Monthly Archives: January 2012

Weapons Website of the Week 04: Forgotten Weapons

It’s Wednesday, time for the Wednesday Weapons Website of the Week, and there’s a real beauty for you this week:, which bills itself — fairly — as “Your destination for rare, exotic, and prototype firearms.”

Since Cain picked up a rock and brained Abel (which is a bit speculative: the source is blank on the ur-criminal’s MO), men have been looking for better ways to do their brother in, which may be a tragic commentary on the human condition, and an affront to God, but it does keep a Weapons Man employed. Naturally, with so much ingenuity applied to this task from prehistory, through the age of legends and sagas, into ancient and modern historic times, not every weapon can be a star.

For every M1 Garand there’s a Scotti Model X. For every MP-5 there’s a Brøndby Maskinpistol — or more than one. And that’s just to name two of the recent features at Forgotten Weapons.

Now, we don’t go all the way back — no Taliban Beheading Tulwars or neolithic stone axes, the focus here is on firearms, and the more quaint, curious, or unexpected the weapon, the more the site seems to like it. The host seems to have an eclectic taste for both the popular and the also-ran armaments of the last century. The posts are well-written, and the photographs are great — vintage ones showing the arms of forgotten empires, and awesome new photographs of many weapons. .

Go there now, but set an alarm if you have an important task or meeting coming… because you could be there a while.

(Photo: 1910 Bergmann-Simplex pistol from — where else? —

The strange saga of the Korean M1s

Last March the Administration took one of its promised “under-the-radar” gun-control positions, by revoking previously granted permits to reimport obsolete, but historic, M1 rifles and carbines from Korea. The weapons, 800,000 to 1,000,000 of them, were used in the 2nd World War and Korean War. They had been retained by Korea as reserve stocks, but such old weapons were hardly needed (the US last issued them to fourth-tier National Guard units over forty years ago, and US stocks have been for sale to the public through the DCM for many years). Now comes a grudging, forced, and partial reversal.

The BATFE classifies these weapons technically as “firearms” but also as “curios and relics,” recognizing that they are collector guns, not likely to turn up at crime scenes (we could not find out when one was last used in a crime, because we could not find an example of one being used in a crime, period). But the administration’s volte-face on the M1s meant that they were suddenly unimportable again.

The decision took a while to percolate through to the public, but when it did in August, thanks to original reporting by the Korea Times, it caused an outcry in the blogosphere (example here at Volokh lawblog), and thenin the press, particularly the conservative press (example here at Fox News). The State Department’s justification was that the elderly weapons could “be exploited by individuals seeking firearms for illicit purposes.” A spokesman for the current iteration of the National Coalition to Ban Handguns (currently the “Brady Campaign”) said that the old muskets were,”a threat to public safety,” patticularly singling out the carbines for their ability to “take high-capacity magazines. Even though they are old, these guns could deliver a great amount of firepower.” The spokesman continued on to praise the Obama Administration.

Back in September, reporters trying to track down an official position were met by a daisy chain of incompetence: State Department spoksemen said to call ATf, ATf took a couple of days to kick it to the Mexican cartels’ armorers at the Department of Justice, Justice punted to the State Department. The White House deferred to the Pentagon, who sent the reporters to the Embassy in Korea, who punted to… the State Department. No one took responsibiliy.

Congress, amazingly (for it is not their usual practice), took action, and added a ban on these bans to the combined Fiscal Year 2012 Agriculture, Commerce/Justice/Science (CJS) and Transportation/Housing/Urban Development (THUD) Appropriations bills. The NRA says that the bills provided (among other gun-related restrictions on “under-the-radar” bans):

Importation of Curios and Relics. A prohibition on the use of funds to arbitrarily deny importation of qualifying curio and relic firearms. This provision ensures that collectible firearms that meet all legal requirements for importation into the United States are not prevented from import by executive branch fiat.

Curio and Relic Definition. A prohibition on the use of funds to change the definition of a “curio or relic.” This provision protects the status of collectible firearms for future generations of firearms collectors.

There are some other small adjustments in the bill, for example, one overturning the BATFE’s politically-driven attempt to ban self-defense shotguns as “nonsporting.” In addition to that bill, Sen. Jon Tester and Rep. Cynthia Lummis have filed legislation to strip Stete of its political discretion, but it hasn’t passed.  Facing this appropriations language, the Administration has backed halfway down and allowed the importation of the 87,310 M1 rifles, but is still fighting the importation of the 770,160 M1 carbines. (The reason there are so many carbines? South Korea used them more than any foreign nation, taking 15.3 percent of the entire production run of 6.5 million, according to Strategy Page). Official State Department position: because they take detachable magazines, they’re crime guns.

David Kopel of the Independence Institute called the March decision, “a de facto gun ban, courtesy of Hillary Clinton’s State Department.” And despite the wording of the law and the clear intent of Congress, 90% of that ban is still in place.

What this means for you: no bargain carbine unless or until the White House changes hands.

Ask a Weapons Man: Who invented the detachable magazine?

This isn’t from the comments here, but from a closed mailing list we’re on. One of the members there wondered “who invented the magazine with a spring and a follower.” After some clarification, what he really wanted to know is who invented the detachable box magazine, and when.

Unfortunately, like a lot of questions about invention, so many people were working along the same lines that pinning the actual invention on one guy is a bit of false precision. But let’s try anyway!

Let’s begin with the status quo ante — specifically, the state of technology before magazine-loading weapons. Powerful weapons were loaded and fired one shot at a time, finally. by breech loading metallic cartridges.

So for a magazine that would load a repeating or automatic weapon, first we needed to move from muzzle-loading separate powder and shot, to breech-loading cartridges, to fixed metallic cartridges (the kind we know now with a metal case, a primer, and a bullet, with the propulsive chemical contained inside in powder form). Each of these independently was an advance, and they took place in fits and starts, often being independently invented in several places by several men, from around 1860 to around 1890. To make the cartridges compact, smokeless powder came in in the 1880s.

Next, let’s continue with the first question, the magazine itself. As we know it today, it encompasses several technologies, but the very first magazines were of a form familiar to anyone who’s ever owned a Winchester .30-30, or any of millions of tube-fed .22s. This is a tube with the cartridges pushed towards the action by a coil spring, compressed inside the tube behind a cylindrical follower. And the first magazine-fed weapons used a tube feed like this: they were the 1855 Volcanic pistol and carbine, designed by two creative guys in Massachusetts and using an oddball form of ammunition, basically a hollow-based  bullet with powder and primer in the base. A finger lever cycled the new round it; the whole round went out the muzzle, so there was no extractor or ejector. Similar strange ammunition had been patented as early as 1848 by Hall, but it took the Volcanic guys to make a lightweight repeater out of it. (Actually, there was an even less successful rifle with the “rocket rounds” and tube magazine, by one Mr Hall, that the Volcanic improved upon… so there’s always something before what appears to be the beginning).

Tube magazines are practical, but have some faults. They are not interchangeable. You can’t carry loaded spares of them. They can render the weapon useless if dented. And they don’t adapt safely to pointed bullets and centerfire ammunition. That’s why their main use today is on vintage-styled lever actions, .22 rimfire rifles, and shotguns.

The Volcanic had problems of its own, besides the ones associated with the tube magazine. A stray spark could set off all the rounds in the magazine at once, and the weapon was weak — the Volcanic round left the muzzle with a mere 56 foot/pounds of energy. So the company got into deeper and deeper trouble and one of the investors, a shirt manufacturer, took it over and squeezed the two inventors out. It wasn’t a technical dead end, though: revitalized by the shirt guy, the company made Henry rimfire repeaters in the 1860s and then centerfire rifles under his own name. These strongly resembled the Volcanic, but with added extraction and ejection to handle metallic cartridges. You might have heard of his company and its guns: his name was Oliver Winchester.

The box magazine solves the same problem (carry multiple rounds ready for loading) in a different way. The rounds are stacked up side-to-side rather than lined up nose-to-tail. Initially, these magazines were nondetachable and blind: they loaded from the top and rounds went out the same way. By the late 1880s, it was customary to enhance rapid loading by providing the rounds in a Mauser-type stripper clip, that was used to load the ammunition and then taken away from the gun, or a Mannlicher-style en-bloc clip, which actually snapped into place and formed part of the feeding mechanism itself (the most familiar example of this to Americans is the 8-round en-bloc clip used in the M1 Garand rifle).

The first weapon that had a detachable box magazine appears to be the Borchardt C93 pistol, on the market in 1893. It was a recoil-operated, locked-breech weapon with the eight-round magazine housed in the grip — a prototype of a century’s automatic pistols. While later in the 20th century the detachable magazines began to hold more rounds, this description covers most of the guns that would drive the 19th century’s self-defense weapon, the revolver, into the history books. This beautifully made and nicely balanced (yes, despite its awkward look) weapon was modernity itself in the gas-light era, convertible to a small carbine with a screw-on stock, and coming packed in a case with all necessary accessories — including spare magazines. The Borchardt would soon be overwhelmed by smaller, handier, cheaper competitors, including the pistol its own DNA evolved into, the famous Luger of two world wars.

Wikipedia credits the design of the detachable magazine, by the way, to Arthur G. Savage, an illustration of why you should be extremely leery of trusting Wikipedia. Savage’s patent is actually for a magazine that activates a bolt hold-open — something that Georg Luger added to his improvement of the Borchardt system in 1900. (Savage used the magazine follower, as did Browning in many designs; Luger used a button on the side of the follower). The Borchardt magazine was nickel-plated and had a European walnut base with the serial number. The pistol was made initially by Ludwig Loewe of Berlin, and  later by DWM. Today it is a rare collector’s item; this seller has a complete set of Borchardt and accessories for a reasonable $35,000. Or one of the historic magazines for $850. Loewe made 1,100 or so before production went to DWM, which produced larger numbers. Today they are rare and centerpieces of some remarkable Luger collections. Few of the owners dare to shoot them, although they’re perfectly safe, even after 100 years.

Rifles took a bit longer to see the benefit of the detachable box mag. The first successful, mass produced one was the Lee-Metford rifle; Metford’s part of the design included his heavy steel 10-round magazine. With a change of barrel, the rifle became the Lee-Enfield and served the British for decades. However, while the detachable mag wasn’t usually detached in service; instead, it was loaded through the top, with stripper clips.Detachable box machine guns were common in World War I and some a little before; the Lewis gun loaded from detachable drums and was standardized in 1911. The first mass-produced rifle, as opposed to a machine or submachine gun, to have a detachable box magazine was probably the Simonov AVS of 1936.

Now, it wasn’t always entirely clear at the time that a detachable magazine was a better solution for combat weapons than stripper clips or en-bloc clips. And some odd loading mechanisms persisted: Hotchkiss machine guns fed from a metallic strip. Some Japanese MGs actually used a sort of hopper. But when magazine size increased beyond 10 rounds, detachable magazines gave rifles a clear reload-speed advantage, just as they had done to pistols as soon as magazine size was larger than the six shots of a typical revolver.

What’s next? FN an H&K have experimented with alternative magazine concepts. Colt and the Army tried to develop a disposable magazine for the M16 series in 1969-70, taking “detachable” to the next level, but the project crashed due to the very large manufacturing tolerances in M16 magazine wells. For the time being, the box magazine is with us, although in a plethora of variations.

And history moved on, leaving Hugo Borchardt and the inventors of the Volcanic system behind. But Borchardt went on to have a large quantity of patents in a variety of fields, even if he never benefited from the $30,000 prices his handguns now draw. And the Volcanic guys just kept on plugging in the gun market. You might have heard of them — their names were Smith. And Wesson.

(Images: Borchardt photos and Horst Held Antique Handguns;  Volcanic ammo,; Volcanic gun, SomethingAwful forums).

Gun theft ring at shooting events? It’s bull.

How does an urban legend get started? You know, like the six-foot-alligator living in a Manhattan sewer? Theoretically, with one liar, but they never seem able to track the motherless wretch down. Today’s urban legend is this (received in our email 1/20):

While I was in a Denver gun store today, my car was tagged on the wheel in the parking lot. The gangs do this on wheels or bumpers at gun stores, shooting ranges, gun shows etc. Later when you are parked at a restaurant, hotel, or other location that’s less well guarded or under video surveillance, other gang members spot the marker and break into the car for a quick gun grab. This is so RAMPANT in San Antonio where we were for a National shoot this summer, the police chief of that county came out to brief the 400 participants of our competition. Too bad three teams had already been victimized the first day. This is the first I’ve heard of this in Denver. Please pass this info along to your 2nd amendment list.

This next comment from a Gunsite instructor:

I don’t know how widespread this is becoming, but the info regarding the NSCA Nationals in San Antonio is correct, as all of us who compete in sporting clays know. Competitors there were having their vehicles marked with a small adhesive dot on the rear license plate or rear bumper, then followed for miles and having their vehicles quickly and efficiently broken in to when parked for lunch etc.
Some crews were working the parking lot at the Nationals itself. 27 high end shotguns were taken there recently. They know when 1400 shooters with high $$ competition guns are in town.
I shot with a young man who was trying out a new gun at the Nationals. He and his father lost all their guns and equipment while making a quick stop for lunch at a BBQ place in Corpus Christi the month before.

In the original, different colors made it clear that the first paragraph and the last one were supposed to be written by two different guys, with the middle graf being the email sender’s editorial comment. It’s a truly alarming message for any gun owner — for the poor guy with a single shotgun he uses hunting, to the rich guy with what the news will call an “arsenal” if he ever gets in trouble, nobody wants his guns taken and used in crime.

Our first thought was, “why didn’t we hear of this?” If people had been ripped off of dozens of pricey competition shotguns, why didn’t we hear about it? Also, where would the thieves dispose of the guns? Really, it’s one thing to fence a Hi-Point that was $100 new. What about a $12,000, gold-inlaid Perazzi? Do you go into a pawnshop and ask, “Yo dawg, whatchu gimme on this here bling’d-out blaster, an’ s’it?” We don’t see that working even with the right syntax and diction. See? “I say, old boy, a liquidity situation impels me to enquire as to the market…”

Well, turns out the reason we never heard of it is simple: it never happened. No thefts (not just not 27, not one), no briefing by an anxious sheriff, no sophisticated gang of criminals.

Here’s the NRA throwing the BS flag.

Here’s the National Sporting Clays Association throwing the BS flag also, but independently.

Now, just because this particular theft ring is figmentatious, that doesn’t mean there are no thieves around. Basic situational awareness and sensible risk management will prevent you from becoming a victim. And a little thought might help you be one of those nodes on the net where irresponsible urban legends go to die.

Of course, if we do encounter theft gangs, all we have to do is put them down the nearest sewer.  And wait for the alligators to do their thing.

(Image: from the 2011 Weblog Awards’ Best Science Blog, WattsUpWithThat )


What happened to the Mk-16 SCAR?

The FN-SCAR was the wave of the future in special operations weapons.

And it’s always gonna be, goes the joke.

What happened? Why didn’t this pretty decent weapon, which was designed to special operations warfighters’ specs and won a bake-off against many competitors, catch on?

Well, it’s not dead yet. Procurement was only halted on the Mk16 aka the SCAR-L (L meaning “Light” — the 5.56 mm version — above left). The military did buy some of them, and a larger quantity of the 7.62mm Mk 17 SCAR-H (H… if you can’t guess you’re too dumb to learn this stuff anyway. Just buy what the fanboys at ARFCOM tell you to). But the SCAR-L was supposed to replace the M4A1 in the special ops world, and it didn’t.

Thing is, the SCAR-L/Mk16 offered only the skinniest of advantages vis-a-vis the plain old M4A1. And it has a few disadvantages. Advantages include excellent ambidextrous ergonomics and a single monolithic high rail, plus 3, 6, and 9 o’clock rails integrated in the design from the beginning. The SCAR-H is a different proposition because none of the other 7.62mm rifles really sit exactly in the battle rifle niche… the closest is probably the M14 EBR, and it’s both heavier than the SCAR-H and showing the age of the underlying design: the M14 dates to the 1950s, and the action traces back to John Garand’s experiments at Springfield Arsenal in the late 1920s. The SR-25 / Mk-11 / M-110 type of AR-15-related 7.62mm rifles that have been procured so far are aimed at the Designated Marksman, or informal sniper, role.

And the SCAR was swimming upstream against 20-plus years of Special Operations weapons development. (The SOPMOD program has been running since 1989). While the SCAR was designed explicitly for compatibility with existing and projected SOPMOD accessories, one important method of accessorizing AR-based rifles, and one in widespread use in the special operations community, is to snap on a new upper. The most common sM$A1 wap-out is a 10.5″ CQB upper in place of the standard 14.5″ barrel. Sure, the SCAR uppers could have been procured in multiple lengths as the M4 uppers already have been, but what’s the gain in it? The SCAR barrel interchanges, but one advantage of interchanging a whole upper rather than a barrel is that you can leave your optic on the upper, sighted-in. That’s a great convenience — change uppers, fire three rounds to confirm your zero, and you’re good to go.

If you are buying a rifle for yourself, you can decide it’s worth it to you to replace your entire rig, including interchangeable uppers and other modular stuff (we don’t count rail-mountable lights, illuminators and optics, because they interchange on weapons of the same caliber no problem). Something new needs new training, support, maintenance (at all levels from operator to depot) and other expenses. Every arms room needs new racks, which cost Uncle Sam about $40-50 per rifle (they hold ten and cost about $450), and they’re specific to the weapon. Old M14 racks didn’t hold M16s, M16 racks didn’t handle M4s well, and none of them holds a SCAR. That’s one small example of the logistical hurdle to overcome.

If you’re looking for a gun for range trips or home defense, or for a collection, you probably don’t care what it weighs and whether it’s bulky. If your mission profile involves walking 25 miles a day with it or climbing mountains, you probably do. So there’s the bulk objection to overcome.

Now, for civilians whose personal mission requirements can be met by the SCAR, FNH is importing a very nice pair of semiauto SCAR clones. Why they import them while a factory in the USA produces them for the government, we have no idea.

A very important factor that people don’t consider is who pays for the weapons. For SOF, buying SOF-peculiar weapons comes out of SOF money, usually MFP-11 funds as we understand it. Buying weapons, even modified weapons, that are type-standardized by Big Green means you’re spending generic Title 10 Defense budget appropriations. Yeah, we get it: you’re a high-speed low-drag operator and you don’t give a rat’s about some accounting BS. Trust us, colonels and generals, captains and admirals, and their staffs care about this tremendously. The whole war machine runs on dollars, and you young guys will hate serving in it when it’s broke (BTDT, and those days are coming back).

An individual can upgrade a rifle without worrying about most of this stuff. His gun safe will hold the SCAR as well as it would hold an M1A, he can put the old rifle on GunBroker to pay for the new one — not an option for Uncle (probably should be, but that’s politics and we don’t cover that here). Or he can buy both (which is what SOF are doing with the SCARs they do buy, running them along with M4s instead of replacing the Colt carbines).  But a whole Army has other considerations.

Now, obviously, this does not mean a superior new technology can’t replace an old one. Or we’d still be toting ’16s: M1816 Springfield flintlock muskets. But it either has to be very markedly superior, or come along at just the right time when the old technology weapon is worn out. If a weapon misses its window, it usually never gets a second chance. (A rare exception was the FN-MAG machine gun. Rejected by the US military in favor of the “invented-here” M60, it wound up replacing the M60 as the M240 about four decades later). But people also wonder why the USA did not adopt the M1941 Johnson, the FN-FAL, the AR-18: they may have had some advantages over the incumbent weapons systems, but not enough to justify the costs. In most cases, they had some disadvantages too.

(Image credits: Mk-16 and -17, FNH via Wikimedia Commons; Disassembled Mk-16,C. Rohling via C. Cutshaw and; M1816, snagged from a GunBroker auction).

On this day in 1776

The Revolutionary War is very important in Special Forces history. It is, in fact, a classical insurgency whether you analyze it as a military or political historian, in view of SF seven-stages-of-GW theory, or in Maoist three-phases theory. Weapons were a key component of Colonial Era logistics — the British tried to seize or collect them, and the rebellious colonists tried to manufacture and trade for them. The initial battles around Boston, even before Lexington and Concord, were a series of bloodless raids on militia arms stockpiles. The British expected the same in April, 1775,

On this day in 1776, well before the Declaration of Independence, the Colonial authorities were preparing for the possibility of further war with the British forces. The New Hampshire House of Representatives voted an appropriation for “Fire-arms for this Colony” to arm the militia. The appropriation: £35. A new “stand of arms” (musket, bayonet, and accessories) could cost as much as £3, so they were not buying many, or they were buying used. But of course, most militiamen were responsible for their own arms.

Sources: American Archives, 4th Series, 5:7-8 and 5:16, cited by Clayton E. Cramer, Firearms Ownership & Manufacturing in Early America, v. 5.1 , 2001, page 79. Retrieved from


Never on Sunday…

Which refers not to the hooker-with-the-heart-of-gold film with Melina Mercouri, nor or the bouzouki-and-ouzo driven theme song that became the token Greek staple in Muzak, but to the fact that takes the day off.

(Actually, it looks like snow shoveling is in the near future here).

However, what you can do is ask questions and make suggestions in the comments, because we’ll be rocking again first thing Monday morning.

That Was the Week that Was: 2012 Week 03

Well, we’ve made it through three weeks and we’re having a blast here.  You too? And in a first for That Was the Week that Was, we’re going to begin by mentioning some real-world arms developments at Hog Manor, aka The WeaponsMan Wolf’s Lair.

So here’s the gunny stuff:

  1. Started towards an NFA (National Firearms Act) trust. Why? Because…
  2. Got a Colt 6921 M4LE Carbine on order.
  3. Did a little work in the shop, towards some light smithing.
  4. Have a line on a non-gun M203 for display on our wall of weapons. That means we need to complete another M16A1 clone.
  5. Started the paperwork towards getting one of the Remington M24 Sniper Systems, a process which has yet to be blogged.

And of course, there are the posts:

  1. On Sunday all good WeaponsMen rested, for a second time. Forsooth, the tradition is officially established.
  2. We had a WordPress glitch which still has us editing posts in an FireFox. Yawn. But it knocked us off the blogosphere for most of a day. Fortunately, we resumed publication — we don’t want our readers to sink into despondency, for they all have weapons. No link (you really want a link to test posts?).
  3. We began the substantive posts of the week with a starkly unbelievable rave by two Vietnam War phonies, Dave Corso and Duncan O’Finnoian. You can catch Teh Stoopid just by looking at these guys. It was Thursday before we had our IQs back.
  4. We are very concerned about the lack of support for poor confused turncoat Bradley Manning. If they just give him to us, we’ll support him in the proper manner. Welcome to the Bradley Manning Support Network.
  5. We celebrated Rodney King Day, in the spirit of his great call for tolerance. Can’t we all just get along?
  6. A brief note to commenters. With a real cool Chicom propaganda poster. And yeah, the Taiwanese dirtbag spammer is still with us.
  7. What was it about the AR-15 (and M16) that made it revolutionary? We list 12 points with some pictures of a cloned AR-15 prototype, and steered you to where you can get the stuff to clone your own.
  8. A consumer warning about Bad Veterans’ Charities and links to places to check them out, plus our recommended small charity and big charity paying our debts to the wounded and to the survivors of the fallen.
  9. Gun Marketing Fail 02: Paul Helinski of GunsAmerica hates him some intertubes PJ-clad bloggers nobodies.
  10. Wednesday Weapons Website of the Week is RB Gun Graphics. We want to hang a couple of his pieces in the gun vault. They’re all good and appear accurate.
  11. The Steyr AUG is the weapon of tomorrow, and has had such lousy luck penetrating the US market that it’s probably going to be the weapon of tomorrow, still, tomorrow. We try to explain the variants still on the market and available used to American civilians.
  12. This week, Ralph Peters is a genius. The micturating Marines are still knuckleheads. That point needs to be made but it’s best made by their own personal gunny, of whom they should be afraid.
  13. No sooner did we post the story of Paul Helinski’s dislike for bloggers than his business sent us a robo-email (for which we’d signed up, back before the Great Flood or sometime). We signed back down. And then blogged it, because it’s not sporting to kick a man while he’s down and begging to be kicked… but it feels great.
  14. We step away from the guns for a minute to note that, one cowardly cruise captain notwithstanding, manhood in general is not in crisis.
  15. We look at Fire as a Weapon. We may not have elaborated on this in the post but it seems that flamethrowers are one of the few deadly weapons to escape Federal regulation.
  16. The best gun magazine you never, ever heard of. Worth learning German for, even though it’s no longer publishing. That good.
  17. If you’re a pro historian, and completely fabricate the evidence supporting your thesis, a lot of other professional historians will back you up. Especially if your lies about gun history make them feel good. It’s not a profession, it’s a tribe.
  18. What the mission of Special Forces is, and why it’s different from those other guys. With a guest appearance by T.E. Lawrence.
  19. Why we‘re not at the SHOT Show, and where to go to find out the stuff we’re not reporting because we didn’t go to the SHOT Show.
  20. We identify the most powerful weapon in the US inventory. Hint: you could not hang it on your wall.
  21. The Parrott Gun is an interesting and historically important artillery piece from the 1860s. Both sides used them in the Civil War, and some people still make and shoot them today. (200 years from now, will there be Taliban reenactors?)
  22. Saturday Matinée 03: The Battle of Algiers. And we kept our promise, and broke the curse of George Takei, connecting this to #01, The Green Berets. We promise, no Sulu next week.


Week 1: 26 posts + wrap-up

Week 2: 25 posts + wrap-up

Week 3: 22 posts + wrap-up

Hmmm. Not a good trend.

Saturday Matinee # 003: The Battle of Algiers

So here with this Saturday Matinee, we take a step into the past, into events from fifty years ago. The Battle of Algiers is a dramatization of a true-life insurgency in the 195os and early 60s. While the English gave up their Empire voluntarily after World War II, the French did not (they still hang on, for example, to French Guiana). But the wave of nationalism and decolonization worldwide was not going to take “no” for an answer: indigenous people revolted.

Most Americans know the story of France in Indochina, and their withdrawal after defeat at Dien Bien Phu. Fewer know the story of independence wars in French North Africa. Like all Wars of Identity, there are only three possible outcomes: one side defeats and exterminates or expels the other, one side defeats and assimilates the other, or the war reaches an equilibrium of violence that is acceptable to both sides. The first was the goal of the revolutionaries, the second the goal of the French, the last the state the war was in for years, with periodic spikes of escalation. One of the things the movie depicts is, how suddenly the war can swing from equilibrium to disequilibrium to rout.

At the time, the great spirit motivating the Arabs was not Islamism, but rather pan-Arab socialism; Communism with plausible deniability of adherence to Soviet control.This film by Cillo Pontecorvo was an explicitly Communist film, sympathetic to the revolutionaries (they even were involved in the film’s script and development) without making the French into the usual caricatured villains of didactic film.


The film was a huge critical success, particularly with critics of a certain political tendency. Pauline Kael (best remembered today for her puzzlement at the election of Nixon, which turns out to be somewhat of a misquote) was typical of the armchair revolution buffs that Tom Wolfe would ridicule in Radical Chic; she loved it. The Battle of Algiers won several prizes in Europe and was nominated for not only foreign film but best screenplay and best director Oscars, although it didn’t win. France responded typically, considering the abuse of Frence amour-propre: they banned the movie before its release.

It had a long afterlife in Special Forces: we studied it on grainy 16mm prints, and then studied it on grainy bootleg Beta videotape taken from somebody’s war-weary print. It was shown to many Special Forces Qualification Course classes (and the separate Officers Course classes, during that era) as part of their introduction to guerllla and insurgent warfare. The film may be from 1975, but the methods of both insurgent and counterinsurgent: planting bombs, mapping and taking down cells — are still bloodily current in an age of ISR drones and cyberwarfare.

For decades the film was unavailable legally in the USA, but thanks to some commie on the staff of the Criterion Collection — or maybe, just, some avid fan of forgotten films — it was reissued on DVD in 2003 and has stayed in print since then; there’s also a Blu-Ray version.

For the modern  American, civilian audience the hurdles of foreign film, foreign language, unknown cast and black & white cinematography all must be overcome. But the movie’s so good that if you give it a chance, this isn’t hard. The film is fast-paced, at times even frantic. Pontecorvo has his actors show, not tell. The actors erase the illusion of film and become their characters, whether a death-bef0re-capture revolutionary or a coldly professional French colonel.

A particularly affecting scene shows a young woman planting a bomb among innocents. With rapid cuts, and without her saying a word, we see both her horror at the suffering she is about cause to innocent people, and at the same time, her determination to carry her mission out. A perfect montage shows French progress against the insurgents by showing their link chart of the insurgency as they roll the cells up. And the speech by French officer Lt. Col. Phillippe Mathieu to his officers, introducing his more aggressive counterinsurgency tactics, is a classic of the genre. Pontecorvo’s greatness shows here: he is clearly on the side of the revolutionaries, but he shows the complexity, the cruelty and the decency, of both sides. In one scene, French policemen protect an Arab boy from a mob of angry French bomb victims.

The weapons in the film are correct, with respect to small arms: French and old American arms on both sides, mostly; but weapons play a very small role here. Because it was shot on location in North Africa, the larger weapons like armored vehicles aren’t right. French second-line troops in 1962 were still equipped with WWII Lend-Lease US gear, but by 1965 nations like Algeria were arming with surplus WWII hardware from their new Russian pals. Likewise, the bomb built by the Algerian terrorists are rather Hollywood. — don’t take this movie as an instructional video.  But weapons, again, play a tinyl part in this drama, it’s really all about people. Just like a real insurgency that way: “Humans are more important than hardware.”

The movie is great entertainment, and great study material for students of insurgency. One of the most profound lessons is, an insurgency may look beaten, but as long as the resistance potential in the population is strong, it’s poised for a roaring comeback.

Interesting notes: most black and white war films of this era padded their run time and increased their action level by splicing in documentary war and newsreel footage. There is none in Battle of Algiers: despite the film’s documentary vibe, every scene, even every frame was composed and shot deliberately. And the score was composed by Ennio Morricone, who would later do all those Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns. (Once you know that, you listen more actively to the excellent score).

(MAT-49 photo @2008-2009 MPM, used by permission).