Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Scenario Consultation: Here There Be Dragons; A Brief Excursion into the Fantasy Genre

Over the years, I’ve gotten a lot of interesting questions from my shooting class students and writers who attend my firearms technology workshops.  One of the strangest, or at least the most unexpected came at me last Saturday.  I was explaining the “anatomy of a gunshot wound,” and going into clinical, if not gory, detail about permanent cavities, temporary stretch cavities and the relative merits of penetration versus velocity when one of the attendees stopped me and asked a question.

“What kind of handgun would you use to slay a dragon?”

Not the subject of the question.
Now, just so we’re on the same page here, I’m ME.  And, given that I’m me, the first thing I thought of was the M47 Dragon antitank guided missile (ATGM).  After all, nobody could be seriously asking about how to kill a large mythical reptile with a pistol.  Nobody, that is, except for a romantic fantasy author.

As you might have guessed, an obsolete missile was not the type of dragon that was the subject of the question.  A moment later, it registered on me.  The question was serious.  The nice lady wanted to know what handgun I would recommend for dragon slaying.
I'm supposed to service one of these with a PISTOL?
My initial response, was that the more appropriate firearm for dragon slaying was a rifle.  And not just any rifle.  Something that fires a big, heavy, solid bullet a velocity approaching 3,000 feet per second.  The two cartridges that came to mind immediately were the .460 Weatherby Magnum, which will launch a 500 grain bullet at around 2,700 feet per second, generating about 8,100 foot pounds of energy, and the .50 Browning Machine Gun, which will fire an 800 grain Barnes Solid bullet at right around 3,000 feet per second for a stunning 16,000 foot pounds of energy.

BIG bullets.  .50 BMG is on the left.
The reason for my selection of these behemoth cartridges has to do with dragon physiology.  Ok, purists, with my assumption about dragon physiology...(with thanks to www.draconian.com).   
Let’s take a medium size dragon, say about 20 feet long, with a wingspan of about 35 feet.  This dragon has three key physiological characteristics that matter to the ballistician.  First, the dragon’s exterior is covered in scales that, after the first year of the dragon’s life, become as tough and as hard as a mid-grade steel.  For reference, many surgical instruments are made from mid-grade stainless steels.  Next, the dragon’s skeleton is strong, but hollow and lightweight.  It features a thick sternum bone that protects the dragon’s chest, heart and lungs.  Finally, the dragon’s muscles are corded and thick, providing additional protection to the beast’s internal organs.  Defeating a dragon means punching through the scales, shattering the sternum, and digging a deep trough through tough muscle to penetrate and fatally damage the heart.  Most rifle cartridges won’t meet these requirements.

Not cutting it.  .454 Casull ammo.
I dutifully explained this to my audience.  Unfortunately, they were having nothing of it.  The storyline called for the hero to defeat the dragon with a pistol.  In case any of you were wondering, when it comes to fantasy authors, storyline trumps practical weaponology every day of the week.  The dragon would simply have to fall to a pistol.  The question was HOW.  Pistol cartridges, even the mighty .454 Casull, simply don’t pack enough energy to perforate a dragon’s scales and then penetrate deeply enough to damage the heart muscles.

The more I thought about it, the more frustrated I got.  Penetration is directly proportional to a projectile’s kinetic energy.  Kinetic energy is calculated as ½ Mass(Velocity2).  When applied to a firearm, energy is described using a relevant measure of force, such as foot-pounds.  To derive foot pounds from the ½ Mass(Velocity2) formula, we adapt it by dividing it by a constant, which is 450,400.  The 450,400 represents 7,000 grains (bullet weights are measured in grains, 7,000 grains equal one pound) multiplied by the acceleration of gravity (32.17 feet per second) multiplied by two to get rid of the fraction at the beginning of the equation.  The resulting equation is Energy = (Mass*Velocity2)/450400.  Remember that .50 BMG round that generated 16,000 foot-pounds of energy?  Next to that, the mighty .454 Casull, and its 1,800 foot-pounds is a featherweight.  There was just no way a pistol round was going to smash through scales, sternum and a couple of feet worth of corded muscle.

Obsolete.  Boys .55 cal. Antitank Rifle
However, the more I thought of it, the more I focused on the word “kinetic.”  If only there was a way that the projectile could cut its way through instead of punching a hole by sheer force.  And then it hit me.  This was exactly the same problem faced by infantry during World War Two.  In the early part of the war, man-portable infantry antitank weapons, such as antitank rifles, were a fair match against the relatively thin-skinned armored vehicles of the day.  However, by 1942, tanks were being produced with significantly thicker armor, creating a conundrum for the infantry:  Weapons based on kinetic energy principles that could punch through a tank’s armor were simply too heavy to be carried by one soldier, and kinetic energy weapons that a soldier could carry just wouldn’t damage the tank.

The answer was to abandon kinetic energy generated by projectile impact velocity in favor of kinetic energy generated by explosive blast.  Specifically, kinetic energy generated by the use of a shaped charge.  A shaped, or “hollow” charge is an explosive charge that has been shaped to focus the explosive’s energy on a very precise point on the target surface.  The net effect of focusing the energy is penetration of seven to ten times the diameter of the original explosive charge through steel armor plate and much, much further through less tough materials.  

A typical shaped charge projectile consists of a solid cylinder of explosive with a metal-lined conical hollow in one end and a central detonator at the other end.  If the hollow area is properly shaped, the enormous pressure generated by the detonation of the explosive drives the liner in the hollow cavity inward to collapse upon its central axis.  This multi-axis collapse forms and projects a high-velocity jet of metal forward along the axis.  The jet's velocity is immense, with most of it moving at between 23,000 and 46,000 feet per second.  At these speeds, the jet and armor take on the characteristics of incompressible fluids, and the jet effectively squirts through the armor. Once inside the armor, the superheated jet continues to penetrate, and in the process, sprays the interior surfaces with burning, molten pieces of metal.
1) Ballistic cover, 2) Cavity, 3) Metal Liner, 4) Detonator, 5) Explosive, 6) Trigger 
US Bazooka - Shaped Charge Principle
 A projectile carrying a shaped charge is little more than a cargo device or bus whose responsibility is to get the charge to the target surface.  Since velocity doesn’t matter, propelling charges can be much smaller and, as a result, can be contained and controlled in a man-portable device.  The American “Bazooka,” the British PIAT (“Projector, Infantry, Antitank”) and the German “Panzerfaust” were all lightweight anti-armor devices that could be carried by a single soldier whose relatively low velocity projectiles delivered shaped charge warheads to the target.

MPAT - Fins pop out on firing.
Now that I had the answer as to how to slay a dragon, I needed to devise a launcher and delivery system for the shaped charge payload.  The obvious choice was a shortened, double barreled twelve gauge shotgun, a la Mad Max.  A specialized shell launching what was effectively a miniaturized version of the shaped charge based M830A1 Multi-Purpose Anti-Tank (MPAT, pronounced “em-pat”) would be devised.  The M830A1 is fin stabilized, so a significant degree of accuracy could be expected.  The obvious choice, however, lacked a degree of style and panache.  In other words, it just wasn’t cool enough to pique my gun-geek factor.

What I needed was something that could deliver a twelve gauge shell’s payload from a pistol platform and, meet my demanding technical, aesthetic and “intangible” (read that “gun geek”) standards.  After some thought, I identified the LeMat revolver as my ideal point of departure.

LeMat Revolver
The LeMat was a .42 caliber cap and ball revolver with a twist.  Instead of revolving around a central pin, like conventional revolvers, the LeMat’s cylinder revolved around a large central sixteen gauge shotgun barrel.  A quick flip allowed the shooter to choose between the pistol and the shotgun barrel.  Designed in 1855 by Dr. Jean Alexandre LeMat of New Orleans, it saw service with the Confederate Army, becoming a favorite of such famous Confederates as Generals Braxton Bragg, J.E.B Stuart and Richard Anderson.  In the end about 2,900 were produced.

Modern LeMat (Bienville Studios)
My improved LeMat would be a similar, but substantially different beast.  Crafted in stainless steel (you wouldn’t want the finish damaged when dragon blood gets all over it, would you?), with a six or eight shot cylinder rotating around a central twelve gauge barrel, it would be double action and have adjustable sights.  Barrel length would be six inches, it would be available in .454 Casull, and the sights would be optimized for the 360 grain Cor-Bon Hunter Flat Point Penetrator ammunition. Both barrels would be ported for maximum control.

When confronted with a dragon, the hero would unholster, flip the selector to the shotgun barrel, and fire an MPAD (Multi-Purpose Anti-Dragon) shaped charge shell at the dragon’s chest.  The charge diameter of roughly 0.72” would yield a penetration in armor of 10 charge diameters, or about seven inches.  Since the dragon’s scales are approximately an inch thick, the blast jet will have little difficulty punching through the scale layer.  The sternum bone, being significantly less dense, will offer far less resistance, and the muscle layers will be cut through almost as if they weren’t there.  The destructive force of a 20,000+ foot per second blast jet will impact the dragon’s heart, and that’s all she wrote. 


The existence of dragons is debatable.  However, literature has provided a very consistent portrayal of their capabilities, biology and physiology.  With this data, and a bit of technology and engineering, the challenges of dragon defense with a handgun can be overcome.  At least for fantasy authors.  As for me, the next dragon I have to face will be my first!


  1. Adam, thank you so much for your information regarding dragon slaying and this fabulous post to help clarify the kind of weapon needed. I have decided to go with the original LeMat Revolver that is considered an antique firearm, and is thus exempt from modern Federal gun laws. I am hoping that any internal modifications made by the hero will go unnoticed by the police department.

    Your explanation of dragon physiology closely matches my world, the hardness of the scales being the primary obstruction to penetration, with muscle mass second, their bones being overly light to allow for flight.

    I am curious as to how to handle the ammunition. Would an unknown projectile immediately register on the police radar, or could it be explained away by a reinactment situation? Obviously the perfect choice would be to have the police confiscate the weapon after it has been fully discharged, the hero having back-up rounds cleverly concealed. As an experienced dragon hunter he would have been faced with this scenario before and been prepared in case he found himself confronted by local law-enforcement once again.

    Thank you so very much for not laughing us paranormal authors off the face of the planet. We do bend the laws of physics on occasion, but at other times our writing is much more plausable if we take the time to find ways to mesh our worlds with those of ordinary mortals.


  2. Adam (and Gia);
    That's a lot of physics...what if the hero just gets close enough to stick whatever gun he can get in the dragon's mouth? Then, just like with a zombie, a double tap to the brainstem, via the soft palate, would probably do it.

  3. I apologize for the physics.... ;) But your point, Teri, about the up close and personal is well taken.

    That was the reason for the dual ammunition capability - the shaped charge gives the hero some standoff distance (after all, you don't want to get any closer to a dragon than you have to, right?), and the .454 Casull barrel lets him deal with "soft" spots in the even that Plan A doesn't quite pan out...

  4. Adam, may I just say you totally rock!

    Love the idea of having the dual ammunition capability as a fail-safe measure. After all, if one misses with the single shotgun blast, one must have some way to slow the beast down enough to escape.

    Just wondering...you mentioned zombies at the writing workshop. Do you have a future post planned for zombie defense?


  5. What a fun article. You're very knowledgeable! But what if the dragon lets out a blast of fire at you as you're pulling the trigger? Couldn't that theoretically melt the bullets before they reach the target? Or does that just depend, as I suspect, on which breed of dragon we are dealing with?

  6. Zombies...I think I could go into zombies at some point in the future, especially if there was a specific scenario in mind.

    Zombies present a very different tactical problem than dragons, and a lot of options open up. I'll have to give it some thought!

  7. Hiya Foleys, and thank you for the compliment!

    Generally speaking, I don't think that the heat is going to be an issue, for a couple of reasons.

    One, given that bullets heat up very significantly as they travel down the barrel. Alloys used in both bullet jackets (for jacketed bullets) and lead alloys (if non-jacketed) have pretty high melting points, and heat deformation is rarely if ever a problem.

    Next, the effect of heat on an object or a substance is as much a product of the duration of the exposure as the temperature involved. This is why one can pick up a very hot dish without suffering burns, as long as the fingers are removed quickly from the heat source (the plate). Bullets from the type of cartridge mentioned are moving at 1300 - 1500 feet per second. They're simply not going to be exposed to the blast of fire long enough to heat up to the melting point. Even the shotgun round, which we can assume is moving at a relatively sedate 800 - 900 feet per second simply won't be there long enough to get that hot.

    But, then, I'm not as much an expert on dragon breeds as I'd like to be...(but I do live with a brace of greyhounds...does that count?)

    1. For sure, one dragon = brace of greyhounds have an equal of number of teeth. You better be careful or you're gonna end up having some roughneck gunsmith character based on you. You know writers.

      Love your assessments on the various historical guns you've mentioned. Will have to read more here on your blog.

      E.G. Foley
      The Gryphon Chronicles

    2. Well, there are worse things that could happen than being the basis for a weapons guru...

      What historical period do you find most interesting?

  8. Wow! I just had to know what you came up with on the dragon question. Okay, so once I get my cyber-punk premise outlined and plotted, I may have to pick your brain about the possible weapons I can use to take down cyberly villains.

    Thanks again for making the workshop fun, Adam!


  9. Adam, thanks for going over this in greater detail! Gia's question was one of the more interesting ones from our workshop. My husband saw this over my shoulder and made the same initial suggestion you did. And then raised the concern that the hero will get fried to a crisp before he's close enough to fire the handgun. He just went to grab some dinner, so I'll point out your solution when he gets back. :)

    As for me, I went home on Saturday and made sure a character who needed to die right away got shot in the head.

    Thanks again for a great workshop!

  10. Hi Rosie!

    Please keep me in the loop about your cyberpunk novel....it's a premise that would allow for a very wide array of interesting pieces and modifications, and I'd love to be part of the process!

  11. Hi Jennette!

    I think I still agree with your husband. Even with the nifty shaped charge shell, the pistol will still be no more than a 25 yard weapon. On the other hand, if the hero is behind any sort of cover....as for headshots...remind me at some point to tell you about Mozambique drills....

    You guys were a blast! I hope to do it again soon!

  12. LOLOL...the discussion got interesting this evening. Very well done. Gia

  13. Yeah, well, dragons and pistols and shaped charges...oh my!

  14. I don't even write Paranormal/Fantasy, and this was fascinating. Thanks so much--retweeted on Twitter. I do have an FBI agent lurking around--may have to ask more questions later on what type of gun he uses. Thanks!

  15. Hi Sarah,

    I don't usually consult in the paranormal/fantasy realm...so this was a bit of a challenge - but fun! Feel free to contact me either here or online about your FBI agent...I'm sure that I can be of help!

  16. Loved this post, Adam. Sounds like I missed a great meeting last Saturday.

  17. Brilliant. Now I wish I had dragons in my books :)

  18. Hi CD -

    It was a lot of fun! Hopefully I'll get to see you at another workshop!

  19. Hi Toni!

    Thanks for the kind words! Apparently, you don't have dragons, but you do have the Special Air Service. I can do a lot with the SAS...Brownings and Armalites and SLRs..oh my!

    Just let me know!

  20. That was a terrific blog, Adam. Thanx. I do write about dragons but have never had the occasion to kill one. I'll definitely use your information should that change in the future. Wish I could have attended that meeting. Sounds like it was awesome.

  21. You know, I begin to wonder, with all this talk of killing dragons, if I'm going to get a call from the US Fish & Wildlife Service about endangered species...I think I can hear the black helicopters coming...

  22. I wanted to address the concern that one could not get close enough to use a pistol on a dragon without being burned to a crisp. While most theoretical Dragonologists believe a dragon's ability to breathe fire is unlimited and instantaneous, those scientists who have done the actual fieldwork--and survived--have proven that repetative fire breath has an actual 20 second to 4 minute delay based on amount of methane gas in the stomach, as well as duration and force of the blast. (See Hummserstein's diagram and mathematical formula in his famous paper, Mechanics of Fire Breath in Draconis Familiaris, Oct. 1876.)

    I, also, have been getting mail by those concerned Adam is advocating the killing of a sentient and endangered species. While most dragons are reclusive and non-violent creatures, when the occasional beast does go rogue, it presents a unique danger to both others of its own kind and humans alike. Then it is necessary to put the creature down in the quickest and most humane way possible. Adam's research will allow those with the proper certification and licensing to carry out their jobs in the safest and most effective manner. I commend his serious study of the matter.


    1. LOL. Crypto-biology meets ballistics. I dig it.

  23. Suddenly, the sound of the black helicopters seem to be receding...

  24. Note that the most well known story of this sort is probably de Camp's _A Gun for Dinosaur_

    Also note that here on LI in 2010 we learned that a .577 rifle is not enough gun for euthanizing a 30ft humpback whale. I figure a dragon has to be even tougher.

  25. Thank you this was informative, well rounded as a teaching article and LOL. One of the authors I read sent me a Facebook link to this article and it was well worth the time to read. Rosheen from Australia

  26. Hi Rosheen -

    I'm glad it was useful to you! Out of curiosity, what other firearms/weapons related topics do you think would be of use?

    Thanks again for the kind words!

  27. Wow quick reply Adam. I'm not at all familiar with guns but more so now after reading your article (Australia has very strict anti gun laws). The talk you were giving re anatomy of gun shot wounds would have been very interesting, the geek in me, I recently studying comparative anatomy and pathology (for interest only) humans versus animals unfortunately they did not cover dragons.
    In the books I read ranging from fantasy/scifi to historic western romance to romantic suspence( usually featuring ex-military) I'm always interested in the accuracy both in terms of what a weapon is capable of eg distance, damage and accuracy and in terms of accuracy of an individual. Also when someone is wounded what is the real effect of the injury on the "hero". Nothing let's good story, either print or film, down than what feels to be impossible or implausible (yep I know it's fiction but....)
    Hmm not sure if this answers your question or was helpful. I'm going to keep and eye out on your blog as it is interesting cheers Rosheen

  28. I don't slay dragons. Not on the written page. But elsewhere! HOWEVER, I am now a Believer and a Follower, too! Cuz I do need to know the goodies you have in your brain for lots of reasons (and manuscripts) which I have not yet conceived!
    Cerise, chuckling and in awe.

    1. Hi Cerise!

      Happy to help on your manuscripts...I just hope that some of the more mundane entries don't bore you to tears.....

      Many thanks for the kind words!