Whether one looks at comic books, fiction or film, firearms play a huge part in geek culture. In fact, there’s an entire web site dedicated to document who carried what.
This feature takes a look at some of these weapons – focusing on their real-world performance rather than in-universe function. If there’s something you want to know more about, be sure to mention it in the comments.
This week we’re going to look at a gun that helped define an era: Charles Bronson’s Colt Police Positive from Death Wish.
Rising Disorder, Useless Politicians
Everything is going sideways. America’s cities are ravaged by riots and violent crime is surging. The politicians’ answer is gun control, going easy on criminals and tying the hands of the police. Current social commentary? Nope, I’m describing the early 1970s when the original Death Wish was made.
Paul Kersey is a self-described “bleeding heart liberal,” a man who was a conscientious objector to the Korean War and is now a prosperous urban professional in the rapidly decaying New York City. His happy world will be shattered when his wife is savagely beaten to death and his daughter raped by a random gang (which jarringly includes Jeff Goldblum in his first screen role).
It used to be said that a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged by reality. That being the case, Kersey goes beyond mere conservatism into full-on armed vengeance.
Don’t Mess with Bronson
I like Charles Bronson in many films, but even his biggest fans have to admit that casting him as an affluent liberal is hard to accept. In the film’s opening sequence, we see that Bronson is totally jacked, lounging on the beach with the body of a trained killer. The film never explains how such a kind, sensitive 70s guy looks like he’s training for a mixed martial arts bout.
That leads to the film’s second problem, which is that no mugger in his right mind would target a guy who looks like Charles Bronson. Even at his most passive, the man looks like he’s about to rip out your liver and throw it in a lake.
On the other hand, once he goes Dark Side, he’s scary good. His iconic role will earn four sequels and – along with the contemporaneous Dirty Harry – not just define an era but start shifting the culture. Unlike Dirty Harry, Paul Kersey doesn’t bother with a clever quip or preface his killshots with a monologue, he just does the deed.
Kersey’s conversion from fearful victim to determined defender was in many ways the opening volley of the modern self-defense movement. As New York once again slides into chaos, a rewatch of the original (yes, I know there was a remake) pays rich rewards.
The Forgotten .32
Bronson doesn’t actually choose his weapon (it’s a gift from a well-wisher) and it may seem unfamiliar in our modern era of tactical semi-automatics. We know it is a Police Positive entirely from its function and appearance. Once he starts shooting, the police describe it as a “32” but there were several different cartridges in that caliber, all of which were in common use. This was partly because revolvers of an earlier time could use several types of ammunition so long as the cartridge diameter and pressure were within tolerable limits.
Unlike the Webley, the Colt Police Positive boasts a solid frame to back up the cylinder, meaning it could handle ‘hot’ loads far beyond the capability of top-break revolvers. Bronson’s revolver inflicts devastating wounds on his attackers, and some of his shots are at longer range, but nothing is beyond the realm of possibility.
The nerds at IMFDB assure us that Kersey’s gun is chambered in .32 S&W Long, but there is another intriguing possibility brought about by the fact that we never see the ammunition: it could be using the mighty .32-20 which is actually a rifle cartridge.
I know, I know, I’ve lost just about everyone here, but I’ve actually fired a Police Positive in .32-20 and the thing has some serious heat with almost twice the energy of the .32 S&W long. It’s a very rare cartridge now, but 50 years ago was a lot more common, and the sort of thing a well-wisher might send off with a guy who was a natural crack shot.
Time was, most cops carried some sort of revolver, either a Police Positive or a Smith & Wesson Model 10. Later on, calibers steadily increased (partly in response to rising violent crime) and now those old .32s seem almost like cap guns. They absolutely are not, and a smart collector can benefit from this collective ignorance and score some excellent deals.