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.
Geek Guns 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 take a quick look at an entire class of weapons, namely World War I rifles featured in films like 1917 and Enemy at the Gates.
Heavy and Brutal
We live in an age of polymer and plastic, but a century ago weapons of war were made of wood and steel. While the dawn of the 20th Century saw the emergence of true pocket pistols, it also saw the final flower of the traditional battle rifle, the direct heir of the musket, complete with bayonet and clubbed stock.
These weapons were dramatically overbuilt for what they actually did. Rarely would troops be more than 500 yards from each other in World War, I, but the sights on the Enfield and Mauser went up to four times that distance. Some rifles even had sights for shooting at long distance in volleys, a throwback to the age of closed ranks and hollow squares.
All armies declared the bayonet to be their national weapon, which was not only silly, but ultimately deadly for their own troops. It takes a special kind of stupid to treat a weapon that can kill from a mile away as high-tech spear, but that’s what they did.
Different, but Same
Rifle purists are going to hate this, but at the operational level, the Mauser, Mannlicher, Springfield, Enfield, Lebel, Carcano and Mosin were all pretty much the same. They were big, heavy (8 pounds or more) and fired a seriously powerful cartridge. Period experts love to discuss the finer points of the locking mechanism, how quickly the action can be cycled, magazine capacity and stripper clips, etc., but what most people see is a hunting rifle with a knife stuck on the end.
In the movie 1917 (which I did not like at all) the protagonists lug around Short Magazine Lee Enfield rifles, and that jumble of words means much to collectors, and little to anyone else. In case you forgot already, 1917 was a movie about how British generals are too stupid to fix their cut telephone lines and instead come up with the bright idea of sending couriers through enemy lines to cancel an unauthorized order to make a suicide attack.
Perhaps because the premise was so dumb. Director Sam Mendes came up with the idea to make it look like a single continuous take and even on that score he failed because he did a fade to black in the middle.
Anyway, back to the SMLE. Anglophiles will tell you that it’s smooth action and rear-locking mechanism combined with stripper clips make it the fastest-firing rifle of the era, and British troops were capable of performing a “mad minute” where they could pour fire onto their enemies.
Everyone else is like: dude, use a machine gun.
Miracle Shots, One Hit Wonders
As noted above, an Enfield rifle has enough oomph to kill people one county over, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to use. These weapons aren’t like modern hunting or sniper rifles, with floating barrels, smooth triggers and pads on the butt to take the edge off of the recoil. Only a tiny percentage had rudimentary optics, meaning to hit someone you had to squint at some guy a few hundred yards away and line up your black metal rear sight with your black metal front sight and then hold the thing steady while hoping your target stays still long enough for you to get off a shot.
Hollywood typically overstates how easy it is to shoot someone, but if you want a good war movie about a sniper duel, Enemy at the Gates is actually pretty solid.
This film came out a few years ago and was based on a book about the Battle of Stalingrad. Okay, actually it was based on three pages of a book about Stalingrad, but they did a great job telling the story. Before the movie came out, the Mosin rifles used by Russia were completely ignored by collectors. Afterwards, they became a thing, as the cool kids say.
Actually, both rifles used in the sniper duel were old World War I designs, just better made and equipped with state-of-the-art optics. There are some remarkable shots in Enemy at the Gates, but the movie makes it clear that these are in fact freakish, not the things normal people can do.
Getting Your History Groove On
Because collectors are weird, German guns cost extra. This is probably because every German gun from either world war has a chance at being a trophy brought home by a victorious G.I. My great-grandfather was part of the Army of Occupation after World War I and supposedly came home with enough guns, helmets and swords to fill a closet. Before anyone judges, remember that America is now the largest repository of historical firearms in the world. Everyone else melts them down because guns bad.
Anyway, if you want a World War I rifle, they’re out there and (depending on what you want) can be got fairly cheap. Ammunition may be an issue, particularly if you’re going into something French. But for the more popular German, American, Russian, British – yeah, that stuff can be found without too much trouble.
As for shooting the things, this is one area where military experience can be a disadvantage. You see, modern military rifles have ridiculously low recoil compared to these dinosaurs and I’ve seen more than one veteran infantryman give himself a bruised (if not bloody) nose because he held the rifle too close. These need to be treated as high-power hunting rifles because that’s what they are.