Showing posts with label Stephen Hunter. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Stephen Hunter. Show all posts

23 January 2019

Stopping Power

David Edgerley Gates

"You know that's my ought-six - look at the size of that hole!"
                                                                                           (The Wild Bunch)

There's a longstanding disagreement in gun circles about how much gun you need, which is basically unanswerable. Talking about caliber and magazine capacity, bullet weight and muzzle velocity, is like talking to fly fisherman about lures. Everything's relative, and in the end, it all comes down to whether or not you catch the fish.

The benchmark people generally use is the one-shot stop. In point of fact, a .22 short in the back of the head will kill you, and it's conventional wisdom that mob hitters like it because the .22 short is subsonic, so you can use a suppressor. On the other hand, if we're talking about a person of large body mass charging at us with a sharpened screwdriver in their hand, and possibly whacked out on Angel Dust, many law enforcement personnel would choose the .45 ACP, which has a solid, immediate impact.

More than a few things come into play here, not least adrenaline and endorphins. FBI studies indicate that the average number of rounds fired in a close engagement are two-point-something. Obviously, this means some people empty a full magazine and some people never get a shot off, but for the sake of argument, let's simply say that if you're lucky, you'll have time for two shots. Your range instructor will tell you to aim for center body mass - but he or she won't say 'aim,' they want you to point and shoot, they want you to acquire the modified Weaver with muscle memory, don't second-guess yourself, let the reptile brain lock it in.

The rest is kinetic energy.

In the 1870's, during the Indian Wars, the U.S. Army issue sidearm was the Colt single-action, chambered in .45 Long Colt. These were replaced in 1892 by a double-action revolver, with a swing-out cylinder for the faster reload, in .38 caliber.  In the Philippine Campaign, the .38's proved ineffective, and eventually the Army adopted the .45 ACP autoloader designed by John Browning, the 1911.

Cop shops follow fashion, of course. For many years, everybody carried .38's. Revolvers, usually Smiths or Colts, the Model 10 or the Police Positive. And they shot off-hand, body at right-angles to the target, the shooter's arm fully extended. The two-handed stances, Isosceles and Weaver, were a later development. Same with the ammo. Sometime in the 1960's, the .357 S&W Magnum, developed some years earlier by Elmer Keith, hot-loading the .38 Special, found new favor with state troopers and highway patrol. With a muzzle velocity of 1200 to 1500 feet per second, the .357 readily penetrated an unarmored vehicle.

Then, in the 1980's (and I may not have the dates exactly right - or maybe the shift isn't all that exact, either), a lot of big-city police departments went to semi-autos, Smith, Sig, and Glock. They were primarily high-capacity nine-millimeters: Glock furnished a 17-round magazine. Not everybody was a fan.

One cop I know told me a story. He and his partner had a felony traffic stop. They approach the car on either side. His partner's over by the driver's door. The passenger points a weapon at him. My buddy's taken up position by the right front fender. He draws his gun and fires. And misses, from no more than five feet away. Because the curve of the windshield deflects his first shot. The muzzle velocity of the 9MM is 1500 fps, but the bullet weight is too light. Heavy and slow is more effective.

For all I know, this story is apocryphal, or exaggerated for effect. When cops tell war stories, they tend to tell the self-deprecating ones, where they're the butt of the joke. I think the story's true, though. You hear GI's say similar things about the Beretta nine - it underperforms. You want something that puts the other guy down flat on his ass.

To this end, the FBI cozied up to the 10MM, a pet project of Col. Jeff Cooper, who was also an enormous influence on combat pistol shooting generally (he founded what later became Gunsite). The first pistol chambered for it, the Bren Ten, was essentially a boutique gun, but Colt came out with the Delta Elite, and Smith with the 1076. It turned out the 10MM had too much felt recoil for a lot of shooters. and the grip frame was cumbersome, a consequence of the oversize magazines. (In the event, FBI Hostage Rescue and SWAT teams use the 10MM, but it's a specialty weapon.) Smith & Wesson shortened the cartridge case and came up with the .40 Smith, now one of the most widely used commercial loads in law enforcement.

There is, in all of this, an orphan. Back in the late 1920's, the .38 Super was introduced, a pistol cartridge designed for the recoil-operated 1911 automatic, based on the .38 ACP but loaded to higher pressures. It was hot. It would go through a car, it could penetrate a bulletproof vest. John Dillinger is said to have carried one. 

Now, truth be told, I didn't know from the .38 Super, because it had fallen from favor. It got knocked off its perch by the .357 Mag. The first I heard about was when it made a cameo appearance in Stephen Hunter's Black Light - a shoot-out in a cornfield with Bob Lee Swagger's dad, Earl - and it was characterized as a real pistolero's weapon. Come to find out, Steve Hunter hadn't been conversant with the .38 Super, either. He found out about it when he was reading up on The Wild Bunch, and it turns out they couldn't use .45's in the movie, because the 1911 wouldn't cycle .45 blanks. You could only fire one shot. The workaround was that they bought surplus .38 Supers down in Mexico, and the guns ran all day.

OK, if you're Steve Hunter, what do you do with that information? You say to yourself, How soon can I get me one? (And as a footnote, what do you do if you're me, with that information? You go on GunBroker.)

I know you're rolling the tape back - why Mexico? Because in Mexico, and a number of other countries in Central and South America, they restrict the heavier pistol calibers to military and police. You can't legally own a .45, for example. (We're not talking about the cartels, we're talking about legal civilian use.) The heaviest chambering allowed is the .38 Super, and there's a big after-market.

I know much of this is only of interest to gear nuts like me (or Steve Hunter), but it has to do with getting things right, which means knowing what questions to ask. I love picking up odd details, and often as not the collateral information is every bit as interesting as whatever your original focus was. We're magpies, distracted by something glittery in our peripheral vision.

26 August 2015

The Whitechapel Murders

David Edgerley Gates

What is it about Jack the Ripper that continues to excite our collective imagination? The murders took place in 1888, after all, a hundred-and-twenty-five years ago. Everybody involved is long dead, the victims, the surviving witnesses, the cops, the newspapermen, the actual killer.

Well, foremost, the case has never been solved. There's an enormous canon of literature devoted to it. If you go the Ripper casebook website,, they name over a hundred possible suspects.

Secondly, it's widely considered to be the first documented serial killer case - although this in isn't true. Jack, however, generated a boatload of newsprint, and the image of a demented vivisectionist stalking Whitechapel for unlucky whores took hold.

More particularly, though, it probably is the first case to involve criminal profiling. In the late 1800's, forensic psychiatry didn't exist. Forensics of any kind, crime scene analysis, was primitive. Preserving the chain of evidence wasn't even on the radar. But in the Ripper case, a police surgeon speculated the killer was a
solitary, subject to periodic attacks of erotic mania, a "brooding condition of the mind." In other words, they were taking a stab (no pun intended) at ascribing motive. Jack wasn't simply possessed by evil spirits, he was diseased, as it's commonly understood. Mentally ill. Not an attempt to excuse his crimes, it was a means to an end. If they could isolate the Ripper's logic, they might identify him.

A couple of recent mystery thrillers explore this dynamic, David Morrell's MURDER AS A FINE ART (and its sequel, INSPECTOR OF THE DEAD), and Stephen Hunter's I, RIPPER. Morrell's book isn't about the Whitechapel killings, but a guy mimicking the Ratcliffe Highway murders, which took place seventy-odd years before the Ripper. Hunter's book, as you can tell from the title, is very much about Jack.

It's interesting that two not entirely dissimilar writers have both chosen to do historicals, and Victorian era historicals, at that. I understand the attraction. It's also interesting that both Hunter and Morrell come at it from a somewhat similar perspective. Not a modern one, mind. There's nothing a-historical or anachronistic about their approach. But the period they've chosen is one of huge impending change. The coming of rail travel, say, the Industrial Revolution in full cry. Income disparity, the crushing burden of poverty, the displacement of populations and the rise of dense urban environments. All of this contributes to the rise of a phenomenon like the Ripper. And what the two writers both do, entirely convincingly, is to work out how you'd look for a killer's footprint, the shadow he casts. This is forensic science before it had a name. Reading the runes, or bottling smoke.

When we talk of Dickensian squalor, it's really a kind of shorthand, and an avoidance mechanism. It's hard for us to imagine how squalid and brutish life in the London slums actually was, in Victorian times. Social inequities were extreme, and the Ripper became a metaphor - a gentleman, it was said, preying on the weakest of the underclass. Jack embodies a nameless dread, an entire ruling class of predator. He prefigures, not the Ted Bundys of this world, but gangster capitalism. He represents a stacked deck.

Why was he never caught? Police incompetence, for openers. They weren't equipped to deal with somebody like Jack. Yes, he was a pattern killer, and there was method, and opportunity, and most importantly, repetition, but the cops never established his template, and he slipped the noose. Then again, there's the more sinister theory that Jack was a member of the Establishment, some go so far as to say a collateral cousin of the Royal Family, and a scandal had to be prevented. Because we have the lingering question of why the murders stopped. Maybe they found the guy, but his social position protected him, so instead of going for a short dance on a stiff rope, he wound up in the booby hatch. Which might go some way toward explaining why Jack has such a long shelf life. He eludes us. Not simply because it's the most studied of cold cases, and unresolved even today, but because he himself seems written in water.

Not so, his victims, In death, they have a disturbing physicality, exposed to the naked eye. Mary Jane Kelly was the last of the five, and a police photograph exists, the disemboweled girl lying in her bloody sheets. You can find the picture at the link below, but I won't post it here.

25 March 2015

Dead Zero

by David Edgerley Gates

I came to Steve Hunter somewhere in mid-career - I mean his - when I read HOT SPRINGS, which came out in 2000. The next book I read was DIRTY WHITE BOYS, which had been released in 1994. Then, like a lot of us do, I went back and started at the beginning, with THE MASTER SNIPER, from 1980, and read the rest of his novels in order. Although some of them are stand-alones, most of them focus on a Marine sniper, Bob Lee Swagger, who saw combat in Viet Nam, and his dad, Earl, a Medal of Honor winner in the Pacific war. And the books cross-pollinate, in the sense that some members of the cast have running cameos.

My own personal favorite in BLACK LIGHT, and when I suggested to Hunter in an e-mail exchange that I guessed his own favorite was TIME TO HUNT, he admitted it was true. My reasons for liking BLACK LIGHT are its nimbleness and canny plotting, and I think Steve's reasons for liking TIME TO HUNT are about emotional resonance.

I have to say that a couple of the recent Bob Lee books left me somewhat lukewarm. DEAD ZERO and SOFT TARGET let a little too much of Hunter's politics leak in. I could say the same of John LeCarre, in all fairness. Hunter's somewhere off to my Right, and LeCarre more to my Left. (I found ABSOLUTE FRIENDS enormously irritating.) Samuel Goldwyn is supposed to have once said, "If you want to send a message, use Western Union."

Mind you, I love the gun stuff in Hunter's books. I got no issue with it. But everybody doesn't feel the same way. He tells a story where somebody said to him, Gee, they liked the books, but they got bogged down in the guncraft, and couldn't there be less of it? Which reminds me of a Tony Hillerman anecdote. When he pitched the first of his Navajo mysteries, THE BLESSING WAY, one agent came back and told him, This is pretty good, but can you get rid of all that Indian crap? I guess you have to take the bitter with the sweet.

Which brings us to SNIPER'S HONOR, out this past year.

Two linked plot lines. The first is the Ostfront in 1944, a Russian sharpshooter, Mili Petrova, and the second is Bob Lee in present day, trying to figure out how come her story had been erased from the historical record. And of course the stories collide. I happen to really like the device of shifting POV, with the past impinging on the present, not least because I've used it myself. (The bounty hunter novella DOUBTFUL CANYON has two interdependent narratives, told fifty years apart.) In the case of SNIPER'S HONOR, the game's afoot in Ukraine, and Mili and Bob Lee traverse the same terrain, with both similar and competing obstacles in their path. Mili setting up a thousand-yard cold-bore shot on a particularly loathsome Obergruppenfuhrer-SS - think Reinhard Heydrich - and Bob Lee tracking her from a distance in time, but seeing her boots on the ground in his mind's eye.

This is some trick, too, and what you might call a lap dissolve, in movie terms, where you see the landscape mapped out, with a sniper's eye (or rather, two sets of snipers' eyes), and how their parallel approach to the target intersects. The suspense is killing me. Does she make the shot? You know better than to ask. You'll find out on p. 327, point of aim, range, trajectory, bullet weight, deflection - let's just say a few variables.

What you really want to know is, though, is the Master Sniper back on game? I'm here to bear witness. There's a boatload of gun stuff, sure. I ate it up. There's one hell of a good story, too, at both ends. And there's just deserts. (I checked the spelling on that.) Is there anything more you need? Well, the next book, I, RIPPER, is out this coming May. Knife work, I'm thinking. Gaslight. Cobblestoned streets, greasy with damp. Arterial spray. I can't hardly wait.