Stand Your Ground And Shoot

A friend recommended a television show titled Sleep Hollow.  The plot concerns an upper crust British officer who, after turning coat in order to work for George Washington as his personal hatchet man, is forced into a mystical sleep which lasts for more than two centuries.  He awakes in modern times, bewildered by the technology and customs that surround him, but ready to take up the fight against dark supernatural forces that threaten to destroy all of Mankind.

Hmm.  After re-reading the above paragraph, I have to admit that it doesn’t really do much to incite a passion to see the series.  All in all, I would have to say that the show is both better and worse than it sounds.

One of the more engaging elements is how the aforementioned military officer constantly struggles to adapt the reflexes and assumptions from his own time into the situations he encounters in the world of today.  Since the show is an adventure tale there is a fair amount of gunplay, and the way the character handles firearms is at least plausible.

Below are two screen shots from an episode where our hero is attacked by villains wielding fully automatic weapons.  Click on a picture to access the largest version.

ichabod crane from sleepy hollow 1

ichabod crane from sleepy hollow 2

(Sorry for the quality of the pictures, but it was the best I could do.)

The handgun in question is a 1911 that had been supplied to the character by an ally, so it is certainly capable of multiple shots without requiring to be reloaded after every round like a handgun from the 18th Century.  Having observed modern handguns in action in previous episodes, the character continues to fire until the fight comes to a close.  Score one for the writers, who at least treat the man from the past as being smart enough to discard old habits when faced with a new reality.

But note the stiff and formal shooting stance that the actor has assumed.  Is this a realistic portrayal of how people from the late 1700’s fired handguns?  As is the case with most things, the answer is ambiguous.

It seems that people would stand so if they were engaged in a formal duel, as there would be time to carefully brace oneself in order to gain the maximum accuracy from the one-shot handguns that were most often used.


(Picture source.)

If there is only one shot allowed, then you had better make it count.  Hold the gun out at arm’s length, assume a wide and stable stance, and try your best to keep the gun as steady as possible.

The stance is not too far off from that employed by modern bullseye handgun competitors, where the trophy is awarded to the person who shoots the best score at a leisurely pace.

bullseye pistol competition firing line

But there seemed to be times when the dueling pistol was held closer to the face, as seen in the following two contemporary drawings depicting the famous duel fought in 1892 by Georges Clemenceau.



(Both pictures were found here.)

Although there were certainly modern revolvers available at the time, it appears that the combatants are using percussion single-shot pistols.  The guns shown below are flintlocks, but they would be very similar in function to the pistols used by Clemenceau and his opponent.

pair of dueling pistols

pair of dueling pistols 2

Both pairs of guns have surprisingly effective sights.  The front sight is a shiny brass bead instead of the prominent post or fin that modern arms have, but those old guns are certainly accurate enough to punch a hole in a villain at twenty paces.

So why did Clemenceau and his opponent hold the guns in towards their face, instead of at full extension?  It could be that they were suffering from nearsightedness, and simply wanted to get the guns in close enough so they could aim.

So would an upper crust military officer stand out in the open during a firefight, assume a stiff and stead stance, and present his gun towards the enemy before letting a shot off?  Dunno, but it certainly would be something he would find familiar.

13 thoughts on “Stand Your Ground And Shoot

  1. Watched a Wild Bill Hitchcock bio – in one of his more famous duels, he didn’t shoot first, but took very careful aim and shot the man through the heart from a substantial distance.

    • I’ve actually heard conflicting stories about that; some people claim dueling pistols were deliberately inaccurate, while others say smoothbores can be remarkably accurate out to about a hundred metres.

  2. I thought the classic dueling stance was in part meant to present as narrow a profile as possible to your opponent. Well, it *would* be narrower for someone with less stomach than me…

  3. These are classic NRA Bulleye stances. Look at image three. It doesn’t matter if it’s smooth bore, single shot or flint-lock. Duels were about perceived injuries to self, reputation or loved ones. Many duels were settled with misses. That you stood up and risked your life was sufficient to recapture your “honor.” If you had the time, you’d shoot like that.

    What a weird world, but then again, what if we had to defend our words and actions with combat?

  4. I hadn’t heard of this show. I’d guess, if he’d had enough time and experience with American soldiers before being put to sleep, he’d know about shooting from concealment/breastworks/cover; AND that aimed fire is pretty accurate, so standing still in the open is not good for continued existence.

  5. You apparently missed the early episode of the show where our protagonist wa being chased by the horseman, he grabbed a modern pistol fired it once at the horseman, dropped it and continued running. The police office running with him yelled “Why did you only shoot once? he incredulously yelled back “There was more than one shot?”

  6. You also missed the episode with the Anti-gunner comment made. The female cop states, The Second Amendment, what were the Founder Fathers thinking. The hero comments that many thought the second amendment was wrong.

    • That’s disappointing.

      Still, I might take a look at this series once I’ve got through the backlog of other things to watch.

  7. That they maybe were nearsighted and thus held the pistols closer to themselves to be better able to see the sights seems a bit dubious to me. I would think, if they were near sighted and since they were fairly well off financially, they would wear spectacles (which were long in use by then).

  8. This is a really interesting post. I like the analysis of the shooting styles and the discussion in the comments about dueling and smoothbores.

    I find myself a little torn about the present day illegality of dueling. It would make for much more polite debate.

  9. I’ve been watching ‘Sleepy Hollow’ regularly; IMHO it’s bad, not the greatest urban fantasy ever, but it has its moments.

    Fav moment so far? When the hero corrects a museum guide, “Paul Revere did not shout ‘The British are coming!’ As at that time we were still all British it would have been singularly unhelpful. The message, quietly conveyed, was that the *regulars* are coming!”

    As to the Clemanceau duel; maybe it’s artistic licence on the part of the illustrator?

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