For the A to Z Blogging Challenge 2019, Punch the Rabbit delves deep behind the scenes with a series of Author's Notes related to the Stone Soldiers, Spectral Ops, and Shadow Detachment series.
Faeires, Ferrous Metals, and Frangible Bullets
What does it take to kill a fairy? They are a supernatural creature, after all. One might expect them to be immune to mortal weapons, and only vulnerable to specific substances, like the Werewolf and silver.
Before you start to ponder this, you need to step back a moment and consider what a “fairy” is. Most people probably think of Disney’s Tinkerbell, a tiny, action-figure-sized sprite who looks like she would be easily taken out with a tennis racquet or a cricket bat. But, that version of the fairy is a fairly new one. Prior to the 1800s, the Fae folk were supernatural beings of a considerably different bent. They ranged in appearance, size and friendliness--and they didn’t like iron.
I learned this bit of folklore long before Google, thanks to Marvel Comic’s Thor comic books. Back in the early 1980s, Thor and the Avengers had to prevent a Dark Elf invasion of Earth. It was a lot better than the second Thor movie of recent years, but it clearly portrayed Elves as Fae and revealed their iron weakness.
As it turns out, some mythology bears out the whole Iron-allergy thing when it comes to the Fae (some folklore doesn’t, by the way).
In writing Stone Soldiers #11, One Dark Step, where the supernatural soldiers of Detachment 1039 have to journey to the Moon to take on some Space Elves with a desire to end humanity, I had to do a lot of research into the Fae and their weaknesses. A lot of it didn’t make it into the book, but I always keep my research notes.
With the debut of the Spectral Ops sequel series to Stone Soldiers, I turned again to my notes on the supernatural and that little tidbit of folklore about iron and the Fae. As it happens, ghosts are also supposed to be allergic to iron. Some historians and folklorists will say this bit of mythology comes from the huge impact iron had on the world when mankind started to work it—that iron was a seemingly-magical metal. I suppose that works, but it’s so boring. I chose to have my series embrace iron and the Fae/Spirits the same as silver for other supernatural threats. Now, I just needed to weaponize it.
We’ve all seen silver bullets in movies before, for werewolves and other magical creatures. But what about iron bullets, I wondered one day. Well, as it turns out, the U.S. Armed Forces use steel-core ammunition for their troops (green-tipped bullets are supposed to signify a steel-core armor penetrator inside the copper-jacketed, lead bullet). But, steel isn’t pure iron. It’s iron with carbon worked into it (that was the “secret of steel” James Earl Jones’ character kept babbling about in the Conan The Barbarian movie). Maybe steel wouldn’t affect ghosts and Fae folk the same?
What about pure iron bullets?
In Episode 79 of Mythbusters, Jamie and Adam tested whether silver would make an effective metal for bullets (not just for werewolf hunting, but as the Lone Ranger’s calling cards). What they found was that silver was not a very effective metal for munitions. For one, it doesn’t deform on impact like lead, meaning it might punch through a flesh-and-blood target without losing that much of its shape or transferring all that kinetic energy into the target. A lead bullet deforms, or even breaks apart, creating a bigger wound channel in the target--it’s not only significantly cheaper, it does more damage.
Obviously, iron wouldn’t work as a solid bullet—it’s considerably tougher than silver. Even jacketed in a softer metal so it doesn’t destroy the rifling of your barrel (rifling actually scores soft metal bullets as they travel down the barrel), it will just be a low-grade armor-piercing round. Maybe great for the Fae, and maybe even an errant ghost, but what about the unintended targets that might be behind them? A standard 5.56mm NATO round, such as fired by the M-4 Carbine, will penetrate concrete blocks. A whole room full of Caspers isn't going to slow that down. Use in an area rich with civilians would no be wise.
Additionally, silver, like many other metals, shrinks when it cools. Meaning if you poured molten silver into a .45 Long Colt bullet mold, you’d end up with a smaller-diameter bullet. The rifling of the weapon it was fired out of wouldn’t be able to impart the spin on the projectile that ensures accuracy. That means a silver bullet has to be cast larger, then machined or ground down to .45 caliber diameter.
Myself and other authors have solved this problem in fiction by having silver-impregnated lead bullets—you just put slivers, flecks, or particles of silver into molten lead when you cast your ammo. When the lead cools, it stays the right size and now has pre-made silver shrapnel inside it. When the bullet breaks up in the target, it spreads the silver around.
I briefly considered iron-impregnated lead bullets for the Spectral Ops series, but to my great surprise, found there already are iron bullets available on the consumer market.
Frangible (meaning brittle or fragile) bullets are projectiles made to disintegrate on impact. These are great if you’re shooting at steel targets. Steel targets last considerably longer than paper or cardboard ones, plus they make a satisfying sound when hit. The danger with a steel target is that even fragments of soft lead (and slightly-harder copper jackets) can ricochet off the steel, traveling back toward a target shooter. Frangible rounds are made of compressed metal powders (usually copper) that explode in a spray of specks when they hit a hard surface.
This was perfect. Imagine the team is fighting a ghost army in a populated area. They fire a few shots, pushing what amounts to a plug of iron powder through the targets, disrupting them. The bullets continue on and hit a wall. Instead of puncturing the wall like a typical copper-jacketed lead round, the bullet would instead fragment apart. This would be even more effective against the Fae folk, as an iron frangible bullet would break into a lot of tiny shrapnel inside the wound. It’d be like pouring super-salt into a regular wound.
If you’re wondering why anyone would make an iron powder bullet in the real world, you needn’t worry. It’s not about a war against Fairy folk. Iron is not just non-toxic (unlike lead) but it is considerably cheaper than copper. At least, that’s the official reason given…
Technical Note: Some reviewers of frangibles warn that the crumbly bullets don't feed properly in semi-automatic weapons and are better used in revolvers, breech-loaders, and the like.