The Guns of Sherlock Holmes

The exploits of the world's most renowned detective abound with arcane weaponry--from Adams and Webley revolvers to air canes to Afghan jezzails.
Posted: 2007-12
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Sherlock Holmes, the world's first consulting detective, has been the subject of considerable speculation for over a century. Around the globe are enclaves of those devoted to the serious study of the stories and notes left by Holmes' closest known associate and biographer, Dr. John H. Watson, and put forth by his literary associate and fellow physician, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Despite the vast amount of Holmsian knowledge unearthed by these Baker Street Irregulars, much of the firearms lore contained in the various cases remains conjectural at best.

A number of years ago I had the opportunity to investigate a collection in the United States belonging to Dr. Watson's great-granddaughter, which contained what was purported to be the actual revolvers and other artifacts originally owned by Holmes and Watson. Upon the lady's death, the items were placed in trust, though under provision of her will I have been granted permission to photograph and actually test these arms at my discretion.

While forensic consultant and Holmes scholar Stanton O. Berg, in his estimable and detailed study, The Firearms of Sherlock Holmes, quotes a lady living in a London suburb, who also purports to be Dr. Watson's great-granddaughter, as saying, "[T]he idea that a granddaughter of Dr. Watson would disgrace the family name by moving to California is so much ineffable twaddle," I can only say that at the time, and presently, material not available to Mr. Berg or the London "great-granddaughter" has totally convinced me of the authenticity of the items--hence this revisiting and updating of the topic. As well, there is a large English colony in Southern California, most specifically in the Santa Monica area, and it was here that the collection turned up.

Watson first mentions Holmes using a pistol in The Musgrave Ritual. In his own words, Watson "?held that pistol practice should be an open air pastime; but that when Holmes was in one of his queer humors would sit in an armchair, with his hair trigger and a hundred Boxer cartridges and proceed to adorn the opposite wall with a patriotic V.R. done in bullet pockmarks, I felt strongly that neither the atmosphere not the appearance of our room was much improved by it."

There has been much controversy in the past as to the sort of gun--and cartridge--used by Holmes on this occasion to engage in a bit of smallbore redecorating. For years it was suggested that Watson had incorrectly described Holmes' ammunition on this occasion as being centerfire when, in fact, Holmes had probably used a small rimfire of the Flobert variety.

Actually, there were centerfire Boxer-primed .22 cartridges, the bottlenecked .297/230 Morris Short and Long rounds used for shooting rooks, in subcaliber "aiming tubes" for military rifle practice and in high-grade target pistols. Loaded with both black powder and Cordite, the .297/230 Short and Long fired-lead 38-grain bullets at velocities of 850 and 1,170 fps, respectively, and were particularly favored for their accuracy. While no pistol of this type has turned up in the Watson collection, British makers of the period, such as Charles Lancaster, offered them--and the ammunition--as standard items. There can be little doubt that such an arm was the one fired by Holmes in the study.

We know from his own admission, and army records, that John Watson entered British service as a surgeon attached to the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers at the time of the Second Afghan War (1878-80). He served at the front, where he treated battle wounds as well as numerous cases of typhoid and dysentery.

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