Stumbled across an old Washington Post article about terrorists and their guns.
Dressed To Kill
From Kabul to Kandahar, It's Not Who You Are That Matters, but What You Shoot
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 26, 2001; Page C01
These days, we Americans fight our wars with weapons that seem to come from Industrial Light & Magic. Our planes are sleek and characterless, our professionals more cleanshaven technicians than warriors, their faces lit by the phosphors of a glowing screen, their language of battle techno-crisp and parsed.
It's all too Tom Clancy to be that interesting. Only a few of our thousands of men in and around Afghanistan even bother to carry rifles; the rest carry cell phones, Berettas and credit cards.
But the guys we are fighting are different.
They don't have night vision or missiles or even air power. Screens? They don't have no stinking screens. They have one thing: guns. And our few hundred Special Forces operators on the ground -- they're gunmen too. And that's why the front page of this or any other newspaper, or the richly detailed color sections of the newsmags, all look like photo spreads in Shooting Times. Guns are everywhere: knobby, wooden, all pipes and welded joints, ugly, oily, ungainly, battered, dusty, dinged and bent, festooned with straps and blades and bipods and scopes but somehow -- if you read the postures of the men who carry them -- totally comforting.
And not without meaning. Guns are like anything else; they don't exist in a vacuum but in a context -- historic, cultural, political, mechanical -- so if you know your guns and ammo, you can take a reading as any critic can from any art form, and learn some stuff.
American guns express America. They're not even guns anymore -- or rather, the gun part of them is only a small part of a larger system, with capabilities beyond the imagination of even the men who carried similar, but more primitive, implements as recently as during the war in Vietnam.
Our gun there was the M16; our gun now is the M4, a carbine variant of the M16, meaning the fourth modification of the weapon since it was initially adopted for jungle warfare back in the 1960s. (Yes -- guns are "edited"!) There's not much difference in the gun part: It's the same orchestration of bolt, chamber, barrel, magazine and stock; it has the same springs and levers and pins and the same plastic furniture. It exists because for about 200 years we've been able to machine metal to exacting tolerances and harden it to withstand great pressures without making it too brittle. And we have the chemistry to invent efficient powders, strong plastics and rustproof steel. But now it's smaller, its stock folds up, it's got a little nubby barrel and . . . it's got stuff.
So much stuff!
We in the West, we are our stuff, no? Who could disagree?
The M4, particularly as love-labored over by Special Forces and Navy Seal armorers, has tubes everywhere. It's a panoply of tubes. It's tubular magic. One tube, mounted atop the frame, is a red-dot sight. In its intimate recesses, a tiny laser emits a beam that strikes a lens. A red dot is captured on that lens, which may be accessed by the simple act of looking into the thing. Then the dot may be adjusted up or down, left or right, so that it coincides with the point of impact -- so that the gun will actually shoot where you think it will. One adjusts the red dot to the bullet, but it feels the other way: You see the red dot, that's where the bullet will go.
The point of all this engineering is to bypass the conscious and enter the soldier's subconscious. To shoot well, one has to look at the sights -- but to do that, one must de-concentrate on the target. Almost impossible when a guy in a turban is shooting at you. With a glowing red dot, the operator's eyes pick up the marker subconsciously and so no time is lost in that most annoying of human habits in close-quarter combat: thinking. If you're thinking, you're already behind the curve, which means you're dead. No, here's what happens: Look at the guy and when the red dot crosses him, your reptile brain instructs your reptile trigger finger to press. You haven't done it, your subconscious has. It's much faster that way.
But suppose it's night. Well, in front of the red dot tube there's a night vision tube, which has the alchemical capacity not to turn lead into gold, but something far more valuable: It turns dark into light. Or semi-light. By magnifying the ambient illumination, the night vision scope can render enough of a universe to shoot accurately.
But suppose you've got five targets and only one of 'em is a bad guy. Then you go to Tube No. 3, which is a Sure-Fire brand flashlight locked neatly to the barrel with an on-off switch up in the trigger housing. You separate the fellow with the AK from the three kids and the veiled gal he's using as hostages. Then you double-tap him and move on.
But suppose . . . all five of them are bad guys? Then you go to tube No. 4, which is an M203 grenade launcher. You go 40mm on them. Pay no attention, ladies and gentlemen, to the sound of two ounces of TNT detonating as they send about 10,000 shards of white-hot steel into a very small area formerly occupied by five human beings.
You won't see guns like that carried by the Taliban, no sir. Look at Osama bin Laden's gun. It's visible in any of a dozen pictures and it's tubeless, screenless and grenade-launcherless. But it, too, is not only a gun. It's a gun with a coded message; you can read this guy like a book.
He's certainly no Captain Winters from HBO's "Band of Brothers," who, despite his natural genius for soldiering, insisted on carrying the line soldier's prosaic M1 all the way to Berchtesgarten. No, bin Laden's narcissism -- dead giveaway to a fake tough guy -- mandates that he make a fashion statement.
Any idiot knows that was an AK-47 leaning against the cave wall behind bin Laden during his videotaped response to the American bombing. Yes, the AK-47, the most famous of the liberation firearms distributed globally by the Soviet Union and its client states during the Cold War. There may be 50 million of them floating around the globe today.
Except it wasn't. But if you're one of the idiots, don't feel bad; you belong with the other 99.9 percent of the population that doesn't know anything about guns. Bin Laden's rifle wasn't an AK-47 at all, but one of its descendants, an AK-74, and of a particular modification that included, for portability and ease of handling, a very short barrel and a folding skeletonized stock and a flash suppressor. It's called a Krinkov.
It's actually a hybrid. If you crossed a classic 7.62mm x 39 Soviet AK-47 with an American 5.56mm NATO M4, its natural antagonist in about a million firefights in about 75 wars, insurrections and special-ops tiffs, you'd get the AK-74, which is the AK-47 mechanism reconfigured to fire the smaller-caliber, high-velocity round. Then you trick it up; by cutting the barrel and adding that folding stock, you get a Krinkov, which is the current hot lick among people who want to be noticed. It was designed for airborne troops. If you're not going to be jumping out of airplanes, it doesn't do anything for you that the 47 won't.
Bin Laden knows this: For him the gun isn't just a weapon, it's a symbol. He's making a statement, as with the curved ceremonial dagger that hangs from his belt when he's all duded-up in his white finery. He is making a claim: I am of the elite. In other words, he is saying something so Western it suggests the soul-deep depth of his hypocrisy. He is saying: I am so cool.
A fellow who favors posing with a Krinkov has delusions of grandeur, and he'll try to take over no matter the venue.
Bin Laden wouldn't be caught dead with a regular old AK, but his men are, all over the place. In a funny way, I like it better that he has this little vanity. I don't think he's a good enough man for an AK-47 and what it stands for. This is the true symbol of the war, for both sides seem to have it in the thousands, and no matter where the war blows next, you can bet that most of the close-in killing will be done with that old war horse. That cold wind you just felt, that was the chill of history.
Remember, folks, in the bad old days, a thing called the Soviet Union, run by a principle called communism? The AK-47 was at once its tool, its icon, its manifesto.
The AK-47 was to the Russian empire what the short sword was to the Roman Empire. It dwelt at the centurion's right hand. It was the cutting edge of a cynical philosophy that disguised conquest under the bogus banner of liberation. It was so simple that even the most undeveloped nations could fabricate it from Russian plans with Russian guidance and a few lathes and stamping machines. You could probably build one in your basement if you wanted. Crude, derivative, simple, powerful, robust, tough as hell.
Can a gun be great? If you don't think so, you probably shouldn't be reading this piece, but the AK-47 was great. It was invented by a peasant sergeant, and it was manufactured in a tractor factory. What could be more Red?
Though they won't acknowledge it -- just as they won't acknowledge that the Wright Brothers invented the airplane -- the Russians must know deep in their hearts that the AK family of weapons was influenced heavily by a German creation from late in World War II called the Sturmgewehr-44. Yes, folks: Sturmgewehr decrypts perfectly into . . . assault rifle.
The Stg-44 represents what might be called the "base of fire" approach to military doctrine, something the Russians, who were machine-gun nuts, agreed with enthusiastically. The Russians, in fact, armed whole battalions with the PPSh-41 submachine gun in World War II -- that's the real clunky-looking one with a ventilated barrel, no handgrips and a giant drum to hold 71 9mm rounds. They just sprayed out blizzards of lead and marched in behind them. But late in the war, one story has it, the Russians ran into an SS unit armed with the new Stg-44s, and the result was a slaughter. The submachine guns fired that 9mm pistol round and their effective range was about 50 yards. The assault rifle fired a shortened rifle round just as fast, but its range was about 200 yards. Simple reality: 200 is farther than 50 by 150. So as they advanced, the Russians were in a 150-yard kill zone and couldn't even bring fire to bear on the hidden Germans who mowed them down from so far out. Ultimately, the Russians simply called in air support and dumped white phosphorus on the Germans.
But they learned: In the small physics-driven universe of terminal ballistics, the faster round beats the slower round, and the rifle round always beats the pistol round. If you can fire it fast and accurately, you will win.
Thus, the AK-47, officially adapted by the Soviet Army in 1949 -- when our men were still carrying the M1, which had been designed in the early '30s. Later, in Vietnam, the AK-47 so outperformed the Army's M14 (a sort of super M1), we hastily adapted, as a countermeasure, the M16. The AK-47 is what might be called a rough masterpiece, with its weird choreography of slants and curves, the bluntness of its receiver. It looks like a tommy gun designed by Mr. Moto, after reading Dostoyevsky and a favorable history of Peter the Great. The curved magazine is necessary for technical reasons, but it provides an aesthetic: It gives the rifle an Orientalized sensibility. Then there's the peasant thickness of the gas tube over the barrel like a Siberian pipeline, and that wicked high front sight that just keeps on going. It has no elegance whatsoever, and no wit. Its cleverness lies in its contempt for cleverness. It's a tractor of a rifle, a serious piece of work.
The genius behind this was one Mikhail Timofeevich Kalashnikov, a senior tank sergeant who, wounded in the battle of Bryansk in 1941, conceived of the weapon's design while in sick bay. Later he fabricated early prototypes "with the help of the leadership and comrades," according to the official Kalashnikov Web site. (Yes -- it's at kalashnikov.guns.ru/!) For his efforts he was ultimately awarded the Hero of Socialist Labour (twice), the Stalin Prize and the Lenin Prize Laureate, as well as a chestful of other cheesy Red doohickeys.
Look at his face; he's got that bluff-peasant look of utter placidity, those cold gray eyes that suggest the steppes in winter, that sheathing of flesh, the surprisingly luxuriant hair, but somehow a sense of the orthodox to him.
He's as Russian as vodka, and his masterpiece reflects his culture brilliantly. It is not fancy or high tech. It answers one question so useful to empires: How do you kill a lot of people fast, simply and without spending too much money?
Because of the failed Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the country is awash in Russian pieces. You see as well the ever-present PK machine gun on its bipod, the former squad automatic weapon of the Soviet army; it looks like it was designed by drunken plumbers in an Odessa hotel room while waiting for the hookers to arrive. But still, like the other Russian weapons, it just keeps on working, even after being packed in mud.
That is why, when you look at the small arms the Taliban and the Northern Alliance use, and the sleeker things our soldiers carry, you can see not just things and stuff but ideas and metaphors: the drift of violent history over the dusty hills of that raw land. You can feel shadows of a past never forgotten. When it is over and history has moved elsewhere, only the bones and the guns, one whitening, the other rusting, will remain.
Isn't that a great piece? I was shocked to read an article by a major newspaper reporter who actually knew something about guns.
But what's his stance on the AWB?
Stephen Hunter is an awesome novelist. His "Master Sniper" rocks!
Good history on the AK47 and the culture of firearms, both east and west.
Ha ha, I have you beat!
I have read that article, twice, a couple of years ago. Take that!
By the way, I hear that his next book will be nonfiction, but I am not sure what it will be about. I was pretty disappointed in 'Havana', unfortunately.
Me too....next time I wait until it's used paperback
I would have difficulty believing he's anything but a 2nd Amendment guy.
Hunter's VERY second amendment. While I haven't read any of his novels (yet), he shoots at the range I go to here in MD. Hell of a nice guy, and from what the RO tells me, he has some major SWEET toys too!
I used to work at the On Target range in Severn MD, and he was a member, back in about '92ish. He was pretty cool, and seemed to be a pretty nice guy.
You sir, are a dumbass Get his Carlos Hathcock books and read them. They are an AWESOME read. Then get him to sign them for you.
I'll bet he's got some toys, from his books, he's a major hobbyist.....
I wasn't too crazy about "Havana" either..I am looking forward to his next book
I live for his and Cancys' books. I wish the media would invite him on their programs to discuss guns instead if the illiterate buttheads from th VPC.
Here are some more of his essays:
The Sniper With a Steadfast Aim
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 27, 1999; Page C01
The academics write their mighty histories. The politicians dictate their memoirs. The retired generals give their speeches. The intellectuals record their ironic epiphanies. And in all this hubbub attending wars either lost or won, the key man is forgotten -- the lonely figure crouched in the bushes, wishing he were somewhere else: the man with the rifle.
Such a man has just died, and his passing will be marked elsewhere only in small, specialized journals with names like Leatherneck and Tactical Shooter and in the Jesuitical culture of the Marine Corps, where he is still fiercely admired.
And in some quarters, even that small amount of respect will be observed with skepticism. After all, he was merely a grunt. He was a sergeant who made people do push-ups. He fought in a bad war. He was beyond irony, perspective or introspection. He made no policies, he commanded no battalions, and he invented no colorful code names for operations. But worst of all, he was a sniper.
Gunnery Sgt. (Ret.) Carlos N. Hathcock II, USMC, died Monday at 57 in Virginia Beach, after a long decline in the grip of the only enemy he wasn't able to kill: multiple sclerosis. In the end, he didn't recognize his own friends. So it was a kind of mercy, one supposes. But he had quite a life. In two tours in the 1960s, he wandered through the big bad bush in the Republic of South Vietnam, and with a rifle made by Winchester, a heart made by God and a discipline made by the Marine Corps, he stalked and killed 93 of his country's enemies. And that was only the official count.
It's not merely that Vietnam was a war largely without heroes. It's also that the very nature of Hathcock's heroism was a problem for so many. He killed, nakedly and without warning. There is something in the mercilessness of the sniper that makes the heart recoil. He attracts vultures, not only to his carcasses but also to his psyche. Is he sick? Is he psycho? The line troops call him "Murder Inc." behind his back. They puzzle over what he does. When they kill, it's in hot blood, in a haze of smoke and adrenaline. And much of the other death they see is inflicted by industrial applications, such as air power or artillery, which almost seem beyond human agency.
But the sniper is different. He isn't at the point of the spear; he is the point of the element, the destruction of another human being. He's like a '50s mad scientist, who learns things no man can learn -- how it looks through an 8x scope when you center-punch an enemy at 200 yards, and how it feels -- but he learns them at the risk of his own possible exile from the community.
But maybe Hathcock never cared much for the larger community, but only the Marine Corps and its mission. "Vietnam," he told a reporter in 1987, "was just right for me." He even began sniping before the Corps had instituted an official policy.
And one must give Hathcock credit for consistency: In all the endless revising done in the wake of our second-place finish in the Southeast Asia war games, he never reinvented himself or pretended to be something he wasn't. He remained a true believer to the end, not in his nation's glory or its policies, but in his narrower commitment to the Marine code of the rifle. He never euphemized, didn't call himself an "enemy "counter-morale specialist." He never walked away from who he'd been and what he'd done. He was salty, leathery and a tough Marine Corps professional NCO, even in a wheelchair. His license plate said it best: SNIPER.
"Hell," he once said, "anybody would be crazy to like to go out and kill folks. . . . I never did enjoy killing anybody. It's my job. If I don't get those bastards, then they're going to kill a lot of these kids. That's the way I look at it."
Though he was known for many years as the Marine Corps' leading sniper -- later, a researcher uncovered another sniper with a few more official kills -- he took no particular pleasure in the raw numbers.
"I'll never look at it like this was some sort of shooting match, where the man with the most kills wins the gold medal," he once said.
Ironically, the only decoration for valor that he won was for saving, not taking, lives. On his second tour in Vietnam, on Sept. 16, 1969, he was riding atop an armored personnel carrier when it struck a 500-pound mine and erupted into flames. Hathcock was knocked briefly unconscious, sprayed with flaming gasoline and thrown clear. Waking, he climbed back aboard the burning vehicle to drag seven other Marines out. Then, "with complete disregard for his own safety and while suffering an excruciating pain from his burns, he bravely ran back through the flames and exploding ammunition to ensure that no Marines had been left behind," according to the citation for the Silver Star he received in November 1996, after an extensive letter-writing campaign by fellow Marines had failed to win him the Medal of Honor for his exploits with a rifle.
But he was equally proud of the fact that as a sniper platoon sergeant on two tours, no man under his command was killed.
"I never lost a person over there," he told a visiting journalist in 1995. "Never lost nobody but me, and that wasn't my fault."
Hathcock was an Arkansan, from a dirt-poor broken home, who joined the Marine Corps at 17 and quickly understood that he had found his place in the world. He qualified as an expert rifleman in boot camp and began quickly to win competitive shooting events, specializing in service rifle competition. In 1965, he won the Wimbledon Cup, the premier American 1,000-yard shooting championship. Shortly after that he was in Vietnam, but it was six months before the Marines learned the value of dedicated sniper operations and a former commanding officer built a new unit around his talents. Hathcock gave himself to the war with such fury that he took no liberty, no days off and toward the end of his first tour was finally restricted to quarters to prevent him from going on further missions.
After the war, he suffered from the inevitable melancholy. Forced medical retirement from the Corps in 1979 -- he had served 19 years 10 months 5 days -- led to drinking problems and extended bitterness. The multiple sclerosis, discovered in 1975, certainly didn't help, and burns that covered 43 percent of his body made things even more painful, but what may have saved his life -- it certainly saved the quality of his life -- was the incremental recognition that came his way as more and more people discovered who he was and what he had done. Even in the atmosphere of moral recrimination in the aftermath of the war, enough people far from media centers and universities were still attracted to the Spartan simplicity of his life and battles and to the integrity of his heroism.
His biography, "Marine Sniper," written by Charles Henderson, was published in 1985; it sold over half a million copies. In the brief blast of publicity that followed, he stood still for interviews with The Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune and others. The general population may have soon forgotten about him, but in the world of target shooters, hunters and police and military shooting, he was a revered figure. And particularly as shooters came to perceive culture, he became a symbol of the heroic man with a gun. He connected, in some atavistic way, to other American heroes, like Audie Murphy or Sgt. Alvin York, perhaps even Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. They were all men like Hathcock who grew up on hardscrabble farms far from the big cities and learned early to shoot, read sign and understand the terrain.
Other gun culture enterprises kept him visible in a specialized universe unmonitored by the media, and put some money on the table. He authorized a poster that showed him in full combat regalia, crouched over his Model 70 Winchester, his face blackened, his boonie cap scrunched close to his head, the only identifier being a small sprig of feather in its band. In fact, a long-range .308-caliber ammunition was sold as "White Feather," from the Vietnamese Long Tra'ng, his nickname. He consulted on law enforcement sharpshooting, a growth area in the '80s and '90s as nearly every police department in America appointed a designated marksman to its de rigueur SWAT team. He appeared in several videos, where he revealed himself to be a practically oriented man of few but decisive words, with a sense of humor dry as a stick. He inspired several novels and at least two nonfiction books, and his exploits made it onto TV, where a "JAG" episode featured a tough old Marine sniper, and even into the movies, even if he was never credited.
In both 1994's "Sniper" and, more recently, "Saving Private Ryan," heroic riflemen dispatch enemy counter-snipers with rounds so perfectly placed they travel the tube of the enemy's scope before hitting him in the eye. In both cases, the shooters are tough Southerners (played by Tom Berenger and Barry Pepper), very much in the Hathcock mold. According to "Marine Sniper," Hathcock made such a shot, dispatching a Viet Cong sniper sent to target him specifically.
Also according to that book, he ambushed a female enemy interrogator, a North Vietnamese general and a VC platoon that he took down, a man at a time, over a 24-hour engagement.
Finally, and perhaps best of all, he ascended to a special kind of Marine celebrity. The Corps named the annual Carlos Hathcock Award after him for its best marksman. A Marine library in Washington has been named after him and a Virginia Civil Air Patrol unit named itself after him. In 1990 a Marine unit raised $5,000 in donations to fight multiple sclerosis and presented it to him at his home. They brought it to him the old-fashioned way, the Marine way: They ran 216 miles from Camp Lejeune, N.C., to Virginia Beach.
It was a tribute to his toughness that Carlos Hathcock understood.
According to the account in the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, the old sniper told the men, "I am so touched, I can hardly talk."
In the end, he could not escape the terrible disease that had afflicted him since 1975. But death, with whom he had an intimate relationship, at least came to him quietly -- as if out of respect.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company
The Gun Seen Round The World
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 24, 2000; Page C01
It is one of the most disturbing images of the year: a burly federal officer, helmeted, goggled, wearing a flak jacket, battle fatigues and shooter's gloves designed to protect the hand but permit the prehensility of the trigger finger, confronting a screaming child and the man who protects him.
And, of course, he has a gun.
This photo of a federal agent retrieving Elian Gonzalez defined the event for many.
The officer, wearing a Border Patrol patch on his vest, is holding it one-handed by the pistol grip, his naked shooting finger indexed over the trigger guard, the butt stock unanchored in the cup of his shoulder. The gun looks terrifying, as it is designed to look: a black, plastic-shrouded apparition with a bleak little snout, a curved ammunition magazine containing 32 rounds of what are almost certainly hollow-points, a strange bulge forward under the muzzle, which is but 15 inches from Elian Gonzalez and Donato Dalrymple.
What gun is this? Where are we now?
The gun is a German-manufactured submachine gun that goes under the designation MP-5, a short-barreled 9mm weapon that has been famous in action and movies since May 1980, when British SAS troopers armed with it successfully assaulted the Iranian embassy in London, killing all but one of the terrorists who had commandeered the building and murdered a policewoman.
It is currently issued to almost all Western elite military units, civilian SWAT and hostage rescue teams, and movie stars heroically fighting international evil. Bruce Willis used it in the "Die Hard" movies; James Bond has used it. The Baltimore County SWAT team used it against Joseph Palczynski, hitting him 27 times in 42 attempts in about three seconds. It was seen in the hands of a bearded FBI agent guarding Tim McVeigh during his trial.
As the M-16 became the symbol of the Vietnam era, the MP-5, manufactured by Heckler & Koch, of Oberndorf, Germany, has become the symbol of our nervous postwar environment. It represents the condition our condition is in, where highly trained units may have to act with surgical precision against heavily armed opponents in highly volatile circumstances.
"Operators," as SWAT officers and commandos style themselves, love it because it is light, easy to manipulate in tight spaces, rugged and reliable. It can fire thousands of rounds without so much as a burp. It is easy to maintain once its few secrets have been mastered. It is also flexible.
It can be fitted with suppressors (the movies call them silencers), shortened, lightened, mounted with a telescopic sight or an infrared one for night operations, given a folding or collapsing stock, chambered in more powerful calibers, hidden in a briefcase, hung invisibly in a harness under a suit coat, configured to fire single shots, shoot two or three-round bursts, or rip off an entire magazine in three seconds.
One of the more popular stylings is apparent on the gun in the photograph. That bulge at the end of the muzzle is actually a flashlight housing, in which nestles the state-of-the-art device in tactical illumination, the Sure-Fire flashlight. Fashion dominates the tactical world as it dominates any world, and in the past few years illumination technology has become all the rage, under the principle that most lethal-force encounters take place in low light, and so the operator who can see his target--and know that if his target is illuminated, his weapon is correctly aimed--has the advantage.
For the record, the gun is 26 inches long, with an 8.85-inch barrel. It weighs 5.5 pounds and fires at a cyclic rate of 600 rounds per minute, which means not that you could shoot it 600 times in a minute but that if you had a magazine that contained 600 rounds, it would take a minute to fire it.
MP-5s are not issued to troops or police officers routinely; they have specific tactical uses. They are frequently used as statements of intimidation to ensure crowd control or to dissuade aggressive action. In this way, they represent the principle that the weapon brandished is the weapon used, even if an actual act of firing is never consummated.
But more often MP-5s are used in killing situations, in high-risk raids, where commandos or law enforcement officers are likely to encounter armed opposition that must be stopped quickly and powerfully. Unlike their movie counterparts, the authentic operators are trained to fire short, aimed two- to three-round bursts, never to sweep a room or to fire randomly. Indeed, much of submachine gun training is taken up with the issue of trigger control, as shooters learn not merely to shoot accurately but also to prevent that potentially fatal fusillade of fire.
It so happens that this writer, doing research for a novel, has taken a course in tactical submachine gun techniques at a local range, during which time he fired close to 2,000 rounds through an MP-5 and practiced some of the deployment techniques of a "dynamic entry" scenario of the type that the federal officers used Saturday morning in Miami.
Thus, what struck me most about the photograph isn't the gun itself, but the way in which it's held. It's very close to being out of control. These are not one-handed weapons, and except for emergency circumstances, they are not even two-handed weapons. They recoil so persuasively they must be secured at three points: They must be moored against the shoulder or the center of the chest; the firing hand grips the pistol grip and controls the trigger; and, finally, the other hand must secure the muzzle via the foregrip or a front vertical grip. The officer doesn't even have the weapon secured against his shoulder, as police are taught to do. In fairness it's possible the photograph freezes one moment when the gun was loosened from his control (photographs will do that) and in the next second, he reclamped it into his shoulder, lowered the muzzle and backed off.
Still, his use of the weapon certainly belies the claim that none of the entry team ever "threatened to shoot." Whether that statement was made verbally is immaterial. If the gun is deployed, it threatens by its very presence, and no verbal exchange matters.
And it is also true from the photograph that the safety is off; that means the gun is primed to fire and no mechanical device stands between the gun and the consequences of firing except trigger pressure. But it's equally clear from the photograph that the federal officer has been well trained; his trigger finger is set properly above the trigger guard, so that if he falls or trips, an involuntary spasm won't cause his finger to tighten and the weapon to fire.
However, most self-defense experts counsel students to approach all potentially lethal situations that way, reasoning that it is just as quick to fire from that position as it is from a finger on the trigger. Whether the officer had any intentions of firing cannot be concluded from the picture. Regardless of his intentions, that's where his finger would be. Moreover, he has trained thousands of times to move his finger from that position to the trigger and fire; by this time, it's second nature to him--or he has no business being on the raid.
It is also said that the gun was not "pointed" at the boy and his guardian. However, if the officer hasn't got the gun under control, then the issue of where it's pointed is moot. These guns recoil powerfully when fired; they move this way and that. That is exactly why H&K now manufactures them with burst-control devices, which limit the gun to two or three fully automatic shots. It is impossible to see if the officer's MP-5 had that device. The reality is that at that moment an accidental discharge or a mistake in judgment, and the gun fires an uncontrollable shower of bullets.
I mean no disrespect to this currently anonymous officer. In the moment of highest intensity, things don't go according to plan, minds don't work clearly and nobody can really control events. The discipline of keeping his finger where it belonged may have saved lives.
But the point is larger than that: It's that these guns, which represent the state's most extreme control over its citizens, are immensely powerful and, in the hands of the untrained or even the poorly trained, extremely dangerous. They are not toys and they should be used only in dire circumstances, when it is certain that lives are at stake.
Hollywood's Gun-Ho Spirit On Display
In Fairfax, Firearms Museum Reaches Into Movies' Holster
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 19, 2002; Page C01
It's just a rifle.
You can go to any gun shop and see a dozen like it. You can go to any gun show and see a hundred like it.
It's an old Winchester Model 92. Lever action, very state-of-the-art 19th century, when that clever mechanism, with its intricate springs and cams and pins, represented the apex of American industrial design. But this one looks as if it's been dragged from Yuma to Tombstone and back behind a pickup truck.
If you like guns, you wouldn't look twice at it.
If you hate guns, you wouldn't look once at it.
I looked at it three times, to chart its two distinguishing characteristics: Someone had shortened the barrel, which means that someone wanted it to be handy; and someone had battered out the lever into a larger loop, to permit a man with a big paw to spin the rifle under his arm as a cool way of cocking it, you know, like they do in the movies.
Do you get it yet?
That particular rifle was spun under the long arm and on the fulcrum of the bear-paw-size mitt of a young man named Marion Michael Morrison, sometime in 1939, somewhere in Utah's Monument Valley. Cameras, under the fierce guidance of an Irish drunk named John Ford, recorded the moment, for the young man was a professional actor, who performed under the macho moniker John Wayne, and when he spun that rifle, he became an icon. And so did it.
And maybe that's why that old rifle still delivers such a charge to all who see it nestling in a case in the National Rifle Association's National Firearms Museum in Fairfax.
There it is, a grail to a certain set of worshipers: the Duke's rifle. What tales it told, what tales it could tell. To see it is to feel a quiver of something -- nostalgia possibly, melancholy certainly, sadness definitely. It is of the Duke and by the Duke. And there is more Duke here, too: that salmon-color placket shirt he wore in a dozen or so movies, a cavalry hat stiff and stained with authentic Waynesweat. It's all on display in what is certainly the best collection of movie prop guns ever assembled, which NRA is calling "Real Guns of Reel Heroes."
It could be said that a history of a certain, peculiarly American kind of movie is summed up in those words, even if some of the guns are rubber and some of the heroes are real. Think "Lights! Camera! Guns!" and you conjure up probably 70 percent of American movie history, maybe the best of it. That's the history the NRA celebrates: masculine, aggressive, violent, adventurous, unapologetic and unbowed, which is pretty much a take-it-or-leave-it proposition.
My guess is that if you would leave it, you've certainly already left this story, so I'll speak to those remaining in the choir. Ladies and gentlemen, you can experience the exhibit two ways, the grown-up way and the kid way.
The grown-up way would be to absorb the information as it is offered, in an essentially chronological, rational way. The guns are arranged not by movie chronology but by historical chronology, so that the first panel contains guns of the movies of the Colonial age, so that the flintlock that Charlton Heston carried in 1955's "The Far Horizons" is next to the one that Mel Gibson carried in 2000's "The Patriot." In this way, as the show has been superbly curated by Philip Schreier and his staff, it's possible to travel American history from the bottom up, absorbing lessons about the technology of the period while recalling its dramatization by the film industry. You end up, of course, with light sabers from the "Star Wars" films.
And the only proper response to this manner of presentation is: Who cares?
I, of course, opted for the kid way. Excuse me, but I'll just go to the guns that beckon me from a life of moviegoing and TV watching, and will enjoy the voltage they provide, as the history being re-created is subjective and personal rather than official and chronological.
There, for example, is another '92 Winchester, but this one has been hacked down even farther than the Duke's. It hails from the high days of the Western on TV, when one way of distinguishing this Chad from that Brad was to give him a completely preposterous sidearm. So they gave this chopped rifle to a Steve and the lightning struck.
A picture of the young actor in the clumsily posed dramatic style of star photography hangs next to the "mare's leg," as the shortened rifle is called, and he's a punk, with a baby face, smooth and hairless, knit up in an effort to appear intimidating but appearing only silly. You want to smack him. So why do we remember the Steve and not the Brads and the Chads? The Steve's last name was McQueen, as he starred in the TV series "Wanted: Dead or Alive," and he came to define movie cool in the '60s, when that pinhead's mug had hardened into something sterner and more credible.
Still on the subject of lever actions, our eye goes next to a reel gun for a real hero. It's certainly the glossiest piece in a display of largely working guns, all as raggedy as the tools they play in the movies. This one, though, is shiny: It's a Model 94, and its buttstock and forestock have been plated in silver, then engraved, then initialed in gold, emblazoned with an egoist's titanic "A.M." A movie Mexican general would carry such a rifle, or a prosperous gold town pimp or a cowgirl who married a movie producer or the no-'count whose dilapidated ranch turned out to be sited on a sea of Oklahoma crude. But this gun was owned by a man who had distinguished himself in none of those ways, and perhaps speaks of his desire to consecrate, in his imagination, the legend of the West, in whose service he labored long and hard over a gaudy lifetime. He had learned of guns the hard way, on a hardscrabble Texas farm, shooting meat for the pot. Audie Murphy -- then a very young man, now sadly forgotten -- shot his way across Europe in World War II and emerged, mentally wasted, as America's most decorated infantryman.
He became a not-bad actor in not-good Westerns, where his angelic cuteness played against the public's knowledge of the bloodletting he had accomplished. And for a while, as when he commissioned this showy piece in the '50s and was every kid's dream of a modest, well-groomed young movie star/war hero, he was on top. A shame he died in a pointless plane crash in 1971, his career all but gone.
So what's the most famous gun in movie history?
Wouldn't it be: ". . . but being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you've got to ask yourself one question -- Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?"
The punk felt lucky, and it was a permanently bad career move, as Clint Eastwood nailed him with the giant Smith & Wesson. Ka-boom! He did a black flip into a scummy SoCal pond, as his eyeballs eight-balled and he dropped his own piddly 9mm pistol on the way down, maybe the most famous gun moment in movie history. How could that gun not be there? After all, it -- that is, one of three such N-frame Smith revolvers purchased for the films "Dirty Harry" and "Magnum Force" -- was presented to screenwriter John Milius, who is now on the NRA board of directors. So there it is in an Eastwood panel, where many of Clint's guns reside.
But it is definitely the big mama, with its beefiness, its thick-necked density combined with the utter rightness of design, that orchestration of ovals, tubes, slopes and cylinders that make it so weirdly authoritative. It overpowers even the Winchester .458 elephant buster Clint used briefly in "Dirty Harry," or the far more size-efficient SIG Sauer P228 he carried in "In the Line of Fire," which looks like a generic cartoon gun so featureless is it.
The exhibit encourages you to track the guns Hollywood has loved. A true Hollywood favorite has been the Colt .45 automatic, beloved companion of GIs in two world wars -- "old slab-sides," someone has called it. Hollywood has fetishized it even more than has its most acrimonious advocate, Jeff Cooper, and in the catalogue I count eight of them -- including Sam Elliott's from "We Were Soldiers," John Travolta's (!) from "Pulp Fiction" and Steve McQueen's from "The Getaway" -- as well as a faux .45. This would be the .45 that William Holden carried in "The Wild Bunch," that encomium to John M. Browning's genius at designing a service pistol. But however brilliant the old Mormon was, he clearly didn't have the movies in mind, for the .45 proves devilishly hard to make run on blanks. And that's why one of the most famous .45s in Hollywood gundom turns out not to be a .45 at all, but a Star Model B 9mm, which is almost identical but, for technical reasons, easier to make function reliably with blanks.
And finally, of course, there's the ubiquitous "Peacemaker," the single-action Colt that's filled more movie holsters than any other handgun. It is said that God made man, and Col. Colt made them equal. Whether that is true is open to speculation on the eschatological plane, but certainly Hollywood took it to heart, as the 18 specimens in "Real Guns of Reel Heroes" make clear. Some are gaudy (Roy Rogers's are gold-plated), some are grim and weathered (a rental from Stembridge Gun Rentals -- which supplied Hollywood with its arsenal for years -- probably fired thousands of blanks), some phony (Sharon Stone's aluminum copy for "The Quick and the Dead") and some completely preposterous (Marlon Brando's engraved Colt from "The Missouri Breaks" -- it matches his dress perfectly). There is something universal in the friendly heft and grace of this revolver, for many people associate it with the pleasantness of the movies or watching the tube in the bosom of family. In all its manifestations, its simple elegance remains obvious, and it speaks to the permanence of a classic line: the delicacy of the three curves of grip, grip frame and cylinder mounted one-two-three atop each other; the near-delicacy of the grip itself, so thin like porcelain; the stacking of the double tubes of barrel and ejector housing; the precision of the metalwork of the loading gate; the proud prong of that hammer. It's a hymn in steel, dedicated to the old-time religion of might for right, and men willing to die or kill for what they believed in, the story that the movies sold for a century.
"Real Guns of Reel Heroes" is just a footnote in that cavalcade, but it's a fascinating one.
Real Guns of Reel Heroes, at the National Firearms Museum, runs through Dec. 31. The museum is at 11250 Waples Mill Rd., Fairfax. Call 800-423-6894 or visit www.nrafoundation.org.
The Scope of Shared Tragedy
Simple Tools, Complex Crimes
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 12, 2002; Page C01
There is only one question, really. Who is he? Once we answer that one, the police can arrest him or, if necessary, kill him.
But we don't know.
We know so much else. We know the grief he's caused, the holes he's shot in 10 families and in our society. We know the fear that he brings as his dark claim to our attention. We know he is that most loathsome thing, a man who has himself confused with God and has taken on God's entitlements. We know his particularly profane blend of intimacy and distance: He can study us through his optics, look at the light in our eyes, the shape of our lips, the uncertainty of our hairlines, the eagerness in our young bodies. Then he safely presses a trigger from a long way out and takes all that away.
We know those things but they are not about him, they are about us. Still, we do know certain things about him so far, as inferred from his actions as filtered from the information the police have passed on. This much can be said: At some level, we know what he knows.
This is because he has established a performance baseline, and like any phenomenon, it is available and subject to analysis. Thus certain facts: He has shot 11 times and hit 10 people. Of those eight have died. In most of the cases, bullet fragments have been linked to the same firearm, a weapon that fires some form of .22-caliber centerfire cartridge. One cartridge casing has been recovered from a shooting site, but no one can know with certainty yet whether it's true evidence or a plant meant to mislead. Two of the victims were shot in the head though the torso is his more typical target. The police haven't been explicit about ranges, but the shooting in the District may have been at a range of about 80 yards and the shooting in Bowie was at 150 yards.
What does this tell us about him? How good is he? Is he a master marksman skilled in the use of arms, a wary opponent, a figure out of pop fiction, dozens of novels, hundreds of movies? Could he be a terrorist, intent on bringing to America much of the daily fear that grips certain parts of the Third World? Is he at least a trained man, possibly a hunter or some kind of gun crackpot? Or is he from the more squalid American reality: an embittered loser with nothing happening anywhere in his life, who can't find a girlfriend or hold a job, who, in his immaturity, has let the power of the firearm inflame his imagination and turn him into a monster? Is he even a he? Could he be a she? We don't know.
Let us, therefore, start with the smallest things about him.
He knows more, for one thing, than you could learn in the movies. In the movies, shooters routinely perform feats of marksmanship that are completely impossible in reality. They throw heavy rifles to their shoulders and snap off long-distance shots and people drop. They shoot from the hip, they hold the gun sideways, they shoot while somersaulting or flying through the air. That doesn't happen in the real world. So he's not a punk jerk who's couch-potatoed his life away in front of the VCR while cultivating zits, rejection and grievances. He knows a little something. He's not shooting from the hip or holding the gun sideways. He's not cracking out rounds and watching them hit and splash up dirt and debris.
He has rudimentary marksmanship abilities. He knows, first off, the importance of the stability of the shooting platform. He's clearly shooting off a rest, such as a bipod or a sandbag, or at the very least is supported by a wall, a tree branch, a car window frame. He's shooting to hit.
He also knows several of the sub-disciplines that go into the act of shooting a firearm. He's controlling his breath, though a couple of his nonlethal shots might be attributed to bad breath control; they seem typical of that syndrome. Then, too, he is almost certainly using a telescopic or electronic sight of some fashion, which means he has familiarity with the technical process of zeroing a rifle, that is, adjusting its sighting system to match his point of impact at a particular range. (It could also mean he bought a used but 'scoped, zeroed rifle, letting someone else do the labor; if so, at least he knew enough to do that.) He has elementary shooter's discipline in that he never shoots more than once. If he's using what is so popularly called an assault weapon, he hasn't been seduced by movie imagery or the gun's militaristic architecture into bursts of shots, one of the seductions of that particular style of rifle. He's not a spray shooter, a crowd gunner, in love with the bap-bap-bap of the semiautomatic rifle. He likes the one-shot, one-kill code of the professional soldier or law enforcement agent.
Still, none of these skills compute to the heavily trained operative or a terrorist. They are Shooting 101 techniques, easily learnable in an afternoon by anyone, man, woman or teenager, with routine coordination. They are accessible on the Internet or in any issue of a gun magazine. So far, in my judgment at least, he has not shown any extraordinary shooting skill. He apparently missed his first shot, and two of his victims have survived, one of whom has already been released from the hospital. So he can make a mistake. By aiming at the torso, he is giving himself a relatively large target through a scope even at his most extreme range. He also chooses targets who are fairly still -- people filling their gas tanks being a speciality of his -- which means he hasn't needed the coordination and the computation of leads needed for moving targets.
Furthermore, what little evidence there is indicates he is shooting within what is called "maximum point-blank range." That is the zone in which the bullet will strike reasonably close to the point of aim so that no advanced techniques -- such as holding over the target to compensate for the bullet's drop, or figuring the adjustment to the scope sight before shooting -- are necessary. The drop of a .223-style bullet in most loadings at 150 yards is less than two inches; he can aim and shoot in relative ballistic confidence. He has not shot at any range in which wind is a particular factor, so, even though the bullets are light, again he's not demonstrating advanced shooter's skills. He's not at a range far enough, either, for distance estimation or measuring skills to come into play. He doesn't need any of the inexpensive laser range finders that have become common today.
How much does he know about guns? Is he a "gun person," who reads the shooter's magazines and goes to gun shows and orders sniper manuals from the reprint houses? No credible evidence exists to prove this.
For one thing, he's chosen quite a prosaic, low-cost system. It so happens we are in a period of remarkable advances in long-distance shooting, not merely with those laser range finders, but also with a whole batch of ultra magnum cartridges of very recent vintage, that make shots at heretofore undreamed-of distances possible for the common man as opposed to the skilled professional or heavily committed amateur shooter. He doesn't appear to be using any cutting-edge technology.
His choice of weapon reveals something as well. It's notable that he hasn't selected a firearm or a cartridge that's linked to sniping as it's practiced professionally. The police have described the recovered fragments as being from a ".223 bullet," a particular vagueness that suggests they know a lot more than they're letting on or a lot less. In any event, the .223 family of cartridges -- it could also include a target round like the .222, a varmint round like the .22-250 or a specialized pistol round like the .221 Fireball -- aren't part of authentic sniper practice or the more informal "sniper culture" that surrounds this most disturbing but necessary of jobs. Most government and police snipers use a .308 Winchester rifle because it is far more lethal (its muzzle-energy, which measures force in pounds by mathematical formula, is around 2,300 pounds, while the .223's is around 1,200; in most states the .223 -- or any .22 centerfire -- is illegal for deer hunting because it wounds without killing too frequently.) The .223, as a combat round, has proved disappointing; one merely has to read "Black Hawk Down" or the specialized gun press to sample the discontent with its performance in Mogadishu or Afghanistan.
But again: He's not a dummy. That caliber has some extremely useful features for him. Since he's not a soldier in a firefight shooting someone who is shooting at him or a police marksman ending a hostage situation, he's not concerned with immediate killing power, as they would be. He can wound grievously, even fatally; it doesn't matter to him when, or even if, death arrives. He creates the same miasma of terror, regardless.
The .223 -- or any of the .22 centerfires -- has three further attributes for him that make it far more useful than a more immediately lethal round. First, it has very light recoil. The larger rifles demand a great deal of practice as shooters inure themselves to the blow of the kick. Second is the ubiquity of the ammunition as well as its low cost. It is an extremely flexible, useful cartridge: It may be used for varmint hunting in bolt-action rifles, where it is capable of accuracy out to 300 or so yards (I own a varmint rifle that is capable of this kind of work) on creatures weighing 10 pounds or less like groundhogs and prairie dogs. It may be used in pest control, as in the Ruger Mini-14, a perfect and beloved ranch and farm rifle. It may be used competitively, for match shooting in specially tricked up M-16 style rifles with heavier bullets. And finally (and inevitably) it is cheap fodder for military enthusiasts who want to shoot it bap-bap-bap in semiautomatic variants of assault rifles in matches or informal plinking or target sessions. (I also own one). That ubiquity certainly makes the tracking of any particular rifle much harder.
But its third attribute makes it especially attractive to this monster: Because the recoil is so low, he can watch his bullet strike his target. That is the terrible part: he's planned it so he can watch the dying.
Stephen Hunter, who is a Post movie critic, is the author of several novels on sniper activities, has taken two tactical shooting courses with professional sniper instructors and has hunted widely.
Even though I haven't been to the range in a while, to the best of my knowlege he's still a member at the Hap Baker range in Carroll County.
It's funny, most of the errors in his books come from editors. Stuff like "he tightened the action screws to 65 FOOT pounds" (after all what editor book worm ever heard of INCH pounds. "Surely Mr. Hunter meant foot pounds..") and "he disengaged the safety off the revolver" (I mean ALL handguns have safeties. Right?)
His basic comment on that (and apparently guys at the range always bring it up) is "Freakin' editor"