by Benjamin Whitmer
I’m going to start with what I hope isn’t a shocking confession in the world of crime fiction: I’m a bit of a gun nut. Though admitting that in some places seems tantamount to professing an interest in pedophilia — or, perhaps worse, being a cigarette smoker — I’m hoping that it won’t shock anyone in this community. I started shooting at the age of seven, blowing the guts out of old television sets at the county dump near our home in the Appalachian foothills. Though I don’t remember what make or model that rifle was — it was a semi-automatic .22 with a seven-round magazine — I clearly remember the sight picture and the feel of the trigger.
Then, when I was a little older in St. Lawrence County, New York, I graduated to handguns. We had a neighbor who taught me the basics of pistol handling in exchange for helping him with chores on his farm. He was a Vietnam veteran who’d turned hermit, and he taught me a couple of other things, too, as I recall. Once he gave me a long lecture on how he tried to always shit where the cows did so that they wouldn’t think he thought he was better than them, and that always stuck with me. And I seem to remember a porn stash that taught me a number of other important lessons.
Anyway, as a gun nut, I thought hard about the kind of gun each of my characters carried in my first novel Pike. Given his bloody past and his age, I couldn’t see the title character, Douglas Pike, carrying anything but a wheelgun. And I knew it had to be chambered in .357 Magnum, the most powerful handgun round of any practical use when shooting people. Luckily I had one lying around: a Ruger GP100, known for being a hoss of a gun, about as rugged as a brick and twice as heavy. I gave Pike an earlier version, a Ruger Security Six, but the only substantial difference between his and mine were his custom grips: black walnut etched with eagles. When I thought up those grips I was thinking of John Brown — weird John Brown, as Melville put it — who I think shared some of his gravity and intensity with Pike, if not much of his emancipatory instinct.
Pike’s young sidekick, Rory, was a different story. He had to get his handgun from Pike, and he wasn’t very comfortable around them, so it couldn’t reflect too much of his character. So I gave him a Glock 19. I always think of Glocks as the Jim Beam of guns: you can get one anywhere, and they’ll always get the job done, but they don’t have a lot of character. That’s not a knock on Glocks, my go-to gun is a Glock 19, but in Rory’s case I purposefully wanted him using something without a whole lot of personality.
Which left Derrick, the corrupt cop at the center of my story. He’s a Vietnam veteran, and that meant he would have carried a Colt .45 1911 as his service sidearm. There’s no handgun in America with the history of the 1911, which has seen military use for a century. It was designed after the .38-caliber round employed during the Philippine-American War was found to inadequate to the task of exterminating Filipino guerillas. (And when I say exterminating, I mean exterminating: one American general gave a standing order to put a bullet in every male child in the Philippines over the age of ten.) Given its complicated and brutal history it seemed just about the perfect sidearm for Derrick. And it gave me an excuse to buy one. Which I did.
I won’t write about a gun that I haven’t fired, unless I absolutely can’t help it. I need to have that hands-on feeling. I like to do as many small things as I can to move into my characters’ bodies. I’ve gone through phases of rolling my own cigarettes, wearing cowboy boots, carrying a concealed firearm, and have even taken up a certain amount of kitchen-table gunsmithing. I try to eat what my characters eat, drink what they drink, and walk as many of the places they’ve walked as I can. Every writer does it differently, and I’m sure there are better writers than I who don’t need those kinds of touchstones, but I do. I’m usually feeling some of what my characters are feeling in their heads — that’s why I’m writing about them — but I also need to feel some of what they’re feeling in their hands.
Which means, I think, that my next protagonist will be carrying a CT Brian custom build on a Colt Combat Commander frame. The last one I saw was selling for about $6,500, but what price art?