HOW MOVIES AND BOOKS WRING SEVEN SHOTS OUT OF A SIX-SHOOTER
As a baby boomer growing up in the 1960s, I witnessed some remarkable things, from Roger Maris hitting 61 home runs, to Elvis humping his hips, to a failed Bay of Pigs invasion. But the thing that amazed me the most when I was a boy watching Saturday afternoon matinees, or gawking wide-eyed at the TV screen, was how the hell could John Wayne fire an extra round or two or three out of his sixgun. And how could Chuck Conners operate his trick rifle better than normal gunslingers, any why would Steve McQueen choose a rifle cut down into a “Mare’s Leg” worn like a pistol when he could have chosen something more efficient to ventilate his enemies.
That started my fascination with movies and with books on spotting such inaccuracies. Being introduced to guns at an early age, I began scouring pawn shops and gun stores looking for the mysterious seven-shot handgun. My quest for one of those cut-down rifles proved just as elusive. I never found any, and was forced to admire them on the screen.
For a while I even thought short revolvers were incredibly accurate. I recall watching Mike Conners as Mannix on TV. He’d get into a shootout, drawing his snubbie and wildly flinging rounds into crowds, where he always got his man and never hit an innocent bystander. At any episode, I expected him to hit a dozen innocents, or to whip out his brick-of–a-Motorola car phone and kill himself answering a call.
When I got older and into my law enforcement career, I’d watch Barnaby Jones on TV. If you recall, Buddy Epsen played the PI Jones after apparently running out of money as hillbilly-turned-oil-magnate Jed Clampett two years before. Hardly a week went by that Jones didn’t make a hundred-yard snapshot from the holster with his 2” “snub–nosed .38,” well over the practical range of such weapons. Yet still I was in awe.
And who can forget the Duke ridding at full gallop in True Grit, pistol in one hand, lever rifle in the other, blazing away, knocking down bad guys. The only thing I’d manage to hit in that scenario would be my own horse in the head. God rest his soul.
Craig Johnson (author of Cold Dish and Junkyard Dogs) and I were discussing authenticity some time age, and we came to the conclusion that we are writers of fiction, not of documentaries. Someone is bound to point out the minor mistakes that slip by. How many westerns have you seen where faint jet contrails could be seen off the horizon, or knobby truck tires cross the very path the wagon train took? Such subtle mistakes by the final cutting department can be overlooked as long as the story is good.
But contemporary writers have the luxury of being able to connect with any expert on practically any subject, hit the “send” button, and expect a correct answer momentarily. That’s why it still baffles me why some of the major names in the fiction world today get basic things so wrong. One notable writer produced drama when he had his character take the safety off a revolver. Unless he explained that there is a company that produces a revolver safety (Heritage Arms in their hammer-blocked single actions), or that a company once produced a modification of a standard revolver to incorporate a safety, the book has to be especially compelling for me to continue reading. Or the Glock auto, which several contemporary fiction writers keep insisting on having a safety that needs to be disengaged. Perhaps books and movies have been making such mistakes for so long it becomes natural for writers to go with what’s been presented before.
There are some writers nowadays going to great lengths to portray weapons and their effects properly. Pick up any Steven Hunter novel and you can practically write a reloading book for his ammunition, or copy a manufacture’s owner manual for whatever gun his character fires. His victims are dispatched within the limits of whatever weapon he or she uses, and there are no miracles involved in their demise. No matter what the outcome of the story, you’re never distracted from the story line by some outlandish mistake with weapons.
So, feel free to dissect my novels for such inaccuracies; feel free to drop me a terse line if my characters suddenly deploy armament not even invented yet. Or worse, invented, but modified so as to be unrecognizable. Because, even though I do not write documentaries, I do write to be as entertaining as possible. Perhaps you’ll become a “spotter” of faux pas’ with character’s weapons. Perhaps you’ll spot other police inaccuracies besides weapons. But that’s a tale for another post.
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March, 2011 with Berkley Prime Crime
FBI Agent Manny Tanno must solve the murder of a prominent Native American land developer – or lose his job. His reluctant homecoming to Pine Ridge Reservation is even worse than he’d expected. His estranged brother, the prime suspect, and his childhood rival, the tribal police chief, are not the only ones interfering: A killer is hunting him and a spirit is haunting him.