Musings on the OBR

October 14th, 2014

“The rifle is the queen of personal weapons.” – Jeff Cooper

 

Walking in the door, he tried to quiet the turmoil in his stomach. He wasn’t sure he was going to do this. He wasn’t sure he could.

His eyes quickly took in the surroundings. Two other customers. The Colonel explaining something to one of them.

The store was long and narrow, shaped like a U, with a glass case for the pistols running its length along each side. The rifles stood in rows behind, on the wall. He walked slowly down its length.

Shyly, for he felt like if he was direct he’d find it gone, sold, he glanced at the wall towards the rear, where it had been a week ago. Its dark shape seemed to suck in the light around it, an otherworldly talisman. Seeing it made his heart beat faster, the swimming in his stomach more urgent.

“Can I help you”?

The Colonel had finished with the one fellow, who now headed for the door. The other man stood a few feet away, apparently in no hurry. He had thought he would have a little more time.

He paused for a moment, gathering his courage. “How much?” he asked, nodding at the rifle.

“The H&K? Thirteen hundred.”

He looked at the rifle, directly now, hard, then back at the Colonel. “I thought it was a thousand.”

The Colonel shook his head. “Won’t be able to get any more.”

He stood there, quiet, holding his gaze. He knew the Colonel didn’t think he was serious. Most people weren’t. The rifle had been on the rack for months.

“Tell you what. I’ll sell it to you for a thousand bucks, right now, cash.”

His heart leapt. He knew instantly. He knew the Colonel didn’t think for a moment that this young man in front of him had a thousand dollars to spend on a rifle. Much less cash. Much less on him.

He paused for the space of two heartbeats, studying the Colonel’s face. “I’ll be right back,” he said.

The Colonel shook his head. “It’s only good for right now.”

He looked at the Colonel, not liking his game, but knowing what he didn’t. He nodded towards the parking lot. “In my truck. I’ll be back in thirty seconds.”

 

Long a rifleman, acquiring that heavy-caliber battle rifle, the sturmgewehr of my dreams, was much the triumph of emotion over logic. It was a black, ugly beast, with simply awful ergonomics. Its metal folding stock eliminated the last, faint hope of finding a cheek weld. It’s iron sights were crude. The design did absolutely nothing to mitigate recoil. And what the fluted chamber did to brass – when you could find it – was a crime against nature.

But I loved it. When you shot it, there was an undeniable sense that you held in your hands something inescapably lethal.

Mel Tappan liked it, before he died. And Jeff Cooper, still very much in the thick of things that spring of 1989, was a fan as well. If any assault rifle of the time had cred among the cognoscenti, it was the H-K 91.

Sadly, the other bookend to that earlier story also had its genesis in tragedy. Sandy Hook, like the distant echo from the long-ago horror at Stockton, struck us all with the extent of its hideousness. Disbelief. Malevolence beyond the pale.

I knew instantly how it would go. The tragedy within the tragedy. Indeed, within hours it had turned.

The AR-15 magazines I scrambled to order in the first hours that afternoon came in dribs and drabs, as they came off their initial backorders. It was only weeks later, when the box showed up, that I found in one case I had ordered the wrong ones.

What were inside were 20 SR-25 PMAG’s.

I shook my head upon realizing the mistake, irritated with myself. By then, magazines of any description were simply unobtainable. I was reluctant to send them back. But I sure couldn’t use them.

It was then that the thought began percolating.

I had ordered minor stuff over the years. The ACOG’s on both my AR-15’s lived in Larue QD mounts. My favorite hat was an old, faded and sweat-stained ball cap with a certain Texas logo. And there was a bumper sticker on my truck that said something about snipers.

How many times had I been back online, looking intently at those rifles?

I believe in Karma, in the sagacity of listening to those whispers in the wind. I decided within a few hours that it was meant to be. I couldn’t afford it. But I long ago learned that a good rifle gives more than it costs.

Then it just came down to the waiting.

 

*

 

Ginny is at the beach for her annual week away with her sister. It’s just me and Jasiri, my Rhodesian Ridgeback. Bachelor days.

I picked it up at the dealer yesterday. Then it was raw, the core of a thing, without so much as a set of sights.

“Do you want the cardboard box?” the dealer had asked. Yeah, give me everything. Just like it was when it left Texas.

Now it is set up. All the pieces I had collected for it during the long wait. Looking at it, you catch your breath.

I set the rifle on the kitchen table and quickly conclude I like it there. I can’t deny a tiny exultation every time I look at it. Like a beautiful woman, even just a glance evokes tendrils of promise.

Larue Tactical Optimized Battle Rifle (OBR). Black. 7.62. 18” barrel. PRS stock. Surefire SFMB muzzle brake. Atlas bipod in an LT271 QD mount. Nightforce NXS 5.5-22×56 riflescope in an LT111 QD mount. MOAR reticle. Accuracy 1st scope level.

I come from the era of classic rifles. Bolt actions and falling-block single-shots and the odd lever action. Wood stocks that fit a man’s face. Rifles warm to the touch, even on the coldest November morning.

It took me a while to learn to love polymer. But ultimately a rifle is defined not by what it is, but by what it does. What it can do. The AR platform has, indeed, grown up, the foibles of its youth long ago left in the mists of time. Today I’m as deeply fond of it as any rifle design I’ve ever used.

Even having said that, though, this rifle is different. It’s not light. It’s not plasticky. It feels dense, as if wrought from billet. And although it’s not a carbine, it has that short length that we used to call ‘handy.’ It reminds me of that beloved Ruger No. 1 that I carried in the woods all those years.

Holding it, my hand falls naturally to the handguard. It’s metal. Cool to the touch. But it has that ever-so-slightly-textured smoothness that is cousin to all those other rifles in my gun cabinet. This rifle evokes something new. But also something very old.

With no woman in the house to complain, I decide to leave the OBR on the kitchen table, resting quietly on its bipod, where I can see it every time I walk by to brew a pot of coffee or heat a can of soup. Its graceful lines make me want to touch it. Its suggestion of precision, of purposefulness, takes me to a different place. A place I like.

 

*

 

The breeze, mostly quartering left to right but gusting in other directions every few seconds, has a dry chill to it. In the weeks ahead there will be a few more balmy, soft summer-like days before we hang up the season for good. But today is very much a fall day. A reminder that in only six weeks I’ll be in camp, deep in the mountains that I love.

I’ll go prone later. But right now the bench serves. My arms extend in that unconscious, quiet embrace, done a million times. Like holding a woman. The butt falls naturally to my shoulder, the stock to my cheek. My finger traces the cool metal of the trigger guard, tentative. The scope is dialed-up somewhere in the middle. There’s plenty more left, but at a hundred yards I hardly need it.

Reaching forward with my left hand, I rotate the knob of the parallax adjustment, bringing the target into sharp relief. The crisp image prompts a moment of satisfaction. The old truth.

If I can see it, I can hit it.

My breathing has an edge to it. Like unbuttoning a blouse for the first time. Swimming in possibility. In promise.

Then, you gather it all together, walking into that place where it all happens. Pushing forward ever so slightly, the elastic pressure firming, until I feel it through the length of the rifle. My breath held, a fermata. The hairlines of the reticle slow, then stop. My eyes hard to the target. My finger, no longer tracing, takes up the slack in the trigger. Hold. First stage gone. Squeezing, squeezing into the nexus.

And the shot breaks.

When I was a kid, the moment a rifle fired was a mixture of awe and hope and question. A hawk circling.

As I grew older and learned the craft I came to understand that a good rifle is your partner. It will do its part if you do yours. It begins to take a pickaxe to hope and question.

A fine rifle does even more. It brings certainty. Exactness. Leaving only the rifleman. That hawk circling becomes a predator, falling from the sky.

The awe, though, that ever remains.

As the sound of the shot recedes my mind is already grasping the story, transforming wonder into realization. The push against my shoulder had been gentle. A credit to the weight of the rifle and the muzzle brake and the round itself.

This rifle shoots softly. That will be important later.

Down at the target, the confidence I normally bring is tinged with the merest hint of uncertainty. I’m just starting the process of turning dials on the scope, sighting it in. I know where the 175gr Sierra Match King should have gone, however. And as the rifle comes out of recoil I’m gratified to find the hole exactly where I expect to see it.

The second shot is brother to the first, albeit my mind is now wrapped almost entirely around the trigger. If this rifle and I are to become what I hope, it must begin there.

The break… it’s not an Anschutz. But even as I think that, a small smile tugs at my lips.

This is a battle rifle. Comparing a match trigger to something intended for the inferno of warfare is unrealistic.

I’ve got some rifles that are better. And some that are worse. I say that with the admission that I don’t much suffer the fool of a lousy trigger.

I’m agnostic on the single-stage versus two-stage debate. I understand the rationale of a two-stage. I don’t find the first stage of that design particularly necessary – rather a solution looking hard for a problem – but then neither do I find it especially bothersome. That said, I’m not a combat infantryman worried about friendly fire. In my civilian world, if the break is good, all else is ephemera.

This Geisselle will be just fine.

Down at the target, the two shots are a quarter inch apart. No surprise. Already, that tiny edge of new-rifle uncertainty is departing. Already, this weapon is having expectation laid upon it, responsibilities to uphold.

Zero point three twelve. The proof target that came with the rifle had made me smile. Not that it mattered. It’s just a hasty, three-shot group that hopefully gives the customer some confidence, while also affirming Mark’s promise of sub-MOA accuracy. A true test of a rifle’s potential requires a great deal more exploration.

Still, you can’t not love a tidy little group like that.

Most of what goes into making it lives in the barrel, of course. And the barrel maker’s road is a hard one. A lot of science. A bit of art. And a touch of magic.

When Harry Pope crafted his legendary barrels a century ago he had the advantage of building them one at a time, by hand. Much of his brilliance lay in the willingness to apply arcane levels of attention to every detail. Even – especially – those hidden from the customer.

We’ve got world’s better machinery, steels, and technology today, of course. But I don’t want to even think about the engineering hoops that Mark Larue and other modern-day barrel makers have to jump through to deliver match barrels off a production line. If crafting a single, remarkable barrel by hand is a task that only a rare few ever mastered, doing so repeatedly, in quantity, is infinitely harder.

Magic, indeed.

 

*

 

“This province has raised 1000 riflemen, the worst of whom will put a ball into a man’s head at the distance of 150 or 200 yards, therefore advise your officers who shall hereafter come out to America to settle their affairs in England before their departure.” — Letter from a Philadelphia printer named Bradford, published in the August 1775 London Chronicle

 

Slowly descending the long dirt road, my eyes take in everything, wondering. Past the trap houses, it seems not much has changed. I nod unconsciously.

Used to be, this was my home away from home. I was here pretty much every weekend. If not for a match, then either practicing for one or testing handloads for one.

When we moved out in the country, and I could shoot in my own field, everything changed. It’s been awhile. But seemed like the thing to do.

Rounding the curve down at the bottom, the first question, the mild hope, answered: I’m alone.

Perfect.

I drive past the pistol sets and the fifty and hundred yard rifle lines. All the way to the end.

It takes another twenty minutes to gather my few things from the truck, retrieve a target frame from the shed, staple on a couple of paper targets, and walk them down to the hangers on the two-hundred yard line.

Walking back, seeing the black OBR resting on the bench, I feel the anticipation of old.

Lifting the rifle and turning the lever, I pull the the bipod off the forearm. This morning will be bags.

Sitting, waiting for my heart beat to slow, I pick up my hunting binoculars. Pointing the Geovid HD-B’s downrange, I dial in the focus, then hit the ranging button. Two-Hundred-Six.

Having long ago tested the Leica against a surveyors tape, I know how accurate it is. My mind runs through the math of the extra six yards. Not much, of course. But measurable. A little under half an inch.

I’ve yet to try either of the two Larue magazines that shipped with the rifle. And I don’t now. Picking up the partially-fired box of Federal cartridges, I press eight rounds into the PMAG.

Glancing to my left, along the whole length of the firing line, I confirm what I already know. “The line is hot,” I murmur out loud to myself. Then I pick up the rifle.

With the magazine well charged, I stroke the charging handle. The smooth, sliding metallic sound of it going into battery, heard through the electronic ear muffs, is lovely. Like the second button on that blouse. My heart picks up and I can’t help it.

The thing I love about rifles, perhaps the reason I am so drawn to them, is that they hold within them an innate gravitas. They are weapons, able to change the world – irretrievably, irrevocably – from a great distance. To smite thine enemies. To protect one’s friends. To put food on a family’s table. There is a somber power in that, a grave responsibility.

What other instrument in all the world grants such a god-like power?

Leaning forward, I pull the rifle into my shoulder. There’s no forward tension like when using the bipod. Now its just gently grasping the rifle, letting it ride softly in the bags.

Reaching down, I turn the elevation turret up ten clicks. Two and a half MOA. Bringing me more or less back on target from my hundred-yard zero.

At the scope, dialed all the way up, the target floats in my vision. It has the sensation of being both close and distant, all at the same time.

The first shot breaks and I hold, the rifle quickly coming out of recoil and the reticle settling back on target. I take a soft breath, then one more, and release the second shot.

The holes are where they should be, maybe two inches apart. Cold, wet bore. Warm, dry bore.

Reaching down again, I dial up another ten clicks. Normally I’d go twenty here, at this range. Five MOA. But the six rounds I’ve put through this rifle have already told me enough. Two and a half MOA is plenty.

Settling in, I fall into that place I love. The one where the world slips away, where the target has an uncommon clarity and the rifle disappears. Your mind wraps softly around the ballistics and the math but otherwise stays in that quiet place. You don’t feel the recoil. You almost don’t hear the shots.

Two shots. Reaching forward to the windage turret, I dial ten clicks left. Then three more, false clicks. Then three right, taking them back out.

Two shots. Now down ten clicks. Then three more down, false. Then backing the three out.

Two shots. And I’m done.

With eight shots out in less than two minutes, I’ve got some heat in the barrel. I debate whether to run a rod, working through the break-in I normally give to match barrels. For a battle rifle you normally wouldn’t. But then, battle rifles don’t usually shoot like this.

Peering through the spotting scope, I can see the first inklings. The first two-shot string is around MOA. The other three are each sub-MOA. Even twiddling scope dials in a box test. Even with a new rifle. Even with factory ammo.

They’re only two-shot strings, of course. But they’re going exactly where I expect them to. The first, overarching thing a good rifle has to do.

I had wondered about it. The formulas suggested that the 1/10 twist was a little too fast. Apparently, not so. I’d have loved to have been a fly on the wall down in Leander when that discussion was taking place. Whatever, they got it right. Proof, once again, that barrel making is more than the sum of its parts.

That’s what I have in mind as I bend once more to the rifle. I still have the one virgin, untouched target downrange. Time to get serious. But I already know how it will go. Touching the rifle, I already know.

Rarely have I been so smitten, so fast.

 

*

 

10 PM. Ginny is back. She’s gone on upstairs to bed. I sit for awhile longer, enjoying the dying day.

Thinking about the rifle – no longer sitting upon the kitchen table – I take a sip from the whiskey glass. The spirit slides down smooth, but with that burn that warms your insides. It goes well with the heat from the wood stove, the flames through the glass orange and friendly, just a few feet away. A nice way to tuck in the day.

Getting up, I go into the next room. Reaching to the bookshelf – I know exactly where it is – I gently pull the volume from the shelf. Carefully, for the top of the binding holds a layer of dust, I carry it back through the living room to the front door. The outside air is chill as I blow it into the night.

Mann and Pope, The Bullet’s Flight. The pages fall open to the center of the volume, to a folded sheet of yellow legal paper. Opening it brings a smile. It’s a handload recipe, for my old .243.

I fold the paper and carefully place it back where it was. It’s been there for thirty-one years. Seems like a good place for it to stay.

It reminds me that it’s all a journey. Learning the truths. Gaining the wisdom.

When once asked, many years ago, what I most admired in a man, I didn’t have to think long about it.

“The ability to hit with a rifle.”

That pegged me even then as something of a throwback. A man born out of time. Alas.

We once were a nation of riflemen.

Even as I shake my head at what has been lost, though, my mind turns to the rifle. The new one. The OBR.

Just thinking about it takes me away. To that lit, exciting place deep inside me where good rifles have always lived.

That the OBR even exists reminds me that there are a few left. A few who understand.

I will shoot it again tomorrow and just knowing that brings an exquisite joy.

 

 

 

obr4

obr5

obr7

obr8

Unix Magic

October 1st, 2014

The snow that began falling overnight is still coming down as dawn breaks. He makes the easy decision to wait a few hours before heading into work. The roads will be a mess and the kids will be staying home from school. He nods a grateful thanks that they still have power.

Having set the pot of coffee to brew in the kitchen, he sits at the desk in the den and boots the computer. Flipping the toggle switch to the second phone line, the one the company pays for, he listens impatiently to the modem dialing out. In a few moments he’s connected to the data center’s RAC server.

By the second login error message, he knows something is wrong. He tries a couple different servers, but already knows what he’s going to see. A sense of foreboding flashes through his mind and settles in his stomach.

“We’re having some comm problems,” the data center manager advises when he calls in on the first line. “Not sure when they’ll be fixed.”

He sends an email to his boss, telling him he’ll be a few hours late, and advising him of the remote access problems. A few minutes later he gets a terse “ok, see you when you get in.”

Around nine he heads out the door. The snow is still coming down, but only lightly. Taking a minute to lock the hubs on the 4-wheel-drive, he’s able to get down the quarter-mile-long driveway on the first attempt. Thankfully, there’s not much traffic and the main roads have been plowed. It only takes a little over an hour to get there. There aren’t many people in.

His boss is, though. He can tell instantly from the dark, worried look on his face that something is wrong. He doesn’t share what it is. “Just sit tight for awhile. Don’t log in to any of the systems. There are a couple folks who will be here shortly to discuss something.”

Walking to his desk, the earlier premonition that lay, untethered, in the pit of his stomach turns leaden. He’s pretty sure he knows what it is. His mind flashes through possibilities, outcomes. How he’ll have to play this. There are the binaries, of course, unintelligible without some pretty advanced decompiling and reverse engineering. There aren’t many people who can do that. And the source code is encrypted, sure. But he knows he’ll give the key. It could easily be brute-forced, anyway.

He thinks through the three different versions. How they might be interpreted.

And so it is. Towards noon the two-person Bell Labs security team from New Jersey arrives. A man and a woman. They are very polite, never once indicating irritation at having had to fly on such short notice and in such awful weather. Their interview with him, and the multi-page, handwritten affidavit, takes a couple hours. Midway through, he gives them the key.

“baseball.”

The programming is at a deeper level than they understand. Twice they pause to call a senior security colleague, a systems programmer, back in New Jersey. Opening the files in his lab, the senior security fellow corroborates what he tells them, what the programs do. The systems programmer confirms his explanations of the subtle differences between the three versions.

Towards the end, having finally convinced themselves that the twenty-odd computers managing the U.S. government’s primary communications network have not been fatally compromised, the security duo probes one last time into why he had done what he had done. Why he had written the programs that allowed him to become root, at will, on all those systems.

“Look at the timestamp of the binaries,” he said. “Those setuid executables have been sitting out there, on all those servers, for over a year.”

“What kind of competent data center would ever go that long and not discover that sort of thing?”

*

Prologue: a few years earlier, in May 1987, Borland released, to much anticipation, its first C compiler. He had never been, before or since, as excited about a technology product. He was fortunate in having a suite of Unix systems available at work, each with their own C compiler. But at home, on his own PC, he was reduced to building programs with Pascal, or the one emasculated version of C for which a compiler was in the public domain. He couldn’t afford the Microsoft or IBM C compilers.

With the newfound software in hand, he put aside the other languages he had been working with. Lisp, Prolog, Pascal, Basic and the rest no longer held any appeal. C did everything he wanted.

He didn’t fully appreciate it at the time. As the primary systems administrator manning the Unix systems at the underground, originally-designed-to-withstand-nuclear-attack facility – from which one of the U.S. government’s defense communications networks was run – he enjoyed significant discretion on how he managed those systems. On how he spent his time.

He spent hours studying Unix and C. The internals of the operating system fascinated him. And it was systems programming that most intrigued him. He loved peering into that murky, little-known area where hardware and operating system came together. There was a pristine elegance to how it all worked. And C was his flashlight.

Little wonder then, given his frequent need to become root to manage some task or other, and his intellectual deep dive into the bowels of the operating system, that he would identify a couple of interesting, obscure system calls. That he would end up creating a couple of tiny programs, binary executables that dispensed with having to know or type in the root password. That instantly gave him that privilege with just a couple of quick keystrokes.

*

Originally just an intellectual exercise, an exploration into how the operating system could be programmed, those programs quickly became a convenience. He used them many times, every day. He found being able to become root in a literal second – and just as quickly to dismiss the privilege – a delightful benefit.

Fast forward a couple years and he has been promoted and is working at a different facility, now on the U.S. government’s largest telecom network. Serious business. And work that he loves, supporting the application software that runs that network.

The only downside is that the folks who run the data center and manage the servers – a different group altogether – are only marginally competent. Depending upon who answers the phone, you might get what you need, or you might not.

It doesn’t take long. A few frustrating vignettes. A few failures to get what is needed. A few times where the urgency to fix some problem or address some issue just isn’t there.

He can fix this.

A couple of quick compiles to create the binaries. A tiny shell script, a simple wrapper which the data center staff don’t understand – a hint of the problem – but dutifully execute when he calls. Setuid. Done.

Only much later, after the security team has gone home and he’s been told not to come in the next day while they hold the big meeting to discuss what happened and whether he should be fired or not, does he hear all the details.

How through simple happenstance one of the System Administrators saw the odd program running the evening before. How the mystery of what the program did was amplified by the knowledge that it shouldn’t be there. How the initial concern turned to panic when they discovered the same program living on all the systems. How that fear quickly permeated to the highest levels of the company.

Deep down he knows, he knew from the beginning, that doing what he did was wrong. There was always a tiny edge of misgiving every time he typed those two simple letters. But in his wildest dreams he never imagined the furor the programs would come to cause.

He’ll take with him the lesson that just because something is well intentioned, is intended solely for good purposes, doesn’t make it the right thing to do. He’ll never again take for granted the interpretation of what he does.

He’ll be forever grateful to his boss. It was a close run thing and he made the difference.

Mostly, he is disappointed. Disappointed that people he worked with every day could be so wrong about character. That they would so quickly transmogrify their own failings into such righteous indignation. That they would urge so stridently to have him fired. There’s a lesson there, too.

He takes the high road, putting aside the disappointments, assimilating the lessons, and moving on. Except for the one thing. The one, quiet reproach he allows himself. The single, soft rejoinder. The vanity tag for his truck that comes a few weeks later.

UNIX MGC.

Almost Flying

August 26th, 2014

“I want you to go home feeling like you’ve just been thrown out of a very tall building and just realized you could almost fly and you will make it to the ground safely but shaken.” -Sara Lando, August 2014

And so began our introduction to what surely will go down as my own personal highlight of the summer. Shaken, not stirred.

I almost didn’t go. I’m not a studio photographer, after all. I own several speedlights and a few pocket wizards. I know what the Inverse Square Law means. I can hook up a light stand. And I have a vague notion of how an umbrella might be used to give a Rembrandt look. But beyond those mean basics, I’m pretty lost when it comes to off-camera, manual, artificial lighting.

Truth be known, I’m one of those guys David Hobby once famously referred to, when they averred a purist preference for natural light, as really being scared shitless.

Thing is, though, I’ve had a glimpse through the door.

You can’t read Gregory Heisler’s book and not be blown away by what is possible with a strobe. You can’t read Zack Arias’ brutally honest book and not understand the degree of commitment that crafting – as opposed to simply finding – extraordinary imagery takes. You can’t walk David Hobby’s yellow brick road on strobist.com – surely one of the more selfless acts in modern photography – and not come away with the realization that amazing photography, constructed, not found, is but an idea away.

I first heard of Sara Lando – a commercial and portrait photographer from Italy – through her work as an instructor at Gulf Photo Plus. Social media is a wonderful thing.

But it was her blog that really gave me the insight that here, truly, was a remarkable woman. A photographer who, early on, threw away the rule book. I like ballsy people.

Alas, Dubai is a stretch.

A summer tour to the States, though? To Baltimore no less? That works.

And so it was. A day of flying, trying not to crash.

My comfort zone is the found photograph. Working the edges with an unobtrusive Leica. One shot, quiet, move on. I tend towards reflection and introspection.

Sara, more than anything else, dumped me out of that comfort zone. She insisted on shaking things up. It was a nervous, anxious, exhausting day. Easily the hardest day of photography I’ve ever had. But one I won’t soon forget.

I loved working with real, professional models. Self-conscious that they might see through me, that I didn’t have a clue?

You bet.

But working with people who, beyond being simply comfortable in front of a camera, also bring their own creativity in collaborating with a photographer in creating a beautiful or impactful image… was a revelation.

I want to do more of that.

Working with my partner-for-the-day, Mai, was an inspiration. How often do you get to work with someone who has set aside their career as an attorney in order to pursue photography full time? Talk about ballsy!

And the public critiques of our two assignments – the core of much of our anxiety during the day – was profoundly helpful. One of the things I love about Sara is that she is bluntly honest. She was respectful, but quickly homed in on what worked and what didn’t. I was amazed at how quickly she sees imagery. Of the nuances she recognizes. The couple hours we spent doing that were incredibly insightful.

The best part, though, was watching Sara, herself, work. How she built her sets. How she worked with her models. How she charged the whole scene with her personal energy. Seeing how she took an idea, a vision, and translated that into an image that took your breath away.

It truly was an amazing experience.

Elegance

Interlude

Dreaming

Leica Store DC 2014 Print Exhibition

June 3rd, 2014

So, in Mid-March the Leica Store DC announced a national call for entries for its Spring 2014 print exhibition. The theme was ‘Beauty’ and it would be juried by Mark Godfrey, freelance photojournalist and former Magnum photographer; Nik Apostolides, Associate Director of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery; and Philippa Hughes, Chief Creative Contrarian of the Pink Line Project. Photographers were invited to submit up to three digital images, with the jury then selecting those it wished to see actual prints of. Once photographers had provided those prints, a second round of judging selected those images which would be displayed in the exhibit.

I originally demurred. I don’t shoot much landscape or other work that might conventionally be considered ‘pretty.’ But the more I thought about it, the more it occurred to me that the term ‘Beauty’ is really pretty malleable. What the hey.

What the hey, indeed. I was pleased that two of my images made it past the first round. After making 16×20 prints and getting those to the store, I was even more pleased a couple weeks later to find that both were selected to hang in the exhibit.

Congratulations to Kenneth Reitz for winning the overall Juror’s Award. And congratulations to Gediyon Kifle and Steven Poster for their Honorable Mentions.

Eternal Love

Brooklyn Bridge in the Rain

A Long Meander: Of New Guns, Pistolcraft, and the Art of Knowing Oneself

October 6th, 2013

The slanting, late afternoon sun lends a quickness to the scene, the light casting harsh, contrasty shadows. But it doesn’t matter. The small tin can placed on the ground twenty yards away is mostly a formality. On reassembling the weapon an hour ago after its first field strip, I had been surprised at how heavy the recoil spring was, requiring not a little care to get it pressed in place under the barrel bushing. How tight, in fact, everything was. The goal right now is just to get some rounds through it. To begin wearing off some of that tightness. To start to cleave through to what I suspect lies underneath.

The first, virgin, shot breaks sooner than I expect. So cleanly it surprises me. A smile spreads across my face.

The second shot is the same, only now I know when it’s going to happen. A second hole appears in the can.

By the time the slide locks back another six shots later I’m trying to think back across a lifetime of guns. Maybe the Sig 9mm, twenty-five years ago. That one had the same uncanny feeling about it. Standing there next to the picnic table, informally plinking at a tin can lying on the ground in bad light, accuracy testing the thing is the furthest thing from my mind. But the feeling is inescapable. Eight hits out of eight shots, even under the coarsest of expectations, slowly begins to count for something.

I hadn’t meant all this. Wandering into the gun shop on Saturday I was mostly just looking. Idly considering a shotgun. A 12-gauge coach gun. Something I’ve wanted for a while and will eventually have. Wandering past the long glass case of handguns I had glanced over and there it was. The dark pistol right on the end.

I continued walking past, back into the adjoining room with the ammo and holsters and magazines and targets and cleaning supplies. And after perusing those for a bit I wandered back to where the guns were and quickly located the shotgun on the wall. Short, stubby barrels. Double hammers. Nice figure in the wood.

While still deliberating on the cost, whether I wanted to drop four C-notes today, plus a bit more for 12-gauge shells, I turned back to the long glass display case. There were probably a hundred nice handguns arranged in neat, orderly rows, like soldiers. Glocks, S&W’s, H-K’s, Rugers, Springfields, Sigs. They even had the Glock 36, a gun that has been on my mind for a couple of years.

But those held no interest for me that day. What my eyes instantly went to was that dark pistol down on the end.

A dark, bob-tailed, Commander-sized 1911. .45acp. I stared at it.

“Can I help you?” the fellow behind the counter said.

I paused for a moment before lifting my gaze from the pistol. “No, thanks. Just looking,” I said.

And I walked out.

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My personal familiarity with Dan Wesson pistols is zilch. Back in the eighties, when I was shooting IHMSA matches, they were the go-to revolver of all the serious shooters. With two small kids at home I couldn’t afford one. Not even close. I made do with a .44 magnum Ruger Redhawk. Every tortuously-squeezed spare dollar I could find went to bullets, primers, and powder.

I’m well aware, of course, that the Dan Wesson company of today is very different from its illustrious predecessor, focusing now on combat pistols rather than the revolvers of old. But its legendary performance still precedes it.

Or so I’ve heard.

Driving home in the truck, my mind is still thinking about the pistol. I’ve got three 1911’s at home. But they are weapons I rarely use any more, having, like so many others, long ago fallen to the siren song of polymer.

Still, there’s an undeniable fondness for those old steel, slab-sided icons. That .45 Combat Commander was only the third handgun I ever bought. Coming on the heels of the .38 snubnose and the Walther .380, it was – first and foremost – a serious caliber. Which made it a serious weapon.

I can remember the morning I brought it home. And the first rounds I cycled through it. You shoot those big, fat, heavy slugs – the antithesis of modern handgun terminal ballistic design – and suddenly you just know.

Years later I bought an Officer’s Model. Smaller than the Commander, but in the same potent caliber. That became my carry weapon, the silent heft in the small of my back, for the better part of a decade.

Back in the early nineties, when Virginia, like many states, finally got around to amending its concealed carry law, I carried that Officer’s Model with me when I went to qualify. I remember being called to the front of the classroom before we went out on the range. Out of the dozen or so of us taking the test, I was both the only one using a single-action semi-automatic and the only one shooting a .45. Since the qualification involved a number of timed, draw-and-fire tests, the range officer was concerned about potential safety issues of an inexperienced shooter drawing from condition one. I assured him I was most comfortable with the weapon. After shooting the high score in my group, just a couple points shy of perfect, they were happy to let me run the qualification again when the second group went through, to see if I could hit 100.

The Sig P226 which I had brought along – the pistol I shot best and which I had debated using that day – stayed in my bag.

My 1911’s were – are – all pedestrian. I later had custom iron sights installed on the Commander, but otherwise that and the Officer’s Model and the Government Model I later added were all stock guns. No porting. No polishing. No tuned triggers. None of the stuff that Mel Tappan and Jeff Cooper and Massad Ayoob wrote about needing in order to turn the .45 into a combat-ready platform. I didn’t know any custom gunsmiths. And I couldn’t have afforded one even if I did.

So I either carried 185 gr. Silvertips, which fed reliably in my guns. Or else 230 gr. hardball.

I always regretted not being able to carry the Speer 200 gr. “flying ashtray,” a round that was rather something of a legend back in the day. But the great thing about the .45 – more so back in the nascent days of modern bullet technology, than today – is that the caliber doesn’t depend upon bullet expansion to be effective. Its natural width provides the basis for its capability. And so although I was wistful for that mystical CCI/Speer Lawman load, I was perfectly okay with carrying ball. That’s what I did for years.

And then came Glock.

I’m not here to disparage Glock. Or any of the other modern, polymer-based handguns. They are fine weapons. They are usually reliable as a rock right out of the box. They feed just about anything. They’re a bit less fastidious about care and cleaning, given their plastic exteriors. They’re a song to field strip. They require minimal maintenance. They’re usually lighter. And they just, simply, shoot well.

There’s a reason why virtually all police departments, SWAT teams, and military units have adopted them, without looking back.

I bought my first Glock because of its diminutive size. And although the 9mm was never a round I much liked – until relatively recently there were no bullet designs and little evidence in support of the round as an effective combat cartridge; and yet reams of data suggesting otherwise – I was quite taken by the idea of being able to carry ten rounds in such a small package. The siren song of firepower. It shot great, to boot.

That was the gun that went with me in the mid-nineties on my first, solo, cross-country motorcycle trip. It was an unquestioned comfort during a couple of slightly tense moments during that trip.

But it was the Glock .45’s – first the compact model 30, then later the full-size model 21 – that really sent me down the rabbit hole. All of a sudden I had my long-favored caliber back, along with all the other practical advantages that the Glock offered. More than anything, the ability to carry high round counts of such a lethal caliber seemed like the holy grail.

And so it was. For a long time.

Funny thing about that time thing, though. Like bending a prism a few degrees, so that the light changes, time likewise tends to slowly shift our perspectives on things. Maybe it’s the long wear of experience. Or just the slow accreting of wisdom. Whatever.

The last two guns I bought have been revolvers. A platform that has been marginalized in the combat world for a couple of decades now. A rational man might ask why I – a man who takes this stuff pretty seriously – would do that. Why would I go there?

I don’t have an easy answer. Only a few observations.

The first, and certainly the most important, was that I wasn’t carrying as often. The Glock, for all its many virtues, is a thick gun. Which means you either end up going to an outside-the-waistband holster, or you endure this brick in your side. I’ve gone through too many top-of-the-line IWB holsters trying to find the magic solution that will attenuate that thickness. I’ve slowly come to the conclusion that, for me, it doesn’t exist.

There are both legal and tactical implications to not paying attention to that first word in concealed carry. And that’s much of why I don’t like OWB holsters for that mission.

A carry gun might be the best weapon in the world, full of magic juju. But if you don’t actually carry it, it might as well be a stamp collection.

The second thing, related to the first, is that the gun I increasingly found myself carrying, when I did carry, was a S&W J-frame, .38 Special – simply shoved in my pocket. When I packed my Harley for a week-long trip earlier this summer my compact Glock .45 was tucked away in my bedroll. But only the small Smith was instantly reachable. Talk about going back to your roots.

The third, and last, thing was a growing disenchantment with the firepower-is-everything – at least as defined by magazine capacity – ethos that has seemed to capture the imaginations of our little fraternity over the last decade or so.

I have always put great stock in marksmanship. In making every shot count. For twenty years the rifle I took in the deer woods every November was a Ruger .270 No. 1 single shot.

Having lots of rounds at your instant disposal can seem seductive at first. One begins to imagine all sorts of scenarios where those rounds might make a difference. After a while, you begin to convince yourself that that 16-round magazine – with a spare 16 on your belt – are absolutely necessary.

And, yet, outside of a military context, the history of gunfighting would suggest otherwise. Zombies, indeed.

There’s something about the mindset we bring, as well. Wyatt Earp was famous for his dictum to be mentally unhurried, to bring one’s arm to bear swiftly, but without the panicked urgency that naturally attends bullets heading in your direction.

Most of us, thankfully, have never been to that dark side. Most of us, hopefully, never will. And yet the object of our intent is to be ready for that black moment, should it ever come.

For me, I’ve increasingly come back to the thinking that informed my earlier days in weaponcraft. That sometimes less is more. That I don’t need sixteen, or thirteen, or even ten rounds at my disposal. That a handful, used well, will do what’s needed. That if I don’t make those first half-dozen count, an infinite number beyond that are unlikely to make a difference.

The one time in my life I’ve ever brought a firearm to bear on another human being – the sight picture still etched into my brain, as clear as if it were yesterday, all these years later – I had but six rounds of .38 Special at my call. Far from feeling undergunned on that fearsome, long-ago night, I remember feeling an enormous comfort, that whatever was going to go down, it was going to be I who dictated the outcome, not the other way around.

We live in a world where the vast majority of people have ceded their safety to others. They’ve placed their lives, and the lives of their families, wholly in the hands of the earnest, dutiful, brave, professional – yet underpaid and, inevitably, distant – young kid on the other side of a 911 call.

For those of us with a different worldview, matters of this sort bring a special gravity, something not to be taken lightly. We have no way of knowing how the choices we make today will influence events somewhere in the future. What we do know is that it is all on the line. That the game is table stakes and all our chips are pushed to the center.

First thing Monday I was back at the gun shop. “Can I take a look at the Dan Wesson?” I asked, nodding at the black-finished V-Bob still resting there on the end.

It was a handsome gun. One that came easily to hand. But holding it was like grasping a pack of needles, the G10 grips and fine-cut checkering on the front and back straps finding quick purchase in the flesh of your hand. My first thought was that it wouldn’t slip even if your hands were slick with blood.

I turned the weapon in my hands, slowly studying the purposefulness that seemed engraved in its soul.

“Let’s do it,” I said.

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Summer Road Trip

August 11th, 2013

I can’t believe it. For the second time today I’m running low on gas, with no idea where exactly I am or when I might find more. Not lost exactly – I’ve got a road atlas in my saddlebag and could easily spend a few minutes figuring that out. No, dead reckoning, and the sheer remoteness of this little county road I’m on tells me everything I need to know.

It wasn’t for lack of trying. I could blame the close call this morning on a deliberate roll of the dice. After a beautiful ride down eastern Kentucky’s rt. 23 – a lovely road which numerous signs informed me was the Country Music Highway – my decision to exit westward on rt. 119 towards Harlan and Pineville was borne out of simple curiosity. A curiosity that began to be edged with something else as the second mountain rolled out behind me and still no gas.

No worries. Pineville arrived soon enough.

Curiosity fulfilled, rt. 25E brought me back south through Cumberland Gap. And it was around there, having on a hunch punched the address in the Zumo, that I decided Maggie Valley was doable.

At Newport I had pulled into the gas station just in time to hear the irritated woman at the next island over, having just returned to her car from inside the store, grousing to her companion. “Now I’ll have to go all the way to… whatever the name was.”

Two minutes later, as I squinted at the opaque LCD screen on the pump display, looking in vain for any signs of life from my inserted credit card, I understood why.

A couple of blocks later the little town petered out, with no more options for gas. Right about the place that the turnoff for I40 greeted me – a summons I ignored. And also right about the place that the flashing sign on the side of the road said something about 25E being closed somewhere up ahead. A sign which I also ignored.

I remember thinking rt. 25E is a reasonably major route. They couldn’t just shut it. How bad could a detour be?

Now, with half the hundred miles I had left in the tank gone and this itty bitty county road as my sole companion, I’m finding out.

The Zumo, unaware that rt. 25E is closed, of course, is nattering at me to turn around. I amuse myself by cycling between the decreasing miles of fuel left on the Harley display and the increasing time of arrival displayed on the GPS, a couple of data points that confirm I’m still heading in the wrong direction. It’s a bit of affirmation I don’t really need. The descending sun, aft of my left shoulder, says enough.

Rt. 25E Detour

It’s somewhere in there, mixed with the edginess of being out in the middle of nowhere and not knowing how long this detour will last and wondering whether I’ll find gas before the tank runs dry, that I remember.

Why I’m here. Why I do this.

Riding alone is a very different experience from the trips we make with friends. Most people don’t like it. Most people don’t like that edginess that the circumstances of being solo often brings. Most people, if they’re honest, are actually a little bit afraid of it. Hell, even Captain America had Billy.

What you do get, if you can abide it, is a sense of quiet satisfaction. A deeply-felt joy at profound wonders. And a reflective, introspective conversation with yourself about what is important in this world.

Maybe running out of gas is a small price to pay for that.

Jeff at Deals Gap1

Jeff at Deals Gap2

Deals Gap Overlook

Days later, after having experienced hundreds of miles of terrific roads in Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina; the Midland Trail, diagonally bisecting West Virginia, a section of road I was last on thirty-six years ago, struggling up the mountains in an old six-cylinder, three-speed-on-the-column, Dodge telephone truck; Deals Gap, where I almost got a ticket, and the Cherohala; good food, cold beer, and excellent whiskey; a good book; sun and rain, including a drenching sans rain suit coming back over the mountain into Maggie’s Valley – a bet that I lost; good people, everywhere; and yet again almost running out of gas – one last bit of serendipity remained.

Studying the map looking for a route back north, I wanted to avoid the touristy mess to the west that was the Smoky Mountains National Park. At the same time I wanted to stay clear of the rush hour mess just to the east in Asheville. A little north-south squiggle marked “209″ seemed to split the difference.

Thirty minutes later, on a perfect, softly overcast morning, two signs within a half-mile of each other greeted me: one warning truckers of the road ahead; and one advising that the road ahead was named The Rattler.

Rt. 209 – The Rattler – is fabulous! Tight and more technical than Deals Gap, it was utterly devoid of traffic. What a wonderful road! On the far end, as if coming down from a high, its spirals slowly lengthened into longer coils. I passed through Luck. And then Trust. And, finally, Hurricane.

Good bye, North Carolina. Hello, again, Tennessee.

At Big Stone Gap the dining room of the hotel was named Trail of the Lonesome Pine. It seems the author of the novel by that name was from there, a long time ago. It was a bestseller in 1908. The night before I headed for home I made a visit to Amazon and downloaded it to my iPad. I’ll read it before my next trip back, next summer.

I already told the girl at the front desk I’ll be back.

The Rattler

Luck

A Road Trip

The Most Expensive Motorcycle Accessory Ever…

July 21st, 2013

I have a quarter-mile-long gravel driveway. Gravel driveways can be a bit of a pain. Weather, and simply driving upon them, will cause them to deteriorate over time. Gravel is lost to compaction and erosion. A grassy center crown slowly develops, and its height increases over time. Ruts and potholes will develop. And if you have vehicles with poor suspension, washboarding can develop. The runoff from a hard thunderstorm can instantly create interesting situations.

Every other year or so I’ve had to bring in a couple of dump truck loads of fresh gravel. That’s not cheap. Two truck loads of crusher run is about $700, delivered.

And about once every five years I’ve had to have a heavy equipment operator come in and re-grade the driveway.

In the interim, Ginny and I would putz around with a shovel, trying with little success to fix the inevitable potholes and such. If you’ve ever used hand tools around compacted gravel, you know how nearly pointless that exercise is.

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The very end of my driveway descends about a 75-foot slope to where it meets the public road. That part of the driveway is paved. The last time I had gravel brought in, the idiot truck driver began his dump on that paved section. You want macadam. Or you want gravel. You rarely want both together. Sure enough, over time all the gravel on the paved section washed down to the very end, creating my “big” problem.

big problem 01

You can’t see it real well in the picture above, but the depth of that gravel runs from about 4″ on the upper end to about 8″ where it actually meets the road. It makes every motorcycle trip quite an adventure, just exiting or entering the driveway!

big problem 02

That’s the big problem. The “little” problem is simply the normal wear and erosion that takes place – the well-developed crown in the center (which makes getting a mower down the driveway difficult in the summer; or a snow blade in the winter), several ruts and potholes, etc.

little problem 01

little problem 02

little problem 03

The last picture above gives a sense for the difference in depth between the center crown and the travelled portion of the driveway. That’s the center crown on the left. Probably 4″ on average. A very low clearance vehicle, like my Civic Hybrid, will drag on that center.

At this point I’d normally fix the “little” problem by having the driveway re-graded, and then fresh gravel put down. It’s due.

I suppose the “big” problem, the gravel at the bottom, could be addressed with a shovel and a wheelbarrow. But I’ve been putting off that rather heroic effort. My philosophy has pretty much been that any day that’s good enough for shoveling is day I ought to be out riding!

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I finally decided to hell with it all. Life’s too short to deal with such aggravations! And, so, my solution…..

tractor 01

That’s a new Kubota B3300SU with front-end loader and grading scraper on the 3-point hitch.

tractor 02

tractor 03

tractor 04

Proud papa!

proud papa

The first thing I worked on was re-grading the driveway. The Land Pride 60″ Grading Scraper made short work of that. A couple hours of seat time and my driveway was flat, dressed, and all the low spots were gone. The grading scraper also pulled up and redistributed a lot of gravel that was buried or lost to use in the center. Beautiful!

little problem fixed 01

little problem fixed 02

little problem fixed 03

The next morning I tackled the bigger problem. I was a little nervous about that, given that whereas the grading scraper is a very simple implement – at its most basic, you simply drag it behind the tractor – the gravel at the bottom would require working with the front-end loader.

I needn’t have worried. I got the hang of it pretty quick. What did surprise me was the sheer quantity of gravel that I had to pick up and then redistribute up along the upper parts of my driveway. Literally yards of the stuff. After spending three hours working with the front-end loader (and, periodically, again with the grading scraper – leveling out the gravel I was redistributing), I had to laugh at the notion I could ever have done it with a shovel and wheelbarrow.

big problem fixed

neighbor’s problem

The picture above shows the bottom of my neighbors’ driveway (shared by four families which doesn’t help when it comes to decisions regarding maintenance, I’m sure), where it adjoins mine. They have the same runoff-and-collection problem – only much worse even than mine was. We’ll see if they want me to help work on that.

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To say I am pleased would be a vast understatement. To paraphrase a famous line, “I love the smell of diesel in the morning!”

Craig Semetko Lecture and Exhibition

November 19th, 2012

I love many genres of photography, but of them all my favorite is street photography. A year or so ago I bought a monograph from a new artist in that area, “Unposed,” by Craig Semetko. I very much enjoyed his unique street shooting style. Fast forward to September of this year and Eric Oberg, the general manager of the Washington DC Leica Store, mentioned that Craig would be the next artist (following Jacob Sobol) to be exhibited in the store. I was delighted. And so it was that Craig opened his exhibition with a couple of lectures during the annual FotoWeek DC. Here are a few images from that opening (along with a handful of miscellaneous street shots taken during the dinner break).

Craig Semetko Gallery Opening

Craig Semetko

New York City

November 4th, 2012

A post in tribute to my favorite town, as it goes through some difficult times. I’ve only been to NYC twice, but absolutely love the place. My best wishes to everyone up there.

This image was from my first trip back in 2010. The vantage point was classic, but I had to return three times until the light (and a bit of meterological serendipity) was something close to what I wanted.

© 2010 Jeff Hughes. New York City

New York City

The Romance of Nighttime Light

October 26th, 2012

During the winter of 2002 I was unemployed and spent a lot of time wandering around with my Leica M6 and a handful of Tri-X stuffed in my pocket.  One late February night was memorable because of its unseasonable warmth – it felt almost balmy.  Driving my pickup into downtown DC that night, I wandered around The Mall for a few hours.  I remember crouching down along the wall of the Vietnam Memorial for one shot, pointing back towards the only source of light in the scene – the Washington Monument.  Too dark to see the controls of my camera, I judged shutter speed by the unique sound Leica film cameras make as you drop south of 1/30 sec.  Less even than that, at 1/15 or 1/8 sec I understood the challenge.  Like a sniper working on a thousand-meter shot, I triggered several very careful, very slow frames.

Sometimes we’re rewarded with a bit of luck.  That image – a 16×20 – now hangs in my office.

Now, of course, with digital – and especially with the Monochrom – much higher iso’s make those low light challenges seem a bit quaint.  But what hasn’t changed is the luminescent quality that point-light scenes at night often offer.  It’s one of the things I most love about available light, nighttime photography.

© 2012 Jeff Hughes

Lincoln Memorial