Things That Go Boom in the Night
By Herodotus

Gidget’s note: Sometime ago I asked for advice on writing about the firearms of the day and Herodotus kindly let me post this compilation of a few emails, which we organized into an essay to benefit other writers.  For example, I made up the term ‘Magnum PI Special’ for my fic, borrowing the name from the old Tom Selleck TV series.  But I wanted authenticity and needed an expert’s advice in writing intelligently about how Thursday and his partner Archer (A Fair to Remember) would use them. Thanks!


Weapons and Cops

An issued service revolver (such as Thursday’s Magnum PI from A Fair to Remember) would normally hold six shots.  Just being a service revolver doesn't determine how many shots you have.  The Chief's Special held five (remember it didn’t come out in the real world until 1950) and that Ladysmith I saw when I was on vacation (it was a .367 Magnum, making it a Magnum revolver) also only held five shots, but most revolvers hold six. Hence the popular name ‘six-shooter’.  When on duty, a cop would be required to carry his service weapon.  The Chief's Special was originally intended as a duty pistol for detectives and other plainclothes agents --- not as a holdout --- even if it is very popular as backup gun today.  A holdout gun is never required, and many cops don't carry one.  They are purchased by the cops at their own expense and are not an issued weapon.


This would explain the bewildering array of holdout weapons and ways of carrying them.  In the 1930's, not many cops would carry a "sneak gun", but a savvy one with a lot of hard-earned experience probably would.  Thursday would probably fall into this category.  He could lose his service revolver somehow and be kicking himself for having forgotten to pack his "insurance" (a cute private nickname for his own backup gun) when he left his home that morning.  An older cop in the 1930's might carry a derringer --- you know, one of the two-shot little pistols they like to give gamblers in westerns, and simply drop it into a vest pocket on the way out the door in the morning.  The old-time derringers were nothing to sneer at; they were not the effeminate little popguns of today (usually a .22 rim fire), and they were usually .44 or .45 caliber, almost a half-inch diameter lead projectile!  This is laughably inaccurate because of the short barrels, but very deadly at close range.  Also, as there are no real rules governing backups, there is no rule on how many you can carry.  Knew a fellow once who carried THREE backup guns (and a couple of knives)!




By the way, PT-8a is a variant of the PT-8 --- that "a" on the end is not a stray letter.  The first production model of the aircraft was called the PT-8.  When the Usland navy made a few modifications (primarily the hard point under each wing) they called it the PT-8a to indicate that it was a different from the original version produced by Gurmmlin


Enough of that --- on to GUNS!  You mentioned smaller guns for smaller hands.  Smith &Wesson make a variant of their Model 36 Chief's Special (That little five-shot .38 I told you about).  It is called the Model 36 LS, more commonly called the Ladysmith.  It comes with a two-inch barrel only and has a smaller grip with a round butt with rosewood grips and comes in a soft carrying case.  It was produced for the women's market and sold like hot cakes.  It is produced only in blue (in guns that means it has a shiny black finish. When someone is talking about the ‘bluing’ of a gun they mean its glossy black finish).  But I've heard about someone who will put a custom finish on them that renders the gun a metallic pink color.  Believe it or not, this is really popular --- he has more business then he can handle.


A Ladysmith would be just the weapon for a female detective who didn't want to carry a great big bulky firearm, or wanted one that could be concealed with relative ease --- or if she had some kind of esthetic sense that carried over to her choice of firearms. 


Bill Jordan was a law enforcement officer (primarily boarder patrol) in the twentieth century.  It was his recommendations that led to the development of the .357 Magnum in 1955.  Ed Magivern was one of Jordan's contemporaries.  He was one of the greatest trick shooters of all time. Until recently he held the record for speed shooting --- five shots in under a second.  He left a group of holes in the target that could be covered with a silver dollar.  By the way, this trick can only be performed with a revolver.  The action of a semi-automatic pistol just cannot operate fast enough.  You must understand that we are talking a very select few who can pull this off.  For the rest of us mortals, the semi-automatic is faster.



Sounds of Gunfire
If you do decide to write a crime series, I do have one bit of advice for you.  As a bullet passes you, it doesn't whistle, whiz, or scream.  It makes a loud snapping, popping sound.  It is very distinct sound, kind of like someone snapping their fingers really loud (but a bit sharper).  Remember that a bullet is traveling faster than the speed of sound --- it’s making a little sonic boom.  It will make a whizzing sound once it nears the end of its range, which is a long, long way.  I once tried to read a novel by a fairly famous female detective writer. The main character hears a bullet "whine" past her when someone fires a heavy caliber handgun form across the street!  A mile would have been more like it.


If you are into gory details and want some authenticity that a lot of writers seemed to miss, I've got a juicy little detail for you.  The sound a bullet makes when it strikes the body is a hollow thumping, slapping sound.  It is actually quite loud --- loud enough that the members of military special forces are more concerned with it than the sound their silence weapons make.



Police Weapon Types

Police guns:  There is no official name to the little gun that cops carry strapped to the ankles --- less commonly in the small of the back under his shirt or down the front of his pants (for some reasons guys don't do a real good job of searching guys there --- this is no joke --- it really works).  But it is often referred to as a backup gun or more frequently just a backup.


Another common name for it is a holdout.  It is all so some times called a belly gun (almost funny if he is carrying it in the front of his pants), because their short barrels render them so inaccurate that you want to be just about pushing them into the targets belly before you pull the trigger --- this is a much older term (an older cop in the 1930's would probably know this term, but I doubt many contemporary readers would get it).


A "magnum" refers to a round with a powerful load of propellant.  For example, Dirty Harry's 44 Magnum is a .44 caliber round with a much more potent charge than the older 44 Special.  Today, most cops carry either a .38 special revolver or a semi-automatic pistol in 9mm Luger (9mm Parabelum in the states) but a lot of highway patrolmen favor the .357 Magnum.  The .357 Magnum is actually the .38 special with a longer case to hold a larger charge of gunpowder (I know the names say they are two different sizes, but trust me --- they are both the same size diameter.  It has to do with how bore diameters where measured at the various times in history).  Also, magnum handguns are usually built on large, bulky frames, making them bigger than normal for the caliber of slug they throw.


However, I figure your "Magnum PI Special" is a wonderful pun that most people will get.  If it is of any help, Smith &Wesson makes a FIVE-shot snub-nosed revolver in .38 Special that was intended for use by plainclothes police officers.  It is the Model 38 Chief's Special, commonly just called the Chief's Special.  It dates from the 1950's though, so it wouldn't quite be period --- but then so do the Magnum handguns (this is not historical fiction yer writin' here, so don't let that get in yer way --- Magnum PI Special is still a good pun!). (Gidget:  Thank God! (dabs forehead with a hanky)  The Colt Police Positive and Detective Special (snub-nosed version of the colt pp) would be very period.  They were the single most common police handgun in the states up through the 1970’s and particularly during the 1930’s (if you've seen a cop shooting a pistol in movie made at that time, you've seen a Police Positive). It is still in production today (which says a lot about the weapon) and I have heard it claimed that it was the single most popular police handgun in the world!



Gunshot Wounds

The human body is a funny thing.  It can survive just about anything short of a headshot or one to the heart.  And I've actually heard some documented stories about people surviving being shot in the head!  At the same time the body can be very fragile and wounds to areas not normally considered fatal can result in death in a matter of seconds.  You once mentioned you like stories that have autopsies in them.  Are you familiar with the femoral artery?  It runs along the inside of the thigh.  A leg wound is usually one of the places that is not considered fatal, but if the femoral artery is opened (like with a knife or bullet) a person can bleed to death in something like fifteen seconds.  Chest wounds are pretty survivable if the person receives immediate aid and as long as it misses any important spots (Heart, liver, spine) --- the ever popular "sucking chest wound".  Abdominal wounds also do not usually result in immediate death, but require prompt attention.  In times past a "gut" shot was almost always fatal, due to peritonitis.  But by the mid 1930's sulfa drugs are in use so survival is pretty much insured if the victim gets medical attention before she bleeds to death (again it is important that bullet misses the spine).  Another good choice might be the hip (Yeah, I know, a nice big target :) ). (Gidget:  Poor Baloo!  He’d never get out of the way in time.)  Not only could the victim bleed a lot, but there is a large bone in there that the bullet could break.  It also has the advantage that none of the readers would expect it to be fatal.  Part of writing such a scene will depend both on what bullets really do and what people think bullets will really do.




There you go --- more than you ever wanted to know about handguns.  I'm a well of weird and (mostly) useless information.  The worst part is, I can go on and on at the drop of a hat (have been known to carry a hat around just to drop).  Like I said don't get too hung up on being period on this one.  The original TaleSpin wasn't always that period either.  Magnum PI Special is a good one (people who know guns will think you are talking about a more powerful handgun though).  But if your going to make a pun that breaks a rule, it's best to know what rule you are breaking ("Hey the first magnum hand gun didn't come out until 1955!"  "Yes, yes, I know that but the point was...).  Also the more you know about something the better the puns you can come up with.  Sorry to run on so long, but you asked.


Gidget makes mental note to only ask Herodotus something if she really has to.  ;-)



March 2001

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