2013-12-28

Ben Sisko, Gunslinger

Imagine if you are sent back in time by accident.

You awake in a strange land of oddly dressed humans . . . they speak English but it sounds quite odd to your ears.  Seeing your strange clothing they assume you are some sort of spy for their foes and detain you, along with some others.

You soon come to realize that you are in the colony town of Lexington, Massachusetts in mid-April 1775.   You manage to escape, but in so doing you inadvertently cause the death of Solomon Brown, who (we shall pretend for the purpose of this gedankenexperiment) fired the first shot against the British redcoats from the area of a tavern on April 19, 1775.   Aware that your action has potentially screwed with history, and knowing you have only minutes to make history right, you take on his identity, picking up a weapon of the era and firing the shot at the appointed time.

Okay, so this is all well and good, but there's a problem.  Unless you are especially well studied in the arms of the era and not just the historical specifics, you really ought not have much idea of what to do with that weapon.

Sure, just from watching the History Channel or somesuch, you'd know that you're probably dealing with a muzzle-loading weapon, hopefully with a rifled barrel.   You'd probably try putting some powder down the barrel, maybe a piece of fabric or paper or somesuch, then a ball.  You'd tamp it down and then try to figure out how to deal with actually firing it.   Is there something to light which then makes contact?   Is there a flint striker?   Do you need to put a little powder down some other hole?  

You may have been hanging out in the 1770s for a day or two and seen other weapons, but unless you've had a chance to observe them used you may have no idea how to actually make the gun go boom.   And if you fail, the American Revolution may happen completely differently.

This brings us to 2024.

In "Past Tense", Ben Sisko is thrown back in time from the 24th Century.   Placed in a concentration camp for the poor, his knowledge of the era's history leads him to realize that he is at the precise location which, in mere days, will be the epicenter of the Bell Riots, a watershed event of the 21st Century.  While trying to survive, an event occurs which causes the death of Gabriel Bell, hero of the event.   Later, as the riots break out, Sisko grabs a shotgun, immediately racks and fires it, and is then able to take control of the situation along with Gabriel Bell's identity.   His action gets him shot later, but keeps history correct.

The problem with that story is pretty much identical, except in his case a Remington 870 is dropped into his hands and boom, he's running the thing smoothly.

While I'm hardly a firearms expert by any stretch, I have owned, handled, and fired a variety of pistols and rifles.  I am at least basically familiar with the operation of such weapons from .22 revolvers to 1911-style semi-automatic pistols to bolt-action magazine-fed rifles to semi-automatic "assault" rifles.  I even shot a friend's 12 gauge shotgun a few times over ten years ago, though as I recall he probably did the loading.   I was also recently helping a friend who was having issues with his 12-gauge semi-automatic shotgun, aiding in the disassembly and helping assess what was going wrong with it on the trigger group mechanically, and even watching him fire it.

But when roaming around in a sporting goods store a few months ago, I spotted a particularly interesting pump-action shotgun and asked to take a look at it.  The kid behind the counter handed it over and I was giving it a look-see.  I had the mind to rack it, pulled back on the fore-end and  . . .  nothing happened.  It wiggled but didn't otherwise budge.  Trying to look nonchalant, I fiddled with the safety and messed around otherwise, surreptitiously trying to rack it again, to no avail.  As I had no real interest in purchasing the shotgun I didn't just decide to stop and ask for directions from the kid as I normally would be happy to do when lost . . . I simply handed it back and thanked him.

The thing that either eluded my attention or which I otherwise failed to try to operate correctly was the part of a pump-action shotgun most commonly called the action release or slide release (the latter is what I mostly hear, despite it being potentially confusing considering pistols feature that same term for a different purpose altogether).  Now, in fairness to myself, my most recent shotgun experience was with a semi-auto that had no slide and no release . . . it operated much as any semi-auto rifle.   And the experience a decade prior with a pump probably didn't feature a lot of me working the gun.   I can't even recall what kind of pump-action shotgun it was, though I do remember how sore my shoulder was.

I tell that story not to embarrass myself in regards to my ignorance, stupidity, and/or forgetfulness, though I'm sure I've succeeded in doing so.   Nor do I tell the story to regale you with overly inflated tales of my manly potency with firearms (lol).  I simply tell it to make the point that I am familiar with the general principles of many weapons of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries, and yet properly working a pump-action shotgun, cold and with no preparation, was a mystery to me.   Had yet another leftist shooter or some band of terrorists stormed the place at that moment and the kid behind the counter tossed me shotgun shells as his dying act, the most I could've done is try to use the shotgun as a baseball bat to knock the shells in the general direction of the badguys.

Meanwhile, you have Starfleet Captain Commander Benjamin Lafayette Sisko, a relative stranger to these parts temporally-speaking, pick up a period firearm and operate it just as smoothly as a Hollywood actor who'd been shown how to do it shortly before the scenes started filming.  And more than that, he had correctly assessed that he needed to do it in order to fire a shot mere seconds after picking it up to get the nearby crowd under control.   (In other words, he snatched a weapon without a shell in the chamber, so he had to rack it to load a shell in the chamber and cock the internal hammer, and if the safety was on at the time he also had to disengage that.)

How the hell did that happen?    That man should most likely have virtually zero experience with 20th/21st Century projectile weapons, and certainly not a pump-action shotgun.   And after reviewing the episode, there's no indication that he had opportunity at any point to carefully observe one being manipulated before he himself had to do so.

And it isn't as if the Remington 870 slide release is the sort of thing you could work by accident, either.  Located well ahead of the trigger on the very front end of the long trigger guard's left side, some people find that they cannot operate the slender slide release with a trigger-ready grip,    That said, it is worth noting that when Sisko first gets his hands on the shotgun, he works it like a left-handed shooter . . . that is, his left hand is the trigger hand, which would've made it easier to work by accident.   Later, he's usually running it right-handed. 

Besides, it isn't like phaser rifles have pump slide-action releases that he could've practiced with, and given Sisko's general disdain for much of the 20th Century it seems unlikely that he'd have been futzing around in a Dixon Hill sort of setting on a holodeck.   He did have an interest in early 21st Century history, but learning about history is, at least in the modern era, a very different thing than living in the moment and playing with the local doodads.

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Then again . . . 

After writing the above I have performed a more thorough review of the second part of that episode.  The issue I'm seeing is that folks appear to be racking the shotguns without recourse to the slide release at all.  To be honest, I'm not sure I can even see the release at the resolution available.    And of course, since no shell emerges when they rack it, then it cannot have had one in the chamber at the time.

As a rule, racking without the slide release would only be possible under a particular sequence of events.   For instance, if the weapon was already cocked and the trigger pulled with no shell in the chamber, then you would have successfully unlocked the bolt.   This allows free movement of the fore-end, meaning that if you have done this you could theoretically then rack the shotgun to load a shell into the chamber with a shell from the magazine without using the slide release.

That doesn't really make a great deal of sense unless you are expressly wanting to have to rack it to prepare to fire (as a roundabout safety precaution or for psychological terror purposes) and want to make that racking as easy as possible.   Given the user-unfriendly slide release location on the 870 I can actually kind of see this being a plausible desire, but I'm not aware of this being a big trend in the 870-owner community.

So again, that's a complete series of events that is quite unlikely for most people to engage in, and given that we also see the main "ghost" theater-major thug doing it . . . a guy who seemed intent on shooting someone . . .  it becomes even more unlikely.

One possibility is that the slide release somehow was removed from the design or otherwise became obsolete, but this would be incredibly odd.   The slide release is there because the gun, when ready to fire, is locked into battery.  If it weren't, it would be possible to fire it with the bolt partially open ("out of battery"), meaning you could have hot gas heading toward the shooter.   Without a release, the only way to unlock it is to pull the trigger.

I suppose it's possible future shotguns could be made with some sort of electronic slide release . . . that is, if there's a hand on the fore-end (or maybe a squeezing hand) and it is pulling back on the fore-end, it might 'know' that you're trying to rack it and let you do it if your finger's off the trigger.  That seems like a terribly bad idea to me and one that would most likely result in a lot of accidents, but still.   And worse, of course, is that Sisko's effortless picking up of a shotgun and perfect operation thereof is even harder to believe if you imagine he had to know how to work a shotgun totally different in operation from today's models.

So let's abandon our imagined magic slide release. Besides, in any case, we see multiple occasions where the characters rack the shotgun (with no working of the slide release) to prepare to fire, and then for whatever reason they don't fire, only to repeat the maneuver a few scenes later.   This means that they have loaded a shell into the chamber but no longer intend to use it.   A few scenes later, they again rack it (without the slide release) to prepare to fire.   Since no shell comes out, they must have removed the earlier scene's shell from the chamber.   This is not something you can generally do with a finger . . . the most common technique, as seen in this video of a fellow with his 870, is to simply hit the slide release and rack the weapon over and over again so it loads from the magazine to the chamber and then from the chamber unloads out of the ejection port.

So after completely unloading the shotgun in that fashion, they would then have to pull the trigger on an empty chamber to unlock the action and allow the slide release to live free, and then reload the magazine with shells.  A practiced shotty-lover can probably do this pretty quickly if for whatever strange reason they had the desire to do so, but most people would probably just flick the safety on.

Of course, if we assume instead that these early 21st Century shotgun models have no safety, then all the racking makes a little more sense as being the only way to safe the shotgun (i.e. not having one in the chamber).   But again, I rather doubt that the theater-major thug would have been acting like a responsible gun owner and keeping it as safe as possible . . . he would've been more likely to leave it ready to fire as soon as his finger met the trigger, even if it meant it was possible to have an accidental discharge.  It isn't like there was anyone else in the room (or even out of it) that he actually cared about.

Then again, maybe Sisko convinced him to keep it safe in that way that Sisko seemed good at in this episode.

 In short, other than the out-of-universe truth that the shotguns weren't loaded at all and were probably otherwise modified for endless racking, I don't have any good answer as to what exactly was going on, though it seems most likely that the characters engaged in a whole lot of unloading, dry firing, and loading off-camera, generally for no apparent reason.   Maybe if DS9 gets the HD remastering treatment we'll be able to see if the 870s are missing externally-visible bits like safeties or slide releases.

In-universe, the only good answer I can figure is that maybe everyone spends more time on the holodeck running amok in earlier centuries than we've ever suspected, and that working primitive projectile weapons is something that comes up rather more frequently than we ever would've suspected.

2 comments:

  1. Also, while looking up Sisko information, I came across this. It is not remotely safe for work but is absolutely hysterical. Like, I-wonder-if-Avery-Brooks-could-be-paid-to-voice-it hysterical.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wgIOdcBkkzg

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  2. Sisko had seemingly studied the event in history well. Perhaps he had learned how to use the shotgun for school?

    Perhaps plasma shotguns use a similar system in Star Trek?

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