazine that turned it effectively into a single-shot breechloader. The soldier could remove the block when ordered to in combat, allowing the rest of the magazine rounds to be used. Thus an officer could control his men's rate of fire and ammo expenditure at long range, but when the enemy drew near unleash the rifles' rapid fire capability.

Most of the times I've seen this debate discussed in gaming or historical publications it's been with a barely concealed eye-rolling contempt for the conservatives arguing against innovation. Of course, we say, bigger magazines are obviously better. Silly Victorians for doubting it!
It goes right along with Of course machine guns should be deployed as infantry support weapons. Silly Frenchies with you mitrailleuse in grand batteries! and even Of Course armoured vehicles should be concentrated to punch through enemy lines and then use their speed and mobility to exploit the breakthrough. Silly 1930s British and your infantry tanks in penny packets.

What I'm saying isn't just that hindsight is 20/20 and it's easy to see the advantage of an innovation, 100 years or so after it was adopted. I'm saying that maybe we're actually blinded to the fact that some of the reactionary conservatives' complaints may actually have been valid points when viewed against the backdrop of war as it was fought in their time.

I'm looking at the zombie-hunt as vaguely comparable to one of Victoria's "Small Wars" with a smaller force with limited supplies facing a foe with much less firepower but overwhelming numbers. While it might be briefly fun to rock & roll on full auto with my Stampede, peppering zeds with darts... every extra shot that hits an already hit zombie/fuzzy, represents another zombie/fuzzy that I won't be able to shoot when I've run out of ammunition too soon.

Of course today, in the real world, the paradigm of infantry combat has changed so completely, we've adapted doctrine to match, with squaddies carrying up to three times as many individual rounds as their nineteenth century counterparts could expect, plus ammo for support weapons. Then again when you hear stories of our lads in Helmand, pinned down, cut off and down to their last mag each, you start to wonder whether the Victorian exponents of Single Shot firepower may have had a point.

Food for thought anyone?


  1. It's an odd contradiction when you think about it,.. the generals say automatic weapons just aren't sporting or gentlemanly, yet they considered the rank and file to be basic scum.

    I'd put the reason to stick with single shot rifles was more down to resistant to change and fears that these thick soldiers would burn through their ammo in no time at all. (Clearly they underestimated their troops.)

    This of course ignores the basic rule of self preservation that states if you need bullets to help stay alive (and you haven't got many), then you use them wisely.

    The real problem with single shot rifles is that it promotes a stalemate trench warefare approach. Firing rate is far to slow for anything other than slow progression. Was WWI not enough of a lesson?

    And so stood the problem until Hitler's generals (handicapped by the Treaty of Versailles) were forced to rethink the situation. If you've got a huge border but only 100,000 to defend it then it naturally pushes you towards a highly mobile army. But that only works if everything could keep up with the tanks! Clearly the troops couldn't be mucking about with the single shot foot soldier mularky, they had to get in quick, get the job done and keep up.

    The Nerf gun sounds fun, we have a couple in our house that convert to hold Nintendo Wii remotes for shooting games. But under the 'First Day Convention' all darts have been confiscated after the missus was shot in the mouth only 5 minutes after they'd been removed from their boxes. Occasionally I allow them to play with one dart under controlled conditions, but generally they're banned.

    I'd allow more flexibility but Saul (my oldest) has and always will be a grass, and then I'd be in trouble with the missus.

    So,.. zombie hunting..... you gonna write your name on all your darts?

  2. >The real problem with single shot rifles is that
    > it promotes a stalemate trench warefare
    > approach. Firing rate is far to slow for
    > anything other than slow progression. Was WWI
    > not enough of a lesson?

    Actually, old boy, I believe the opposite to be true. Higher rates of fire favour static defensive positions. Think about it. In Napoleonic times, a unit attacking an enemy position might take 2-3 rounds of fire from the defenders while they close to contact. There's still a significant chance that enough lads will survive the defensive fire to have a bit of a scrap to drive the defenders back.
    Things don't change much through the first half of the 19th century, as long as the standard infantry weapon requires powder, ball and wadding to be loaded separately for each shot. When you get single-shot cartridge rifles come in which are much quicker to reload, the defenders can fire 2-3 times more often, making it that much harder to close to contact (the film "Zulu" gives the perfect example of this, including some great shots clearly showing the loading and firing sequence of the Martini Henry rifle.
    Roll forward another twenty years to when clip-fed magazine rifles start to be issued. Now each defender can empty his five round magazine in almost as many seconds. See It now becomes almost impossible for attacking infantry to effectively close in enough numbers to push back the enemy, leading to static defensive positions being king. Add in machine-guns and there you have WWI.

    As for the 19th century generals being stuck-in-the-mud reactionaries for resisting innovation, that's the common view. But my point is that we may be judging them over harshly, seeing how I found myself following the same train of thought over the Nerf gun ammo.

  3. I think you only have to look at the American Civil war to see the impact of the rifled barrel. Not so much for the fire rate (I think this was before cartidged bullets) but the range and accuracy that these 'new' weapons offered. You just didn't need to get close to the enemy to be effective.

    This pushed the engagement distance much further out and made necessary the use of trenches. And then came the howitzer as the icing on the cake. And I can't see how this was ever effective other than murdering troops, they just didn't know what to do to break the dead-lock.

    Maybe it was a mix of fire-rate and accuracy that caused it, but nobody could argue that a very effective way of avoiding it was championed by the German army as it rolled out into Poland, France, Russia etc...

    So maybe that's the answer to your zombie problem,.... superiour air power with your highly mobile mixed attack force.

    If you let the bean counter within you take over you'll be limiting yourself to only dozen darts, and ask yourself the question, "what's the most successful soldiers weapon to date", then see if Nerf do something similar. (Oooh, looks like you did!!... job done.)