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From the History Books

Sherlock Holmes: A Historically Good Shot?

by Garry James   |  November 2nd, 2011 16

Hound of the BaskervillesWhile everyone is familiar with the many skills of the world’s first consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes, what is not generally known is just how fine a marksman he really was.

Many Sherlockian scholars of the past have tried to denigrate his shooting skills, but they are at best misinformed and at worst, woefully wrong.

For example, in “The Musgrave Ritual,” Holmes’ associate and chronicler, Dr. John H. Watson, describes an occasion, “…when Holmes in one of his queer humors would sit in an arm-chair with his hair trigger and a hundred Boxer cartridges, and proceed to adorn the opposite wall with a patriotic V.R [the royal monogram for Queen Victoria] done in bullet pocks, I felt that neither the atmosphere nor the appearance of the room was improved by it”

As well, using his .450 short-barreled Webley Metropolitan Police revolver, in “The Sign of the Four,” Holmes, with some help from Watson, was able to pick off a Pygmy Andaman Islander at a fair distance from the deck of one moving steam launch to another.

As recounted in “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” Holmes dispatched the “hound of hell” – actually a large mastiff/bloodhound mix – by emptying “five barrels (chambers) into the creature’s flank.”

This unerring marksmanship was undertaken in semi-darkness under the most harrowing circumstances, as the beast was savaging Sir Henry Baskerville who, thanks to Holmes, survived the attack.

There are numerous other examples, but it must be admitted that along with his acumen as a boxer, unerring deductive powers and skill as a master of disguise, we can also add, Holmes was one heck of a shot.

  • Steve thompson

    Sherlock Holmes . A man who never lived…and will never die !

  • Olderandwisershooter

    Hate to burst your bubble "old man", but the correct title is "The sign of Four" not "of THE Four".
    Common mistake, often made, but unfortunately still wrong old Bean!
    Love your work, by the by – Positively crackerjack writing you do!

    • Garry James

      You are of course correct. I know better, too. Have read the story several times. The typo monster strikes again!

    • Derek

      Actually the opposite is true, In the ACD manuscript and the first serialised editions it’s the Sign of THE Four

  • markinalpine


    "The novel first appeared in the February 1890 edition of Lippincott's Monthly Magazine as The Sign of the Four (five-word title), appearing in both London and Philadelphia. The British edition of the magazine originally sold for a shilling, and the American for 25 cents. Surviving copies are now worth several thousand dollars.
    Over the following few months in the same year, the novel was then re-published in several regional British journals. These re-serialisations gave the title as The Sign of Four. The novel was published in book form in October 1890 by Spencer Blackett, again using the title The Sign of Four. The title of both the British and American editions of this first book edition omitted the second "the" of the original title."

  • Arthur L. Brown Sr.

    How can we go wrong? we've got shooting, grammar, literature, and history , all in these comments. (Not giving slight remarks. Ok?)

    • Garry James

      That's what I'm trying to accomplish with this blog–to show that firearms are not an just isolated island of development but are part of the fabric of the time and society in which they appear.

  • jeff dein

    "Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”

  • Richard Rippon

    Holmes also told Watson to fetch an "Eley no. 2". Maybe he thought that the ammo company had started making guns !

  • Garry James

    Was not familiar with that reference. Would like to know where it appears. An Eley No. 2 cartridge was a .22 Rimfire, and as Watson mentions in the "Musgrave Ritual" Holmes using Boxer cartridges to do his interior decoration (which I assume would be something like a .297/230 Morris Short) I don't think that's what he was talking about. Never heard of an Eley revolver myself, though Webley made some for Wilkinson.

  • Richard Rippon

    Hi Garry :-)
    In his Sherlock Holmes story The Adventure of the Speckled Band, Arthur Conan Doyle has Holmes tell Dr. John H. Watson that an "Eley's No. 2" is "an excellent argument with gentlemen who can twist steel pokers into knots." I simply think that Conan Doyle got it wrong and somehow had a Webley MK II in the back of his head.
    Great job with the mag BTW, I've been reading it since the late 60s, before you time of course !!
    Best Wishes, Richard in Norway, presently converting a 36 cal Colt Navy to 22 rimfire !

  • Garry James

    Many thanks. I checked out the reference, and perhaps we are overthinking this. As Holmes mentions the Eley No. 2 in a separate sentance from the revolver, it is entirely possible he is describing the cartridge that is chambered in the gun rather than the gun itself. The only probelm is, in my c.1907 Eley catalog, the No. 2 is identified as a .22 rimfire–hardly powerful enough to stop a fellow who can bend pokers. There is always the possibility, of course, he was referring to a "Mark II" .450 which came out in 1877 and would be appropriate for a "service revolver." Good luck with the Colt Navy.

  • Richard Rippon

    Thanks Garry, the barrel's finished :-) Just a thought, how about doing one of these on Philip Marlowe?
    Chandler made his mistakes too. In The Big Sleep, he writes about the smell of cordite from a pistol.
    He'd know that smell, having served in the Great War trenches. Quote: "After you have led your squad
    into direct machine gun fire, nothing is ever the same again".

  • DoctorWho

    I think it is safe to say one thing about the Sherlock Holmes stories, neither Holmes or Watson were great shakes at gun safety, there were too many instances involving poor gun handling.
    The rest of the shooting was at short distances and by the light of the silvery moon / tongue, not hard shots in the non street light illuminated countryside as I can attest from personal experience in those type of environs.

  • Tom Wozniak

    It was fiction for crying out loud! The author originally intended to be a physician, NOT a gunsmith. In one of the short stories he speaks of a pneumatic rifle built by some non-descript German gun maker that could hit a target the size of a wax copy of holmes head from a great distance and make little or no discernible noise, Today we have shotguns on TV that bounce people across the room with one round, pistol users who blink everytime they fire their weapon, and machineguns that NEVER run out of ammunition (but that's OK since they never seem to get anywhere near the Good guy. Please guys this is fictitious entertainment by someone who obviusly never kept his facts straight.Watson was either wounded once or as many as 3 times, he had between 1 and three wives all of whom either died or somehow disappeared from the story.
    Doyle wrote a classi piece of fiction; if you nit-pick it you lose the sense of time and place that will never exist again. Spare me the gun errors, enjoy the stories.

  • Derek

    Which particular firearm Holmes uses is never mentioned in the stories themselves, only that it was a revolver. I am curious, how did you deduce that a .450 short-barreled Webley Metropolitan Police was his Weapon in The Sign of the Four?

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