Q&A with Stephen Hunter, Author of the New Bob Lee Swagger Novel

We talk with Hunter about long-range shooting, why Hollywood doesn’t (totally) suck, and what fires up his imagination

Game of Snipers book
In Game of Snipers, Hunter focuses heavily on today’s hyper-accurate long guns.Penguin Random House

No one describes firearms, and gunfighting, with the same level of passion and technical accuracy as author Stephen Hunter. On the pages of his novels, the guns he writes about come alive. It doesn’t matter whether he’s discussing the slick, oily action of a well-used 1911, the recoil of a Tommy gun in the hands of a skilled gangster, or the stupefying effect of touching off a big-bore revolver in a small, dark room.

In good news for fans, Hunter recently published another installment in his saga of the Swagger family. This one, Game of Snipers, summons Bob Lee Swagger away from his Idaho ranch to help track down and confront a sniper who’s as skilled as he is. Swagger’s foe is a battle-hardened mercenary who has snuck into the U.S. to take out a high-profile political target.

In Game of Snipers, Hunter focuses heavily on today’s hyper-accurate long guns. And brace yourself: Even Swagger has fallen under the sway of the 6.5 Creedmoor. The star of the show, however, is an Accuracy International chambered in .338 Lapua that is being tweaked to make one hell of a long shot. There’s plenty of other good stuff in this novel, too, though true riflemen will no doubt shed a tear when a reloading room full of H-1000 powder and boxes of match bullets from Sierra, Berger and Swift goes up in flames.

I got a chance to catch up with Hunter to talk about Bob Lee’s future, why Hollywood doesn’t (totally) suck, and what fires up his imagination.

Outdoor Life: Bob Lee is getting on in years. How many more adventures does he have in him? Will there be a next generation of characters for you?

Stephen Hunter: That is the issue of my professional life. My publishers would favor books that go into the past and talk about a younger Bob Lee—but I’m reluctant to try to remember what being 35 is like. I haven’t decided whether I’m going to go that route. I need to find something that I’m excited about. I have to find some argument, some action I can get behind. My issue is always energy—and will I have enough of it. I would rather go back and do an Earl book. Shadows and memories and vibrations of World War II were very foundational to my imaginative life.

OL: What was the motivation behind Game of Snipers?

SH: This whole thing began when I had an opportunity to shoot an AI a couple years ago. It was in .308 and was the tightest, most accurate rifle I had shot in a long time. The experience just lit me up. And I’ve always liked sniper issues, sniper problems, and sniper opportunities. I also thought about it from a mercenary point of view: that if I bought an Accuracy International, I could write it off on my income tax. So, I bought a 6.5 Creedmoor and a Schmidt and Bender scope. I spent a lot time transfigured by the engineering.

Another thing was the great shot that Craig Harrison made at over a mile.* To think you can crank up the elevation and something drops a mile away. I took a way to use that and tie it in to the novel because the readers want Bob Lee to take a big shot late for all the marbles.

*In 2009, Harrison killed two Taliban machine gunners in Afghanistan with consecutive shots at 2,707 yards, which at the time were the longest confirmed sniper kills on record.

OL: How would you describe Game of Snipers?

SH: It’s a straight up man hunt. Structurally it most closely resembles Master Sniper and, in a way, I’m plagiarizing myself from 40 years ago.

OL: How did you develop the mercenary’s story? Why did you work so hard to humanize him when some of the other villains were not nearly as three-dimensional?

SH: I thought this book would be more commercial and somewhat black and white. I was surprised that I was incapable of writing that book. Everyone is the hero in his own life. He didn’t think of himself as evil. He thought of himself as a soldier of Islam. I wanted him to be capable of loyalty and affection and capable of being haunted by his own memories. I was uncomfortable making him so villainous that he’s a cartoon.

OL: What has inspired you as a writer?

SH: I love the old-time gun magazines. There was this generation of storytellers—Elmer Keith, Bill Jordan, Charles Askins, guys like that—they were in my world what John Wayne was to others. Hemingway was in there, too. In the 50s he was a god, an exemplar of literature.

OL: What about shooting appeals to you?

SH: With long-range shooting, I just love the rifles. There’s not object on earth more charismatic and beautiful than a well-designed, well-thought-out rifle. Pre ’64 Winchesters are the height of grace and beauty. The just move me. I have four or five of them.

Shooting is also very technical. It involves mind control, body control. It involves mastery of certain arcane motions. It’s mind-boggling how much refinement you need to develop in your body to do that. People forget how, fundamentally, shooting is an athletic act. It takes practice, strength, repetition. I’ve spent the last year working on my trigger control and I’ve gotten better because of that. But if anyone thinks the creator of Bob Lee Swagger is anything other than a mediocre shooter, they are in for a disappointment.

OL: What’s your view on gun culture?

SH: My job is to entertain and sell books, of course. But I’m a journalist as well—and for journalists, a big part of our job is to inform. So I see myself as a kind of ambassador. I always thought it was my job to present the good values of the gun. It’s important to represent gun people not as Neanderthals, but as people with families and children who are capable of love and loyalty. They have discipline, self-control, an intense work ethic.

And I want to present the idea of coming home. Bob when we first see him he was a lonely alcoholic recluse, and the books get him back into society. I gave him a job, a family, children.

Bringing other exile snipers and gun people back where they belong to the revered place in society that they deserve—that’s the secret message in all this. Expressing that theme has been the crusade of my life. I don’t want to sound too noble here—it’s been a lot of fun, too.

OL: You’re the retired chief film critic for the Washington Post. How do you feel about how guns are portrayed in popular culture?

SH: It’s a difficult issue. Guns are glamorized and fetishized in ways that are disturbing. When John Woo stylized Chow Yun-fat diving through the air with a Beretta 92 in each hand, it was irresponsible—but at the same time, cool as hell. I don’t approve of it but I can’t make myself disapprove either. I prefer when guns are portrayed as tools rather than as religious artifacts.

In my books, people reload. In my books, people miss if they don’t aim. In films, for every shot that is fired, the slide is thrown ten times. That’s the candy make-believe of Hollywood. But I’m not immune to the pleasures of the fanciful approach. I can’t deny its appeal. Movies romanticize automobiles and clothes, too. If you’re going to have movies, you’re going to have veneration of object. And the guns are simply a part of that process.

OL: You have a remarkable ability to bring inanimate objects to life. Where does that come from?

SH: I do that not to sell books, but because I can’t help it. I sell squiggles of electricity in my brain. I would be a fool if I didn’t obey those squiggles. This is pre-narrative behavior. The gun was a reliable object to stimulate my imagination. I can rhapsodize about the gun—the look, the weight, the recoil—in prose at a level that’s unusual. If you’re writing long passages, you have to be who you are. You’re a fool if you don’t embrace and hone that which most profoundly moves your imagination.

OL: At what point did guns become an object of romance for you?

SH: I saw guns in the movies and on television when I was quite young. I saw an old Naked City in which a cop kicks down the door and blows away a mob guy with a Tommy gun. The cop was using an M1A1. And in 1959, I noticed that. That’s when I understood that one gun could have a variety of iterations. I remember that vividly. There was the movie Safari with Victor Mature. He used a Sten gun. I had never seen one before, and it fascinated me. Gun knowledge, gun fact and gun lore—that’s all adhesive information for me. If I see a Sten gun for 38 seconds in a movie in the 50s, that never goes away. It magically sticks. It’s the same thing that made me a movie critic—I have an adhesive memory for actors and scenes that I could access 30 years later when writing.

OL: When would you say you really became a “gun guy”?

SH: I have gone through many evolutionary stages in my life. Early, I wanted to conform. All the way through college I tried to deny my affection for guns. I remember going to see a movie. I went there really early and I got a ticket. And I walked to the drug store and walked to the magazine section. And I saw an issue of Shooting Times that announced that Smith andWesson was launching a new .45. Suddenly, I became who I was meant to be. From that point on I left all that liberal bullshit behind me and all my anti-gun stuff behind me. I embraced who I was. And nothing but good things have happened to me since. That’s when I wrote Master Sniper. I wouldn’t have been able to do that otherwise. I have become very pro-gun politically. I am a single-issue voter. I won’t vote for an anti-gun politician. I want to show that gun people are human. I mourn the atrocity and I mourn the crime [when guns are used illegally], but I believe ultimately in the Second Amendment and the lessons of the gun. I’m sure there are people who hate me because of that, and guess what? I don’t care.

OL: How have you resisted writing a pure Western?

SH: I resisted it with a great deal of difficulty. I’ve plotted them. I’ve written them in my mind. I love Westerns. One of the things that people don’t get is how Victorian the West was. I’ve tried to write a book on the Revolutionary War, too. Two things kept me from doing it. One, no one would publish a book on the Revolutionary War. And, two, I couldn’t stand that the men wore high heels and stockings back then. In my version, they would have worn boots.