How Spy Gadgets Work


Bond (Timothy Dalton) meets with Q (Desmond Llewelyn) to receive his case full of gadgets in "License to Kill." The gadgets in this film include a camera that fires a deadly laser out of its flash component and a "signature gun" that Q has programmed for Bond's use alone.
Bond (Timothy Dalton) meets with Q (Desmond Llewelyn) to receive his case full of gadgets in "License to Kill." The gadgets in this film include a camera that fires a deadly laser out of its flash component and a "signature gun" that Q has programmed for Bond's use alone.

Spy films like those starring James Bond are full of specia­l gadgets like lipstick guns, hubcap lasers, turbo hovercraft, cyanide cigarettes, missile launcher leg casts and rocket-launching radios. But which of these amazing tools actually have real-life counterparts, and which ones only exist in the realm of fictional spies like 007? You might be surprised. In this article, we'll check out the gadgets that James Bond has used and learn more about the tools that real secret agents have used to gather information, eliminate rivals and avoid detection.

Q Branch

In the James Bond films (and to a lesser extent, Ian Fleming's Bond novels), Agent 007 receives all of his arms and equipment, including various gadgetry and vehicles, from Q Branch. Q Branch is the research and development arm of MI6, the semi-fictional British espionage agency that employs Bond. Q stands for "quartermaster," and the head of the department uses codename Q, though the original Q's real name was Major Boothroyd. For many years, Q was played by Desmond Llewelyn in the Bond films. When Llewelyn died in 1999, Q's former assistant, R, got a promotion.

In nearly all the films, an early scene shows Bond meeting with Q to review the procedures for using the latest batch of weaponized gadgets. Depending on the film in question, these devices could be very outlandish, involving lasers, rockets, robotic drones and highly improbable vehicles. The Fleming novels stuck with a more realistic vision of global espionage. Q has some brief appearances, and his function is generally to provide Bond with the appropriate firearms for a given mission. Gadgets are rare.

Eventually, the gadgets became a formulaic plot element in the films. They fulfill the literary plot device known as "Chekhov's Gun." An item, character or location is introduced early in the story, and then largely forgotten about. Later in the story, often during a climactic scene, that item will be the exact thing needed to defeat the villain or accomplish the mission. The terminology is attributed to Russian author and playwright Anton Chekhov, who reportedly wrote of scene setting in a play, "Don't put a rifle on the wall unless it's going to go off." A perfect example in the Bond films is "Wet Nellie," a fully submersible Lotus Esprit sports car provided by Q in "The Spy Who Loved Me." Later, Bond must use its underwater capabilities to infiltrate the villain's aquatic headquarters. A similarly crucial device appears in nearly every film.

Some other classic Bond gadgets (and the films in which they appeared):

Bond can do much more than talk on this mobile phone in "Tomorrow Never Dies."
  • A pen filled with acid to dissolve metal, which also included a radio transmitter -- as seen in "Octopussy"
  • A briefcase with hidden compartments holding ammunition, a knife, gold coins and a talcum powder bottle that released tear gas -- in "From Russia With Love"
  • A cigarette that fired a small rocket -- in "You Only Live Twice"
  • Key chain with a skeleton key and a device that could trigger knockout gas or an explosive charge, depending on how Bond whistled -- in "The Living Daylights"
  • A cell phone with software that could break into electronic locks and emit an electric shock of 12,000 volts -- in "Tomorrow Never Dies"
  • A credit card containing a concealed lock pick and X-ray glasses -- in "The World Is Not Enough"
  • A pen that was actually a grenade -- in "Goldeneye"

Bond Vehicles: Tools of the Trade

Daniel Craig as James Bond in his Aston Martin DB5, from "Casino Royale"
Daniel Craig as James Bond in his Aston Martin DB5, from "Casino Royale"
Photo courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

Not all of Bond's gadgets are small enough to hide in a pack of cigarettes. Wherever Bond goes, he goes in style, usually in a flashy high-performance car loaded with options generally not offered at your local luxury car dealer. Sad but true, retractable machine guns and rocket assist acceleration don't come standard.

In the first few Fleming novels, Bond drives a very unspectacular Bentley convertible with a revolver in the glove compartment. This was Bond's personal vehicle, not something supplied by Q. He was later given an Aston Martin DB III with changeable tail and headlight colors.

The signature Bond vehicle in the early years was a heavily modified Aston Martin DB5. The car was a spy's dream come true, with all the tricks and gadgets that a secret agent would never leave home without. Hidden machine guns and a hydraulic battering ram made the front end potentially lethal, while hub-mounted blades cut down the tires of anyone alongside. Bulletproof glass and steel armor plating provided protection, while a smokescreen projector and tire spikes could be released to deter pursuit from the rear. On-board radar, communications systems and a hidden cache of personal weapons meant the Aston Martin's operator was never out of touch or defenseless. In the worst-case scenario, an ejector seat could shoot the driver to safety. The car first appeared in "Goldfinger."

Later upgrades gave Bond access to more powerful and modern Aston Martins, including a V8 in "The Living Daylights" and a V12 in "Die Another Day." The V8 featured an armament upgrade, with front launching missiles replacing the machine guns. The 2006 film "Casino Royale" features an Aston Martin DBS.

In the late '70s and early '80s, MI6 apparently signed a deal with Lotus, as Bond was supplied with several modified Lotus models, including the aforementioned "Wet Nellie," a Lotus Esprit S1. Another Q-ified Lotus (an Esprit Turbo) showed up in "For Your Eyes Only," though Q had to replace it after the automatic security system caused it to blow up.

Pierce Brosnan as Bond, with his BMW Z8 from "The World is Not Enough."

In more recent films, Bond switched to BMW. The 750iL sedan used in "Tomorrow Never Dies" had classic features like a smokescreen, bulletproof panels and spike deployment for shredding enemy tires. It also boasted a sunroof-mounted missile rack, self-sealing and inflating tires and a pocket-sized control device that allowed 007 to drive the vehicle when he wasn't even in it. He also had access to a Z8 convertible that could launch laser-guided Stinger missiles. Not only could it be controlled remotely, it could locate and drive to Bond by itself. Of course, it was cut in half while in action.

Bond's adventures have not always been grounded -- he has had to take to the water and the air on several occasions. A Venetian canal gondola that hid a powerful hovercraft made for a perfect undercover operation, while the Q Boat was one of Q's most impressive creations. Jet-powered and armed to the gills, the craft could skim across shallow water and even dive beneath the surface. Bond blew it up.

For airborne escapades, Bond has flown "Little Nellie," an autogyro with rockets and missiles that could be folded down into four suitcases. The Acrostar was a similarly miniaturized jet plane with extreme maneuverability. James Bond once even flew on a space shuttle called the "Moonraker," though he needed someone else to pilot it.

What Would James Bond Do?: Real-life Spy Gadgets

The Walther PPK handgun has been heavily used by James Bond as well as real-life secret agents.
The Walther PPK handgun has been heavily used by James Bond as well as real-life secret agents.
Image courtesy Bob Adams/Adams Guns

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­While some of the equipment dreamt up by Q is ­clearly fictional, there are some parallels between James Bond gadgetry and true-life spy equipment. The key difference between 007 and a real-life secret agent is in their overall approach to their missions. Spies in the real world are primarily focused on stealth and gathering information. More rarely, they are used as assassins, but even then they use subterfuge to quietly accomplish their deadly mission. So anything James Bond uses that fires missiles, uses acid, has concealed machine guns, launches with great velocity or simply explodes is unlikely to have a counterpart in real life.

The glaring exception is his gun. The Walther PPK is, in fact, heavily favored by covert operatives even today. Originally designed for use by plainclothes East German police, Fleming replaced Bond's small-caliber Beretta with the Walther and a Smith & Wesson .38 at the request of Geoffrey Boothroyd. Boothroyd was a gun expert and Bond fan who wrote to Fleming in 1956 to recommend the use of more appropriate weapons. Fleming eventually honored Boothroyd by naming the character Q after him.

True-life secret agents usually favor small-caliber handguns because they are easy to conceal. However, in situations where greater firepower, range or accuracy is needed, special rifles or machine guns can be made to fold down or disassemble into smaller components that are easy to hide. During World War II, the British Sten submachine gun was provided to French resistance operatives and other Allied spies -- it could be collapsed into three pieces for hiding. Guns can also be equipped with silencers, metal cylinders that baffle the rapid expansion of gases and greatly reduce the sound a gun makes when it fires. Another form of silent weapon is the crossbow. These weapons eliminate the need to smuggle bullets and don't produce a muzzle flash when fired.

Spies have used very Bond-like concealed, single-shot weapons disguised as common objects. A tiny pistol that can fit into a belt buckle, a cigarette that could fire a single .22 caliber round when the operative pulled a string with his teeth, a single-shot pen gun and a wrist-holster that could fire with a single arm movement were all actually used. Guns were also concealed in flashlights, gloves, pipes, pencils, tubes of toothpaste and rolled up newspaper.

Two of the most surprising real-world assassination devices were disguised in a pack of cigarettes and an umbrella. The cigarette pack was to be offered to the victim, aimed near his face as if to let him draw a cigarette out with his teeth. At that moment, it would be triggered, ejecting a cloud of cyanide vapor into his face, killing him very quickly, and with almost no trace evidence. The would-be assassin had a change of heart, warned his target, and defected.

The Latvian engineer Walter Zapp created a subminiature, portable camera that can take high quality, spontaneous pictures. The Minox subminiature camera, in its various models, was the most-used spy camera for 50 years.
Image courtesy CIA

A more successful assassination plot used an umbrella containing a pneumatic firing mechanism and a small poison pellet. The target was Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov. The assassin shot Markov with the pellet while he stood on a bridge -- the incident was passed off as an accidental bump with a pointy umbrella. Markov grew sick and died days later.

A microdot camera
Image courtesy CIA
A hollow silver dollar for hiding film and other secret documents
Image courtesy CIA

Q's habit of hiding useful (generally explosive) items in everyday objects is closely mirrored by the activities of real-life spies, although hidden weapons were much rarer than more practical concerns. Spies hide and smuggle cameras so they can record vital information, and they hide the information itself for transport back to their superiors. The Latvian-made Minox camera remains a vital piece of spy equipment even 50 years after its manufacture. The camera is small enough to conceal in the palm of your hand. Many spies used a microdot camera, a device the size of a thimble that was easy to hide. It produced very tiny images that required a magnifying viewer to read. Photographic devices were hidden in wooden statues, chess boards and other objects.

Information itself, especially in the form of microdots, could be hidden virtually anywhere. Film was stashed inside fake coins, fake batteries with hollow middles (with a real, functioning battery inside), shaving brushes, cigarettes, shoe heels, ashtrays, bolts and nails -- even a fake eyeball. In many cases, these items had a mechanism that would release a small amount of acid if it was opened improperly. The acid would destroy the film, saving the spy from detection in the event of a thorough search by suspicious enemy agents.

One thing real-life secret agents don't use is a flashy car. The last thing a spy wants to do is draw attention to herself. The car used for a mission will be typical of whatever the general populace in the area drives, and it will be as nondescript as possible. It will certainly not contain missile racks, smokescreen dispensers or have the ability to turn into a submarine. At most, a real life spy's car might contain hidden compartments for storing information.

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Sources

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  • Collins, Denis. "SPYING: The Secret History of History." Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, October 1, 2004. ISBN 1579123953.
  • Dougall, Alastair. "James Bond: The Secret World of 007." DK Adult; Revised edition, September 25, 2006. ISBN 0756623049.
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