Hits and Misses

Hits and Misses

Sunday, April 20, 2014

William Greener's "The Gun" (1835)

This post is not about W. W. Greener's The Gun and Its Development, first published in 1881 and commonly available in the 9th edition of 1910.  That book deserves to be in every gun enthusiast's library because it contains a truly extraordinary amount of information, all readily accessible because of its index. 

Instead, this is about William Greener, the father of W. W. Greener, and the rather smaller book he published in 1835, The Gun; or, A Treatise on the Various Descriptions of Small Fire-Arms, now available as a reprint of 240 pages from that wonderful firm Cornell Publications for the bargain price of $19.95.  I won't say that every enthusiast should own it, but it does offer some intriguing insights into the early percussion era.  (If you buy it and decide to try some of Greener's recommended loads, do please note the errata on the title page!)

William Greener had worked in London for the legendary Joe Manton but then went back to his home town of Newcastle to set up as a gun maker, eventually moving to Birmingham in 1844.  Although the tone of The Gun is at times exasperated, its arguments are always rational, the outcome of Greener's involved and prolonged experiments.  Apparently, once he had arrived at an opinion, he was not easily induced to change his mind:  he and his son so disagreed about the value and future of breechloaders that they were estranged for some time (it probably didn't make it any easier for Greener Senior that his son turned out to be right).

Again and again, William Greener condemns the shoddy practices of contemporary gun makers.  According to him, lots of workers were unemployed after the Napoleonic wars came to an end, wiping out the demand for military muskets (about which he also has some forthright opinions, most of them highly critical). "These men," he declares, "now make a living by manufacturing guns of the most rubbishly and dangerous description." 

Greener believed not only that the proof houses were not rigorous enough, but when even those low standards could not be passed, it was a common practice to forgo or to forge the proof marks on the very cheapest guns.  And the markets for these shoddy guns?  There were two major ones.  One was Africa.  To his credit, Greener waxes indignant about these practices:  "These guns were manufactured for the dealers in slaves, by whom they were carried to Africa; and there a gun untested, and without strength, was given in exchange for a man!  Numbers of mutilated wretches were to be seen in that country; and we have the testimony of travelers, that multitudes have lost their lives by the explosion of these worthless guns, the victims of the avarice of men denominating themselves Christians" (p. 77). 

The second market for these shoddy guns?  The other major market was America.  So if you find a bargain English muzzleloader by an unknown maker and want to shoot it, lashing it to a tire and testing it yourself with proof loads at a safe distance might be in order!

Several other topics are interesting.  Greener goes into the deceptive versus the proper way  of "staining" ("browning") gun barrels and why someone ordering a gun almost certainly will be cheated unless he insists on the proper way.  "For the benefit of amateurs," he lucidly explains how to make "alkanut" ("alkanet") oil to color walnut and how to use nitric acid (aqua fortis) and iron filings to darken maple stocks.  Finally, for anyone shooting sitting ducks or geese, he describes a method that will produce better results--but for that information you'll have to read the book.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Given Lemons, Make Lemonade; Given Suckers . . .

A popular saying proclaims, "If you're given lemons, make lemonade."  This saying came to mind today when, fishing the first time this spring for trout, I caught a sucker.  I should stop right here to add that my relationship to suckers is not a recent one:  we go way back.  When my family moved from New Canaan, CT, to Seattle in 1954, we stopped in Livingston, MT, to fish for trout.  My father had decided on Livingston because he had asked A. J. McClane where he could find some good fishing en route to Seattle.  Apparently, McClane had snorted at my father's ignorance and said, "Montana, of course!"

I had just started fly fishing, using my grandfather Cox's Leonard (heavy, whippy, with red silk wraps every few inches) together with a level line, an outfit my father had pronounced "Good enough for Gerry."  I actually managed to hook a big trout in the Yellowstone--it may have grown in retrospect, but now I'd say it was a good three pounds--and I rather liked this new kind of fishing.  Then my father discovered Armstrong Creek.  In those days, as I recall, there wasn't even a fee to fish; you simply had to obtain permission. Off we went.  I discovered some huge fish finning in the current and tried every fly I had over them.  Not the slightest quiver of a fin in response to my Royal Wulff, my ginger BiVisible, or my Grey Hackle Yellow.  Then my father walked by and scornfully remarked, "You're fishing for suckers!"  My interest in fishing suddenly evaporated.

Many years later, I managed to persuade my boss Thak that we could combine a recruiting trip for Cornell with an afternoon in early June on the Letort  in Pennsylvania.  The landscape was altogether different from Armstrong Creek, but the water was not:  tricky braided currents between plants reaching the surface.  And history repeated itself:  I put one dry fly after another over two really big fish, until a change in the light revealed them to be suckers.

Despite these periodic encounters with suckers, I am always surprised when I actually hook one in Fall Creek, some ten blocks from our house in Ithaca, NY.  Rainbow trout run up from Cayuga Lake to spawn in the tributaries in the spring, together with some landlocked salmon--and suckers.  Anticipation runs high whenever the spring rains actually pause enough for the creeks to clear.  My first fish is almost always a sucker, and I am almost always surprised--and disappointed:  I am keying on rainbows.

Today, however, fourteen days after the trout season opened, fourteen days of mounting frustration because the tribs were blown out from rain storms, I saw pairs of suckers making their way upstream through the shallows of Fall Creek.  For once, I realized from the outset that they were there.  I put on one of my favorite searching flies, an Egg-sucking Leech.  Nothing.  I added some weight.  Nothing.  I added some more weight, felt a fish briefly, and then on the next cast lost it to one of the grabby rocks Fall Creek is infamous for.  Not wanting to lose more flies that actually take some time to tie, I put on an Estaz egg imitation.  Fish on!  I got the fish on the reel, it ran upstream, rolled up to the surface, and revealed itself to be a big sucker.  Too bad, I thought.  Then it turned and went downstream, running line off the reel.  And I suddenly realized, "What's wrong with catching a sucker?  At three to four pounds in weight, a sucker is strong, it runs off the reel, and catching one is a lot more fun than not catching anything at all!"  I hooked and lost about five, and landed five or six more.  I had a great time. 

If you're given lemons, make lemonade.  If what you can catch are suckers . . . change your mindset and enjoy yourself!

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Paul Torday's Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Paul Torday's comic novel Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2007) derives from a premise that is altogether absurd:  simply, that given unlimited funds supplied by a sheik and the very best of British hydraulic engineering, Atlantic salmon could be induced to migrate into a river in the Yemen, a river that is dry most of the year.  The absurdity is the point:  even to imagine it, let alone to try and make it happen, requires a Kierkegaardian leap of faith.

The sheik is serenely confident that salmon can be made to flourish in the Yemen, and that fishing for these salmon will alter humans for the better (most anglers of course will readily agree with this premise).  He is a man of faith, and that faith engages and inspires a comically diverse cast of characters to bring this project to fruition.  There is even a hint of Tertullian's "I believe because it is impossible."

The government fisheries expert who is dragooned into making this miracle happen is about as unimaginative as it's humanly possible to be.  Having just published a scholarly study of the caddis fly, or, rather more precisely, the female caddis fly, he begins to work on this project only because he is threatened by instant dismissal if he doesn't.  (He thinks briefly about resigning in protest, but his bossy wife promptly tells him not to be a prat:  they can't afford to lose his salary, even if it is much smaller than hers.)  What gives this novel much of its verve is the completely credible and altogether inane positioning of the bureaucrats involved with this project, all the way up to the Prime Minister, wonderfully manipulated by his PR man, someone who imagines himself to be heroically at the helm of the ship of state, keeping to the course despite the high winds and violent seas.

If the novel is farcical, not all of its characters are static:  the two central ones develop in interesting and humane ways.  Loss is also present in this novel, and Torday handles that topic poignantly.  He is too skilled a novelist merely to have the good characters end happily and the bad ones unhappily, and it's an indication of his skill that at the close of the novel the good ones are somehow managing to cope in altogether changed circumstances.  More I can't say without spoiling the novel for you.  I will say this, though:  My friend Kathleen gave this novel to me several years ago, but I didn't read it until recently because it simply sounded too absurd.  Don't repeat my mistake:  Torday's Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is worth reading because it is absurd.  Read it:  you'll be glad you did.