The Pump Action Shotgun: The Sound and the Fury

Say hello to my distinctively sounding little friend.

I take it you’ve seen this famous scene from Terminator 2 (click on the image for the video and skip to 6:50; sorry, no embedding available)…

and reached the second level of the game Doom

…but you may not have read Michael Crichton’s novel Next:

She dropped the towel and the robe to the ground and methodically loaded the shotgun. She pulled the action bar back and forward, making a chung chung! sound. (Page 496)

Chung chung!

He froze. He knew the sound of a double-action pump. You never went into a room after you heard that sound. (Page 500)

Three different pop culture art forms, one favorite weapon: the pump action shotgun. So what is it exactly about this weapon that keeps blowing us away, time after time? Find out, after the jump. Chung chung! (?)

These are just three examples of pump action shotguns in fiction (I trust you’ll supply plenty more in the comments). They’ve been used countless times in film, TV, video games, and to a lesser extent, novels, and almost always, a character, uh, whips it out to show that s/he really means business. It’s a powerful phallic symbol, made even more so by the up-down cocking motion that calls to mind the way one might stroke a penis.

So, visually, shotgun=masturbation. But even without the visual, the sound of the cocking shotgun is one of the most distinctive sounds associated with weapons, and by itself it signals all sorts of bad-assery. Let me show you:

Chung chung!

Damn, that didn’t really seem to work. Michael Crichton’s choice of onomatopoeia doesn’t quite capture the same visceral effect of the sound of a shotgun cocking; in fact, I don’t think any onomatopoeia could quite do justice to this sound. On the other hand, mimicking the sound with the human voice seems to get the job done, as Seth Rogen ably demonstrates in the Observe and Report trailer:

Still, nothing can replace the real thing:

Sweet lord, that is badass.

But getting back to that cocking sound. The sound by itself wouldn’t be so evocative, of course, if we didn’t know what followed that sound: a deep, powerful BAM! (Now there’s an effective use of onomatopoeia.) Nevertheless, I would argue that there’s something intrinsically powerful about that cocking sound itself. For starters, it’s an unmistakeably metallic, machinistic sound, and that by itself carries a sense of weight and power. But unlike other powerful, metallic, machinistic sounds, it just the right pitch and timbre: not too high like a buzz saw, not too melodic like an anvil.

It’s the sound of something complex and metal snapping, then snapping back into place. The first “snap” (or “chung” if you’re Michael Crichton) creates tension. The second “snap” gives the first “snap” a counterpart, but that only partly resolves the tension. The shotgun cock is one complete action with two beats that complement each other, yet leave behind an air of incompleteness. Even if you don’t know what comes after that cocking sound, you feel like something’s been snapped into place and ready to go.

Okay. So maybe I’ve played a few too many first person shooters or seen Terminator 2 one too many times to the point that I’m a little more fixated on this particular sound effect than most people. But can we at least agree that “chung chung” is not an adequate onomatopoiea to represent the sound of a cocking shotgun? Again, I appeal to you readers: give me something better!

Ready? Not quite yet?

<insert sound of cocking shotgun here>

Now, fire away in the comments.