We recently had the chance to spend some time with award-winning actor Joe Mantegna, host of MidwayUSA's Gun Stories(premiering Wednesday, July 2, at 8 p.m. ET), who gave us the inside scoop on how he came to be a shooting-sports enthusiast...and so much more.
NRA Family InSights: Many of your fans probably know you best for your award-winning work on Broadway, in movies and TV's Criminal Minds, so they might be surprised to find you on MidwayUSA's Gun Stories on Outdoor Channel. What attracted you to become a part of this project?
Joe Mantegna: The shooting sports are something I've been interested in for over 40 years now. I got started in my early twenties, and since then it's always been a hobby for me. I've played skeet, sporting clays, trap...so I've had an interest in that field for a long time. The Outdoor Channel sent me a query asking if I'd be interested in hosting a show based on historical firearms, so naturally I was intrigued by their proposal. And here we are, shooting our fourth season.
InSights: Your bio says you grew up in the Chicago area. Were you offered many opportunities to learn gun safety and handling as a youngster?
Joe Mantegna: No, actually not. Having been brought up in an urban environment like that, my only connection with firearms was seeing them as something the police carried. Still, I always had an interest. Back then, they sold guns right out of the Sears Roebuck catalog, and I'd look at the pictures of the guns in it. There was an appeal to it.
Still, it wasn't really until I was a young adult that I actually got to shoot for the first time. I was doing a play in Chicago that was about the police, so I had to take some firearm training and instruction. So that got me started, but what really got me involved was that a gun enthusiast took an interest in me.
You see, there was a wonderful skeet and trap range right in downtown Chicago-unfortunately it's gone now-and I used to like to ride my bicycle out there and just watch the people shooting trap and skeet out over the lake. One day the club president stopped by me and asked, "Are you going to watch, or are you going to shoot?" I told him I didn't have a gun, but he loaned me his and paid for a couple of rounds of skeet...and I was hooked. I'll be forever grateful to that man. It was such a perfect way to be introduced to the shooting sports, in a safe and responsible way.
InSights: MidwayUSA's Gun Stories allows you to walk the viewer through the entire history of an individual type of firearm each week, from its design through its use on the range. How do you and your team decide which guns you'll cover?
Mantegna: Well there's a long list, obviously, but what we're looking for are those certain firearms that have endured the test of time and become classic, like the Colt 1911, the Colt .45 and the 1894 Winchester. Some we choose due to their popularity from film and television, such as the Walther PPK, which became famous because it's James Bond's gun. Each season we try to do a cross section of guns that have made an impact socially, economically....not just in this country, but everywhere in the world.
InSights: Do you have a favorite firearm that you've reviewed so far? If so, what about it was remarkable to you?
Mantegna: As soon as I think I do have a favorite, we do another season and then something else is in the running! In the course of doing Gun Stories, I‘ve had the opportunity to shoot everything from Derringers to .50 calibers. But something we profiled the first season that, to this day, I think is the world's greatest handgun is the Colt 1911. I own several different varieties (and you may have noticed that it's the type of pistol my character carries on Criminal Minds).
InSights: Since your fourth season starts on July 2, you've already had the opportunity to examine a number of firearms, from the Uzi submachine gun to the Mosin Nagant. Did you learn anything that surprised you?
Mantegna: It's always fascinating. Every firearm that we profile always has an interesting story behind it. I'm always amazed at how much John Browning-this one individual-contributed to firearms in general. From the 1911 to the .50-cal. machine gun, here's a guy on par with someone like Tesla or Edison when you think about how his inventions have stood the test of time. And then you have other people like Kalashnikov, who passed away recently, whose AK-47 made such an impact all over the world and has been instrumental for so many decades.
One interesting thing I learned is that I'd rather shoot an elephant gun than a .357 Derringer again. The elephant gun gives a kick, but the Derringer almost feels like a hand grenade. You don't really take that one target shooting; it was for riverboat gamblers to defend their lives with one shot.
I think it's no coincidence that Outdoor Channel has awarded us as the best educational show for something like three years now. Our impetus was always to be entertaining and informative, but the educational aspects are terrific.
InSights: Can you give us a preview of what we can expect to see in your season premiere July 2?
Mantegna: This season, we're covering 12 different kinds of firearms, from the Walther PPK to the guns Teddy Roosevelt used in Africa as a hunter, to the broomhandle Mauser and Browning Auto 5. Each firearm tells its own little story.
InSights: Is there any particular thing you hope your viewers take away from MidwayUSA's Gun Stories ?
Mantegna: I think education as to what firearms are, what they can do, and their place in the history of civilization is kind of important. One thing I've been impressed with in my shooting life is that, when I take individuals out shooting and expose them to it in a safe way, they realize, "Who knew? This is kind of fun."