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