Shooting Straight with Stephen Hunter

posted on August 22, 2019

Stephen Hunter found his own way to becoming a gun owner as he worked in mainstream newsrooms. He didn’t grow up with guns in his home. His father was a professor at Northwestern and his mother wrote children’s books. They lived in suburban Chicago. Steve was told, at the time, that guns lead to violence. He now says it took a lot of curious exploration to move past the notion that owning a gun could corrupt you.

He worked at The Baltimore Sun and later The Washington Post. He retired from the Post in 2008. In 2003, while at the Post, he won a Pulitzer for movie criticism. The Pulitzer committee said Hunter “is forever suggesting that art can be a good, lusty, happy thing, that doesn’t always have to be an immersion in a new level of human misery.” The Pulitzer Prize’s board is basically a who’s who of liberal journalists and academics that mostly reserves its honors for those who advocate progressive causes, but this time they got it exactly right.

Steve’s final transformation into a full-bore gun enthusiast came one fine day in 1985 when he saw an ad for a gun—a bright and lovely stainless Smith & Wesson Model 645, to be precise. He found this semiautomatic pistol intriguing and beautiful, and he wanted one. The questions within himself needed a resolution. After some self-evaluation, he decided that “there was something fundamentally dishonest about my anti-gun views.”

In 1980, while at the Sun, he published his first novel, The Master Sniper. It was about a World War II Nazi assassin. Since then Steve’s novels have won him millions of fans, many of them gun owners. His Bob Lee Swagger thrillers, beginning with Point of Impact in 1993, follow a fictionalized Vietnam War sniper loosely based on the real Vietnam War sniper and U.S. Marine Corps legend Carlos Hathcock.

In 2007 his book Point of Impact made it to the big screen as Shooter, starring Mark Wahlberg. When Wahlberg was asked about his use of guns in the movie, he said, “I haven’t used a gun anywhere other than on a movie set…. I would love it if they could take all the guns away. Unfortunately, you can’t do that so you hope that good people in the world have them to protect the people who can’t protect themselves.”

Such are the contradictions and hypocrisies of so many in Hollywood.

Not many pro-gun writers have made it in the big, urban newspapers. Fewer still have had their pro-gun novels become best-sellers and even make the big screen. To start this new department in this magazine, we thought there was no better place to start than with Stephen Hunter.

“I like and try to write books about human beings, not paradigms of good and evil.”

A1F: As I recall, there weren’t guns in your home when you grew up, so how did you become interested in firearms?

Hunter: It goes back so far, I can barely remember. So, whatever the guns have meant professionally there’s nothing insincere about my attraction. It’s a constant in my life, for at least 68 years (73 now). I can remember things I responded to—my cousins’ guns on a farm in Missouri, the many guns on TV cop shows and movies (Victor Mature with a Sten in “Safari,” 1954!), early gun magazines, WWII lore permeating the culture—but in all cases I was responding to what was already there, feeding a need, not inventing a lifestyle. So maybe: genetic? high-functioning autism? association of gun with security, heroism, self-confidence? I just know I wouldn’t change a thing and my immersion has given me a wonderful life.

A1F: What are you shooting these days? Favorite new gun?

Hunter: Lots of .22 target pistols, i.e., some Walther OSPs, a very interesting French marque called Unique, Smith 41. Even have a few pistols in the old .22 short—what a hoot they are! And a Jim Clark long-slide .45 bull gun and High Standard. And a Smith 52, maybe the most accurate handgun I’ve ever shot. But let’s not leave out SIG’s 210 Target (the new one), which is so accurate even I can hit the target! Been bearing down on pure marksmanship lately, principally trigger finger. You have to get the press right or you might as well stay home.

A1F: Did you set out to write novels following a hero (or do you consider him to be an antihero?) or did it just happen that way?

Hunter: That I ended up the bard of West Arkansas alpha males is complete surprise to me. It’s just that every book seemed to raise more questions than it settled and the only way to answer them was to write another book and see what happened. I’ve found it fascinating to follow the flow of genetics and various personality traits through the generations, and to learn that as much as Bob, Earl and Charles are alike, they’re also different in several respects. Those revelations are as much a surprise to me as anyone. I should add that I’m working on a Bob Lee book now which answers the origin question, among other things. Where did it—that shooting talent—where did it come from? I think I have a pretty good answer.

A1F: When you write, do you try to channel a certain character (as an actor might)? When writing about a character like Swagger do you get into his footsteps, maybe shoot the guns he does?

I do shoot the guns in play in the book if possible. This enabled me to buy an Accuracy International 6.5 Creed with a S&B 25x scope and feel virtuous about it. (This to support Game of Snipers, the new one). But character comes from … well, I don’t know. It just comes as if the folks themselves are dictating it. And it changes. I invent someone bad, but the more I know him, the less bad he seems, so I’m always coming up with little grace notes for him. The kind of monster who energizes the serial-killer and horror trade just won’t work for me; even Jack the Ripper saved a little girl’s life in I, RIPPER. I like and try to write books about human beings, not paradigms of good and evil.

A1F: You once told me about a visiting Hollywood producer you took to a range, can you tell me that story again?

Hunter: Took this guy who was active in the project that eventually became “Shooter.” Young, ambitious, wanted to be a player, very eager. I thought he should see us in our native habitat. We got there and he noticed that folks at a shooting range actually have guns! He freaked. Panic attack, cold sweats, gastric distress. Could not get out of the car. So that’s a certain element of what we’re facing: articulate people of power with savage fear issues. How do you deal rationally with such a fellow? 

A1F: Were you consulted for the screenplay when the movie “Shooter” was being made from your book Point of Impact? Are you happy with the film? And when will we see more movies of your great books?

Hunter: I was hired to write the first draft. I realized quickly that I was a bad fit for Hollywood—I didn’t really “get” screenwriting and believe I would have had to write 10 screenplays before I learned how; it’s a very technical kind of writing, with all kinds of secrets and rules. So, after being involved I quickly resolved to get uninvolved. They helped me by firing me from a project based on my own book! That usually gets a laugh, but it’s actually quite commonplace. The author is interested in protecting his baby, the professional people in getting a movie made. By definition, they are at odds. Later, owing to some spectacular luck, some other producers came aboard and ultimately “Shooter” happened. It seems to have become a cult movie among real shooters because the gun-handling is so much better than the Hollywood commonplace, a reality that every movie critic in America missed. I was not particularly pleased with the ending—theirs, not mine—but in the long run, since the movie has lasted, I am pleased. It does me no harm. As for more Bob on film, I can’t rule it out but I can’t rule it in, either. Current rumor hints that the TV series based on “Shooter,” which ran for three years on USA, might be picked up by Netflix. That would be nice.

A1F: When you were at The Washington Post did people know you own guns and are into shooting? If so, how was your hobby treated? Did it hurt your career?

Hunter: I was treated very well at the Post and have no complaints. I was very well paid, respected and under their auspices I did win the big prize. Yes, my gun thing was well-known, and I even wrote a number of pieces on the culture and history of guns for the Style Section, of which I am quite proud. It gave them something they never had before and they were smart enough to respect it and take advantage of it. My favorite was a dirge on the passing of the Winchester ,94 and, second, an enthusiastic preview of the Association’s Thompson submachine gun exhibit. That was a labor of love. I have always been in the bag for the T. I thought I might have some subtle influence while I was there: one of the points was to show them that a gun guy could be a quality journalist, a good guy and not some kind of foamy-mouthed ideologue. I even took some colleagues shooting so they could see it wasn’t about schoolyard massacres, but responsible people trying to master a highly challenging sport. In the long run, I believe I succeeded. But journalism veered way left upon Obama’s election—I retired in September of ,08—and even further under Trump. I’m not so sure I’d be so welcome now. 

A1F: As a film critic, did it frustrate you to watch Hollywood get so much gun handling wrong? Have you watched the John Wick films? I ask because videos of Keanu Reeves shooting have gone viral and a lot of knowledgeable competitors have said Reeves could compete with them. Do you perhaps see this as a change or an anomaly?

Stephen Hunter’s hero Bob Lee Swagger is back in Game of Snipers. This time Swagger is hunting a jihadi sniper.

Hunter: Reeves is very good with firearms. He trains with a gun genius in L.A. named Taran Butler who’s got him shooting at the professional level indeed. I do think the movies are “topping themselves” in ways that I find a little grotesque, though I appreciate the temptation. Same thing with Bob Lee Swagger. But I have tried to keep my shootouts reasonably realistic without the martial arts and the somersaults. The Wick people have not. They’re now totally in the John Woo bag!

As for frustrations on Hollywood gun handling, I would occasionally point it out, but a critic is also an entertainer and he can’t keep hitting the same note. So sometimes I’d be silent, finding other issues to sound off on. It was a challenge: to bring a serious viewpoint to this issue but at the same time try not to sound like a gun nut. I can only say, in retrospect, I struggled, I tried, and maybe sometimes it worked better than others.

A1F: Let’s talk about your new book Game of Snipers. Swagger is drawn in and ends up hunting another sniper. Can you give us more of a teaser? 

Hunter: Straight manhunt. Intelligence is developed suggesting a jihadi sniper of very high quality has come to America to strike at a high value target. Swagger and a team of FBI agents try and track him. As in all books of this sort, it’s cat and mouse, except this guy is such a stud it’s more like cat and cat. They think they’ve got him, but he manages to evade them. One of the things I tried to do was to offer a fair appraisal of the mile-long shot. Such events just don’t happen. The sniper has to very carefully work up loads, test equipment and optics, work with a handheld computer and work his way out to that distance. It’s a program of several months’ highly professional ballistics research and I hope I’ve conveyed it accurately without going overboard. I didn’t like it in “American Sniper” when Bradley Cooper just cranked his elevation all the way to the top, held straight on, and made that mile-long hit—wouldn’t, couldn’t, will never work that way.

Right now I’m under contract for another Swagger and am tap-tapping away every day. As long as I keep my powder dry, I should be okay.



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