Archive for January, 2014

My last posting of images of a specific firearm gave the Colt Single Action Army. But while that revolver is the one that comes to mind for a lot of people when they think of the Old West and handguns, there’s an earlier Colt that was the handy pistol to have around from 1851 and many decades after that: the Colt Navy.


Unlike the SAA, this one was designed by Samuel Colt himself. Colt’s first pistol, the Paterson, had been overly complicated and fragile, and his first company went out of business. His next models, the Walker and the Dragoon, were massive pieces better suited for saddle guns. He also came out with pocket revolvers starting in 1847, but those were small-caliber backup guns.

By contrast, the Navy–so-called because the Battle of Campeche, a victory of ships from Texas and the Yucatan against the Mexican navy–weighed in at 2.6 pounds and measuring thirteen inches in length. It shot a .36 caliber ball at something like a thousand feet per second and a 140 grain conical bullet at a somewhat slower speed, putting it in the same class as today’s .380 or .38 Special, the latter being the gun that was the sidearm of police officers for a long time.


It was a cap and ball revolver with an octagonal barrel. The rear sight was a notch cut into the forward part of the hammer that could be used only when the hammer was cocked. But owners found that the Navy pointed well, feeling like an extension of the arm. Loading it required pulling the hammer to half-cock, then pouring powder down the front of the chambers, ramming a bullet home on top of the powder with the loading lever beneath the barrel, and putting a percussion cap on the cones at the rear of the cylinder. After the Civil War, the arrival of self-contained metallic cartridges made the older system obsolete, and many bought conversion cylinders for their pistols. Clint Eastwood demonstrates this in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,


though since the movie takes place during the Civil War, that’s an anachronism.

Many of the Confederate generals, as well as lots of soldiers of all ranks, including especially the cavalry, carried Navys as their sidearm. Captain Quantrill


and his raiders liked their handiness and multiple shots before reloading. The practice was to carry two on their belts and two in saddle holsters. That latter habit is shown in the “Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!” scene in True Grit, Rooster Cogburn having been a member (albeit fictional) of Quantrill’s company. Ned Kelly,


the Australian outlaw, and Richard Francis Burton,


English author and adventurer, both carried them.

But the iconic owner of Colt Navys was James Butler Hickok, better known as Wild Bill:


He wore them in cavalry style with the butts forward–note the ivory grips here. From what I’ve read, it appears that he didn’t use a cross-draw technique, though, but would twist his hands inward to grip the pistols and then twist back out and pull upward. My own practice of this method leads me to believe that it facilitated cocking the hammers rapidly. Alas, he probably used a Colt Army revolver in his duel with Dave Tutt in Springfield, Missouri, but the Navys are what are identified with him.

Two more points before we leave this. My western hero, Henry Dowland (actually, I suspect his name is John Henry Dowland, but he won’t admit to that) carries two of his own that he’s named Alpha and Omega.

The Willing Spirit Cover

A friend of mine told me that he’d read about someone in the Old West naming his guns that way, and I liked the idea, since Dowland quotes from Scripture like any good devil is able to do. By the way, Viggo Mortensen, if you’re reading this, I’ve always pictured you for the part.

The other thing to note is that the Navy figures into one of the racist efforts at gun control in the Reconstruction era south. Tennessee passed a law in 1879, referred to as the Army and Navy Law, banning the sale of any pistol other than the Colt Army or Navy. The purpose for this was to keep freed blacks from buying handguns, since those two handguns each cost more than poor people earned in a month. In this regard, nothing much changes.

The Colt Navy is a beautiful pistol from an era when elegance counted for a lot, but it was also a working tool. And the good news is that they are being made even today by several companies–but not Colt.

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This is one of the definitive firearms of the Old West, the Colt Single Action Army revolver, first on the market in 1873. John Wayne carried a version with him in many of his movies:


and General Patton had his with ivory grips when he wanted to be on display:


(But Patton only ever carried one SAA. His other revolver was a Smith & Wesson .357 Registered Magnum.)

The mystique suits the gun. It was a single-action revolver, weighing 2.3 pounds, more or less, depending on the barrel length, and came originally in a 7.5 inch barrel. The artillery model was better at 5.5 inches:


since it cleared leather quicker. But this absurd model:


didn’t exist until long after the days of the Old West were long gone.

They had six chambers in the cylinder, loaded by putting the hammer on half-cock, opening the loading gate on the right-hand side:Clairgate

inserting one round, skipping a chamber, then inserting four more rounds, and finishing by closing the loading gate and pulling back the hammer to full cock, then dropping it onto the empty chamber at the top. This was because the SAA had the firing pin on the hammer with no means of keeping it off the live cartridge. Legend has it that pistoleroes stuffed funeral money into the empty chamber.

The Army used it with the .45 Colt round:


a 250 grain bullet atop 40 grains of black powder for a typical velocity of 900 feet per second, plus or minus again depending on barrel length. Another popular caliber was the .44-40 Winchester that could be used in the Winchester 1873 lever-action rifle. This simplified logistics in the wilderness if a person only had to carry one type of ammunition for two guns. Later came .32-20, .22 Long Rifle, and eventually just about every handgun caliber.

They were carried in holsters from the Civil War:


and in military flap holsters:


but those slowed down the draw, and people carrying these brutes learned to bend the flap backward and cut a hole in it to form an open-top model:


that is the image that most often comes to mind.

And lest you think that this is a gun of the Old West only, have a look at Ruger’s Super Blackhawk:


Oh, and Colt is making the Single Action Army as well. So are many other manufacturers. When something works this well, it’s bound to last.

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In days gone by–in other words, about a decade ago–an author could expect to have a given book run for a few years, if that long, and then disappear. The only exceptions were books that the publisher decided to make into bestsellers. Soon enough, though, the only place to find many books were used bookstores.

But now that these are widely available:


no, wait, I meant these:


and the like–yes, now that so many are carrying around devices that can store books by the thousands or even more, if they’re willing to have their books stored by someone else–someone who is making lists of everything you buy and read–where was I going with this?

Ah, the point I’m making is that now that books are widely available in digital form, there’s no reason for anything to go out of “print.” Books can be stored in hard drives for transfer at any time, and with print-on-demand becoming respectable, even paper copies can be cranked out whenever anybody wants one.


But with every new thing comes a new set of problems. In those days of auld lang syne, authors like Dan Brown and E. L. James mercifully disappeared after a momentary flash in the pan. But now, literary zombies can continue sucking the brains of their readers forever. Or am I talking about vampires? At any rate, mindless soul-sucking creatures that don’t die in the light, but glow a faint hue of sparkly and whose dialogue wouldn’t challenge the abilities of the New York telephone directory to thrill will be with us until we’re all living in Panem and don’t have time to read anyway. This means that every time readers go looking for a book, there will be many more than there were the last time.

So what’s an author to do? Leading a revolution to ban all books but the ones I write is one option. But that’s not likely to go over too well, especially since we authors are a cantankerous lot, and readers have the annoying habit of wanting a diversity of styles, genre, and subject matter.

Given the changes in technology and the field of publishing, I’ve reached the following conclusions:

1. Publishers must change or die.


Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin, as the writing on the wall declared. Publishers have been weighed in the balance and found wanting. They don’t promote books, except those by authors who are already famous. They are stuck in a world in which a book had to be handed from one person to the next, instead of being copied in an instant. Their business models treat books like boxes of cereal, when in fact books are today more like Internet memes.

2. Authors must produce quality work.


Yes, I know that lots of bad books get cranked out, many of them given away. But I hope that the reading public will come to its senses and realize that spending a little money for something that’s been well written and then edited is worth the expense.

3. Books must be promoted in new ways.


You can’t rely on putting ads in magazines and on librarians recommending your book. Eyeballs are on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, blogs (such as this one with its many viewers like you), and other places that Charles Dickens never imagined when he sold novels in serial form. No one’s waiting at the docks for the next chapter to arrive from England.

But there is good news. The cost of all this digital publishing and marketing is low. Time and talent are the keys these days. So what’s the secret?

One thing is to exploit the fact that searching for what you want is as easy as putting something on-line. That is, searching is easy if the thing you want is tagged with enough terms that make finding it possible. If I want a book about the Sahara desert, yours just so happens to be about that, you’d better indicate that your book covers sand, the desert, the Sahara, Libya, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Mogambo, a guy named Dirk Pitt, and some rivers that have been dry a long time. No matter how tangential, tag it. Even throw in Dirk Benedict if you figure it will help.


Another thing is to get yourself on popular websites that allow comments with linking to more of you and make a name for yourself. I’ve found The Huffington Post to be a good place to practice this, especially since I can work in the occasional link to my blogs in what I say there.

Oh, but you want more, don’t you? Recall how I said it was cheap? That doesn’t mean free. I also said it takes time and talent, and that is for sale. My company, Oghma Creative Media, has a plan for you, a plan designed to make promotion successful and a whole lot easier.

Or you can just buy my books. That’s cheaper.

Crossposted on Greg Camp’s Weblog and Oghma Creative Media.

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My friend and fellow writer, Gil Miller, reminded me of something that got left out of Part 10 of A Writer’s Guide to Guns, namely, Glocks. I was going to make this posting an addendum, but upon reflection, it occurs to me that a whole article is warranted, given the popularity of the ACT (Austrian Combat Tupperware).

Glock, founded by Gaston Glock, originally sold knives and shovels (called entrenching tools) to the Austrian military, a fighting force noted for, well, um, defending the neutrality of Austria. Said organization’s most famous member was Captain von Trapp, who commanded a submarine and went on to wear an eyepatch and deliver lines of Shakespeare in Klingon.


That was before the nation of Austria went on a diet and became landlocked.

This is getting off track.

At any rate, the Austrians were using this:


The Walther P38, a double-action/single-action handgun developed shortly before the Second World War. The Walther also provided the basis for the Beretta 92, a dismal piece that replaced the excellent M1911 in much of the U.S. military. The Austrians wanted a new pistol that would be drop-safe (for purposes of surrendering without getting hurt?), that would be easy to maintain, and that would hold a bunch of 9mm cartridges.

Glock hadn’t made a firearm before 1982, but he was an engineer with sixteen designs to his name, so why not take a shot at the contract? This is what he came up with:


It uses the tilting-barrel, locked-breech action that John Moses Browning used in his last pistol design, the Browning High Power. The frame is made of polymer (read plastic), while the slide is steel, treated in a process called Tenifer. The original magazine capacity was seventeen rounds, but that had no relation to the fact that the pistol is called the Glock 17. There are Glock numbers up to 42 now (The Answer!), and those numbers have no obvious pattern with regard to how many rounds are on board or what caliber they are.

What was new? Not much, actually. This:


the Heckler & Koch VP70, was the first polymer handgun, released in 1970. But that didn’t win the attention of many, possibly due to its odd looks and clunky trigger.

Glocks use a striker mechanism instead of a hammer, but that’s also not original, at least in firearms generally. In fact, it goes back to the Dreyse needle gun designed in the early part of the nineteenth century. Bolt-action rifles use the same mechanism, a spring-loaded pin that strikes the primer when released.


In other words, Glock pulled together a number of good ideas into one gun. Another requirement of the Austrian military was a pistol that would stand up to lots of use and abuse, and despite reports of catastrophic failures, the gun does have a reputation for surviving torture, and Glocks have earned the love of Hickok45. Here in America, we can get Glocks in 9mm Luger, .357 Sig, .40 S&W, 10mm, .45 GAP, and .45 ACP. There is a Glock 18, a full-auto version of the Model 17, but good luck owning one of those, and there are three models in .380 ACP, but thanks to the Gun Control Act of 1968, two of the three lowest-power models aren’t allowed for sale to ordinary citizens. The “reasons” for that are arcane.

The preceding is what a Glock is. But what is it not? Let me quote Officer John McClane:

That punk pulled a Glock 7 on me. You know what that is? It’s a porcelain gun made in Germany. Doesn’t show up on your airport X-ray machines, here, and it costs more than you make in a month.

What did he get right? The part about some guy being a punk. The rest of it is flat wrong.

1. Glock 7

There is no Glock 7. Well, the best I can figure is that Glock’s seventh patent was for a piezoelectric device for circuit boards. Quite the punk to pull out one of those.

2. Porcelain gun

Um, no. There are guns being printed out of plastic these days, but those only work for a few rounds before blowing up. A porcelain gun would be better known as a grenade.

3. Made in Germany

Glocks are made in Austria and in the United States, with a few made in Uruguay and Taiwan.

4. X-ray machines

Glocks do show up on airport X-ray machines and are detected by metal detectors. The polymer is opaque to X-rays, and the steel slide and barrel will make the TSA molester’s wand beep.

5. Cost

I don’t know what Chief Lorenzo’s salary was, but Glocks go for between $500 and $600 typically, depending on options and where you buy them.

The common error that McClane failed to include was the notion of a Glock safety:


See the lever dingus on the trigger? That’s the only external safety on the pistol. There are also a firing pin safety and a drop safety inside, but no one flicks those off except by squeezing the trigger. If anyone refers to a safety that must be turned off before the gun can be fired, said writer had better call it the Cominolli safety lever or a Siderlock button, aftermarket modifications that are available. But those are not common, and most Glock users either understand how to keep their fingers out of the trigger guard when holstering the weapon, or they add an extra orifice in their feet. The police in the City of New York (NYPD) require a twelve-pound trigger to be installed as another form of safety, instead of the standard 5.5 lbs. trigger, but we see how they do on marksmenship. The standard trigger has two stages, but it’s a lot shorter than a double-action pull. The pistols are wide and feel like something you’d pick up here:


but they are light-weight, and the subcompact models do snuggle into an inside-the-waistband holster without too much difficulty.

What’s the point here? Glocks, just like all other firearms, are designs with a set of characteristics that a writer must understand before including them in stories. Reporters in particular would benefit from such knowledge, but they are distinctly resistant to learning about guns.

You can buy more of my writing here.

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The news today (17 January 2014) reports the death of Russell Johnson, an actor with many roles to his credit, but best known for playing Professor Roy Hinkley on Gilligan’s Island.


His was my favorite character from that show. Over the course of my teaching career, I’ve had my share of Gilligans in my classes–goofs who can’t seem to get things right, but are excruciatingly charming–so I sympathize more and more with the Professor. He was a MacGyver character before MacGyver came along, though still couldn’t make the S. S. Minnow seaworthy again. But really, that was the job of Gilligan and the Skipper, and his calm in the face of insanity gave at least one intellectual child hope that someday brains would win out over bumbling and brawn.

Since the song’s already in your head, watch the video, and raise a coconut to Russell Johnson.

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As a writer and editor, I have to acknowledge a reality about the publishing world: There are a lot of crappy books that people buy. I’m talking to you:


This raises the question of why an author would bother with trying to write a good book. What’s the point? You don’t have to get a publisher to release your work these days, and some well-known authors got their start through non-traditional means. I’m talking to you:


But is the answer that marketing matters and quality doesn’t?

Well, marketing is certainly important. We know about this guy


because his work was produced in the licensed theaters of his day. He got a following by becoming known in the approved channels. Now, though, there are hundred of thousands of books published every year, so the ones that get put in front of the most potential readers are the ones more likely to sell. The problem is finding ways to get your book distinguished from the herd.

Of course, a lot of readers don’t care about good writing. Thus the sales of the books pictured above. Instead, they want a racy story with lots of plot. But if you set out to write a book that will appeal to the masses, what you’re doing is no better than playing the lottery. The masses, being fickle, are likely to love what you’re writing only when someone else writes it. One year it’s vampires that everyone wants, while the next it’s teenagers with swords, but who knew before the fact that it wasn’t going to be talking cats or rock drummers who solve crimes when they’re not bursting eardrums?


Besides, it’s not the poor quality of the writing that makes a book sell. Yes, writing at a sixth grade reading level may help, but clunky dialogue and flat characters aren’t a guarantee for success. Look at it this way: The people who read only for the wild plot aren’t going to reject your book if you also write well, but good readers will appreciate your efforts.

There is more to this. I would like to be remembered as having written something worth reading. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle quotes a saying from the Greek lawmaker Solon to the effect that we should count no one as happy until after the person has died. The meaning of that was that we can’t judge the totality of a life before it’s finished. I’d like people to read what I’ve written long after I’m gone and to regard it as good. Yes, I’d also like to make a lot of money by writing, but as I said, that’s a wish, not a goal. We cannot plan to write a bestseller.

And that’s why it’s good to write the best work you can. Then you may need an editor and a promoter to polish and sell your book. As always, keep reading, keep writing, and keep submitting.

Or you can just be happy that your mother likes what you write.

Crossposted at Oghma Creative Media.

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Every once in a while, it’s a good idea to look at how things are done wrong. With that in mind, today I present to you Hollywood guns, in which we find out that Tinseltown is peeing on our shoes and calling it a submarine movie.

1. Racking the action


In this picture, we see the slide on a semiautomatic pistol pulled back to allow a round to be loaded into the chamber. That’s as should be. That’s what has to be done. But once that’s done, the gun is ready to go. But Hollywood can’t avoid having characters perform that action repeatedly. Every time they want to threaten someone, they whip out pistols and point about the room until the intended victim mouths off, at which time every gun from a snub-nosed revolver to a howitzer produces a clack-clack sound.

What that means is that unless a shell is ejected, the gun didn’t have a round chambered beforehand, and the victim could have waltzed over and taken the weapon. Yes, the Israelis teach their commandos to carry without a round loaded, but I suspect that’s because they had to take whatever kind of gun they could get their hands on in early days, so rules about safeties on some guns but not others would have been confusing. But most people carry their guns ready to go.

2. Suppressors


These are often called silencers, but that’s wrong. They only reduce the volume by a few tens of decibels–enough to save the shooter from hearing damage, but not enough to make the firearm whisper. And if the ammunition is supersonic, the bullet going down range will create a sonic boom.

But in film, every gun can be made to sound like a cat sneezing with a quarter-inch tube on the end of the barrel. That includes revolvers, even though most such guns have a gap between the cylinder and the barrel, allowing the cylinder to turn. Gases escape from that gap–a significant source of noise that can’t be suppressed. Suppressors also change the point of impact and the velocity of the bullet, which means that the sights have to be set for suppressed firing.

The truth is that some guns can be made very quiet, but the size of the suppressor needed makes carrying the thing inconvenient. And if it’s a self-loading firearm, the operation of the machine itself makes a lot of noise.

3. Sound


When not suppressed, guns are loud. We’re talking a rock concert with the speakers turned up to eleven. And for some reason, Hollywood thinks that setting off firearms inside concrete buildings isn’t bad for one’s hearing.


4. Magazine size


Gun control freaks go on and on about how many rounds should be allowed in a magazine. It’s fifteen here, ten there, and seven in New York. That’s until they decide to demand only one at a time. I suspect that’s because they see movies in which bad guys have firearms with infinite capacities. Sometimes, the good guys do as well. And they keep shooting on full-auto for minutes at a time without having to reload.

But that’s plain wrong. Typical pistol magazines run from seven rounds in older M1911s to fifteen or seventeen in many Berettas and Glocks. Revolvers have five or six. Even the banana magazine of the AK-47 holds only thirty. And the rate of fire on those guns, even the semiautomatic only versions, is several hundred rounds a minute. A magazine can be emptied in seconds, if emptying your gun is the only goal. Now there are things like this:


But those have a habit of jamming. And they’re hard to carry, especially if you have to conceal them.

5. Aim


Guns have to be aimed. Yes, if you plan to spray and pray, you can hold your grease gun at your hip and let go, but to score one-shot hits on a desired target, you have to use the sights. Or practice every day with lots of rounds and get really close. Just blasting away is a fine method for wasting ammunition and hitting bystanders, a technique practiced by the NYPD. This is especially true if you hold your handgun sideways, gangsta style.

6. Knockdown power


Newton informed us that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. That means that if your bullet knocks down the guy you’re shooting at, you get knocked down when you fire the gun. Now it is true that some people get hit while they’re running and off-balance and thus fall over when shot, and others drop to the ground out of surprise, but the bullet itself cannot shove someone over.

Along the same lines, the more powerful the round, the more punishing it is to shoot, especially in lightweight guns. And unless the shooter has exceptional luck, one shot from a pipsqueak handgun isn’t going to stop an assailant.

7. Sturm und Drang


When a bullet hits something, what happens to the target? It explodes, naturally. Well, actually, no, it doesn’t. Unless it’s made of nitroglycerin. Even if it’s drenched in gasoline, it’s not likely to flare up. So no, you can’t make a car go up in a ball of fire by shooting its tank.

8. Carry


Remember Agent Smith in The Matrix? Or Ivan Chekov in Boondock Saints? They were big guys. But even so, those Desert Eagles they carried are huge guns. We’re talking about a foot long and more than four pounds in weight. You ain’t hiding one of those in your sock. It’s not even going to be concealed under a tailored suit coat. You’re going to need a big cape or a tent-sized shirt to hide one of those. We’ll talk about how to carry a gun in a sensible manner in the future, but understand that if it looks huge when you draw it, it’s going to feel huge when you’re carrying it.

9. Anachronisms


John Wayne is the quintessential western character. But in just about every western he starred in, he carried an 1873 Colt Single Action Army revolver and a 1892 Winchester rifle. But The Searchers, for example, starts in 1868. That’s a neat trick. But it’s not unique to westerns. In Titanic, David Warner’s character packs an M1911, though at that time, such pistols were just getting going as a military firearm. It would have been more accurate to give him a Colt Pocket Hammerless, but that’s a small gun and doesn’t look as impressive.

What’s the point here? Surprise, surprise, surprise, Hollywood engages in trickery when it comes to guns. And that’s part of why I’m writing this series. You, dear writers, need to know what the truth is about firearms. What’s possible, what’s reasonable in how they’re used, and what’s just blowing smoke.

For stories involving gunplay and a whole lot more, visit here.

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