Why do rappers hold their guns sideways?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Dec. 14 2009 6:18 PM

Why Do Rappers Hold Their Guns Sideways?

Because it looks so Hollywood.

Close up of a semi-automatic pistol.
Why wouldn't you just fire a pistol the normal way?

As police chased Raymond "Ready" Martinez through Times Square on Thursday, the street hustler and aspiring rapper fired two shots, holding the gun sideways "like a character out of a rap video." According to the New York Post, Martinez's side grip caused the gun to jam, enabling police to shoot and kill the suspect. What's the point of holding a gun sideways?

To look Hollywood, of course. Journalists and gun experts point to the 1993 Hughes brothers film Menace II Society, which depicts the side grip in its opening scene, as the movie that popularized the style. Although the directors claim to have witnessed a side grip robbery in Detroit in 1987, there are few reports of street gangs using the technique until after the movie came out. The Hughes brothers didn't invent the grip, though. In 1961's One-Eyed Jacks, Marlon Brando used it, as did Eli Wallach in 1966's The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. Directors may prefer the style because it makes it easier to see both the weapon and the actor's face in a tight camera shot.

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While the New York Post reported that Martinez's side grip caused the gun to "stovepipe"—that's when the spent casing gets caught in the ejection port, jamming the weapon—it's unlikely that the horizontal orientation caused the failure. In theory, tilting a gun sideways—90-degrees counter-clockwise for a right-handed shooter—means that gravity works against the ejection of the spent casing. As a practical matter, however, gravity is so weak compared to the force of the ejection that jamming is no more frequent in the sideways position than in the customary one. The more likely cause of the jam was Martinez's choice of weapon and ammunition. The MAC-10 is prone to stovepiping—a problem that's exacerbated by the use of hollow-point bullets, which may become deformed and scrape the inside of the barrel, or underpowered ammunition, which can slow the slide and throw off the mechanism's timing.

While the side grip does not increase the risk of stovepiping, it is terrible for aim. It's extremely difficult to properly use the top-mounted sight on a handgun that is turned sideways. Not that this matters much to the average street criminal. According to an FBI study, 60 percent of them don't even use the sight. Aiming a gun sideways has long been shorthand for risky, indiscriminate shooting. The title character in George Washington Cable's 1894 novel John March, Southerner, exclaims, "No man shall come around here aiming his gun sideways; endangering the throngs of casual bystanders!"

During the first half of the 20th century, soldiers used the side grip for the express purpose of endangering throngs of people. Some automatic weapons from this era—like the Mauser C96 or the grease gun—fired so quickly or with such dramatic recoil that soldiers found it impossible to aim anything but the first shot. Soldiers began tilting the weapons, so that the recoil sent the gun reeling in a horizontal rather than vertical arc, enabling them to spray bullets into an onrushing enemy battalion instead of over their heads.

Nowadays, the only time professionals use the side grip is while holding riot shields, which limit their field of vision. Turning the gun and raising it up make the sight slightly more visible.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Steve Howard of American Firearms & Munitions Consulting, Karl Rehn of KR Training, and Phil Spangenberger of True West Magazine.

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Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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