Hits and Misses

Hits and Misses

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Bingham's Trappers' Return: A Sentimental Journey

In 1851, six years after he painted Fur Traders Descending the Missouri, Bingham painted The Trappers' Return, now in the Detroit Institute of Arts.  I hadn't known about this painting until my friend The Old Gunkie pointed it out to me.  Although he prefers it to the earlier painting, to me it's primarily interesting as a sentimental example of diminished complexity.

File:George Caleb Bingham - The Trappers' Return.jpg

The composition is obviously taken from the earlier painting, but with significant omissions.  The snags are missing (the one at the downstream end of the woods may be a snag, or it may be a tree fallen from the forest).  The dead duck is gone, as are the hunting bag and rifle case.  The bear cub now has appropriately rounded ears but it is in a different position, standing upright rather than looking down its muzzle. The baggage between the bear cub and the boy has disappeared.

Nor are these changes all, for Bingham reworked what he did retain from the earlier painting.  The background of woods, cliffs, and shore is different.  The father is given a different facial expression, as is the boy.  Now, the two seem to be looking at the beholder, observers in their own turn of the audience standing where we are.

Still smoking a pipe, the fur trapper/trader now has a different cap and looks more benign, quite altered from Bingham's earlier painting and his even earlier sketch.

The boy is more changed from the earlier painting, but in a way that looks back to another of Bingham's earlier drawings.  The earlier drawing has no shooting bag or case for the rifle, as well as no duck.  If the painting of Fur Traders Descending the Missouri shows the son as bemused, this drawing, like The Trappers' Return, shows the son as slightly amused, focusing directly on the beholder.

Trying to figure out why I don't care for this version nearly as much as the earlier one, I eventually decided that this one has a flattened quality to it.  Its diminished complexity makes it more like a calendar illustration than a painting.  There's interesting light, yes; there's an interesting composition, yes; but there's no life in it.  The ripples beyond the canoe seem unimportant, with the result that even while the painting represents movement, it seems static.  All is calm as we gaze at a nostalgic scene from earlier days.  In short, the past has become a version of pastoral, and their journey has become sentimental.  It's as if Bingham painted The Trappers' Return with one hand tied behind his back:

File:George Caleb Bingham - The Trappers' Return.jpg

Monday, December 23, 2013

Reading Bingham's Painting, "Fur Traders Descending the Missouri"

Doing some genealogical research on my father's side of the family has led me to see this well-known painting in a new way.  My middle name, Hutchison, comes from Nathaniel Hutchison, MD, who left Armagh, Ireland, to settle in Franklin, MO, in the early 1820's.  Today, people refer to Old Franklin and New Franklin, a distinction that puzzled me until I found out that Franklin was devastated by one of the Missouri's frequent floods in the nineteenth century and completely destroyed by a flood in the twentieth century.  Rebuilt, New Franklin is some distance away.

One of Dr. Hutchison's children, Sarah Elizabeth, married George Caleb Bingham, who in 1845 painted Fur Traders Descending the Missouri, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  By the mid-1840's, the fur trade was in decline.  Not only were the beaver getting trapped out, but silk hats had become fashionable in the 1830's.  The subject matter of Bingham's painting has a certain nostalgic quality:  it portrays not what you would have seen on the river in 1845 but what you would have seen a decade or two before.

In Masterpieces of American Painting (1985), Leonard Everett Fisher comments that Bingham demonstrates an "absolute control over his ideals, subject and tools": "In this everyday scene, he not only managed to express the slow flow of the river, men and boat by the obvious horizontality and simplicity of subject, he actually slows it up even further by the vertical counter-pointings (as in the cat and paddle) and by their watery reflections; and by moving the subject in a right to left direction while we few the art from left to right, our natural reading habit--especially of horizontal matter such as letters and words.  In such a fixed geometry, Bingham envelops his canvas in an atmosphere of tonal laziness and communicates eternal drift" (p. 56).

The sun appears to be getting close to the horizon, outlining the three figures from the rear and casting long shadows that terminate beyond the picture's edge.  Like the sky, the water of the Missouri seems almost limpid, reflecting the maroon trousers and the striped blue and white shirt of the boy and the red and white shirt of his father.

Yet several details undercut the serenity of this peacefully balanced scene.  (The following details I have copied from the reproduction I purchased in the Metropolitan's Museum Shop, so the color values are not identical.)  One detail that undercuts the seemingly peaceful scene is the father's expression.  In contrast to the boy's bemused smile, the father glowers in our direction.

Another unsettling detail is the duck on the bale of furs.  Quite literally a dead duck, it is lying on its back to show it was shot squarely in its breast.  Indeed, the rifle can be seen tucked under the boy's near arm, together with his rifle case and decorated shooting bag.

The most disturbing element, however, is easily overlooked, and that can only have been deliberate on Bingham's part.  Bingham makes good use of triangular elements in his composition:  the broken one formed by the canoe, the boy, and his father is echoed in the smaller one of the bale of furs, the boy's back and head, and the interrupted line to the dead duck.  The three snags protruding through the surface at first glance appear to emphasize these triangles by containing the dugout canoe.

The downstream snag lies beyond the bow, nearly parallel to it.  The upstream one is farther away and neatly reverses the angle of the stern. The remaining snag, itself an even smaller triangle, is just upstream of the boy's head.  But then a closer look reveals yet another snag, one on the far side of the canoe and almost equidistant between the two figures.

Trying to understand why my ancestor Dr. Hutchison had decided to live in Franklin, I discovered two facts.  The first was that Franklin then was the jumping off point for the Santa Fe Trail and the Rocky Mountain fur trade.  The second, emphasized in every contemporary account I read, was that the Missouri River was notorious for its deadly snags and sandbars.  Reading about those hazards reminded me of a passage in Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi, and after some skimming I found it in Chapter IX, "Continued Perplexities."  In this chapter, Twain describes the almost paralytic terror he experienced the first time he was given the wheel of the steamboat.  He had to confess he was incapable of reading the water, and even the experienced pilot Mr. Bixby (who knew all too well about Twain's arrogant ignorance) could not tell him how to do it--only that he would learn how to do it in time.

Mr. Bixby was correct, Twain continues, for he eventually did learn how to read the river:  "The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book--a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice. . . .  The passenger who could not read it was charmed with a peculiar sort of faint dimple on its surface (on the rare occasions when he did not overlook it altogether); but to the pilot that was an italicized passage; indeed, it was more than that, it was a legend of the largest capitals, with a string of shouting exclamation points at the end of it; for it meant that a wreck or a rock was buried there that could tear the life out of the strongest vessel that ever floated.  It is the faintest and simplest expression the water ever makes, and the most hideous to a pilot's eye."

This contrast between the faint dimple on the surface and its hidden and hideous significance is central, I would argue, to Bingham's Fur Traders Descending the Missouri.  It helps to account for the differences in expression between the boy and the father.  Almost too obviously, the boy is associated with innocence; the father, with experience.  As Twain declares, "In truth, the passenger who could not read this book [of the river] saw nothing but all manner of pretty pictures in it, painted by the sun and shaded by the clouds, whereas to the trained eye these were not pictures at all, but the grimmest and most dead-earnest of reading matter."  To the untrained eye, Twain continues, the river presented "graceful curves, reflected images, woody heights, soft distances; and over the whole scene, far and near, the dissolving lights drifted steadily, enriching it, every passing moment, with new marvels of coloring."  That is what the eye of innocence sees and is charmed by--it is what the boy sees, and it is what critics like Fisher have described so eloquently as this painting's "atmosphere of tonal laziness" and "eternal drift."

But is that all we should see in Bingham's painting?  Surely not.  A closer, careful look will reveal that snags are everywhere.  For example, look beyond the bear cub in the bow:

In these terms, the snags enclosing the canoe suggests that the boy's carefree expression and his relaxed posture express an innocence close to foolhardiness  If his glowering father were not reading the river and guiding the canoe accordingly, not only would their furs be lost but they too would be as dead as that duck.  There's no question Bingham was aware of these dangers:  his brother had drowned in the Blackwater River, and his grandfather had drowned in the Missouri River.  The boy may be seeing all manner of pretty pictures, but what the father recognizes is altogether different. He has good reason to look grim.

Bingham's Fur Traders Descending the Missouri is a wonderful example of a painting which rewards close observation.  I therefore can only disagree with John Francis McDermott, who in his magisterial George Caleb Bingham:  River Portraitist (1959) declares that this painting "'means' nothing:  it is only a record of life" (p. 189).  No:  Bingham's Fur Traders Descending the Missouri is a record of life in the midst of potential death--and those snags are indeed threatening for those who do observe them.  Bingham has managed to have it both ways:  the painting represents a nostalgic look at a vanishing way of life, one bathed in an almost limpid light, yet, for those like Mark Twain who can read the river, it reminds us emphatically of the dangers lurking just below the surface.  It remains a masterpiece of American painting, but for reasons that art historians in their bemused innocence have missed altogether.


Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Ken Waters' Notebook: A Review

Ken Waters needs no introduction to firearm enthusiasts because of his numerous contributions to Rifle and to Handloader magazines plus his reloading publications, Pet Loads.  Not only did he know an enormous amount, but he experimented indefatigably. It's more the pity, therefore, that Ken Waters' Notebook (Wolfe Publishing, 2006) does not serve his legacy well.

This volume has numerous faults, none of them attributable to Waters and all of them to Wolfe Publishing.  To start at the beginning, the title gives an altogether misleading idea of the book itself.   It's a collection of his correspondence, so why call it a notebook?  Something like Ken Waters:  "Best Wishes for Good Shooting" would have been more accurate, and Waters, as we all know, cared about accuracy.

Second, its principle of organization is chronological, starting with a letter dated July 13, 1968, and closing with one dated December 28, 1989.  Such an organization might be useful if in that interval Waters changed his mind about some topic, let's say undersize vs. oversize cast bullets in the .30-06.  But I'm pretty sure he doesn't.  What a chronological organization does do is create a hodge-podge of topics, all mixed up.  The book is divided into chapters, and these chapters list some--but not even all--of the topics covered, but that is it as far as organization goes.

Wait, you may be thinking, what about the index?  Index?  Wolfe Publishing apparently believed they didn't need no stinking index!  I could understand this if the collected letters were arranged differently:  by modern rifle calibers, say, then by obsolete ones, then by handgun topics, and then by whatever; within each category, the order could be from smallest caliber to largest.  Other arrangements might be even better.  Almost anything would be preferable to having to go through the book making notes of the pages on topics that you might want to refer to later.

So:  misleading title, lack of organization, no index--all negatives. Unfortunately, that is not all.  To me, the final straw is the duplication of letters.  You turn the page, wearily go through yet again some minor variation of Waters' customary apology for taking so long to respond (most of these could have been cut with no loss), only to find that you just read this same letter a few pages ago.  Check out pp. 107 & 109; 155 & 166; 156 & 167; 222 & 225.  This is simply inexcusable.  Ken Waters took pains to get it right.  This volume is sloppy; it doesn't remotely represent what Ken Waters stood for.

Is this book a hit or a miss?  No question:  at one time, Ken Waters was a competitive rifleman, and I can imagine his ghost in the target pit, vigorously waving Maggie's Drawers.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Decoding a 1916 SMLE Mark III* by BSA

As the late Charles Stratton observed, the owner of an SMLE is "confronted with a seemingly hopeless array of marks and models and markings and apparently endless varieties of configurations and conversions."  Trying to figure out what these marks meant on my Mark III*, I began to wish for a Secret Decoder Ring.  In this post, I shall try to illustrate the key markings on my SMLE that was made by Birmingham Small Arms (BSA) in 1916, comment on their implications, and list some reference works if you want to pursue this topic with an SMLE of your own.  I hasten to add that I am not remotely an expert, only someone who has tried to figure out the history of this one rifle.  If you know better, please don't hesitate to comment.

The place to start is the collar or socket joining the butt stock to the receiver.  The collar tells you where and when the rifle was manufactured.

Here you see the King's or Tudor Crown, the GR initials of the monarch, Georgius Rex, or King George V (1911-35), the manufacturer followed by the date, and the model or Mark.

Next might come the serial number (or, in the case of my rifle), the numbers (plural) of the rifle stamped on the right side of the receiver ring.  Ideally, the same serial number will be duplicated on the barrel and on the side of the bolt handle.  Matching numbers suggest--but do not prove--that headspace is correct.  If you plan to shoot the rifle, check out the headspace first.

The serial number on this rifle is M / 25105 (by convention, the slash is used to indicate a different line).  Stratton (see list of references at the end of this post) stated that everywhere but at Enfield a given range of numbers was limited to five digits (Enfield limited its range to only four digits), so that when 99,999 was reached, the next series would begin with the letter "A" through A 99,999, then "B" through B 99,999, and so on.  M and 25105 are repeated on the barrel and on the rear side of the bolt handle.   

If you look closely, you can just make out another number--2316--stamped on the receiver ring but with a line through it, canceling it.  The number appears nowhere else on the rifle, evidence perhaps that an older receiver and perhaps its barrel may have been converted or reconditioned as part of a new weapon in time of war.  One question is, Which war?  Is this a 1916 BSA Mark III* receiver originally numbered 2316?  The Mark III* was adopted on January 2, 1916.  This rifle's lack of a letter prefix would make it the 2,316th Mark III* made by BSA in 1916, preceding all the serially numbered ones with letter prefixes.  During WW I, E.G.B. Reynolds has pointed out, BSA was manufacturing about 10,000 rifles a week.  This low a serial number without a letter prefix would place its manufacture in the very first week after the Mark III* was adopted.

But what about the "M" letter and matching serial numbers?  The rifle's collar tell us that BSA made the rifle in 1916.  During WW I, however, BSA apparently did not use an "M" at all, so that rules out the "M / 25105" as BSA's original 1916 serial number.  No other arsenal's use of "M" corresponds to post WW I dates, according to Stratton's listing of prefixes used by the various small arms factories.  "M" was used by BSA as a serial number prefix in 1941 and 1942, so it seems likely BSA reconditioned this rifle for service in 1941 or 1942 and at that time gave it the new serial number M / 2515.

Just behind the back sight (or here, where it was), the barrel is stamped H.V. / S.C.

 According to Stratton, "H.V." stands for high velocity, a mark stamped on rifles that had had the rear sight altered for the Mark VII bullet with its faster 174 grain bullet.  The "S.C." stands for small cone:  the forcing cone was lengthened 0.02 inches at the same time to improve accuracy.  Stratton terms these stampings the second variation, found on later Mark III and Mark III* rifles.  This marking is therefore consistent with the 1916 date of manufacture.

As the hucksters used to say on early TV commercials, "But wait, there's more!"  Another mark is relevant here.  On top of the Knox-form (the flat on the barrel immediately ahead of the receiver) is a circle enclosing two overlapping "F's":

This mark indicates a part of this rifle's history between the two world wars.  When the Irish Free State was formed in 1922, most of its military equipment came from Great Britain, including Lee-Enfield rifles.  The National Army marked these rifles with an FF enclosed by a circle, signifying "Fianna Fail."  (Exactly when this practice began is less clear.)  "Fianna" alludes to an ancient and rather informal military organization that with a slight stretch of the imagination could be taken to correspond to the standing army of a modern country.  "Fail" means "destiny," as in one of the ancient names of Ireland, "Innisfail," the Isles of Destiny.  "Fianna Fail" thus signifies something on the order of the Fianna or National Army of Ireland.  (Post script 1/07/2015:  Thanks to Fritz's sticky on the Lee Enfield page at Gunboards, I now know FB 26 marks on the underside of the barrel and visible here just in front of the Knox-form denote the Firth Brown steel batch.)

So far, therefore, we have a Mark III* made by BSA in 1916 that became the property of the National Army of Ireland in or shortly after 1922.  But why then would BSA in 1941 or 1942 be reconditioning a rifle that had belonged to the Irish Free State?  My first thought was that this rifle had been reacquired by the Brits following the Battle of Dunkirk in WW II.  In May, 1940, the British Army had to abandon a great deal of equipment in what Churchill called "the miracle of Dunkirk," the evacuation of 338,226 British and French soldiers off the beaches by over 900 ships and boats.  The British army then had to obtain rifles wherever they could be found, including Ireland.

I felt rather pleased with this line of reasoning, but my pleasure was short-lived. The very next day, I noticed yet another set of markings on the left side of the Knox-form:

Reynolds identifies the number, '37, as the Date Stamp, indicating the year of government acceptance.  The Broad Arrow to its right indicates British government property.  It could have been applied in 1916, but what I take to be its original serial number (the canceled 2316) also has a Broad Arrow below it.  Here, the Broad Arrow's placement next to the number '37 suggests that this rifle came back into British service in 1937, three years before the Battle of Dunkirk.  It may or may not be coincidental that the Irish Free State had become Ireland in that same year.  In any case, the "M" series number on the bolt, barrel, and receiver suggests that BSA probably reconditioned this well-used rifle a few years later, in 1941 or 1942, stamping it with its final serial number, "M / 25105."

Useful References:

British Enfield Rifles.  NRA American Rifleman reprint, 2004.

De Haas, Frank and Wayne van Zwoll.  Bolt Action Rifles.  4th rev. ed.  Iola, WI: Krause
Publications, 2003.

Reynolds, E.G.B.  The Lee-Enfield Rifle.  London:  Herbert Jenkins, 1960.

Stratton, Charles R.  British Enfield Rifles, Vol. 1:  SMLE (No. 1) Rifles, Mark I and Mark
III.  2nd rev. ed.  Tustin, CA:  North Cape Publications, n. d.

_______________.  British Enfield Rifles, Vol. 2:  Lee-Enfield No. 4 and No 5 Rifles.  3rd
rev. ed. Tustin, CA:  North Cape Publications, 2008.

Web:  Gunboards' Lee Enfield page:  http://forums.gunboards.com/showthread.php?322796-Fritz-s-FF-marked-Enfield-sticky

Not consulted:

Skennerton, Ian. The Lee-Enfield:  A Century of Lee-Metford and Lee-Enfield Rifles &
Carbines.  2007.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Making Over a SMLE Sporter, Part 2

At some point, probably in the 1950's or '60's when  surplus SMLE's were widely available and cheap (I can remember in the 60's seeing barrels of them in Warshall's Sporting Goods in downtown Seattle for about $35 apiece), someone purchased this SMLE made by BSA in 1916 and converted it into a sporter.  Although most owners of SMLE's simply cut the service stock down, this person took two unusual steps: first, he discarded the two piece military stock and handguard and fit the barreled action, magazine, and trigger guard into a Fajen two piece sporter stock.  That had the obligatory white spacers at butt and grip together with a Monte Carlo comb.  Second, he removed the bridge for charging the rifle, giving a cleaner top line to the rifle, but leaving a large crescent cutout on the left side of the receiver.

I bought the rifle sight unseen from the auction GunBroker.com in May 2009 for $115 (probably a bit under the '60's price of $35, correcting for inflation).  I thought that it was an excellent candidate for an inexpensive make-over into a British-styled light rifle. Here is an example of what I was thinking of, this one with a flush magazine.

My aging eyesight dictated that I'd have to mount a peep sight instead of the open express sights on the example above. 

I cut off the Monte Carlo comb and used a rasp to reduce the cheek piece, reshaping it into the traditional pancake style with a sharply defined line.  Looking at several illustrations from old catalogs, I noticed that the English typically ended the forward edge of the cheek piece slightly to the rear of an imaginary line extended up from the rear of the grip, so I followed suit. 

I also moved the nose of the comb back and reshaped the grip, slimming it and smoothing out its arc.  Not having any buffalo horn at hand, I capped the grip with ebony.

The pitch of the butt was, well, unusual, so I changed the angle of the butt to the comb line to 90 degrees.  I had on hand an old Winchester red pad, so I sanded off the brand name and mounted it.  It looked quite like a traditional Silvers pad.  I gave the butt some cast off, rasping away at the cheek piece until the sights were on target when I mounted the rifle quickly.

Altering the fore end was comparatively straightforward.  I attached an ebony tip with dowels and epoxy and then shaped it into the shallow curve typical of English sporting rifles.  I slimmed the sides of the fore end considerably.  I cut off the two hollow studs in front of the magazine, originally intended to secure the detachable canvas breech cover, filed the metal smooth, and cold blued it.

I then took the gun to Fred Cornell (570 888-9236) of Sayre, PA, who was able to machine a fill-in for the charging bridge cavity and then soldered it in place and cold blued it.  He removed the rear sight, filing down the screw that secured it to the barrel until it was flush.

Fred soldered on a Williams ramp front sight and drilled, tapped, and mounted a Williams FP aperture sight.  The one negative of this sight is that unlike a Lyman, the sight bar can't be easily withdrawn.  If I were to do this over again, I'd search out an older Lyman with its quick release.

I wanted to mount the old-fashioned rings for a sling, but I couldn't find a source for them.  Instead, I ordered swivels and a sling from NECG, and Fred soldered on the front swivel in a typical English position.  Similarly, I placed the rear swivel closer to the grip than we're accustomed to.

Refinishing the rifle was straightforward.  The Fajen stock was black walnut with a somewhat greenish cast, so to kill the green I added red mahogany aniline dye to extra dark walnut dye in 50-50 proportions.  I then rubbed in two coats of alkanet oil, rubbing each down with 0000 steel wool after it had dried.  Two coats of satin polyurethane varnish followed as a sealer, again rubbing each coat down with steel wool.  I then top coated with Tru-Oil with a slight amount of alkanet oil added to it.

For checkering, I used a simple V pattern of 18 lines per inch on the grip and the fore end. The checkering on the fore end wraps around.

At some point, I'd like to have the magazine shortened so it only holds five rounds.  It would still protrude, but not look quite so military.  As of now, the rifle with sling weighs seven and a half pounds, handles like a dream, and is a delight to hunt with.


Monday, November 25, 2013

Making Over a SMLE Mark III* Sporter in .303 British

SMLE stands for Short Magazine, Lee Enfield; less formally, troops called it the "Smellie."  The Mark I was adopted in 1902 as the British service rifle following their decidedly unpleasant experiences fighting the Boers, many of whom were using charger-fed 7x57 Mausers, in what we now call South Africa.

It is "Short" because its barrel was shorter and therefore less cumbersome than its predecessors, the Lee-Metford of 1888 and the Lee-Enfield of 1895.  The "Magazine" denotes that it could be loaded with two five-round chargers, so it held five more rounds than the Mauser and was much faster to reload than the older Lee-Metfords and Lee-Enfields (their magazines held eight and ten rounds, respectively, but like the US's Krag, the rounds had to be loaded one at a time).

"Lee" commemorates Richard Paris Lee, the Scottish-born American who invented this box magazine system, while "Enfield"  refers not to the armory located at Enfield Lock but to the system of rifling with deeper grooves than those used in the Medford system.

With me so far?  We've almost finished!  The * following the Mark III indicates an official modification of the model pattern, but not one so sweeping as to require a different mark, as in, say, the Mark IV used by the British in WW II (the Australians stayed with the Mark III).  The SMLE Mark II's were updated Mark I's; the Mark III was adopted in 1907.  The Mark III*, adopted on January 2, 1916, did away with the long-range volley sight and the cut-off for the magazine. In May 1926, Great Britain began a different system of nomenclature:  the Mark III* became the Rifle No. 1, Mark III*.  If you can keep this straight, you're a better person than I am.

All of these models plus the later Mark IV and Mark V fired the .303 British, a rimmed cartridge introduced with the Lee-Metford in 1888.  It was at first loaded with black powder for about 1850 fps, then with smokeless cordite for about 1950 fps, both with a 215 grain round-nosed bullet.  In November 1910, the S. A. Ball Cartridge Mark VII became the standard, a smokeless round with a 174 grain spritzer developing about 2450 fps.

In the next post, I'll discuss how I made over a sporterized Mark III* SMLE.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

"The Great Day That Dawns": The Source for a Kitlinguharmiut Song and My Redaction

Judging from the number of quotations on the web, this song from the Kitlinguharmiut or "Copper" Eskimo people (they made copper tools) has had a remarkably widespread and pervasive influence.  The US Department of Health has even used part of its concluding lines as the title for a handbook on suicide prevention:  To Live To See The Great Day That Dawns . . . Preventing Suicide by American Indian and Alaska Native Youth and Young Adults.  I read this song for the first time about ten years or so ago, when I was researching the hunting cultures of Northern Indians and of the Inuit, and it made a great impression on me.

I copied the English translation of the song and subsequently rewrote it.  I wasn't concerned about altering the integrity of the original:  after all, that was already at two removes.  This song first had been translated into Danish and that version then had been translated into English.  If you want to be strict about it, every translation is a betrayal, an idea expressed more succinctly in Italian:  traduttore, traditore.

Recently, as part of an extended conversation, I wrote down my redacted version and sent it to a group of friends that included Steve Bodio, who wanted to post it on his blog Querencia.  He asked me where it was from, and I told him that I'd reworked it but had lost my note on its source.  After Steve posted it, "Anonymous" then commented that a longer version could be found in Nick Jans's excellent The Last Light Breaking.  That is correct, on both counts:  that book gives the source, and that book is indeed excellent.  Thanks to Jans's citation of The Report of the Fifth Thule Expedition 1921-24 by Knud Rasmussen, I was able to run down the original English translation.  It can be found in Rasmussen's  Intellectual Culture of the Hudson Bay Eskimos (Report of the Fifth Thule Expedition 1921-24.  Trans. W. E. Calvert. [Copenhagen:  Gyldendalkse Boghandel, Nordisk Forlag, 1932]), IX, 53.  I believe that this is the first time it has been quoted on the web with a full citation. 

It goes as follows:

     And I think over again
     My small adventures
     When from a shore wind I drifted out
     In my kayak
     And thought I was in danger.
     My fears,
     Those small ones
     That I thought so big,
     For all the vital things
     I had to get and to reach.
     __ __ __

     And yet, there is only
     One great thing,
     The only thing:
     To live to see in huts and on journeys
     The great day that dawns,
     And the light that fills the world.
     __ __ __

I felt by shortening the song and dividing it into three quatrains it could be more expressive and, perhaps, even more emphatic.  I was pleased enough with my version that I decided to inscribe on a canoe paddle I'd made.  That might have been a good idea, but my execution wasn't.   Although my handwriting was legible, the design didn't look right on the blade of the paddle, so I erased it.  Apparently, I then tossed the notes I had made on the source of this song, keeping only the version I had reworked on my computer.

Now that the source is clear, here is my reworked version:

     Kitlinguharmiut Song

     As I recall once more
     The time I drifted out
     On an off-shore wind
     And believed I was in danger,

     I recall again my fears,
     Those small ones I thought so big,
     For all the things I hadn't yet
     Accomplished in my life.
     Yet there is only one big thing
     That truly matters:  to live
     To see the great day that dawns
     And the light that fills the world.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Caroline Gordon's novel, Aleck Maury, Sportsman (1934)

 I had never heard of this novel until I read about it in Stephen J. Bodio's illuminating Sportsman's Library, but his praise convinced me to run down a used copy and read it.  I bogged down half way through the first time:  I kept feeling I was missing something.  A year later, I picked it up again and persevered, becoming more and more interested in this novel's power of suggestion, a power the more unusual because it derives less from what is said than from what is left unsaid.

The novel is narrated by Aleck Maury, a surviving representative of a socially privileged, literate but largely unintellectual Southern culture.   Maury apparently was born some time during or shortly after the Civil War at Oakleigh plantation in Louisa County, Virginia.  Just as reading most of Jane Austen you'd never know the Napoleonic Wars were in progress, so in Aleck Maury, Sportsman you'd hardly realize the Civil War had been fought.

Aleck Maury's mother had died while rocking baby Mary to sleep, so Aleck, the second youngest of five, was brought up by his eldest sister.  Aleck Maury's father did little but blame the parlous times for the ever-declining yields of his plantation, its soil depleted by successive crops of tobacco.  Impoverished from gambling, his father passed the time by writing blank verse, reading Classical literature, and declaiming poetry to his children.

When Aleck was eight, his father began to teach him first Latin and then Greek.  He made no effort to accommodate his instruction to a child's understanding.  One of the novel's memorable  moments is Maury recalling his father fixing his eye on him when he mistranslated a line of the Aeneid, saying sternly, "That, sir, is a dative."  Maury became good at Latin and Greek, and after graduating from the University of Virginia and working hand-to-mouth as far as Seattle and San Francisco, he eventually returns, not to Virginia, but to Tennessee to become a school teacher.  Almost by default, Maury adopts the vocation of teaching Classics. He persists in this endeavor until late middle age, and one of the many unvoiced but remarkable aspects of this novel is that its narrator seems to have learned almost nothing from the material he taught to others.

Maury's vocation may be teaching Classics, but that is not remotely his avocation.  From his first experience as an eight-year-old on a possum hunt with Rafe, hunting and fishing afforded him the most intense experiences of his life.  By hunting I mean bird shooting, not, as the English would have it, riding to hounds (which Maury tried and didn't like especially), and by fishing I mean angling for crappies, bream, and bass with fly or bait.  Bird shooting and fishing offer him an escape from himself, and Gordon is careful to leave it to the reader to judge whether that alternative is a viable, let alone a sufficient, one.  Ironically, the closest Maury comes to uniting his vocation with his avocation is writing down on the flyleaf of his first copy of the Aeneid his fishing mentor's recipe for making dough balls to catch suckers. 

We learn more about Maury's affection for his muzzleloading Greener shotgun than we do about his favorite writers.  The only time anything from Classical literature becomes important to his life is when Maury muses he'd like to hear his student Molly Fayerlee read aloud some lines from Horace. Typically, Gordon doesn't give the source, but it's Ode I.9:

Quid fit futurum cras, fuge quaerere; et
Quem fors dierum cunque dabit, lucro
Adpone; nec dulces amores
Sperne puer, neque tu choreas . . .

In George F. Whicher's translation, one I like to think Maury would have appreciated:
Pry not into the morrow's store;
   Thy profit doth advance
By every day that fate allots,
   So, lad, improve thy chance,---
Ere stiff old age replace thy youth,--
   To love and tread the dance.

Apparently Molly did read those lines aloud, and apparently that led to his marrying her (or, possibly, her marrying him) in 1890:  Caroline Gordon routinely omits seemingly relevant details like these.

Some years afterwards, following moves first to Mississippi and then to Missouri, misfortunes befall Maury and his family.  Their son dies from an accident while swimming, Molly and he grow a bit apart, and then Molly dies while undergoing surgery (perhaps for cancer; again, we do not know).  Maury grieves after his own fashion, putting aside hunting and fishing.  Soon after that, he is asked to resign from the college where he teaches.  Suddenly he is free, and it's ironic that at first he has absolutely no idea what he wants to do.  Depressed, he begins to realize that he's getting old.

He spends the next few years attempting to establish a fish farm but is not especially successful.  For the very first time in his life, drifting about on the still waters of Lake Lydia, he does contemplate his own death, but, unsurprisingly, his memento mori doesn't reach any resolution.  He remains depressed and at loose ends.  On a whim he decides to go to Florida and fish--again, not a successful experience. 

In the last chapter, his daughter Sally and his son-in-law Steve suggest he come to live with them. The three of them begin looking for a suitable house near Caney Fork, Tennessee.  The first part of this chapter serves primarily to demonstrate not merely how old-fashioned but how old Maury has become:  their youthful energy highlights his decrepitude.  He's fat, his legs hurt, and he quickly becomes winded. Sally's contemporary slang seems to him altogether inappropriate (much, perhaps, as Maury's mode of addressing blacks, young and old, seems inappropriate to our own sensibilities).  Stiff old age has indeed replaced his youth. 

Then, everything changes for the better.  Hearing about the fishing to be had in Caney Fork and then seeing the river itself revive Maury's spirits remarkably.  While Sally and her husband are debating about where to live, Maury quietly sneaks on a bus and takes off to go fishing in Caney Fork.  He may perhaps have finally realized the wisdom of the Englishman who years before taught him to cast a fly.  Back then, Colonel Wyndham had pursed his lips reflectively and told Maury:  "You're young and you don't realize it yet, but there isn't time enough . . .  There isn't time enough." 

Habitually unreflective, Maury doesn't grasp the significance of Wyndham's insight, and he doesn't even recall it when, a number of years later, he once again sees Wyndham, now aged ninety, gamely stumbling down to a river to fish.  Even at the very end of the novel, when he realizes in surprise that he'd just turned seventy a few days before, it is impossible to say whether Maury decides to seize the day and to make the most of his remaining time, or whether he simply decides he wants once more to go fishing.  A lesser novelist would have been underlining the theme of carpe diem every time the narrative would allow it.  Caroline Gordon, thankfully, is content to just make a slight gesture toward it. 

This is a self-portrait by a sportsman who has resolutely remained focused on the surface of life, but Caroline Gordon has made brilliant use of what in graphic art is termed negative space:  What is not said by Aleck Maury, Sportsman, is just as important as what he does say.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Pasta alla Norma (Pasta with eggplant, tomato, and ricotta salata sauce)

I first noticed this eggplant recipe in Italian Cooking in the CIA atHome series (see my earlier review).  It was delicious, so I did some research, experimented, and came up with my own version.  Tradition has it that the name derives from the custom in Catania, Sicily, of using Bellini's opera title to describe whatever was especially good.

Serves 4
     2 small eggplants
     Oil for frying
     1/4 cup olive oil
     2-3 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
     1 chili pepper, cut in half and seeded, or 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes (to taste)
     1 3/4 pounds ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped; or a 26 oz. box of Pomi
          chopped tomatoes
     1/2 cup grated ricotta salata*
     Fresh basil, torn into small pieces, to sprinkle on top, if available

     1 pound bucatini (hollow spaghetti), or 1 pound penne

After cutting off the ends of the eggplant, slice them across into 1/2" slices.  Place in a colander either in the sink or with a bowl under it and salt the slices to draw out any bitter juices.  If possible, press down with a bowl weighted with some cans of food.  Let drain for at least an hour.  Then rinse thoroughly and dry each slice.

Traditionally, the eggplant slices are then fried in oil until they are lightly brown on each side.  If in doubt, undercook slightly, as you don't want them to fall apart when you slice them.  Alternatively, you can oil a baking sheet and bake them at 350 degrees, turning once.

When they have cooled, slice the rounds into strips 1/2" wide.  Cut the longer ones in two.  Set aside some of the best looking ones for topping.

Heat the water for pasta.  Salting it will improve the pasta's flavor.

Meanwhile, make the tomato sauce.  Add some olive oil to a sauté pan over low heat and add the garlic and the hot pepper.  When the garlic is just starting to color, add the tomatoes.  Cook over medium heat, 20-25 minutes.  If you used a chili pepper, remove the halves.

Boil the pasta until it's al dente.  Drain, keeping back 1 cup of pasta water.

In a bowl, mix the pasta and tomato sauce and most of the eggplant slices.  If the sauce seems too dry, add some of the reserved pasta water.  Taste for seasoning.  If the eggplant tastes bitter, add a pinch of sugar, mix, and taste again.  Add the reserved eggplant on top.  Drizzle with olive oil.  Sprinkle with the torn-up basil and then the grated ricotta salata.  Enjoy!

     *Ricotta salata (salty ricotta) is made by salting and pressing fresh ricotta and then aging it for three months.  It's somewhat like feta, but not as salty.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Update on Joss Whedon's Much Ado about Nothing

To update my post of August 2, 2013, I saw in last Sunday's NY Times that Much Ado has been released on DVD.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Knocking on Heaven's Door

If you are young enough to have a seventy-year-old (or older) parent, or old enough to be getting close to that age yourself, you should run, not walk, to buy a copy of Katy Butler's Knocking on Heaven's Door:  The Path to a Better Way of Death (Scribner, 2013).

By turns a memoir about her parents Jeff and Valerie as first one and then the other declines and dies, an unsparing account of her own frustrations about never being able to cope with her mother, let alone live up to her expectations, and a clear-eyed analysis of the too-often-unspoken mores of the medical profession that value (and reward) the prolongation of life over any other concern, Knocking on Heaven's Door will leave you shaken.

More than that, however, you may well begin thinking about your own future.  What do you want out of life?  How do you want it to end?  For most of us, the choices may not be as simple as the bang or the whimper we used to believe were the two witty alternatives.  Jeff Butler had a pacemaker installed while he was in relatively good health.  But when his health began to fail, that pacemaker kept his heart beating long after almost everything else of him had ceased to function.  No doctor wanted to turn it off--and that was only one of the problems Valerie Butler faced.  Caring for her husband at home probably shortened her own life.  After his death, she began to fail.  The good news is that the negative experiences of caring for her husband had taught her enough that, with her daughter's help, she was able to make better choices for herself about the best way to die.

May we all have the courage Valerie Butler had, and may we all read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the path to a better way of death that Katy Butler has described in Knocking on Heaven's Door.  Lots of books have the potential to change your life; this one could change your death.

Highly recommended.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The CIA's Italian Cooking by Scappin, Vanoli, and Kolpan

Mention "CIA," and the response will invariably distinguish a black ops wanna-be from a foodie.  This post is for those who first think, "Culinary Institute of America." My wife Caroline and I have eaten in CIA's Ristorante Caterina de' Medici, and eaten very well indeed, so I was predisposed in favor of this cookbook.  Italian Cooking is in the atHome series of cookbooks published by the CIA; it came out in 2011.  Basically a survey of regional dishes illustrated with lush photographs, it has an introductory chapter on the foods and wines of Italy and then a sequence of chapters loosely resembling the sequence of a meal, except that it begins with  spuntini (snacks), takes a detour to conserve (preserves and pickles), and only then briskly proceeds through crudi, soups, pasta, gnocchi, rice dishes, fish, meats, and dolci (desserts).

Many recipes are illustrated, but not all.  Those that are, however, confirm Levi-Strauss's perception that food photography aimed at an affluent audience presents the food in close-up, easily within reach because they can afford it.  This volume's photographs are not only close up, they are enlarged more than life size, much like what you might glimpse just before you buried your head in the platter.  The magnification quickly becomes off-putting.

Another off-putting aspect of this book is its layout.  Every recipe is given in Italian, with a following translation in English.  Then come a few sentences of introduction.  The text for the number of servings is in bold typeface, but then, inexplicably, the steps to follow for the recipe are in light typeface.  Given that anyone following a recipe has to look at each step several times, making the type harder to see makes no sense at all.  This is bad design.

But wait, there are more problems.  It appears that nobody tried to follow these recipes.  Take the one for Minestra di fagioli e cozze, Bean and Mussel Soup.  After soaking the beans for a least eight hours, the recipe calls for adding the beans to the broth the mussels have been cooked in.  Fine.  How long should the beans cook?  "Until the beans are very tender"--that's no help at all for the cook trying to figure out a time schedule.  Saying the beans should take approximately 45-50 minutes would be far more useful.  And the quantities are questionable:  one pound of mussels for a soup that serves 10-12 people?  What, two mussels per bowl of bean and mussel soup?  I cut the recipe in half and used two pounds of mussels.

Another problem is organization.  The recipe for polenta gnocchi (p. 201) is based "on using leftover polenta"; fine and dandy, but how one makes the polenta in the first place is only accorded three sentences some 60 pages later. To find even that information, one has to go to the index and read through two more recipes, with only the second being helpful.

A similar problem can be found in some of the pasta recipes.  The introductory material on cooking pasta suggests keeping back a cup or so of the pasta water to finish the sauce.  Excellent advice.  Sometimes a given pasta recipe will tell the cook to hold some back.  Others, however, contain a kind of bizarre boilerplate, as in step 2 for Spaghetti cacio e pepe:  "Transfer a few ladlefuls of pasta water from of the pot (sic) to a bowl or cup to have ready for finishing the sauce if your recipe calls for that step" (my italics).  And what do we find in step 3?  "Add about 1/4 cup of the pasta cooking water to the spaghetti to moisten the pasta slightly."  Better copy editing would have eliminated these awkward spots.

Finally, if you do find what looks like an interesting recipe, you'd better make a note of its page number on the endpaper.  I tried for the first time Pasta alla Norma, Pasta with Tomatoes, Eggplant, and Ricotta Salata. It was delicious.  But, when I wanted to go back to the recipe and make some notes for another time, I couldn't find it in the Index.  It's not under "Pasta" or under "Norma."  I had to go page by page through the pasta section to find it. 

Bottom line: give it a miss.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Hutto's Illumination in the Flatwoods

Joe Hutto's Illumination in the Flatwoods:  A Season Living Among the Wild Turkey (Lyons Press, 1995) is one of those wonderful books that can only be written by someone who cares deeply about the subject and writes so well that you come away not only better informed but with the sense that you're a better person simply for having read the book. 

Illumination in the Flatwoods remained off my radar until I read about it in Steve Bodio's informative A Sportsman's Library.  What Hutto did was to incubate, hatch, and imprint two clutches of wild turkey eggs that otherwise would have been destroyed.  What he did not anticipate was the degree to which he would become devoted to these birds, devoted both in the sense of giving them most of his waking hours (and therefore never getting enough sleep) for two entire years, and in the sense of caring deeply about each one of them.

The La Brea tar pit of Disney-inspired sentimentality always lurks near writers of books like this, but Hutto never falls into it.  He knows the mortality percentages for wild turkey poults, but he also feels for each and every loss.  Even more important, his attentiveness to his flock enables him to shed his customary critical, analytical perspective and begin to enter another world of consciousness.  Richard Dawkins has remarked that we need to enlarge our scientific understanding by learning to see through non-human eyes.  Hutto's Illumination in the Flatwoods goes far towards accomplishing this goal.  Hutto lets us see through a wild turkey's eyes another world, one intricately woven of interactions and interconnections, another world of alertness and attentiveness we would do well to explore. 

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine

What Gertrude Stein is reputed to have said about Oakland--"There is no there there"--unfortunately might also be applied to Allen's most recent film, Blue Jasmine.  Cate Blanchett gives a superb portrayal of Jasmine, a woman who has married up and lives a life of leisure, consuming only vodka and tranquilizers.  Completely self-centered, she goes to pieces when her charming husband (Alec Baldwin) gets nabbed for investor fraud and all their worldly goods are confiscated (which you would think would be bad enough, but  no:  Allen has to include scenes in which she finally learns of her husband's long-standing infidelities and his desire for a divorce).  Her solution is to leave the East and go to San Francisco to live with her sister, well played by Sally Hawkins, who has remained in the blue collar world Jasmine somehow managed to escape.  It's improbable on the face of it that this physically attractive but mindless Jasmine could have managed to reach the top 1% on her own, but never mind.

At its core, this purports to be a comedy based on class differences, with Jasmine struggling to survive in a working class environment.  Blanchett is wonderful, but her role is inadequately conceived.  There may well be a nod on Woody Allen's part to Streetcar Named Desire,  but the difference is that we care about Blanche DuBois. With one exception, which I'll return to in a moment, we don't care about Jasmine.  Allen puts Jasmine in unfamiliar situations, having to make conversation with her sister's complacently male friends, for example, or writhing away from a dentist's embraces after she finally lands a job as his receptionist, but Allen doesn't shape the scenes.  Any controlling point of view is noteworthy by its absence.  Jasmine can not learn how to use a computer, for example.  This is not amusing, it's inane.  She gratuitously lies about herself and her past to an attractive man (Peter Sarsgaard) she meets at a party.  He falls for it.  Inane again.  Window shopping for an engagement ring, the two of them are unexpectedely confronted by Jasmine's former brother-in-law (Andrew Dice Clay).  The engagement is off.  Quelle surprise! Do we care?  No.  The machinery of the plot all but creaks.  Are we amused?  No.  Do we gain any self-knowledge, seeing some portion of ourselves mirrored, if only darkly?  No.

I mentioned earlier that Jasmine is completely self-centered.  Throughout the film, she continually talks about herself.  By the end, hopeless, she goes to a park and begins muttering.  She's become the kind of person on a park bench the rest of us edge away from.  At this point, paradoxically, we care about her.  Yes, she's brought this upon herself, but now she's mentally ill.  What Allen apparently doesn't realize is that she deserves our compassion, not our contempt.  Puck might see her plight as an example of what fools we mortals are.  But Allen is no Puck, and this is no comedy, not even a satiric one.  There's no there there.  It's simply cruel.

A miss, an utter miss.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Melissa Milgrom's Still Life: Aventures in Taxidermy

Milgrom's Still Life:  Adventures in Taxidermy (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010) is a lively book on a subject few of us, I imagine, think about at all.  At once an informal history of taxidermy, an engaging profile of several taxidermists, English, American, and Canadian, and a candid account of her own attempt to mount a Brooklyn squirrel running along a wire, Still Life deftly engages the reader and keeps that reader turning pages.  As if all that weren't enough, Milgrom gives a wonderful account of how taxidermists compete with each other and how the judges, in turn, evaluate their work (I'll say only that the genitals turn out to be very important).  Is taxidermy a craft?  An art?  Or something that on occasion inhabits the vague boundary between the two?  Reading Still Life won't give you the answers, but Milgrom will get you thinking about the question. Highly recommended.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Whedon's Much Ado is Really Something!

Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing has never been a favorite comedy of mine--not, that is, until last night, when I had the pleasure of seeing Joss Whedon's recent film.  The verbal sparring of Beatrice and Benedick had always struck me as tiresome, while the malapropisms of the constable Dogberry had always seemed to me more contrived than amusing. 

But Whedon has forced me to change my mind.  He has directed and produced a film of Much Ado that is truly a festive comedy.  Not only does the film end with a dance, but it makes the audience want to get up and dance with the characters.  And somehow he managed to make this movie in a mere twelve days while keeping within a miniscule budget.

Is it a perfect film?  Well, no.  It's set in our time in what looks like Santa Monica.  For a duke to pull up to a house in a procession of limos doesn't quite equal the pageantry of an entrance on stage, while the discrepancy of men in suits and ties speaking Shakespeare to each other is initially off-putting.  And pulling back your suit jacket to point towards an automatic in a belt holster doesn't work as well as a hand on your sword when challenging somebody to a duel.  Having Beatrice slosh down so much wine seems rather too much of a good thing.

What bothered me the most is the enforced split in the characterization of Hero (Jillian Morgese) and Beatrice (Amy Acker).  Whedon motivated the putdowns between Beatrice and Benedick (Alexis Denisof) by opening with a scene of Benedick leaving Beatrice's bed:  she is feigning sleep, he is trying to decide whether to say anything before he leaves.  He remains silent.  In the narrow sense of motivating their professed distaste for each other, the scene works.  In terms of the film as a whole, however, it's questionable.  Hero, Beatrice's beloved cousin, is the model of chastity who is (falsely) accused of being a wanton.  Beatrice is staunch in her support.  But the polarizing language of Shakespeare's virgin/whore dichotomy to me cast a shadow over Beatrice's character--as it wouldn't have done if Whedon had not interpolated that scene.

Nevertheless, I'll still give Whedon's Much Ado about Nothing an A.  The casting is right on, every actor performs admirably, the slapstick farce is funny, and the movie joyful.  See it if you possibly can.  A hit, a palpable hit!

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Reworking My Ruger 10/22

This is actually the second 10/22 I’ve owned.  I bought the first one, a Sporter model with walnut stock and an 18” blued barrel, from Clark Custom Guns in the early 90’s for squirrel hunting.  Clark had re-worked the trigger, and the rifle was more accurate than I was.  I soon found out, however, it offered no advantage over my other .22, a Browning T-bolt:  if you missed the first shot, squirrels didn’t wait around for a second, scooting quickly behind a tree or branch.  As a result, its semi-auto capability made no difference.  It sat in the safe unused until I sold it to a friend and put the proceeds towards another rifle.

 Time passed, and I discovered that I enjoyed working on rifles.  Eventually, I decided it would be fun to mess around with another 10/22.  I had pretty definite ideas what I wanted.  A barrel longer than 18” was my first priority.  My second was a stock that looked like a rifle stock, not some version of a military-styled carbine.  A “Rifle” model had just come out, featuring a beech stock and a 20” blued barrel.  I thought about this model, but then discovered that Wal-Mart offered its own exclusive 10/22, although it was not advertised as such.  It featured a hardwood (beech?) stock with a rubber-like pad, a light grey receiver, and a stainless barrel that was 22” long.  The price was also right:  $238.12.  So in 2008 I bought one in Cortland, NY, the only Wal-Mart in this area that had continued to sell long guns.

After the first time I shot it, I ordered an after-market, synthetic bolt buffer to replace the factory steel one.  The cycling of the action still makes too much noise, as far as I’m concerned, but the bolt buffer does help.

 Shooting this 10/22 was not only noisy but disappointing.  The trigger pull was somewhere in the six-pound range, and its accuracy was second-rate.  Scoped, with Wolf Match ammo, I was lucky shooting from a bench to put five shots into an inch at fifty yards.  Something obviously needed to be done.  The question was, what?

Browsing in rimfire forums on the Web soon gave me some options to experiment with.  The stock Ruger trigger was still universally lamented (that indeed was why I had bought my first one from Clark years before).  I had little confidence in my ability to take the action apart and stone the relevant parts properly, let alone to get all the parts back in their appropriate places, so buying a replacement trigger seemed the better alternative.  I sent the rifle off to Hornet Products for a new trigger.

 The new trigger was better, no question, but group sizes did not magically shrink.  The next step, according to the wisdom of the Web, was to bed the rifle.  What was different about the 10/22, however, was that its aluminum receiver was secured to the stock by a single screw ahead of the magazine.  In my rifle, at least, this arrangement was anything but rock solid.  I could move the barrel up and down in the stock.  According to comments on the Web, bedding a 10/22 reverses the typical procedure:  I needed to bed the barrel—which is where the majority of the weight was—and float the receiver.  So it was AcraGlas to the rescue.

The bedding job helped shrink the groups, but not as much as I’d hoped for.  I began to wonder if the luck of the draw had given me a not-so-good barrel.  Was it conceivable that Ruger used second-rate barrels for its contract with Wal-Mart, and that was why their price was relatively low?  A former Ruger employee on a Web chat room denied that this was the case, however.  As I was brooding about this topic, I noticed an auction on GunBroker offering a blued, 20” barrel and a stock  from the “Rifle” model (soon to be discontinued), apparently take-offs from someone’s else’s project.  I bought them, put the stock aside, and swapped barrels.  Off to the range.

Well, the experiment was a success in that it proved that the original barrel was not the problem:  the replacement 20” barrel shot as poorly as my 22” one. With that possibility eliminated, I re-bedded the original barrel so it was supported all the way to the end of the stock.  Back to the range.  Results were much the same, ¾” groups.

As all this was going on, I noticed a beat-up Sporter model for sale on GunBroker.  The barrel was rusty; the walnut stock was dinged and scarred.  Not surprisingly, I secured it for a bargain price.  Given I already had a like-new 20" barrel, I didn’t care that the Sporter’s barrel was in poor shape.  I didn’t care about the stock’s condition because I was going to rework it anyway.  And, I figured, its receiver and trigger group plus my like-new “Rifle” model stock and barrel would let me put together another Ruger 10/22, which I could then sell.  Ultimately, the walnut Sporter stock would cost very little.

So I duly bedded the 22” barrel and receiver in the Sporter stock and then reworked the stock.  I did make one mistake in the bedding, however, and that mistake nearly wrecked everything.  Although I applied modeling clay to the crevices and release agent to the surfaces, I apparently missed one crevice completely.  Fortunately, I make it a habit to check on the bedding after about five hours of curing time, so the stock had not quite become one with the receiver and barrel, what is called a glue gun in benchrest shooting.  But the force I needed to break the bond resulted in my cracking the stock at the rear of the receiver in several places.  The recoil of a .22 wasn’t going to extend that crack, I told myself, but it was visible, a permanent reminder to me to take nothing for granted in bedding a rifle.

I much preferred the walnut to the beech stock, but the rifle shot no better.  I touched up the muzzle crown, to little avail.  I experimented with several different scopes, trying to see if going up in magnification helped.  I went up to 12X with an adjustable objective:  slightly better, but only slightly, and of course the field of view became narrower.  That would be fine for target shooting, but not for hunting.

This left the third option I’d read about on the Web, altering the chamber dimensions.  By facing off the end of the chamber and thus minimizing the headspace, a Benz chamber (a slightly shorter chamber with a 1.5 degree taper) could be created.  Accuracy would improve—or so everyone asserted.  Prices were all over the map, however.  In the end, I sent it to Clark Custom Guns for their “Match Chamber,” and they did a fine job.  Groups at fifty yards were now consistently in the half-inch range, if there was no wind and if I did my part.

Not entirely happy with the pull of the Hornet Products trigger, I then ordered Clark’s trigger kit and installed the parts myself.  It turned out to be not as difficult as I’d imagined.  The key is making a slave pin from a nail.   Do that, and it’s relatively simple.  Don’t do that, and tear out your hair.  I could have saved money if I’d had Clark do both at the same time, which is what I’d do were I to rework another 10/22.  Groups were no smaller, but the Clark parts gave a slightly crisper pull than did the Hornet one.

Persuaded by the comments on the web about many virtues of the Ching sling, I ordered one and installed a flush receptacle for the third point of attachment near the magazine.  I then compared off hand shooting with a Ching sling and without.  To my surprise, shooting offhand without the sling turned out to be slightly more accurate than shooting with the support of the sling.  So, if I were to rework another 10/22, I wouldn’t bother with a Ching sling.

I then modifed the stock for what I devoutly hope will be the last time.  At some point, unbeknownst to me, a chunk of the cracked stock behind the receiver had fallen off, apparently the result of my having to force it apart after my less than perfect Acraglas job.  So I altered the stock accordingly, dropping the line at the receiver so it came below the break, slimming the fore end, and adding the pad from the Wal-Mart Ruger stock.  The original Sporter’s plastic plate looked good, but I found out the hard way that if the gun were upright on a smooth surface--like a concrete floor—it could slip and fall all too easily.  I cut ¼” off the bottom of the grip and changed its angle.  Instead of the plastic grip cap, I substituted the steel one Ruger uses for the No. 1 and filed the edges down to fit the modified grip.

Refinishing and re-checkering were straightforward.  Checkering came next.  Having noticed that vintage British guns often carried the checkering on a pistol grip down to the cap, rather than having a ¼” space between the cap and the checkering, I followed suit.  The checkering is 18 lines per inch. 

My penultimate modification was to shift the balance forward by adding three and a half ounces to the fore end.  I drilled holes to fit seven .54 caliber lead balls.  They are glassed in so they don’t rattle, and the Pasco PVC 10 mil Pipe Wrap (available from Brownell’s) around the barrel makes idiot-proofing that much easier.  I deliberately didn’t build the glass up to the level of the barrel, so the lead balls can be removed relatively easily.

With the 10/22 scoped and 5 rounds in the magazine, that change moves the balance point from 4 ¼” ahead of the trigger to 4 and 5/8” ahead of the trigger.  It now hangs better when shooting offhand. 

My last modification was installing and altering an aluminum magazine release made by Tactical Solutions; it looks somewhat like a British under lever.  It worked fine but was needlessly ugly:

It would have cost no more to design it so that it hugged the trigger guard and then terminated in a graceful curve.  I modified it by hand filing and then by filling in the gap between the release lever and the guard with black AcraGlass and smoothing it out.  Black semi-gloss Painter’s Touch turned out to be an excellent match for the remaining finish of the magazine release.

The end result?  A 10/22 like no other.  I may have to spring for some match ammo and see some calm day just how well it can really shoot.  It pretty much embodies how I wanted my 10/22 to look:  the barrel length is suitable for a rifle, the lines are sleeker, the checkering is more generous, and the finish came out the way I hoped it would. 

With the scope, unloaded, the rifle now weighs exactly seven pounds.  But that remaining crack near the receiver is a salutary reminder to take nothing for granted when bedding a barreled action in a stock!


Monday, July 29, 2013

Dating a Double-Barreled Hammer Gun

I recently acquired a hammer shotgun of uncertain age in bad repair because I thought I could learn more about antique shotguns by hands-on examination of a real one.  Given its crudely replaced stock, the price of this one was so low that I didn’t think twice about the expense.  

It had several features which I had never seen before, and those in turn led me to ask:  How does one begin to date an old shotgun?

After some research, the answer is: First, look at its proof marks, which can reveal country of origin and possibly a range of years; second, observe its features to establish a range of possible dates for its manufacture.  This shotgun does have English proof marks, but because there were (and are) no proofing houses in the United States, I’ll start with the gun’s observable features.
The gun in question is a double barrel hammer gun with “C. K. Weston” on the outside of each lock.  At first glance, it appears to be a 10 gauge breechloader with 30” Damascus barrels and bar action rebounding locks.

The scroll engraving is moderate but well executed, suggesting the gun may not have been top-quality but it was some distance above a utility grade. 

It also has extractors, a thumb hole opening lever in front of the trigger guard, and a fore end held by sliding wedge, the barrel bolt.  The (probably horn) tip of the fore end is missing.  The butt stock is a hopelessly crude replacement that's also split.

The rib is marked “LONDON LAMINATED STEEL."  Taking off the fore end and then removing the barrels from the action reveals the following stamps.  On the underside of the barrels, an “F” is on one barrel flat, “CW” on the under-rib, and an “11” on each barrel--which means it is not a 10 gauge as I had assumed but an 11 gauge.  Each barrel is also lightly stamped “C.G.S.,” perhaps the initials of the barrel maker or the person who proved it.

Taping the barrels shows that their length is not 30” but 29 ½” (the two tubes touch at the muzzle, so they do not appear to have been shortened).  In addition, each barrel has proof marks, which I’ll return to shortly.

The two earliest features of this gun are holdovers from the muzzleloading period.  The fore end is held by a captive wedge:

Its buttplate is iron, which protected the butt when it had to be placed on the ground for loading from the muzzle.  The next are the extractors, which were designed by Charles Lancaster in 1852  and date from the pinfire era (Burrard, I,104).  Following close on its heels is the snap-action (the gun locks the barrels to the breech as soon as the shooter swings the barrels closed).  Following the French patent by Francois Schneider in 1858, Westley Richards built the first English version as a pinfire in 1858 (McIntosh, 141).

Like a pinfire, the Weston is a breechloader, but it takes centerfire cartridges, so it has to date after 1861, when George Daw introduced what was essentially the centerfire cartridge (Akehurst, 72).

The Weston has rebounding locks, which means that the hammers do not stay down on the firing pins when the gun is fired but rebound to half cock.  As a result, the shooter did not have to place the hammers on half cock before being able to open and reload the gun.  This feature was introduced about 1863 by Stanton (Hadoke, 72).  According to Donald Dallas, they began to appear with regularity in the late 1860’s; by the 1870’s, the older form of half cock/full cock had all but disappeared (Dallas, 126).

The development of the rebounding lock also meant that the hammer position could be varied.  The early centerfire hammers followed the position of the pinfire and percussion hammers:  they sat up proudly, with their cocking spurs protruding well above the top plane of the barrel.  In the 1870’s and following, hammers became smaller and rather than sitting up proudly, seemed almost to crouch.  Indeed, some gunmakers began to boast in the 1880’s that their hammers were out of the line of sight (Dallas, 126).  On this gun, the hammers are in a medium position, neither high nor low:


The thumb hole or “Purdey” opener in front of the trigger guard was patented in 1863; it was the original lever that operated the Purdey bolting system (Hadoke, 135).  Like the Jones underlever and the side lever, the Purdey opener eventually gave way to the top lever, but it persisted well into the 1870’s (Hadoke, 175).

The barrels seem not to be choked, an innovation popularized by W.W. Greener in 1874.  Of course, not everyone wanted this new invention.  As the old saying goes, “Choke lengthens your reach and lightens your bag.”

Damascus barrels continued to be manufactured into the 20th C., so their presence does not tell us as much as would the presence of fluid steel barrels.  The “LONDON LAMINATED STEEL” stamped on the rib may or may not have anything to do with that city:  given that London was synonymous with quality, its appearance may be no more than advertising.  English “Laminated steel” was of high quality, however.  Hadoke quotes Greener praising its hardwearing qualities as better than any other:  “Steel barrels, even of the best quality, will not stand heavier charges than the best barrels of English laminated steel.”  A minor drawback was that laminated steel did not display the intricate patterns of other kinds of Damascus barrels (Hadoke, 117), and indeed the Damascus pattern of Weston’s barrels is quite subdued.

The barrels are relatively heavy, weighing five and a quarter pounds, and that robust weight, together with the 11 bore, slightly larger than the 12, suggest that the Weston perhaps was made for water fowling.  W. W. Greener says that an ordinary pair of 12 gauge barrels (which would be a bit lighter than ones for the larger 11 gauge) would weigh only a little more than three and a half pounds (231).  The standard gun for water fowl was a double 8 bore with 30-32” barrels; even in its “Light” configuration it would weigh 11-12 pounds.  For duck shooting, Greener likes the 10 gauge weighing 10 pounds; he argues that it will shoot heavier loads with better effect than a 12 gauge, while it can also shoot larger-sized shot better than a 12 gauge (298).  In these terms, the 9+ pounds of the Weston 11 gauge seems quite moderate! 

Proof marks:  fortunately for the purposes of dating an English gun, both London and Birmingham changed their proof marks periodically throughout the 19th Century.

Diggory Hadoke's Vintage Guns has illustrations of 19th and 20th Century proof marks from London and Birmingham.

The proof marks on the barrels look most like the Birmingham ones used from 1868-1875.

What is not here provides some useful, if negative, evidence as well.  The barrels do not have “NOT FOR BALL,” a proof house warning which began in 1875, let alone “NITRO PROOF” for smokeless powder, which began in 1896.

Tentatively, therefore, it appears that the gun was proofed in Birmingham sometime after 1868 on the early side (given the Purdey opener and rebounding locks) but before 1875 (given the lack of choke boring and the absence of the “NOT FOR BALL” warning that began in 1875).  The mid-positioning of the hammers suggests the early 1870’s.

As for C. K. Weston, he may have been the maker, the retailer, or the owner.  I would like to hear from anyone with more information about him.

[For another post on a Scott hammer gun, see my http://gerardcox.blogspot.com/2014/03/dating-another-double-barreled-hammer.html .]
Sources Consulted

Akehurst, Richard.  Sporting Guns.  London:  Octopus Books, 1968.
Baker, David J.  Heyday of the Shotgun:  The art of the gunmaker at the turn of the last century.  Long Beach, CA:  Safari Press, 2000.

Burrard, Major Sir Gerald.  The Modern Shotgun.  3 vols.  New York:  A. S. Barnes, 1961.

Dallas, Donald.  The British Sporting Gun and Rifle:  Pursuit of Perfection 1850-1900.  Mechanicsburg, PA:  Stackpole Books, 2008.

Greener, W. W.  The Gun and Its Development.  9th ed. [1910].  New York:  Bonanza Books, 1967.

Hadoke, Diggory.  Vintage Guns:  Collecting, Restoring & Shooting Classic Firearms.  New York:  Skyhorse Publishing, 2008.

McIntosh, Michael.  Shotguns and Shooting.  New Albany, OH:  Countrysport Press, 1995.