Gunning for dinosaur

Reginald Rivers won’t take just anyone into the past to hunt dinosaurs. No, as the time traveling safari guide in L. Sprague de Camp’s classic short story “A Gun for Dinosaur” explains, he only takes big men strong enough to handle the type of weaponry needed to bring down the terrible lizards:

Here you are: my own private gun for the work, a Continental .600. Does look like a shotgun, doesn’t it? But it’s rifled, as you can see by looking through the barrels. Shoots a pair of .600 Nitro Express cartridges the size of bananas; weighs nearly seven kilos and has a muzzle energy of over twenty-two hundred KGMs. Costs twenty thousand dollars. A lot of money for a gun, eh?

Yes, a lot of money, but the price is reasonable if you want to stop a charging T. rex dead in its tracks, according to Rivers’ thinking.

Rivers isn’t the only time traveling hunter in fiction to speculate about what guns to bring along on a dinosaur hunt. Henry Vickers of David Drake’s Time Safari gives his clients a lecture on making sure they only carry weapons they can handle:

What I said, what I meant, was that size isn’t important, penetration and bullet placement is what’s important. The .458 penetrates fine – with solids – I hope to God all of you know to bring solids, not soft-nosed bullets. If you are not comfortable with that much recoil, you’re liable to flinch. And that means you’ll miss, even at the ranges you shoot dinos at. A wounded dino running around, anywhere up to a hundred tons of him, and that’s when things get messy.

As the above two examples illustrate, some science fiction authors have put a lot of thought into what types of guns would be needed to bring down already extinct species. So, were they right or off-target?

Marvel Comics adaptation of “A Gun for Dinosaur.”

Let me answer that question by first admitting that I don’t know much about guns. Go ahead and revoke my man card if you wish. But I’m going to give it my best try by making a couple assumptions.

First, there is a wide array of military-grade, anti-armor weaponry I’m sure would more than do the trick. However, a lot of this weaponry must be mounted on vehicles because it is too heavy to lug around. There were no roads in the Mesozoic and most of the landscape would have been impassable terrain, so any hunters in the era would need to look for game on foot. That means they are going to need guns that are light enough to carry but have enough stopping power to bring down multi-ton dinosaurs.

Second, we can rule out a common assumption made by many early science fiction writers: That dinosaurs would be harder to kill than mammals because they had primitive nervous systems. Paleontologist Jose Luis Sanz noted this myth in his history of dinosaurs in popular culture, Starring T. rex! Dinosaur Mythology and Popular Culture. Referring to Poul Anderson’s short story “Wildcat,” in which a large carnivorous dinosaur continues to threaten the heroes even after being gutted by a spray of gunfire, the scientist wrote:

Anderson’s daring ideas are based on the strict inclusion of dinosaurs within the level of organization of present-day reptiles, with a generous supplementary dose of misinformation. Anderson supposed that dinosaurs would have tremendous vitality against wounds and mutilations (“a reptile dies with greater difficulty, since it is less alive”).

Dinosaurs were probably no harder to kill than mammals of a similar size. Of course, there were dinosaurs much larger than any land mammal that ever lived.

So, with these two assumptions in mind, what is a good gun for dinosaur? Here I’m going to cheat because at least one firearms expert already has weighed in on the subject. Outdoor Life columnist John B. Snow pondered this question back in 2009 after watching Jurassic Park with his kids. His answer varied depending on the type of dinosaur. As for T. rex:

Personally, I wouldn’t go any lighter than a .458 Lott. The .470 NE (Nitro Express).500 NE and .600 NE would also be good contenders. I would probably opt for a double-rifle with a red-dot sight on it. I’d want that red dot for precise bullet placement as the only shot that makes sense is a broadside shot that takes out either the hip or smashes the knee. Take out the leg to put it down and then finish it off with a double lung shot or a shot in the neck.

As for the smaller raptors, give Snow a star for pointing out the movie’s Velociraptors were much larger than the real thing. His choice of weapon would be a semi-auto shotgun loaded with buckshot. As for their larger cousin, Deinonychus:

A semi-auto shotgun loaded with slugs might serve well, but I’m going with a Springfield Armory M1A Socom 16 for this job. I’d put either an EOTech optic up front on it or something like the Trijicon SRS. Mount a SureFire X400 combo weapon light/laser and you’ll be good to go.

The 1997 film Jurassic Park: The Lost World also gave us an answer to the question. In it, the “great white hunter” character Roland Tembo carries a .600 Nitro Express – an “elephant gun” – specially made for the movie by the California gun builder Butch Searcy.


Still, let’s be honest: Any civilization that has invented time travel probably has access to firearms far more powerful than anything we have today. Or maybe not. In the David Gerrold’s 1978 novel Deathbeast, laser guns prove ineffective against a T. rex because the animal is simply too large for the beams to do major damage. Stick with bullets.

Then again, maybe you don’t need guns at all. In his nonfiction A Survival Guide: Living with Dinosaurs in the Jurassic Period, geologist Dougal Dixon said bolas – ropes with weights tied at their ends – would be useful in capturing smaller dinosaurs for food. Of course, you would have to first learn how to throw a bolas without smacking yourself in the face. Consider the following video the first step on your path to becoming a mighty dinosaur hunter:

Part One: The ethics of hunting dinosaurs.

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