Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2012/10/29/james_bonds_ppk/
Bond's Walther PPK goes digital: A civilized gun updated
'A ladies' gun ... and not for very nice ladies, at that'
Bond on Film It's the details that embellish James Bond's character: the martini, the Aston Martin, the Walther PPK.
A bit of a handbag gun really ... but there's no point telling people
We’re talking about an individual from a certain social background, somebody who possesses a deliberate and definite sense of choice and taste.
But Bond author Ian Fleming was inspired by the world of the 1940s and 1950s; so how do you keep the legend fresh yet true to the original?
One of the people handed this challenge on the latest Bond outing Skyfall is property master Jamie Wilkinson: and his favorite prop is the Walther PPK pistol, a timeless weapon that’s been updated for a world where absolutes such as the "best" weapon of choice have been pushed aside by the stampede of crowd-sourced truthiness.
Skyfall's look is ultramodern and contemporary with a story line tackling hackers and computers and with Bond sporting an aggressively minimalist buzz cut. How do you update something as small, simple and distinctive as the PPK to fit in with this?
Wilkinson's worked in films for 15 years and admits to Moonraker being his favorite 007 film. Like anybody, he has his own ideas of who Bond is, or should be, and he admits he was thrown a little by Skyfall's tough, modern look.
As in Moonraker, technology is woven into the Skyfall story - in fact it's central, with hackers and encryption being key elements of the plot; but unlike Moonraker, which came at the dawn of NASA's Space Shuttle era, Skyfall's take couldn't be less camp.
"You get your own ideas," Wilkinson says. "A lot of this stuff [in Skyfall] is industrial simplicity and stripped back, so I was on the back foot."
Take the PPK. Wilkinson worked closely with an armourer on how to bring a gun that dates from the 1930s into the 21st century.
There were lots of discussions, but eventually it was decided less was more. The big new addition is a fingerprint recognition system that makes it impossible for anyone but Bond to fire his PPK, with the hand grip moulded to Craig's shooting hand. The design needed final approval by manufacturer Walther, Wilkinson says.
"After lots of discussions we kept it virtually identical. We used the original PPK with a very, very simple design around the grip - why change it for the sake of changing it," Wilkinson says. "Nothing is over-designed ... it's a very, very subtle and beautifully designed prop."
The computers used by Skyfall's hackers also got a makeover, but not so much as to appear totally different from real kit you might get from PC World. Sony donated the machines, but their portrayal involved talking to director Sam Mendes and the film's designer for their vision, before going online to see what the kids are doing these days.
On the interwebs Wilkinson came across gamers overclocking their machines to squeeze out more performance, cooling their overheated hardware with water, gas or even liquid nitrogen.
The Sony PCs got modified to look as though they'd been physically accelerated; up to three monitors were provided per workstation with screens tipped on their sides.
Wilkinson had to be careful, he says, and deliver something that seemed credible to an audience. While he couldn't just plonk a fresh-from-the-box PC and monitor on a desk, neither could Wilkinson go too far in the other direction, and deliver something apparently out of Flash Gordon or an exotic rig recognisable only to a hardcore overclocker.
"You have to hit a happy medium," he says. "You have to hit something that's pleasing as a problem but nonetheless the audience knows what it is."
Wilkinson, whose dad was a prop master on GoldenEye, describes how his passion for Bond started.
"Roger Moore was my baptism into Bond," he reminisces. "I remember The Spy Who Loved Me - I remembered you could only see a trailer and everybody was talking about the Lotus and how it flew into the water and then the wheels start turning up. That's one of my most iconic memories of Bond," he says.
As for Jaws:
"I don't think they've had anything to top that until Skyfall - the baddy needs to be bad."
Wilkinson might be biased: but before you assume he is, it might be worth remembering Javier Bardem - who's playing the villain in Skyfall - in the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men and then trying to look at a US 25-cent coin the same way again.
The litmus test, though, will be how well Bardem’s baddy stands up to a remodelled Walther PPK.
Some notes from the Reg gun-fic desk
Dedicated Bond geeks will be well aware that 007's issued handgun is actually no reflection of his personal taste - though it has surely come to be seen as such.
In fact in the early Bond novels, the deadly Commander mostly carries a Beretta .25 like the one apparently issued to his creator Ian Fleming while Fleming was serving as an (almost entirely deskbound) naval intelligence officer during World War II.
It's reasonable that such a weapon might be carried for notional purposes of self-defence or as an item of uniform by high-ranking staff officers not expecting to see combat - the Beretta was popular with senior Italian officers, for instance - but it wasn't a credible choice for a professional gunfighter routinely headed into harm's way, and a British gun enthusiast named Geoffrey Boothroyd wrote to Fleming to tell him so - describing the Beretta as "a ladies' gun ... and not for very nice ladies, at that".
'Smith and Wesson ineffective against flamethrower'
Duly chastened, Fleming created a Major Boothroyd, secret service firearms expert (an early incarnation of Q) who advises M that 007 should carry something a bit more masculine. The Walther Polizei Pistole Kriminal (PPK) - a smaller and more concealable version of the PP patrolman's weapon, designed for use by plainclothes detectives and the like - was the chosen gun. Bond carried it for the rest of the Fleming books and all the films until recent times (Sean Connery surrenders a Beretta in exchange for his new PPK at the beginning of Dr No, in accordance with the book.)
Ah, I see you have the new Walther ... that'll never catch on
However Bond gives up his Beretta only under protest - he evidently wouldn't carry a PPK by choice - and it's clear that he doesn't accept Boothroyd's supposedly superior firearms expertise. He had also previously been in the habit of keeping a long-barrelled Colt .45 revolver of unspecified type (perhaps a Colt New Service model in .45ACP) in his car for longer-range firefights, but Boothroyd compels him to switch to a Smith and Wesson Centennial Airweight for such tasks, again against his own judgement.
"Smith and Wesson ineffective against flamethrower", Bond grumpily informs M at the conclusion of Dr No, and he seems to win his point against Q Branch on the matter of heavier pistols as the Centennial isn't heard of again.
Despite Bond's dislike of it, the PPK became an almost inextricable part of the 007 image, like the Aston Martin (though in fact Bond preferred a Bentley in the earlier novels) and the vodka martini. This has always been a mild point of distress for many gun fanciers as really one could perfectly well apply Boothroyd's criticism to the little PPK as well as the Beretta.
This is actually a matter of fact rather than taste in certain milieux. Among the British secret undercover operatives perhaps most closely related to the real-world Double O section - the unit once known as "14 Int" or "the Det(s)", now as the Special Reconnaissance Regiment - the PPK has genuinely been issued at times: but for most operatives, only ever as a backup hideout weapon for carry in ankle holsters and the like. A few 14 Int operators are known to have carried the PPK as their primary pistol, but only because they were physically too small to handle a full-size 9mm service weapon and/or conceal it effectively about their person ... this, because they were women. The PPK as a primary weapon really is a ladies' gun, in real life. And - these being deadly hardcase 14 Int operatives - not exactly "nice ladies", at that.
It's not for Princess Anne. Is she a 'nice lady'?
All that said, the PPK was deemed suitable as a main weapon for the police bodyguards protecting the royal family in the 1970s. That is, it was until 1974 when a copper's PPK jammed while he was trying to prevent Princess Anne being kidnapped, leading the royal close-protection plods to switch to other weapons. This event caused John Gardner, the author recruited by the Bond-brand empire to replace Fleming, to assume that the secret branches of government would also have proscribed the little Walther and thus that Bond would have been ordered to change weapons once again.
In the post-Fleming books, Gardner and his successors have equipped 007 with various different pistols over the years: but the public never warmed to any of them and the movie people, probably wisely, largely ignored them in favour of the PPK - this being all the more justifiable as 14 Int and such people didn't, in reality, join the cops and retire the little Walther in 1974 as Gardner assumed they had.
What the real Double Os are (probably) carrying these days
The fact remained, however, that the small and rather underpowered PPK really would have been an unlikely choice for an undercover service to be issuing to its assassins (certainly its reasonably large male assassins) as a primary handgun into the 1990s. Fashions and technology have changed, and modern professionals would see the PPK as unacceptably deficient in punch and - particularly - in ammo capacity. In the end the movie folk yielded and Bond switched to the more powerful Walther P99 during Tomorrow Never Dies, cadging one from a secret weapons dump belonging to the Chinese secret service - of all people. Since then the P99 has seemed to be Bond's standard weapon until Quantum of Solace, in which he uses a bewildering array of different pistols - but appears on occasion to have been issued a PPK once again.
Now in Skyfall we gather that Q Branch have definitely reverted to the PPK: apparently the slightly bigger PPK/S, which holds one more cartridge than the original 1930s design. In Bond's case the Walther has also been furnished with a Judge Dredd style fingerprint lock that means only 007 can fire it (though Q Branch apparently haven't gone so far as to make Bond's weapon explode on attempted unauthorised use, as Justice Department Lawgivers do). The PPK/S still isn't big enough to shoot any cartridges more powerful than the rather feeble short 9mm, however, and it can't hold very many either - just seven rounds in the magazine plus one up the spout.
The fact is that any normally-sized operative of Her Majesty's real-world Double O section (and there really is an organisation not completely unlike it - see our accompanying piece) would seldom carry a PPK except as a hideout backup weapon. Indeed, real-world covert operators will not restrict themselves to pistols at all if the option is there to bring heavier stuff: small submachineguns or even short collapsing-stock assault carbines are often carried under jackets or coats if trouble is expected. Car weapons go well beyond Fleming and Boothroyd's rather restrained revolvers to include full-power 7.62mm-NATO choices such as the Heckler and Koch G3KA4, light belt-fed Minimi machine-guns, 12-bore shotguns loaded with solid slugs etc.
Even while packing all this other stuff, real-world covert operators do routinely carry pistols too. But when they do, the handgun will normally be a full-fat 9mm job holding plenty of cartridges (probably high-pressure loads to help cope with body armour): usually a Sig-Sauer P226 or 228 these days in the case of the real British Double-Os, unless they have moved on to something else. Some Americans favour weapons using classic .45 ammo, but in these modern days its poor penetration would generally count against it - though it does have the advantage of being subsonic and thus feasibly silenced*.
But 007 has always had a healthy disregard for practicalities and indeed for technology in general - consider his disdainful attitude to Q and his offerings. Bond is all about design icons and branding: and although he tends to make the brand more than the brand makes him, once he's made it he's often stuck with it. There was some attempt to sprinkle some 007 pixie dust onto the P99 (a limited-edition "MI-6" version was issued by Walther) but it never acquired the iconic status that the years have conferred on the PPK, and the film-makers have evidently decided not to fight that inertia any longer.
So for James Bond 007, the Walther PPK will probably always be the right choice - and gun dorks may as well just relax and go with it. ®
*As are the 7.65mm/.32ACP and the 9mm-short/.380ACP, the rounds that Bond might be firing from his PPK. Though actually attaching a suppressor (silencer) to a PPK would require special modifications, doubtless taken care of by Q Branch.