The Guns of Raiders of the Lost Ark

By Will Dabbs, MD

Heroic Heroes, Villainous Villains and a Smookin' Hot Iron

In the classic 1981 Steven Spielberg movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, the world got its introduction to Indiana Jones, one of the most iconic film characters in cinematic history. George Lucas, the creative visionary behind Star Wars, wrote the original screenplay along with Lawrence Kasdan and Philip Kaufman. Harrison Ford’s depiction of Jones became arguably the most memorable role of his most memorable career. Another actor in the running for the role was actually Tom Selleck. However, Selleck was committed to the TV show Magnum PI and was unavailable for filming. Raiders was the first time that Spielberg, Lucas and Ford all collaborated on a movie.

Set in 1936, Raiders depicts the adventures of a globetrotting archaeologist as he seeks out the final resting place of the Old Testament Ark of the Covenant. According to scripture, the Ark houses the rod of Aaron, a pot of manna from the wilderness and the original stone tablets depicting the Ten Commandments engraved by God Himself. In the movie the Ark also conveys immense power to wage war. As a result, the Nazis are racing alongside to be first to find what they hope will be a powerful new weapon.

Ford’s gritty depiction of Jones has him fighting his way out of one close scrape after another using a variety of weapons. While his use of a bullwhip defines the film, Jones wields several period small arms as well. Some of these guns are somewhat inaccurate to the precise period depicted, but they remain fairly close.

The primary handgun Indiana Jones uses in the movie is a customized M1917 Smith and Wesson (S&W) revolver in .45ACP. The gun for the movie had its 6-inch barrel shortened down to four. To obtain the sound of the gun firing, the film’s Foley editors recorded a .30-30 rifle firing live rounds.

Different pistols were used for filming in California and England. The English version was actually cut down from a British-issue S&W Mk II Hand Ejector in .455 Webley. This gun was used for scenes filmed in both England and Tunisia. The front sight on the English gun is a sharp ramp akin to most modern S&W combat revolvers. The sight on the converted 1917 used in California is a more typical round half moon.

The scene wherein Indy faces the hulking Arab swordsman and then just shoots him was spontaneous and unscripted. Most of the crew was suffering mightily from food poisoning at the time, and the scene just would not come together. After several takes Ford simply draws his revolver and laconically shoots the man before combat is joined. This unplanned scene became one of the most memorable of the film. Spielberg was one of the few crewmembers unaffected by this pervasive gut malady as he subsisted throughout the shoot almost entirely upon canned SpaghettiOs® he had brought along for that purpose.

The gun’s double-action pull is classic, smooth, heavy Smith and Wesson. The trigger in single-action mode is divine. While the original service-length barrel is a bit tough to manage from a holster, Indy’s 4-inch version offers just the right mix of power and portability.

For the Ravenwood bar scene Indy uses a P35 Browning Hi-Power with fixed sights. As the movie is set in 1936, the year after the Hi-Power’s introduction, this would be theoretically possible but not likely. The P35 was ultimately widely used by the Nazis after they overran the Belgian factory where the gun was built, but they would not have had access to these weapons at the time the movie was set.

The Hi-Power was a seminal design. The locked breech, short recoil action went on to drive everything from the SIG P226 to the S&W M&P to the ubiquitous Glock. The Hi-Power’s inimitable single-action trigger is crisp and precise. In a later scene wherein Indy and Marion are on the freighter the Bantu Wind, Jones carries a different Hi-Power; this one an Inglis model sporting a sliding tangent rear sight.

Even this deep into the Information Age, the Browning Hi-Power remains a competitive combat pistol. The action is smooth and comfortable, while the 13-round magazine keeps the gun generously fed in action. The Hi-Power’s single action trigger lends itself nicely to accuracy. The gun we evaluated for this article is an original Nazi Hi-Power produced under German occupation during World War II. After a fair amount of trigger time I can say that the Hi-Power is my favorite World War II-era service pistol. The original script called for Indy to use a 1911 .45, but 9mm blanks were more reliable. This was the sole reason he employed the Hi-Power for the film.

Nazis always make the best movie villains. Their dark dystopian worldview considered others sub-human, and their widespread use of such stuff as extermination camps makes them inordinately easy to despise. In the case of Raiders, we get Wehrmacht officers, a Gestapo agent and a French mercenary archaeologist in the Nazis’ employ along with henchmen of various stripes.

During several shootouts the Germans use both P08 Luger pistols as well as Walther P38’s. The P08 was a World War I-era design that would have been appropriate for the time period depicted. The P38 did not debut until two years later so it is actually an anachronism. There is also a Nepalese thug who briefly wields a Mauser C96 Broomhandle in the Ravenwood bar scene.

The P08 Luger is a mechanically fascinating design that was originally inspired by the operation of the human knee. This recoil-operated action incorporates a sliding top component that rides along slots in the frame such that a toggle mechanism unlocks as the barrel assembly moves rearward. The single-action trigger is a bit mushier than it should be, and the gun’s tight tolerances make it unduly susceptible to battlefield dirt and grime. However, the Luger points naturally and exudes an almost supernatural grace.

The Luger runs great on the range, though the magazines typically require a little tug for removal. The sights are too small, but everybody’s were at the time. The P08 Luger was a prized souvenir during both World Wars, and its inclusion in Raiders of the Lost Ark is period appropriate.

The Walther P38, by contrast, could not have been in use in 1936. The P38 is a tilting lock design that incorporates a splendid single-action/double-action trigger adapted from that of the Walther PP. There is a hammer drop safety on the left rear aspect of the slide, and the magazine release is located in the butt, as was the European custom. The P38 incorporated such niceties as a loaded chamber indicator and synthetic grips.

The P38 is a sweet-shooting handgun. Packing eight rounds on board, the P38 went on to enjoy a long and industrious career after the war, showing up in brushfire confrontations and various low-rent conflicts around the globe. The Walther P38 began a revolution in modern combat handguns that continues to this day.

Several Nazi minions employ the classic German MP40 submachine gun in the film. While Indy never wielded an MP40 in Raiders, he does ultimately acquire one of these seminal burp guns in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade to help him rescue his father, played by Sean Connery.

The MP40 was the first military shoulder weapon to be manufactured without wood furniture and with a genuine sense of industrial expediency. The resulting gun is front heavy and slow, but this brings with it some unique capabilities.

The stamped-receiver MP40 spawned from the previous milled receiver MP38. The MP38 can be distinguished at a glance by longitudinal grooves cut into the receiver along with a modest hole stamped into the sides of the magazine well. While the MP40 was designed for economical production, neither the MP38 nor the MP40 would have been available to the Nazis in 1936. A more likely choice would be an MP28/II or an MP35 Bergmann, both of which were indeed used in the subsequent sequel Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

The German MP40 has come to be associated with the Nazi regime more than any other single weapon. German industry turned out around a million of the guns, and they were used in all theatres where German soldiers served. The MP40 is heavy, weighing nearly nine pounds, and feeds from a double-column, single-feed 32-round box magazine. The gun fires from an open bolt at a very slow rate of fire, around 500 rounds per minute.

On the range the MP40 is sedate and comfortable. Singles and doubles are easy with attention to trigger control, and the slow rate of fire allows rounds to be walked onto a target. One quirky aspect of the design is that the charging handle rides on the left. This allows easy access but makes the gun uncomfortable to manage on a sling if it is arranged on the left side of the gun. The rear sling attachment point is ambidextrous, while the forward point is reversible. However, the barrel nut on the MP40 is torqued in place violently, and this makes reversing the orientation a chore in the field. Most wartime guns have the sling arranged on the right.

At the end of the movie there is a scene wherein Belloq, played by Paul Freeman, snatches an MP40 out of the hands of a startled Nazi guard and jacks the bolt to the rear. Close observation will show that this is a very early MP40 sporting the original curved cocking handle and no safety cut in the receiver. Later versions had a straight handle that could be pressed into the receiver to lock the bolt closed for transport. Early guns were retrofitted for this safety feature, and very few original unmodified weapons remain as a result.

Raiders of the Lost Ark was indeed a classic movie. It spawned no less than three sequels with a fourth currently in the making along with a variety of knockoffs of varying quality. Spielberg and Lucas first discussed the idea for the movie while vacationing together in Hawaii. They spent an afternoon building sand castles while working through the story of a swashbuckling archaeologist and his race against the Nazis to find the Lost Ark of the Covenant. The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago served as inspiration for Indy’s museum in the film.

Movies allow us to suspend disbelief and let our imaginations take hold, at least for an hour and a half on a lazy Saturday afternoon. While modern cinema churns out new films to the tune of several per week, certain productions earn a place in movie history as classics. With very good Good Guys, very bad Bad Guys and plenty of stylized gunplay, Spielberg, Lucas and Ford’s Raiders of the Lost Ark certainly qualifies.

Special thanks to www.worldwarsupply.com for the period flags used in this article.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V21N5 (June 2017)
and was posted online on April 21, 2017


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