Archive for October, 2014

Musings on the OBR

Tuesday, 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

Wednesday, 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.