RogerBW's Blog

1000 Yards, Mark Dawson 26 January 2020

Contemporary thriller novella, introduction to the John Milton series. Milton is an assassin for the British government, in North Korea to deliver a "message" to the controllers of their hacking teams.

The series by Dawson, both this and the parallel Beatrix Rose and Isabella Rose books, were recommended by someone on Goodreads who likes many of the same things that I do. Well, maybe the full-length books are better. Apparently the sequels to this deal with Milton after he has a crisis of conscience and goes freelance, to use his lethal skills for Good. But this novella is meant to tempt me in to the series, and it really doesn't.

To start with, apart from the fact that Milton has occasional blackouts (presumably he's hidden these from his bosses), he has no character here. Sure, we only see him on the operation, but he's just Covert Ops Superman, with nothing to distinguish him from any other superbly skilled operator.

Then there's the operation itself. OK, he's got into North Korea using the identity of someone who goes there legitimately to import luxury cars for top people in the government, so far so good, and a sniper rifle has been smuggled in to him.

The book calls this:

A Barrett M82, recoil-operated, semi-automatic, finished with American walnut stock and a heavy premium barrel.

Wikipedia:

The Barrett M82, standardized by the U.S. military as the M107, is a recoil-operated, semi-automatic anti-materiel sniper system developed by the American Barrett Firearms Manufacturing company.

Coincidence? Yeah, must be a coincidence. His scope ("a 30mm tube, external windage and elevation turrets, parallax adjustment and a fast focus eyepiece with a bullet drop compensating reticule" [sic]) also reads like a description from the catalogue, of a really quite normal sniping scope. (And he's choosing to use Raufoss Mk 211 HEI rounds against human targets, which doesn't raise him in my favour, and his answer to "some people don't approve of these" is basically "I don't care".) But when he sets up his attack on the senior government figures:

  • they're having this meeting in a room that overlooks a public space (and an abandoned half-built hotel). In the public space is the Dear Leader's commemorative birthday parade. The locals have apparently not filled these buildings with secret policemen, countersnipers, etc.

  • he takes six shots from the same position (one to break the window, one headshot each for his five targets), at the titular 1,000 yards range so with about a one-second delay from shot to hit, as they get up and panic and run around the room. OK, so he's Sniper Jesus. (There's no special stabilisation or recoil compensation mentioned.)

  • he then has a brief natter with his local contact before they casually stroll down to street level and get into a van. There's no local security visible. The noise of the parade has drowned out the shots and explosions, and nobody noticed anything.

  • he and the contact drive out of town without being stopped by local security. He gets away with no trouble.

At least he doesn't sleep with the local contact, even though she's female.

I can see that some of the point of this is to set the guy up as supremely competent, but there are lots of things outside his control that also go very well – we get brief cutaways to the locals' effort to work out what's going wrong and try to catch him – and it comes off less as a highly skilled man doing a tough job and more as a highly skilled man with God/the author actively working to make his life easier.

And if the writer is this clueless about stuff like sniper and counter-sniper tactics that can easily be looked up, I really don't trust his idea of what using lethal skills for Good is going to look like. I'm not particularly expert and I've never worked in this field, but I do my research and I care about getting things right, and I can tell when someone doesn't.

(Thanks to Dave D for commiserating with me about this and pointing out even more errors.)

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  1. Posted by John Dallman at 09:29am on 26 January 2020

    This is someone who did his sniping research with one read of Day of the Jackal, I think.

  2. Posted by DaveD at 05:17pm on 26 January 2020

    Commiserating indeed. Ye gods.

    Now, let me start my small addition with this: snipers are capable of astonishing things, and the best among them are absolute artists. The things they can do with a longarm are extraordinary.

    Now...

    Five targets, plus a window. So that's six shots with a semi-automatic rifle that has no mean kick with a second's flight time per discharge.

    Assume shock paralysis for the first target after the window comes in - I think that's fair. I'll even be generous and let you have the second.

    But if you think three, four and five are going to just sit there and let Our Hero vent their brain matter all over the wallpaper you're a lot more optimistic than I am.

    Try this: move your head quickly like you're turning to see something that suddenly happened behind you. See how much your head moves? Turn the other way and see how different the position of your head and shoulders are compared to the first time. Now when you factor in the motivational effects of the chap sitting next to you popping off like an extra in Scanners you'll see that the field of options for shifting, diving for cover or simply just running the hell away is fairly wide.

    The bullet's flight time is a second. How far can you move in a second?

    So Our Hero has to predict that.

    Fire, reacquire, aim, predict, lead and shoot. And don't forget to adjust for wind, because a fraction of a degree over that distance is the difference between a hole in the wall and a big ol' splash of cerebospinal fluid and a bunch of newly-retired neurons in its place.

    Show me the shootist who can do that FOUR TIMES IN A ROW and I'll buy them a pint. Hell, I'll buy them a bottle of something nice. What I won't do, though, is ask to shake their hand, because that thing's going to be a precision tool that makes a brain surgeon's touch look like an old sock with a half-brick stuffed in the end.

  3. Posted by Owen Smith at 06:10pm on 26 January 2020

    My assumption (which may be wrong) is that snipers get one decent shot at the target, and anything after that is at best suppressing fire due to a combination of losing aim from recoil and any remaining targets moving. Whether I'm right or wrong, any writer pushing it beyond a couple of good shots breaks my sense of disbelief.

  4. Posted by RogerBW at 06:19pm on 26 January 2020

    I haven't known any serious professional snipers, and if I did I probably wouldn't have their permission to go into details. However, as I understand it, the usual protocol is to take one shot and then move, because the enemy is going to be (a) diving for cover, (b) shooting back and (c) sending large unfriendly men to have harsh words with you.

    And really, "shoot the guy who ordered these nasty cyberattacks" would be a sufficient mission in itself, with all the infiltration (that's in the book already) and a very impressive shot; going for five guys raises him to SuperSniper, and dawdling around afterwards just defuses any tension I might have felt.

  5. Posted by DaveD at 08:16pm on 26 January 2020

    I'm no sniper either, but hanging around for the aforementioned large and unfriendly is something I can feel reasonably confident about thinking of as pretty much universally unpopular in that line of work. The basic key to anything in territory you don't control is to get in, do the thing and (rephrasing my usual terminology to something a touch more civil) make ones excuses and depart in the shortest order possible.

    I'd also agree with Roger in terms of sending a message this way: pointing out that $WE can get you as you go about your business right in the middle of your own back yard strikes me as pretty difficult to misread. Going on to kill the guy's dog smacks of showing off. Could we not perhaps have a two-man team - one with a rifle to break the window and another with a tripod mounted Hellfire or something to take out the building?

    Owen, One shot's optimal but I'd let him have two in quick succession: there's no way to predetermine what the window material's going to do till the lead hits it so if you can catch that second round while the target's still in WTF mode I'd be confident enough in a pro getting it on target, and in their ability to plan for that situation as well in terms of ammunition choices as well as firing pattern.

    SPEAKING OF WHICH... Raufoss 211? Really? Again with the rephrasing for civilised ears, but I cannot help but wonder (a) if the gentleman would benefit from a nice long chat with a couch-owning professional and (b) what happened to efficiency. You want an armour-piercing explosive round to shatter a window. Um... okayyyyy? And then you want to turn the top of matey's skull into an overexcited champagne bottle with the same round? Different materials, different properties, different conditions in which the round's active parts will operate. Now I'll confess zero familiarity with the round's real-world performance, but fail to see what's wrong with a good old-fashioned FMJ hollowpoint when it comes to the installation of supplementary cranial ventilation.

    I'm not even going to start on the Barrett. Don't make me.

  6. Posted by RogerBW at 08:31pm on 26 January 2020

    Armour-piercing explosive incendiary. Got to get all the modifiers in there. Vaguely surprised it's not fin-stabilised discarding sabot as well. And of course teflon-coated (which has no significant effect on ballistic performance as far as I can tell, but it got into popular culture.)

    The more adjectives you get to use, the shinier the toy is because it's further from the bog-standard. But there are diminishing returns, and eventually you end up with Hand-Sculpted Real Yorkshire Baps From Our In-Store Bakery, and Home-Reared Oak-Smoked Ham from Happy Pigs.

    (Gosh, they do make ground-launched Hellfires, or at least vehicle-launched. I didn't think the motor could get it up to flying speed from a standing start.)

  7. Posted by Chris Suslowicz at 12:58am on 27 January 2020

    The entire thing appears to be utter bollocks by an author playing buzzword tombola with a copy of Jane's Weapons: Infantry or equivalent.

    The Barrett M82 fires the .50 BMG cartridge (otherwise used in the Browning Heavy Machine Gun, of WW2 and later fame). One round from that and everybody within a couple of miles radius is going to sit up and take notice. It's also four feet long, so hardly concealable. The ammunition would be contrary to the Geneva Accords if used against personnel by the military (yes, they all do it anyway, and with a round like that the target is unlikely to notice the difference in the unlikely event that they survive).

    100% rubbish, and thank you for saving me the pain of trying to read it. :-)>

    (On a purely unrelated side note: Thank You for pointing me at the Kritzer! I think I may have to add her to the "Don't argue, just pre-order on sight" list along with a scant handful of other authors.)

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