So last week I spent a couple of days editing a galley proof of Ian’s new book, colloquially Chinese Mystery Pistols but officially…
And last week I was distracted by a new puppy with digestive issues and one of the worst and most prolonged allergy attacks in years, didn’t do a very good job of my job and knew it, so yesterday I sat down early and spent 11 hours doing it all again…
And it’s a different sort of book from Chassepot to FAMAS, there’s no question. CtF was a serious scholarly work (with world class photography) aimed primarily at collectors of French military weapons, with enough historical context to keep dilettantes like myself interested – but the deep spots were real black holes of esoterica that only a niche collector could enjoy. Do I care about all the many versions of Lebel stacking rods, and when, how and why they differed? Honestly I do not. But I still enjoy the book, because the weapons it covers are presented in their historical context which happens to epitomize the development of the true modern rifle. Consider: When aircraft and tanks and even automobiles first appeared they were all so brand new that nobody knew what their evolved forms would even look like – and so we got some rarely weird-looking contraptions wandering around for a while. The same was true, quite unexpectedly, of the weapons that developed from the invention of smokeless powder: Nobody understood, at the turn of the century, the full extent of the effect that one pivotal invention would have on the function and form of weapons actually designed to use it, and there were some real developmental blind alleys explored before what we would recognize as a proper bolt-action cartridge rifle emerged. Anyway, that’s why I find that book fascinating even though I’ll go ahead and admit that I really don’t care very much about fin de siècle European military rifles.
Wow – that paragraph wandered into the weeds. Sorry. My point is, Pistols of the Warlords isn’t that book. As Ian himself said in his announcement video, you could think of it as more of an entertaining coffee table book – if a weighty 558-page tome could ever be only that. You can get a lot of enjoyment from just paging through many (excellent) photographs and blinking at the idea that an actual military officer not only paid good money for this laughably crude pistol somebody hammered out on a treestump or something, festooning its surface with hopelessly misunderstood logos and proof marks as if they were runic charms, but then carried it around and used it long enough to wear the poor thing out – had it brazed back together when it fell apart and then used it some more. You could derive value from the book just by regarding it on that shallow level.
Thing is that as for the individual firearms studied in the book, there’s just no documentary information to be gleaned. In China, at least between the first and second civil wars, 1911-1949, a significant part of the sidearm market was a literal cottage industry. China had an arms manufacturing industry – of course it did, it was in an internal state of war throughout the entire period, not to mention that minor Japanese invasion – But it wasn’t exactly a manufacturing powerhouse. If you were a warlord – or a would-be or soon-to-be-former warlord – in need of 500 rifles or a battery of howitzers, you could get that from a factory if you had the money and influence. But if you needed a dozen pistols for your officers you might well find yourself out of luck. Much of that small part of the market was relegated to traditional artisans who didn’t need no steenking assembly lines. They turned out pistols one at a time like God intended – at wildly varying levels of quality. Some are works of art you wouldn’t mind carrying. Some are – well, you really wonder why their makers thought they should even be in this line of work. Most are somewhere in between.
Ian couldn’t document who those artisans were, or where and under what circumstances they worked, because no such documents exist. But he could supply the historical context in which they and their products existed, a period in Chinese history that we on our side of the globe don’t really give much thought. Which doesn’t mean it isn’t a very interesting story.
Pistols of the Warlords hasn’t gone to print yet – as I said, I just sent my galley proof notes to the author. It’s going to be a fancy expensive book and I’ll be pleasantly surprised if we see it in all its glory this year. But if you want to be sure of getting one, you can pre-order a copy here.