Years before I purchased my first gun magazine in 1968, I became a firearms enthusiast by watching black-and-white cop shows, Westerns and, of course, war movies. The more you think about it, the more you realize that TV shows and movies have been responsible for inspiring countless viewers like me to collect firearms, to acquire guns for self-defense and to subsequently participate in recreational shooting. Some films and shows did so to a far greater extent though. I’m sure you have your favorites, but here are a few of mine.
Cop shows that aired in the ‘50s and ‘60s made the Series 1 and Series 2 Colt Detective Special (with the exposed ejector rod and the 2-inch barrel) one of the most sought-after and iconic law enforcement revolvers of the 20th century.
The actor who played LAPD Detective Sgt. Joe Friday on the TV show Dragnet, Jack Webb, was probably the first TV cop to carry a stainless Smith & Wesson Model 60. When Al Pacino portrayed NYPD Detective Frank Serpico in the 1973 hit of the same name, he initially carried a five- and six-shot .38-caliber S&W revolver but ended up buying a 9mm Browning Hi Power when he needed to increase his on-board round count. As a result, the 9mm Browning Hi Power received a well-deserved boost in popularity, including among law enforcement officers.
Even though the 1968 movie Bullitt starring Steve McQueen is best known for its outstanding car chase, this film promoted the use of a Safariland upside-down leather shoulder holster in which Lt. Frank Bullitt (McQueen) carried his 2.5-inch-barreled Colt Diamondback .38 Special revolver. In 1971, in what might be the single greatest example of a film selling guns, Inspector “Dirty” Harry Callahan (portrayed by Clint Eastwood) was so well-received by moviegoers that Smith & Wesson had to put the Model 29 with a 6 1/2-inch barrel chambered in .44 Magnum back in production. (Believe it or not, Smith & Wesson wasn’t selling many Model 29s until Dirty Harry hit theaters.)
Gunfighters and Frontiersmen
Single-action revolvers such as the Colt Peacemaker and lever-action Winchester rifles were also made famous in numerous western TV shows and films and likely encouraged many people of my generation to become collectors or to get involved in the sport of cowboy action shooting.
Mostly notably, Lucas McCain’s (Chuck Connors’) rapid-firing Winchester Model 92 in the TV series The Rifleman comes to mind. The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, starring Hugh O’Brian, made the long-barreled Colt Buntline Special so popular that, from 1957 to 1974, Colt manufactured somewhere around 4,000 of them.1 (Colt produced only 30 of these revolvers in 1876.) The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), starring Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach, introduced viewers to the Colt 1851 Navy revolver, Remington Model 1858 Army revolver, Winchester Model 1866 “Yellow Boy” lever-action rifle and a slew of other 19th-century firearms.
Movies about mountain men, along with productions about the Civil War, encouraged an untold number of people to become interested in American history and get involved in reenacting and shooting black-powder firearms. For example, Davy Crockett (Fess Parker) sported his iconic “Ol’ Betsy” flintlock rifle in Disney’s Crockett TV show and films. The series was so popular that Americans purchased more than $300 million worth of Davy Crockett merchandise, which, besides coonskin caps, included toy replicas of his trusted flintlock rifle.2
Black-and-white World War II movies also introduced audiences to the Colt Government Model 1911 .45 ACP pistol, the German 9mm Luger and the Walther P38. The Heroes of Telemark (1965) had some of the best action scenes ever filmed with 9mm P38s. With their P38s, Norwegian resistance fighters took control of a freighter so they could deliver vital information to England. Twelve O’Clock High (1949) also depicted the famous Government Model 1911 .45 being used as a primary weapon by shot-down U.S. Army Air Force aviators.
Ever since I watched Errol Flynn carry a M1A1 Paratrooper Model Carbine with the side folding stock in Objective, Burma! (1945), I wanted one. The hit ‘60s TV show Combat!, starring Vic Morrow as Sgt. Chip Saunders, featured an array of WWII-era firearms, the most popular being the Thompson Model 1928A1 submachine gun. The popularity of the show resulted in the sale of plastic toy Tommy guns like the one carried by Saunders.
Where Eagles Dare (1968) is one of the best action films set during World War II. This film includes Lt. Morris Schaffer (Clint Eastwood) and Maj. John Smith (Richard Burton) engaging numerous German troops with 9mm MP 40 submachine guns (and going through a seemingly endless supply of spare 30-round mags). They also employed suppressed Walther PP pistols as primary weapons to eliminate enemy personnel.
One of the best modern WWII Allied resistance movies, based on actual events, is Anthropoid (2016). This film addresses the actions of two Czechoslovakian soldiers based in England who parachute into their homeland to assassinate the Reichsprotektor of Czechoslovakia, German SS Chief Reinhard Heydrich. The two Czech agents and their fellow resistance fighters are armed with Colt Pocket Hammerless pistols, presumably ones chambered in .32 ACP. Whether the actual Czech resistance fighters used Allied-issued Colt Pocket Autos or not isn’t important.
What is worth noting is that the Czech resistance fighters in this film are depicted prolonging their survival by reloading their firearms, including their pistols, numerous times during a rather long gun battle with heavily armed German SS troops. This shootout scene alone made this film very realistic, as one of the biggest complaints in action films is that actors fire lots of bullets and rarely — if ever — reload.
Secret Agents and More
James Bond is the most famous movie character to ever use a Walther PPK. Even though Bond uses a 9mm Walther P99 in two different movies, including a suppressed variant, the remaining Bond films have 007 armed with a PPK. Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig display some tactically correct combat-reloading skills too. Brosnan reloads his Walther P99 from an advancing standing position in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), while Craig reloads his PPK while in a kneeling position from behind cover in Quantum of Solace (2008).
The Netflix movie Mosul (2019) is one of the most intense and realistic police and war movies ever made. It also happens to be based on actual events. The opening gunfight scene depicts two Iraqi street cops scrounging for spare magazines while fending off a close-quarters attack by heavily armed ISIS insurgents. The beleaguered but-combat-tested Iraqi SWAT cops in this flick have the right stuff and then some. Netflix’s Extraction (2020) starring Chris Hemsworth is another well-done production that includes a succession of superbly choreographed gunfights and close-quarters-battle encounters. Clearly, there is much you can take away from watching these two Netflix movies besides an interest in what guns the actors are carrying.
Putting the fictitious body armor and the ability to successfully engage a seemingly endless number of armed adversaries aside, we can still learn a few things from the John Wick films. John Wick (Keanu Reeves) reminds us to carry an ample supply of spare ammunition, how to shoot and move from one position to another, the value of taking appropriate cover in a gunfight, and how to execute a speedy combat and tactical reload. The bulk of Wick’s wounds and injuries tend to take place when he is in very close proximity to his adversaries; in other words, maintaining some distance from a threat whenever possible is tactically advisable.
The fact that John Wick fights to win is another attribute that you must possess if you intend to survive any armed encounter. Incidentally, Keanu Reeves prepared for his Wick performances by intensely training with the same firearms he uses in the films.3 If all an action show or film does is encourage you to train more often, then watching it is worth the price of a subscription or admission.
From One Generation to the Next
Media featuring firearms has inspired individuals to collect and purchase guns since the closing days of the Old West. Reenactor, Hollywood gun coach and True West Magazine’s firearms editor Phil Spangenberger said it was his fascination with Davy Crockett’s flintlock in Disney’s TV series that led to an interest in antique arms of all types and his rewarding career in the profession of arms.4 TV and film can be a positive instructive influence as well; remember the rash of kids saving loved ones’ lives after viewing the choking scene in 1993’s Mrs. Doubtfire? It was kind of the opposite side of the Three Stooges coin: By imitating what they saw on a screen, children helped rather than hurt people.
And perhaps if content creators employ well-choreographed techniques and realistic, real-world self-defense tactics, viewers may similarly benefit from the television and film they consume.
(1) Jeff Morey, “Wyatt Earp’s Buntline Special,” A Wyatt Earp Anthology: Long May His Story Be Told, eds. Roy B. Young, Gary L. Roberts and Casey Tefertiller (Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2019), 226.
(2) Randy Roberts and James S. Olson, Line in the Sand: The Alamo in Blood and Memory (New York: The Free Press, 2001), 245.
(3) Conner Blake and Joe Avella, “How Keanu Reeves learned to shoot guns for ‘John Wick,’” Insider, Aug. 13, 2019, Insider.com/howkeanu-reeves-learnedto-shoot-guns-2019-7.
(4) Phil Spangenberger, “Davy Crockett’s ‘Ol’ Betsy’ Found,” True West Magazine, March 18, 2014, TrueWest-Magazine.com/davy-crocketts-ol-betsy-found/.
Historic Guns in the Virtual World
While there’s plenty of debate surrounding guns in video games, what doesn’t receive much attention are the gun-related learning opportunities that historic-themed video games offer. In a 2022 article in The Journal of American History, Jonathan S. Jones, a professor at Virginia Military Institute, said that Rockstar Games’ Red Dead Redemption 2, set in the American West and South circa 1899, “is a major milestone for historical video games and has vast potential for scholars and teachers of U.S. history.” The game, according to Jones, “allows players to enmesh themselves in American history in a uniquely experiential way that reading a book or article simply cannot deliver.” The game has been praised for its accurate portrayal of 19th-century firearms, and besides teaching players about these historic guns, the game has also generated interest in them.
YouTube sensation Greg Kinman, who runs the channel Hickok45, observed an uptick in interest in old guns after the release of Red Dead Redemption 2. There’s been enough interest, in fact, that Jonathan Ferguson, a weapons expert at the National Firearms Centre in Leeds, regularly breaks down historic firearms featured in video games on GameSpot’s YouTube channel, which has more than 5 million subscribers. Evidence indicates that video games may play the same role in leading to a lifelong interest in firearms among players as ‘50s and ‘60s Westerns and World War II flicks did for their grandfathers.
— Frank Jastrzembski, Contributing Editor