Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Arsenal of Mummer's The Word

Lately, I've been doing a series of interviews with new and established authors, and frequently, I've brought up the topic of research.

In previous entries, I'd mentioned that research is integral to believable historical fiction.  But I've never shown some of the research I have done.

Quick snapshot to get you caught up:  the protagonist of Mummer's the Word, John Stillman, had been a private investigator from a very young age.  In 1940, he enlisted as a paratrooper.  In 1942, he was gravely wounded in battle, and was shipped back home with full honours, having achieved the rank of sergeant.  He didn't sign up for another tour of duty, but instead went back to work as a private investigator.  Later that same year, he spotted his senior partner and mentor Eben Magrew being escorted by a plainclothes gunman  into a military truck in the middle of the night.  Thinking his boss was being abducted, he followed the truck for more than two hours, until it stopped at the gates of Camp X.  Discovering that Magrew was now being trained as a secret operative, Stillman insisted on joining up, even proving his worth by taking covert surveillance photographs of the Camp itself.  He was arrested, threatened, and then accepted into the SOE.  He was codenamed "Mummer" and was deployed on several missions in Belgium, working with the Belgian Secret Army.  In early 1943, he was caught by collaborators and Nazi soldiers, taken to a POW camp, and there had his tongue surgically removed for failing to cooperate with interrogators.  When the camp was liberated by Allied Forces a few weeks later, Stillman was returned to Canada, and all knowledge of his missions and capture strictly disavowed.  As we see in Mummer's the Word, though, Stillman returns once more to his old job as a private investigator, with or without a tongue, and he continues to put SOE training to good (or bad) use.

So, bearing in mind his age, military background, budget, location and time period, I had to find a couple of weapons that a) were in use at the time, b) that he would have access to, and c) would look good on the big screen. Below are just some of the weapons I've researched in the writing and editing of the Mummer series.

*Special note:  I do not own firearms.  If I did, they would be used strictly for target practice, and they would be kept very secure with trigger locks and stored in a gun locker.  I don't believe in owning one for my own personal defense, myself, because any weapon you have can be used against you.  Besides, by the time I had the gun safe and the trigger lock open, I suspect the damage would already have been done.

And there's always the fear of something going wrong.  Mishandling is one thing.  If I ever do own a firearm, I'm going to know everything there is to know about it, including maintenance, safe handling and safe storage.  I'm not afraid of handling weapons - in a safe and regulated environment. But I am terrified of missing or having a ricochet cause serious damage to an innocent victim - or worse, killing them.

Consider this:  if you live in an apartment building, and if can hear your neighbours talking, how likely is it that a bullet will be stopped by the walls?  Unless you're inside a bank vault, your interior walls are pretty easy to penetrate.  And if you do shoot inside a bank vault, you've got another problem to contend with:  ricochet from multiple angles.

Consider this too:  when you watch cop shows or movies, you hear about entry and exit wounds, right?  Exit wounds = bullet did its job, exited the premises, then went to find someone else to hit.

Weapons have their place, and in some circumstances, it would make sense that people go around armed.  Cops, for example.  Secret agents for another.  But there are a great deal of things that can go wrong with firearms (I make use of that in my stories), and you can avoid gun battles altogether through a wide range of tactics - observation, covert tactics, hand-to-hand combat, bluffing, diversion...And those are the things that really whet my imagination.

My interest in weapons is strictly intellectual.  I like weapons the way I like big expensive houses:  I love their design and functionality from an aesthetic point of view, but I wouldn't want one of my own.  I'd be even more afraid of criminal activity.

That said, here is some of the research I've done in seeking weapons for the major characters in the Mummer series.


Concealed Weapons

In the very first chapter of the first book, Mummer's the Word, Stillman mentions his thumb knife.  He typically keeps this weapon close at hand, near his watchband, under his cuff.

Other variants of the concealed knife are the boot knife (he had one, but he hated it), the lapel knife, the sleeve dagger, and the crotch knife (ouch!).

Another old favourite is the garotte.  I'd post a picture, but they're just nasty.  Simply put, it's a wire, chain, rope, fishing line - basically any strong filament - used to strangle one's victims from behind.  Because the force required against the wire is enough to seriously weaken your fingers, the two ends are usually fixed to rings, large beads, small knobs of wood, etc.

I won't specify what kind of garotte Mummer uses, but suffice it to say, until today, I thought I'd invented it.  Ha!  Boy, it's amazing what you find when you search the internet.

For a more detailed picture of a lot of concealed weapons I may or may not use in future (in the narrative, I mean), check out this ridiculously awesome website.  This site features some of the concealed weapons used by agents in the British SOE (Special Operations Executive, disbanded and later partially reabsorbed into MI6) and the American OSS (Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the CIA).



Since 1997, I've been shooting a wide range (pardon the pun) of handguns and other firearms.  My instructor is Stuart Seki, who is now a warrant officer with the Canadian Armed Forces.  So, a very special thank you goes out to him.  A second thank you goes to Kim Hynes, who taught me things only a lady shooter can teach you, like "Before you fire a shotgun, make sure you move your bra strap, or it's going to leave a bruise."

This Enfield No.2 MK 1* variant sold in an online auction for about $200 in 2006

Mummer's original firearm was an Enfield No. 2 MK 1* (pictured above), which used .38 ammunition.  I had originally thought to use this in the narrative because a) it was in period, b) it satisfied locus in quo (i.e., it's of British and/or Canadian manufacture, and not, say, German or Russian), and C) it had no hammer spur.  Having no hammer sticking up meant it wouldn't get caught on clothing as it was drawn from a concealed holster.  It also meant that it was double-action only.  You know when good guys and bad guys make their threats clear by cocking back the hammer?  That's single-action.  Double-action means you go straight from draw to shooting.  I'd also chosen a double-action only type handgun, because that's kind of Mummer's style.  He can't come out and say, "Hey, if you don't behave, I'm gonna punch you".  He'll punch you first, and if you repeat your behaviour, he'll just punch you again.

But, I didn't like that pistol, for practical reasons.  Double-action requires a lot more force to pull the trigger, so, unless you're an expert, the action of squeezing your hand tends to throw off your aim.  So I gave him a Webley instead.
Webley Mark VI Service Revolver

Now here, we have another .38, with single- and double-action.  The Webley Mark VI Revolver is actually a bit of an older model (production stopped in 1923) - which also works well.  When he's first starting out, Stillman is more likely to own a hand-me-down; at the very least, he's not likely going to go out and get the most advanced firearm on the market, 'cause he can't fricking afford to upgrade every time a new pistol hits the market.  So to speak.  Besides that, this firearm has a certain Indiana Jones charm to it, doesn't it?

But of course, he is going to upgrade eventually, so...

Browning Hi-Power
Now, we can have some fun.  The Browning Hi-Power is a 9 mm semi-automatic pistol, with a magazine capable of holding 13 rounds (bullets).  It's in period, in setting and in character (manufactured by Inglis in Canada in '44 and '45 for military use), it's concealed as readily as the revolvers above, and it's a common enough handgun for the time.  It has some features that I intend on exploiting in The Man with the Silver Tongue, the second in the Mummer series.

If I remember correctly, this is one of the handguns with which I've had the pleasure of missing the broad side of a barn.  It doesn't have a balance I like, which is a fancy way of saying "I have all the grip strength of a sickly infant."  If I take more than a couple of seconds to aim and fire, the barrel tips toward the imaginary crotch of the target stand, and then I over-correct and shoot over his right shoulder.  The guns I am better at using are out of period and out of place.


Larger Firearms

I have to mention here that it's probably because of W/O Seki that I get a case of the giggles when handling larger firearms, be it a rifle or pump action shot gun.  Maybe it's because I suck at small arms.  I can't get a solid grip on a pistol because I have the hands of an Aye Aye:  all finger and no palm.

Aye Aye straining to see the target downrange.
Why I'm a better at typing than at marksmanship.

But, put me behind a scope and a nice bipod, and I laugh maniacally.

During my brief time with the Canadian Armed Forces Reserves (Infantry), I became well acquainted with the ins and outs of the C7 rifle and C9A1 light machine gun, with their cleaning and handling, their loading and unloading, their scope and sights, firing, all that neat stuff.  But if there was any small arms training, I seem to have missed out.

Not me.  And that's a C7A2.  But you get the idea.  Ah, the good old days.

So naturally, I had to put some kind of rifle and/or shotgun into the story.  But again, I had to satisfy time, place and character.

Bren Light Machine Gun, carried by a Canadian soldier in WWII.  I love you, Wikipedia.

I've handled a Bren Mark II (deactivated), thanks once again to Stuart Seki.  It comes with a harness as well, for easier carrying (I probably wouldn't carry it like the guy in this photo), but dang that thing is heavy.  I could probably fire it from the prone position (lying down), but this is not a weapon to be fired from the hip by anyone but a large, angry person.

Bren Mk 2 magazine-fed

Bren Mk 2 belt-fed, with aftermarket modification

Nico San Nicola, one of the supporting characters, is over six feet tall, weighing well over 250 pounds.  He could handle this weapon easily enough.  But the problem was, unlike the soldier in the above picture, Nico is missing his right hand and forearm.  So, between Stuart, his collector friend and I, we designed an imaginary modified three point harness.  Then Stuart and his friend each stood with the rifle in this modified position to see if it was feasible to manipulate the weapon single handedly or not.  And yes, it was feasible.  Awkward as all get out, but feasible.  Hooray for weapons technicians, re-enactors and first person research!

So heavy you need to breathe fire before you're able to lift it.

Also, checking out YouTube for "firing Bren gun" led me to a couple of clips where you can watch a demonstration of its action.

If you're going to do any research on weapons, I strongly recommend watching these types of videos, especially if you're not as lucky (or as comfortable) with learning their handling and action first hand.

Pay special attention to when they're being fired.  Watch body posture.  Watch arm flexion.  Watch how grown men have trouble firing and walking - and aiming - all at the same time.  Try not to watch anything that has professional actors in it.  Trust me on this:  you'll know you've done your research when you can't watch TV or films without flinging your popcorn at the screen.


Photos courtesy of

The Sten submachine gun.  I chose it because it was the weapon of choice for many resistance movements (i.e. the Belgian Secret Army), because it was used by Canadian troops, because of the robust nature of its configuration (compare the two pictures above - both are Sten guns, different variants), because of its cost efficiency for manufacture, and because the thing was...well...unpreditable.

Manufactured in Canada by women who didn't know if they should be proud of them or not.
Not only is this gun in period, but it was first used during the Dieppe Raid, arguably one of Canada's most famous (notorious) battles during WWII.

And it goes bang.  I recommend the video below not only because you get to see the weapon itself, but also because you get a glimpse into firing range protocol.  But I certainly didn't recommend it for that horrid music.

For loads of stories about the history, manufacture and use of this gun, check out this website.  For pictures of its variants (and usage in modern culture), check this one.


This is just a sampling of the weapons used in the series.  And this is only a glimpse of the research I've done on these weapons - the weapons listed here are only the ones that made the cut, not all the weapons I've researched.  And I've only scratched the surface, in terms of research I should be doing.

That doesn't mean I have to be an expert.  The only firearms I can identify on sight are Lugers, Sten guns, and maybe the CZ 75.  I don't have to be an expert for a lot of reasons:  1) photo archives, 2) enthusiast websites, 3) YouTube, 4) I know experts and/or where to find them.  Once the book is written, edited and put to bed, I can promptly forget all the details (and usually do), because I have notes to reference back to, if put on the spot.

However, I do need to be familiar with these weapons as I write and edit.  I need to know their calibre and ammunition, their range, their firing action and rate of fire, manufacture and availability, and best of all, their foibles and breakpoints.  (I take advantage of the foibles in both the first and second books, and probably will in future stories as well.)  I need to know how they're loaded, how they're handled, how they're stored, who else might have used them - everything.

I don't have to put all that information into the narrative, mind you.  Gracious - I've read some stories where people have actually laid out all the specifications of a weapon, instead of taking advantage of those specs.  Boring!  In fact, the fewer specifics I put into the story, the less likely I'll be called out by someone who knows better.  But I still need to know what I'm talking about. 

And I don't have to know the make and model of every gun in the show.  If there's somebody pointing a gun at me, I'm probably not going to gasp and say, "Why look!  It's a Browning M1911 semi-automatic pistol, .45 calibre, with post-manufacture modification to the front and rear sights, and with a standard 7-round box magazine!"  I'm more likely to say "Yikes!  He's pointing a gun at me!" and then run for cover.

In fact, if I can avoid it, I'll more likely avoid gun battles altogether, especially if one of the participants is a cop.  Every bullet needs to be accounted for, and that requires a lot of paper work (for the characters and for me).  Add to that the cost of the gun and ammunition, especially if you're as strapped for cash as Mummer is.

Besides that, I'm far more interested in a character who knows how to get out of a gun battle without looking like a coward.  After all, anybody can write a shoot out.  But how much more intriguing would it be to read or write about a guy who thinks his way out of trouble - when he has no tongue!

Final bit of advice:  always find a good, honest and strict gun range controller.  Always listen to your instructor - not only to their stories and instructions, but to the rules they lay out as well.  You'll have more fun shooting in safety than you would if there were a bunch of snorting goof-offs waving pistols up range and around the gallery.

But, for the love of good literature:  don't write about guns until you've done and confirmed your research.


  1. Amazing blog, P! I've always heard about how a machine gun tends to push up with the recoil, and I actually saw it in the Sten video (my God, the music was horrid!).

    And this is why I don't use guns in my stories if at all possible. I don't know them.

  2. Wow - what an incredible amount of useful information, Pat! Just terrific.
    My experience mirrors yours, except I'm better with handguns. But it was a long time ago..
    Thanks for this post!

  3. Great blog you have done here. I am glad that I have been able to be such an excellent resource for you. Mind you I do feel that you too could be a responisble firearms owner, with a bit more understanding what they can and can not do... I did have a lot of fun imparting my wealth of firearms information to you and introducing you to my other friends who you could use to further your research. It is satisfying to see and give valued input to someones passion. BTW, what is a French Mat 49 doing on your blog?