In cinema a shot is defined as time between the moment that the camera starts rolling until the moment it stops. In shooting shot are the pellets in a shotgun shell, but a shot is defined as the discharge of a firearm.
Arguably one of the most famous movie shots, pun intended, was the closing scene in the 12 minute long 1903 Edison Company film The Great Train Robbery, when actor Justus C. Barnes fired six rounds at the audience. Cinema was in its infancy and many viewers, unfamiliar with the new medium, thought that they were actually about to be shot. From its earliest beginnings it is easy to see why firearms have played a central role in motion picture.
Firearms have often been the focal point of some of the most popular films ever made. The first movie named for a firearm was the 1950 James Stewart vehicle Winchester 73.The plot of which was about the adventures of a specially selected Winchester 1873 marked “One of One Thousand.” Winchester made 701,058 centerfire Model ’73s which means that only 701 were possibly manufactured. To date only 136 of these rare rifles have been verified. Oddly enough, of the more common “One of One Hundred,” which more than 7,000 may have been made, only eight have surfaced.
Publicity conscious Universal Pictures sponsored a nationwide contest to find any of the remaining “One of One Thousand” Model 1873 Winchester rifles, resulting some hitherto unknown examples coming to light and a resurgence of antique gun collecting. To ensure authenticity Winchester sent its crack exhibition shooter Herb Parsons to do the trick shooting and to train Stewart so he would look natural handling the rifle.
The1971 western Valdez is Coming features Burt Lancaster as Roberto ‘Bob’ Valdez, a former US Army Scout, who seeks justice for the widow of an innocent man he was tricked into killing. After kidnapping the wife of the rancher who tricked him he is chased by a band of his hired hands and holes up in the mountains. There he prepares his defense by handloading for his Sharps. The shot clearly shows a powder flask, empty cases, and bullets as Valdez professionally wields a nutcracker reloading tool.
Looking down into a valley at the approaching band of men Valdez screws a shooting stick into the ground, loads the rifle, mounts it, estimates the distance, adjusts the vernier sight, and begins to fire. Later he is captured and the jefe of the band, El Segundo, and he have this conversation.
El Segundo: [referring to Valdez’s earlier marksmanship against his men] You know something, Bob Valdez, you hit one, I think, 700-800 yards.
Bob Valdez: [with certitude] Closer to a thousand.
El Segundo: What was it? Sharps?
Bob Valdez: [nods] My own load.
El Segundo: You ever hunt buffalo?
Bob Valdez: Apache.
El Segundo: I knew it. When?
Bob Valdez: Before I know better.
The exchange is made all the more believable by the perfectly accurate portrayal of the period loading equipment and shooting scene.
While Tom Selleck may have starred in the 1990 film Quigley Down Under, clearly the attraction for firearms enthusiasts was the Sharps .45-110 rifle carried by Selleck’s character Matthew Quigley. His description of the rifle is red meat for gun cranks, “It’s a lever action breach loader. Usual barrel length’s 30 inches. This one has an extra four, It’s converted to use a special 45 caliber 110 grain metal cartridge, with a 540 grain paper patches bullet. It’s fitted with double set triggers, and a vernier sight, marked up to 1200 yards. This one shoots a mite further.” This is true, for the .45 caliber bullet propelled by 110 gains of black powder was the most accurate and powerful rifle cartridge existent until the 1884 introduction of smokeless powder.
Quigley’s shots, particularly standing, require a suspension of belief but it is worth remembering buffalo hunter and scout Billy Dixon. A band of between 700-1200 Comanche and Cheyenne warriors attacked the settlement of Adobe Walls, Texas on June 27, 1874. On the third day of the siege Dixon took aim with a .50-90 Sharps buffalo rifle knocking a warrior from his horse and killing him. After the battle US Army surveyors measured the distance at 1,538 yards, nine-tenths of a mile. The modest Dixon always referred to it as a “scratch shot”.
San Francisco Police Department Inspector Harry Callahan, in 1971’s Dirty Harry, points his big revolver at an alleged perpetrator and menacingly intones, “I know what you are thinking. “Did he fire six shots or only five. Well to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I kinda lost track myself, but being that his is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: ”Do I feel lucky? Well do ya punk?” This 33 seconds of drama drove Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum Model 29 sales into the stratosphere, people were paying retail and in some cases, a premium surcharge to get their hands on this hand cannon. The demand for Shiloh Rifle Manufacturing’s Sharps reproductions pushed the factory to the limit.
Although these firearms manufactures did not pay for the free publicity, as do corporations today for product placement, they were well aware of the old poem, The Cod Fish.
“The codfish lays ten thousand eggs,
The homely hen lays one.
The codfish never cackles
To tell you what she’s done.
And so we scorn the codfish,
While the humble hen we prize,
Which only goes to show you
That it pays to advertise.”