Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The History Files - episode 002: the Spanish American War

Episode 002 of The History Files podcast is live! In this edition Gordon and Dylan talk about the Spanish American War, U.S. imperialism in the 1890s (and beyond), and blame it all on Gordon's ancestors.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Steel Ships and Iron Men

I ran across a very interesting post on “Weapons Man” blog today, that I though worth citing for my own comments on it. It concerns the adoption by the US Army and US Navy of steel breech-loading artillery in the 1880’s.  After having led the world in artillery design and production during the American Civil War, a general doldrums set in on both services in regards to any serious innovation.  Part was due to the wish on the part of most of the populace to just not think about war anymore, part was due to a serious lack of interest by Congress, and part due to the result of said lack of interest, being a lack of money to do any innovating.   

While there were a few innovations in small-arms (such as the general adoption of breech-loading rifles and revolvers firing self-contained metallic cartridges, as well as Gatling guns) there wasn’t any change in the sorts of artillery fielded by either the Army or the Navy.  They still used the same basic cast-iron (or sometimes bronze) muzzle-loading smooth-bores that had been made by the thousands during the Civil War, and economics dictated that they remain in service until something forced the issue.  President Chester Arthur authorized a board of officers to tour various European armouries to see just how far behind we were in such things. The essay discusses the book on the board’s tour, and some of their comments and conclusions.  A good read, BTW:

Interestingly, the production of steel in the US in large quantities came right at this time (1884 or so) due to the Navy modernization program known as the "ABCD Ships".  The USS Atlanta (under sail, right), USS Boston, USS Chicago and USS Dolphin formed the first real expansion to the US Navy since 1865, and the demand by the board authorized them to build them in steel, rather than in the iron that US foundries could produce in quantity.  Although Carnegie's Homestead Steel Mill could produce steel, it wasn't enough to construct armoured ships, so it would have forced the Navy to import sufficient steel from Britain or Germany.  However, the board also recommended that various subsidies be provided to US iron mills which would convert to the production of steel in order to ensure a sufficient supply: a case of "build it and they will come" (or rather "demand it and they will provide".)  

The entire story is nicely told by  Robley D. Evans, who retired out as an Admiral, in his book  "A Sailor's Log: Recollections of Forty Years of Naval Life", as he was on the board described. At least claims he was instrumental in the adoption of steel for ship building in the Navy and with it, a greater availability of steel for other uses by American industry.   For those interested, here is a link to his book, at Googlebooks:

Thus it was done, and you will note that such manufactures as Colt, Remington and Winchester went from producing iron-frame firearms to steel-frame firearms circa 1885 as well, due to the now-abundant production of steel. 

At any rate, it is interesting that the needs of the services for steel artillery came at a time when the need for steel ships had already become apparent, and that the need was actually being attended to due to some far-sighted officers in the Navy. Handy serendipity and a strong confirmation of the wisdom of Captain Robley Evans.


Friday, January 9, 2015

The War of 1812 and the Battle of New Orleans

Yesterday was January 8, 2015, which marked the 200th anniversary of the culminating fight of the Battle of New Orleans, where in General Andrew Jackson and his rather motley group of volunteers, militia and regulars fought off a major British attempt to capture the fairly new (since the 1803 Louisiana Purchase; it was founded by the French in 1718) American city.  In a war filled with mistakes, errors and bumbling (by both sides) it was a fair marvel to most Americans that such a battle, against such odds, could be won.  It certainly had the benefit of propelling Andrew Jackson into the American consciousness, and eventually led him to the White House. 

The war was officially declared over various infringements of our national sovereignty by the belligerents of the Napoleonic Wars, the primary agent of such being the United Kingdom, and in particular the Royal Navy.  Unreasonable searches and seizures of neutral ships and goods, the pressing of American sailors from American-flagged (i.e. neutral) ships to serve on British warships and a host of other provocations by His Most Britannic Majesty’s Government led to the slogan of “Free Trade, and Sailor’s Rights!”  Amazingly though, the most ardent supporters of this slogan were not the politicians and citizens of New England, which was the one to suffer most from these provocations, but rather from the Western “War Hawks” who, like politicians of all stripes everywhere, had other things on their agenda’s which could be conveniently benefitted by a nice little victory over Britain.  Never no mind that Britain at the time had the largest navy in the world (over 600 ships in commission, compared to our 24 or so), but also had a fairly strong interest in maintaining its colony of British North America (AKA “Canada” to you folks today). 

This is not to suggest that the Westerners had no grievances with the British, for there were certainly reasons to believe that the Western Indians (still Eastern Indians as far as we moderns are concerned, but certainly Western by the standards of someone in Kentucky or Michigan) were being armed and supplied by British agents to keep things “interesting” on the Western frontier.  There were definitely some good reasons to believe this, though the truth is probably more to the fact that the British were trading arms and ammunition to the Indians, where as the Americans were wont to believe that the supplies were made as gifts.  Whichever, the Americans were angry with this state of affairs, as a fairly constant low-level condition of border warfare existed along the frontier, which consequently led to the demand of, and then by, politicians to “do something” about it. Furthermore, said Western politicians had their eyes firmly focused on what was then called "Upper Canada", or Ontario.  Close at hand to Ohio, Indiana and Michigan, it was richly endowed with fertile land and best of all, lightly populated by Anglo-Saxons.  Even Jefferson had thought that merely showing the American flag there would lead to immediate annexation, despite all local feelings to the contrary.

I’m not planning on writing a 30-page essay on the War of 1812, so I’ll instead simply make note of some of the results of the war. To begin with, it did in fact lead the British to have a somewhat higher opinion of the “Colonials”, mostly due to the outrageous effectiveness of our infant US Navy in what was referred to as “The War of the Frigates”.  When you go to war with 24 ships vs. your enemy’s 600, you have to innovate!  Thus the strong predilection of our naval officers to prefer “Guerre de Course”, i.e. a war on the enemy’s individual ships and commerce, as opposed to “Guerre de Main”, a war of big ships in big fleets against and enemy’s big ships in big fleets.  The last time anyone had tried that was in 1804, which resulted in the Battle of Trafalgar, in which the combined Spanish-French fleet was destroyed by the British under Admiral Horatio Nelson (who was himself also destroyed, by the way, setting a nice example.)  Thus the American Navy, spreading itself thin managed some astounding victories in single-ship actions against their Royal Navy foes, to the point that the Admiralty forbade their frigate captains from attacking American ships singly, requiring at least a two-to-one margin to ensure victory.  I call that a victory in and of itself!  Of course, when the Brits DID send two-to-one, usually they were successful, especially when attacking in a neutral port, such as when USS Essex was attacked in Valparaiso by HMS Phoebe and HMS Cherub.  However, in the last fight of USS Constitution, she rather neatly defeated both HMS Cyanne and HMS Levant, so it wasn’t exactly a slam-dunk strategy, as it were.  In any event, the US Navy came out of the otherwise rather ugly little war with a much burnished reputation, and a well-deserved one.

Another reputation which was somewhat burnished by the war was one then-Brigadier General Winfield Scott.  Accepting a commission in the Regular Army in 1807, he, through dint of exceptional abilities in both administration and leadership in the field, rose to the General Officer’s ranks by 1814.  During one of our ill-fated invasions of British North America/Canada, a large British force advanced on Scott’s brigade on the 5th of July.  Due to the Army Quartermaster’s lack of blue cloth for uniforms in their theatre, Scott’s men were uniformed in “militia grey” cloth.  (Scott wasn’t one to stand on ceremony when it came to logistics.  When informed that the Quartermaster only had grey cloth, he accepted it, as it was better to have his troops in the wrong colour than be naked or in rags.)  This colour difference led the British commander, who had assumed that the grey clad Americans were mere militia, to supposedly exclaim, “Those are Regulars, by God!” as Scott’s soldiers both maneuvered well and held firm under punishing British volleys. Scott, a stickler for drill and efficiency, and drilled his men 10 hours a day for months to ensure that level of discipline, and it showed when it counted. Scott not only continued to be a general in the US Army for a LONG time, leading American forces to conquer Mexico City in 1847, but was also still in uniform, and in fact commanding general of the US Army in 1861 at the beginning of the Civil War! Over fifty years in uniform must be some sort of record by anyone’s reckoning.

Back to New Orleans though, the man who no doubt made the most of his fame and glory won in the War of 1812 would have to be Andrew Jackson. Slapped in the face with a riding crop by Major Patrick Ferguson of the British Army (on his way to die at the Battle of King’s Mountain in 1780) for refusing to shine Ferguson’s boots, and demanding to be treated as a Prisoner of War (at the ripe old age of 13…).  He was shortly there-after orphaned, when his mother died of “gaol fever” while tending to his sick father and older brother (both of whom also died from it) who had been languishing in a prison-hulk as POW’s in Charleston Harbour.  Raised by another older brother, Jackson may safely be assumed to have harbored a bit of a grudge against the British.
Somehow Jackson managed to acquire a rather good education, and passed the Bar exam in the new State of Tennessee, with its rip-roaring capital of Nashville being the center of politics, business and society as a major frontier metropolis.  Jackson was the sort of man who made connections and encouraged strong emotions in his associates.  They either loved him dearly and were devoted to him, or hated him with a passion.  His record of a meteoric rise in politics on one hand, and duels on the other speaks volumes.  Suffice it to say that he managed to wrangle the political plum of “Major General of the Tennessee Militia” as one of his fruits of political victory, and through that all of his other fame came to be.

Lots of things were coming to a head in 1814, two years into the struggle with Great Britain.  In the North, a mounted cavalry charge by Kentucky Volunteer Mounted Riflemen under Richard Mentor Johnson managed to break the 41st Regiment of Foot at the Battle of the Thames, and according to some, Johnson was responsible for shooting the great Indian leader Tecumseh during the battle.  (Johnson later rose to political fame and became the 9th Vice President of the United States).  To the South, the frontier broke out in warfare with the Creek War, where Jackson first made his name as a military commander.

The Creek War started out as a civil war within the Creek Nation, but one faction of the so-called “Red Sticks” made the error of massacring some White militia-men and settlers at Fort Mims in Alabama (along with far greater numbers of opposing factions of Creeks).  The Red Sticks were firmly against any sort of accommodation with the Whites, and thus were happy to accept arms and supplies from the British-allied Spaniards in Pensacola. Attempts at halting this trade not only were unsuccessful, but also met with disaster.  Peter McQueen and William Weatherford (I love this, leaders of the “anti-White” faction had Scottish grandfathers…) led their followers into battle against the now-aroused foe in the form of Jackson’s Tennessee and Alabama militia (along Cherokee and Creek allies, and the 39th US Infantry Regiment).
In brief, Jackson followed the Red Sticks to a fortified “ox bow” or loop in the Tallapoosa River.  In a direct, full-on frontal assault, the militiamen swarmed over the defenses and proceeded to slaughter the Red Sticks.  William Weatherford got away, and Jackson put a “dead or alive” price on his head.  In response, Weatherford, full armed, walked right into Jackson’s command tent, placed his rifle, pistols, tomahawk and knives on Jackson’s desk and surrendered.  Jackson was so impressed with this act of bravery that he pardoned Weatherford, and gave him parole.  On the other hand, in the subsequent treaty with the Creeks, he not only took land from both the insurgent Creeks and the Allied (to Jackson) Creeks, but from the allied Cherokees as well!  A very, very complex man indeed.  (One may suppose that he could be generous with an individual, but when it came to paying off his political backers, he couldn’t be so kind and thus annexed much of Georgia and most of the State of Alabama from the Indians, both those fighting against and those fighting for him. To be fair, he DID give some of the land annexed from the Creeks to the newly-dispossessed Cherokee, but only on a “temporary” basis, as he then expelled them from THAT land a generation later, to Oklahoma, aka “Indian Territory”).

As a side-note, a couple of interesting political/mythological characters came out of this campaign.  Davy Crockett was a scout for Jackson, and Samuel Houston, another up-and-coming politician, was a junior officer who was wounded in action at Horseshoe Bend.  Both became stout allies of Jackson in both Tennessee and later in Washington, though Crockett had a falling-out with Jackson over the expulsion of the Cherokee.  Houston, who actually had LIVED with the Cherokee, had no such challenges of conscience.  Both were, of course, later to become famous in the Texas Revolution of 1836.
When word came to Washington City (“District of Columbia”, but generally known at the time as simply “Washington City”) of a major expedition from Britain with the express intention of taking New Orleans, Jackson was the only real candidate available to take the job.  He was experienced (to some degree), very popular both locally and nationally, and most important, fairly close to the scene of the operations.

Arriving in New Orleans in the waning days of 1814, Jackson began to set up defenses and organize troops to hold them.  He utilized the Navy to defend Lake Borgne under the command of a young officer later to gain fame in California (by capturing it four years too early) Lieutenant Thomas ap Catesby-Jones.  Likewise he was, eventually, moved to accept the volunteer efforts of the pirate Jean Lafitte (the pirates came complete with their own cannons and crews, so that probably swayed Jackson’s views as to the morality of accepting their offer of help), as well as the local militia’s of the French-speaking population as well as of free Blacks. In a battle best known for the efforts of the “Kentucky Riflemen” (who thus gave a name to a rifle which had always before simply been known as the “American Rifle”), as it turns out Jackson himself gave most of the credit to his artillery, both Regular Army and pirate.  In a frontal assault against a prepared, entrenched position, artillery tended to do most of the slaughter, what with the use of solid shot at range, and then canister and “grape” at closer range.  1” iron balls hurtling downrange at somewhat over the speed of sound tend to do a lot of damage to mere flesh and bone. 

The British commander, General Edward Packenham, a favorite officer of the Duke of Wellington (who had refused command of the expedition himself) was killed during the assault, leaving him to be stuffed into a keg of brandy (much as Nelson had been) to preserve his body for interment in England.  Jackson on the other hand, was lionized throughout the United States as a Great War Hero for his victory, seeing as most of the other aspects of the war had been less than successful for the most part. Canada was definitely not taken, and most of the other rational for entering the war had been dealt with prior to the actual declaration of war anyway.  The treaty ending the war was signed on December 14 of 1814, citing “status quo anti bellum”, in other words, nothing had changed from prior to the war’s beginning.  The one codicil to it that mattered, however, was that anything that either party got prior to the ratification of the treaty/end of actual hostilities, they got to keep.  Thus the Battle of New Orleans was important, for the British were hardly going to hand it back over had we lost it.  Having a foreign (and hostile) government in charge of the only egress for almost all of our Western commerce would have been a major catastrophe for the US, to say the least.  For these reasons the 8th of January was celebrated far more heavily with “rocket’s red glare” and firecrackers, gunfire and other festivities than the 4th of July up to the Civil War.  In many ways, it was just as important, and one of the reasons that the War of 1812 was often referred to as “The Second War of Independence”, since it certainly secured that which the first had attempted to secure, but kind of left in the air.

Jackson of course rode the wave of popularity to first the Governor’s Mansion in Nashville, and then (eventually) to the White House. His administration, like himself, could be seen to contain both marvelous acts of bravery (vetoing the charter of the 2nd Bank of the United States, and early attempt at a private, i.e. British-owned central bank for the US that was put off until the FED was created in 1913 with all of its disastrous consequences) to incredible acts of knavery (the expulsion of Native Americans from east of the Mississippi. The Supreme Court found it unconstitutional to do so, but Jackson is purported to have said “when the Supreme Court has an army at its beck and call, they can do as they please”).

For all that however, Jackson also ushered in “Jacksonian Democracy”, a celebration of what would be referred to as the Common Man.  No longer was  democracy a thing for only the ruling class to toy with, but became a thing of power for the masses (of free White men, at least)… and for demagogues as well, who could learn to sway them. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Emerald City Writers' Conference

This past weekend I was privileged to have the opportunity to give a presentation on historical firearms to the Emerald City Writers' Conference, in Seattle. The conference was primarily attended by participants of the female persuasion (I think I counted eight or nine other fellows there, and one of them was a cover model for books), so there were several eye-openers for me. Even though I was there as a speaker, I learned a lot of “interesting things” from other speakers in the process. I guess I’ve led a sheltered life!

One of the things I wanted to make note of however was the professionalism and efficiency of the people putting on the conference. I at all times was kept apprised of what was going on. From the moment I was green-lighted as a speaker until I left the event, the organizers were on the ball, letting me know what was expected of me, where I was to be speaking and where I could store my “props”.  I was even met at the loading dock of the hotel to help me get my show-and-tell items to the right room. I am impressed, and I hereby award kudos to the ladies who were always available to help ensure that everything was taken care of every step of the way. I definitely hope to be invited back next year!

Monday, October 13, 2014

Catching up, or What I did this Summer

It’s been a while since I’ve posted here last… two years! Gack. I’ve decided that I need to do a bit more in this arena, so here goes with some updates as to what I’ve been up to.

I had the wonderful opportunity to do some jousting this past summer, the first in June at the Castellode Amarosa winery in Calistoga, CA.  My friend Will Hamersky and his wonderful horse Rohan were kind enough to invite me down to take part in it, and it was a serious hoot. 
Breaking lances with Will Hamersky & Rohan

Patti Friend was likewise kind enough to offer to me the use of her great little mare (well, little compared to Rohan, but otherwise not exactly tiny) to ride in the festivities.  She’s a fine little girl, and well on her way to becoming a very well-rounded warhorse.

In July, I got to go down to California again, this time to San Luis Obispo for their Central CoastRenaissance Festival, where again I jousted against Will Hamersky. Patti also jousted against Will, but we didn’t get the opportunity to joust against one another, unfortunately. This time I was riding another wonderful little (again, comparatively speaking) mare, Sophie. Sophie is owned by Dora Grund, and trained by Katrina Sanders. What a wonderful mare! Again Will and I broke a lot of lances against one another’s armour, and I had a great time in general. I hope that I have a chance to do it again next year, one way or another!

Finally, insofar as jousting is concerned, I was able to be a judge at the “Emprise of the Black Lion” (SCA) in September. I forget how hard it is to sit on the sidelines when people are doing something that you love to do, but you don’t get to be involved! Still, it was fun, and I’m glad that I was invited to take part.
I’ve also had a couple of good speaking engagements, one at Gearcon in Portland, the other at Steamposium in Seattle. Both were a lot of fun, and time to renew old friendships and make some new ones. Somehow I always have a good time at these sorts of events!

This week I’m gearing up for an engagement at the Emerald City Writer’s Conference, where I’ll give a presentation on Saturday afternoon. The subject this time is “Firearms for Romance Writers”, though I’ll doubtless talk a bit about things that a mystery novelist might find interesting…but that’s really for another presentation! I’ll be going over some of the arms used in the late-16th Century, the Georgian period, and delve a bit into the Victorian era as well. My last foray into giving a presentation to a writer’s group was at the Romance Writer’s Guild conference in San Francisco a few years ago, and it was a lot of fun.  I expect that this will be to, so I’m looking forward to it!

I’ll try to post a bit more often than I have to date, as I have a number of ideas and analyses of current events to be looked at through an historical lens, so check back in.  Hopefully it shall prove to be of interest!


Wednesday, September 26, 2012

SteamCon is coming up! This year is "Victorian Monsters", so the weapons lecture will be everything you need to know to defeat the armies of darkness and stay alive doing it. Plus a panel on Victorian machine guns. The Gatling gun will return, and we're adding a nice shiny Maxim gun just to mix things up a bit.

Here's Gordon's complete speaking schedule:

Surviving the Steampunk Zombie Apocalypse - Friday, 5-6PM 
Weapons for Vampire Hunting: Historical & Modern Literary Views - Friday, 7-8PM
Machine Guns of the Victorian Era - Saturday, 11AM-12PM
Firearms of the Victorian Era - Sunday, 12-1PM

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows

I just watched the latest incarnation of the Sherlock Holmes saga, this in the form of the second film staring Robert Downey Jr. in the namesake roll. I had very much enjoyed the first film that he did, and this was, if anything, even better. Jude Law reprised his role as the good Doctor Watson, with a character far more capable than he is often made out to be. Most amusingly cast was Stephen Fry as Sherlock Holmes’ “older, smarter brother” Mycroft. Per the rest of the cast, they were quite competent actors all but since I hadn’t heard of any of them before I’ll pass on mentioning them, so there it is.

Since my reviews are always about the cool stuff, however, I’ll leave all that acting criticism for others (who as usual pan what I like and like what I pan, but again, there it is. They get paid for it and I don’t, so perhaps they’re on to something I’m ignorant of).

As usual, whoever does the props and armouring for these movies knows what they’re doing, and they do it well. From the credits it looks to be a lot of folks, but I give real kudo’s to whoever is actually in charge of the over-all look, be that the Director Guy Ritchie or the head of his Props department, or whoever. Everything looks great! Buildings, backgrounds, set dressing, props, weapons, clothing, background artists, you name it, and it not only was high quality, but it looked like it belonged there, and in fact looked like it grew there (even some of the clothes on some of the actors looked as though they’d been on them long enough to have enough extra passengers and life-forms to begin new planets). Well done on their part.

Minor Spoilers Ahead

Okay, the Cool Toys. They have them, and lots of them. In the first scene in which Holmes has to fight his way clear of things, one of the thugs he deals with has a nice little Webley top-break .38. Sadly (from what I could see, I could be wrong on this one) it was one of their post-WWI models of this size, but what the heck, Webley DID make such a beast in the late-1880’s, so it’s fine.

As usual, Watson is carrying his trusty Webley RIC. This being one of the later models, it was probably in .455” rather than the somewhat less powerful .450”. Speaking of Watson, there was a bit of a time disconnect going on in this film, since Watson is supposed to be fairly recently returned from Afghanistan (the 2nd Afghan War taking place between 1878 and 1880), and yet there are weapons which hadn’t been invented until the mid-1890’s, but, oh well. Most are close enough. I rather liked the little single-shot derringer which Holmes hands to him on the train, too. Looked like it was a Colt .41” rimfire, but hard to tell: still, cool.

The bad-guys on the train have, of all things, a Model 1889 Vickers-Maxim Machine Gun, in caliber .303”. How cool is that? Brass water jacket, brass receiver, lots of brass everywhere! Unfortunately the cartridges they were using in the belt were the post-1905 Mk VII Ball, rather than the Mk I Ball (black powder with a 220-grain round-nosed bullet, rather than cordite powder and 174-grain “spitzer” bullet) they should have been using. Oh well; details, details...but that's what I'm all about, so I'll mark them down on that one.

The bad-guys on the
train have one other interesting piece though, and that is their “close-in” weapon, at least the one with which they try to kill Our Heroes at close range. For whatever reason, one is carrying a Model 1887 Winchester Shotgun with a short “riot” barrel on it. What? Brit’s just don’t go for such things in shotguns. Isn’t sporting, you know, it must be a double or nothing. You might have been able to buy such a thing in Londo n, but, Goodness! Even as a murder weapon: just not done. I like them though, so it gets points from me.

I do have to take serious issue with one thing on the train though: The British “soldiers” have a nice box full of stick-mounted “Mills Bombs”, AKA hand grenades. Considering that these had gone out of fashion during the American Revolution and didn’t come back until the trenches of 1915 made such things desirable (the first ones were made from jam tins filled with artillery explosives and tied to sticks), it would be hard to imagine the British Army (or fellows posing as such) having such things in 1890. On the other hand, they’re cool and it
does keep the story moving.

Chasing around Paris is always fun, especially if you get to shoot
at folks while down in the sewers, so what else to use but a proper French military revolver? Indeed, they have them! At least Watson does, picking up a Mle. 1892 Lebel 8mm revolver up from a fellow with no further use for it, and using it to good effect. Later he somehow even gets one (or perhaps it’s another sort, but close) with ivory grips which is particularly fetching. Watson always gets the cool guns, I have t o say.

The sniper rifle belonging to the henchman of Arch-Nemisis Moriarty has exactly what one might expect of a former British soldier: a Martini-Henry, though in a somewhat smaller caliber (which is fine) than the original .577/.450 cartridge for which it was designed. It looked almost like the semi-experimental .400” cartridge that the British Army almost adopted, but chose instead to go with the more efficient .303” for their new magazine rifles in 1888. However, there is one scene in which the henchman fires off several rounds in quick succession at Watson, something which simply cannot be done successfully with a Martini-Henry. Shades of a Dallas Deer Rifle, I’m afraid.

On the other hand, the scenes in Germany are great, with plenty of cool firearms to bedazzle the e ye, from the 7.63mm Mauser “Broomhandle” pistols (AKA “C-96” after the year of introduction. See my problem here?) to the 105mm (or was it a 155mm?) Krupp artillery pieces.

There is, however,
a “minor” issue with regards to the Broomhandle Mausers. This will take awhile, so sit back and relax.

The henchman notes to Holmes that these unusual pistols are the latest thing, far more modern and thus better than the revolver he is carrying, and possesses a 10-round magazine: all well and good. Then he tosses a clip to Holmes, which h e pulls from a case of such things, to charge the Mauser. From what I could see (and I may have seen what I was expecting, too) he tossed a “charger clip”, being a thin sheet-metal piece which only holds the rim of the cartridge (which is right and proper for a Mauser C-96 ), but then they both slap the floor of the magazines of their pistols as though they had in fact placed fresh magazines into their respective pistols. So, here’s the problem. Mauser didn’t begin to manufacture a model capable of such replaceable magazines until the 1930’s, following the lead of some Spanish copyists. Much of the problem is really a problem with usage of terms. Any more these days, people interchange “clip” and “magazine”, when in fact they are very different beasts. A f irearm may in fact be able to use both, or neither, or one or the other, but they are not at all the same thing. As noted, with a Mauser the clip holds the rims of the cartridges and they are then “stripped” into place (thus sometimes being referred to as “stripper clips”). A magazine, on the other hand, holds the entire cartridge, along with several others, and may be an integral part of the firearm (as in the case of the Mauser) or may be removable, as is the case with almost all modern military firearms. Th ese are generally made of thin sheet metal and contain anywhere from five to 100 cartridges, and can be removed at will by the user. To confuse you even more, there are the “en-bloc clips” such as developed by Mannlicher and later used in the famous US M1 Garand rifle, wherein the entire clip holding the cartridges is fed into the magazine and then ejected.

With me so far? Right; so when the henchman an d Holmes slap the magazine floors of their pistols, it would do nothing other than to make
noise, and not much of a noise at that. The ONLY WAY to load a C-96 “Broomhandle” Mauser is with a stripper clip from above, with the bolt back. That’s how they were designed, and the later version was in fact capable of fully-automatic fire and usually had a 20-30 round magazine. The whole scene is to let the dolts who think that Gangsta moves are cool know that they had loaded the pistols, and then of course the henchman proceeds to turn his pistol to a 90ยบ angle and hold it at Holmes’ head, just like a Gangsta. Okay, now all the Gangsta’s in the audience know that he’s loaded his pistol and is going to shoot it. Joy.

All right, I’m done ranting. I’ll point out that Winston Churchill packed one of these cool Mauser pistols in the Battle of Omdurman in 1898. They were in fact quite popular with British officers of the day, so it’s cool that the film includes them. But, come on, at least load them properly! (Oh sorry, I said I wasn’t going to rant any more on that one. Oops.)

I think that they rather made up for it, however, with the massive use of the usually-forgotten German Gewehr (just means “rifle”) 88, usually shortened to Gew. 88 or G-88, and sometimes known as the “Commission Rifle”. As the nickname implies, it was designed by a commission, and like the commission that came up with the camel, isn’t exactly what was ordered when the Imperial German Army asked for a horse. The Germans had adopted a product of the genius of Peter Paul Mauser in 1871, and again in 1884 with the Gewehr 71/84, a modification from single-shot to magazine-fed (this magazine being of a tubular variety, under the barrel as with a Winchester). However they tired of paying Mauser the royalties on his patents and decided to go around them, using a pinch of Mauser here, a dash of Mannlicher there (it used a 5-round “en-bloc” clip) and to top it of, a strange sheet-steel barrel jacket which was supposed to dissipate heat from the barrel, but instead tended to attract moisture and cause rust. When Mauser showed up with his much-improved Model of 1898, the German Army was more than happy to put their Commission Rifles into the hands of the second-line Landswehr troops and step up to a much better rifle, one which became the standard by which all others were judged for better than 50 years. Anyway…

The poor old Gewehr 88 performs sterling service in this film, both in the hands of the good guys and the bad guys. Dr. Watson in fact manages to shoot the henchman and wound him with his at a pretty decent range, something which the rifle was well capable of. Since one of the good things about the G-88 was that it introduced the famous 8X57mm Mauser cartridge (Mauser got his revenge there, since he didn’t actually design that round. Besides, it’s really a 7.92mm, or 7.9mm according to the German Army. The 57 stands for how many millimeters long it is), a round which was destined to give birth to virtually all of the military and sporting cartridges of the 20th Century. Even the American 30-06 is a variant, as is the modern 7.62 NATO round.

At any rate, the G-88 and the 8mm cartridge proved to be quite a serviceable combination, far superior to the French 8mm Lebel which it was designed to counter. (In 1886 the French had astounded the world by introducing the first smokeless cartridge, the 8mm Lebel, along with a rifle to go with it. The cartridge was revolutionary, the rifle pedestrian with no mechanical improvement over the German 71/84, but of course the French hung on to it until almost WWII while everyone else went on to much better things, the G-88 being one of them. The Germans, being the premier chemists of the day, weren’t about to let those darned Frenchies get away with stealing a march on them, so they came up with the 8 (or 7.9)X57 cartridge, a rimless bottleneck round which, as I noted above, was the progenitor of most of the military and sporting cartridges of the 20th Century.

Both good and bad guys make excellent use of these venerable old rifles, and I’m willing to bet that this is one of the few films ever made which features them in it. You occasionally see a Broomhandle Mauser here and there (“Young Winston”, for example), or Webley RIC’s (“The Wind and the Lion”), or even 1887 Winchesters (“Terminator II”). Commission Rifles? Not so much. So that’s another point for the film.

I’m not much up on heavy artillery, so other than to say that they looked more like the WWI “Gustav” siege pieces made by Krupp than anything else, and that I think that they were designed in the 1890’s, I’ll give them a pass.

On the other hand, one of the weird “pocket artillery” pieces they used was definitely not around in the 1890’s, or even in the next decade, and that was the “Meinenwerfer” that the bad guys were using. Think “Trench Mortar” with wheels and you’ve got it. On the other hand, I doubt seriously that anyone since the making of “All’s Quiet on the Western Front” has had one in their movie, so what the heck. Maybe the TNT film “The Lost Battalion” with Rick Schroeder? Maybe not even then.

The final cool and wonderful thing is the rather odd “sub-machine gun” with which Dr. Watson arms himself in the German arms factory. What on earth it was supposed to represent is a bit of a mystery, though I have a few ideas.

To begin with, it’s obviously not firing full-sized rifle ammunition, as the top-mounted magazine (real magazine, not a clip, remember!) wasn’t nearly long enough to hold a full-caliber round. On the other hand, such a thing hadn’t been invented yet (though John M. Browning’s first experimental auto-loading pistol, in 1897 went full-auto on him when he tried it out, because he hadn’t thought of a “disconnector” which disconnects the trigger from the hammer sear. See, it’s actually easier to make a fully-automatic weapon than a semi-automatic one, so all of the laws on the books about such things are flat silly.) On the other hand, there is just possibly something that would almost fit the bill, that being…the Danish Madsen machine gun of 1902. The original patents were from 1899, so it does kind of qualify as a 19th Century machine gun, but what Dr. Watson was carrying isn’t precisely a Madsen, either. It looks like a strange bash between a Colt-Browning Model 1895 “Potato Digger” (wonderful name, what? But not something you would want to shoot off-hand), the Madsen and the Italian Villa-Perosa of 1916. Both of the later used the curved, top mounted magazines shown in the film, and the Villa-Perosa used the rather under-powered Italian 9mm rimless cartridge, but hey, it’s only a movie.

I do have to say, though, that the Madsen was one of the wonders of the world, mechanically speaking. Rather like a bumblebee, it really shouldn’t work, since the cartridge should have to “bend” to get from the magazine into the chamber. But they work like a champ, enough so that they’re still in use by Brazilian police when shooting up the slums of Rio. Talk about longevity, they haven’t made a new one since the 1940’s, but they’re still on the job.

Last but not least, I have to mention a quick cameo appearance by the immortal Gatling Gun as well, merrily firing black powder loads at our intrepid heroes. Gotta love it when a scene has firearms spanning half-a-century or more in it, all being used with equal abandon! Makes me feel all gushy inside, I must say.

All told, it’s a really good film from my perspective, with lots and lots of really cool, really arcane, weird and wonderful weaponry in it. Even the Cossack has a cool middle-Asian dagger! They trot out all sorts of unlikely and uninvented pieces for us to enjoy, very Steampunk in that regard, and quite fun. Definitely doing some “anachronisms” of technology by a few years, but it’s not a documentary, so why not? It’s fun, and definitely worth the price of admission. I know I’m planning on getting a copy when it comes out on DVD just so I can see what cool stuff is in the background that I missed!



* The last instance I can recall off-hand of their use was when an American sailor dropped one from the rigging of the Bonhomme Richard on to the deck of HMS Serapis, where it landed in a box of British hand-grenades and pretty much decided the battle. This was in 1778