Fighting with Non-Lethal Weapons

“That the army is certain to sustain the enemy’s attack without suffering defeat is due to operations of the extraordinary and the normal forces.” – Sun Tzu
Chemical weapons and contact weapons are both classified as non-lethal provided that the former does not include certain banned substances (e.g. mustard or sarin gas) and the latter do not have a pointed tip or a sharpened edge. However, there is an important difference: the former are area denial weapons and the latter are melee weapons.

The single guiding principle of armed conflict is distance and that is especially true for non-lethal weapons. Chemical weapons must be used within the range of grenades but not so close that the user suffers blowback, which is a very different place than the six-foot range of a flail made from a six-foot closet rod and two-foot length of plumbing pipe (see illustration), and this in turn is different than the three-foot range of the clubs typically employed by riot police. So just stay outside the range of their clubs and inside the range of their chemical weapons and you are safe.

In a police phalanx, every man carries his shield on his left arm and his club in his right hand, even those who are left-handed, so they can march closer together. Because each man’s right is protected by his neighbor’s shield, there is a tendency for them to move to their right to be better protected. Thus, as their phalanx advances, they will drift towards the right rather than advancing straight ahead.

This phenomenon is most pronounced if they are under a continuous barrage of projectile fire. Rocks are hopelessly inaccurate, short-range, bulky and heavy. The best projectile weapon is a slingshot with a fold-out brace to go over the top of one’s wrist – a Wrist Rocket™– with ⅜” steel shot. Observe how far the police are throwing or launching their grenades in front of their line and learn the correct angle of elevation to hit them from just outside that range. Also learn to fire rapidly, drawing the pellets from a pouch, similar to the way English longbow archers could fire ten to twenty shots per minute, all at the same angle of elevation and compass direction, but otherwise unaimed. The objective is not to disable the police, which is unrealistic with any non-lethal projectile weapon, but to encourage them to duck behind their neighbor’s shield and thus veer to the right.

In ancient Greece they were fighting on open ground and so this tendency to veer to the right meant that one’s right overlapped the enemy line. Because it is very difficult to get soldiers – especially militia – to wheel in an organized manner, the Spartans had a group on their right detach itself from the main phalanx and march straight out to the right and then perform two 90° left turns and thus attack the enemy’s flank. This is not possible today because riots take place in streets with hard boundaries on either side. The effect of veering to the right is to pile up against the right boundary and leave gaps in the left side of one’s line.

Instead of the Spartan way, we will divide our forces into two groups, traditionally called the normal forces on the left side of the street and the extraordinary forces on the right side of the street. These terms are translations of the Chinese words cheng and ch’i. The term extraordinary is often taken to mean elite, which is not true, and neither term (at least in translation) is very intuitive. So we will call the normal forces on the left side of the street skirmishers and the extraordinary forces on the right side of the street assault forces.

The assault forces are armed with heavy flails while the skirmishers have boleadoras (commonly called bolas), which can also be used as light flails. Bolas are three cords with lead weights on the end attached in the center. One grasps the center and whips it around one’s head smashing the three lead weights into the enemy. If thrown, the three cords spread out in the air and then wrap around a person’s legs, entangling them.

People all over the world – especially in Argentina – have used bolas to hunt mammals as large as the guanaco or birds as large as the rhea. Mariano Nucci writes:
The boleadora was not only a throwing weapon, but the Indians use them as well as a fencing weapon. And in that sense it was a really fearful, horrific one. In order to use the boleadora as a fencing weapon, they had to be standing. They held one of the balls between the big toe and the "index finger" of the foot; the other two balls were held on each hand from the chord. Then, they moved forward, slowly, step by step, moving the balls in his hand in a fast revolving motion. If you were attacked in this way, you were in trouble.
I have not experimented with these and will provide more information as I receive it.

Because swinging bolas around one’s head is dangerous to one’s neighbors, the skirmishers must keep some distance between themselves. They are thus outnumbered and are not intended to overrun the enemy but simply to fix them in place. The purpose of using bolas is to allow a relatively small number of skirmishers to temporarily hold the left side of the street, which frees up the remainder to mass on the right and gain local numerical superiority there. In military terminology, you are refusing your left flank to the enemy.

Because heavy flails can be used in close proximity to one’s neighbors, provided that one raises it and brings it down vertically, without any sideways swinging motion, it is possible for the assault forces to advance shoulder-to-shoulder. Because of the tendency of the police to drift to the right, their left (your right) should have gaps in the line. The assault forces aim for these gaps and attempt to momentarily encircle isolated policemen, striking them simultaneously from both sides.

But advancing shoulder-to-shoulder also makes them slower. The skirmishers wear swimming goggles to protect their eyes, but just hold their breath and sprint through the chemical cloud. The assault forces jog through the chemical cloud wearing heavy clothes tied off at the wrists and ankles, gas masks and goggles. They arrive later but, hopefully, by then some of the police will have moved to counter the skirmishers and so their left (your right) will have even bigger gaps. Also, let us hope your skirmishers have not yet been run off.

Because you have local numerical superiority on the right side of the street and weapons with longer reach than the police clubs and with the ability to strike over the top of their shields, you can expect to turn their flank. It is as difficult to wheel today as it was in ancient Greece, so you need a captain to signal when to turn 90° left so everyone does an abrupt and simultaneous turn. Turning this way requires that you maintain a square formation.

Use flags or bugles, not shouted orders, to signal turns – otherwise the police will spoof your captain by shouting “Halt!” or “Left!” at inappropriate times. Police are actually smarter than they look, though nowhere near as smart as they think they are. In fact, they can figure out that a flail will go over the top of their shield and will raise it high above their heads when they see the assault forces coming. When they do, their legs are exposed and – at this moment – the skirmishers break off whacking at the police on the left side of the street and throw their bolas diagonally across the street at the police who are holding their shields high, entangling their legs.

This is an example of a combined arms tactic presenting the enemy with a dilemma; if they raise their shields to block the heavy flails, their legs get entangled, but if the hold their shields in front of them and look through the little holes, they get bopped over the head with a steel pipe. Either way they get impaled on the horns of the dilemma you have presented them with.

The police on your left (their right) were dislocated as you refused your left flank to them, sending in skirmishers to fix them in place. When you turn their left flank, they will have these men retreating into their midst. They will have no elbow room to use their clubs and will soon be tripping over their own fallen. Before you know it, you will have pushed them into a big pile pressed against the street boundary and be beating on them with flails. You win!

Basically, your assault forces on the right side of the street have to win the battle before your skirmishers on the left side lose it. Synchronizing their efforts takes practice but is worth the time spent drilling. “When the strike of a hawk breaks the body of its prey, it is because of timing.” – Sun Tzu.

Note that this is not what Epaminondas did in 371 B.C. at Leuctra when he beat the much-feared Spartans. Epaminondas had an elite Sacred Band make an independent though pre-planned move to meet the Spartan detachment. His main force had a diagonal front with light cavalry (saddles had not been invented yet) screening the weak side very much as I am using skirmishers with light flails, but with the strong side of his diagonal on the left and the skirmishers on the right.

The difference was that they were on open ground and so the Spartan left did not have gaps because they were not trying to stay in contact with a hard boundary. The Spartan right was made weak when the detachment detached itself and, as this detachment was independently countered by Epaminondas’ Sacred Band, he was correct in massing on his left. But we are not fighting Spartans and there is no detachment; I am therefore correct in massing on the right.

So, while we are not slavishly following Epaminondas’ plan, his spirit lives on. When I tell people that the single guiding principle of armed conflict is distance, they nod, thinking of infantry weapons like the RPG-7 and the KPV 14.5 mm machine gun, but I mean all conflict. It is by no other means than the control of distance that battles are won. That was true in 371 B.C. and it remains true today.