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Americans have always loved shoot-em-ups. A hundred and twenty years ago “The Great Train Robbery,” which was filled with gunplay, was the biggest hit in the era of the early silent films. It was a western that ran only 12 minutes, but when it debuted in December, 1903 it played to packed houses. Since then, some of the guns in movies have become as famous as the actors who use them on screen. Here are a few.
The Most Famous Guns in Movies
- The Colt Single Action Army, Model 1873
- The Smith & Wesson Model 29
- Walther PPK
- The Thompson Submachine Gun
- Sharps Model 74
- Winchester Model 73
Guns In Movies: Handguns
1. The Colt Single Action Army, Model 1873
The issue sidearm of the U.S. Army from 1873 to 1892 and then recalled briefly to active duty during the Philippine Insurrection, this revolver is one of the most famous objects—never mind firearms—the United States has produced. Originally issued with a 7-1/2-inch barrel for cavalry troopers, there were later additions with 3-, 4¾-, and 5½-inch barrels. The original chambering was for the 45 Long Colt cartridge, and this was joined by 29 others as the years went on. Colt twice dropped the Model 1873 from its line and was twice forced by popular demand to bring it back. The revolver is still in production.
Hollywood has favored the Peacemaker almost to the exclusion of all the other handguns that made the Wild West wild, and along with it has come more gun-related nonsense than you can find anywhere else in movies. Most of it deals with the cult of the fast draw, which did not exist in real life. The holsters that movie gunfighters wear were not invented until the 1950s, and were the brainchild of a Hollywood stuntman of Finnish extraction named Arvo Ojala, who could draw, shoot, and hit in an accurately-measured one-sixth of a second.
Lawmen, bad guys, and everyone else used all kinds of guns. Billy the Kid favored a Winchester Model 73 lever-action carbine for murdering people. James Butler Hickok used a pair of Colt Navy revolvers. Wyatt Earp, at the O.K. Corral, almost certainly carried a Smith & Wesson Model 3 single-action. John Wesley Hardin had a Smith & Wesson double-action on him when he was shot from behind while throwing dice in El Paso. But so what? At the head of them all, forever, stands the Peacemaker.
2. The Smith & Wesson Model 29
The lasting image of Clint Eastwood will probably be that of San Francisco Police Inspector Harry Callahan, looking down the looming barrel of a massive revolver, hissing: “This is a .44 magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and could blow your head clean off. So you’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya…punk?”
“Dirty Harry” made Eastwood, who was already a star, a mega-star. And it turned the Model 29, which was too expensive and hard-kicking to be popular, into something magical.
Built on Smith’s N-frame, the Model 29 was born in 1955. Gun writer Elmer Keith, who had spent years experimenting with hot-loaded .44 Specials and .45 Long Colts, talked Remington into producing a super .44 cartridge that fired a 240-grain hard-lead semi-wadcutter bullet at 1,450 fps. Keith then persuaded Smith & Wesson to make a revolver for the monster, and the rest is history.
What is not often mentioned about the early Model 29s is that Smith & Wesson did their very best work on them, and their very best was wonderful. I think the only sidearms that can match these early Model 29s are the old Colt Pythons, S&W Triple Locks, and now the Korth revolvers. But none of those got to blow the heads of bad guys clean off.
3. Walther PPK
Ian Fleming, a Royal Navy intelligence officer turned writer, picked the name “James Bond” from a book on Jamaican birds, and the first James Bond novel saw print in 1952. It was an instant hit, and Fleming produced 12 more before his death in 1964. The first Bond movie, Dr. No, debuted in 1962, and there have been twenty-six more. They are the fifth most successful movie franchise in history, and have earned $7.83 billion.
But the early Bond had a gun problem. His weapon of choice was a Beretta Model 418, a miniscule automatic that fired the anemic .25 ACP cartridge.
Before Bond got to the screen, Fleming was contacted by a British Army major named Geoffrey Boothroyd, who pointed out to Fleming that the Beretta was an embarrassment. Then followed a negotiation on a new Bond gun and the two men compromised on a German automatic called the Walther PPK in .32 ACP.
In 1930, Carl Walther GmbH Sportwaffen introduced the PPK, which stood for Polizeipistole Kriminal which means, very roughly translated, “police pistol, criminal division.” Everyone loved the PPK. It was very compact and very reliable and was issued not only to civilian cops, but to the Luftwaffe and high-ranking officers in the German Army. It’s still made, and still in wide use.
James Bond loved it and continues to do so. Having used all manner of weird and exotic guns in his movies, Bond continues to carry the PPK.
Guns in Movies: Machine Guns
4. The Thompson Submachine Gun
One of the lessons both sides learned in World War I was that if you actually made it across No Man’s Land and into the other side’s positions, you were then in a hell of a lot of trouble because bolt-action infantry rifles of the time, with their sword-length bayonets, were nearly useless in the confines of a trench.
Various remedies were sought, and one of the best—which was not finished in time for the festivities—was the submachine gun invented by Brigadier John T. Thompson of the U.S. Army. One of the original nicknames of the Tommy Gun was “trench broom,” but its destiny lay in the war that was to come, and in the intervening disagreements between the forces of law and order and the criminals who caught the public fancy in the 1920s and ‘30s.
“Public Enemies,” which debuted in 2009, is the story of John Dillinger and his fun-loving associates, who discovered that police had no chance at all against General Thompson’s brainchild. The Thompson was chambered for the .45 ACP cartridge, which meant that whoever you shot with it stayed shot. Most had a cyclic rate of 600 to 700 rounds per minute (some models ran much faster), but because it weighed close to 11 pounds, and was frequently fitted with a muzzle brake called a Cutts Compensator, you could learn to control the recoil. Magazines came in 20- and 30-round stick versions and in 50- and 100-round drums, which were generally useless.
The Marine Corps adopted the Thompson in the 1920s, and the Army made the Model 1928A1 (with the 30-round magazine) standard issue in 1938. During World War II, 1.75 million were made, and despite its weight and its need for lots of maintenance, the Thompson served with distinction all over the world. It was carried in U.S. Army inventory until 1970. In 1969, William J. Helmer wrote an excellent history of the Thompson. His title was The Gun that Made the Twenties Roar. You can’t put it better than that.
Guns in Movies: Rifles
5. Sharps Model 74
In 1974, a screenwriter named John Hill came up with a novel idea. He would write a western set not in the Old West, but in Australia in the mid-1870s. He based his plot for “Quigley Down Under” on two facts that were unknown to American audiences: Commencing in 1778, British courts allowed convicts who were sentenced to death a choice of the gallows or “transportation,” which meant a one-way trip to Australia or Tasmania, colonies that were desperately short of labor. This meant that Australia was gifted with a large number of highly dangerous criminals.
The British stole Australia from its original inhabitants, whom the Brits called Aborigines. These folk had migrated to Australia 70,000 years earlier. When the first convicts landed, there were probably 250,000 Aborigines. It was not to remain so. When the thugs from Great Britain laid eyes on them, it was massacre at first sight.
Enter Matthew Quigley, a Wyoming marksman who is hired by an Australian rancher for an unspecified job involving much shooting. Quigley travels to the Land Down Under unaware of what the job actually entails, which is the extermination of every Aborigine on the rancher’s land, and when he finds out, he is appalled and quits on the spot. Then follows a classic Western contest between Good and Evil in which Quigley prevails.
Because much of Quigley’s shooting heroics take place at 1,000 yards, the producers picked the one rifle of that time that could shoot accurately enough, and that was the Sharps Model 74, which was designed for buffalo hunters.
Shiloh Rifle Manufacturing Company of Big Timber, Montana, was picked to build the gun, and they turned out three guns for the movie: a user, a backup, and an aluminum-barreled prop which was easier to manage while mounting and dismounting a horse (the steel-barreled rifles weighed just under 13 pounds).
The Quigley Sharps is chambered for the .45-110, and fires a 540-grain lead bullet backed by 110 grains of black powder. It has a heavy, 34-inch octagonal barrel, double-set triggers, a vernier tang sight, open rear sight, case-hardened receiver, and patch box, and a pewter fore-end cap. The action is a falling-block with an exposed hammer.
“Quigley” was not a success with the general public. It made back its budget, but did not turn a profit. With shooters, it was a different story. They went insane with lust for the gun in the movie, and the film did for the Model 74 Sharps what Dirty Harry did for the Model 29 Smith & Wesson.
6. Winchester Model 73
As guns in movies go, this black-and-white film is the only movie, as far as I know, that has a firearm for its title. The Winchester 73 followed the Model 66 (Yellow Boy) and was a far better rifle. The Model 66’s brass frame gave way to a steel one, and the anemic .44 rimfire cartridge was replaced by a much more powerful .44 centerfire that could also be used in a Colt Peacemaker. The Model 73 was in the Winchester line until 1923, and over 700,000 were made. Winchester billed it as “the gun that won the West.”
In 1875, Winchester hit on the idea of producing a special-issue Model 73. If a barrel showed unusually good accuracy during test firing, it was re-stocked in fancy walnut, equipped with a set trigger, given special bluing, engraved “One of One Thousand,” and then given a price tag of $100, which is the equivalent of $2,500 today. The guns were highly prized and got considerable buzz, but only 136 are known to have been sold.
Enter Universal Studios, which conjured up a motion picture in which a marksman named Lin McAdam wins a One of One Thousand in a shooting contest in Dodge City. The rifle is stolen from him, and he gets it back 90 minutes later. It was a very good movie, much helped by the presence of Jimmy Stewart as Lin McAdam. Stewart practiced with a lever-action until his knuckles were skinned, and was coached by Winchester exhibition shooter Herb Parsons (who also did the stunt gunnery for the film). Winchester 73 the movie did very well at the box office and was a critical success as well. It is today listed in the National Film Registry as a film of lasting significance.