Top Ten Guns of American Pop Culture
Article first appeared at Shooting Illustrated.
Firearms have been a part of American pop culture ever since Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill’s traveling roadshows. From the early days of the western dime-store novel to the earliest silent movies and on through the tough-guy detective stories and the action-adventure movie, guns have been an integral part of our folklore.
There have been many different guns that have played a part in creating this cultural heritage of firearms in America, but a few keep showing up over and over again over time and have become icons in and of themselves: They’re the guns that we expect to see in the hands of the hero (or villian) when they show up on the screen or are introduced on the pages of a novel.
So, in no particular order, here are the Top Ten Guns of American Pop Culture.
Ever since it first appeared Michael Ciminio’s “The Year Of The Dragon”, the Desert Eagle has been the go-to firearm if the movie called for an intimidating handgun. The list of movies which feature a Desert Eagle in hands of the good guy or bad guy stretches back for decades. Arnold Schwarzenegger used one in “Commando” and “The Last Action Hero”, and they gained further fame as the handgun of choice for the evil “agents” of the Matrix trilogy. Even as recent as this year, there was a Desert Eagle in the hands of Deadpool in his recent superhero movie. Appearing in over 500 movies and tv shows, the Desert Eagle should have it’s own star on Hollywood’s Walk Of Fame.
Very few firearms are associated more strongly with a character than Detective “Dirty” Harry Callahan and his .44 Mag. revolver. We all know the lines by heart “Go ahead, make my day,” “Do you feel lucky, punk?”, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”, and none of those lines would have have the same Sudden Impact (yes, that was a pun) with Clint holding anything other than that big Smith & Wesson N-Frame bruiser in his hands. While the .44 Mag. is not the most powerful handgun in the world anymore, Dirty Harry and his Model 29 is still a powerful icon of American culture.
Once upon a time, a German factory decided to make a submachine gun that was good. Really good, actually. In fact, it was so good that a bunch of people who make a living ridding the world of terrorists decided to use it as part of their jobs. As such, the Heckler & Koch MP5 tended to show up in the hands of people shooting terrorists, like in the 1980 assault on the Iranian embassy in London. The MP5 has become more than just a gun, it’s now a symbol of the on-going war on terrorism. As a result, if you think “counter-terrorism unit”, you probably think of guys in black jumpsuits stacked up outside of a door, each of them holding an MP5 in their hands.
Speaking of the war on terror, we’ve seen a lot of M4’s on the news in the past ten years being used by our brave servicemen in various locations overseas. Just like the Garand was linked to World War Two and Korea, the M4 carbine is inexorably linked to the image of the modern American military. Whether it sports an EoTech, Aimpoint, ACOG or just plain irons, the M4 is the symbol of the modern American soldier and our ongoing operations against the people who would end our way of life.
The M4’s primary opponent, or, as Clint Eastwood said in “Heartbreak Ridge”, it’s the preferred weapon of our enemy. Born in the Soviet Union right after World War Two, the AK has outlived the country which first produced it. Built to survive the harsh Russian winters and even harsher Russian soldier, the AK has earned a reputation for ruggedness and reliability which has made it a favorite with Western users as well. the AK and it’s successors are most than just guns, they’re a symbol of past wars our nation has fought and wars we are still fighting.
For years, our heroes used revolvers. From western movies to the .38 Spl. of tough-guy detective stories to the aforementioned Model 29, it was a wheelgun that the good guy used to defeat the bad guy, not a semi-automatic. In the mid-80’s, however, all of that changed. Bruce Willis used aBeretta 92 to re-take Nakatomi Plaza, Mel Gibson used one in “Lethal Weapon”, and Chow-Yun Fat used two (at the same time, no less) in “A Better Tomorrow”, introducing not only a new kind of gun, but a new kind of action movie choreography into our culture.
The M134 Minigun is to the modern action movie what the Tommy gun was to gangster movies: It’s the gun you introduce into the movie when you’re through messing around and want to settle the gunfight in your favor. While it’s pretty much impossible to carry one of these guns for more than a few feet, the minigun has become a fixture in movies, video games and anything that calls for tons and tons of lead dumped onto the target in a short amount of time.
Any number of guns could used to portray the rich history of American gangster and detective novels and movies, but the snubby .38 Spl. Colt was the gun that was found in the hands of both the bad guys and good guys of film noir and pulp fiction. Showing up in classic movies like “White Heat”, “The Big Sleep” and “The Godfather” and also in novels by Mickey Spillane and a host of other writers.
The legendary six-shooter is the gun that, according to movies and dime-store novels, Won The West. Nothing says “American cowboy” like the image of a lonesome rider on his horse, staring off into the sunset with a Peacemaker on his side and a cartridge belt around his waist. Was it the only pistol that the cowboys used? No, far from it, but thanks to a few government contracts, it was the Glock 19 of its day, and the has become as much a part of American culture as apple pie and the 6-4-3 double play.
Thanks to a letter from British firearms expert Geoffrey Boothroyd to Bond author Ian Fleming, the Walther PPK is forever associated with spies and the secret service. Small, compact and packing a decent punch for its day, the PPK is the gun you use if you want your hero or heroine to have an enigmatic, mysterious past. The PPK is more than a gun, it’s a way to have a small part of the secretive world of the secret agent in your own hands. If we can’t live the life of James Bond, at least we can own his gun.