The Gun Seen Round The World

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 24, 2000

It is one of the most disturbing images of the year: a burly federal officer, helmeted, goggled, wearing a flak jacket, battle fatigues and shooter's gloves designed to protect the hand but permit the prehensility of the trigger finger, confronting a screaming child and the man who protects him.

And, of course, he has a gun.

The officer, wearing a Border Patrol patch on his vest, is holding it one-handed by the pistol grip, his naked shooting finger indexed over the trigger guard, the butt stock unanchored in the cup of his shoulder. The gun looks terrifying, as it is designed to look: a black, plastic-shrouded apparition with a bleak little snout, a curved ammunition magazine containing 32 rounds of what are almost certainly hollow-points, a strange bulge forward under the muzzle, which is but 15 inches from Elian Gonzalez and Donato Dalrymple.

What gun is this? Where are we now?

The gun is a German-manufactured submachine gun that goes under the designation MP-5, a short-barreled 9mm weapon that has been famous in action and movies since May 1980, when British SAS troopers armed with it successfully assaulted the Iranian embassy in London, killing all but one of the terrorists who had commandeered the building and murdered a policewoman.

It is currently issued to almost all Western elite military units, civilian SWAT and hostage rescue teams, and movie stars heroically fighting international evil. Bruce Willis used it in the "Die Hard" movies; James Bond has used it. The Baltimore County SWAT team used it against Joseph Palczynski, hitting him 27 times in 42 attempts in about three seconds. It was seen in the hands of a bearded FBI agent guarding Tim McVeigh during his trial.

As the M-16 became the symbol of the Vietnam era, the MP-5, manufactured by Heckler & Koch, of Oberndorf, Germany, has become the symbol of our nervous postwar environment. It represents the condition our condition is in, where highly trained units may have to act with surgical precision against heavily armed opponents in highly volatile circumstances.

"Operators," as SWAT officers and commandos style themselves, love it because it is light, easy to manipulate in tight spaces, rugged and reliable. It can fire thousands of rounds without so much as a burp. It is easy to maintain once its few secrets have been mastered. It is also flexible.

It can be fitted with suppressors (the movies call them silencers), shortened, lightened, mounted with a telescopic sight or an infrared one for night operations, given a folding or collapsing stock, chambered in more powerful calibers, hidden in a briefcase, hung invisibly in a harness under a suit coat, configured to fire single shots, shoot two or three-round bursts, or rip off an entire magazine in three seconds.

One of the more popular stylings is apparent on the gun in the photograph. That bulge at the end of the muzzle is actually a flashlight housing, in which nestles the state-of-the-art device in tactical illumination, the Sure-Fire flashlight. Fashion dominates the tactical world as it dominates any world, and in the past few years illumination technology has become all the rage, under the principle that most lethal-force encounters take place in low light, and so the operator who can see his target--and know that if his target is illuminated, his weapon is correctly aimed--has the advantage.

For the record, the gun is 26 inches long, with an 8.85-inch barrel. It weighs 5.5 pounds and fires at a cyclic rate of 600 rounds per minute, which means not that you could shoot it 600 times in a minute but that if you had a magazine that contained 600 rounds, it would take a minute to fire it.

MP-5s are not issued to troops or police officers routinely; they have specific tactical uses. They are frequently used as statements of intimidation to ensure crowd control or to dissuade aggressive action. In this way, they represent the principle that the weapon brandished is the weapon used, even if an actual act of firing is never consummated.

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