July 29, 2020
SPOILER ALERT: This article contains critical plot elements of the movie The Omega Man.
Robert Neville was the last man alive in a world full of monsters. It had been more than two years since the disease crossed the Pacific. No one knew or cared how—some poor sot on an airplane or a missile, most likely. The plague began as a biological warfare agent used to settle some long-forgotten border dispute between China and the Soviet Union. The bacterial contagion grew out of control and subsequently killed the planet.
Neville had been transporting an experimental vaccine when his helicopter pilot succumbed. After the crash, Neville had, in desperation, injected himself. He awoke to find himself immune, helpless, and alone.
The pathogen had performed beautifully. The overwhelming majority of the population simply suffocated and died. Those few who survived were fundamentally changed. Extreme light sensitivity kept them reliably indoors during day-light. Degenerative effects on their brains caused a form of pathological herd psychosis. Led by a former newscaster named Jonathon Matthias, the mutated plague survivors comprised the Family.
The Family was a deranged, robed, quasi-religious mob that eschewed all forms of technology. Science had been the engine behind the death of humanity. As a result, the Family strived to obliterate Neville as detestable residue from a previous world best forgotten. It was within this chaotic realm of violence and madness that Robert Neville clung desperately to life and sanity.
Neville was both a physician and a soldier, so he used the tools at hand to fortify an apartment building against the nocturnal raiders. Gasoline-powered generators kept the lights on after the power grid failed, and military weapons kept the monsters at bay. The plague victims attempted almost nightly to breach Neville’s fortress. Only through determination and technology had he stayed alive.
Robert Neville gradually discovered over the long weeks and months that there was a broad gulf between staying alive and actually living. Playing imaginary games of chess against a bust of Caesar served to stave off the quiet for only so long. In addition to the relentless onslaughts of the Family, Neville had his own loneliness with which to contend.
The entire city of Los Angeles was his department store. The plague had struck fast and hard, so shelf-stable foods were available in quantity. He drove a new car until it ran out of gas and then took another from any convenient dealership. Despite having the entire world at his fingertips, it was the hollow nothingness wrought upon his soul that was the most threatening. In an emptied world he struggled to find purpose, so he killed mutants at every opportunity. If isolation and madness were his destiny, he would leave the world better for his efforts.
The 1971 post-apocalyptic dystopian classic The Omega Man was a movie that inevitably made you think. Based upon the 1954 novel I Am Legend, by the American writer Richard Matheson, The Omega Man followed the routine of Charlton Heston’s character Robert Neville as he struggled to stay alive and sane as the last rational man on earth. The film was groundbreaking for a variety of reasons. In addition to Hollywood’s first interracial kiss, The Omega Man sported a desolate depopulated cityscape and state-of-the-art firepower.
The Omega Man was actually the second of three film adaptations of Matheson’s extraordinary book. The Last Man on Earth was released in 1964, and starred Vincent Price. The third featured Will Smith and hit theaters in 2007, with the same title as the novel. In each case, a lone survivor faces incredible odds to both survive and stay sane in a world gone most thoroughly sideways. The villains in the first film as well as the book were vampires. The threats in the 2007 adaptation were zombies of the fast-moving variety. The mob out to bring Neville down in the 1971 effort was comprised of albino, nocturnal, deranged, homicidal, crazy people.
Robert Neville’s Doomsday Iron
Heston’s Neville carries a 1911A1 pistol in a GI hip holster along with a Smith and Wesson M76 submachine gun whenever he is outside his fortified high rise. He packs a single spare magazine for the subgun in a dedicated leather magazine pouch. Neville also wields a German MP40 in an attempt to kill the mutant leader during the film’s climax. His MP40 subsequently jams at an inopportune time.
When defending his fortress against the Family’s nocturnal assaults, Neville packs an M1918A2 Browning Automatic Rifle mounting an infrared night scope harvested from an M3 Carbine. Thompson submachine guns, M1 Garands, M1 Carbines, a Madsen M50 or two, a German MP40, and several spare M76s are all arrayed in handy racks within Neville’s fortress. Neville’s armory also includes an M1917 Enfield, an M1903 Springfield, and a 2.36-inch bazooka. Neville has .50-caliber belt-fed machineguns mounted on his rooftop, though they are not fired in the film.
A Proper End-Times Handgun
The 1911A1 served the U.S. Military ably and well from 1911, until the mid-1980s, when the Beretta M9 supplanted it. Arguably the most versatile handgun ever crafted, John Moses Browning’s robust hand howitzer throws thumb-sized .45ACP bullets that hit like a freight train every time you pull the trigger. Robert Neville packs his 1911 in a GI-issue brown leather holster whenever he is out hunting mutants.
Neville could have scored his 1911A1 from a variety of sources to include deceased military plague victims or abandoned armories. As a last-ditch defense against Mathias’ murderous Family, the 1911A1 would be a reliable and effective sidearm. Additionally, given Neville’s military background, this would have been an obvious choice.
The 1911 harkens back to a better, manlier epoch in American history. Recoil is present without being objectionable, and the all-steel construction keeps the gun on target during rapid-fire strings. Magazines fall freely away, and the single-action trigger sets the standard for every other combat handgun on the planet.
From the Navy SEALs to the End of the World
In the mid-1960s, U.S. Navy SEAL teams and Army Special Forces troops were equipped with Swedish K submachine guns. In 1966, Sweden blocked the sale of firearms to the U.S. military to protest the ongoing war in Vietnam. Sensing an opportunity, Smith and Wesson designed the M76 as a replacement. The M76 remained in production from 1967 until 1974.
The M76 is frequently referred to as a direct derivation of the Swedish K. While the basic operating premise is indeed very similar, the two weapons share no common parts beyond their stick magazines, and remain unique designs. The M76 fires from an open bolt via Advanced Primer Ignition and feeds from a 36-round box. Sporting a side-folding steel stock and a ventilated barrel shroud, the M76 runs at around 700 rounds per minute on full auto. Neville likely would have obtained his M76s from police armories in 1971 Los Angeles. While rifle caliber carbines ultimately displaced the M76 among the SEAL teams, the weapon enjoyed some passing popularity with law-enforcement users.
Interestingly, one of Neville’s several M76 submachine guns sports an early weaponlight. While gun-mounted illuminators are de rigueur nowadays, they were heady stuff indeed back in 1971. Neville’s light consists of a bulky silver flash-light clamped to the gun’s ventilated barrel shroud with what appear to be improvised clamps.
The M76 is an effective submachine gun that offers reliable firepower from a lightweight chassis. The trigger pull is an atrocious 12 pounds or so, but the conventional layout makes the gun nicely controllable on full auto. The 36-round box magazine lasts quite a while, and the fixed stamped sights are close enough at typical subgun ranges.
The Nazi Mutant Slayer
The stamped sheet steel 9mm German MP40 was introduced, as the name implies, in 1940, as an evolutionary development of the previous machined-receiver MP38. The MP40 introduced the world to the concept of an efficient submachine gun developed with an eye toward mass production. While the bolt and barrel required some significant machine time, most of the gun was either made from stamped steel pressings or synthetic Bakelite. The resulting weapon, though heavy, ran at a sedate 550 rounds per minute and remains one of the most controllable submachine guns ever produced.
The MP40 was a popular GI souvenir during the Second World War, and these automatic guns could be legally brought home as war trophies with nothing more than the signature of your commanding officer on the appropriate form. As a result, hundreds, if not thousands, made their way back in duffle bags and sea chests after the armistice. These guns could have been in police armories or private collections that Neville might have discovered in his explorations around a depopulated Los Angeles.
The inordinate mass of the MP40 combined with its low-recoil 9mm chambering make it a reliable and controllable automatic weapon. The gun is full-auto only, but its sedate rate of fire makes singles and doubles easy for the experienced trigger finger. The folding steel stock on most modern examples can be a bit rickety, but the gun still runs smoothly and well out to a hundred meters or so.
Reaching Out to Touch the Undead
When Neville needed serious long-range nocturnal firepower, he relied upon the Browning Automatic Rifle. The BAR is a brute of a thing, introduced into service in the closing weeks of World War I. Springing forth from the fertile engineering wellspring that was John Browning, the BAR provided American Infantry squads with a portable base of automatic fire that could be used to facilitate maneuvers on the battlefield. Firing full power .30-06 rounds at a selectable cyclic rate of between 300 and 650 rounds per minute, the 1918A2 BAR was powerful, reliable, and mean. John Browning’s son Val was said to have been the first U.S. serviceman to fire the BAR in anger in WWI.
The BAR went on to see widespread service in all theaters during both World War II and Korea. The BAR was also used by ARVN troops in Vietnam. While a BAR sporting a night vision sight is indeed unusual, this eclectic combination is not beyond the realm of consideration. The M3 Carbine from which the IR scope was harvested is shown lying about discarded in Neville’s apartment.
Neville’s infrared sight was colloquially known as a “Snooperscope,” and it saw some limited use during the island campaigns at the end of the Second World War. This primitive night vision sight relied upon an active IR emitter for illumination and was both cumbersome and heavy. In the early seventies, there were likely yet still BARs stockpiled in National Guard armories in California, and the BAR saw some not insignificant use with law enforcement as well.
The BAR is indeed a beast of a gun on the range, but that makes it a stable platform despite its heavy .30-06 caliber rounds. The 20-round magazine doesn’t last long, but the A2 version offers a user-selectable rate of fire that stretches the gun’s onboard ammo out as far as possible. Toting the gun long distances gets tedious quickly, but, from a fixed position like Neville’s fortress, the BAR is a great choice for long-range engagements.
Expanding the Genre
The Omega Man is a science fiction classic executed by Charlton Heston at the very top of his game. The Omega Man, along with Soylent Green, and Planet of the Apes, served to form a Charlton Heston sci-fi trilogy of sorts. Each of the three is a compelling piece of work that can hold its own with much more modern films.
The earlier Vincent Price version, The Last Man on Earth, was shot in Italy and, as a result, sported some unusual iron. A Webley revolver and a Colt Model 1908 Vest Pocket make up the handguns. The long guns include M1903 Springfield bolt-action rifles as well as Russian PPSh submachine guns oddly modified with forward foregrips. While an enjoyable flick, The Last Man on Earth lacked the hardened survival fortress of the two following films and lost cool points as a result.
Will Smith’s 2007 epic I Am Legend had Neville wielding a slightly customized M4, along with an HK Mk23 .45 handgun and a Beretta M9. Smith’s Neville also keeps an M249 Squad Automatic Weapon secured in a weapons locker in his fortified home. Strangely enough, Neville’s two Ranger bodyguards at the beginning of the film are carrying Special Weapons SP10 submachine guns. While these two unusual weapons should have been utterly incongruous in the hands of Army Rangers, the action is so fast and the details so blurred that I couldn’t identify the guns without some detailed inspection and a little Internet research.
These three movies, along with the book upon which they are based, make for some thought-provoking mental fodder. I found myself inevitably imagining what I would do under similar circumstances. The BATF and its arcane regulations would be but a memory, and the entire world would be your arms room. I suspect I would have found something lightweight yet reliable, like an HK UMP, that might not interfere too much with my activities. I think I would also avail myself of a handy armored vehicle to use as a mobile safe room, were my fortress to be breached.
There is a nifty bit of double entendre to the book that was lost in all three movies. In each case, the Neville character kills the mutants/vampires/zombies en masse and without mercy in an effort to both survive and find a cure for the disease. Ultimately, the mutants come to view Neville as the monster as he preys upon them in the daylight when they are weak and defenseless.
In this vein, it is indeed Neville who becomes the legend among the mutants, themselves the new normal citizens of a planet laid desolate by disease. Which is the monster and which is the victim therefore becomes a simple issue of perspective. For this reason, as well as some others, The Omega Man ably earned its place as a gun-nerd sci-fi classic.
This article originally appeared in Firearms News Issue #9 in 2018.