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Notes from the USPSA Offseason: A Fishy Winter Break

I don’t know if I mentioned it anywhere else, but I ended up taking a deliberate offseason from USPSA competition this winter. From about November 15 to the end of this week, I haven’t (won’t have) done any live-fire practice or any deliberate dry-fire practice. Beyond that, I’ve barely even touched my competition gun.

Why an Offseason?

Partially to give myself time for other big projects, partially to break myself of bad habits. The benefit to taking time entirely off from shooting pursuits is the brief period, upon returning, where previously unconscious things take conscious thought, and thus are malleable in a way they aren’t midseason.

In particular, it’s a good time to change equipment, and to make any tweaks to gun handling skills you want to make. And, having gotten a season of Revolver experience under my belt, there were some things I wanted to change.

Grips

The Ruger Super GP100 I shoot in competition came with Hogue hardwood monogrips. They have that Miculek-approved, sharply vertical grip angle, and look so stunning on the gun that grown men have cried1.

And I had to give them up. You see, the Hogue grips, unlike Mr. Miculek’s, are opinionated. That is to say, there are contours and swells on the grip that push your hands in certain directions, and they push my hands places I don’t want them to go. Namely, they swell about midway up, then narrow, then swell again at the top. That means you can’t get an extra-high grip without the wood digging into your hand and bashing your palm in recoil.

I replaced them with a set of Altamont grips. They’re more along traditional lines of revolver grip design in two ways. One, they’re simply shaped. They’re slightly fatter at the base, and taper to a narrower profile at the top, which lets me get my strong hand high while leaving plenty of real estate at the bottom. Two, they’re a rubber center core with grip panels. The grip panels are, alas, not gorgeous, lustrous, almost luminous hardwood. They’re fairly pedestrian walnut-dyed birch laminate. I did at least hold out for a little fleur-de-lis pattern on the grips.

To really belabor the point, they aren’t as pretty as the Hogue grips, but my suspicion is that they’ll be substantially better competition grip. A bit of shock absorption from the rubber, combined with minor power factor loads out of a 45oz gun, means they should sting my hands an awful lot less than wood grips which punish holding the gun how I want to. They have a bit of texture, too, and put my thumb closer to the controls, which opens up some interesting possibilities.

Holster

We’ll get to those later, though. The next item on the list is the holster.

To get started quickly and at relatively low cost, I bought the SpeedBeez Kydex holster. At the time, it was the only one in stock which I could guarantee would fit the GP100. It was perfectly serviceable, and cut down low enough in the front so it didn’t interfere with fast draws. It probably wasn’t holding me back in any way, and I still think it’s a good product, which is why I’m keeping it in my box-o-shooting-stuff.

But Revolver is a race division in USPSA, so I’m allowed whatever kind of crazy holster I want, as long as it covers the trigger guard and holds the gun so that it points less than three feet away from my feet. It just so happens that our very own parvusimperator was looking to ditch his Double Alpha Alpha-X2, and let it go at a very reasonable price. I sold the the Phoenix Trinity insert block he bought it with, got a Smith and Wesson N-frame block (the DAA website now lists the GP100 as compatible with that one), and added the muzzle rest kit for good measure, along with a 3D-printed muzzle support adapter.

The holster works well. Parvusimperator’s quarrel with it is that it can lock up on the gun if it’s pulled at a bad angle, which can happen under stress. The muzzle rest, which I got mostly because guns with round trigger guards, like my revolver, can rotate forward and back slightly in the holster, ended up solving the problem. Since the muzzle sits on a little peg, the muzzle rest constrains the angles at which you can pull the gun free, preventing it from binding before the insert block lets go. Plus, the muzzle rest gives me a target to aim at when reholstering, saving me the embarrassment of fishing around for the right angle after a stage.

Is it faster? Maybe incrementally. The best draw I’ve ever put on the dry fire timer is 0.78s, shooting at a target at a scale distance of about two yards, which is about a tenth faster than I could manage with the SpeedBeez holster. Drawing to a shot that poses even the slightest challenge, I’m up around between 1.0 and 1.2 depending on the shot and the draw, which is exactly where I was with the SpeedBeez one.

The Triple Alpha X, as one of those trigger-guard-only holsters, has nothing around the cylinder or non-trigger controls. This freed me to tackle another project that’s been on my mind.

Cylinder Release

Either I have short thumbs, or the people who design magazine and cylinder catches have extra-long ones. I don’t think I’ve owned a single handgun where I can reliably hit the ‘add more ammo’ button without breaking my grip in some way.

You’d think this wouldn’t be a big deal, given my preferred revolver reload technique, which involves letting go with my strong hand altogether. We’ll circle back to that. I still wanted a big fat paddle cylinder release.

Nobody makes one. I mean, certain gunsmiths do (David Olhasso, out in eastern PA, will do one for you, if you can get the gun out to him), but there’s no drop-in replacement, which was tremendously vexing. Or it was, before I bought a 3D printer. After that purchase, the lack of a part I could buy ceased to be a vexation and became instead an item of unfinished business.

A few hours with calipers and CAD led to my banging out in a weekend what Hogue, Ruger, et al. haven’t managed to do in a few decades: a functioning extended cylinder release for GP100s3. The one in my gun right now is printed in pretty bog-standard PLA+, and surprisingly, that’s proven enough to stand up to relatively intense dry fire. It took a dozen and a half prototypes, but I finally have one which is both functional and ergonomic.

There’s a lot that went into the design, which might get a post of its own, but on ergonomics, suffice it to say that I can hit the cylinder release with my strong thumb without moving my hand at all. This is obviously a vast improvement.

On function, I’ll leave it at this: I think a plastic part, though it might seem a bit chintzy, is actually going to be sufficiently strong to stand up to real use. The only thing that touches the cylinder release during the firing cycle is the spring-loaded pin that runs through the cylinder to unlock the front latch. All it has to do is bear that impact, from endshake, with a spring to help out. PLA might have heat problems, and it might be a bit too brittle around the pivot, depending on how hard the cylinder hits it. All that being said, I think some kind of engineering nylon will probably be perfectly adequate, and I have a sample or two on the way soon, hopefully.

Reloads (technique)

Earlier, I hinted at some changes to reloading technique, and here we are.

I have hitherto been an advocate of the strong hand reload, favored by one Miculek, as well as about half of the top 20 on the USPSA Revolver leaderboard4 and the current champ. Let’s assume you’re right-handed for the rest of this section, so I don’t get my strong and weak hands confused.

The strong hand reload starts with moving your left hand up to the cylinder, while your right hand hits the cylinder release. Your left fingers push the cylinder open into your left palm, and your left thumb hits the cylinder release. Meanwhile, your right hand goes to get a new moon clip. Your left hand brings the gun down to your belt, your right hand drops the clip in, and you rebuild your grip on the way up.

The strong hand reload has a major advantage amidst all the gun-tossing between hands: both hands are pretty much always occupied. There’s no dead time. It’s also relatively easy to do (though sometimes in compromised fashion) no matter which direction you’re moving.

I have more or less decided to switch to a weak hand reload, favored by the other half of the top 20, for this season. First, a description; then, my reasoning.

The way I’m doing it, the weak hand reload starts the same as the strong hand: my left hand moves forward to the cylinder. At the same time, my right thumb hits the cylinder release, but my right hand otherwise stays put. My left fingers pop the cylinder out while I tilt the muzzle slightly upward, and my left thumb hits the cylinder release while my right hand starts to bring the gun down. My left hand leaves the gun and goes for a moon clip. By the time I have the moon clip in hand, the gun is directly in front of it, and the cylinder is at the same height. My left hand lifts the moon clip off the peg, moves it forward a hair, and drops it directly into the cylinder. On the way back up, my left thumb closes the cylinder, and my left hand rejoins my right on the grip. Here’s an example.

This method has one serious downside. Watch the example closely, and you’ll see that the gun is stationary for an instant, waiting for the moon clip. There’s only so much I can do about that.

Is it really such a serious downside, though? By my reckoning, the split time in the video above is about 2.5 seconds, and it’s not the fastest I can go. I’ve hit 2.0 a few times already, which is pretty sporty by wheelgun standards, and certainly unlikely to hold me back.

Suppose you aren’t convinced. There are some positives, too. First: it’s a very simple set of motions. Unlike the strong hand reload, there’s very little gun dancing to it. Gun tilts, gun comes down, gun goes up. Parvusimperator remarked to me that he doesn’t think about going fast, he thinks about doing things efficiently and with urgency. (It’s not his formulation, but I forget who he got it from. Scott someone? Steve someone? Ah, there it is. Scott Jedlinski.)

Second: access to the cylinder is clearer. The strong hand reload puts the grip in the way. Sometimes that causes trouble getting the ammunition in, and the path from the moon clip rack to the cylinder is necessarily a bit more twisty.

Third: I just seem to do it better. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly what it is. Clearer access to the cylinder helps make the worst case bobble not so bad. My left hand has direct access to the cylinder, and can more easily solve problems there. Another contributing factor is probably the cylinder chamfer job I had done5. The mechanics of the reload, with the moon clip being so close to the cylinder, probably help too. My moon clips are relatively wobbly, which means they have the potential to flop as they drop from above the cylinder, and the weak hand reload drops them from closer. It’s also easier to see the positions of the chambers and align the moon clip correctly, since there’s no gun in between my sight line and the cylinder.

Or maybe I find the motions easier to pull off under pressure. The strong hand reload involves a lot of delicate manipulation of the gun, for the payoff that the strong hand gets to do the final positioning of the moon clip. The weak hand reload involves two or three big, simple movements, and one small one (the actual loading) that’s only moderately difficult. Whatever it is, I like this reload more, and so I think I’ll stick with it.

Reloads (ammunition)

Thanks to the fine gentlemen at the r/reloading subreddit’s Discord server, I came by a stock of 6,000 small pistol primers, which ought to be enough to get me through the 2021 season.

With components being scarce, I decided to get my bullets in bulk. A kind soul from the Brian Enos revolver forum sent me a little sample pack of Ibejiheads 160-grain coated numbers, and the Ruger likes them just fine. This was, I should note, back in October, and they’ve only just arrived. Components are, like I said, scarce.

Anyway, there are a few nice things about these particular bullets, but the most important one is that they’re the most tapered 160gr bullets I’ve been able to find, which makes them easy-loading. I’m fond of the ultra-heavy bullets: they only need to go about 800 feet per second to make minor power factor, which takes just a hair over three grains of Alliant Bullseye.

They’re still going in the same Starline .38 Short Colt cases, which I expect to last me years, and the load generally (heavy bullet, low velocity) has been my preference for the admittedly short time I’ve been competing with a revolver. The selection of the Ibejiheads bullets is just finalizing things. In the future, I might investigate a non-Bullseye powder—I’ve heard good things about Alliant Sport Pistol, especially with coated bullets.

Attitude

There are two components to this. The first is a change I’m trying to train. The second is an observation.

The change is this: I need to be looser when I shoot. It’s very easy for me to get tense, which leads to jerky motions, which means my reloads fall apart. I’ve been listening to a few podcasts on practical shooting of late, and one of them (the Shoot Fast Podcast, with Cody Axon and Joel Park) goes after the ‘slow is smooth and smooth is fast’ saying. I’m convinced that the saying is correct in some domains, but for shooting, I like the one the Shoot Fast guys allude to without ever outright saying: fast is smooth and smooth is fast.

I’ve verified this the only way I know how: experiments with the timer. The more I tell myself that a drill doesn’t matter, that I don’t care about the time, the better the time generally is, as long as I’m doing it at pace. With those results in mind, I invented a drill to try and burn the low-tension6 sensation into my shooting. I have my timer give me a start beep and do something fast (a draw, a reload, a double on a dry fire target). After I do the thing, I freeze, inspect my posture, and consciously relax and adjust how I’m standing or gripping, if needed, repeating until I’m relaxed while doing the thing.

Surprisingly, timed and regimented drills to enhance relaxation seem to be working, and fairly quickly. In combination with that, I decided to skip the par timer unless I’m actively working on speed. I still use a timer and still compare my times to the par times, I just have it set to shot-timing mode, to prevent getting in front of my skis while trying to beat the beeps.

And now for the observation, a closing thought for these almost-3000 words. Spend much time in practical shooting circles, and you’ll find a lot of big egos, and a lot of people correspondingly easily shaken by bad performances. At least, that’s what I take away from practical shooting podcasts. The ones I listen to put a lot of emphasis on the mental aspect of the game. I suppose that’s one of the advantages to being even-keeled by nature, and actively adhering to a faith that treats humility as just about the highest virtue. Those episodes are always slightly alien to me, which is to my advantage. It’s much easier to practice the shooting than it is to practice the mind games.

Goals

I wrote some about my goals in a previous post, and I can give updates on two of my 2021 goals already.

Short-term goal #3: end 2020 with a one-year stockpile of reloading supplies. I mostly did this. I have or can make about 3200 rounds of competition ammo, with the limiting factors being powder and bullets. Those are among the easier reloading supplies to find, so I’m not too concerned about my ability to use the primers that I have.

Short-term goal #4: work and shoot two majors. I’m on the list for Battle for the North Coast already, and may aim for the Buckeye Blast in June (if I want an earlier one) or the Virginia state championship in October.

And that’s about where things stand. I’m looking forward to getting this year rolling.


  1. Okay, I’m exaggerating, but people have commented on how good they look. 
  2. Triple Alpha X? Triple Alpha X. 
  3. I’ve pretty much made up my mind to sell them, once I work out some manufacturing errata. Unfortunately for my profit margins and the metallicity of the likely final parts, I can’t buy them from a Chinese factory and ship them here, because that would make me an international arms dealer according to ITAR, and just reading about the paperwork for that gave me a headache. 
  4. Well, the ones I could find footage of, anyway, which was about ten. 
  5. Oops, forgot to mention that one. I sent the gun off to Mr. Olhasso, who ground a chamfer into the non-business end of each chamber, so to make bullets drop more readily. 
  6. Or maybe focused tension is a better way of putting it. I want a tight grip on the gun, but I don’t want that tension to spread all the way through my arms and torso. 

Wednesday What We’re Reading (Jan. 13, 2021)

Happy New Year! 2021 is already off to a flying start, but you’re not here for commentary on that, presumably.

Miscellaneous Entertainments

  • I had cannily planned to hold off on watching The Mandalorian until all the episodes had released, then binge it during the free trial, only to discover that there is no longer a free trial deal. Oops. Well, season 2 has been good so far. No spoilers.
  • Also, since we had to subscribe to Disney+ to see The Mandalorian, and we get as many blocks of one month subscription as it takes us to finish it, I also got to see The Rise of Skywalker, which is the only thing worse than irredeemable crap: redeemable crap. I’ll be turning a conversation I had with parvusimperator into a review in the coming days.
  • On the PC games front, I’ve been playing From the Depths, a block-based vehicle building. Think Minecraft meets Waterworld meets Friedman’s U.S. Battleships. A pretty good buoyancy simulation and some well-designed, if not entirely realistic, ballistics and armor math makes for interesting shipbuilding, and the presence of several game modes with actual beginnings, middles, and ends (as opposed to the standard block-builder ‘survive and build’ mode) gives you something to do with your ludicrously large naval guns. Weighing against it is the jankiness in the UI.

The ‘Rona

  • The lab leak hypothesis gets its moment in New York Magazine – Republicans are out of power, so now media lefties are allowed to say obvious things without risk of being associated with wrongthink.
  • Kind of a shame we used up our collective capacity for tolerating restrictions over the summer, when it was not bad, instead of now, when it is.

Defense

History

  • A tour of R-100 – The old British zeppelin. It’s a little on the cozy side, but! A zeppelin! Also, and this is why I’m not a zeppelin designer in real life, arranging the cabins so that they can get natural light from the windows despite being inboard of the promenades and balconies is delightfully clever.

Science and Technology

  • American media continues Russophobic attacks – Blaming the (Czech-developed, though by Russians with ties to Russia) JetBrains tool suite for hacks in the US. JetBrains, of course, denies it, and nothing further has come of it.

Guns

Grab Bag

Wednesday What We’re Reading (Dec. 30, 2020)

I’ve been trying to sell a light horror story on and off for a year or two, and have had nibbles but no luck. It’s one of my best, and I want to get on to writing more in the same universe. I’m thinking about serializing it over at Many Words Main instead, and going for a once-per-week update schedule again. Thoughts?

Defense

The ‘Rona

Science and Technology

Guns

Grab Bag

Fishbreath Plays: Little Wars

I wrote about Little Wars briefly in my last post, and thanks to a family get-together on Christmas Eve, I was able to play a small game for the very first time. I present to you the First Battle of Adam’s Ridge.

On the western edge of the field, my men, the blue army (French models).

PXL-20201224-192205481.jpg

Infantry in staggered ranks to make them a harder artillery target, with cavalry concentrated on my left.

On the eastern edge of the field, my brother, with the red (British) army:

[PXL-20201224-192212609-MP.jpg

He decided to concentrate his forces in the center, perhaps to respond more quickly to any moves I made to the flanks.

And now, the field, looking from east to west:

PXL-20201224-192218779-MP.jpg

The central feature of this battlefield is Butterfly Hill. To its northeast and southwest runs the eponymous Adam’s Ridge, with the warehouse (the eSun filament box) at the northeastern end and the factory (the Hatchbox filament box) at the southwest end.

Due north of Butterfly Hill, to the right of the photo, is the fairground, and due south is the toy shop.

My brother won the toss and deferred, so I went first, advancing my cavalry force toward the fairground and moving my infantry in the direction of shelter under Butterfly Hill. I kept my right gun back by the factory, where it would remain for the whole battle, while the left gun moved forward with the cavalry.

Because the field was a bit small end-to-end, we decided to let the guns open fire after the first round, instead of after the second.

That brings us to about here, which is the end of the second round.

PXL-20201224-193942550.jpg

I’ve continued my advance toward the fairgrounds, and have reached cover from red’s guns, although they lost two of their number along the way. My men advancing on Butterfly Hill have lost several of their number to artillery fire, but my guns have done a respectable job in reply, dramatically thinning out the bunched forces in red’s center.

Bonus action shot, mid-round 2, as my brother aims a gun toward my artillery crew by the factory.

PXL-20201224-193610276.jpg

On to round 3!

PXL-20201224-194445138.jpg

I’m concentrating my cavalry at the fairgrounds, in the hopes of making a rush at red’s gun by the warehouse, and have moved my left gun up to Butterfly Hill, which is a dire threat to red’s center. Even long-range artillery can pretty quickly dismantle forces out of cover. This close, it’s easy.

To make it a little easier to move the gun to Butterfly Hill, my gun at the factory engaged the soldiers manning red’s gun opposite. If you look closely, you’ll notice it only has three men nearby, which means it’s out of action. I took that opportunity to send the infantry from Butterfly Hill on a march toward the warehouse: I don’t have enough cavalry there to charge the guns and win.

Round 4:

PXL-20201224-195136862-MP.jpg

My guns did indeed exact a heavy toll on red’s center, but my force marching for the warehouse is now substantially smaller too. I think he had eleven men with his right gun (the one on my left), and I had eight cavalry behind the fairground at this point.

Red is attempting to get some cavalry around my right, behind the toy shop and the factory.

Notice also that red’s southern gun is out of action again. You only need four men near a gun, but having more seems to make artillery a lot more durable. Too, I think I probably failed to explain how guns work (four men within six inches, put two behind the wheels at the back of the trail after firing) to my brother, which led to his artillerymen being awfully exposed most of the time.

He has, however, moved his gun by the warehouse to the other side, where it can fire on my gun at Butterfly Hill.

Round 5:

PXL-20201224-195921441.jpg

Both of red’s guns are back in action again, and a fair number of my infantry made it to the warehouse alive—I have a slight edge in numbers there, but am handicapped by the fact that it’s a combined arms attack. The infantry are still two turns away, or at least most of them are. I think. Looking at the photo, I might have been able to drive home a successful, if costly, attack by looping the infantry around the south end of the warehouse, while the cavalry took the northern route.

In the south, the gun at the factory brought down two of the four attacking cavalry. The other two are slightly out of frame to the south.

Round 6:

PXL-20201224-200735272.jpg

I didn’t see the potential for a multi-pronged attack in the moment, however. My brother played it smart and moved his northern gun back a bit, so that it wouldn’t be put out of action in a melee around the factory, and would be in perfect situation to blast any cavalry who engaged.

At which point I looked at the field, felt relatively confident in my advantage, and decided to fall back, which may go down in history as a McClellan-esque bit of caution. We ended the battle by mutual agreement at this point: I didn’t feel like I had a sufficient force advantage to press an attack successfully, and he felt the same way.

Having both started with 68 points of troops, I finished with 50 to his 37.5, for a victory for me. By the objective we’d chosen, I think it would have been most appropriate for us to split the 100 victory points, which would have brought the tally to 100 to 87.5.

Now, on to reactions!

To start with, the rules seem to work very well. Wells obviously played a fair bit of this before he put his rules to paper, given how few the rough edges are and how well they generate something that looks like a real battle.

Notably, we didn’t get to try out the close combat rules: gunnery proved a bit too effective. We’ll probably play next game with one gun per side. Wells recommended one gun per 40 or 50 men. A slightly higher ridge probably would have helped too: it didn’t end up being an obstacle to artillery, whereas if we’d used a few more layers of magazines to build it, it might have, or at least provided some partial cover.

It may be a little too easy to silence guns, but that could also be my brother’s imperfect grasp of the artillery rules. The guns performed well, firing with plenty of power to bring down soldiers and cavalry alike. I think the best shell of the game took down four? I might experiment with a slightly thinner spring, even—I need to order a batch of boxes anyway, since the filament boxes don’t quite fit the taller sorts of soldier, and I could always add spring steel to a McMaster-Carr order. One downside is that the late prototype guns (the ones printed in white plastic) don’t have quite the right tolerances, so their wheels were frequently falling off. Less than ideal. Too, gray is a very bad color for the shells. The next batch I do will probably be in white or red—something to stand out against your average carpet.

In spite of some initial doubt, we ended up playing with the prescribed three-minute time limit. It did its job perfectly: we didn’t have a ton of time to sight in guns, and when we did to ensure we got hits we needed to, we were short on time to do other things. I had to skip moving men once or twice, and made some bad movement decisions a few times because of the clock. A brief aside: Wells wrote about having to find a big clock with a second hand, or wrangle a visitor with a stopwatch into refereeing, which speaks to a timekeeping problem ubiquitous cell phones have relegated to history.

Even though we didn’t get to exercise the close combat/isolation/surrender rules, I was thinking about them as the game was ongoing, and they made a lot of sense: most of the melees that might have happened involved unsupported forces, and would have yielded some prisoner-taking. Given the situations we encountered, it seems like they’d work substantially better than I would have guessed.

Finally, we forgot or misapplied a few rules, but I don’t think it had a serious effect on the outcome of the game. Neither of us were playing the tryhard, but if someone were to do so, I think insisting on rules-following would make it relatively resistant to munchkinry.

All told, an extremely successful first battle, and I suspect we’re going to have a second one today.

Fishbreath Fabricates: Britains 4.7″ naval gun toy

Are you familiar with Little Wars? In 1913, novelist H. G. Wells published it, the first set of rules for miniatures wargaming available to the public. Toy soldiers careen across carpeted (or cork-floored, in the original conception, but I don’t have a cork-floored playroom) countryside, under fire from spring-loaded toy cannon as they charge home for glory.

“Sounds great! Where do I start?” I said. Well, toy soldiers aren’t too hard to find, but I decided that I can print better ones, or perhaps eventually cast them in resin from silicone molds around 3D-printed masters.

The mighty artillery, however, is the sticking point. Nobody makes toy cannons of the right power anymore, and the early-20th-century originals from Britains Ltd. run about $50 a piece. Not exactly cheap, and especially not when a Little Wars game of moderate size might call for six or ten guns. I have in my possession, however, a 3D printer and a copy of FreeCAD, and armed with these tools, I set about fixing this availability problem, with the help of my Thanksgiving vacation.

That holiday at my in-laws being a pretty sedate affair—an awful lot of movies1 and television—I had ample time to Google my way to a minimum understanding of how to CAD, or at least how to use one of several alternative (or redundant, uncharitably) workflows in FreeCAD. Et voila!

Continue reading

Wednesday What We’re Reading (Dec. 9, 2020)

The spammers in the spam queue have gotten a lot less creative lately, but with better grammar, they’re sneaking through the automated filter a bit more often. Fascinating tradeoffs in spam design.

Word of the Week

  • I used ‘boustrophedonic‘ to describe a neat, even winding on a spool of 3D printer filament.

Defense

Science and Technology

Motorsport

Grab Bag

Bureaucracy: a game mechanic idea

I’m creeping toward the end of a game of Stellaris, and an incongruity hit me: why am I hiring more bureaucrats to make things in my large empire cheaper, against all reason and every historical example?

Let me explain. In Stellaris, there is a soft cap on the size of your empire: sprawl. Population, production buildings, and territory all generate sprawl. Bureaucrats increase your sprawl cap. If you go over your sprawl cap, things cost more. Ergo, bureaucrats make things cost less, which is facially absurd.

But how do you solve it? I think the answer is that maybe you don’t, or at least not entirely. You just need to measure two things: first, sprawl, which bureaucrats counteract, and second, administrative efficiency. Sprawl works like it does in Stellaris: the more empire there is, the more expensive things get, unless you have administrators to counteract the effect.

Administrative efficiency models the loss of efficiency from thicker red tape. The more administrators you have, the lower your efficiency gets, and the more things cost. Administration is less expensive than a vast kleptocracy, but still expensive compared to a smaller, leaner state.

Of course, that’s just a surface-level implementation. You might tune things so that size of empire and size of administrative state play off of each other, which would let you (imaginary game-designing reader) set a soft cap on effective empire size. Or, if you’re really into the concept that bureaucracy is at best a mixed bag, implement a kind of cost disease.

After a while, the goal of any large organization of humans becomes ‘justify this organization’s continued existence’. Bureaucracies almost never shrink over the long run, absent some outside cataclysm. They’re much more likely, instead, to grow. So, a given unit of bureaucracy is created to administer a given amount of stuff. The amount of stuff per unit bureaucracy never goes up, but the administrative cost of each unit of bureaucracy does.

Which brings us to the final form of the idea. When your empire expands, it needs bureaucrats. When you hire bureaucrats, you introduce a slowly-growing ossification into the structure of your empire. Eventually, your bureaucrats cut into your ability to do productive things, taking up more and more of your output until your empire is paralyzed by the cost of running itself, and eventually torn down by forces without.

This neatly mirrors some real-world trajectories. Depending on how you tune things (capping the penalty one bureaucrat imposes, tweaking the rate at which the penalty grows) it’s probably possible to set up an empire that can survive in a sort of semi-stasis, handicapped but not quite self-destructing. It opens the door to a wide variety of empire traits and events (moral, dutiful bureaucrats who aren’t as bad in the long run, bursts of patriotic fervor in e.g. a war temporarily reversing the downward trend, and so forth) to boot.

Anyway, I’m not working on anything in the 4X/empire-builder genre, so if you like it, take it. I’d love to play a game which leans into this idea.

Wednesday What We’re Reading (Dec. 2, 2020)

And we’re at issue #100!

I’ll level with you: I didn’t end up doing anything special (although maybe I will as the year winds down). I’ve been consumed instead with a fabrication project that will definitely yield an article or two on the process, and will hopefully yield a few articles on the underlying reason for the project over the next year.

That cryptic statement aside, here’s the news.

Defense

Science and Technology

Guns

Grab Bag

Wednesday What We’re Reading (Nov. 25, 2020)

Issue #99! Thank you for following along for the two-ish years we’ve been sharing what passes for our reading list. I’ll maybe try to do something big for the next one of these—going back and finding predictions might be fun.

Books

  • I’m in the middle of Brian Enos Practical Shooting Beyond Fundamentals, and finding it useful. He’s gotten past the Zen-iest bits at the beginning, and some of his notes on grip and sight focus have stuck with me. Hopefully they pay off at the range.
  • Parvusimperator is probably reading things too.

Defense

Science and Technology

  • We might get a negative leap second – This will, of course, blow up a large amount of computer timekeeping infrastructure, because we computer people didn’t think of that.
  • Arecibo radio observatory to be decommissioned – Sad to lose an awesome piece of engineering as well as a big radio observatory, but Arecibo was also the biggest active radar dish in the world too, which will leave us still more vulnerable to alien invasion.
  • There are now three COVID vaccines in the home stretch. AstraZeneca’s, which is (probably; sample sizes are awful small) less effective than the first two candidates to pull out of the final corner, is also substantially cheaper ($3 per dose against $20+) and requires no more cold storage than a minifridge, and AstraZeneca says they can manufacture about 1.5 billion double-dose courses in 2021, against a few hundred million of the others.

History

Grab Bag

Wednesday What We’re Reading (Nov. 11, 2020)

I’m a few weeks late in mentioning this, but Parvusimperator no longer works in the office next to me. He’s moved on to greener pastures; he requested I not say exactly where, but I will remark that you’d recognize the name.

Defense

Science and Technology

Guns

Grab Bag