Introduction to Sidearms
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In traditional 1950's SF nomenclature, a "blaster" is a type of lethal weapon which melts, vaporizes, or disintegrates the target with a blast of energy (generally atomic), a "needler" is a type of lethal weapon which punches long but narrow holes in the target either by deadly threadlike beams or with needle bullets, and a "stunner" or "stun gun" is a non-lethal weapon that renders the (living) target unconscious. A "fulgurator" or "bolt gun" is a weapon that shoots lightning or electricity, it is more or less an electron particle beam weapon. A conventional sidearm that shoots bullets is called a "slug-thrower."
The technical term for lasers and particle beam guns is "directed-energy weapon". The old term is "ray-gun", but nowadays this seems retro, quaint, and faintly comedic. Much like the term "space cadet."
And for all you young whipper-snappers who are under the misapprehension that science fiction started with the first Star Wars movie: "blaster" dates back to 1925 in Nictzin Dyalhis' When the Green Star Waned, "disintegrator ray" dates back to 1898 in Garrett Serviss' Edison's Conquest of Mars, "needler" dates back to 1934 in E.E."Doc" Smith's The Skylark of Valeron, and "stunner" dates back to 1944 in C. M. Kornbluth's Fire-Power. Isaac Asimov invented "force-field blades" in his 1952 novel David Starr, Space Ranger, which was the father of the light-saber.
Our square-jawed, steely eyed rocketeers have to be adequately armed. But you have to take the surroundings into account. One shot from an atomic fission blaster might guarantee that Killer Kane never menaces the spaceways again, but you won't live to collect the reward if it also vaporizes a hole in the hull the size of Roger Manning's ego. On the other hand, trying to swing a cutlass in free fall is an exercise in futility. The gallant crew of the Polaris had paralo-ray pistols but it would be nice to have something more believable.
In many SF novels, the captains of space passenger liners and tramp freighters will require all weapons capable of breaching the ship's hull to be surrendered and locked away for the duration of the voyage. Upon planetfall they will be returned to the owner.
But hull holes might not be a primary concern, it is going to take the better part of an hour before air loss through a bullet hole is a problem.
Mike Williams notes that it isn't just the hull that is vulnerable to stray shots. There is plenty of equipment you don't want to damage or it will spray corrosive chemicals / shut down the oxygen / make the atomic reactor go critical / do something else equally nasty. Space Patrol cadets are warned not to give asteroid pirates any ideas (e.g., don't take cover next to a large fluorescent orange pipe with the label "DANGER: LIQUID SODIUM" stenciled right next to the skull and crossbones)
The safest policy (for the ship at least) is to forbid firearms on board. But this isn't really an option. As Dr. John Schilling said:
Part of the Space Patrol's mission will involve checking out suspicious, rather than overtly hostile, activity, as with the present Coast Guard. If you know that Space Transport THX-1138 has been seized by Space Pirates (tm) who slaughtered the entire crew, you can lase it from a thousand kilometers away. If you're only guessing on the basis of some strange comm traffic, you've got to put a boarding party on the ship. If they are unarmed, you are only sending the pirates hostages.
Proper markmanship includes grip, aiming, breath control, trigger squeeze, target engagement, and positions. Don't rely upon what you see in Hollywood movies, most of it is utterly worthless. Especially holding your pistol sideways, with your palm down.
And there will be a few slight difference with different types of weapons. For instance, slugthrowers have plenty of recoil, gyrojet rocket guns have a small amount of recoil, and laser weapons have no recoil at all.
One Hand Grip
Hold the weapon in the nonfiring hand; form a V with the thumb and forefinger of the strong hand (firing hand). Place the weapon in the V with the front and rear sights in line with the firing arm. Wrap the lower three fingers around the pistol grip, putting equal pressure with all three fingers to the rear. Allow the thumb of the firing hand to rest alongside the weapon without pressure. Grip the weapon tightly until the hand begins to tremble; relax until the trembling stops. At this point, the necessary pressure for a proper grip has been applied. Place the trigger finger on the trigger between the tip and second joint so that it can be squeezed to the rear. The trigger finger must work independently of the remaining fingers. NOTE: If any of the three fingers on the grip are relaxed, the grip must be reapplied.
Two Handed Grips
The two-hand grip allows the firer to steady the firing hand and provide maximum support during firing. The nonfiring hand becomes a support mechanism for the firing hand by wrapping the fingers of the nonfiring hand around the firing hand. Two-hand grips are recommended for all pistol firing. WARNING Do not place the nonfiring thumb in the rear of the weapon. The recoil upon firing could result in personal injury.
Grip the weapon as with the one-hand grip. Firmly close the fingers of the nonfiring hand over the fingers of the firing hand, ensuring that the index finger from the nonfiring hand is between the middle finger of the firing hand and the trigger guard. Place the nonfiring thumb alongside the firing thumb. NOTE: Depending upon the individual firer, he may chose to place the index finger of his nonfiring hand on the front of the trigger guard since M9 and M11 pistols have a recurved trigger guard designed for this purpose.
This grip is commonly called the cup and saucer grip. Grip the firing hand as with the one-hand grip. Place the nonfiring hand under the firing hand, wrapping the nonfiring fingers around the back of the firing hand. Place the nonfiring thumb over the middle finger of the firing hand
Apply this grip the same as the fist grip. The only exception is that the nonfiring thumb is wrapped over the firing thumb.
As befitting an interstellar desperado, Han Solo has a quick-draw holster for his blaster. Note how the blaster is slung low, so the butt of the blaster is level with his hand. The crew of the Starship Enterprise did not need holsters. Their phasers would stick to their hips by virtue of the "magnatomic adhesion areas" on the pistol grip (apparently some kind of high-tech velcro).
The valiant crew of the Space Battleship Yamato use "cross-draw" holsters. The butt of the cosmogun (this was anglicized to "astro-automatic" in the English translation) juts forwards, instead of backwards as is conventional. While this does make an interesting visual metaphor (making the butt look like the hilt of a samurai sword) in practice a cross-draw has problems. A quick draw from a cross-draw holster will be much slower than from a conventional holster, and as the sidearm is swung to the target, the barrel will sweep across innocent bystanders. It is also easier for an assailant at close quarters to prevent you from drawing your weapon. About the only advantages are that it is easier to draw if you are sitting down or in a fighter plane cockpit, or if the weapon is covered by a coat or other article of clothing.
In the original Battlestar Galactica, the weapon holster was a cylinder with a slot down the side, constructed of something springy. The laser pistol could be extracted from the holster by pulling it sideways out of the spring grip. Personally I always thought that it would make more sense to have the slot in the front instead of the side. This would allow the weapon to be extracted and swung up to firing position in one motion, instead of two (pull to the left then raise upward).
With a reaction built in from hundreds of hours of practice, Lt. Larry McQueen thought the gun into his hand.
To one practiced in the fast draw, this is enough to trigger the reflexes needed. The holster used by the Solarian Patrol finished functionality evolving hundreds of years previously. It was a hard piece of leather, rigidly attached to the wide belt so it would not bend, twist or flop when the gun was drawn; of hard leather so the gun to which it was fitted would not bind or stick. Across the top of the holster was a strap of leather connected to the side of the holster with a snap. The strap prevented the gun from falling out of the holster or being removed without the owner's knowledge. The end of the strap being curved out instead of flat against the side, indicated to those who knew the difference between an officer familiar with his weapon and one who was not.
In the fast draw the heel of the hand comes up along the side of the holster, striking the curved arc of leather, releasing the snap and moving it out of the way. The fingers take hold of the butt of the gun, moving it clear of the holster and turning it ready for firing. As the gun points, the thumb snaps off the safety and the gun fires. The whole operation takes considerably less than 200 milliseconds from intent to execution. The sequence of movements is automatic, since there is no time to think out any one of them.
More than one person has, under pressure, shot a hole in his foot because he didn't have the sequence under control. Others, thinking themselves able to draw like lightening, were dead because they tried to outdraw someone who had them covered.
The colonist on the planet Pyrrus have the ultimate quick draw in a gadget called the "power-holster." The holster is strapped to your forearm. When you arrange your hand in "holding-a-pistol" posture, a mechanical actuator slams the gun out of the holster and into your hand.
"Every gun is fitted to its owner and would be useless on anyone else," Brucco said. "I'll show you why." He led Jason to an armory jammed with deadly weapons. "Put your arm in this while I make the adjustments."
It was a box-like machine with a pistol grip on the side. Jason clutched the grip and rested his elbow on a metal loop. Brucco fixed pointers that touched his arm, then copied the results from the meters. Reading the figures from his list, he selected various components from bins and quickly assembled a power holster and gun. With the holster strapped to his forearm and the gun in his hand, Jason noticed for the first time they were connected by a flexible cable. The gun fitted his hand perfectly.
"This is the secret of the power holster," Brucco said, tapping the flexible cable. "It is perfectly loose while you are using the weapon. But when you want it returned to the holster-" Brucco made an adjustment and the cable became a stiff rod that whipped the gun from Jason's hand and suspended it in midair.
"Then the return." The rod cable whirred and snapped the gun back into the holster. "The drawing action is the opposite of this, of course."
"A great gadget," Jason said. "But how do I draw? Do I whistle or something for the gun to pop out?"
"No, it is not sonic control," Brucco answered with a sober face. "It is much more precise than that. Here, take your left hand and grasp an imaginary gunbutt. Tense your trigger finger. Do you notice the pattern of the tendons in the wrist? Sensitive actuators touch the tendons in your right wrist. They ignore all patterns except the one that says hand ready to receive gun. After a time the mechanism becomes completely automatic. When you want the gun, it is in your hand. When you don't, it is in the holster."
Jason made grasping motions with his right hand, crooked his index finger. There was a sudden, smashing pain against his hand and a loud roar. The gun was in his hand-half the fingers were numb-and smoke curled up from the barrel.
"Of course, there are only blank charges in the gun until you learn control. Guns are always loaded. There is no safety. Notice the lack of a trigger guard. That enables you to bend your trigger finger a slight bit more when drawing so the gun will fire the instant it touches your hand."
It was without doubt the most murderous weapon Jason had ever handled, as well as being the hardest to manage. Working against the muscle burning ache of high gravity, he fought to control the devilish device. It had an infuriating way of vanishing into the holster just as he was about to pull the trigger. Even worse was the tendency to leap out before he was quite ready. The gun went to the position where his hand should be. If the fingers weren't correctly placed, they were crashed aside. Jason only stopped the practice when his entire hand was one livid bruise.
Complete mastery would come with time, but he could already understand why the Pyrrans never removed their guns. It would be like removing a part of your own body. The movement of gun from holster to hand was too fast for him to detect. It was certainly faster than the neural current that shaped the hand into the gun-holding position. For all apparent purposes it was like having a lightning bolt in your fingertip. Point the finger and blam, there's the explosion.
The weapon pictured on the right originally was created by Kelly Freas for the cover of a Telzey Amberdon book. Model maker Ed Klein liked the picture enough to create an actual prop model (with working laser) as a gift for Mr. Freas. Model was used in the Kelly Freas cover of the audio version of Slan, and in the above illustration at the insistence of Sean Barrett. It was also used by Laura Freas for an interior illustration of The Left Hand of Darkness. Anybody with scans of any of these image is encouraged to contact the webmaster.
The man known as DWP informed me of the address of Ed Klein's website. On it, I found the following:
This pistol was inspired by a cover painted by Frank Kelly Freas in the 1960's for Analog Science Fiction. Ed made the gun and installed freon jets, a gas laser, and a sound effect and carried it as his showpiece for many years. In 1983, Ed gave it to Kelly for his birthday, and Kelly uses it to this day as a laser pointer when he lectures.