Lieutenant Commander Ian Fleming served in the Royal Navy during World War II. Fleming’s father, Valentine Fleming, was a wealthy Member of Parliament who was killed on the Western Front fighting the Germans in 1917, when young Ian was only nine. Winston Churchill penned Valentine’s obituary.
A classically educated English gentleman, Ian Fleming volunteered his services to his country at a time when the very existence of Great Britain was mortally threatened by the Nazi scourge. Where younger men served in combat behind Enfield rifles, tanks, Spitfires, and destroyers, Fleming’s skills took him to more delicate places. Ian Fleming was a spy.
His code name during the war was “17F,” and he directed the operations of 30 Assault Unit and the subsequent T-Force during their combat operations. These British intelligence units moved ahead of friendly lines, securing intelligence and critical documents from enemy headquarters facilities. These units were loosely based upon German counterparts run by the legendary SS operative Otto Skorzeny.
Once the war was over, Fleming returned to civilian life and began writing. His wartime adventures provided fertile material for the most famous spy in history, MI6’s inimitable 007. Fleming took the name James Bond from a real-world ornithologist of the day. He felt that the pedestrian name and its genesis were so non-descript and unremarkable as to make a proper undercover agent.
During the course of thirteen books and twenty-six movies, Bond has saved the world and gotten the girl under some of the most extraordinary circumstances. Despite overwhelming odds and all manner of variegated dangers, Bond inevitably prevails and looks awesome in the process. Equipped with the latest guns, gear, and gadgets that Her Majesty’s government can provide, 007, on paper at least, is what every proper little boy wants to grow up to be.
The Beretta 418
Bond’s first issue handgun was the diminutive Beretta .25ACP 418. He carried this miniature pistol through the first five Bond novels. The 418 was itself an evolutionary development of the Beretta 1919. This tiny little pocket pistol was a common weapon in Europe in the years between the two world wars. Originally designed, as the name implies, in 1919, this tidy pocket heater is easy to hide and fairly effective for its size, given the limitations of its cartridge.
My gun is nicely executed, as is the case with most Beretta products, and enjoys prewar standards of workmanship. The single-stack magazine holds eight rounds and is retained via a heel-mounted catch after the European fashion. The safety on the left side of the gun rotates through 90 degrees and serves to lock the action open over an empty magazine. When “S” is exposed, the gun is on safe. “F” obviously means fire.
The little Beretta sports a nice grip safety that makes the gun safer in tight confines. The sights are tiny, milled into the top of the slide, and worthless. Grips came in both plastic and stamped steel versions. In the books, Bond typically carried his gun “skeletonized” with the grips removed.
The tiny little Beretta is great fun in action. Small enough to hide in the palm of your hand or within any handy pocket, the primary strength of this classic Italian pistol is its concealability. I ran the gun both with the grips and without, and didn’t find that it made much difference. Out here in the Real World, the gun’s action would likely get unacceptably gummed up with lint and such if packed for extended periods with the grips removed. An operator of 007’s stature would likely be fairly compulsive about weapons maintenance, however.
At contact ranges, it is easy enough to plant your rounds on target, but anything beyond fifteen meters is a crapshoot. The gun is almost recoilless, but considering the truly dreadful ballistics of the tiny .25ACP cartridge, the Beretta 418 is a decidedly substandard combat implement. It turns out, I was not the only person on the planet to draw that conclusion.
The Definitive Heater—The Walther PPK
Once Fleming’s work found some serious legs, fans began to take an interest in the technical details of his stories. In 1957, a British firearms enthusiast named Geoffrey Boothroyd reached out to Fleming via letter and suggested that Bond’s standard handgun was perhaps suboptimal for a cold-hearted British secret agent in possession of a license to kill. Boothroyd pointed out that the Beretta’s ballistics were truly underwhelming. To the purist, he felt that the little Beretta was actually more of a woman’s gun, meant to be packed in a purse or garter. After a bit of back-and-forth, Fleming and Boothroyd settled upon the Walther PPK as a proper handgun for the truly modern spy.
Carl Walther designed the PPK in 1929, and in so doing, revolutionized the combat handgun. The PPK was the subsequent shortened variant of the original PP and introduced the first production single-action/double-action trigger to an autoloading handgun. Long the sole purview of the combat revolver, this trigger system allowed the user to maintain the weapon safely with a round in the chamber. The first round fired via a long double-action pull, while subsequent shots were more crisp and shorter. A hammer-drop safety rode along the left aspect of the slide, and the slide locked to the rear automatically on the last round fired. To put the gun back in action, one simply swaps magazines and gives the slide a little tug to the rear to release it. The magazine release is in the familiar spot, similar to that of the 1911, right behind the trigger on the left, for relatively easy access with the left thumb.
The PPK became Bond’s iconic handgun, and Boothroyd’s influence undoubtedly ultimately sold untold thousands of them. The original PPK was offered in .22LR, .25ACP, .32ACP, and .380ACP calibers. Bond’s original gun fed .32ACP.
Walther updated the design in 1968, to comply with the morphological demands of the 1968 Gun Control Act, extending the frame slightly to accommodate an extra round in the magazine. This improved gun remains in production in the United States today, under the nomenclature PPK/S. In the most recent Bond movies, Daniel Craig’s rendition of 007 packs an updated .380 ACP PPK/S that incorporates a hypothetical biometric safety to prevent the gun’s use by Bond’s foes, should they separate him from his weapon. The PPK/S represents the only example of which I am aware wherein gun control laws actually improved the performance of a firearm.
Fleming’s original Bond took to the Walther reluctantly and cashed in his Beretta only after a suppressed version caught on the waistband of his trousers and nearly resulted in his death in Dr. No. In recognition of Boothroyd’s assistance, Fleming wrote him into the storyline as “Q”, the chief of Q Branch and Bond’s longsuffering provider of gear, guns, and gadgets. In the books, Q’s given name is actually Major Boothroyd.
The PPK operates via unlocked blowback, but remains dreamy on the range, particularly in its most common .32ACP chambering. The gun carries 7+1 onboard and strikes a nice balance between power and portability. The .32ACP bullet is still fairly pathetic, but remains a stark improvement over the truly tiny .25. Magazines are available both with and without finger-rest baseplates. The finger rest makes for a more stable shooting platform, while the naked versions are obviously more compact and concealable.
Magazine changes are fast and intuitive, particularly for a compact combat pistol of its era, and keeping the gun running in action is straightforward with a spot of practice. The sights are too small, but the top of the slide is cut in wavy lines to help cut down on glare. The double-action trigger pull is laboriously heavy but consistent. The single-action component is actually quite nice. The hammer drop safety is easy to use, and there is a loaded chamber indicator, in the form of a discreet pin that protrudes out the back of the slide when a round is in the chamber. The butt sports a small lanyard loop, should the need for such arise.
The PPK/S in .380ACP is a much more vigorous and powerful platform. The extended grip makes the gun easier to run, though the unlocked blowback action can actually seem surprisingly snappy. The PPK/S has a more substantial beavertail that does a better job of protecting the web of the hand than the original. Grips on all versions are plastic and functional enough. The PPK fits the hand almost unnaturally well in whatever guise. It was indeed a superbly executed defensive pistol for its day.
Modern Treatment—The Walther P99
Starting with the 1997 film Tomorrow Never Dies, and extending until the 2008 Quantum of Solace, Bond wields a Walther P99 9mm. The dialogue in Tomorrow Never Dies intimates that Bond had been asking Q to obtain one of the guns for him for some time. Bond uses the pistol both with and without a sound suppressor. He reverts back to the more familiar Walther PPK in Quantum of Solace and has used it ever since.
Design work began on the P99 in 1995, and the gun was intended to replace both the P5 and P88 in Walther’s combat-handgun lineup. A locked-breech, short-recoil design based upon the Browning Hi Power, the polymer-framed P99 was cutting edge for its time. The P99 was available in several different trigger configurations as well as several different frame geometries. The most popular was the P99AS or “Anti-Stress.”
The P99AS sports an internal striker and two different modes of fire. When the action is cocked, the trigger is a long but light single action with a lot of take-up. A discrete button recessed into the top of the slide drops the striker safely and unloads the striker spring. In this state, the trigger becomes a long double action, more akin to that of a DA revolver. This allows for an added measure of safety when the gun is carried with a round in the chamber. This also allows a second-strike capability in the event of a hard primer.
The dust cover is railed for accessories, and the trapezoidal slide makes for a nice no-snag carry gun. The magazine release is a bilateral pivoting lever. There is a small protrusion in the back of the slide that tells the state of the striker both by feel or at a glance. The gun is produced in 9mm Parabellum, .40S&W, and 9x21mm. There are compact versions available as well. Interchangeable backstraps accommodate different hand sizes. The P99 remains in production today, though Walther has subsequently come out with several newer designs.
P99 Range Work
The Walther P99 was one of the early high-capacity “wondernines,” and it has always been a personal favorite. The standard 9mm magazine carries fifteen rounds and drops freely for fast reloads. The polymer frame means that the gun is light for its capabilities. A friend who spent more than a decade as a shooter in SFOD-D (Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta) carried a P99 operationally and swears by it as his favorite combat handgun.
Recoil is soft, and follow up shots are smooth. The three-dot sights are serviceable enough. The long, light single-action trigger pull lends itself to proper combat accuracy, and the aggressive slide grooves fore and aft make the slide easy to grasp. In total, the Walther P99 is a thoroughly modern polymer-framed service pistol sporting a few unique features not found anywhere else. I can see why Bond was enamored with it.
The HK Universal Machine Pistol
At the end of Casino Royale, Bond wields a captured sound-suppressed 9mm HK UMP submachine gun. He retrieved the gun during the closing shootout in the movie and subsequently uses it to wound Mr. White as a set up for the opening scene in the next film, Quantum of Solace. The HK UMP is a thoroughly modern submachine gun that is convertible between 9mm, .40S&W, and .45ACP. To convert the gun between calibers, you simply punch out a retaining pin and slide the barrel out to the rear. Bolt assemblies are caliber-specific, as are magazines.
The UMP is built around a remarkably lightweight polymer receiver. Imagine if Glock built a subgun, and you have a pretty good picture of the piece. The non-reciprocating charging handle is located in the left front and operates in the manner of that of the MP5. The magazine release is a thumb catch behind the magazine, and the skeletonized polymer stock folds to the right. Interchangeable fire-control assemblies offer semi-auto, full-auto, and burst-fire options. The bilateral fire selector is roughly the same as that of the MP5.
Sights are simple, conventional, and hooded. The forearm and top of the receiver include threaded inserts to accommodate proprietary accessory rails. Unlike the hyper-complicated roller-locked MP5, the UMP runs via straight, unlocked blowback. The bolts are sufficiently massive to manage recoil, but the weapon’s ultra-light receiver keeps the overall weight down. Unlike the MP5, there is a last-round bolt hold open in the same spot as that of the M4.
Running the UMP
The UMP is a dream to shoot. In .45ACP, the gun is a bit choppy, but the line of recoil is actually beneath the top of the buttstock, so muzzle rise is not a problem, even in the heavier caliber. Running 9mm with a Gemtech GM9 sound suppressor in place is enough to make an old geezer like me feel svelte and cool. The rate of fire is around 650 rounds per minute; about 100 rpm slower than that of an MP5, and the gun remains utterly controllable as a result. Thirty-round box magazines include a transparent strip down their center to help keep track of rounds remaining. Reloads are fast and fun given the last-round bolt hold open. It is tough to seat a full magazine with the bolt closed, however.
Using open sights, we could easily and rapidly index targets out to 100 meters without breaking a sweat. I have an old CO2 tank hanging in a tree at 68 meters on my backyard range and could ring it twice with a two-shot burst without too much trouble, as long as I paid attention. Given its light weight and superlative performance, I would say the UMP is indeed the ultimate pistol-caliber submachine gun. As most modern tactical units seem to be moving inexorably toward compact rifle-caliber long guns, the UMP has lost some of its luster of late. However, HK makes undeniably superb combat weapons, and the UMP is no exception.
James Bond is an iconic, larger-than-life character who has been played by no fewer than seven actors. The 24 films have brought in more than $7 billion, making the Bond franchise the fourth-largest grossing movie series in history. From Sean Connery’s 1962 Dr. No to Daniel Craig’s 2015 Spectre, Fleming’s 007 continues to be reliable box office gold.
Ian Fleming’s life in many ways imitated his art. A hard-drinking womanizer who smoked heavily and did many of the things in real life that his characters did in his books, Fleming died of cardiac disease at 56. Fleming was ejected from the military college at Sandhurst in 1927, after contracting gonorrhea. Fleming’s family life was as chaotic as one might expect, given the circumstances, and his son Caspar committed suicide via drug overdose at age 23. Caspar and Fleming’s widow Ann are both buried alongside Fleming in the Sevenhampton cemetery in the United Kingdom.
Ian Fleming was a remarkably talented writer. In addition to the James Bond series, for which he is justifiably famous, Fleming also penned “Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang”, the beloved children’s story. The James Bond franchise has been kept alive since Fleming’s death, in the hands of several other competent writers, as well as via a variety of video games.
“What’s your favorite Bond?” is a question sure to spark a spirited conversation anyplace two or more gun guys are gathered. As for myself, Sean Connery in Thunderball is my favorite classic Bond, though Daniel Craig’s Casino Royale is likely my all-time favorite. Craig’s Bond is grittier and tougher than his predecessors, and I found this origins story insightful, as it tended to explain much about the man’s personality and worldview. The introduction sequence in Spectre, however, seems to me to be one of the best movie scenes ever filmed. Everybody has opinions about most everything, and these are mine.
Bond’s guns are essential tools on his missions of daring and intrigue. They embody the same class, dash, and dedication to Queen and country as the fictitious secret agent who wields them. Within the stories and behind the scenes we can see that grand gulf that lies between life and art. Though the guns are fun, reality never seems to be quite as cool or clean as our entertainment makes it out to be.