Props as Details


I spent a chunk of time this weekend gun shopping.  Oh, not for myself mind you.  Rather I was gun shopping for one of the two main characters of Nickajack, which meant a lot of time looking at the odd assortment of guns available in the 1860s.

Most of the gun innovations of the 1860s were moving towards guns that could fire multiple shots without reloading.  Frankly, it’s part of what made the Civil War that much more devastating in terms of lives lost: one man with one gun could injure, maim, or kill so many more people than he could with a muzzle-loading musket, or any of the firearms used during the War of 1812 or Napoleonic Wars.  Oh, there were plenty of one shot, reload weapons, but repeaters were showing up as handguns, and Gatling was inventing his machine guns.

The repeater on the right is called a harmonica gun due to the distinctive nature of the steel slide.  Each chamber was individually loaded, but it had the advantages that, once loaded, the gun was good for up to ten shots, and slides could be pre-loaded to allow the shooter quick access to a further ten shots without slowing down.  The slide would be automatically advanced as part of the cocking action of the gun, so it really was ten consecutive shots available quite quickly.  These were unusual, more experimental multiple-shot sidearms.  The issue is the gun can’t really remain loaded in a holster due to its ungainly shape, so there is some initial time lost in loading the slide into the gun before the first shot.  So it’s an interesting looking sidearm, but ultimately impractical for someone who needs to fire off a shot with only a moment’s notice.

Only slightly more useful were pepper-box guns, where a series of barrels would rotate into place rather than slide across the gun.  They have the advantage of being or a more uniform shape, allowing for easier portage, but depending on the number of barrels they could quickly become ungainly for other reasons.  They were more of a transitional form to a more modern revolver that featured multiple shots in a cylinder at the base of the barrel, the guns that Colt was selling starting in the 1850s.

It occurred to me, while looking at these guns, that a selection really said a lot about the character.  Balancing the flaws of the guns, the popularity of designs, and the usefulness, I quickly discounted both the harmonica and the pepper-box, even though each would be visually interesting.  They just didn’t fit the character.  He’s far more practical, which in the 1860s meant one of two guns: the derringer or the Colt.  Derringers were popular among gamblers and assassins.  Most infamously, a Philadelphia Deringer (there is a distinction between one and two r’s) was the choice of John Wilkes Booth for the assassination of Lincoln.  Their size made them easily portable, but they maxed out at two shots, and really were intended more for immediate personal defense.

And while the character engages in an occasional card game, he isn’t primarily a gambler.

And so the Colt Navy it is.  It was a massively popular sidearm during and after the Civil War, and really is more the kind of gun for someone who wants to be seen drawing a gun.  He would

In the end, the choice wasn’t influenced by what looked the coolest, or what gun I always enjoy seeing show up on Antiques Roadshow or any of the storage locker shows my wife and I are hooked on.  The choice needs to be informed by the character, it needs to be the gun he would choose for practical purposes, not the gun I would choose as the most visually dynamic bit of set dressing.  And that really ties into everything about a character.  Wardrobe and “props” are an extension of a character and his personality.  They are a part of his choices, his attitude, and his past, so they serve to round out a character.  I’ll keep this in mind going forward, and avoid making choices just because they “look cool.”

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