Writing, research, and guns

In the 1929 novel “Maltese Falcon,” Dashiell Hammett writes the line:

“Another thing,” Spade repeated, glaring at the boy: “Keep that gunsel away from me while you’re making up your mind. I’ll kill him.”

The line was kept in its entirety when Sam Spade is played by Humphrey Bogart in the movie adaptation. Hammett used the word gunsel because he was fighting with his editor over the book’s language. He slipped it in knowing full well the editor would assume it was slang for gunman. By getting it past the movie censors, Hammett had a double win.

In reality, gunsel is slang for “a catamite.” What’s a catamite? It’s a boy used in pederasty. OK, OK, what’s pederasty? Its sodomy practices by a man with a boy.

So when Sam Spade calls Wilmer a gunsel, he’s insulting both characters by suggesting the association between the Fat Man, Kasper Gutman (played by Sidney Greenstreet), and Wilmer Cook (played by Elisha Cook, Jr.) goes well beyond the usual employer/employee relationship.

One wonders how many pulp fiction imitators of Hammett went on to use that word in their stories thinking it meant gunman. Had I not looked it up, I might have been added to that count.

So what does that have to do with today’s blog? Nothing, other than I’m going to talk about writing, guns, and research. It seemed like an interesting segue.

Over the last few months, I’ve been doing some research on guns because I’m working on a few weird westerns and a detective urban fantasy. In that research I’ve been learning about flintlocks, caplocks, rimfire and centerfire cartridges, revolvers, autoloaders, and all that fascinating stuff. Terms I’ve heard before but didn’t understand. Cap and ball revolver? What was that? Well, for those who don’t know, it’s a precursor to the self-contained brass cartridge. You’d load the black powder down the barrel, then pack it down with a lead ball. Then you load a cap, which is a small explosive on the “nipple.” When the hammer strikes it, the cap explodes, sending a flame shooting down a tiny tube to ignite the powder charge and push the bullet out of the barrel toward its target.

And I’m learning the history of many manufacturers. And here we’ve finally arrived at the main topic of today’s blog.

If I asked you to name some of the top American gun manufacturers, what names would you come up with? I’ll go make some tea while you’re mulling that over. Pretend I’m humming the theme from “Jeopardy.”

OK, I’m back. What did you come up with? I’m thinking if you have just an average knowledge of guns and aren’t a gun geek (this is where I was going to say gunsel. Good thing I looked that up!) you probably came up with Smith and Wesson, Remington, Ruger, and Colt.

Was I right? What did you come up with?

The interesting thing is, one of those things is not like the others.

If I put them in this order: Ruger, Smith and Wesson, and Remington, we have the top three gun manufacturers in America and in 2010 they sold almost as many guns as the next 21 manufacturers combined.

Ruger, which is the youngest of the above named group having started in 1949, sold almost a million guns in 2010. Smith and Wesson, who started in 1852, is a close second with more than 600,000 sold. While Remington, the oldest, started in 1816, sold a little over 500,000 guns.

And the number four manufacturer is, of course, Maverick Arms. Wait. What? Who? Maverick Arms, who sold over 400,000 guns, is a subsidiary of Mossberg Arms and they mostly produce Maverick 88 shotguns, which are cheap Mossberg 500 knockoffs sold at Wal-Mart.

So surely, the number five gun maker is Colt, right? Wrong, it is Sig Sauer, which oddly enough started life in 1853 as a wagon factory. They sold almost 300,000 guns in 2010. Someone probably asked, “Well, how the hell did they become a gun manufacturer?” Fair enough. Seven years after constructing a plant to build wagons and railcars, they entered a contest to develop a state-of-the-art rifle for the Swiss Army. Four years later, the Swiss Wagon Company won the contest with an order for 300,000 muzzle loading rifles and changed their name to Swiss Industrial Company. SIC. Hmm. Wait a minute. Oh, here it is, they were actually called, Schweizerische Industrie-Gesellschaft (SIG), which was German for Swiss Industrial Company.

Fun, right? Where were we? Oh, right. Colt! Well, instead of playing a guessing game, I’ll come right out and tell you where they rank. Of the Top 25 U.S. firearms manufacturers, Colt is –drum roll– number twenty!

That’s right, #20. Think about that. Here is the most storied firearm manufacturer in America, which got its start in 1855 (1836 if you count the Patent Arms Manufacturing Company that failed). It had two of the most well-known gunsmiths working for it at one time or another, including the man the company is named after, Samuel Colt, while the other is considered a god among gun makers, John Moses Browning.

Samuel Colt
Samuel Colt with an 1851 Navy
John Browning
John Moses Browning

The company has created more famous guns than any other company in the history of the world, including the Colt Walker, the Colt Dragoon, 1851 Navy, 1860 Army, 1861 Navy, 1873 SAA Peacemaker, and arguably the greatest semi-automatic handgun ever designed, John Moses Browning’s 1911, which the military used almost exclusively for 74 years and is still popular 104 years later. They created the Police Special which was manufactured for 60 years. They produced the first snub-nosed revolver with a swing out frame. And they manufactured one of the most popular revolvers ever in the Colt Python.

They were the U. S. Military’s almost exclusive handgun supplier from 1847 until 1985, and also manufactured several long guns including the Thompson Submachine gun (they manufactured the Tommy gun under contract for Auto-Ordnance) and the M16.

And yet, today they’re ranked twentieth among American gun manufacturers? What the hell happened?

I’ll try to explain that in Part Two: What the hell happened?



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