Stephen Hunter: The Shooting

Our friend Stephen Hunter describes the column below as “one more Alec Baldwin piece, this from a film critic and acknowledged firearms expert.” Steve is the Pulitzer Prize-winning former film critic of the Washington Post and author of the Bob Lee Swagger novels. His new novel is TARGETED, which will be published in January by Atria/Emily Bestler Books and is available for pre-order now. Steve writes:

What did Alec Baldwin know of the firearm with which he killed Halyna Hutchins? The answer, based on his filmography, is not much.

Whether intentionally or by chance, he has had a remarkably gun-free career as a film actor. He has never made a Western. His most recent exposure dates back to 1994’s “The Getaway,” in which he used a .45 automatic, as did Steve McQueen in Sam Peckinpah’s original. However the automatic is a pistol from another era (1911 on) and its protocols are entirely different than the Italian clone of the Colt Peacemaker he reportedly used on the set of “Rust.”

The perdurable Peacemaker is a genre icon. It has been used safely in literally tens of thousands of Westerns, from “The Great Train Robbery” of 1903 to this year’s “Old Henry.” In today’s professional film culture, even with diminished production of Westerns, there still must be hundreds of men and women highly proficient in its use. New Mexico, where the film shoot had gone, has to be jammed with savvy Colt users. There’s even an under-the-radar sport called Western Action Shooting by which thousands of ordinary folks dress up cowboy and use period-accurate firearms in matches. In other words, there’s no shortage of expertise.

Clearly, Baldwin was not a western action shooter. One must further wonder if his reputed anger issues or his CEO status as producer precluded some old-salt type from giving him a basic rundown on what he could or could not do or what he should never do with the pistol. If so, that would be one more catastrophe in the chain of catastrophes that killed Ms. Hutchins.

The gun that Baldwin used was a functional Italian replica of the Colt revolver which came into being in the early years of industrialized firearm development, far before such elementary issues as safety became of consideration. It was one of the first cartridge-firing handguns from Connecticut’s gun valley, originally released in 1873.

Besides or perhaps in spite of being beautiful and ergonomic, its power, reliability, ease of operation and sturdiness made it a perfect marketplace fit. It was designed to be a short-range, quick-to-deploy mankiller, mandatory protection in the frequent episodes of violence that marked the frontier. Its engineers never cared about safety because they assumed the men who used it to be of practical nature, good with their hands, skilled in survival skills, shooters of experience, of great need to do the necessary fast. They never envisioned it in the hands of actors.

All these years later, it retains some features that make it dangerous to the tenderfoot.

As a single-action revolver, its trigger does one thing; it drops the cocked hammer. That hammer must be cocked by hand, usually with the thumb, wrapping around and securing the upswept spur, drawing it back until it locks in place. Thus–usually–shooting requires two discrete behaviors–the hammer must be cocked, then the trigger pressed.

The art of drawing and shooting the single-action Colt is therefore highly refined, an integration of contradictory motions–the draw is up and out, the cocking down and back — that demand coordination, dexterity, hand strength and practice. It is not something to be picked up quickly, which is why many producers use shooting doubles, like armorer Hannah Guiterrez-Reed’s legendary father Thell Reed, in closeups.

One exception confuses the issue and Clint Eastwood will be eternally grateful for it. He burst into big-screen consciousness in 1967 when he–or an Italian shooter-double in close-up–blew five galoots out of their boots as if he had a submachine gun. “A Fistful of Dollars” helped make him a star.

Eastwood or the double had fanned the pistol. It is a feature of the Colt–of any revolver– that when the trigger is held back, that is, pinned against the rear of the trigger guard, the cocking function is bypassed. There are mechanical reasons for this, but I won’t explain them because I am not without mercy. Still, it is this feature which makes fanning possible: if the shooter holds back the trigger, he can slap the hammer back and it flies forward and fires at each slap, over and over. With practice and talent he can get really fast and even accurate.

So it was this big iron that ended up on the hip and then in the hands of Alec Baldwin. I believe the most likely scenario for the incident at Bonanza movie ranch had to involve “inadvertent fanning.”

There’s even an incident of inadvertent fanning on the record. In John Ford’s magnificent “The Searchers” Ethan (John Wayne) tosses The Reverend (Ward Bond) his loaded Colt. “Watch it, it’s loaded,'” says Ethan. But the Reverend doesn’t watch it. As he raises the pistol to fire at the charging Comanches, his thumb slips off the hammer and he accidentally discharges a shot at 45 degrees into the river.

Something like this must have happened to Baldwin. The actor, as reported, was sitting in the pew of the church, practicing. He was trying mightily to get the draw-cock rhythm down and that was his focus, though dangerously adding the element of speed. It never occurred to him that the gun was loaded. (Rule No. 1: All guns are always loaded.) He was unaware that his muzzle had drifted onto the camera crew where Ms. Hutchins and director Joel Souza were crouched. (Rule No. 2: Never let your muzzle cover anything you aren’t willing to destroy.)

In practicing the draw-while-cocking integration, his index finger had wandered onto the trigger, depressing it just far enough to bypass the cocking function. (Rule No. 3: Don’t touch the trigger until you’re ready to shoot.) Struggling awkwardly, he released the hammer under the impression he had cocked the pistol. He hadn’t. The hammer flew forward. The gun fired. (Rule No. 4: Always know what your target is.) It is quite possible that absent knowledge of these mechanics, he still believes the gun fired on its own, out of some defect. The defect was his.

Most gun accidents are confluences of unlikelihoods, defying logic and all odds. Just consider the train of “if onlys” that produced this one. But distraction, more than anything, is a root cause. Whatever the legal, professional, or moral outcome, it should remind all shooters, Hollywood or Baltimore or any place in between, to pay attention. Let me add Rule No. 5: When you have a gun in your hand, it is the only thing in the world.

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