Jeff Cooper's Commentaries

Previously Gunsite Gossip
Vol. 14, No. 1          January 2006

Winter `06


Well here we are in a new decade, which seems to be marked by some outstanding numerals! Take for example 1906, the date year of the landmark cartridge of our time. The 1906 cartridge, which was a modification of the 1903 cartridge previously standard, is as near perfect as things of that sort can get. It is amusing (and slightly annoying) to see how the purchasers of sporting rifles seem to think that improved cartridge design is the answer to everything. I have long taught that if you can't do it with a 30-06, you probably can't do it. Every time some new brass powder bottle appears for sale, all sorts of people, qualified or otherwise, leap into the breach to explain how this new round is somehow better than what has gone before. Whether it is better or not must depend upon what it is designed to do, and it is effectively impossible to say that a shooter accomplished his purpose in the field with the new cartridge in a way that he could not have done with a 30-06. As it is said in Lindy Wisdom's verse: "There ain't many troubles that a man can't fix with seven hundred dollars and a thirty ought six." We do not know about the $700, but we do have confidence in the great 30-06 cartridge.

The Steyr Scout, which is now pretty much the definition of what a sporting rifle should be, is furnished in 308 rather than 30-06, but that is simply because the slightly smaller 308 cartridge can be fitted into a slightly smaller action, which has little to do with what comes out the muzzle. The 308, in modern loadings, is the ballistic equivalent of the 30-06, apart from its failure to accommodate the 220-grain bullet, which has definite, if minor, advantages for the medium-size hunting of medium-size animals.

I confess that I now rather fancy a 376 Mannlicher cartridge because of the way it affords the proven killing power of the 375 in a weapon of scout configuration. This piece, which is now properly designated the "376 Mannlicher," is a particularly fine answer to a somewhat limited question for a shooter who confines himself to moose and the big bears of Alaska and the heavier of the bushveldt animals. The 376 Mannlicher, which I like to call the Dragoon, is a nice item, but that does not mean that it wipes out the winner and still king - the 30-06.

We appear to have about 300 cougars hereabouts, which pleases some people and alarms others. I suppose that under certain very special circumstances, a hungry cougar could be prevailed upon to scarf up a house pet or an unattended child. But an unattended child is much more likely to be run over in the street or beaten by its parents. Personally I like cougars. I spent my formative years in the Southwest, and I ran across them very seldom. You do not want them in the Hollywood hills, but out here in the sticks they are welcome.

We understand that the Chinese have set up a section of the Great Wall to allow tourists to cut some hot laps thereon. Who furnishes the cars and what sort of qualification is required is unclear, but the idea is enormously attractive. This is certainly something for those who like to say that they have been there and done that.

To our great satisfaction, "Baby" has finally arrived at Gunsite. This involved a lot of doing by a lot of people, and I must say that it took more paperwork to get the rifle back into the States than it did to get it out of South Africa. I had left it in South Africa to be used on further hunting trips, which now I am too old to enjoy. Since Baby is not useful for anywhere but Africa, I just thought it better to bring it home, a matter of more difficulty than I would have suspected. So Baby now resides in the Sconce armory, though it will be moved down to Legendary Guns in Phoenix so that Shooting Master John Gannaway can tidy it up in a couple of minor ways. For those who came in late, Baby is my idea of an idealized heavy rifle intended for use on pachyderms and buffalo. It started life in Brno (Bohemia) as a "Czech 602" in caliber 375 H&H. This features the best version of the classic Mauser action that I know of. Among other things, it mounts a compacted ghost-ring rear-sight which is nowhere else available. Once in our hands the piece was re-barreled for caliber 460 G&A Special and restocked in classic Claro walnut. A five-shot extension magazine was mounted, together with a trigger-guard adaptor. This work was carried out by Georg Hoenig of Boise, Idaho, and the final assembly is wonderfully satisfying.

I find that I have transgressed upon the footprints of Sir Samuel Baker, who christened a favorite heavy rifle of his own as his Baby. I'm sorry about that, but I did not know of the mistake at the time. Today's Baby - the Gunsite Baby - is a very modern heavy rifle, weighing 10┬Żlbs and starting a 500-grain bullet from its 22-inch barrel at an acceptable 2300f/s. You can easily raise this to 2400 if you wish, but this tends to break up available bullets when encountering massive bone.

Baby hits very hard - at both ends. Whether it kicks excessively depends of course upon the shooter. As we have long preached, subjective recoil - that is to say, recoil effect - is a personal matter. Fred Wells of Prescott, who specializes in great big guns, insists that recoil effect is 85 percent mental, and is best addressed as such. I am not sure about the percentage, but I do know that recoil can be mastered by the individual shooter, if the will is there. The trigger, which Georg Hoenig tuned, breaks cleanly without any trace of take-up or follow through, at 4┬Żlbs. Some might prefer it to be a little lighter, but I do not think that would help things. The heavy rifle is intended for use on very large animals at ranges from arm's length to perhaps 50 yards. Usually the shot will be taken from offhand. Baby meets this requirement to perfection, as I have discovered personally in the field. This is the rifle which, on my 80th birthday, took two buffalo with two shots in 2 seconds. (How do I know it was 2 seconds? I don't, but I know how fast I can work the bolt, and I was working it just as fast as I could.) This rifle served to drop a running buff instantly with one shot at 125 yards. It is a thing of beauty, and will serve as the centerpiece for our proposed museum. I do not foresee taking it afield again, but it may be shot for demonstration and entertainment occasionally - as at the Reunion.

So Baby is once again in our hands, and this gives us delight. Many psychologists will tell you that experiencing excessive joy in handling an artifact is a symptom of obsession. This could well be, but it does not bother me, as long as it does not stamp on other people's pleasures. The only things that Baby is going to stamp on henceforth are probably inanimate. We extend our thanks to all concerned!

Recently we were asked by our friend and colleague Jan Libourel if we had invented the numerical code for The Conditions of Readiness of Repeating Small Arms. This is the system which calls a cocked-and-locked condition as "Condition 1," fully loaded and hammer down as "Condition 2," and so on. I cannot definitely answer that, since it is difficult to trace the origin of terms in technical discourse. Possibly I did invent that (the Countess thinks so), but it does not matter very much. I have been around so long that I have simply forgotten where a lot of things started. I am pretty sure that "hoplophobia" and "ghost-ring" are my own. Certainly I did not invent those two conditions, but I did decide what we should call them. As you doubtless know, hoplophobia is a psychotic affliction characterized by unreasoning terror of inanimate objects. The ghost-ring is that form of aperture sight which features a small diameter ring with a large diameter aperture. A ghost-ring is not an "open sight." It is called ghostly because when it is used properly it fades out and the eye is left free to focus upon the front sight alone. This is both faster and more precise than any form of open sight, including the express sight usually featured on heavy doubles, though speed differential is very slight. The GI rear-sight on the M1 rifle, while not a true ghost-ring, can be made so simply by enlarging the aperture. It helped to make the M1 rifle what it turned out to be - the best individual combat instrument so far devised.

"Who invented what" is a tiresome enterprise. Too many people evidently have too little to think about, and thus attach importance to what is essentially unimportant. The modern technique of the pistol, for example, is really important only as it includes proper understanding of mind-set. If you are thinking properly when confronted with lethal force, your shooting technique hardly matters. It is important, however, to understand proper shooting technique in order to instill confidence, because confidence is an important element of proper mind-set. Thus it is well to teach the student how to shoot in order for him to do things right when the need arises. Over the years I have concluded that certain body and hand positions are helpful to deliver better and quicker hits, but if a student chooses to disregard my teachings it is all right with me, as long as his results are good. Naturally it is hard to establish what techniques are used in actual combat. If there is a camera around it is seldom pointed at the shooter, so it cannot really tell what system he was using. We simulate stress in competition, and we have reason to believe that the stress experienced in competition is equal to, if not greater than, that experienced in reality. Few people can remember just what they did when the flag flew, so our studies are not as profound as they might be.

As to instruction, most institutions are more interested in student turnover than in student perfection. Only a few Masters are dedicated to excellence.

Various observers view our general decline of literacy with alarm. To us it seems that the reasons for this sort of thing are quite obvious. The reason no one reads is television. In homes where television affords "instant babysitter" for children and instant conversation for adults, there is no need to learn the pleasure that may be experienced by the exploration of our culture. Television provides a substitute for original thought. This in turn obscures the delights of learning, and this takes much of the fun out of life. Learning is the one pleasure in which there can be no satiety. Anything else you like to do will become tiresome if practiced too much. (Perhaps you do not think so, but if you ever have the opportunity to try it you will find out.) In my youth, back in the period between the great wars, reading for pleasure was very widely experienced. That is what people did in the living room after dinner, and every member of the family could choose his own delights. Hemingway, before television, habitually packed a "book bag" with him in the field. During the noon pit stop, there was a choice of two or three volumes to enjoy. Onboard the ocean liners there was a 10 o'clock reading session on the boat deck. Do you know of anyone today who will sit down and pick up a volume which does not have any utilitarian or self-aggrandizement purpose? By reading you can improve your language skills, and your language skills enable you to take advantage of our wonderful English language. I am not instructed in comparative linguistics, but I am told by people who are that the English language is the most explicit of any in use. In English you can say exactly what you mean, which is certainly not true of other tongues we know about. When my work is translated from English into German, for example, it usually takes more space - sometimes as much as three times as much space - to make the same point. When I was teaching through Chinese interpreters, it was pretty obvious that getting a given point across was a major undertaking.

The point is that as our level of literacy decays, our culture decays, and with television in the saddle, this is not going to change. By all means try to turn your children into intellectuals. This is the greatest gift you can give them, but do not expect too much as long as that tube is playing.

Did you write it down? If you did not, you should have. This is because only what you have committed to paper has significance. Man's experience is only that which he has recorded. The more you consider that, the more significant it may become. The Heinlein Hypothesis declaims that only the historic record establishes the essence of the human experience. If it was not written down, it might as well not have happened. This certainly impresses itself upon me in these closing years. A great deal has happened to me, and I have had a long life, and I am truly thankful that much of it was recorded. Therefore whatever you did is only real upon the printed page. In examining the recent activities of the wise and the great, we are truly grateful for what was put down and truly sorrowful for what has been lost. In this I am delighted to see that my old friend and colleague Barrett Tillman, in his book "Clash of the Carriers," has been able to record accurately so much of the great exploits of the war in the Pacific. I did not know what was happening all around me, even though I sat in the midst of it, but Barrett's work has made it real, not so much because it is well written, but rather because it has been accurately written. I lived in it and I saw it happen, but I certainly did not understand it until it appeared on the printed page. For this we may be truly blessed.

The fist rest, or a modification thereof, sometimes referred to as the "Hawkins" position, seems to be becoming more commonplace in the field, if not on the range. The fist rest is impractical to be used for large bodies of troops or big schools, and thus was not taught in "the good old days." It works fine, however, for individuals in the field. I recall two cases of my own in which I shot from prone when the fist rest would have been superior. These things develop all the time.

We talk a lot about heroes and heroism today. In doing so we denigrate the term. Heroism, properly speaking, is rare. Everybody I knew in World War II, fought because he wanted to, but of course combat duty does not necessarily involve death. That it involves the chance of death in the line of duty is perhaps commendable, but it is not heroic. The term "above and beyond the call of duty" is indefinable, since anything that you can do is what you should do.

Lord Nelson defined the heroic death at Trafalgar. He was convinced - correctly - that his wound was mortal. As he lay there on the deck, his repeated words were "Thank God I have done my duty!" He fought because it was his duty to fight, and he died doing his duty. This is heroism. Signing up for combat pay is not.

I did not know Joe Foss during the war, but I had the honor of his acquaintance thereafter, and it certainly seems to me that Joe truly merited the title of hero. He repeatedly went aloft with what must be considered obsolescent equipment to confront enemies who overmatched him in every respect, from combat experience to retractable landing gear (!). Joe was a hero, and he deserved his Medal of Honor. We have heard no sounds from Washington about our proposal to grant remission of federal income tax to Medal of Honor winners. Possibly those in charge do not feel our standards are high enough. Frankly I do not feel this matters. The loss to the budget caused by Medal of Honor recipients would be completely negligible. Clearly there are things about this that I do not understand, but I do not intend to drop the subject.

To go back to the item on Baby, we should note that a true heavy rifle has only limited usefulness from the off-hand position at very short range.

Baby's front sight is a ramped rectangle featuring a square scarlet insert. This combines speed of acquisition with resistance to bumps and bangs, and does not include unsightly excrescences.

Steyr Mannlicher has now got into trouble with export to Iran by selling those people large numbers of 50 caliber "Sporting" rifles. Large corporations are naturally more anxious to market in large numbers rather than to individual sportsmen, and the superb Scout series is pretty much a one man-one gun proposition. Hence you are advised to get your personal Scout before it gets sanctioned off the counter. I got mine (several). Go thou and do likewise. Substitute scouts are a mistake.

We note with profound grief the passing of Fred Wells (85), the famed gunsmith of Prescott, Arizona, who put his name on the map as a true artisan of distinction. The artisan is one of the credits to our culture, who elevates handicraft to a level above that of the tradesman. His rifles are works of art. Be grateful if you own one.

Few people make any difference, but Fred has left his mark. He will not be forgotten.

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