The Guns of Magnum P.I.
As I recall, there were two kinds of boys in the early ‘80s: those who wanted to grow up to be Thomas Magnum, and liars. I suppose those who weren’t allowed to stay up and watch the show get a pass, but being a handsome and suave war hero living a life of adventure and limited responsibilities, surrounded by attractive women, with loyal, fun friends and an awesome car all in a tropical paradise was male adolescent daydreams in technicolor.
Magnum P.I. topped the ratings for eight solid years, collecting an impressive score of awards and accolades, and you can’t do that on boyish wish fulfillment alone. The show had broader appeal and had something for literally every demographic. Women tuned in for Tom Selleck’s charisma and dashing good looks. Mystery fans got a tightly written whodunit every week. The writers also put care into developing longer plot lines that took several episodes to resolve. Vietnam Vets were, for the first time in popular culture, portrayed as well-adjusted, productive members of society and not simmering psychopaths waiting for an excuse to go off. Overall, it was just good television. Indeed, the series was written to wrap up at the close of its seventh season, but an overwhelming letter and phone campaign by fans prompted the encore eighth season.
Magnum P.I. was the result of a long line of American detective serial fiction evolution, drawing its narrative style, plots, themes and cast of characters straight back to Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. Magnum P.I. took the best of its television predecessors including Mannix, Baretta, and The Rockford Files, added a dash of exotic locale from CBS’s long running hit Hawaii Five-O and it was off to the races. While Magnum’s private investigator ancestors were generally lone wolves with a small team of walk-on help, what really made this show click was Magnum’s band of close-knit war buddies and friends and the dynamics between them. No man is an island, even in Hawaii.
While the level of violence and number of dead bodies had to be constrained to levels compatible with CBS’s Thursday night lineup, the show featured a fair amount of gunplay and for the time, the level of attention to detail and authenticity of the guns and handling in the series was remarkable. By some counts, Magnum personally dispatched around fifty enemies over eight seasons. Let’s see how he did it.
We first see Magnum armed in a series of flashbacks to his Vietnam War service, which sets up the relationship between Magnum, Rick Wright and Theodore Calvin (T.C.). The weapons in the flashbacks include suitably authentic representations of the M16A1, M60 and other infantry firearms of the late 1960s.
The M16 5.56mm NATO select-fire rifle had a troubled genesis fraught with political intrigue and interference, but by 1967 had matured into a lightweight, dependable, accurate rifle that was easy to shoot, yet to this day can’t shed its negative reputation. The M16s in the pilot episode and the season five two-parter All For One are dressed up as M16A1 variants, identifiable by the distinctive windage-only rear sight carry handle, and triangular handguards. The rifles are all equipped with curved thirty round magazines, instead of the more period correct straight-walled twenty round magazines, but thirties were in limited circulation as early as 1968.
Even before the end of the Second World War, the U.S. Army was planning the replacement for the Browning Automatic Rifle in the squad level machine gun role. The BAR had a reputation for reliability, but the rapid firing, belt fed machine guns of the Wehrmacht like the MG34 and MG42 showed the way, and the M60 borrowed elements from the best of them. Adopted in 1957, the 7.62 NATO M60 gave good service through the entire Vietnam war and despite the adaptation of the 5.56 NATO M249 and the 7.62 NATO M240 in the 1980s, the “Pig” remains in production in various forms today. Most recently, the M60E6 won the Danish Army’s bid to replace their MG42 derived MG3s, beating out the more modern HK121.
Magnum’s constant companion through all eight seasons is his 1911A1 pistol, brought home from his service in Vietnam. While the role of his gun is that of a military issue 1911A1 in .45 Automatic, the actor gun was in fact a 9x19mm Para Series 70 commercial Colt. This is obvious in the shots that show Magnum loading his 1911, as the magazines have the characteristic vertical crease of 9mm 1911 magazines. According to the propmaster, this Hollywood sleight of hand was required as they had difficulty getting a .45 ACP 1911 functioning correctly with blank cartridges.
Colt first offered the 1911 in 9mm in the early 1950s in a shorter barreled, aluminum framed variant that was designed for a U.S. Army requirement that never materialized, and became known as the Commander in Colt’s commercial catalog. Also chambered in .45 ACP and .38 Super Auto, the 9mm Commander provided all the engineering pieces for Colt to release a full-sized 9mm steel framed 1911A1 in the 1970s with the Series 70 revamp. While not a popular choice in the heat of the caliber wars of the time, when it was perceived that the 9mm offered less “stopping power” than the .45, 9mm 1911s have enjoyed a recent resurgence in popularity as shooters find the mild recoil and less expensive ammunition appealing.
Although Tom Selleck famously preferred to do most of his own stunts, a professional stuntman was still occasionally called in. Similarly, observant pistol buffs will note that in a few scenes Magnum’s 1911 is played by a Spanish Star Model B 9mm pistol. Introduced in 1928, the Model B generally resembled the 1911 in size, shape and operation, but had several detail differences. Most obvious are the lack of a hinged grip safety and an extractor bar visible to the rear of the ejection port. Production ended in 1983, but the Model B was popular both with foreign militaries and the domestic American civilian market, and used copies are available for shooters looking for an inexpensive alternative to a 9mm 1911.
Magnum wasn’t the only character to appreciate the 1911, as Rick is frequently seen with his Detonics Combat Master. The brainchild of engineer Pat Yates, Detonics was born in the 1970s with the goal to make a more compact, carry friendly 1911 than either the Commander or Officer’s variants then available. By redesigning the recoil spring assembly to use two springs and radically cutting down the frame and slide, Detonics delivered the most compact .45 Auto pistols you could get. Detonics 1911s are readily identifiable by the front sight riding forward on the slide with a sloped ramp running back to the rear of the gun.
Another Detonics product shows up as Magnum’s backup piece in season four’s Let the Punishment Fit the Crime, the Detonics Pocket Nine. An attempt at a compact 9x19mm Para automatic, the Pocket Nine was a clean sheet of paper design that had a short one year production run as the gun developed a reputation for a heavy trigger and poor reliability. The pistol features a large, heavy slide as a result of its blowback operation cycle. While unsuccessful, the Pocket Nine helped pave the way for today’s single stack 9mm carry pistols
Nothing says “1980s Action” like submachine guns, and Magnum P.I. had a great cast of them. In the pilot movie, Rick wields an Ingram MAC-10, and in later episodes, an Israeli Military Industries Uzi. Magnum is also seen with an Uzi in season eight’s Indiana Jones homage, Legend of the Lost Art.
The design was for the Uzi was laid down by Uziel Gal in the late 1940s, prototyped in 1950 and production began in 1954. An easy to manufacture and easy to use stamped sheet metal 9x19mm, the Uzi featured a telescoping bolt that allowed the magazine to be located in the pistol grip, giving the gun a compact size. The Uzi also introduced a fire control selector that allowed for semi-automatic as well as full-automatic fire, and featured a grip safety to prevent unintentional discharges that some of the cruder WWII submachine guns had become known for. The gun was an immediate success and not only saw wide use in all of Israel’s armed conflicts but racked up over ten million sales on the military export market. The Uzi was also extremely popular in the U.S. civilian market before full-auto sales were curtailed in 1986, and the Uzi is one of the most cost effective ways for shooters to enter the full-auto world. Semi-automatic pistol and carbine versions are also available in the domestic market.
The Ingram MAC-10 borrowed the Uzi’s stamped sheet steel receiver, telescoping bolt and pistol grip magazine but was a more compact package overall despite being chambered for the larger .45 Auto cartridge. The MAC-10 was most commonly marketed with a highly effective Sionics suppressor (see John Wayne’s 1974 cop movie McQ for it’s screen debut), but despite a dazzling rate of fire and some foreign military sales it never achieved the Uzi’s widespread success. Still, Ingram soldiered on and produced versions in 9mm and .380 Automatic, and also licensed the design for South African and Brazilian production.
Another subgun in the pilot movie is the Madsen M-50, as used by a couple of thugs trying to shoot Magnum off the road. The M-50 was a simple, stamped steel submachine gun chambered in 9x19mm and of conventional design, resembling the German MP40 and American M3 “Grease Gun.” The M-50 did feature a unique grip safety on the forward magazine well, requiring the shooter to grasp the pistol grip and magazine well to fire the gun. Another neat design feature is that the stamped steel halves of the receiver are hinged at the rear and “clamshell” open for cleaning or service.
But sometimes a Navy SEAL turned private eye needs some precision and not volume of fire, and for that Magnum turned to the Austrian Steyr SSG-69 bolt-action rifle. Adopted by the Austrian Army as their standard sniper rifle, the 7.62x51mm NATO SSG-69 was offered for export worldwide and soon earned a reputation as a superbly accurate rifle. Unique in using a rear-locking bolt design and a translucent, rotary magazine that allowed the shooter to see how many rounds were loaded, the SSG remains in production today.
Magnum P.I. seems like it would be a natural for the Hollywood remake treatment, and a movie was indeed in the planning stages in 1990, but the project went nowhere. The cast did reunite for a 2007 episode of NBC’s Las Vegas in season five’s episode When Life Gives You Lemon Bars, which was chock full of Magnum P.I. in-jokes, but with Selleck approaching seventy years old the window for a full reunion movie is closing. A complete remake has also been rumored, but Magnum P.I. was, like so many other iconic shows, a unique product of its time and it’s unlikely a retread can recapture that magic. The show does, however, live on on DVD and Netflix, a fun little capsule of 1980’s optimism and adventure for today’s audiences to rediscover.
How could we do a Magnum P.I. article without a few words on the fantastic red Ferrari 308 that was his co-star for eight seasons? Originally, Magnum’s ride was scripted to be a Porsche 928 with a custom targa top conversion, but at the last minute, Porsche demurred with the explanation that they’d rather not advertise a car they don’t actually catalog for sale. Ferrari stepped up to the plate, and the rest is history. The 928 never outsold its predecessor, the 911, and the 308 and lookalike successor 328 were the hottest selling Ferrari models until dethroned by the 360 in 2004.
Four 308s were used over the course of filming. The first season used a 1978 308 GTS, then a 1980 308 GTSi for the second and third seasons, and a 1984 308 GTSi Quattrovalvole from the fourth season to the end of production. A number of stand in cars were built up from Pontiac Fiero chassis for use in dangerous stunts.
The 308 was introduced in 1975 as a replacement for the V6 powered 246 Dino. Styled by famed design house Pininfarina, the 308 combined design elements from the Daytona, Dino and Berlinetta Boxer, yet looked like nothing else on the road. A targa top model was introduced in 1977, in 1980 the troublesome set of Weber carburetors were replaced with Bosch electronic fuel injection, in 1984 galvanized steel was used to improve the car’s rust-proofing, and in 1986 the 308 was discontinued in favor of the larger engined 328, which remained in production until 1989.
Now here’s the big question, what about owning one? Every car nut has dreamed about owning a Ferrari, and the 308/328 family are among the, if not most sensible, then perhaps least impractical options. Prices range from under 30,000-dollars for a high mileage early 308 to almost ninety grand for a late production 328. Parts are surprisingly easy to find and reasonably priced, and most wear parts can be cross-referenced to a more mundane brand as Ferrari commonly raided other manufacturer’s parts bins. Plan on maintenance costing around 300-dollars for a 3,000-mile “minor” service, and about 4000-dollars for a “major” service every 30,000 miles.
This is where reality intrudes. While offering scorching performance in the early ‘80s, even a late model 328 will get spanked at the dragstrip by a used Corvette or Mustang for a tenth of the cost, and far less expensive to maintain. Sometimes, however, the experience goes beyond the numbers. Only the driver can decide if the juice is worth the squeeze.
By Peter Barrett. Originally published in the April 2014 issue of GunUp the Magazine.