How Popular Culture Makes Us Misinformed And Stupid: Gunfights And Sub Battles

I recently perked some interest here in a comment when I mentioned how my dad, who taught various forms of weapon use while a trainer in the Infantry, railed at every example of a “Mexican stand-off” represented in a movie or TV show. “First one to shoot wins, or both quickly realize that there’s a mistake, and put down the guns,” he said. I was inspired by the Netflix Western “The Ballad of Lefty Brown,” which is very good, but the writer really liked Mexican stand-offs.

Another example is the old, dusty street showdowns Westerns have featured for a hundred years. They just didn’t happen, except for a few anomalies. One of them occurred this date  in 1865, when Wild Bill Hickok faced off in the Springfield, Missouri city square against a former Confederate soldier named Davis Tutt in a dispute over a watch.  Wild Bill won—his skill with a pistol was no myth—but the dime novel writers used the episode and Hickok’s colorful persona to create the impression back East that Wild West gun fighters were having quick draw showdowns daily. In fact, the Hickok-Tuttle affair was the first one documented.

The classic western showdown, also called a walkdown, was far rarer than drunken men shooting at each other spontaneously, ambushes and sneak attacks. The showdowns aren’t even as common in the movies as some people think who should know better. One article on the History Channel site talks about showdowns “like in ‘High Noon.'” Despite the title, there is no classic showdown in “High Noon.” And once he stopped making two-reelers as a B-movie star, John Wayne’s characters were never in any “middle of the street” duels either.

Here is another example of a type of imaginary but exciting showdown that almost never happened: How many undersea submarine vs. submarine duels have there been, like in “The Hunt For The Red October”?

Exactly one.

The National Interest explains:

[W]hile hunting undersea enemies is one of the primary jobs of modern attack submarines, only one undersea sub engagement has ever taken place, under decidedly unique circumstances.

This is not to say that submarines have not sunk other submarines. Indeed, the first such kill occurred in World War I, when U-27 sank the British E3. Dozens other such engagements occurred in the two world wars. However, in all but one case, the victims were surfaced, not underwater.

This was foremost because the submarines of the era needed to spend most of their time on the surface to run their air-breathing diesel engines; they could only remain underwater for hours at a time with the power they could store on batteries, moving at roughly one-third their surface speed. Therefore, submerged action was reserved for ambushing enemy ships and evading attackers.

There were additional problems intrinsic to having one submarine hunt another underwater in an era that predated advanced sensors and guided torpedoes: how could submerged subs detect each other’s position? During World War II, submarines came to make greater use of hydrophones as well as active sonar; however, the latter models could only plot out a submarine’s location on a two-dimensional plane, not reveal its depth. Furthermore, the torpedoes of the time were designed to float up to near the surface of the water to strike the keel of enemy ships. Although the “tin fish” could be reprogrammed to an extent, it was not standard to adjust for depth, and guessing the azimuth of an enemy submarine with the limited targeting information available posed an immense challenge.

The rest of the article relates the story of the one sub battle that did take place.

10 thoughts on “How Popular Culture Makes Us Misinformed And Stupid: Gunfights And Sub Battles

  1. I served aboard fast attack submarines as a sonar technician during my time in the Navy, and as bad as it got sometimes underway on deployments-I can’t even begin to imagine what it was like to serve aboard the old diesel boats during the World Wars.

    Truly brave men.

    “Almighty, Everlasting God, the Protector of all those who put their trust in Thee: hear our prayers in behalf of Thy servants who sail their vessels beneath the seas.

    We beseech Thee to keep in Thy sustaining care all who are in submarines, that they may be delivered from the hidden dangers of the deep.

    Grant them courage, and a devotion to fulfill their duties, that they may better serve Thee and their native land.

    Though acquainted with the depths of the ocean, deliver them from the depths of despair and the dark hours of the absence of friendliness and grant them a good ship’s spirit.

    Bless all their kindred and loved ones from whom they are separated.

    When they surface their ships, may they praise Thee for Thou art there as well as in the deep.

    Fill them with Thy Spirit that they may be sure in their reckonings, unwavering in duty, high in purpose, and upholding the honor
    of their nation.


    -The Submariner’s Prayer

    • Good to see a fellow submariner on here. I was a reactor operator on USS Olympia, SSN 717 back in the 1980’s, on both her precom and commissioning, thus a plankholder.

  2. Regarding gunfights, modern police/crime dramas are the worst. Often, so many people are shooting but no one hits squat, like the old “A-Team” show where hundreds of rounds would be exchanged and no one got hit at all. . Or, one guy can shoot down six guys while the six guys can’t hit the one guy at all. And there’s never any paperwork or prolonged investigation like that which follows any type of shooting in the real world. Of course, the Mexican standoffs you mention, and the use of hostages as a shield, usually at ranges where any competent shot could easily kill the bad guy, are ubiquitous. Like your dad said, “First one to shoot wins” in the real world. I was a SWAT marksman for a while, and later became a crisis negotiator for many years, and a whole lot more of our SWAT callouts were resolved by negotiation than by tactical assault. I understand the need for “dramatic license,” but often it really insults the intelligence of the viewer.

  3. There are a lot of things about submarine warfare that are poorly understood by the public. The truth is, there have been a lot of submarine battles fought, but most of them without firing a shot.

    Many times when we were deployed, we would locate and tail Soviet submarines with the mission if sinking them as soon as the penny dropped, and remaining undetected. Fortunately for us all, that penny never dropped.

    With a modern submarine in your baffles and undetected, you are dead and just don’t know it yet. Modern “swim out” torpedoes can basically knock on the door of the target before being activated and going into acquisition, since you don’t cycle high pressure air to eject the torpedo from the tube.

    While I was in the service, we did some torpedo testing on a newer design after being assigned to Subron 7 in the Pac fleet command, called an ALWT (advanced Light Weight Torpedo). The thing was designed to strike a submerged target approximately amidships with a shaped charge that would punch an 8-10 inch unpatchable hole in the hull, forcing it to surface.

    I remember being in crews mess when the test torpedo struck. The time between acquisition and impact was strikingly short. Of course, the test torp did not have a warhead, but it did damage some of our anechoic hull treatment. It struck the hull right beside where I was sitting.

    Nasty little bugger, but a piker compared to the Mark 48 mod 4 or 5 (I forget which) heavy torpedo. Newer boats carry even more capable Mk 48 mod 6 (ADCAP) and 7 torps, which make the mod 5 look primitive.

  4. Are there a lot of movies that depict sub vs sub combat?

    As for the “Mexican Standoff” and the “Street Duel”, I concur…makes for good drama but poor depiction of reality.

    Like in Saving Private Ryan, when the wall collapses revealing the American squad faced off with an equally sized German counterpart at a distance of about 15 feet…silly. An old WW2 vet (passed away now) who went to see the movie, commented to us that if his squad found themselves in that situation that bullets would have been flying immediately.

    • I can think of at least three; I assume there are more. If there are more movies about a type of event than occurred in reality in total, that would certainly tend to give the false impression that such an event was more common than it really was.

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