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The Wild Bunch

by Hap Rocketto

Tickets in hand Larry Small, Stan Wujtewicz, Mike Franklin and I walked up the slight incline from the street level ticket box of the Garde Theater into the lobby. Passing through the double doors we took a sharp right to load up on popcorn and boxes of Jujubes, Raisinets, Milk Duds, and Sno-Caps before entering the theater’s classic Moroccan interior. Taking our seats before the towering silver screen we settled in to watch Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. Against the backdrop of the Mexican Revolution the tale deals with an aging outlaw band trying to survive as the familiar, comfortable, and traditional Old West of the Texas-Mexico border grudgingly gives way to the new and threatening modern 20th Century.

The story is bookended by two violent gunfights. The first is the robbery of a railway company office. The gang, wearing stolen US Army uniforms, lead by Pike Bishop played by William Holden, is ambushed by a railroad posse lead by Pike’s former partner Deke Thornton, portrayed by Robert Ryan. The last is violent, gory, bloody, act of suicidal vengeance against the Mexican Army after a fellow gang member is tortured and killed by the Federales.

As aficionados of cowboy movies and firearms it looked to be a great afternoon and we were not to be disappointed, sort of. While Peckinpah did a fantastic job there seemed to be a lack of attention to technical detail that only a quartet of fanatic firearms fanciers would notice.

For example, during the railway company office robbery scene, in which the Wild Bunch is ambushed, several members of the posse wield Springfield 1903s. But they are the A3 model, easily noted by the receiver bridge mounted peep sight, which was authorized in May 1942, rather than the correct M1905 leaf sight. The anachronism was a bit of a jolt to the knowledgeable.

The gang carried Moses Browning’s iconic Winchester M1897 pump-action shotguns into the office. Those in the movie appeared to be the 12-gauge Riot model with 20 inch barrels. They were first used by the US Army during the Philippine–American War and so are appropriate to this time frame.

After temporarily escaping the posse, only to find out that what they thought were bags of silver coin were nothing more than common steel washers, they seek sanctuary from their pursuers in Mexico. There they become involved in a gun running scheme which brings them in contact with the Mexican Army and its German military advisor. When Pike is asked about their arms by the German he erroneously replies that they are U.S. Army weapons which cannot be owned by civilians. This is incorrect as they are carrying the Winchester shotguns and Colt pistols which had been commercially available since 1897 and 1911 respectively.

A machine gun is prominently featured, and stars, in the final chaotic five minute “Fight on The Bloody Porch” in which the Wild Bunch, and most of the Mexican Army, it seems, annihilate each other. The gun is yet another of Mr. Browning’s masterpieces, the M1917 heavy machine gun. As the action takes place before World War I this is an obvious error. It also seems more appropriate that with a German advisor the Mexicans would have had the Spandau Maschinengewehr 08.

Either way both guns are water cooled. However, during the entire “Bloody Porch” sequence the Browning’s water jacket is not attached to anything. After spitting out hundreds of rounds in rapid progression one would have thought the gun would have seized up yet it operated flawlessly, but such is the magic of Hollywood.

After a little research we found that the director was familiar with firearms and insisted that each gun have its own distinctive audio report. The 1911’s sounded like .45 pistols, the 97s barked like shotguns, and the Browning rippled out its heavy cough. It is said that the production used up 90,000 rounds of blank ammunition which might be more than the number of real cartridges expended during the actual Mexican Revolution.

Lately it is the last lines of the movie that touch me most, not the minor firearms felonies. The film deals with a time of massive change and upheaval in the lives and times of the characters. Because the movie involves a lot of shooting, as does my life, and there has been great change and upheaval in both the smallbore and service rifle I feel a little unsettled and estranged, much like the Wild Bunch. I sometimes wonder if times are passing me by.

In the movie’s last few moments Thornton, who has successfully tracked the gang and watched its demise, is at loose ends. As he sits against a wall next to the gate of the town a slow trickle of survivors passes by him, abandoning the town as a band of riders approaches through the dust. The interlopers are led by a former Wild Bunch member named Sykes who had earlier left the outlaw band to fight with the revolutionaries.

Sykes spots Thornton and leans down from his saddle saying, “I didn’t expect to find you here. What are your plans, now?”

Thornton replies, “Drift around down here. Try to stay out of jail.”

“Well, me and the boys here got some work to do.” counters Sykes “Ya wanna come along? It ain’t like it used to be; but it’ll do.”

And I guess that is how I feel about leaving Camp Perry for a long term commitment to Bristol and the advent of scopes and extra Leg matches in service rifle. To paraphrase Sykes, “It ain’t like it used to be; but it’ll have to do.”

Category: Hap's Corner

About the Author: Hap Rocketto is a Distinguished Rifleman with service and smallbore rifle, member of The Presidents Hundred, and the National Guard’s Chief’s 50. He is a National Smallbore Record holder, a member of the 1600 Club and the Connecticut Shooters’ Hall Of Fame. He was the 2002 Intermediate Senior Three Position National Smallbore Rifle Champion, the 2012 Senior Three Position National Smallbore Rifle Champion a member of the 2007 and 2012 National Four Position Indoor Championship team, coach and captain of the US Drew Cup Team, and adjutant of the United States 2009 Roberts and 2013 Pershing Teams. Rocketto is very active in coaching juniors. He is, along with his brother Steve, a cofounder of the Corporal Digby Hand Schützenverein. A historian of the shooting sports, his work appears in Shooting Sports USA, the late Precision Shooting Magazine, The Outdoor Message, the American Rifleman, the Civilian Marksmanship Program’s website, and most recently, the apogee of his literary career, pronematch.com.

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