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.
Today we’re not going to look at a single weapon, but instead several similar ones, namely Indiana Jones’ many revolvers.
Varied Vintage Firepower
One of the difficulties of sleuthing out which exact gun is in a movie is the tendency of the production team to be inconsistent. This is especially true where the actual specifics of the gun don’t particularly matter. Nowhere is the more prevalent than the Indiana Jones films.
In the period when Jones’ adventures take place, revolvers still dominated the commercial market, and World War I vintage specimens were particularly plentiful. Having the daring archaeologist carry a heavy-caliber wheel gun fits perfectly with the sensibilities of the era. Where it gets dicey is figuring what he’s carrying at any given moment.
This is not only because revolvers of the period tended to look a lot alike, but also because the items employed in the films were often non-standard variations. I’ve mentioned before that prop departments are notorious for using whatever they have at hand, and that is doubly true in the case of these movies. Almost none of them were “stock” versions straight from the factory. Many featured cut-down barrels, add-on front sights, after-market grips and other flourishes that bedevil experts trying to figure out what’s what.
Basically, the production team’s vision never reached beyond “Indiana Jones has a big revolver,” and so that’s what he’s shown as using.
War Surplus Man-Stoppers
The common denominator in these weapons, be they Smith and Wesson Model 1917s or Webley WG Army or some other variation (which may or may not include Colt M1917s), is that they are approximately .45 caliber and therefore pack a considerable punch.
Whatever he’s using, we know it has to be rimmed, otherwise it would require some sort of adapter clip. That points us back to our old friend .455 Webley (sometimes called .455 Ely).
We looked at this before in our discussion of Hellboy’s hand cannon, and one of the reasons the Webley is popular is that it looks so foreign. At the same time, they are reasonably common among prop masters because they are so often used in period pieces. Webleys of some sort were in British service from the 1880s until the end of World War II and other than switching from black to smokeless powder, they were fundamentally unchanged. That’s a lot of historical dramas for your prop dollar (or pound).
For example, Jones’ Webley WG (featured in The Last Crusade) is a pre-war World War I model, but other than the grips, it’s functionally the same with the mass-produced later versions and used the same ammunition. The Smith and Wesson M1917 (along with the alleged Colt M1917) were wartime production models built in America for British use.
At this point, many people might be wondering why an American would be using weapons geared to British rather than U.S. service. Why wouldn’t Jones use something in .45 Long Colt or a Colt 1911 in .45 ACP?
There are two answers.
The in-movie answer is that after World War I, the British Empire was at its greatest territorial extent. No matter where one ventured – South American jungles, the Far East or the Middle East, there was likely a British outpost close by. This made ammunition resupply very easy, since .455 Webley remained the standard British caliber for most of the period. Even after the British began to transition to .38/200 for their revolvers, stocks of .455 were readily available.
The ‘real world’ answer has to do with the physics of how prop guns work. Because revolvers are manually cycled (the motive power to rotate the cylinder coming from the firer either thumbing the hammer back or pulling the trigger in double action mode), firing blanks make zero difference in how they operate.
For auto-loaders (like the Colt 1911), the mechanical impulse to cycle the action comes from the firing of the ammunition. Without the mass of the bullet (and the powder needed to propel it), these types of weapons have difficulty cycling. To put it another way, only dedicated (and specially modified) prop guns reliably fire semi- or full-auto ammunition and apparently these weren’t available.
Shooting The Big Guns
Whether you choose a Colt, Smith or Webley, the experience is going to be very similar. Each opens in a different way, but the fundamentals are the same. Compared to .455 Webley, .45 ACP has sharper recoil, but it’s not at all unpleasant to shoot. I’ve found both of the American actions to be smoother than the Webley’s, but this could be a function of use/maintenance. After all, we are dealing with antiques.
On single action, all are very forgiving and reasonably accurate at close range. Naturally, .45 ACP has a flatter trajectory since it’s a higher pressure cartridge with a slightly lighter bullet, but at close range, it’s not a big deal.
If you are interested in collecting one of these (or all three), they are out there but can be very pricey, particularly for ones in very good condition with some sort of provenance (say the name of an officer or unit engraved on it).
Still, the old steel feels great in the hand, and it’s fun to imagine yourself wearily dropping a whirling Dervish with a well-placed shot. There’s something to be said for the timeless authority of big iron on the hip, and these pieces absolutely have it to spare.