5 Weapon Myths You Probably Believe (Thanks to Movies)
We all know that war is hell: It is an unrelenting barrage of horror and tragedy, and lots of people die screaming in the mud. It's always been that way, back to the birth of man -- but hey, it sure looks cool, doesn't it? Without war, we wouldn't have clashing sword duels or high-stakes dogfights or raging action heroes mowing down wave after wave of ethnic stereotypes. Well, you might want to put on some comfy pants and get out a tub of consolation ice cream, because we're about to let you way, way down. Turns out real war looks nothing like the movies, and for the most part, it's just a bunch of quiet people concentrating really hard until it's time to push a button.
Real Sniping Is Way More Math Than Eagle Eyes
The sniper is the one military role that video games might actually adequately prepare us for. It's mostly lying down far away from the fight, lining bad-guy faces up with the scope and using some simple hand/eye coordination to blow them away. Even super realistic movies like The Hurt Locker don't make it look all that different from playing a game of Callfield: Battleduty.
"Hell, this 'Iraq' bullshit looks easy."
Actual sniping is less about lining up the cross hairs and more about having a complex understanding of physics. It's one thing to shoot a guy standing 20, 50 or 100 feet away. It's another thing entirely to make that shot from 1.5 miles away, as Canadian sniper Rob Furlong did.
At that distance, you have to take wind resistance into account, because it's going to slow your bullet down. And you also have to keep in mind that your bullet will drop while it's in flight. Furlong's shot may have taken up to four seconds to hit, and dropped 256 feet on its way to hitting that terrorist. This means that he had to aim several hundred feet above the head of his target to make that shot. Wind resistance and drop aren't the only things to keep in mind, either. Gunpowder burns at a higher rate when it's cold and a lower rate when it's warm, which causes bullets to hit high in warm weather and low in cold weather. And while you're checking on the weather, make sure to pay attention to the elevation -- the thin air at higher altitudes makes your bullets fly faster and flatter.
"Sir, I'm packing up. All I've shot in the last four hours are two scientists, a climber and a few penguins."
Sounding a lot more complicated now? Because we haven't even gotten into how the length and "twist" of the barrel will affect your shots. Or how the rotation of the Earth can mess things up. Snipers aren't deadly because they carry the biggest guns; they're deadly because they've learned how to weaponize math.
Furlong didn't do something as trivial as point a stick really well; he figured out the calculations necessary to arrive at the coefficient of death in the middle of a goddamn gunfight. Now, he didn't do it entirely in his head: Professional snipers have cheat sheets of data and theorems that inform their shots. They also often assemble DOPE logs (Data on Personal Equipment) to catalog and compensate for all the little variables in their own equipment. But whether or not they're using cheat sheets, a shot is not just pulling the trigger -- it's factoring in an astronomical number of variables and arriving at a mathematically sound solution, and then using that math to explode somebody else's head.
Every Hollywood Sword Fight Would End With a Broken Sword
Or any of the wonderful duels in the Pirates of the Caribbean series.
Looks good to us. We watch those scenes and think "That is indeed how I would swing a sharp piece of metal at another person. This checks out."
Here's the thing about swords or, really, any blade: When they hit too many hard things, they stop being sharp. In real life, those photogenic edge-to-edge parries quickly turn razor-sharp blades into glorified crowbars. They also cause extreme stress to the metal, which can easily snap a blade in half. All of this probably explains why medieval and renaissance fencing manuals devote zero time to the edge-on-edge parry -- seriously, they devote more attention to accessorizing frilly pantaloons than stationary sword blocking.
"And then, bam: Now you have two knives instead of one sword!"
Check out this video of a Viking-era re-enactment sword fight. Note how physical the fight is, how much they use their shields and how neither of their swords ever makes contact.
But what about those armored medieval knights with their big, fuck-all, split-a-dude-in-half swords? Those blades aren't fragile flowers -- surely they could just hammer away at each other, right? Apparently not: Most of their fighting styles avoided contacting blades whenever possible.
Instead of Princess Bride-style elegant sword dancing, it turns out most real sword fighting looked more like your standard bar fight and sounded like somebody tied a bunch of tin cans to the back of a car.
Dogfights Are Visually Unimpressive
After Iceman's wingman gets shot down, Maverick is sent in to help save the day. The result is a sick-ass dogfight with the planes flying all around each other and blowing crap up while Kenny Loggins hollers lyrics about danger and highways because nobody told him that this was a jet movie. (Or more likely, because you can't pay Kenny Loggins enough to care. About anything. Dude's a total nihilist.)
"What did I just fucking tell you about clapping while I'm trying to work?"
Unfortunately, in modern dogfighting, even the "up close and personal" battles still deal with distances of several miles. The short-distance missile that most U.S. fighter jets use is the Sidewinder, which still has a minimum range of 0.6 miles. That's right: Their "emergency shotgun" close-distance weapon is still only good at more than a half-mile away. Most fights are across much larger distances than that. In 1989, two F-14s shot down two Libyan MiGs. The closest they got to each other was 1.5 nautical miles, and that was only after the missiles shot from 14 nautical miles missed. To give you a sense of perspective, here's what it looked like in Top Gun:
Looks like all that womp rat practice finally paid off.
And here's that same plane as it would look through the HUD of a fighter, 1.5 miles away:
Damn, game designers could get away with using way fewer pixels.
Somehow, it doesn't seem quite as pulse-pounding when the bad guy you're battling to the death could be mistaken for a stubborn piece of dirt on the windscreen.
And remember: That speck is close range.
"Far range" is not visible to the naked eye, and that's what most aerial battles look like: Something shows up on a computer, a jet fires a missile at seemingly nothing and then, a few minutes later, something blows up somewhere that you cannot see. It's less like "high-stakes plane jockeying" and more like "filing a request for death" that another department, miles away, might or might not grant.
Machine Guns Are the Premature Ejaculators of the Gun World
The theory goes like this: You pull the trigger on a machine gun until the whole world turns into blood, and it is awesome. You can't argue with that; that's science.
After the first minute or so, provided that he had enough ammo to fire that long in the first place, Dr. John Rambo would find his monstrous murderection completely flaccid.
See, machine guns are designed more for brief covering fire and the occasional, precisely delivered packet of death. The M60 of Rambo fame up there can survive sustained fire at 100 rounds per minute. Which is awesome. But afterward, it will require breaking apart and changing the whole goddamn barrel. Yes, you read that correctly: Machine gunners have about a solid minute of constant ass-kicking, but afterward, they have to stop, break apart the machine gun and align and insert a brand new replacement barrel before continuing to be rad for precisely one more minute. And they do all this while in a combat zone. Under enemy fire. In the middle of a war zone.
It's not just Rambo's antiquated Vietnam vengeance equipment, either: The modern stuff doesn't work much better. Turns out that no amount of money can cool a 22-inch steel pipe fast enough to compensate for the hundreds of tiny explosions per minute happening inside of it. The M249 that replaced the M60 has a sustained fire rate close to Rambo's preferred power band (750 to 800 rounds per minute), provided that you change the barrels every, wait for it: Yep, every minute.
"And that's why we use handguns when hunting in the city. Much less downtime."
That's the longest a bitchin' machine gun fight could ever last in reality until everybody involved had to stop, pull out their iPhones and order up some new parts.
Submarine Battles Are the Most Boring Things Ever
All is quiet on the bridge. A dozen submariners tensely but silently go about their business. Suddenly, a deafening ping rings out through the hull. An enemy sub has spotted you! Take evasive maneuvers! Call Sean Connery -- if nothing else, his dulcet tones will soothe your frazzled nerves in the deadly game of hide and seek to follow.
Most people are aware that subs use sonar to "see" underwater. But here's what you probably think a sonar screen looks like:
Followed by blips that look like little spaceships and a confused operator saying "There are six of them ... no, wait, 12. Now 20!"
Pretty simple, right? You're in the middle and the other guy has the decency to be a bright purple dot, so he's easy to spot. You tell the torpedo dude to, like, point at the dot and pull the trigger, and then boom -- no more dot. But here's what an actual sonar screen looks like:
"So the squiggly lines finally made their move. This war just got interesting."
It looks like 1989 needs a price check on something. How do you fight using that?
Well, there are two main types of sonar: active and passive. Active is closer to what you normally associate with sonar -- subs send out a loud "ping" and then time how long it takes to get back to them. While active sonar will give you a lot of useful information, like bearing, range and speed, it also has the drawback of giving away your position to anyone listening within a several-mile radius.
What subs use 99 percent of the time is passive sonar, which basically boils down to a bunch of highly sensitive microphones stuck in the water and people listening really, really hard. This type of sonar delivers way more useful information, such as the type and class of ship, even identifying specific individual ships in some cases, just by the sound. Since passive sonar is picking up emitted sound instead of reflected sound, range could be quite complicated to calculate. Back during the war movie days, even with a computer assisting, it could take up to 15 minutes of uninterrupted listening to get an accurate enough estimate to fire a torpedo, and that's only if the submarine in question was polite enough to not change speed or direction at all while it was being hunted. If it was one of those rude submarines (probably a Russian; those boorish Russkies just up and abandon the rules of high society the very second you try to kill them) that stops or dives below a thermocline layer, you lose track of them completely and it's back to square one.
"Fuck this, I'm just gonna go look. Cover me."
So it turns out that Hollywood has been lying to you about what warfare actually looks like, because for the most part, it's like teenage sex: There's all sorts of tense build-up, but the payoff is usually ungainly and awkward, and it's all over way too fast.
Robert Evans manages the article captions and the workshop moderators here at Cracked. He also writes a travel column for Vagabondish -- you can reach him here. When he's not making blind people play dodgeball, Chris writes for his website and tweets. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more things Hollywood is horribly wrong about, check out 6 Lifesaving Techniques From the Movies (That Can Kill You) and 5 Things Hollywood Thinks Computers Can Do.
If you're pressed for time and just looking for a quick fix, then check out 4 Hilariously Passive-Aggressive Ways People Paid Fines.