Jeff Cooper's Commentaries

Previously Gunsite Gossip
Vol. 12, No. 13         December 2004

Happy New Year!

Having packed up and put away the year 2004, we can look back upon it with mixed emotions. Certainly it has been an interesting year and might well be subtitled "Troubled Times." The election takes first place in newsworthiness, and as with most elections it was what might be called a qualified triumph. We put the right man back in office, for which we are truly thankful, but at the same time we are depressed at the thought that there are so many people on the other side of the political spectrum. Having spent all our lives attempting to conserve the republic left to us by the Founding Fathers, we cannot help but wonder who all those other people are. American government has traditionally been studied in our intermediate level public schools, but somehow its nature has not been studied seriously enough. The United States Constitution, a political/philosophical marvel, stands as a monument to direct simplicity unmatched elsewhere. Throughout the world during the 19th century new governments have been established fundamentally on the example of the US Constitution, yet today we see all sorts of specious attempts to improve upon it. Well, we have now won another round, and we face the coming four years in high spirits. That is to say, some of us do. A curious and unhappy faction in both the American Left and the European Socialists seems to feel that the "nanny state" is the way to go, and that the individual citizen is neither capable of improving upon it nor even understanding it.

Well, enough of that. Let us now tackle today's problems with high spirits and glorious confidence. We welcome friendship, but we do not really need it. If our antagonists wish to view us askance, that is their problem. We remain the last best hope of Earth.

The hunting year was a great success, and the freezers are full. We had an interesting taste test here inviting opinion on the comparative savour of Texas whitetail, Idaho elk and bison. Utilizing the system, we made all fondue bourguignonne in which individual bite-sized chunks were toasted individually on long forks. We could not definitely establish the superiority in flavor of our samples. Clearly much depends upon the individual animal taken, the time of year, the conditions of the kill, and the particular animal involved. Let us just say that it was all good, and we render appropriate thanks to daughter Lindy for the chance to dine so well.

There has been a good deal of hazardous action in the game fields this year. Various hunters have established proof that dangerous game is truly dangerous. At least three people have been killed by buffalo. One man was killed by a lioness and another was killed instantly by his hunting partner. The most recent buffalo fatality to come to our attention is reported from Kenya. The prominent British wildlife artist, Simon Combes, was out for a walk in the Great Rift Valley. He was unarmed, as hunting is forbidden in Kenya. According to the news report on the subject, the buffalo appeared "out of nowhere" and beat him to death with both hoof and horn. Wandering around the African bush without a rifle may be compared to driving the wrong way on a one-way street at 2 o'clock in the morning. Gunsite Rule Number 3 for dangerous game is never to enter the wilderness without a powerful rifle and the skill to use it well. Getting squashed by a buffalo is a romantic way to check out, but pretty much unnecessary. Oddly enough, there are both amateur and professional hunters in Africa who do not understand this. Gunhandling is so conspicuously bad in Africa that we are surprised that the death toll from rifle fire is not higher than it is. Danger is indeed the spice of life, as we have long taught, and as Fred Burnham insisted, those who are looking for a safe thing can stay away from Africa.

And we also note that Ruger now has a couple of new 45 caliber pistols which promise well on the drawing board.

Here at Gunsite we seem to be receiving much better news from the troops in the field than is furnished by the press. Among other things, the men out there at the cutting edge manifest conspicuously high morale. It may be that the only people who wish to communicate with us are the kind of people who enjoy what they are doing. War is never fun, but it does offer moments of grandeur to people who are tuned that way, and most of them seem to think that we are glad to hear about their efforts.

For example, "We have been in contact with the enemy since we got here. We have sustained three wounded, have killed over 150 of the bad guys."

This may be partly because today's warriors are much freer to express themselves in letters than we were in World War II or in Vietnam, but I believe the main reason is that the coverage we receive from our friends at the front treats of the smallest units - individuals or squads - and is not involved with strategic concerns. Also it may be that we have discovered how to employ our technical advantage in inner city warfare. It turns out that that magnificent 120 main gun of the Abrams tank serves beautifully for reducing urban strong points at short range. However that may be, our people up front are doing a splendid job and merit the highest praise from the old folks at home.

We note that the people at Ruger are now marketing a pseudo-scout which they call the "Frontiersman" (for obscure reasons). It misses much of the virtue of a true Scout, but it is a step in the right direction.

It takes a long time for new ideas to catch hold with the manufacturers, and that is understandable. Nobody wants to get caught with a lemon - but innovators should not expect quick results - at least with personal firearms. I remember that before World War II I suffered a good deal of derision when I went afield with a scope-sighted rifle. Now even the military establishments of the world are turning to glass sights, and a personal sporting rifle can hardly be sold unless it mounts glass on top. And we also can point out that the 45 auto-pistol, while long rejected by the law enforcement establishment, is finally coming into its own.

When we established Gunsite we thought of it more as a university than a locus for repeat training, but things have changed. Today Gunsite may be considered the world's best shooting gallery, where people can return again and again to sharpen their skills. The world offers fewer and fewer places to shoot, and even those established shooting ranges are often opposed to practical shooting. Since I have stopped teaching here, I tend to lose contact with new developments and systems, but still I strive to keep in touch despite "the indignities of age."

The National Rifle Association performed its usual and essential role in the last election. The NRA is the largest and most effective civil rights organization in the world, and it is an honor to belong to it. The association was not organized originally to safeguard American liberty, but rather to improve marksmanship in the public at large. Today, however, the NRA stands its ground in the forefront of American liberty, and it protects not only the American sport shooter but additionally the whole concept of the Bill of Rights. If the Second Amendment did not stand, the other nine amendments would be without teeth.

Despite the common use of the term, there is no such thing as an "expanding" bullet, since the projectile must finish its task with less mass than it began with. For a long time I have used the term "frangible" to denote a projectile which deforms on impact, increasing the diameter of the bullet channel at the sacrifice of penetration. Now it turns out that the term frangible is being used to denote bullets which fracture radically on impact, with the object of rendering such ammunition suitable for use on indoor ranges. I do not see that this form of projectile can be any safer than other descriptions, since what comes out of that barrel comes out hard and quite capable of causing serious damage. You may recall that some years ago a young man in show business killed himself very dead with a blank cartridge, assuming that a "blank" was not dangerous. Blank cartridges have their uses, but they are decidedly not harmless, and I do not see that this new product advertised as frangible offers any serious advantage in safety. The four elemental safety rules handle the safety problem very well, and gadgetry affords no improvements.

Anyone present know what a spontoon is? A spontoon is a "half pike," according to our dictionary, and constitutes a relatively short, retainable form of spear. Now when you hear some crusty old buzzard shout, "Where is my spontoon?" you will know about his military background.

We have been getting good results in Mesopotamia with the 50 caliber BMG rifles. Clearly the excessive weight of these instruments is no special drawback in stationary warfare, but one wonders if the advantage obtained with the big cartridge could not be had with the 30. When you get to the point where a shot is too long for a 30 (properly set up), you have reached the point where you cannot see the target. Much discussion could be expended here, but I do not have the laboratory nor the staff to draw a conclusion. A thousand yards is a long way, and people treat it more in conversation than in practice. We saw a recent note from the war zone claiming a decisive and predicted hit at 2,400 yards. Here from my studio window at Gunsite I can pick up targets at a bit over a 1,000 yards. If I double that distance or more, I am merely hitting the highway. Those of you who have been to Gunsite will know how far that is. I suppose we could see a man at 2,400 yards on a clear, flat, snow-covered landscape if he were wearing a flame-orange jumpsuit. These legendary shots are the stuff of endless bull sessions, and have been since the invention of gun powder, but let us leave them where they belong in the realm of fancy.

We do not know if the popularity of portable range finders is going to change much about hunting legends, but I imagine that the principal use of these devices is to establish an exact range after the target has been hit.

There is a big difference, of course, between the hunting field and the battlefield. The hunter owes a clean, instant, one-stop shot to his game, while the sniper is justified in taking a chance and hoping for the best. Thus we may be excused for bragging about sniper kills, where we would be properly put down for trying too long a shot on game. Anything over 300 meters calls for apologies from a hunter, and really good explanations may be accepted but should never be extolled.

I weary of these tales of "sacrifice" that are thrown to us by the media. I know something of war, and I never encountered anything resembling a deliberate sacrifice, nor have I encountered anyone who has done so. But at this point it would appear that anyone who stubs his toe on the way to the shower is said to have "sacrificed" his foot for the cause. Colleague Barrett Tillman tells of a case in which a member of a B17 crew gave up his parachute to a wounded comrade then rode a wounded bird into his death. That qualifies, but it is pretty unusual. I have seen some acts of true heroism and heard of some more, but they were the result of what might be called "spiritual fire" and in no way matters of sacrifice.

Possibly these Islamic crazies who blow themselves up in the effort to destroy kaffirs, are sacrificing something in return for something, but it must be a pretty wild proposition, even to an Arab. It would be nice if people on our side would avoid the term, unless they truly mean what they say.

I have acquired a Broomhandle Mauser on loan from Shooting Master John Gannaway, and I propose to do an article on the subject. This is truly a weird piece, not filling any recognizable tactical role. A model of 1896, it stands on the mechanical brink between then and now. It could hardly be less handy. Its weird appearance and structural ingenuity make it a charming plaything and it is widely known as the weapon used by Winston Churchill in the cavalry charge at Omdurman. It was used both in Spain and China as a mode of execution. With some photographic help from Bob Shimizu, I hope to produce an amusing magazine piece.

And now we hear the report of a gorgeous 63-inch kudu from Namibia taken nicely with a Steyr Scout. Any full-grown prime kudu is a magnificent wall ornament, but Hemingway was challenged to find a 50-incher. Now let us put down our tape measures.

Every once in a while we feel the need to mention miscarriages of justice widely publicized in the US. O.J. Simpson walks free, though there is no doubt in anyone's mind that he murdered his wife. Ron Horiuchi murdered Vicky Weaver by means of his sniper-school skill. He was not even reprimanded, much less disciplined. Some people killed Vince Foster before planting him in the park, and the people who did that are very well aware of the circumstances. Future historians will toy with the idea that around the turn of the 21st century it was sometimes possible to commit first degree murder at no legal risk in the United States - if you were a very wealthy celebrity with "minority" status. I thought I would mention that again. It does deserve mention.

Collectors - of anything - are a special breed. This passion to own something that is in some way peculiar is hard to explain, but frequently encountered. I happen to own a Smith & Wesson 44 Magnum of early manufacture. This piece sets the Smith & Wesson collectors to slavering, not because of its intrinsic merit (which is high), but because it has the wrong number of screws in the frame. Does this matter? Apparently it does. And a bevy of experts have simply concluded that it does not exist. I have established three records with it and taken several head of big game in both America and Africa, but collectors get all excited about it apparently because it does not exist. It is not an M29, because it was made and sold before Smith & Wesson used their current system of designation. One expert at the factory insists that it was totally rebuilt after it left the factory giving it, among other things, a new barrel. The motive for doing this is beyond me, but the pistol is there in my armory, and the last time I went down and looked, it was still there. Fine goings on!

Our personal tactical studies from Mesopotamia conclude that the 223 cartridge (5.56) is a pretty good man-stopper, if you hit your man three or four times in the center of the chest. Just how the United States military service got saddled with the mouse gun is a story in itself.

How many heros can you name? The war in Iraq has produced scores, perhaps hundreds; but the American news media appear unable to discover them. The Alvin Yorks and the Audie Murphys and the Hannekens are carrying on in the traditions of American military heroism, but to find out about this it is necessary to establish one's own reporting system. Perhaps a set of decals to be worn on the windshield might help. We could do this in a small way here at Gunsite by issuing windshield stars to family members who rate them. All in favor say aye!

We have long insisted that there is no such thing as a really bad hunt, just as there is no such thing as a really good election, but I suppose if we could look long enough and hard enough we could find one. I intend to ask Craig Boddington, who currently stands as the most widely recognized American big game hunter, about his opinion on this, but in the meantime I will consider an example set forth in the works of H.C. Maydon in his book on Indian hunting.

On this occasion he was seeking a 45-inch markhor, which was thought to be off the scale. He and a friend held a conference at Srinagar, establishing that if he could be shown a 45-inch markhor he would pay double the accepted rate to the outfitter. When Maydon and his friend set these conditions all but two of the attending conferees packed up and left.

So he and his friend made their arrangements, obtained the necessary leave papers and set forth up the Valley of the Indus.

They walked, and walked, and walked. No helicopters, no jeeps, no roads, just an endless hike.

In due course they reached the point where they had to cross the Indus River, by this time a relatively smallish stream. They crossed on a rope bridge which bounced around in terrifying fashion. Just contemplating the attempt was enough to freeze the major's soul, but they got across, and established camp. The local hunter set forth immediately and returned before sundown with a satisfied look on his face.

Bright and early the next morning they began skirting the gorge, rounding one tributary ridge after another.

Without ceremony they found the prize. It was seen there across a gorge enjoying the morning sun. It was totally unaware. The range was plus or minus 200.

He missed!

He was stationary. The target was stationary. The ram was the greatest that anybody had ever seen, estimated closer to 50 inches than 45, and he missed. Now all that remained was to cross that horror of a bridge and hike back out - a three weeks effort.

General Boddington is familiar with the works of Major Maydon, so he doubtless knows this story. But as of now, it is the worst hunting yarn I have ever heard. If anyone in the family has one to top it, let me know.

Major Maydon was one of those Englishmen hard to describe. Hunting was his passion, and the British military service encouraged it in those days. He was, however, uninterested in guns or shooting. He used a somewhat customized 7.92 military Mauser with open iron sights. He never learned to use the loop sling. He knew almost nothing about the mechanics of the kill, and he made no effort to learn - but he really got his money's worth, possibly more than a marksman could have.

Overheard in San Francisco:
"We shouldn't think too badly of the Japanese. After all, they would not have attacked Pearl Harbor if we had not hit them first with the atom bomb."
Honest to God!

We note that the venerable arms makers Holland & Holland are now featuring new belted rimless cartridges in sizes 400 and 416. We can see absolutely no need for any such thing. The conspicuous needs are for marksmanship and gunhandling, but you cannot produce packages of talent. We have been getting pretty good results here at Gunsite over the years. Field reports suggest that the equipment available through most of the 20th century is quite adequate to the task of hunting big game. The test of battle, however, calls for a degree of nerve control that is both difficult to define and problematical to achieve. A proper mind-set is the greater need in combat success than any sort of equipment. We can work on that, and we have succeeded to a gratifying extent, but the product is difficult to advertise and still less to achieve.

On the other side of the procurement story we have the magnificent 45 auto. In the 93 years since its adoption, this piece has established itself as one of the conspicuous mechanical wonders of the 20th century. It acquired a somewhat fanciful reputation in World War I and then slid into abeyance until the discovery of practical pistolcraft somewhere around 1959. Its unequaled merit was overlooked for a generation due to the assumption that target shooting was a valid test of the qualities of a handgun. When practical shooting competition was established in the American Southwest in the 60s, enough people found out about the 1911 auto-pistol to attract its now deserved reputation. When practical pistol competition became recognized worldwide, the 1911 regained the glory it won in World War I. This was only partly due to its performance in practical matches, but what we have come to believe even more at this time is its extraordinary endurability under conditions of rough service. We hear back from Iraq that the 1911 keeps on working under conditions of neglect that would stop almost anything else. Maintenance of personal weapons should be the province of the sergeants. But, of course, we do not have sergeants anymore, but rather "specialists," and evidently we do not have specialists in smallarms maintenance. But the 1911 goes right on working, even in the sands of the two rivers. One Gunsiter reports back that he has seen a pistol so clogged with filth and grit that its detail work was almost invisible, but went on firing as if recently cleaned.

The word comes back to us that there are two kinds of troops in the battle zone now - those who have a 1911 45 auto and those who wish they had.

We emphasize again that the terms liberty and freedom are not equivalent. Freedom is a physical condition denoting the absence of bonds or bondage. Liberty, on the other hand, is a political condition certified by the social right to do whatever does not infringe upon the liberty of your neighbor. You are free once you have jumped over the fence, but liberty is not a characteristic of the nanny state in which the government tells you what you must or must not do in all aspects of your life. A man may live a quite satisfactory life without either freedom or liberty, if he is that sort of man. Such a man manifests the slave personality, and may be kept happy as long as he is sure of "bread and games." Men - some men - may be willing to fight for liberty, but they will not do so until they understand exactly what is involved. This is how it is possible for us to see catastrophic wars fought gallantly by men who do not know what they are fighting about. It has been my extraordinary good fortune to be involved in various sorts of wars, and I have discovered both good men and bad on both sides.

I was fully exposed to the theory of government at a very good university, and for this I am grateful. I have fought without restraint alongside and against both good men and bad, and it has been possible to observe the triumph of the human spirit for both good cause and bad. In much of the 20th century, the Communists established a system of political commissars in their armies, but this system worked only to a modest degree, for it is very difficult to recruit and train a man to handle the job of political commissar effectively. George Washington faced a formidable task in trying to explain to the colonists that they should risk their lives to get a king off their backs. Lincoln had an equally bitter task, and was on at least one occasion required to turn his weapons against his own side. Today it is not easy to explain to the troops that the political consideration of liberty is worth the sacrifice of one's life. It can be done and it has been done, but it is never easy.

Most men will fight well for hearth and home, as long as they fully understand the threat. Beyond that, Clausewiz says, war is the continuation of politics by other means. This sort of discussion is essential to military morale, but certainly it is easier said than done.

Please Note. These "Commentaries" are for personal use only. Not for publication.