The Guns of the Gumshoes

I have a thing for Private Eyes novels, and I grew up reading about Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe and watching Jake in China Town. I have always thoroughly enjoyed the genre. Guns play an interesting role in the private eye world. (The fictional one.) Not all private eyes carry one. Sam Spade famously didn’t carry one, and neither did Jake Gittes. On the flip side, Phillip Marlowe carried a variety of guns over the span of novels, and most modern gumshoes are parting a piece.

The genre that makes these men fascinating is one that’s often dark and hopeless. The noir genre often has police as incompetent or uninterested or even controlled by shadowy figures. The detectives are alone to face the threats that come at them as a consequence of their investigation. In these situations carrying a gun is more than practical, it’s necessary. As a fan of the private detective and noir genre, I’ve decided to gather and profile the guns carried by some of the more famous private eyes in the fictional world.

Lew Harper(Archer) — Colt Detective Special

Lew Harper is based on Lew Archer, and why they changed his name in the 1966 film is beyond me. I’m admittedly not familiar with Lew Archer novels, but I became a fan of the 1966 movie as a kid. Harper, as played by Paul Newman, is no gun-slinging, fist-fighting private eye. He is a charmer and a bit of a goof who works as a detective when he’s not avoiding signing his divorce papers. In the film “Harper,” our titular detective is trying to find a multi-millionaire who has gone missing.

Colt Detective Special
Colt Detective Special. It’s got Detective in the name!

Throughout the film, he carries an appropriately named Colt Detective Special. This is a classic snub nose revolver that came from the Fitz specials of yesteryear. It’s famed for its easy concealment and its load of six rounds of .38 Special. Harper carries it in a shoulder holster, which is again seemingly appropriate for a private eye of the era.

Phillip Marlowe — Colt 1911 .38 Super Match

“Phillip Marlowe,” as written by Raymond Chandler, carried everything from a Colt Detective Special to a Luger. I could pick a variety of weapons, but I settled on the Colt .38 Super 1911 he carried in the book, “Farewell, My Lovely.” It’s all kinds of cool to see in a classic detective novel. The .38 Super was never superbly popular, and like 10mm had a quick rise and fall in popularity.

Colt Super .38 Super
A 1911 is .38 Super is always cool. (Turnbull Restoration)

The .38 Super was one of those small, light bullets that moved fast. It was known for punching through automobile doors with ease and was often used by cops pursuing bootleggers and motorized bank robbers. In “Farewell, My Lovely,” the gun is described as a “…Colt .38 automatic of the type known as the Super Match.” Oddly, in the 1970s film, he uses a nickel-plated revolver. A 1911 in .38 Super will always be cool, and so will Marlowe.

Patrick Kenzie — Kahr Mk9

Patrick Kenzie stars as the Massachusetts-based private eye in a series of books by Dennis Lehane. The most popular and well-known is the book-turned-film “Gone, Baby Gone.” Kenzie attempts to locate a missing young girl with an irresponsible mom throughout the Boston Underworld. It has twists and turns, and it is a dark film with a good ending. While the film isn’t action-oriented, our hero does carry a Kahr Mk9 throughout the film.

Kahr MK9
The little MK9 is easy to carry and comfortable for a PI.

The Mk9 is a tiny single stack 9mm that’s part of Kahr’s more premium lineup of handguns. It’s micro-sized and easy to carry, something the private eye likely appreciates. Kenzie, as played by Casey Affleck, is quite competent with the gun but isn’t quick to use it. He is more brains than brawn as a detective, but his moral compass pulls the trigger for him when necessary.

Gay Perry — Vektor CP1

“Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” is one of the films that are often credited with revitalizing Robert Downey Jr’s career. “Iron Man” gets all the credit, but “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” proved he still had acting chops. Downey plays a former burglar named Harry who unintentionally gets a movie role and is placed under the tutelage of Gay Perry, played by Val Kilmer. Gay Perry is a gay private detective who is getting Harry ready for his movie role.

Vektor CP1
Gay Perry carries a Vektor but Harry uses it often.

They get involved in a complicated web involving inheritance and a few impostors. Gay Perry is a man who believes in the rule of cool and carries the cool and rare Vektor CP1. The Vektor CP1 looks like a gun out of Battlestar Galactica. In reality, it’s a semi-auto 9mm handgun from South Africa. It’s smooth and trim with a unique appearance but a fairly conventional action. It certainly stands out, and sometimes, that’s all a movie gun needs to do.

Mathew Scudder — Colt MK IV Series 70

Mathew Scudder is an ex-cop, recovering alcoholic, and unlicensed private eye in New York City. He’s a tragic man whose drinking caused him to accidentally kill an innocent child in the midst of a gunfight. He’s for hire if you can find him, and he’s clever, smart, and stoic. Liam Neeson portrays him in the Neo Noir film “A Walk Among the Tombstones,” but he’s also the star of a series of books.

COlt 1911
Scudder keeps it old school with a Colt M1911

Throughout “A Walk Among the Tombstones,” Scudder’s primary firearm is a Colt 1911, specifically the Colt MK IV Series 70. The film took place in 1999, and Scudder is an old guy by then, so the M1911 makes sense. It’s shown to be the same gun he carried as a cop, so it’s likely a familiar choice and a common one in the late 1990s. Scudder also packs a S&W 640 as a backup, and he needs it with only seven or eight rounds of .45 ACP.

Sherlock Holmes — Webley RIC

The most legendary Private Detective to ever walk is Sherlock Holmes. This creation by Arthur Conan Doyle is likely the most famous detective to ever exist in fiction. He’s known for his genius and unconventional manner. He’s not known for being a gunfighter, but more than once, his skill with a firearm is referenced. The gun he doesn’t leave home without is a Webley revolver, specifically a RIC or Royal Irish Constabulary in .442 Webley. He also occasionally carried a British Bull Dog and a Metropolitan Police Revolver. The RIC was his favorite and most common carry a gun, enough so that it appears to have made it in the more recent films.

Webley RIC
Holmes had great taste with the RIC. (Unblinking Eye)

The Webley RIC was designed to be small and concealable. It was a weapon that was easy to drop into a coat pocket. It was a solid-frame revolver and was the first double-action Webley produced. The .442 Webley wasn’t a powerhouse, but it was appropriate for a little gun of the era.

It’s Elementary

Private eyes will hold this rogue-like place in fiction. They operate alone and are often outgunned. They face down the rich and corrupt in a courageous attempt to shake the truth out of trees. Guns aren’t the primary tools of their trade, but they seemingly find themselves in enough bad situations to make them worth the investment. These are a few of my favorites. What are yours? Let us know what you think!

Travis Pike is a former Marine Machine Gunner and a lifelong firearms enthusiast. Now that his days of working a 240B like Charlie Parker on the sax are over he's a regular guy who likes to shoot, write, and find ways to combine the two. He holds an NRA certification as a Basic Pistol Instructor and is probably most likely the world's Okayest firearm instructor. He is a simplicisist when it comes to talking about himself in the 3rd person and a self-professed tactical hipster. Hit him up on Instagram, @travis.l.pike, with story ideas.

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