A Potted History of the Assassin’s Trade

What would you buy with £15,000? A new car? Fit a conservatory, perhaps, or a new kitchen? Or how about hiring an assassin? That’s what a recent study from the University of Birmingham revealed was the average cost of hiring a hit man in Britain. They found quite a spread of charges, though, from a bargain £200 up to a staggering £100,000 for the most expensive (the 1994 Hertfordshire murder of Robert Magill).

The Distant Sniper

Not surprisingly, the study found that the favourite method of dispatch was to use a gun, but unlike the picture portrayed by films and novels, in most cases this is a handgun used in a public place, and not a sniper’s rifle from a distant roof.


The sniper rifle certainly does have its place, however, but that’s more on the modern battlefield than the streets of our “normal” cities. A bullet apparently coming from nowhere to suddenly kill the squaddie next to you is seriously unnerving, so snipers play a key role in destabilizing the enemy during war. And the distances involved can be amazing – a British soldier recently took the world record for a long distance sniper shot during the Afghanistan conflict, when he took out a Taliban gunman at a distance of 8,120 feet – that’s over a mile and a half!

The problem for the sniper in being that far away, of-course, is simply how long it takes the bullet to travel the distance.  Even at 3000 feet per second, a bullet can take well over two seconds to reach its target, in which time the intended victim could have moved. And the wind as well can send a bullet off course over that distance. That’s where the latest research by America’s DARPA comes in – enter the laser-guided sniper bullet with its tiny fins that allow it to alter direction during flight. The DARPA website has a video tracing the bullets’ flights, and it’s amazing to see how much they can alter direction to keep on track towards their victim (see http://www.gizmag.com/darpa-sniper-bullet-change-path/32952 for a simple overview).


But if you don’t have access to an expert sniper or even a modest handgun, there still seems to be plenty of alternative methods with which to bump off your opponent. Poison for instance has often been a favoured tool in the assassin’s armoury. It’s been in use from a few millennia BC right up to the current day, probably remaining popular because it allows the murderer to be elsewhere at the time of death.

Poison in a Teapot

The earliest application of poison was as a means to increase the effectiveness of thrown spears, where the weapon’s tip was used to administer a toxin such as tubocurarine chloride to a distant enemy. By the time we reach the Roman Empire, poisoning had developed into an art form. Nero is even said to have employed his own personal poisoner, who was frequently required to despatch Nero’s relatives with a dose of cyanide. The other clan famous for its adeptness with a vial of poison is, of-course, the 15th century Italian family, the Borgias, with its frequent use of cantarella, a compound historians believe was made from arsenic. The skill with arsenic positioning was to ensure the effect was not immediate and that the symptoms generated could have been caused by one of the many other diseases common to the day. How the Borgias created that compound remains a mystery, although some speculate that they coated dead pigs’ entrails in arsenic and left the poison to be absorbed into the rotting material, after which the resulting liquid was squeezed out and collected.

And poison development continues even today, albeit in a somewhat more scientific way. In 2006, the dissident Russian intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko was assassinated in London while under the protection of MI6.  That event introduced us to the reality of targeted radiation poisoning.

Police believe a does of polonium 210 was slipped into his tea at a Mayfair hotel, probably by Russian FSB agents, who were later named by police but never arrested. It took 23 days for Litvinenko to die – a period in which he would have been in intense pain. And the cost? It’s been estimated that the polonium 210, which can only be formed inside a nuclear reactor, would cost tens of billions of dollars if purchased on the open market – but free if you happen to own a suitable reactor yourself!

Litvinenko was buried in a lead-lined coffin.

A Breath of Cyanide


Methods of administering poison are often a lot more sophisticated than that hotel’s silver teapot, and the peculiar minds who design such weapons have spent much time developing them. The 1978 case of the Bulgarian writer exiled to Britain, Georgi Markov, is one example of this. He was poisoned by a pellet of ricin shot from the tip of an umbrella into his leg while he waited at a bus stop on Waterloo Bridge (a similar umbrella is a morbid but interesting exhibit in Washington’s spy museum– see www.spymuseum.org for details).

The same museum also has a gas gun, a weapon used by the KGB assassin Bogdan Stashinsky in 1957. This consisted of a seven inch metal tube that unscrewed into 3 sections for smuggling to the target’s destination. When assembled and fired, the mechanism broke a capsule of cyanide gas and squirted it into the face of a victim. The gun was designed so that it could be fired from inside a rolled newspaper, so was never seen during the attack.

The benefit of this weapon came from the fact that the detectable presence of cyanide disappeared from the victim’s body within minutes – once fired into their face, their arteries contracted and they died, but everything returned to normal by the time the corpse was examined, and there was no trace of the cyanide because it was breathed rather than ingested. The conclusion: heart failure; death by natural causes.

His victim was Dr Lev Rebet in West Germany. According to http://www.the-puzzle-palace.com, the assassin had to be very careful to avoid the effects of the gas on himself, should any of it blow back at him, and therefore had to take nerve pills, anti-gas pills and a poison antidote immediately before pulling the trigger.

Because the intention was to make the death look like natural causes, users of this weapon were trained never to run from the scene but, if anyone saw them, the assassin was to pretend to help the victim, as though coming to aid of someone suffering a cardiac arrest.

Other victims followed, but this method of murder eventually became too much for Stashinsky, and he fled across Germany to the Western sector just before the Berlin wall was erected, where he surrendered to the Americans. He was sentenced to eight years of hard labour after admitting the assassinations, but was released early for giving the CIA information that helped them solve many other KGB originated murders. He lived in West Germany under a new identity.

Ingenious Designers

So much death, pain and misery has been dished out at the hand of expert assassins.  I can’t help thinking that the undoubtedly ingenious and talented engineers who designed the kinds of weapons we’ve looked at could greatly benefit humanity if only they would turn their skills to the creation of devices that helped mankind rather than killed. However, man’s nature has always had a desire to commit murder, from the days of Cain and Abel to today. Let’s hope that one day a way can be found to stop our natural propensity to want to kill, and to use our engineering talents only for good.


One comment on “A Potted History of the Assassin’s Trade

  1. So even the humble lead slug is getting an upgrade. Technology touches everything.
    There’s a lot in I, Claudius about Livia, wife to the Emperor Augustus, and her skill with poisons. She was not a lady you wanted to cross.

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