• Red Nichols, Holstorian

How to become a famous arms expert by correspondence course

Updated: Nov 19

I'm speaking of how Ian Fleming's volunteer advisor on weapons and gunleather, turned his amateur enthusiasm into 'expertise', thanks to Fleming's well-meaning enthusiasm for his own writing and his character, James Bond.

Fleming's first book, and the one that generated a letter to Fleming from fellow Briton Geoffrey Boothroyd, was Casino Royale. It is very different from all the books that followed in following the 'noir' style of Fleming's contemporaries. It's dark and dramatic in its settings and its dialogues.

It's an oft-told tale that reader Boothroyd felt that Bond was underpowered and when one reads/rereads Casino Royale, it's easy to understand his view: Bond does not ever fire his .25 Beretta automatic but nevertheless his opponents are in big, heavy, steel paneled cars and Bond himself is in his pride and joy, a giant steel behemoth called a Bentley; the precise model of which was made only in 1930. His car chases were ineffective and one imagines that an exchange of gunfire would have done him no good at all with a .25 ACP against his villains.

The book was published in 1953 and so, just a matter of a few years after Fleming's WWII duty ended by 1945. Truth be known he purchased his famed estate Goldeneye in 1944; and his super-rich mother moved there in 1950 to escape the punitive taxation regime of Britain of those times. He carried during his war years, what is surely his father's Browning .25 ACP automatic that is in a private collection today; and by 1950 it was his mother's again because she writes complaining that he bring new ammunition from England for it because hers dates from 1914! Which is the year that Fleming's father was killed by a bomb while at the front in WW1. And his Browning's s/n indicates that it was among the last ones made before production of the model was suspended for WW1.

Why he chose to stick with the .25 ACP for Bond is understandable, then. Why he changed to a Beretta is anyone's guess! But it has led to confusion by readers and enthusiasts ever since because in the Bond books (disregard the films as interpretations) Bond switches his safety up for 'on' and down for 'off'; which is correct for the Browning but incorrect for the Beretta (down is on, forward is off). It takes a lot of firearms knowledge to realize this and Fleming didn't have it.

Lots of research then turns up that Boothroyd was not the 'genuine arms expert' that Fleming thought him to be and instead, was writing from personal enthusiasm but very limited experience. And it was Tom Threepersons, oddly, whose mention in Boothroyd's least-known exchanges who then gave Boothroyd away: the source of all of the advice came from several articles by our own Charlie Askins.

And as I say, it is in the final letter from Boothroyd on the subject, that Tom Threepersons is mentioned and the dots are connected. Because the contemporaneous articles by Askins mention every gunleather style that Boothroyd does -- and Tom's sticks out like a sore thumb because Geoffrey is recommending it for the S&W Centennial that he wants Bond to revert to, from the Walther. That is, it solves nothing at all for Fleming in the pairing of the Berns-Martin Triple Draw with the Walther. And the Airweight version of the Centennial appeared for the first time in the 1956 Gun Digest, too; right down to the exact weight that Boothroyd cites to Fleming (there is more than one official weight cited in various references).

So we're examining the period early 1953 when Casino Royale was published, and early 1956 when Boothroyd's initial letter was written. And we discover that indeed it is Askins' articles that fit neatly into the period. (Below the actor is being fitted for the first film, Dr. No):

First we have Casino Royale published April 1953:

A 'skeleton grip' is generally considered to be one without its grip panels and then sometimes wrapped with grip tape; and indeed in later books Fleming describes it as being wrapped with tape. Troublesome when run across the exposed magazine under the missing grip panels; but on the other hand would work to hold the grip safety into the fire position on the Browning that he would've been holding in his hand. Vs the Beretta that has an oddly-shaped grip safety (on the expectation that the Beretta M418 is the only plausible candidate; which, given that neither Bond nor his Beretta actually existed is, perhaps, neither here nor there). Of course we can only say that Boothroyd had read the book by 1956 because that is the date of his letter (image further down in this piece).

In 1953 Charlie Askins' book appears and he makes note of Myres, Berns-Martin, and of all people, Tom Threepersons; and we have a newspaper record of Askins competing in a pistol match alongside him in the 1932 (Askins finished near the top in the rankings, Tom near the bottom).

Again, seems irrelevant. But wait for the Boothroyd letter that comes at the end of this piece (it's OK, you can scan ahead). Now, the book is not the point, per se, because it is its reproduction in the 1954 Gun Digest that we're interested in. A decade later when I lived in England, it and the Shooter's Bible was all we would be able to encounter in a London bookstore; and it's where I got my first copy of the latter book.

Notice especially the discussion about Fitzing, because not only does Askins do another article that focuses on Fitzing but this is Boothroyd's own revolver at the time he writes to Fleming; now in a museum in London. Its barrel has been shortened locally to the maximum extent that the ejector rod will tolerate and retain its locking lug, adjustable sites added to what is an ex-WWII British revolver that is in .38 Short, the jeweled action, and the Fitzed guard. All in accord with Askins' prescription for same:

So now, the 1955 Gun Digest and another article by Charlie Askins:

The 1956 price list for Berns-Martin (prior was 1953); Boothroyd has his own Triple Draw by now and we have images of it from the same London museum that holds the revolver.

And Askins' article in the 1956 Gun Digest:

Pages omitted because Charlie doesn't get to the point I'm making until further into his piece:

Boothroyd's initial letter is dated May of 1956:

In a follow-up letter, Boothroyd refers to J.H. Martin, full name Julius Henry Martin, as "Jack" and "a genuine gunfighter". Extensive searching over many years shows NO other references to him as 'Jack' except by Askins. And only Charlie suggests that Jack Martin was a 'soldier of fortune' in South America which is relevant because he was surely thinking of pulp writer Eugene Cunningham instead; Martin was a Navy rifle shooter and a harness maker but no gunfighter. More indications that Boothroyd's tales came entirely from Askins' articles.

Boothroyd's own revolver then appears on the cover of From Russia With Love; the book in which Fleming (who is the real life 'M' and is not Bond) engineers a difficulty for Bond with his silenced Beretta, that in Dr. No will cause M to replace it with the Walther -- and the S&W Centennial and its Berns-Martin triple draw. There is an entire, separate tale about the difficulties that Fleming and Boothroyd encountered with the constabulary over the revolver being with the artist instead of with Boothroyd! The yellowish color of the front sight is caused by there being several different front blades for Geoffrey's (pronounced 'Joffrey' vs "Jeffry") in various colors, materials, and heights.

Above, Boothroyd's own Berns-Martin was used to illustrate an article for the London Times in '62. Which is especially relevant because it was a whimsical piece in which Fleming acknowledged that he'd stuffed up in pairing the Berns-Martin with the Walther and crediting Boothroyd for having it right in the first place, for the Centennial. Well, that article not only also appeared in '62 with Sports Illustrated:

But also in the film Dr. No that also appeared in '62; and there it is the armourer named Major Boothroyd who explicitly pairs the holster with the Walther. In color, on a huge screen. The 'problem with Berns-Martin' was no longer hiding on a single page of a book. In his '64 Playboy interview, Fleming is mighty displeased with being pilloried for the error. But the damage is done and Fleming died that year. Below is the film's holster used in at least the first three titles, and is reproduced esp. for Japanese collectors into the present day:

To his credit he changed the Berns-Martin holster in the very next book that is Goldfinger, to an IWB. And it remains that way for the rest of his books (I don't believe he wrote any part of The Man With the Golden Gun; I reckon the heirs weren't having Bond remain dead as he is in the prior, 12th book in the series. I reckon Fleming meant to kill off his character). The drawing below turns out to be of Berns-Martin's IWB; we have an actual photo of it, too:

All because Fleming heard from a guy, who had read some articles written by a different guy, and if Fleming had round-filed the letter, would not have led to unwanted strife. And Berns-Martin would not have become famous; nor perhaps the Walther PPK itself.

Oh, the final letter from Boothroyd to Fleming, who by then is very ill, in which Tom's name comes up prominently and dated March 23rd April 1958. The letters are from Fleming's grandson's book titled, The Man with the Golden Typewriter:

And so it was, that the myth of Boothroyd's so-called expertise was busted. By a mention of Tom Threepersons!


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