Silver Bullets

By Michael Briggs


silver bullets

In the book Moon Called, the first of the Mercedes Thomson novels, Patty had the heroine use that old werewolf trope, silver bullets. Silver bullets are almost a cliché in werewolf books, the noble metal which harms these nearly invulnerable lycanthropes. Got a troublesome 'were eating your friends? Just melt down that old silver dollar and Bam!, problem solved. So, Mercy not only shoots silver bullets, she casts her own, just like all good werewolf hunters.

However, some gun aficionados wrote a couple of polite letters informing us that silver bullets were not the easy solution they first appeared to be. It may not be impossible to make a working silver bullet, but it's far from an easy task. Since it's nice to have the books make sense, I figured I'd just go build some silver bullets and silence the critics -- after all, how hard can it be? The Lone Ranger did it, right? However, before we continue with my efforts to produce a usable silver bullet, let me briefly discuss the history of silver, and how silver bullets came to be the de facto standard for werewolf extermination

Silver History

Elemental (native) silver is quite rare in nature, it usually occurs in ores of other metals. Silver was therefore initially considered rarer and even more precious than gold. The first known efforts to mine silver occur in Anatolia, in present day Turkey. Egyptian gold ores contained a high percentage of silver, which they eventually learned to separate and refine, calling it "white gold". By about 2500 BC the Chaldeans found a means to purify silver from lead ores. This was a much more efficient means of obtaining silver, and greatly increased the amount of silver available in the ancient world. The Greeks discovered a large deposit of silver near Athens, which led to the famous Larium mines, which were worked for several hundred years.

Silver proved to be a valuable metal; easily worked and durable. It was widely used for currency, art and medicine. Like gold, silver didn't rust or deteriorate. Naturally, their ability to resist tarnish, rust or canker caused both metals to be ascribed a variety of supernatural powers. The only other metal exhibiting this desirable property was platinum. However, platinum was so rare that prior to the eighteenth century it was virtually unknown in Europe. Silver isn't actually as inert as gold or platinum, and over time it will develop a blackish surface tarnish. However, prior to the industrial revolution, there was insufficient sulfur in the atmosphere to tarnish silver.

Putative Supernatural and Magical Properties

In superstitious societies laden with religious overtones, silver came to be associated with various gods. It was obviously favored by the gods, because they kept it bright and shiny. Silver also has strong antimicrobial properties which were recognized long before microbiology was even a glimmer in human consciousness. Wine stored in silver containers remained palatable longer than that stored in other vessels. Silver powders or tinctures applied to wounds prevented sepsis. Because some organic poisons contain high concentrations of sulfur, it was found that poisoned food or wine could blacken silver on contact, leading to the widespread custom of drinking from silver cups, or eating with silverware. Naturally, supernatural forces were used to explain these useful properties.

Silver's highly reflective surface led to it being used for mirrors, and associated with the moon. Since women were also associated with the moon, over time silver was linked to everything female. It is a common component of magic, and used extensively in shamanistic and magical ritual, where it has been attributed with all manner of powers. In general, it's seen as a beneficial or benign substance, strengthening the effect of other magics, protecting and focusing the wearer, and reflecting or diffusing harmful energies.

Magic Metal to Silver Bullet

If one were looking for a magical weapon to kill a supernatural predator, particularly one with ties to the moon, silver is a natural choice. It was associated with powerful deities, the night, protection, healing and the supernatural in general. Besides, as every epic monster storyteller knows, the forging of the fatal weapon is one of the major points on the hero's journey. Silver was too rare and expensive (and soft) to be commonly used for weapons, so it added a little spice to the story if the hero had to procure one.

The first generally-recognized silver bullet story comes from France. In the 1760's in the town of Gevaudan, a series of animal attacks left at least sixty people dead. Some estimates put the death toll over 100, but circumstances attending many of the deaths are ambiguous. There were numerous eye-witness reports of a large, highly aggressive animal who carried out these attacks, often seeking out human prey in preference to cattle or even sheep nearby. The creature became known as the "Beast of Gevuadan".

The deaths were real, and well documented, but the creature responsible remains an enigma. Superstition and folk stories have become so thoroughly entwined that it is difficult to say what kind of beast it was, or even what it may have looked like. The local peasants were convinced that it was a werewolf (a loup-garou). Several people claimed to have shot or stabbed the monster, but without effect. In one account, two hunters shot it with rifles from close range, soring multiple hits. The beast limped away, apparently hurt, only to reappear and kill a few days later.

Professional hunters and trappers were dispatched with instructions to kill the beast. None were able to slay it, though several were apparently attacked and killed. Whole villages were abandoned when the beast was sighted nearby. Eventually, large groups of hunters and trackers, dogs and warriors were sent to search for the beast. Finally, one such group of men was attacked. Jean Chastel, a member of the group, had loaded a pistol with a silver bullet, with which he shot and killed the monster.

The rest, as they say, is history. In myth, folklore and countless novels, the silver bullet (or arrow, or occasionally sword) is the sovereign cure for a rampaging lycanthrope. So, how hard can it be to come up with a functional silver bullet?

Next: The Quest Begins