The bullet-stopping power of books.

The bullet-stopping power of books.

by Hugh Gilmore

Last week’s issue of the New Yorker magazine (April 18) offered an interesting article about the anniversary of the “International Brigade,” the foreigners who volunteered for the Spanish Civil War back in the 1930s. (The American contingent was called the “Lincoln Brigade.”) The history itself, the motives of the combatants, and the omni-presence of Hemingway in this war were all very interesting, but they were not what caught my attention.

What did arouse me to take fingerpad to keyboard (the modern equivalent of “take pen to paper?) was this: According to the writer, Caleb Crain, when the fighting got to Madrid, much of it took place in university buildings where “French volunteers fired from behind volumes of Kant and Voltaire.” (Too cute for words, eh?) And as if that weren’t enough cuteness to retire on, he adds, the British brigades fought “from behind a barricade of Encyclopedia Britannicas.”

I thought those two examples were entirely charming until they slid off the wall during the “will-it-stick?” test. Still, a lovely, bookish, jingoistic ideal. And there’s more: supposedly the British volunteers fought behind the Britannica because they’d “determined that it took three hundred and fifty pages to stop a bullet.” Nice touch. Further proof of “Oh, how supremely calm and rational Brits are.”

Reading that article reminded me of a World War II pamphlet I’d seen in an exhibition called “Architecture in Uniform: Designing and Building for the Second World War.” This was at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal. Among the many photos and drawings of wonderful structures created under duress during the war, such as Quonset huts and Bailey prefabricated bridges, were some pamphlets devoted to bomb shelters.

Among other things, the British had published a pamphlet demonstrating how to use books, great piles of them, to reinforce windows and doorways and air raid shelters. Very commonsensical, one must say. Books are cheap, durable, stackable, heavy, thick and not very useful to most people after they’ve been read. May as well use them to hold back a bomb blast. The authors did not go so far as to say that British citizens of French extraction should BYOV (bring your own Voltaire), or that Spaniards should stock up on Don Quixotes, or so on.

That flashback lasted but a few seconds before my mind returned to the New Yorker article’s claim that the British volunteers in the Spanish Civil War had determined that 350 pages would stop a bullet. I wondered. If one were there, holed up in a library in Madrid, with the entire Britannica available, how should one best arrange the encyclopedia for the most effective kind of barricade?

The best solution, I suppose, one probably deduced by Euclid quite a while ago, would be a circle. A very thick circle, of course. If, however, the enemy were assaulting one in the library (and no one in authority was there to say “shush”), it would be wise to assume a defensive position behind the bookcase in which the Britannica was stacked.

To wit: Most of these sets contain about 26 volumes, occupying possibly three 30-inch shelves at most. That might protect one from eye-level to knees (But with the books turned the wrong way, drat – war being hell and all that).

Letting the imagination run rampant for a moment, let’s say there were no other British books to hide behind. The choices would be two: One, fight from behind any-old-nation’s books. Or, Two, carry all the Britannicas to a windowsill, turn them sideways (standing on end, thus achieving maximum width – and resistance. That way, the window post could be shared with several comrades-in-arms, perhaps ten chaps altogether. It would work only if the enemy were outside; though, if they were inside, one could go out on the window ledge, prop up the old E.B.s and fire into the building.

All this brings to mind the oft-told stories of soldiers in combat whose lives were saved when a bible carried in their breast pocket stopped a bullet. Such true stories are cited either as evidence for that person’s faith, his need for faith, or divine providence.

Let’s go on. There is an Internet site, with visuals, where someone tests the viability of such stories. A fellow who calls himself “Old Painless” runs a website named “Box O’ Truth” ( On the site, he performs many kinds of tests of firearm capacity. Relevant to today’s column, he tested the resistance of books to several types of weapons and ammunition. You can go there if you choose and see for yourself.

As you might imagine, a stack of ten thick books stopped a .22 caliber bullet at one inch. He then increased the power of the weapon in a series of further tests. The results, given the nature of war weaponry, would indicate that the Brits in the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War did not choose wisely in hiding behind the Encyclopedia Britannica. Nor did the French with their Voltaire.

The sadder part of Old Painless’s website was that he says several children had written in to ask if their book bags would protect them at school. He takes up their question, but, my goodness, who ever thought we’d live in such a day and age? The New Yorker article had practically made it all sound like fun. Oh what a lovely war! and all that.

Hugh Gilmore is the author of the painfully funny “My Three Suicides: A Success Story” and “Malcolm’s Wine, a bibliomystery centered about the raw underside of the rare book trade. Both available everywhere, but most easily through