Simanaitis Says

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FIREARMS OF THE HOLMESIAN CANON

IN FULL candor, I’m not much into firearms. By contrast, as chronicled by his friend and sidekick, Dr. John H. Watson, Sherlock Holmes certainly knew his way around them. Here’s a brief look at several of these with their canonical contexts. Loosely, in which direction they’re pointed….

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Revolver practice against the wall of 221B Baker Street. Image from the International Exhibition of Sherlock Homes, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry; photo by Jonathan H. Liu.

In “The Musgrave Ritual,” Watson notes that Holmes would “adorn the opposite wall with a patriotic V.R. done in bullet pockmarks.”  Boxer cartridges are cited, from which firearms authorities infer these were probably .22s.

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Webley .45 “British Bull Dog” revolver, 1870s. Image by hrftx.

On the other hand, for less confined activities, Holmes might have toted a .45-caliber short-barrel Webley Metropolitan Police RIC (Royal Irish Constabulary) revolver. This was likely the weapon Holmes used to save Sir Henry from the “gigantic hound” of the Baskervilles.

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“Holmes emptied five barrels of his revolver into the creature’s flank.” Image by Sidney Paget.

Watson had served as an army surgeon in the Second Afghan War (“You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive,” says Holmes in their first meeting.) Following usual practice for British officers of the time, Watson would have had to buy his own firearm, though Her Majesty’s Government graciously provided the ammo.

A likely sidearm for Dr. Watson was a .45-caliber Adams. British gunsmith Robert Adams patented the first successful double-action revolver in 1851. Several firearms manufacturers offered variations of his design.

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British Army Mark III, 1872, Adams revolver.

Given that the Second Afghan War was fought 1878 to 1880, the British Army Mark III would seem a likely Watson purchase.

Not that caninicide was all that common in the Holmesian canon, but Watson too dispatched one of man’s best friends. In “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches,” Holmes warns, “I think, Watson, that it would be as well of you to have your pistol ready.” And so he does.

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Watson finishes off a brute mastiff with a single shot. Image by Sidney Paget.

In a wonderful bit of Sherlockian scholarship, William Baring-Gould concludes that Watson, not Holmes, “was the better shot with a handgun. Holmes needed five shots to finish off the Hound of the Baskervilles, but Watson apparently needed only one to blow out the brains of the unpleasant mastiff Carlos.”

Evildoers in the canon carried heat as well. Colonel Sebastian Moran was “the second most dangerous man in London,” according to Holmes, who rated only Professor James Moriarty higher. Moran used an airgun in his attempted assassination of Holmes in “The Adventure of the Empty House.” Fired from a building across from 221B Baker Street, the airgun put a hole in a wax decoy of Holmes.

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The Bolzenbuchse was a breech-loading air rifle dating from the middle of the 18th century. Images from The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, edited, notes and bibliography by Willian S. Baring-Gould, Clarkson Potter, 1967.

“An admirable and unique weapon,” said Holmes, “noiseless and of tremendous power.” Airguns built into walking sticks or canes dated from the 1840s in a wide range of calibers, .117s to .750s. To operate, one would pump the gun perhaps 250 times to achieve an air pressure of 500 psi.

An article cited by Shane Wolfe from Guns & Ammo describes more about this type of weapon. An authority, evidently both a Sherlockian and firearms smart, measured the distance across London’s Baker Street at 221B to be 21 paces.  Back home, he attached a shoulder stock to an airgun cane and set up targets at the appropriate distance.

Muzzle velocity of his first shot was comparable to that of a .22 Short, “not particularly puissant, but still with proper placement it would be dangerous.”

He was able to dispatch a honeydew melon at 21 paces. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2015

2 comments on “FIREARMS OF THE HOLMESIAN CANON

  1. carmacarcounselor
    April 26, 2016

    Fascinating stuff. I often wondered what firearms they used, and the air gun in particular raised my curiosity. Leave it to the Americans to follow up with an actual demonstration. 250 pumps! And I thought my bicycle tires required a lot of elbow grease!

  2. Regan dreams I cloud.com
    January 27, 2021

    May I disagree with the observation on air guns. During the Napoleonic Wars the French faced troops armed with 50 caliber repeating air guns. These could easily kill a man at over 100 meters. So.effective were these that Napoleon ordered anyone caught with an air gun would be summarily executed. So compared to military air guns of the 19th Century, today’s small bore air guns seem like toys.

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