In his collection of short stories, In Our Time, Ernest Hemingway describes an infantry attack. “Then three more came over further down the wall. We shot them. They all came just like that.” Those who’ve read Papa’s stories and novels know he’s just like that. He casts simple sentences about apparently simple stories: a soldier fighting in a war, an insurgent trying to blow a bridge, an old man trying to catch a huge marlin. Beneath the deceptively simple story lines swirl contradictions mixed with complexities and spiked with conundrums. Hemingway’s love of guns was equally simple and elemental, yet deeply complicated and nuanced . . .

Guns and hunting shaped and defined much of Ernest Hemingway’s life. Firearms also defined his death; the Pulitzer-prize winning author committed suicide with a shotgun blast at Ketchum, Idaho in 1961. Silvio Calabi, along with Steve Helsely and Roger Sanger capture some of Hemingway’s life with guns in their tome Hemingway’s Guns. Just like Hemingway’s stories, there’s a lot more to this book than meets the eye.

Hemingway’s Guns looks like a coffee table book. The cover’s splashed with a large photo of Hemingway shooting his sporterized 1903 Springfield from a sitting position, using the correct sling technique (of course). There are plenty of fascinating photos inside. Papa hunting birds with Gary Cooper, posing with a trophy Cape buffalo, showing off a mess of trout while wearing a Colt Woodsman in shoulder holster.

But there’s just as much delight for readers with a strong literary appetite. The book begins by offering a kinky treat: a verbose Hemingway sentence.

“The Purdey was not a Purdey but a straight-stocked long-barreled Scott live-pigeon full choke in both barrels that I had bought from a lot of shotguns a dealer had brought down from Udine to the Kechlers’ villa in Codroipo,” Hemingway wrote in Under Kilimanjaro.

The authors use the seemingly innocuous sentence as a jumping off point for their attempt to bring meaning and focus to Hemingway’s life with guns. A Scott also figures prominently in one of the book’s final chapters. Forensic examination of the fragments of the suicide shotgun reveal that it was not a Boss or a Bernadelli as widely told and believed, but probably a Scott.

Nobody can be completely sure, because shortly after Hemingway’s death, the shotgun he killed himself with was deliberately chopped up into tiny bits by a welder. Only a few small pieces of stock, lock, barrel and trigger remain above ground, the rest being buried in a field that is now the site of the home of Adam West, star of the 1960’s TV hit, Batman and today’s Family Guy.

The chapters are arranged by gun, including “The Model 12 Pumpguns” and “The Browning Superposed.” While Hemingway loved his bird shooting, it’s not all Abecrombie and Fitch hunting jackets and pheasants. We’re guided through “A Thompson Submachine Gun” and “The Griffin and Howe .30-06 Springfield.”

As we make their way through Hemingway’s gun cabinet, we learn about the gun or guns’ design histories, where Hemingway acquired them and how he used them. The authors tie the firearms to the specific period of Hemingway’s life when he owned the gun: who he was with, what he was writing, where he traveled and what he shot.

In “The .577 Nitro Express & Other Double Rifle,” we learn that Hemingway and professional hunter Dick Cooper dined with professional hunter Bror Blixen and his client Ernest Udet, a famous WWI German fighter pilot who later became head of the Luftwaffe’s Technical Office in WWII.

During the dinner conversation, Cooper revealed he’d used a .450 Holland & Holland double rifle to shoot down three German fighter planes trying to strafe his trench in France in 1917. As he listened to Cooper’s story, Udet became upset. The three German fighter pilots had been members of his squadron, and he had never known their fates until that moment.

Another stunner from the double rifle chapter: Hemingway’s plan to use his .577 double to blast holes in the skin of German U-boats in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean during World War II. He never got a U-boat in his sights, but he did shoot up many of the sharks trying to eat his billfish with a Thompson sub-machine gun.

Hemingway owned a Browning Auto 5 in 16 gauge after “Slim” Hawks, then wife of movie director Howard Hawks, had a negligent discharge. Mrs. Hawkes almost blew off the back off Hemingway’s head. The blast singed the hair on the back of his head, The novelist relieved her of the semi-auto shotgun. He promised to get her an over-under instead. “So what are a few burned hairs off the back of the top of the neck for a piece of loot like that?” Hemingway later wrote.

Hemingway’s Guns provides accounts of Hemingway’s safaris in Africa and days spent shooting boxed pigeons at the Club des Cazadores del Cerro in Cuba. And Hemingway defending his home near Havana, Finca Vigia, against burglars with various firearms.

In some cases, we know the gun’s final disposition. His .577 Nitro Express currently rests under glass at the Curry Mansion Inn on Caroline Street in Key West, Florida Hemingway’s beloved Model 12 pump had a more mysterious end. It was traded in at a gun shop in Jeffersonville, New York in 1980; its whereabouts are unknown. If you happen to run across a well worn Model 12, check it for serial number 525488 . . .

If not, a copy of Hemingway’s Guns will more than suffice. It’s available from Amazon for $28.

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3 Responses to Book Review: Hemingway’s Guns

  1. Great review. I love that era of history and this sounds like a book I’d like to read.

    Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke was the real-life husband of author Karen Blixen, who wrote under the name Isak Dinesen, both of whom were featured in the movie Out of Africa. Blix was masterfully portrayed by Austrian actor Klaus Maria Brandauer and his wife by Meryl Streep.

    Blix was perhaps Africa’s greatest big game safari hunter and was greatly sought after as a safari guide. His clients included royals, including Edward, Prince of Wales. Blix himself wrote a book called African Hunter (1938), that is on my reading list.

    Bror was also friend and occasional employer of famous aviatrix, Beryl Markham. In Markham’s memoir (and one of the greatest books ever written) West With the Night, “Bror was the toughest, most durable white hunter ever to snicker at the fanfare of safari or to shoot a charging buffalo between the eyes while debating whether his sundown drink would be gin or whiskey.”

  2. Although I enjoyed the book very much, I was a bit disappointed by the authors’ failure to mention Hemingway’s, Nick Adams short stories, and the multitude of references to guns contained therein. They take time to refer to Hemingway’s use of guns (possibly models which he himself owned) in many of his novels and some other short stories, but they seem to have dismissed all the Nick Adams stories.

    While specific models of guns might not be mentioned in the Nick Adams short stories, there are plenty of references to shotguns, pistols, and the manner in which they were used. While the authors dedicate an entire chapter to the Colt Woodsman pistols, they neglect to recall the reference to the .22 caliber Colt automatic pistol, that Nick Adams was given by his friend Hop, in the seminal Big Two Hearted River. While Nick does not refer to it as a Colt Woodsman, most likely that is what Hemingway had in mind. In their book, they do make mention of Hemingway’s days in northern Michigan, but not much else.

    Many feel that Nick Adams, was Hemingway, returning to his beloved northwoods, following his stint as an ambulance driver, in WW I, in Italy. It is common knowledge that Hemingway did organize an outing to the Michigan woods, with some of his young friends, upon his return from the war. He obviously thought much of his Colt Woodsman, in that he took pains to include reference to that make and style of .22 pistol, as part of Nick’s belongings, on his search for some peace and solitude, after the disillusionment of war.

    There are references to guns in many of the other Nick Adams stories. I think the authors missed a great opportunity to reinforce the fact that Hemingway was a great wingshot, and the value he placed on being such, when they could have quoted Nick’s comment to his son, in Fathers and Sons, when he tells his small son, “When you have shot one bird flying you have shot all birds flying. They are all different and they fly in different ways but the sensation is the same and the last is as good as the first.”
    If you are a true and dedicated bird hunter, to the point of it being almost a religion, this sums it all up.

  3. Hey, can’t wait to have the book. I am interested in Dick Cooper. Bror Blixen left his guns to him. Read he died in Tanzania. What happened to all his stuff? Wife? Children? Estate? Help, help.

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