Thursday, April 17, 2008

Gun thoughts

Caveat- to any non-gun non-shooting readers (and there might be one or two out of the dozen regulars here) this post is a bit dense on jargon. Apologies, but the hour is getting late and Google is your friend. I might revise at some future time. For now, the muse is fleeting and I've recently been in a dry spell, writing-for-fun wise, so this is going up without much in the way of links or explanations (or, likely, coherence- here I am on my second parenthetical in the first paragraph, always a bad sign).

I've mentioned before that I'm a bit of a gear head. I get a kick out of a nice piece of equipment- something well designed that makes a job easier or accomplishes it's task well. One example would be the Princeton Tec Aurora headlamp- 3 little Triple A batteries provide sixty hours or so of light, it weighs a couple of ounces, is waterproof, and can stand more than a bit of bashing around. You can wear it over a cap and it stashes easily in a pocket- useful light for a week of nights and $20 brand new. Of course, to find the perfect piece of gear sometimes you have to purchase and try out a replacement for the device you are currently using, just to see if the new one might work better.

Gear wise, gun culture is an interesting milieu. I got started in target shooting, where there is a definite tendency to play equipment games. Sometimes, the benefit is psychological. If you really believe that the new Anschutz rifle, Perazzi shotgun, or Hart barrel is going to make you shoot better, you probably will. At some point, shooting competitively is as much a mental game as a physical. You might develop the reflexes and muscle memory, and be blessed with the ability to hold steady or swing smooth, but you have to maintain concentration and pay attention to tiny little details to get the scores that'll win. Confidence that a certain piece of equipment will contribute to success frequently leads to success. On the other hand, there are the shooters who continually seek technological solutions to a human problem.

Talking to hunters and reading hunting boards, there are a lot of guys who get into equipment as well, I feel they do it as a sort of proxy for time afield. They have lots of rifles, refining concepts or striving to find the perfect piece for a given purpose. A little better cartridge, something a bit easier to carry or smoother swinging, they keep at it. They can end up with lots of guns, many of which don't get fired much.

In contrast, hook and bullet writers all seem to have a story about some guy they knew back in the day that had a MkIII Enfield or sporterized Krag or the like that they bought a box of shells for and then killed ten deer over the next ten years, annually burning one round to make sure the sights were on and one to kill the deer. I've never met that guy. Apart from the necessity of practice to maintain skill, the concept has a certain attraction.

In that vein, reasonably, all a North American hunter really needs is a good .22 bolt action rifle, a good big game rifle, a waterfowl shotgun, an upland shotgun, and a .22 pistol. Pretty much everybody ought to have a pistol for self defense as well, but there you are, the adequate six-gun arsenal. No fun at all.

I look to the example of my father. My dad is pretty practical. Not ruthlessly so, but pretty practical. Back when metallic silhouette shooting was getting started along the border, he, being a decent shot, entered a local match and did pretty good. Shortly thereafter, he bought a pre-64 Model 70 from a family friend that had less than a box of shells through it. The provenance of the rifle was well known, the family friend bought it to hunt, didn't do so much, and, as godfather-in-spirit if not fact, wanted my dad to have it. A couple of years later, blessed with practice time and fair immunity to recoil (for this was a standard M70 in 30-06) Dad put 4k Sierra 180 gr. seconds through it in one summer, practicing up. He'd bolted a Canjar trigger into it and strapped on an early Redfield target scope (now long since gone- it didn't handle that kind of use well). Dad carries the rifle elk hunting today, albeit without the target scope it bore for silhouette shooting. With the Model 70 for an elk/deer rifle, he still hung on to his sporterized Springfield as a spare. This was particularly useful when the Model 70 was carrying a 10x target scope with large and delicate adjustment turrets. The Springfield was the rifle I carried on my first few elk and nilgai hunts. It has the original long, smooth military trigger, which, with a bit of practice, is pretty deadly for a good shot. Not in the Canjar/M70 league, but danged effective. The biggest whitetail buck I'm likely to shoot came off my Aunt and Uncle's lease in South Texas at 250 yards with that Springfield on a cold December morning- put the K4 skinny crosshairs right behind the shoulder, halfway up the side, then start pulling. That trigger just glides back until the next thing you know you're recovering from recoil, watching through the glass as you cycle the bolt and the buck's legs kick up from the grass.

Getting more competitive, Dad built up a Remington Model 700 in 308, this being in the days before the 7mm-08 was making inroads in metallic silhouette shooting. An El Paso gunsmith took off the safety and worked the trigger down to 6 ounces and Dad ordered a Fajen stock blank that he spent a lot of time finishing- a high, roll-over comb target stock that turned out to have gorgeous figure through the butt. Dad finished it blond and shot the rifle for years and thousands of rounds. You could always pick it out on the rack and it was one of the prettiest rifles on the line as well as accurate. I shot it quite a bit, too. The stock was short for me and I'd scope myself every so often. That rifle is gone despite the hours of work and practice, sold. Back to practicality, inspired in part by economics. When we got into KD highpower, Dad sold a .30 carbine (wish we'd have known what today's prices would get to), a couple of cases of ammo and a Colt Gold Cup from his Outdoor Pistol days to defray the cost of a used M1A with a heavy stock and a good barrel, as well as an accuracy and a trigger job. That rifle, too, passed on some time ago. At some other point, he sold a Colt Commander in furtherance of the purchase of a .22 target rifle for my competitive shooting. Dad's not immune to sentiment, he still has his first adult-purchase deer rifle, a .300 Savage Model 99 with straight stock and schnabel forend, sex-on-a-stick, early twentieth century version, as far as rifles are concerned, but then the resale on the old Savage was nothing until the recent interest of collectors. Even so, his old Savage came to him hard used and saw many further miles and it's in the most common of chamberings for that rifle, so it carries history and sentiment, but not much in the way of dollar value. With a few exceptions, Dad's kept things down to the basics. For that matter, he doesn't really tweak with what he's got.

As for me, less so. Unlike other gear, I have a harder time letting go of guns and can't look at them entirely practically, sort of like antlers from old hunts. As an example, I bought an SKS right before the assault weapons ban, hoping for appreciation and not interested much in the weapon per se. Once the Curio and Relic Russian models started flooding in, I congratulate myself for getting my money back after ten years, trading it toward a CZ 527 American in .223, the rifle that started this musing. It was easy to get rid of the SKS- that is no Commie .30 Carbine. In contrast to the carbine it is heavy, awkward, and kicks. Of course, it runs a more powerful cartridge, but the SKS wasn't fun, in my opinion. I felt sort of lucky to get my money back for it. I bought the CZ because I had long thought that a .223 would be just the thing to take advantage of cheap surplus ammunition and get some center-fire practice in. On top of that, the Czechs build a lovely little mini-Mauser action, something of some romance itself. This rifle is blued steel and walnut, a decent blue job and a stock with a bit better than decent wood and better-than-most checkering (the guys in the gun shop that handled the FFL gathered around when I opened the box- collective sigh and "nice"). The protruding detachable magazine spoils the lines of the rifle a bit, but provides a fine palm rest for offhand shooting (my favored position, anyway). I use the ugly CZ rings that came with the rifle, they are just about the right height for the scope that I had for it. If I really worried about aesthetics, I might stick on some Talley rings.

This rifle pleases me a great deal- but it is not a deer rifle, an elk rifle, a duck gun or an upland gun. I don't shoot coyotes and don't live around groundhogs, purposes for which it would excel, absent really long range shooting, and I haven't even wrung all the accuracy out of it beyond determining that it doesn't like bullets heavier than 62 grains. Before the recent spike in ammunition prices I bought a mort of South African 55 grain soft points, but haven't put more than a couple of hundred rounds through the gun. If I ever find myself shooting little Texas whitetails, I wouldn't hesitate to use it as a deer gun, choosing my shots and taking advantage of the accurate cartridge and rifle, but that doesn't look likely anytime soon. Nonetheless, the rifle, impractical as it is, pleases me a great deal.

I find it funny how firearms feel different than other pieces of gear. Not all are the same- my duck gun I love for ruggedness, ergonomics, and reliability and if any of those characteristics should be bettered or fail I'd trade it in a heartbeat. Nonetheless, most guns inspire a bit more sentimentality than other types of gear. Perhaps it is their durability- a well-built weapon can easily be in use after a hundred years service. Perhaps it is the many hours we can end up carrying them in the field, or the care demanded in their handling and maintenance.

While I aspire to hard headed practicality toward well cared for but well used tools, including guns, I guess I haven't gotten there yet.


Chas S. Clifton said...

Talking to hunters and reading hunting boards, there are a lot of guys who get into equipment as well, I feel they do it as a sort of proxy for time afield.

Oh yeah. Every time the catalogs come in the mail, I ask myself, "Are you using all the equipment you have now?"

And of course the answer is "No."

You can save money that way.

mdmnm said...

Yeah, I try not to think to much about the money part. For every Princeton Tec headlamp there is a battery tent light that gives such an anemic glow you just think you can see things!

Andrew Campbell said...

Nice post - especially about your dad. The great part about shotgunning is that there are virtually no major ballistic breakthroughs or technological innovations, despite the hype. Sure, something like Hevi-Shot is a scarey efficient non-lead, non-steel alternative -- but it's one of few genuine advancements. In part because I just simply like the look of them, I happen to enjoy shooting old side-by-sides. My younger gun is probably 65 years old, the older 73 years old. They work just fine; they have names.

Doesn't stop me looking for the next coolest old gun though! 8-) Something with hammers and long barrels has some appeal...

All the rifle talk made me think about my days of target shooting. A nice memory, thanks.

Steve Bodio said...

Going to have to do one like this now that my small "collection" is rather more settled than not.

Love those little Mausers. My .22 is a recent CZ.

mdmnm said...

Thanks! I agree. One of the cool things about guns is being able to use a tool that has a couple of generations of use behind it. With respect to shotguns I would add the cavil that the modern gas-operated shotgun, that can shoot 2 3/4 or 3 inch steel with reduced recoil, is a pretty dandy thing for waterfowl and an advancement. What did you shoot for target shooting? I came up in metallic silhouette, three and four position .22, and kd highpower.

Steve: settled?
I've heard good things about the CZ rimfires but don't have any experience with them. My father and I each have a Remington 541S, which is a pretty neglected item when it comes to talking about full size rimfire sporters. Either of ours will hold an inch at 100 with Eley Tenex.

Andrew Campbell said...

Mike: I don't go after waterfowl, but wonder if the modern semi-auto is so much softer to shoot as some of the 8+ lb Winchester 21s (or Englsih SxS waterfowling guns)? or if a modern 3" shell is really so much more lethal than a 2 3/4" shell from yesteryear?

I grew up in Scotland, shooting paper targets -- .22LR indoors from fall through spring, and then .308 outdoors from 200-1200 yards in the summer, all shot without rests and match iron sights.


mdmnm said...

Andrew- 1200 meters is quite a ways to stretch a .308! KD highpower is shot with service rifles (5.56 now days, .308 when I was doing it) using iron sights and at paper as well, but the farthest targets are a mere 600 yards.

I don't know if the modern 3" shell is that much more lethal than a 2 3/4 loaded with Kent Matrix or Hevishot or the like, or lead from before the ban, but with steel I think that the added pellets are important, particularly with geese. I've had quite a few ducks with good hits set their wings and then land head up, only to be stone dead by the time I'd closed the hundred yards or so to their location. Consequently, I appreciate the extra pellets in the 3" shell to try to break a wing or something and reduce the chance of losing the bird.

I can't speak to a heavy SxS built for fowling and recoil relative to a gas gun, though I'm sure Bodio could. I've shot a ten pound 10ga SxS with 3" shells and it wasn't terrible, at least for a couple of shots. On the other hand, an 8 pound Remington 870 pump in 12 ga. would cross your eyes. In contrast, the semi-auto with aluminum receiver only weighs a bit over 7 pounds and the recoil isn't unpleasant at all.

Andrew Campbell said...

Well, 1200yds was the competition limit for iron-sighted target rifles -- if you wanted to shoot further, you went to Match rifles with telescopic sights. It certainly wasn't easy -- if I remember correctly the entire target was something like 4MOA tall by 6MOA wide. There were a lot of shots that were either bullseyes or misses.

Your comments about waterfowling are well-taken -- I don't know that I'd elevate the 3" steel shell into the same category of innovation that the LED headlamp really is.


Anonymous said...

Good post! Do you have any experience with your new Aurora headlamp in cold weather (around zero)? I'm wondering if the burn time would degrade much under those conditions. . .
John Gall

mdmnm said...

Thanks, John!

I've used my Aurora in low teens, but I haven't really tested the burn time in those conditions, as I've only used it for short periods. I'll bet you'd lose a fair amount of endurance, but with so much time to begin with, it should still offer good utility, especially if you stash it in an inside pocket until you need it.