Category Archives: Book and Film Reviews

Saturday Matinee 2014 29: Straight Into Darkness (2004)

Straight Into Darkness DVDWe probably should have bailed when we learned this movie was directed by a guy who makes horror B-Movies: you know, the ones named after some cutting implement with a rather large roman numeral, like Coping Saw VIII, Jackhammer XVI and that sort of thing.

If we missed that cue, we should have bailed with the corny minefield scene. (The minefield, mirabile dictu, eliminates everyone not further useful to the plot: Deus ex Tellermine). Or we should have grabbed the eject handle when we met the cannibal priest. Or the hanging villagers in the woods.

If we’d done that, we’d never have gotten to the partisan group of deformed and retarded children. This plot twist has the benefit of a certain novelty, but sometimes the reason a certain idea hasn’t been implemented before is that it’s a deformed and retarded idea. 

The movie centers on a pair of deserters, the sensitive, gentle paratrooper (?) Losey who has just seen more war than he can handle, and the crude, self-centered Demming, who considers his hide too precious to be penetrated by German metal products. At show’s opening, they’re stuck in a jeep with two gloating MPs, who are taking them to have a fair trial and an execution. (This is a slight historical departure: of all the thousands of WWII deserters, only one was executed; but if only they’d done these two also, we’d have been spared most of this movie. It will make you a death penalty supporter).

There’s really nothing comparable to this in the world of film, so far as we know. And if there is, please God may we not watch it.

Acting and Production

Ryan Francis as Losey. Note the weird costume and weapon.

Ryan Francis as Losey. Note the weird costume and weapon. Where did that barrel band come from? The prop room?

The actors are, with one exception, steadily-working TV actors. The exception is David Warner, fallen low from his stint as Captain Kiesel in 1978’s Cross of Iron. Losey and Demming aren’t badly cast; Ryan Francis and Scott McDonald respectively. The female lead is Linda Thorson, who isn’t remembered for succeeding Diana Rigg as the distaff side of The Avengers in its last season (1969) opposite Patrick Macnee. She does a great crazy lady.

It isn’t the acting that undoes this movie.

The production does what it can with a jock fraternity’s beer-run budget and a disjointed script.

The script is the real purveyor of chaos here. Nothing makes sense or is remotely believable.  As the intro above makes clear, soon we were watching it out of sheer morbid curiosity.

The motivations of the characters are unclear when they’re not inexplicable or outright irrational. The German bad guys, of course, include one leader who radiates evil and an endless cornucopia of incompetent mooks, who get wasted in windrows by the two Worst Soldiers in the ETO and a gang of children with various deformities of body and mind.

Accuracy and Weapons

"Germans" in Romanian Army coats.

“Germans” in Romanian Army coats.

The movie was filmed in Romania, and the production company seems to have used the “whatever’s handy” approach to firearms. They seem to have used non-firing replicas in every scene where the weapon didn’t have to fire, which is great for a safety standpoint, but the nonfiring and firing guns are not always the same make and model. Therefore a character’s gun may change from Colt to Walther and back again within a single scene.

The Tiger tank follows the lead of many other movies and grafts a Tiger superstructure onto a T-55 or other Russian armored vehicle. But in other movies, they try to make a proportionate Tiger top. This one has a turret with elephantiasis.

"German" stunt man launched feet in the air by a mix of explodiumite and a hidden trampoline.

“German” stunt man launched feet in the air by a mix of explodiumite and a hidden trampoline, but mostly the trampoline.

The weapons act somewhat bizarre, and in true Hollywood fashion, every explosive is packed with fireworks and gasoline — Hollywood’s patented ingredient, explodiumite.

A few words should be said about the tactics. Or lack of them. The Germans have neither the skills nor the desire for self-preservation, and come in, MP40s blazing from the hip. And like a Soviet battalion of tank riders, they’re heavily equipped with MP40s. The German leader sits in his tank turret and orders one attack at a time to go forward and die. Meanwhile, the script has him insisting mawkishly that he’s doing it for the good of his men. (Yes, the same men he’s throwing away in frontal assaults as if the Germans hadn’t given that up as a policy by late 1918). Our Dad used to say stuff like that: “This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you.” It never did.

The bottom line

We like to find obscure movies; sometimes they turn out to be hidden gems Straight into Darkness is the other kind: the stuff the gems are buried in. There are two possibilities here: one, that someone (director? Writer?) was doggin’ it. The other, more frightening possibility, is that this is really the best that they can do.

We hope it’s not, but any further films from these guys will be approached cautiously, from upwind.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • Movie’s official page

  • DVD page:

  • IMDB page:

  • IMFDB page:


  • Rotten Tomatoes review page:

  • Wikipedia  page:

Stephen Hunter: Sniper’s Honor

snipers honorThe latest Bob Lee Swagger novel by Stephen Hunter is out, and Sniper’s Honor is his best in years — maybe the best ever. It introduces new and fascinating characters, new places and times, and, for the fans of firearms out there, new weapons (new to the series, at least; some of them are historic, even legendary) and tough situations for them to be employed in.

Yeah. We liked it.

In fact, we bought it at about 1500 Monday and finished it Tuesday. So we read it like it was a competition, and first-drafted this review while basking in the satisfaction of an enjoyable story, enjoyably ended.

The story skips around from Ukraine in 1944, where two brutal armies clashed, to today, where disparate people in disparate places — Idaho, London, Lviv, Moscow, Israel — struggle to resolve the fate of characters who went, seemingly overnight, from celebrities to nonentities. Certainly the Nazis made people disappear. So did the Soviets. But what ever could make the Nazis and Soviets both broom significant personalities out of their intelligence archives? To reveal that question to you is to reveal a little bit of a spoiler, because Hunter takes his time getting his characters to the point where they’re even starting to ask the right questions — but the answers they get never fail to shock and surprise. The plot’s twists and turns are, at once, easy to follow but confounding to one’s sense of resolution, until things are finally tied up at the end.

Some of the characters include: a pair of Washington Post reporters; a Ukrainian partisan general (loosely modeled on the real, and controversial, Stepan Bandera); a Nazi economist who we would swear is modeled on Robert S. Macnamara with an anti-Semitic twist; an officer serving a dishonorable state as honorably as possible; an imaginative Israeli intelligence analyst; an American hired gun; an Arab serving with the little-known Moslem legion of the SS; a playboy turned paratroop officer; a school teacher who is more that what he seems.  Now, some of these characters are central to the plot, and some are tangential, but all are interesting.

The primary characters, of course, are the snipers: Bob Lee Swagger, Vietnam legend now settling into retirement, or trying to, and Ludmilla Petrova, a fatalistic Russian sniper who knew it was not her fate to survive the war, but whose actual disposition came to be erased inexplicably from history.

One failing that has vexed us in previous Hunter books stems, we think, from his weapons experience, which is as a competitive shooter, not in the military. He usually concentrates mightily upon the sniper as single combatant, the knight of the one-on-one trial of arms. There is much less of that in this book, which seems to recognize for the first time that snipers, too, are part of military units and ply their trade with others. Even though the title, “Sniper’s Honor,” refers to just such a sense of chivalry, this book makes great strides describing military units’ operations. There is much less Lone Hero-ism in Sniper’s Honor than in any previous Hunter book.

It’s available from the usual suspects like Amazon, although the paperback isn’t coming until after Christmas. The currently available editions are the hardcover and a very overpriced Kindle version. We beat the Amazon price by about $4 by buying the book at a BJ’s Wholesale Club outlet.

The book is guaranteed to be entertaining, but if you’re a gun geek, there are a few odds and ends that aren’t quite right. At one point, Swagger carefully loads 30 rounds in a series of magazines that are famous for holding 32 rounds, for example. But that’s the kind of nitnoy complaint you will find with this book, if you must have something to complain about.

We did have one larger objection, and that was to the weapon used for the critical 1,000-yard shot. While the weapon has a degree of legend built up around it, we doubt anybody ever got 1,000 yard cold bore hits with issue ammunition and that weapon. Some folks may have done it recently with handloads, but it didn’t happen with WWII GI ammo. Did. Not. Happen. But it’s a critical plot point in the book.  Conversely, the accuracy potential of the M1891/30 with PU scope is higher than Hunter gives it credit for.

Ugly fact: even though they’ve become a staple of Hollywood,  1,000-yard shots were not the currency of a World War II sniper of any nation.

But that we’re even thinking those things after reading a 400+-page bestselling novel tells us this: that Stephen Hunter has sent this book right down our alley.

Saturday Matinee 2014 28: The War Wagon (1967)

The War WagonIt’s not a war movie, it’s a caper film in a Western setting, starring John Wayne and equally powerful Hollywood lead Kirk Douglas. It was based on a Clair Huffaker novel, adapted by Huffaker himself, and was produced by Wayne’s company, Batjac. It was a competent directorial debut by Burt Kennedy, who, unknown to Wayne, rebated half his payment for the film so that the budget stretched to hire Douglas. The two stars, both Type A personalities on and off screen, give their characters’ onscreen rivalry a depth that reportedly continued in real life; they enjoyed working with each other but had strong points of difference. There are some plot twists and turns, and if you’re expecting the Hollywood ending where the good guy shoots the bad guy towards the end of the final reel, and rides off into the sunset with the loot and the girl, all we can say is that things sorta like that sorta happen, but not exactly.

The eponymous War Wagon is the MRAP of its day, or perhaps, to think of it less anachronistically, a landbound ironclad. It is an armored stagecoach used by a shifty fellow named Frank Pierce, who has done John Wayne’s character, Taw Jackson, wrong. (Pierce is played by Hollywood staple villain Bruce Cabot, one of Wayne’s real-life buddies).

This picture of the War Wagon itself is a Flickr shot by Walter LaVaghn Causey from Universal Studios Florida in 1994. The prop was somewhat the worse for wear at that point:

The War Wagon 1994

The movie was shot in part in Mexico, which stands in perfectly for the deserts of the New Mexico Territory.

Acting and Production

John Wayne is John Wayne, right? So it’s a bit unusual to see him playing an ex-con and a robber, although the story makes it clear that he is the one who was morally wronged, and he’s just repossessing what’s rightfully his. Kirk Douglas rocks as his frenemy Lomax (if Lomax has a Christian name, the movie doesn’t tell us). Lomax shot Taw Jackson on behalf of the villain, Pierce, and now that Jackson has returned from a prison sentence Pierce arranged for him, Lomax is weighing two offers: Jackson wants to pay him $100,000 to help rip off Pierce, contingent on success, and Pierce offers $10k, upped to $12k, similarly contingent, for the simpler task of whacking Jackson.

Neither of these actors was in the bloom of youth, but they’re physical enough for the role, with Douglas especially displaying his physical fitness with acrobatic leaps from the ground to the saddle. (Some of these are shot from behind and might be stunt men, but others are clearly the then fifty-year-old Douglas, and more power to him).

The rivalry onscreen is illustrated by little acts and words of one-upmanship that we won’t spoil for you. One particular moment occurs when they have faced off with two would-be killers, and was one of the high points of the movie for us.

War Wagon - Douglas and Wayne

There was a similar rivalry offscreen. Douglas, a son of immigrants who grew up in a Yiddish-speaking home, is (he’s still alive at 97) a lifetime supporter of the Democrats and left-wing causes. Wayne was Republican and right-wing to that same degree. During the filming of the movie, a hard-fought gubernatorial election between incumbent Edmund “Pat” Brown and actor and political novice Ronald Reagan was taking place. The election offered a stark choice: Brown was the original bleeding heart, commuting dozens of death sentences and trying to appease student rioters. He was not only soft on crime, he was a devotee of generous welfare and strict gun control. Reagan was blunt about his own welfare position: “Put the bums back to work.” Douglas vanished from the War Wagon set at one point, and Wayne found he had gone to record an ad for Brown. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to find the Brown ad that Douglas did.

In keeping with their characters’ one-upmanship, Wayne then recorded one for Reagan.

(Brown had told schoolchildren that it was important their parents vote for him, because actors were bad people. His proof: an actor killed President Lincoln).

Reagan beat Brown by about a million votes, and was sworn in by the time The War Wagon premiered. We’d have liked to be a fly on the wall for that discussion between the two friendly and mutually respectful, but opposed and partisan, actors.

The movie is about Wayne and Douglas’s characters, but it doesn’t end there. Bruce Cabot is excellent as Pierce, the villain, playing the role with verve and evident pleasure. He would twirl his moustache if it were long enough, but he makes a good celluloid bad guy. None of his henchmen are anything but standard issue, Man, Hench, One Each Western Style (although one of them is a young Bruce Dern). The characters of Wayne’s robbers are also a bit unidimensional — the bitter old man who has access to Pierce’s inner circle, the drunk kid who has a knack with nitroglycerine. That’s OK, as they’re along for the exposition, mostly, and they’re competently played if tangential characters.

Accuracy and Weapons

This is a Western of the mythic type, from a period when TLAR rules applied to historic accuracy in film (That Looks About Right), and even though the weapons in the script seem to be right for circa 1870, the weapons on the screen make little sense. For example, Taw Jackson (Wayne) notes that Pierce’s men have “new Henry repeaters”, suggesting that this was in the dawn of the cartridge era, but everybody has the standard Winchester 92/94 and a Colt 1873.

At one point, Taw recognizes a cartridge, a sample of 100,000 that Pierce has ordered, and identifies it as being from a Gatling Gun. As the Gatling was chambered in a variety of standard service cartridges, that seems unlikely (to put it mildly). Pierce mounts his Gatling in a turret of the War Wagon, and uses it to beat back a feint by a Kiowa band Jackson has recruited for that purpose.

War Wagon - Gatling

About those Indians: they’re remarkably Mexican looking, and when Wayne’s Indian buddy addresses them in “Indian language,” it’s actually Spanish. Rather Mexican Spanish, actually, not Castilian. We’re warning you because it made us laugh out loud.

The weapons’ firing sounds and looks fairly accurate, except for the period-normal “zing!” of ricochets every fifth or sixth round.

Pierce’s War Wagon (the carriage, not the movie) goes everywhere at a full gallop, which seems to be wasteful of horses, especially in the deserts of New Mexico (or old Mexico, even). Even a relatively crude user of horses knows that what’s on screen there is not practical. No doubt if you know anything more about wagons and horses you’ll see other inaccuracies.

This next isn’t an inaccuracy, per se, more a note on changing trends in legal policy. You see, in the 1860s or 70s when this film supposedly took place, no one thought twice about Taw Jackson showing up after a 3-year stint in prison with a pistol on his hip. Today, felons lose their right to arms, and, by any measure, their right to self defense under Federal and State laws. In fact, in 1966 when this movie was being made, it still wouldn’t have been a violation in many states; the Federal felon-disarmament law dates from 1968 only, and is actually an artifact from that year’s high-water mark of liberalism. Of course, another policy change is that many more things are felonies today; in 1968, you had to commit a fairly serious crime to be a felon.

The bottom line

The War Wagon is not going to be disassembled frame-by-frame in any film school, but it’s a movie that entertains you for a while, with no pretensions to greatness. That may be the greatness in it: it’s not an all-time classic, but it’s not just a B movie either. The plot has enough moving parts and enough things go off plan to keep you interested to the end. For a low-cost Amazon or Netflix rental, or cheap DVD (we dropped a fin on it at Walmart), there’s enough entertainment value here to be worth pursuing.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • DVD page:

  • IMDB page:

  • IMFDB page:

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page:

  • Wikipedia  page:

Harve Saal SOG books on ebay

This rare and out of print set of books just showed up on eBay. We have the set and were a bit shocked at the price, but for a researcher, there’s good stuff in here. For the person interested in action stories or lots of color photography, these may not be the right books. (If you’re going to spend thousands on SOG books, buy the six volumes so far of Jason Hardy’s coffee-table masterpiece, Team History of a Clandestine Army, which are still available — just). But Saal was both a member of the unit and an early historian. The books are a solidly made and well-printed overview of the organization and its operations, and have not been duplicated since.

Harve Saal Volumes

Harve passed away in December, 1997 and we have no idea who holds the rights to these works, although he definitely did have family who survived him. The first priniting is, to date, the first and only edition.

The four books were organized thematically:

  • Volume I, History/Evolution. This traces the course of SOG from its clandestine beginnings to the stepwise conversion of its assets and capabilities to RVN control.
  • Volume 2, Locations. This is the “where” of SOG: bases, launch sites, etc.
  • Volume 3, Legends. A limited who’s who of SOG luminaries.
  • Volume 4, Appendixes.

We found each volume interesting.

At the time Saal wrote these books, SOG’s existence was gradually being declassified, and most of the material in the books was very hard to find. As a SOG vet, Saal had a wide range of contacts, and almost everybody had not only

The books are not numbered. Generally, a set of four sells for far more than the sum of the values of the four individual books. There are copies available from time to time through Amazon’s affiliated sellers as well as on eBay. With the Amazon sellers, it’s hard to tell who’s selling one volume or all four.

We might post a more detailed review of the set at some time, but we’re planning to make a list of indispensable books about SOG with a capsule review of each — Saal’s definitely qualify.

Wednesday Weapons Website of the Week: Warriors Publishing Group

Screenshot 2014-06-25 10.57.29Their tagline pretty much says it:

We Publish Books You Like to Read

They’re the Warriors Publishing Group and they are affiliated with Hollywood military adviser turned actor Dale Dye, and his Warriors Inc. advisory business. Dye, a Vietnam USMC vet and Marine Mustang who retired as a Captain, singlehandedly transformed the Hollywood war-film process by training actors and extras on weapons, tactics, and military deportment in condensed “boot camps”. He is the singular reason that gun handling in today’s films is miles above the gun handling in the classic films of the fifties and sixties, and for that alone everyone who strains his ocular equipment towards a big or small screen needs to say three Hosannas and a Hail Chesty in the general direction of Camp Pendleton (which for us is close enough to the general direction of LA-based Dye. If you’re closer to the West Coast the angles may be all wrong).

Fun fact about Dye: at least on his second, longer tour in Vietnam, he was a combat correspondent, who put a good deal of emphasis on the “combat” part of the title. He experienced, among other delights, the Tet Offensive in Hue, one of the USMC’s legendary battles of the 20th Century.

Dye is also a novelist of some talent. Several of Dye’s books are published by Warriors, unfortunately not including his great Run Between the Raindrops. 

If Dye is one tentpole author in the Warrior’s Publishing tent, the other has to be John DelVecchio. He was also a combat correspondent, but in the 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile), the Army’s helicopter-mounted fire department in Vietnam, in 1970-71. DelVecchio’s The 13th Valley is a truly great novel of Vietnam, written when the experience was still fresh in his mind. He has two further books, one dealing with the challenges of veterans’ reintegration, Carry Me Home, and another with the miseries of Cambodia, For the Sake of All Living Things. Fortunately, Warriors has republished these three classics.

Along with those two, WPG also includes books by other authors we haven’t heard of, but certainly hope to.

The boss of Warriors Publishing is longtime Warriors Inc. manager Julia Dewey Dye, PhD, (née Rupkalvis), Dale’s wife and a sought-after theatrical military advisor in her own right.  (They met on the set of Starship Troopers). She has a book out that sounds interesting, Backbone: History, Traditions, and Leadership Lessons of Marine Corps NCOs. (That link is to the Kindle edition, but the hardcover’s the same price). She cites some famous Marine NCOs and former NCOs who are, or ought to be, legends in the Corps. (Some of them, you’ll go, “Dang, I never knew…”) Naturally, it’s published by Warriors.

They do indeed seem to publish books we like to read.

Book Recommendation: Gentle Propositions by J.S. Economos

Economos_gentle_propositionsWhile the title sounds like it ought to be The Great Lost Austen Masterpiece, the book is a masterpiece of a different kind. This is not a full review — we’re not through with the book yet — but at the halfway or so point, it’s so good that we wanted to share it with you.

Gentle Propositions is a tale of SOG recon in Vietnam, and what sets it apart from many such novels is the author’s attention to accurate detail while not losing sight of the purpose of any novel, to engage and entertain the reader. It has done that well; it’s been a rollicking ride through all phases of a recon man’s life, especially the operational ones: mission prep, training, mission execution, recon, reporting, chance contact and immediate action, routine exfiltration and the much hairier worst-case of withdrawal under fire.

He also doesn’t neglect the non-operational: camp life, getting to know the Montagnards, stand-downs, being weathered out, meeting other teams at the pad (and being met by other teams when you came out), losing friends, getting drunk. True details of weapons and patrolling SOPs come alive just as the SOG Recon Teams used them back in 1969-70, and true details of Montagnard village life and the cross-cultural bonds of Straw Hat (American) and Yards are just as alive.

It’s all here: The Lottery, the target area no one wanted; what happens when you land on an NVA base area in the immediate aftermath of an Arc Light; what a Covey Rider did and what SPAF stood for; why not many medics ran recon. He does not shy away from the thorny problem of what happened when a guy served to his limit, wherever it was, and his luck or courage were all used up. He does not tell you how it feels to lose friends “across the fence,” never to be recovered: he shows you.

Economos is not an SF vet, but there’s something interesting about this book: the blurbs on the cover are all, or almost all, Vietnam-era SOG recon soldiers. They like it and they’re a hard bunch to please. He nails little details that he only could have done if he met these men or interviewed many who had, details like Bob Howard’s smile.

Like Howard, real men of CCC recon appear in the book, always in character and appropriately, the only fictional bit is their actual interactions with Economos’s fictional characters. We postdate the Vietnam War by quite a bit but there were still many bit players, extras if you will, whom we served with later on, and it was a thrill to see them and to see that they were handled appropriately and respectfully.

Most people who read this book, if it’s half as successful as it ought to be, won’t know a couple dozen of the old SF guys namechecked in here, but it doesn’t matter, as Economos’s accuracy doesn’t detract from his plot or character development: it’s a book you can, and should, read for the thrill of the story, and just note to yourself before you dive in that it is a more accurate depiction of life in SOG recon than many books that sell as non-fiction.

It’s available on Amazon as Kindle or paperback. We read the paperback.

A Special (Belated) Request for Enlisted Fans

"Enlisted"From show creator, Kevin Biegel. Kevin has not yet conceded, even though his show was canceled and was off the air. Fox has brought the last four episodes back and in what we think (in our ignorance of all things television) is a better time slot, 6 PM Sunday. We did not get this to you in time for the first of the last four, on 1 June.

And alas, we will miss the next episode (8 June) because we’re going to be eating highway miles somewhere. But Kevin still has hope that his show will find a new lease on life, if not with Fox, with another distributor. (C’mon guys, critics love this, there is a fan base among the millions of GWOT-era veterans, and it’s hella cheaper to produce than Firefly was).

Hello everyone whose email was ever in my inbox!

I’ll keep it short:

New episodes of Enlisted start this Sunday, June 1 at 7/6c on Fox.

There are 4 new episodes, and they will be on every Sunday in June with the finale airing on June 22.

These are the best four episodes we did. The episode airing June 1, our first one back, is one of our funniest, and the finale is one of the best pieces of TV I’ve ever been lucky enough to be a part of. Even more than that South Park episode with the mouse with the penis on its back, although that one was pretty good.

If we get even the slightest rating bump, it can help us live. This may seem like a fool’s errand, but even a little bit of hope is still hope. I love this show and believe in this show too much to give up.

If you can, spread the word about the show coming back. Forward this email to your friends, ask them to do the same. If anyone knows or knows of a Nielsen family, beg them to watch. Beg, really? That’s strong. How about ask?

I do hate asking favors, but I fear no one will know Enlisted is coming back on the air for the final 4. If we can get even a slightly decent rating we can show a new home that this show has a real fan base.

Thank you so much for any help you can offer,

It’s a great show, with lively writing and interesting characters. The gifted actors and writers bring the human side of the military to life, in an over-the-top comic way, with verve, compassion, and more than anything else, heart. They deserve to live for seasons to come.

If Biegel succeeds and saves this show, we’ll buy him a beer.

If he doesn’t succeed — and, sad to say, odds are against him — then we really can’t say it any better than this cartoon from on the occasion of the Son Tay Raid:

Son Tay Raid Cartoon


Timeless Advice on Point Shooting

The original Remington Model 51 designed by Pedersen.

The original Remington Model 51 designed by Pedersen. Hatcher considered it an archetypically well-designed pistol for instinctive shooting.

Sometimes the age of a document shows. But the underlying principles may actually be timeless. Take, for instance, this brief excerpt from p. 487 of Julian Hatcher’s 1935 Textbook of Pistols and Revolvers, a bonus bound in a single volume with his Firearms Investigation, Identification and Evidence, a wide-ranging book whose title does not truly do it justice. The subject Major Hatcher is discussing is one of great interest here — shooting without sights, and whether the ergonomics of some weapons (he is specifically talking pistols) enable this more than others. Here’s what Hatcher said:

While I fully agree with the ideas of Mr. McGivern about the necessity of sights, I consider it important for the practical pistol shot to know how to get fairly good results without using the sights at all, but rather, pointing the gun entirely by instinct, as the finger is pointed in indicating an object. This is really very important, because any shooting that may be done at night will have to be this kind. Also pistol shooting on the battle field or in holdups is more likely to be at night than it any other time.

Ed McGivern, who passed away some 20 years after Thatcher’s book hit the shelves, was already all but retired, due to rheumatoid arthritis. McGivern is less famous now than he was when Hatcher penned those words, but he was a legendary trick shooter capable of prodigious feats of shooting speed and accuracy. How good was McGivern? Watch the NRA’s National Firearms Museum’s senior curator Phil Schreier wax rhapsodic about him:

And in 1935, night shooting meant blind shooting. Night vision equipment was unimaginably futuristic at the time, and even the laser was decades in the future as a laboratory device, and decades more before anyone could do anything practical with one.

And it’s understood it when Hatcher speaks about holdups, he’s talking more about interrupting or resisting them, than he is dispensing advice on how to  commit them. (One hopes).

The sort of instinctive shooting Hatcher is talking about here, the sort made famous by McGivern, is even more out of favor these days. Modern instructors teach you to acquire and use the sights at all but the shortest — contact! — ranges. But the fact is, in 1935 as well as today, you can engage targets at quite a considerable distance without using the sights at all. The Major continues:

You will find that if you will suddenly extend your arm and point your finger at any object near you, the finger is pointing pretty closely in the direction of the object in question. In the same way a pistol or revolver can be pointed without looking at the sights. One thing that makes it hard, however, is the fact that pistols and revolvers are of so many different shapes and that most of them do not point in the same direction that the finger would — without considerable practice.

The Remington Model 51 automatic was carefully designed after months of study, with the object of having it point just where the finger would point if it were not on the trigger. Many other pocket automatics point the same way, and the Colt Woodsman and the Luger are among the best in this respect. The .45 Government Model Automatic also closely approaches this ideal, especially with the improved mainspring housing adopted about 10 years ago.

Now that’s dated. The “improved mainspring housing” he’s referring to is the arched housing, introduced as part of the M1911A1 upgrade in 1926. Even with that, we never found a 1911 pointed as well as a Luger or another gun with a similarly raked grip, like the Woodsman Hatcher mentions or the High Standards that he doesn’t, because they weren’t designed yet. That said, some prefer the 1911 grip, which is why High Standard diversified from its traditional grip (that was exactly the same rake angle as the Woodsman’s) and later added the Military product line with a grip angle that was an exact match for the Government Model .45.

Celebrate Diversity! we always say.

Hatcher goes on to describe how to develop the art of pointing a gun, like a revolver, that may not point as naturally as some of those early-20th-Century self-loaders.

If you use one type of revolver and stick to it, you can easily learn to point the barrel accurately without using the sights.

He suggested a five-step program to master point shooting:

  1. Select some distant object as a target, and then close your eyes and point the gun. Open your eyes. How near are you pointing to your target? With practice, you’ll get better at it.
  2. Standing about 10 feet from a mirror, point the pistol at your own eyes. The reflection should tell you how close you are. Again, the more you do this, the better you get at it.
  3. Once you’re “accurate” enough just drawing and pointing, it’s time to add dry-fire: snap the gun when you present it. What happens to the muzzle when you do this? Practice, again, is the key to muzzle control.
  4. Move to live-fire, working on shooting without the sights. This requires a range that’s safe enough; back in the twenties, Hatcher had used the ocean off a then-undeveloped Florida.
  5. Optionally, continue at night, with white targets. You’ll be sble to see the target, but not your sights, forcing  you to shoot by instinct.

In the end, Hatcher promises that such a program will lead you to success:

Such practice as this, especially if you will stick to one particular gun, will rapidly train the subconscious mind so that the hand will always hold and point the gun so as to send the bullet into the right place.

It is surprising how soon you get so that you can simply extend the gun toward the object in question, at the same time smoothly contracting all the muscles that do the trigger pulling, and strike just about at the mark.

We have mentioned several times, both in this chapter and elsewhere, that the best way to aim is to extend the revolver straight out the object you are going to shoot, and not swing it from the shoulder in the old western style. This gesture had a reason in those early western days and was necessary. The reason was that the muzzle-loading or cap-and-ball revolvers were used, and when a cap was exploded it split in fragments which were liable to get into the revolver mechanism and clog the works. Swinging the gun with the muscle vertical when cocking allow these pieces to fall off the nipple and drop to the ground.

We can confirm that practicing instinctive shooting, which the Army once taught as “quick kill,” does rather rapidly show up as improvement in your instinctive fire results. But we didn’t know that percussion Colt trick before reading of it here.

Hatcher continues (p. 489 and following) with a discussion of the pros, cons, and methods of instruction for “hip shooting,”  which he considers “spectacular and interesting,” but more or less completely lacking “practical value.” There is no royal road to Ed McGivern level skills, Hatcher explains: “Lots of practice is what really counts in acquiring ability in hip shooting.”

You could substitute any other modifier for “hip” in there. Or leave it out entirely. Lots of practice is what really counts in acquiring ability in shooting.

Of course, it has to be focused, disciplined practice with concrete objectives, but that’s a post for another day.

Saturday Matinee 2014 21: Guns: The Evolution of Firearms (2013, TV)

guns-the evolution of firearmsWhat we’re talking about here is a documentary, or rather a series of television documentaries. Guns is a seven part documentary series the traces the history of firearms from the matchlock to today’s modern weapons. It does this by combining narration with historical footage (where available), still images (where film is not, for instance of the Revolutionary War), reenactments, and historic weapons displayed by museum curators.

It’s some four hours of good quality, generally accurate television. The focus is almost entirely on the guns, almost entirely on long guns, and entirely on military weapons; there’s little on, say, police guns or sporting arms.

Acting and Production

The acting is minimal, in the reenactor scenes and by voice actors reading contemporary letters in the style made famous by Ken Burns. The production is generally good, albeit repetitive at times. To get to a modern aspect ratio with old films, they use a sort of picture-in-the-same-picture-stretched-and-blurred effect which gets old rapidly. They did find a large number of rare old films and photographs; it’s not just all the same stale old pictures you’ve seen 1000 times.  There is a slight tendency to hang on tight to a good snippet of footage and reuse it several times back to back, which can get old rapidly.

Unlike some quickie exploitation TV documentaries, the DVD has decent image quality and professional splash-screen graphics.

Screenshot 2014-05-25 01.00.02

Accuracy and Weapons

The guns are, of course, the theme and the focus of Guns, so you would expect them to take great care on accuracy, and they generally do. Despite that, there are some errors, usually the sort where the narration and the image have gone separate ways in the editing booth. And there are a few bungled terms: the Lewis “drumpan” magazine, for one.

Some are more directly wrong. Not every video has a clinker in it, but most do, and the World War I episode (the episodes are divided by war, basically) doubles down on fail when discussing the Colt 1911, then the standard US service pistol. After a fairly good introduction to the adoption of the 1911, the camera zooms in close.

On a 1911A1. D’oh! 

Screenshot 2014-05-25 01.12.00

But wait, we’re not done. The camera then lovingly pans over another 1911, only it isn’t: it’s a Ballester Molina. Zug.

Ballester Molina

Reenactor footage includes some shooting blank, and some shooting live. It also includes very unrealistic scenes of “good guys” and “bad guys” blazing away at each other from five yards apart, and some where the machine gun sound is dubbed in, and the “gunner” is shaking the gun, with the belt not moving. Zug.

That said, the choice of guns is defensible, and the individual guns displayed are often rare, historic pieces, and in remarkable condition. Most of them come from the NRA Museum in Fairfax, Virginia, or the Army Reserve Museum (a little-known but high-quality museum in a basement setting in downtown DC). The curators handle them with cotton gloves on. You would, too.

The bottom line

Guns: The Evolution of Firearms will keep your interest and teach you something you didn’t know, if only because nobody can be an expert in all the gun trends in the last four plus centuries. Its flaws exist, but they’re easily excusable. This is a great set of videos for someone new to historic arms and helps newbies understand where different collector arms fit in the timeline of history. The running time of the whole set is 4:40, but it’s in seven parts on two discs.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • DVD page (it’s cheap, and also available in Blu-Ray, overkill for a documentary):

  • IMDB page:

  • IMFDB page: none.
  • Rotten Tomatoes review page: none
  • Wikipedia  page: none


Saturday Matinee 2014 19: 5 Days of War (2011)

5 Days of WarThis movie was highly promising. There are some good pros in the cast, whose performances and parts we’ll get to. The director, Renny Harlin from Finland, is an ace at making low-budget actioners, and not bad at high-budget ones like Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger — movies that aren’t especially believable, for any longer than it takes to exit the theater, but are pure joy whilst inside. Moreover, as a movie about real events — the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia, with ethnic cleansing carried out under Russian guns by nominally-independent ethnic militias — it’s potentially applicable to current events in Ukraine, where nominally-independent ethnic militias operate under Russian direction and command, with a view to similar ethnic cleansing.

For this reason, we moved it up in our review queue.

Notice we said, “highly promising,” not “frickin’ awesome.” That’s because the movie is also a propaganda film so one-sided as to be disturbing. Harlin had extensive Georgian cooperation in filming 5 Days of War (a movie also available under other names). The Georgian Army provided both the Georgian and Russian forces for the film; the Georgian Ministry of Culture may have financed it (the then-minister has a producer credit); which should raise your eyebrow. And, while those things alone don’t undermine the credibility of the film, the cartoon Manichaeism does. In the movie, the Russian side is home to all depravity and the Georgian, all nobility, a situation which may occur in some wars but probably didn’t in this one.

Even if you accept that the Georgians were in the right in the war, you have to face the fact that Georgian artillery fired on Russian-sponsored militia in the breakaway provinces, handing Russia the casus belli. In the movie, this fact is absent; the Russians attack out of the blue, neutralizing the Georgian Air Force and a few kindergartens, and, naturally, the wedding that the hero, a reporter, is watching. Because every woman wants strange foreign correspondents at her wedding, right?

The essential plot challenge is for reporter Thomas Anders to get video documentation of Russian perfidy out to his network before the Russians step on him and make him disgorge the evidence. The one brilliant thing in the movie is that the network does not care: much like today’s CNN obsession with the lost Malaysia Airlines flight, then, the networks were

Johnathon Schaech (l.) with Renny Harlin on location.

Johnathon Schaech (l.) with Renny Harlin on location.

Renny Harlin is considered anti-Russian by the Russian, and formerly the Soviet, governments since his very first film, American Born. The Soviets, in fact, exerted political pressure on the Finnish government to censor (several minutes of Soviets behaving like Soviets were cut) and ultimately ban the movie, and later, Russia managed to spike his planned biopic of Finnish war and political hero Marshal Mannerheim, whom Soviet historiography dismisses as a fascist. Harlin could probably make a pro-Russian film and Russian officialdom would hate it, but he didn’t do it this time.

In an interview, Harlin said at the time of the movie’s release:

I guess there were some parallels in terms of coming from Finland, and having lived in a small country next to a superpower, so I could certainly relate to the situation between Russia and Georgia. And I delved into the subject matter, and thought that this was another movie that was a true story, and I could really tell something powerful with it, and about wars that are going on all around the world, constantly. And I felt very passionate about this one.

We are sick of journalists and lawyers as heroes, and the good news is, in 5 Days of War it’s only journalists. Still, Harlin doesn’t agree with us:

I felt that the point of view of the journalists was also interesting, because they are sort of the unsung heroes. People don’t realise that they are in the front lines there and without weapons, and at the mercy of events.

A Russian Mi-24 kinetically expresses Putin's dissatisfaction with Anders's and Sebastian's news coverage.

A Russian Mi-24 kinetically expresses Putin’s dissatisfaction with Anders’s and Sebastian’s news coverage.

The movie skips around slightly confusedly between events with President Mikhail Saakashvili (based on reality), and events around Tskhinvali and Gori, Georgian towns attacked by the Russian Army. Saakashvili is depicted without mercy as mercurial and inconstant; the journalists as brave, but out of their depth; and the Georgian Army gets the most reverential treatment, despite having its ass thoroughly kicked by the Russians. Johnathon Schaech plays a Georgian captain with a knack for deus ex macchina arrivals, who becomes a sort of Georgian guardian angel to Anders. There is considerable religious symbology throughout — Georgia, of course, draws its name from its patron, St. George.

The action scenes punch above the movie’s $12-million-budget and 36-day-shooting-schedule weight.

Acting and Production

"For all I know, Vladimir Vladimirovich wants Ukraine next!"

“For all I know, Vladimir Vladimirovich wants Ukraine next!” Andy Garcia nails Saakashvili’s shell-shocked look.

There are good actors in the film, some of them names. Andy Garcia perfectly captures the stress and wear upon President Saakashvili, a flawed and sometimes noble man who got his country in over its head. Rupert Friend and Richard Coyle are OK as the journalist Thomas Anders and his cameraman Sebastian Ganz. Val Kilmer has an excellent supporting turn as “Dutchman,” the sort of aging war photog wunderkind who remains in the grip of adrenaline addiction. Emmanuelle Chiriqui is the Georgian woman, Katya, who starts off as Anders’s guide to Georgian customs and winds up as his love interest, although it’s a chaste love that would not be out of place in a 1940s Hollywood flick.

Mikko as Daniil acting naught with a Dragunov.

Mikko Nousiainen as Daniil acting naughty with a Dragunov. Nousiainen brings the sinister to the part.

A villain can make or break a film, and 5 Days offers us two: Croatian actor Rade Šerbedžija as a Russian officer, Colonel Demidov, in a most un-Russian-Army scruffy and wrinkled get-up; and Finnish actor Mikko Nousiainen, who has an almost non-speaking but terrifying role as the Russo-Ossetian militia leader Daniil. Covered in prison tattoos, cruel and much more focused than his subordinates, who are distracted by opportunities for plunder and rape, Daniil is someone you really would not want to ever see, except through a riflescope, in which case you’d be doing all humanity a boon by taking up the slack in the trigger and sending him on to the next world.

There is also a young Russian soldier character, a kid who says not a word but shows he’s determined to hang on to his humanity. He’s very deftly inserted in just a couple of scenes.

The script and editing seem to jerk us back and forth, and the movie might have benefited by more focus, more direction, fewer characters, and much tighter editing. It’s a 90 minute movie delivered over a span of two hours.

Since the American reporter is your primary viewpoint character, and he’s a typical monoglot American, the technique of having the Georgians speak Georgian to one another when he’s around is very effective, but it’s a little jarring when we then cut to the President’s office — reportedly, the real President’s office was made available to Harlin — and the inner war councils of the Georgians speak English for the viewer’s convenience.

Dean Cain, an excellent actor, is underutilized as an American PR advisor to Garcia’s Saakashvili. It’s a bit sad that two such talented actors are tossed aside in a subplot that mostly just dumps exposition on us, before we go back to the action we’re truly concerned about, on and behind the front lines of the Russian invasion.

Accuracy and Weapons

Thanks to the Georgian official support, the guns in the film are mostly good, with a few exceptions, rooted perhaps in the double-edged sword of that Georgian support. The AKs, for example, are 7.62; Georgian SOF are using 7.62 AKs also; even the Russians use 7.62 AKs. During the war, the Russians at least used 5.46 AK-74s and Georgian SOF used M4A1s.

The bad guy and the good guy (Nousiainen and Schaech) both carry Beretta 92s, an odd choice. Nousiainen’s character also totes, as seen in the picture above, an SVD.


Generally gunfire sounds and sights are realistic, and even the aerial weapons are close (they’re shown with unrealistic full exhaust trails form launch to target, though).

CGI is used where it need be, when a helicopter must explode, for instance. Unfortunately the pyrotechnics are Hollywood: great gassy fireballs. We continue our lonely fight for realistic pyro, as the producers and directors of the whole industry laugh at us from atop a massive pile of money.

The bottom line

5 Days of War is a decent action film, perhaps 2.5 to 3 stars out of five, hampered by its excessive one-sidedness, that occasionally lapse into propaganda. Of course, you’re not going to get the Russian argument from a partially Georgian production, filmed just two years after the war that most Georgians see as naked, unprovoked Russian aggression.

This Georgian-government-sponsored movie is not the only film about the Georgian war, although it is the best known in the West. There are also two Russian government-sponsored films that we have yet to see, Olympus Inferno and August 8th. Olympus Inferno was made immediately after the war. It has a very similar plot to 5 Days of War, involving film of atrocities which must be exfiltrated, except with the sides reversed: the Ossetians and Russians are the good guys and the Georgians and their American puppetmasters are the bad guys. August 8th is an ambitious 2012 film that tells the story of the war from the dual viewpoints of a single mother and her son, who loses himself in a fantasy world.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • DVD page:

  • IMDB page:

  • IMFDB page:

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page (33%, Rotten):

  • Wikipedia  page: