Saturday, March 20, 2010

Shooting Soap

Every historical author needs at least one good expert source. One of mine is 'Hawkeye', a British gun-dealer and expert on Civil War period firearms.

I recently sent him a few pages of my first Western Mystery, to make sure I had details of the guns right.

In the first Western Mystery, The Case of the Counterfeit Injuns, my hero gets shot with a Smith & Wesson seven-shooter. It's only a .22 but my hero is only a kid. So how much damage would it do? Would a slug from a .22 knock down a 12 year old if fired at close range? Would it pierce buckskin? Or just bounce off? Can you even call a .22 a slug? Shouldn't you call it a 'pea'? It's tiny! (above)

I sent the relevant pages to Hawkeye and he sent back this fascinating reply:

I did a little test for you myself. Taking 10 rounds of modern .22 short, I pulled out the bullets, tipped out the modern nitro powder & replaced it with 4 grains of fine black powder, then put the bullets back on top. Fired from the old Eureka - barrel length 2 1/2 inches, it penetrated 1 1/4 inches of pine at 6 yards range. At the same distance it penetrated a soft leather belt pinned to a new bar of soap and exited the rear of the soap through a large hole. In my opinion the Smith & Wesson No. 1 with its 3 inch barrel would perform almost identically.

(above: Hawkeye's 2 1/2 inch barrel Eureka)

Ouch! So the answer to my question is yes, you can call a .22 ball a 'slug' because it can pierce buckskin and make a nasty hole at close range!


Sunday, March 7, 2010

Get the bang right

I am having another fun session shooting cap & ball Colts today at a shooting club in South London. My mentor - let's call him Hawkeye - is sharing some secrets of how the movies get it all wrong.

1. There are five other shooters in our blind and I'm nearly deafened by the reports from their cap & ball revolvers (they are mostly .44s) even though I am wearing 'ear-defenders'. I remark on this to Hawkeye and mention The Proposition, a great Australian film which starts with a shootout where the gunshots sound like popguns. 'In films,' he says, 'they never get the bang right.' I jump as another deafening shot goes off behind me. 'And the more powder', says Hawkeye, 'the louder the bang. Also, more powder meant the ball would be more accurate. It's trajectory would be flatter.'

2. In the real wild West, they never held the gun sideways or with both hands. 'I think Hawaii Five-O is the first time you see cops holding a gun with two hands,' says Hawkeye. 'And the Pulp Fiction type holding it on its side is ridiculous. And what Jimmy Cagney does in the old films is criminal. He jerks the gun downwards as he fires.'

3. 'In my book,' I say, 'I have a ball from a .22 knock down my 12-year-old hero.' Hawkeye snorts. 'Even a shot from a .44 wouldn't throw you against the wall', he says. 'It would take a .50 calibre ball, from one of the big Sharpe's for example, to knock you down.'

4. Hawkeye says for a while there was a ridiculous fad for ricochets on American TV Westerns. (You know the kind of thing: B'dang! B'dang!) Hawkeye says lead balls go thunk. They don't bounce off things.

5. In For a Fistful of Dollars, a machine gun stands in for a gattling gun. Wrong! (I also noticed lots of ricochets in that film, too.)

6. In The Good, the Bad & the Ugly there is a delightful scene where Eli Wallach's Tuco (right) makes up a gun using the best parts from others. Wrong! (In his autobiography, The Good, The Bad, and Me, Wallach admits he was just riffing and having fun).

7. One bullet wouldn't necessarily have killed you.
Shooter: Bang!
Shootee: Argh! (slumps to ground, instantly dead.)
In actuality, one of the Younger Gang was shot 28 times... and lived long enough to witness the age of aviation. According to Hawkeye.

8. Cool leather holsters with matching cartridge belts? Not so common. Men often carried guns in their pockets or on a piece of string or in a sack. Many so called gunmen didn't even know how to fire a gun properly. Says Hawkeye.

9. In the film Winchester 73, Jimmy Stewart's character shoots a bullet through a washer tossed high in the air. Hawkeye scoffs at this, too. He says that might happen if the washer was stationary, but never while flying through the air.

10. Did they ever get it right? 'Yes,' says Hawkeye. 'In John Wayne's last film, The Shootist, he tells the boy that although the grouping of the bullets is important, a target never shoots back. The important thing is not to flinch.'

Note to self: In the Western Mysteries I should avoid ricochets, people slammed against walls or knocked over by slugs, single shot instant death, amazing accuracy, and most important of all, I must get the bang right!