Stephen Hunter: Novelist, Pulitzer Winner, 1911 Aficionado

Stephen Hunter: Novelist, Pulitzer Winner, 1911 Aficionado
Stephen Hunter is a bestselling novelist who says he “grew by proportions of honesty to becoming a gun owner.”

If you read novels, you've probably come across some by Stephen Hunter. And if you've picked up any of his Bob Lee Swagger thrillers, which follow a fictionalized Vietnam War sniper loosely based on the real sniper and U.S. Marine Corps legend Carlos Hathcock, then you may have noticed that Hunter knows his guns. Even if you don't read for entertainment, you may be familiar with his 2007 film Shooter, starring Mark Wahlberg, which is based on Hunter's thriller Point of Impact.

The thing about Hunter, though, is that he is so much more than expectation.

Hunter has the look of an aged professor who is about to call you something you’ll have to look up in the dictionary. When I first met him I thought he was an accomplished curmudgeon, but then I found he is brimming with youthful mirth. He’s cynical and sarcastic. His amusement with human nature flows from his persona and is on all the words he carefully but joyously chooses. He cheerily tells me he was once a “leftist hippie with the long hair and all that” and that “he moved by proportions of honesty to becoming a gun owner and shooter.”

Even the Pulitzer Prize committee picked up on his mirth. In 2003, while he was working for The Washington Post, he won a Pulitzer for movie criticism. The Pulitzer committee said Hunter "is forever suggesting that art can be a good, lusty, happy thing, that doesn't always have to be an immersion in a new level of human misery." They got Hunter exactly right.

Hunter’s transformation into a full-bore gun enthusiast came one fine day in 1985 when he saw an ad for a gun—a bright and lovely stainless Smith & Wesson Model 645. He found the semiautomatic pistol to be intriguing and beautiful, and he wanted one. This contradiction within himself needed a final resolution. After some self-evaluation, he decided that “there was something fundamentally dishonest about my anti-gun views.”

Hunter didn’t know anyone who could teach him to shoot and handle a gun, so he found people and the resources to learn by himself.

A Non-Traditional Background

Hunter had told me this when I interviewed him in 2014 for my book The Future of the Gun.

I asked him how a kid from a suburb of Chicago, a kid whose parents didn’t own guns--Hunter’s father was a professor at Northwestern University, his mother wrote children’s books; neither wanted anything to do with guns--became a gun owner and shooter.

“When I was a boy, the notion that guns were bad stuck in my head,” said Hunter. “My parents, teachers, and the suburban Chicago culture I was in told me guns lead to violence. It took me a long time to move past the notion that owning a gun would corrupt you, that a gun can somehow whisper vile things in your ear until you become a worse person, maybe even a sociopath. I thought that a gun has an aura that acts like alcohol to an alcoholic—that step by step it would make me a bad person.”

He shook his head and smiled. “There is, of course, an aura surrounding guns,” he said. “There are real, deep reasons why Hollywood glorifies the gun even as many of its producers and actors want guns banned. This feeling comes from holding a gun, from shooting a gun; you get a feeling of a power. You know this mechanical wonder explodes in your hands, but when used right, it won’t harm you even as it can do real damage down range. This is why guns are a great responsibility and require a lot of maturity. This is also why Western films resonate. Out there, in the exposed open, is a man with a gun, a true individual who can take care of himself. The gun doesn’t make this cowboy good or bad, but it does make him potentially lethal and very independent. That’s intoxicating. That’s a big part of the reason why all those journalists who oppose gun rights keep losing battles. For generations they had almost full control of the messaging, but still they lost because people are drawn to the gun. When you shoot a gun safely and responsibly you can’t help but get this big grin on your face.”

Film Reviews, Novels, and 1911s

Hunter graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in 1968. He then served in the military in the ceremonial unit at Arlington National Cemetery. In 1971 he joined the Baltimore Sun’s copy desk and spent 10 years there before becoming the paper’s first full-time film reviewer. In 1980, while still at the Sun, Hunter published his first novel, The Master Sniper, about a World War II Nazi assassin. Since then his novels have won him millions of fans, many are gun owners.

In 1997 the Washington Post hired Hunter to review films. He said that most of the editors and reporters at the Post thought of him as “crazy uncle Steve.”

“I was irreverent, sarcastic, and gregarious—a voice they understood,” He said. “They thought I was all right even if I did own and shoot guns. I told them when they’re writing about gun control or crime to come and talk to me. I told them I’d save them from technical mistakes and help them with sources. Some took me up on this. During my time at the Post, the news side seemed to improve to mildly anti-gun. I had something to do with that.”

Hunter's first brush with Hollywood occurred when a producer optioned his 1989 novel The Day Before Midnight. The producer flew in from Los Angeles to see Hunter, who took the producer to a local gun range. He thought maybe this Hollywood producer, a guy who said he'd never shot a gun, would enjoy a taste of what the characters in the book do.

“It was one of those busy days at the range,” said Hunter. “There were people pounding away with big-game rifles. There were men opening gun cases and slapping each other on the backs. There were guys in the pistol lanes shooting semiautomatics at paper targets. It was loud. It was masculine. You could feel the energy. Before we even got out of the car the producer started to tremble. He became extremely anxious and ultimately wouldn't even get out of the car.”

Hunter shrugs. “Culture shock.”

Stephen Hunter: Novelist, Pulitzer Winner, 1911 Aficionado
Stephen Hunter's latest novel, I, Ripper, officially launches on May 19.

I asked Hunter about his guns. “I shoot pistols about 95 percent of the time, at a range about 10 miles from home. It’s a great place, with great guys, sort of my third place where I know I'll be comfortable. I've been veering toward 9mm more and more, and the last few purchase have been in that caliber. The new one, which I'll pick up Tuesday, is an STI Mastertarget, with a 6-inch barrel on a 1911 frame. It has a great rep for accuracy, and I'm still looking, all these years later, for that one-hole, 25-yard group. It doesn't even have to be a small hole!

His favorite gun?

“I can't seem to break the 1911 addiction,” Hunter said. “A 1911 in some form or shape gets shot every trip. It's like John Browning had hands my size and shape, that's how well it fits. If I had, for real, folks shooting at me, it would be the one to take to the dance. I shoot it better than all the others.”

He goes to the range quite often, but not lately. “Coming off heart surgery--my advice: don’t—I’ve been away from the range for seven weeks. I hope to soon return to my usual sked, which is three to four times a week. It's always good, you always learn something, and, as Dutch says to Pike, "I wouldn't have it any other way."

I asked Hunter what the character Swagger carries.

“He’s a 1911 man too, but he prefers .38 Super, based on his dad’s choice, a gun Earl carried because ‘an undercover agent’ for the state police had put it to good use. What folks don't know is that man was Earl himself, and maybe sometime I'll tell that story.”

Hunter's newest book, I, Ripper, will be released on May 19.

“Simon & Schuster is the publisher. It’s a re-imagining of the Jack the Ripper story of 1888. Always fascinated me, and I finally figured out an interesting angle, so writing it has been great fun. Hope my readers agree.”