From Reality to Fantasy (Part 6): The Coolest Gun in Literary Classics

Well, in my opinion anyway. Here it is:

Girandoni Air RifleBut before I explain, lets start with some …

Caveats

You know, I’m fairly sure America’s NSA is following everything I do because of my search history. Things like, “What chemical reagent can eat through a door lock?” or “simple flamethrowers” or “depleted Uranium” or “survival supplies” have probably guaranteed me a spot on the agency’s watch list. Add to that my obsessive gun research and the whole thing looks even worse.

I can only hope they’ve also spotted my architectural searches, such as spotting the differences between Tudor, Queen Anne, and Gothic Revival styles. Or if they’ve seen my researches into steam cars, classic British dishes, or Stirling engines, hopefully they’ll know I’m planning novels and not mass murders.

It’s not just the NSA I’m afraid of though. Sometimes I think readers are going to label me as just an American whose favorite porn video consists of soldiers in sunglasses shooting .50 caliber machine guns as rock music plays. Let me try to throw off that label before the glue on the back of it dries.

Why I Use Guns

Honestly, I find modern guns, like modern cars and modern phones, just really boring. Historical guns are where the real fun lies.

Now, this is a real phone:
T W Ness Telephone 1893I love things like skeleton watches and steam engines because they’re mechanical. You can see how they work. You can understand them. You can fix them. Don’t get me wrong, I love my PS4, but it’s just a black plastic box that runs games to me. I’d have to be a hardware engineer to really appreciate what’s going on in there.

I believe the most advanced shotgun in the world, the AA-12, uses 19 different types of stainless steel, making it an impressive achievement of metallurgy, but it is still boring to look at.

Historically, before the emphasis on tactical efficiency and interchangeable parts, gunsmiths were artists, the creators of beautiful, hand-made machines. That is so refreshing in the Plastic Age.

Gevär - Livrustkammaren - 96388Bössor o pistoler - Livrustkammaren - 34539Guns are part of an aesthetic choice in my books, aimed at readers who will puke if they read about one more legendary sword or magical artifact (or stone/jewel/gem). While I’m too stupid to understand my PS4 or the inner workings of the AA-12, I’m smart enough to want something more complicated than a handle with a pointy thing on it.

Also I hate that in fantasy writers basically use bows and arrows for the same purpose as guns. As someone who has done archery, let me tell you there are very good reasons why the entire world abandoned bows as soon as guns were introduced. Archery is cool, but it’s no replacement for the mighty firearm (You’d think Elves would have figured that out in their first 1,000 years of life. How do they not get bored? How have they not discovered black powder’s potential?).

Besides that, guns add chaos and unpredictability to stories: they jam, they fail to cycle, they run out of ammo, they have different sights on them, they can blow locks, and they can give a realistic protagonist a realistic chance to win. When outnumbered by a crowd a real person would need to possess all the best qualities of Batman and Bruce Lee to survive. And where this isn’t taken into account, it really bothers me.

Also those fantasy illustrations where a knight is riding up to a massive dragon with a spear or a sword? That guy is about to be the equivalent of a toast crumb to any dragon with an IQ above 3. I think an anti-tank rifle with non-deforming tungsten carbide bullets would do for that dragon, though.

One more thing, it is a privilege of modernity if to know nothing about hunting, but guns make hunting in books much more believable and palatable for those that know something about it.

In my last post, I mentioned how Captain Nemo’s favorite hobby of shooting endangered sea life with electric bullets made me sad. I know there are many people out there who think hunting is barbaric, and I respect that, but I must offer two things to think about anyway.

The first is that traditional hunting with arrows is very cruel. Because the arrows, especially traditional arrows rather than modern ones fired from compound bows, are less likely to be lethal, the largest part of the hunt is tracking the bleeding animal for miles until it finally, finally dies. Guns allow for a faster and more humane kill, and most hunters will not shoot unless they know they can hit the animal in a vital area and spare it a slow, painful death.

While it may be heart-breaking to approach the big watery eyes of a dying deer and know that you caused its suffering — that strikes me on the whole as much more moral than eating the flesh of animals raised in the tiny pens or cages or feedlots … and never having to see and feel what you’re responsible for. At least the deer lived free in the wild as naturally as you please, not getting shot with antibiotics or force fed or kept in a warehouse. The deer got a chance to live a full life in the wild, eating its natural food and procreating until the moment when a bullet came out of nowhere.

While it’s possible for hunters to become completely uncaring about those sweet, innocent deer eyes after a while, most people are completely unempathetic about the tragic life of a cow whenever they are eating steak at a restaurant. So I don’t see the issue myself. But then again, I am from Tennessee, so if you don’t agree with my views I hope you’ll at least forgive me for them.

The second thing to think about is this: as cruel as it sounds for a character to shoot another character in the head, I once read a fantasy-thriller novel where the main character sneaks up on a sentry and uses a sword to slash the bad guy in the back of the knees. After I shuddered for about a solid minute I decided I’d much rather take a bullet in the chest than a sword slash to the same. Maybe a rapier thrust to the neck wouldn’t be so bad, but if I had to face a mortal enemy armed with my choice of either a sword or a gun, I’d give him a gun for my own comfort.

So whatever your view about guns in the modern world, I hope I’ve convinced you that they are underused in fantasy and fascinating reminders of the historical ingenuity of the human race. They even made way for more humane ethics than many historical hunting and trapping techniques allowed for. The firing squad may not seem like it, but it was probably a step forward into humanism from burning at the stake, hanging, and worse.

The Most Ingenious Gun:

Now that we’ve established why I want to see more guns in fantasy, for monster-killing, for hunting, and for general mayhem, let’s look at the historical gun of my protagonist Chadwick Yates in The Adventures of Chadwick Yates.

I draw heavily upon my own wilderness experiences in the book, but I had to do a deal of reading about historical outdoor equipment and methods. As part of this fascinating research, I came across the list of exactly what Lewis and Clark carried on their expedition. One item leaped out at me instantly: the Girandoni air rifle.

What’s more, I’d seen something like this gun already in a Sherlock Holmes story and was trying to find out more about it.

This is an absolutely fantastic video that details the exact working of the gun in such a way that anyone can understand all of its key features and how to use it.

I have read as much as I could find about it, and the NRA National Firearms Museum of Fairfax, VA, has a video about how Lewis and Clark employed the gun on their expedition:

This gun existed in the world as early as 1779 or 1780. It seems impossible that its capabilities could be what they are. 1) The rifle is silent, which aids in concealment, not scaring game, and saving a character’s ear drums in the days before people wore ear protection when shooting. 2) The gun emits no muzzle flash or smoke. 3) It’s tubular magazine carried 20-22 balls. 4) It could shoot around 30-40 shots, and you only had to push a mechanism to feed a new ball between shots and cock the hammer. I believe the rate of fire is something like 30 times in a minute, insanely high for the time of muzzle-loading muskets. No pouring powder down the barrel, no ramrods, no fiddling with a priming pan. 5) Being a rifled musket, the gun was also very accurate for the time and within its effective firing range.

How is this possible? Well, the buttstock of the gun is a compressed air cylinder, which is charged by either a hand pump or a wagon-mounted pump.You can carry multiple flasks and switch them out. Two charges of air pressure would give a marksman 60-80 shots, effective out beyond 100 yards. The downsides of this firearm are exactly the same as every other weapon that was more advanced than its time: it was too expensive to mass-equip, only a specialist could repair it, and they were delicate (like the steam cars I wrote about) and had to be scrupulously maintained. But for all that, the single specimen Lewis of the Lewis and Clark expedition was demonstrated over and over again without ever becoming unusable. So they must not have been all that delicate, but not as army-proof as much simpler designs for warfare.

Famous Literary Uses of the Gun

This gun is used in a noteworthy and baffling murder mystery: The Adventure of the Empty House. This story stands out in Doyle’s many Sherlock Holmes stories because in it, Sherlock Holmes reappears to Watson after being thought dead after the events of the Falls of Reichenbach. Reunited, the two go on to solve the mystery of how someone could be shot in the head with a soft revolver bullet in the upper stories of a building, with the door locked on the inside and no other way to climb down from the window to the garden. Also, the window was open and none of the many passers-by on the street under the window heard a shot. Well, sure enough, the culprit was a villain with an air rifle (that cleverly fired revolver bullets to disguise the weapon used) who fired through the window from an adjacent vantage point. Thus no one heard the shot, the door was locked on the inside, no footmarks of a second party, etc.

So this type of gun, being mentioned in Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and The Adventure of the Empty House, already has seen critical employment in classic fiction.

I’ve decided to put this gun in the hands of a hero battling monsters, in order to use it to maximum potential.

Again, the point of this series is to show how understanding real history is the gateway to ideas that you would be hard-pressed to come up with on your own. I could not have designed a better weapon for my protagonist. And because it’s a fantasy story, I can start with the Girandoni air rifle and add or subtract a few features. Most readers will never have heard of it. Now they get fiction with a weapon much more remarkable than “a magic sword” and learn a touch about history to boot.

As I said in my post about electric weapons, if humans are good at one thing, it is finding ways to kill one another. If you are going to use guns in your stories, treat yourself and do some research into the history of firearms. You will be blown away by all the quirky and zany things that have existed at various times. You will be hard-pressed to come up with something more fantastical than the real designs lost in the past. Happy hunting.

-Bradley Verdell

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