SPECTRE: The weapons of secret agents

Secret Agent Weapons, Evening Talk on 4 November 2015
Secret Agent Weapons, Evening Talk on 4 November 2015


Like many of you, we at the Royal Armouries are eagerly awaiting the latest Bond movie, SPECTRE. On November the 4th in our talk ‘Secret Agent Weapons’, we’ll be telling some of the real stories behind the weapons used in the Bond movies over the years, as well as those designed for real life secret agents (see this link for details).

The most important Bond gun, of course, is that carried by 007 himself. Here are a selection of those he’s carried over the years…

The traditional Walther PPK.

PPK – ‘The’ Bond Gun

Although we don't know what weapons the real Secret Intelligence Service might have used, we do know that during the Second World War, German spies did use the PPK. This example was intended for a Nazi party official.
Although we don’t know what weapons the real Secret Intelligence Service might have used, we do know that during the Second World War, German spies did use the PPK. This example was intended for a Nazi party official.

An iconic weapon, Bond’s PPK has been with him since the very first movie, though not the first Ian Fleming novel. In his first Bond book (Casino Royale, 1953), Fleming drew from his own wartime experiences in Naval Intelligence, and equipped 007 with the small Beretta 418 in the small .25 ACP cartridge. It was a sensible enough choice for a secret agent. After all, if a real spy has to draw his or her weapon, something has gone wrong! Fleming even had Bond remove the grips to make the pistol as slim and concealable as possible; important to prevent unwanted bulges when wearing a tailored suit or tuxedo!

As the novels progressed however, and Bond began to develop into the action hero we know today, Fleming received a letter from a fan that would forever change the Bond universe. In 1956, firearms expert and Bond fan Major Geoffrey Boothroyd wrote to Fleming to suggest that the Beretta that he had carried for Fleming’s first five stories was ‘a lady’s gun’. He also criticised his choice of holster as not quick enough to use, and his reliance upon silencers, which he thought weren’t quiet enough relative to the loss of power they caused. Boothroyd’s suggestion was a revolver, the Smith & Wesson Centennial Airweight, which Fleming incorporated as a sort of ‘guest star’. However, for Bond’s main sidearm he stuck with a compact self-loading pistol, the Polizei Pistole Kriminalmodelle (short police pistol). The legendary Bond PPK was born.

Again drawing from wartime experience, Fleming created the fictional ‘Q’ Branch, based upon the real-life wartime SOE Station IX and named after the military term ‘Quartermaster’. This team would from now on furnish Bond with not only his PPK, but a range of other weapons and gadgets. In honour of Boothroyd’s good-natured nitpicking, he named the his new head of ‘Q’ Branch ‘Major Boothroyd’, dubbed him ‘the greatest small-arms expert in the world’, and wrote a scene in which Bond’s pistol was replaced by the PPK. This was later recreated in the first Bond movie, 1962’s ‘Dr. No’. In reality, the pistol used in this movie was the larger Walther PP, perhaps because the diminutive PPK would have appeared too small in Sean Connery’s hands.

LINKS- You can read more about the Boothroyd story here:

The PPK’s original calibre was 7.65x17mm (.32 ACP), but was later produced for the larger 9×17mm (.380 ACP) cartridge. Bond has carried both, sacrificing one extra shot (7 vs 6 rounds in the PPK) in exchange for more potent ammunition. Today, .380 is regarded as the minimum for practical self-defence purposes, so Bond’s recent use of the .380 variant makes sense. Due to American import restrictions on foreign firearms (and possibly the larger hands of some Bond actors), the PPK is sometimes replaced in the movies by the PPK/S, which is the short slide and barrel of the PPK fitted to the larger PP frame.

The larger Walther PP, as the L47A1, was issued to RAF aircrew for escape and evasion purposes.
The larger Walther PP, shown here in British service L47A1 form. These pistols were issued to RAF aircrew for escape and evasion purposes.

The outdated PPK, first produced in 1931, remains in production today. This is due in large part due to its iconic status as the ‘Bond gun’. Yet it was replaced for a time in the movie series from ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’ until Daniel Craig’s first outing in ‘Casino Royale’, by the much larger and more modern-looking polymer-framed Walther P99. Though harder to conceal, the P99 has much better sights, a longer barrel, and 15 round capacity as standard. Given the number of gunfights Bond finds himself in, this move made a lot of sense. But the PPK would not be kept down. In keeping with Skyfall’s ‘back to Bond’s roots’ approach in 2012, the PPK (in PPK/S form) reappeared, this time with a set of high-tech biometric palm-print reading grips that of course featured in a key action scene.

In the new movie SPECTRE, Bond again ignores a range of more useful modern ‘concealed carry’ pistols (including the modern Walthers), in favour of his old PPK. As in other areas of Bond’s character, nostalgia has overcome ‘realism’.

Beyond the PPK

Interestingly, in the continuation novels written after Fleming’s death in 1964, the PPK is abandoned far sooner. The PPK is actually withdrawn from MI6 service by the time of ‘Licence Renewed’ (1981), based upon a real-life incident where the pistol used by royal bodyguard DI James Beaton jammed as he tried to protect Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips from a would-be kidnapper. In reality, the PPK is no more prone to stoppages than any other pistol, and there would have been no need to withdraw it from SIS service as it had never entered it!

In any case, Bond for some reason opts instead for the even older FN M1903. This is followed by the space-age but wholly spy-inappropriate Heckler & Koch VP70 (seen in the movie ‘Aliens’), and then the H&K P7, Hans Gruber’s pistol of choice in ‘Die Hard’ (1988). The remainder of the John Gardner novels settle on an excellent period choice; the Smith & Wesson ASP. The ASP, based upon the S&W Model 39 self-loading pistol, was created specifically for the type of covert work we read about in the Bond books. It’s small, slim, and has an unusual channel cut in the slide instead of conventional sights. The idea was to allow the shooter to quickly align his sights in the sort of close-range gunfight that a spy might actually partake in. It also featured transparent grips to show how many rounds were in the magazine.

From the Internet Movie Firearms Database.
From the Internet Movie Firearms Database. The ASP pistol, originally designed by American gunsmith Paris Theodore. This pistol was also featured in the Cold War special operations-themed game ‘Call of Duty: Black Ops’ (2010)

From 1997, the novels (now written by Raymond Benson) mirrored the guns seen on screen, with the PPK giving way in ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’ to the P99. However, they part company later in the 1990s, with Bond switching between the two pistols. This of course prefigures Bond’s much more recent return to the PPK in the movies.

Opening Shots

As memorable as Bond’s PPK is the classic opening ‘shot’ of the movies, with its bullet’s-eye-view of Bond in the sights of a bad guy’s gun. You might be surprised to learn that a real gun barrel was originally used to film this scene. A revolver (supposedly a Smith & Wesson .38) was purchased from a shop in Piccadilly, and a pinhole camera aimed down the bore at stuntman Bob Simmons (presumably the barrel was removed to achieve this). This amazing but simple practical effect was replaced with CGI from ‘Goldeneye’ (1995) onwards.

From the Internet Movie Firearms Database
From the Internet Movie Firearms Database. Maurice Binder, creator of the famous opening titles.

The shooting stance used in these scenes looks strange, even silly to those of us today used to ‘tactical’ two-handed shooting techniques seen in modern films and TV series. However, it was actually based on real Second World War combat shooting techniques that emphasised speed over accuracy. Recognising that most pistols were used at very close range, military instructors William Fairbairn and Eric Sykes taught Commandos and Special Operations Executive agents to rely upon instinct. The shooter would adopt a half-crouch for stability and to make themselves a smaller target for return fire. The non-firing hand would be held out to one side for balance. A variation on this, known as ‘hip-shooting’, had the firer simply point the pistol without actually aiming with the eye. The use of these techniques in the movies reflects Fleming’s real-life military experience and the era in which the classic novels and films were produced. Another Fleming nod to realism also appears in ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ novel (1962), where he explains that firing a sub-machine gun from the hip is the ‘correct way’ to fire an automatic weapon. This is still basically true today, because most firearms will climb and pull to the right on a long burst (although it is possible with some weapons to fire quite accurate bursts from the shoulder).

From ‘Kill or Get Killed’ by U.S. Army Colonel Rex Applegate (1943). This expanded upon skills outlined in ‘Shooting to Live’ by Fairbairn and Sykes (1942).
Combat shooting as illustrated in ‘Kill or Get Killed’ by U.S. Army Colonel Rex Applegate (1943). This expanded upon skills outlined in ‘Shooting to Live’ by Fairbairn and Sykes (1942).

We’ve already seen a range of weapons in the SPECTRE trailers, from the old favourite PPK to the latest from German makers Heckler & Koch and Arsenal firearms of Bulgaria. Watch out for the first big screen appearance of the bizarre Arsenal AF2011 Dueller Prismatic; essentially two Colt 1911 type pistols melded into one, firing two shots for every pull of the trigger! A future classic ‘bad guy’ gun if ever there was one.

To find out more about the weapons of Bond and their real origins in WW2 secret agent activities, visit our talk with curator (and author of the above) Jonathan Ferguson Wednesday 4 November – see this link for more details.