Friday, January 17, 2014

SAY HELLO TO MY LITTLE FRIEND: Weapons as Characters-- by Marc Cameron

My bride and I were out to dinner not too long ago with another couple. My wife and my friend’s wife are both teachers so they soon fell into deep discussions about the dark arts of education. I’d rather be in a running gun battle than face a bunch of eighth graders every day so my friend and I looked at each other and started our own conversation about deadly weapons—a subject far less dangerous than teaching middle school.
We started talking about what kind of guns we should get our wives—a tried but often failed ploy used by men for decades to get a new gun. Both women hit us with their withering teacher-stares and we switched gears, talking instead about our own favorite weapons—and weapons in movies and books.
Wyatt Earp had his long-nosed Buntline revolver, Mathew Quigley his Shilo Sharps long-range rifle.  Zorro is known for his sword, Jim Bowie for his big honkin’ knife, and Indiana Jones for his bullwhip. Josh Randall might have been just another bounty hunter without his short-barreled Mare’s Leg carbine. Harry Callahan would have had far fewer cool lines if he hadn’t  carried “…a .44 magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world…” And who could forget the captive bolt gun, Anton Chigurh uses in No Country For Old Men?
I could go on and on… Okay, one more.
James Bond carried a diminutive Beretta .25 until a reader named Geoffrey Boothroyd wrote Ian Fleming a letter suggesting that this was a lady’s gun. Fleming was so happy with the criticism and advice that he created a new character named Q (AKA Major Boothroyd) who armed Bond with a Walther PPK.
My point is, a weapon can become as much of a character as the heroes or villains.
In some ways the same is true in real life.
Thirty years ago when I started with a small police department near Fort Worth, few lawdogs carried anything but a revolver—big honkin’ revolvers that could double as a club if the need arose, but more on that later.
Except for the Texas Rangers.  One of my early mentors, Ranger Billy Peterson from Palo Pinto County, was fond of two sayings about the .45. “I carry a .45 because they don’t make a .46.” and “God must have intended us to carry a 1911. Otherwise, he’d never have put that little hollow in the small of our backs.”
It was nothing less than mystifying to a green recruit like me to work alongside a  Ranger wearing the big Colt on his hip. Not to tread on Jim G’s Ranger expertise, because I only claim to have worked with a few, but the men I knew all tricked out their pistols with carved ivory grips or inlaid rubies and the like. You could tell the Ranger if all you saw was his belt rig and sidearm.
I was young and inexperienced, but I knew I wanted that kind of swagger someday.
When the US Marshals hired me, they issued a .357 revolver. They’ve since gone to a uniform pistol (Glock) for everyone, but then, we could carry what we wanted providing it met certain criteria. As soon as I got out of the academy, I put my new revolver in the safe and got me a .45—because, well, you know.
My partner at that time was a former Texas Highway Patrolman and Vietnam veteran of the 173rd Airborne. He could shoot aspirin out of the air with a BB gun and was an incredible shot with his sidearm—a .357 revolver he called Becky Sue.
And boy was she beautiful—deep blue frame with a nickel cylinder, gold plated hammer and trigger and carved metal grips he’d found in Mexico. Becky Sue had class—and so did my partner. He went on to be appointed the US Marshal for East Texas by President G.W. Bush—leaving the rest of us PODs (plain old deputies) in the dust.
My next partner, a former Army Ranger, carried a .45 and was also incredible shot. He was known for carrying three or four knives on his person at any given time, including a push dagger. We got along famously. I went through a series of sidearms and knives over the next few years, trying to settle into my own brand of swagger and style.
My friend Ty and I at a cabin in Alaska. I'm armed here with a .44 Mag revolver--my wilderness gun
A good time to check gun-style status was when we were transporting outlaws. Walla Walla State Prison, in Washington, used a system where they lowered a bucket on a long rope from the guard tower. We would deposit all our guns and knives then watch as they were hauled back up, to see which item the guards ogled over the most. My stainless Smith and Wesson round butt .44 special with silver badges inlaid on pearl grips often won—wish I still had that gun…
Bad guys in real life have their signature weapons as well. Machine Gun Kelly even earned himself a name from his choice. I worked a Dixie Mafia trial in Hattiesburg years ago where one of the defendants was said to have used an icepick on his victims. One of our fugitives was known for using the buckle end of his belt on prostitutes.
These propensities for a favorite weapon often leads investigators straight back to the culprit. Just like boots leave a distinct print on the ground on which they step, weapons leave distinct marks when they do their damage. Caliber, blade size, shape of the blunt object, can all tie the perpetrator to the crime.
I once chased a guy into a little stop and rob after he bailed out of a stolen car. We nearly bowled the poor night clerk over as he ran into the restroom. He made the mistake of shoving a hand down the front of his pants turning what had been a scuffle into me drawing my sidearm. The door swung shut behind me knocking us together, but thankfully I didn’t shoot him. During the ensuing scrap he got clunked on the head with the barrel of my gun, the front sight of which nearly scalped him. Turned out he had a butterfly knife but was really just trying to flush some meth before I got too him. Later, at the hospital while they stapled the wound closed, the doc showed me how it was a good thing I’d told the truth because there were little bits of the orange insert from my front sight embedded in the car thief’s head.
I spend a considerable amount of time assigning particular weapons to the characters in my books, leaning on experience and observation over the years. When I was writing Westerns one of my characters named his guns—and one of those guns was named Clarice after my .44 Special. In my Thrillers, Jericho Quinn carries a Kimber 10mm (looks like my .45) and, in the first three books, a Japanese blade called Gentle Hand. In subsequent books he carries a blade designed by friends of mine called the Severance.  To some, the array of weapons my heroes employ might seem like overkill. But, when your job pushes you to run toward the sound of gunfire, there is no faster reload than a second gun. And, as fan once pointed out, if you’re wearing pants, you really should have a knife—or two.
If we’re doing it right, the weapons we choose as writers should lend a new layer to our characters. A full-grown man with a derringer for instance is a dandy and gambler. A .22 fitted with a suppressor spells assassin, while a Colt Walker just cries out to whack a surely bartender.
And a woman who carries a big gun is, well, pretty darn sexy in my book.  Hear that, sweetheart? 

Marc Cameron is a retired Chief Deputy US Marshal and 29-year law enforcement veteran. His short stories have appeared in BOYS’ LIFE Magazine and the Saturday Evening Post. He's published ten novels, six of them Westerns (several as a ghost writer and two under his pen name, Mark Henry).   
TIME OF ATTACK fourth in his Jericho Quinn Thriller series, will be released from Kensington February of 2014. 
Marc lives in Alaska with his beautiful bride and BMW motorcycle.

Visit him at:


  1. Marc,

    All that the government gave me to carry was a 5 shot snub nose .38!

    Carried in Washington D. C. and in Berlin---a very long time ago!
    I guess it was better than my fist and a smile.

    Going into the East, behind the Iron Curtain, I wasn't allowed to take anything, except a little food, a pocket knife, a change of clothes, and Flag Orders.

    I found myself smiling a lot in tense situations, all alone with the Russians and Volkspolizei.
    My swagger came AFTER I got out of that job!

    Never named any weapon, in a story or real life, I guess I just never thought of doing so.


  2. I think you'd enjoy the gunshot scene in Man Called Breed where Wolf Wilder gets a new (to him) pistol and a knife to replace the Bowie he gave to his Apache protege, Sparrow. Needless to say, both are unusual weapons and both play important roles in the story.

  3. I really did write gunshop, but my computer has a mind of its own.

  4. Marc, as always, another fascinating post. There is no substitute for experience, and your blogs reflect that. I have always wanted to learn to shoot--used to practice with my dad's pellet gun when I was a kid, but anyhow, I mentioned one day to my son I thought it would be fun to take some classes. Imagine my surprise when I opened a my Christmas gift from him--a set of protective eye gear and a gift card to one of the local shooting ranges! Looking forward to it! If I do end up buying myself a gun, I probably will name it. This is a great post--I enjoyed it very much--your true-life experience always makes your writing so easy to read and interesting.

  5. Charlie S, I'd bet you have dozens of tales to tell about your former exploits. I remember stories from deputy marshals just a few years older than I, about prisoner spy exchanges with the East over the Glienicke Bridge connecting Potsdam and Berlin. I never thought of naming a weapon either until I met lawmen who did.
    Charlie W, I'm sure I'd enjoy most anything written about guns and knives. I spent nearly three hours in a knife shop yesterday talking to friends of mine there. I'll call it research.
    Cheryl, as always-thanks for the kind words.

  6. I have several of my duty guns still, but my favorite is my satin nickel Colt Commander, w/ tulip wood grips. My wife called me at work one night, saying someone was trying to get into the house. She had picked this gun up and was asking me how to take the safety off. I gently told her put it down and select the revolver next to it. It's nice to have multiple choices in owning firearms; still smiling that she had selected my favorite.

  7. Oh man that teacher glare is deadlier than any of those weapons. My mom was a pro at it. As always, I love the information you share.

  8. Fascinating. Could have kept reading if you'd contiued writing. Thanks.