Gun Stories’ host, Joe Mantegna, was gracious enough to take some time out of his busy shooting schedule to talk about his experience with firearms and filming Gun Stories. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. How long have you been hosting Gun Stories? A. From the beginning – this is our seventh season.
Q. How did you get involved with firearms and then Gun Stories? A. You know, it was really one of those things that just kind of came out of the blue. I’ve made no secret about my interest in the shooting sports. In my profession, some people tend to be a little more clandestine about it, for all kinds of reasons – I don’t care. My feeling is that I have nothing to apologize for. I used to shoot competitively for fun - practical pistol shooting (1911, .45 ACP) – I got interested in that.
I didn’t grow up with them as a kid or anything, though my dad did. He grew up on a farm in Oklahoma, but by the time I was born in Chicago, I really had no exposure to it in the urban kind of lifestyle I lived. Through being an actor – I had to learn for a play I was doing at the time - around 1976, I had to do this play where I had to be a policeman and proficient with a handgun, so I took lessons with somebody who knew what they were doing, and that was the first time I shot a gun. I was already well into my twenties.
Also, growing up in Chicago, there used to be this beautiful gun club right on Lake Michigan. It was built back in the ‘30s, but it’s gone now. They used to shoot skeet and trap right over the lake. It was fantastic. Of course, later, some politicians decided there was too much lead going into the lake and they shut it down – it was a shame.
I used to ride my bike there and watch them shoot. It was the perfect introduction to the shooting sports because one of these guys – I didn’t know, but it turned out to be the president of the club – saw me standing there (I was like 22/23 years old) on my bike, and he insisted that shoot instead of just watch. He provided the guns, clays, and shells.
He was wise enough and kind enough to understand that here was a young man with an interest in this sport, so he took me in, opened up the trunk of his car, and pulled out this beautiful double barrel shotgun. Next thing I know, I’m shooting two rounds of skeet and I’m hooked.
The next day, I went out and bought a shotgun. He told me what to get, and I still own it. It’s a Remington 1100. He told me to get a trap stock even though I was shooting skeet because he said the trap stock will help bring my eye up for the bird. I’ll never forget that. I’m sure the guy’s passed away – I would’ve loved to have gone back to thank him and tell him, You’re the reason I got into shotgun shooting.
Doing the play (the handgun) and learning about shotgun shooting happened in the same year or so, and by then I was kind of hooked. I was getting books on the stuff and going to guns stores and looking at stuff. I didn’t have much money, so little by little I’d buy something here, something there.
It’s been documented that I like shooting sports. So, I think when Tim Cremin and Michael Bane were putting the show together, they must’ve come across some article and saw that Joe Mantegna likes to shoot. So, they sent me an email saying they were with the Outdoor Channel, were thinking of this new show called Gun Stories, and thought I would make an interesting host.
I was doing Criminal Minds at the time; I’d just been on that for a few years. They flew out to Los Angeles and came to the set. I met them in my trailer, and we talked about it.
They’ll tell you, they didn’t even think I was going to show up because the first shoot was going to be in Cody, Wyoming at the Buffalo Bill Museum. I had to take a little plane in from Denver, and it’s not like walking across the street. They said, ‘til they saw me walk up to the hotel from the airport in Cody, they were like, Oh my god, he showed! He’s here! And that’s what started it.
I really haven’t looked back. I’ve enjoyed doing the show. I enjoy the people. Of course, we started coming here to the [NRA] museum. We’ve been able to shoot in Italy, Germany, England. We’ve shot at the Benelli Factory in Urbino, Italy. We’ve shot at the Steiner Optical Factory in Bayreuth, Germany. We just came from Claremore, Oklahoma where we shot at the J.M Davis Museum. They’ve got 11,000 guns on display. I think it’s the biggest single display in the country.
Seven years has actually gone by pretty quickly. And I’ve enjoyed it. We seem to be doing very well. The show has become very popular.
We have this offshoot show now that my assistant, Dan, created called Hollywood Weapons. It’s also on the Outdoor Channel, and that’s becoming really red hot. I’ve got a feeling that’s going to become the most popular show on that channel.
Q. Are you hosting that as well? A. No, I co-produce it. There are two hosts. We have a former Green Beret, Terry Schappert, and Larry Zanoff, who’s one of the head gunsmiths at ISS. They wear costumes depending on the movie. If it’s Rambo, they’ll dress like Rambo. They re-create scenes from movies to see if it could really happen. That’s the basis of the show. It’s like Mythbusters, but better, because you’re copying movie things. So we use guns, rifles, pistols, archery, knives, bombs, whatever it may be. They just finished their first season and it’s already been picked up for a second season. They picked it up before the first season aired. [Gun Stories] director, John, shoots its, and [my assistant] Dan writes it. I’m just one of the producers. It’s great.
Q. What’s one of the most memorable locations that you’ve traveled to for the show? A. Urbino, Italy was really memorable - at the Benelli factory - because you drive up this mountain, somewhere in the middle of Italy and there’s this town called Urbino. It’s like a postcard. There’s an old college there. It’s very old, so it obviously dates back to the Renaissance. There’s not a lot of industry there because of that. So, here in this little postcard town you’ve got this modern shotgun manufacturing company.
The most memorable thing just happened. We shot at my grandfather’s farm in Oklahoma. My grandfather came over from Sicily at the turn of the 20th century – 1905 or ‘06 – worked in the coal mines in this town. There was a whole bunch of Sicilian immigrants who did the same thing. They bought all the farms around there. They worked in the coal mines, saved their money - $500 over five years - and bought the land from the Indians. We have a 50-acre farm, and the Mantegna family still owns it.
My grandfather died when my father was a boy, so I never met my grandfather. But my grandmother had to take all the kids and bring them up to Chicago. That’s why I was born in Chicago, because she had relatives there – she couldn’t run the farm with just the kids because my grandfather had died from an appendicitis attack. We owned the farm, so it stayed in the family.
Now, we went back to the farm. I got pictures of my grandfather’s grave – it’s all in Italian – in a cemetery nearby.
When he died, his shotgun got passed down to my uncle, my dad’s brother, and he passed it on to my cousin. I didn’t realize this, so we looked into it, and my cousin said, yeah, I got grandpa’s shotgun. We shot a whole episode of “Guns of the Immigrants,” and one of the main stories is my story. On my grandfather’s farm, here’s his shotgun, and I shot it. My shoulder is still black and blue from it because it’s an old Model 12 Browning pump shotgun. The gun was manufactured in 1912. Still works. It was the first time a Mantegna, [or] anybody, had shot that gun on that farm since my grandfather died in 1923.
Q. How did that feel? A. It was awesome! I felt like Alex Haley in “Roots.” You know what I mean?
That’s pretty memorable. And, also, the family at the farm next door is still there. They’re the descendants of my grandfather’s buddy who bought the farm next door.
Q. What do you like about hosting a show like Gun Stories? A. It’s so not Hollywood. This is what I’ve been doing for a living for over 40 years. It’s kind of what I’d hoped would happen. It gives you a chance to be around non-Hollywood types. Not that that’s a bad thing, but you know what I mean, it’s just different. I get to talk to middle America, I get out to the people who like to hunt and shoot and do all that, which is not necessarily your Hollywood crowd. It’s got nothing to do with politics, it’s just the way it is. And that’s ok.
Q. What did you see while you were in Quantico? A. I’ve been down to Quantico probably four or five times, I’ve gone a couple of times with Criminal Minds, my other show, which is FBI. And I’ve gone down, maybe three times, with Gun Stories. You’re always accompanied by somebody. I’ve been in their lab. I’ve had John Dillinger’s gun in my hand, and Babyface Nelson, and Machine Gun Kelly. I was just there and shot on the range. They’re just changing out their service weapons, and I shot the new GLOCK that’s the new service weapon for all of the FBI. The one I shot is serial number 000. GLOCK sent them the first one, and they let me shoot it.
Q. Do you have a favorite type of gun to shoot? A. My favorite gun tends to be the last one I shot. I go, oh, this is pretty cool; this is different. I’ve shot everything from very small caliber things, .22 shorts up to .50 cal. That’s the benefit of doing a television show like Gun Stories where my job is to try out all these different types of firearms.
Shotgun shooting has always been a favorite of mine. I really like skeet shooting. I like sporting clay shooting. But I like it all. That’s what’s so great about the shooting sports, there’s such the variety of ways to go - you can shoot black powder, you can shoot modern firearms. [There are people who are more into] cowboy-type shooting, people who are into rifles, or into pistols, revolvers versus semi-automatic, fully automatic… It runs the gamut, so there’s no reason to get bored in the shooting sports.
I wasn’t brought up as a hunter, so I’m not from a hunting culture. But I have tremendous respect for those who do, especially those who do it at its highest level because at its highest level, hunting goes hand-in-hand with conservation. Which, sometimes, the average person doesn’t quite understand. They think, Oh, they must hate animals because they want to shoot them, and it’s exactly the opposite. You’ll find that it’s really designed to be a sport that involves the conservation of land and habitat and animals. It makes you understand that hunters are among the biggest animal lovers in the world, not haters at all.
Q. Do you have any advice for someone starting out in the shooting sports? A. My only suggestion is that anyone starting out in the shooting sports is to get expert advice, expert training, expert knowledge. In other words, you don’t go out and just say, hmmm, I think I’m going to buy a gun and go out to a range and just, by myself, and figure it out. No, that would be the same thing if somebody, turning 16 years old, never having driven in their life, had someone hand them some car keys and said, here, go ahead - learn how to drive a car.
If you have an interest in it, you read up about it, you study it. There’s certainly enough material out there. The NRA provides shooting programs. There are all kinds of places to go. And then, just find out what you like. Go to these places…as I did, and watch…like a skeet range, or some kind of place where they allow spectating. It’s easy enough to find people who have expertise in this stuff.
Learn from the best. Learn the right way - from any qualified teacher. Before you even learn how to shoot, you want to learn the etiquette of shooting - the safety aspects of it - to understand how firearms work because they are a tool, but they have an inherent danger to them just like an automobile does. You don’t jump behind the wheel of a car without any instruction. You don’t put a gun in your hand without any instruction either.
Learn more about Joe Mantegna's story on an episode of NRA All Access now on NRATV!