by Ben Small
I started reading Stephen Hunter before I adopted shooting as a hobby and before I realized I'd best learn something about guns if I wanted to include them as part of my plotting. Yes, the old putting a safety on a Detective's Special .38 Special thing again -- they don't have one. Peeling my editor off the wall thing.
And frankly, I didn't have much of a clue what Hunter was writing about. While I found his story intriguing, fast-moving and a page-turner, I skipped many of his gunnery details because I didn't know enough about guns to even fire one.
After my editor's outburst and very long lecture thereafter, I bought a few guns, primarily for their manuals, so I could ensure at least some details would be accurate. Then I took one of them -- an AR-15 -- out to the woods, fired one round -- not realizing I needed hearing protection -- and scared the hell out of myself. I hit the milk carton, I think, but was too busy scrambling back toward the house -- scared to death that my inability to hear would be permanent -- to look.
I should have read more Hunter.
Stephen Hunter is recognized as the best sniper novelist on the planet. His character, Bob Lee Swagger, a retired Marine sniper, is beloved by shooters everywhere -- hunter or paper-popper like me. As a shooter, I learn more about guns and how to use them from Hunter's novels than I do from subscriptions to Guns & Ammo or Shooting Times, magazine staples for most trigger-pullers. Because Stephen Hunter has a nose for details, the minute parts of a complex story that one doesn't realize are important until they're assembled into a slap-the-side-of-your head denouement.
Novel after novel -- one exception, The 47th Samurai, where for some reason Swagger journeys to Japan for a sword-fight with a legendary Japanese Samurai -- Hunter finds gun details (scopes, firing pins, ammo, calibers, sniping artistry, ballistics, accurizing, setups and other variables) that may seem insignificant to most, but are critical to a satisfying, can't-put-down story.
Take Shooter, for instance, the movie starring Mark Wahlberg as Bob Lee Swagger, which is based upon Hunter's novel Point of Impact. If you watch the movie, you may feel you need not read the book. Au contraire. For while the movie covers the book's premise -- albeit with some differences -- the movie settles for simplicity rather than the careful piecing together of a complex puzzle assembled by Hunter. Yes, the movie has a brilliant denouement, a masterful piece of crafting no doubt supplied by Hunter, but the revelations, settings and step-by-step plotting -- not to mention the finale -- vary by order of magnitude, like comparing a .22lr round to a ..22-250. (Both are .22 caliber bullets. But one is rimfire, the other is center-fire; one for gophers, the other for coyotes or deer; one gives a small pop, the other will deafen you; and finally, one costs $6/100, the other a buck per round.)
You may have heard of Stephen Hunter. He won a Pulitzer Prize...as a film critic. I haven't read one of Hunter's film pieces, but I'm working my way through all of his twenty-two acclaimed books, most of them Bob Lee Swagger novels.
And the funny thing is, Stephen Hunter has never been a sniper. Hunter grew up in a Chicago suburb to academic parents who forbade guns in the house. After becoming hooked on Dragnet, Hunter started sketching out gun designs on notepads and writing gun novels at age ten. Then he attended college, and like most college students, Hunter drifted Left and actually protested for gun bans. Finally, as an adult, Hunter stopped denying his inner voices, and he returned to his first love -- guns.
And Hunter's been firing off highly acclaimed novels ever since.
Writers often ask me about gun details, and I've penned a few blogs about them. Why? Because, like Hunter, I've become fascinated by weaponry in general and guns specifically. And it's a shame so many authors miss plot opportunities associated with their chosen weaponry or get details about the weapon (or its use) flat-out wrong. Yet Stephen Hunter takes me to school, about writing and about how to make details -- in this instance, gun details -- important. He's also taught me that if one is going to make a gun important to a plot, you can bet the book's shooter paid attention to detail. And if we're following the steps of the shooter, we should know how he prepared for what may be the critical book event.
So yes, I'm mad about Stephen Hunter. So much so, I may even read one of his film pieces.