Archive for the ‘Guns & Hunting’ Category

Loading the Berger 115 gr. FB HP

Tuesday, January 12th, 2021

I confess that when I began my journey with the .300 Blackout a few months ago I held a very narrow view of the cartridge.  Like many on the outside, I considered it to be a very effective short-range military/tactical/self-defense round.  One most prized for its heavy-bullet-at-subsonic-speed proficiency. 

The whisper in its predecessor’s name gave a clue.

Now, having spent at least a little time on the inside, I see a much different world.  The “little round that could” is actually quite astonishing in what it can do.  Or, let me turn that around… when I survey the landscape of things I might ever want a centerfire rifle to do, there’s not much I wouldn’t put on the back of the .300 AAC Blackout and not feel entirely confident about.

Among other things, my explorations of the Barnes 110 and 120 gr. TAC-TX bullets, some of which I’ve posted here, gave tantalizing hints at the accuracy potential buried deep in the round’s DNA.  That led me to wondering what an actual target bullet might do (albeit, from a hunting rifle platform, not a true target gun).

The Berger 115 gr. Flat Base Target bullets showed up a couple days ago.  Yes, it’s a hollow point design… but that’s for weight distribution along the projectile’s length, not for expansion in tissue.  If you’re going to shoot animals with it, shoot ‘em in the eye.

I have load manuals, from different sources, going back decades.  But never having shot a Berger bullet before, I don’t have a Berger manual.  Probably wouldn’t make any difference, anyway, as I don’t believe they have any .300 Blackout data in their manual.  And there’s none online at their website.

So I dropped a little note to Berger, telling them I had some ideas, but that I had their bullets on the way and would be happy to entertain any data they might have available.  A nice gentleman got back to me and said he’d pass along my request to their load development team, but that it would probably be two to four weeks before I heard anything.  My guess is they’ll confirm “sorry, ain’t got any.”

No worries.  The two Barnes bullets with which I’ve been playing are all-copper designs, a pretty big caveat.  But they bracket the Berger, weight-wise.  And the Sierra 125 gr. MatchKing is close by, as well.

Running some models in Quickload, and having already calibrated that software to the present lot of powder I’m using, I determine to go pretty quickly to the edge, rather than the more measured, slow walk that we usually employ.

The Berger is a short, little pill.  And the .300 Blackout has an abbreviated case neck.  So seating depth becomes the first question, one upon which everything else hinges.

Measuring five samples of the 115 gr. bullet, I find they’re reasonably close to the nominal length of 0.940” that Berger specs.  The longest sample is 0.944”… and that’s what I plug into Quickload.  (Quickload’s database is correct with respect to the Berger, but it is frequently wrong regarding bullet length.   And because bullet length directly affects seating depth, and because that affects pressure, it’s critical to get it right).

Dispensing successive powder charges of 20.0, 21.0, and 22.0 grains of W296 into a fired case, then dropping a Berger into the neck until it rests on that powder, I measure the prospective overall cartridge lengths.  What I’m assessing is how much of the bullet’s shank – the actual bearing surface – is held under neck tension, at 100% load density.

21.0 grains of W296 comes in at a 2.099” OAL – call it 2.1.  Quickload tells me the pressure with that load and that COAL would be just over 53,000 psi.  Pretty close to SAAMI max.  And looking at it, I decide I don’t want any less than that being held within the case neck.  So 2.100” becomes the farthest-out COAL I’ll go.  And, having said that, I wouldn’t mind having more of the bullet in the case neck.

Berger may not have any load data.  But Nosler does.  Nosler’s 110 gr. Varmageddon is a conventional flat-base, lead-core design, like the Berger.  Nosler shows a COAL for their bullet of 2.025.”  I don’t have a sample of the Nosler on hand to measure, but the Quickload database shows the Varmageddon at 0.920… 0.020 shorter than the Berger.  The Berger would run much higher pressures at a 2.025 COAL, versus my tentative 2.100, of course.  But maybe split the difference?  Add the 0.020 extra length of the Berger to Nosler’s seating depth / COAL and use 2.045” as my COAL?

Modeling that (2.045 COAL) in Quickload shows 20.0/W296 at just over 100% load density, with pressure 500 psi over SAAMI maximum.  Okay, so this is very nearly as far as I want to go.

I’ll stop here and observe that the reason I have honed in on load density is because more often than not that’s where we’re going to find best results.  Sure, we’ve all experienced the surprise of a nice load appearing on the lower part of our start-low-and-work-up-slowly ladder (which usually equate to lower charge densities).  And we’ve seen examples where a rifle demands max or higher-than-max pressures before it will perform (which usually equate to compressed charge densities).  But a good general rule of thumb, for most rifles, is that their sweet spot is most likely to be found somewhere not too far from that 100% load density threshold. 

That said, there’s no free lunch.  Seating your bullet deeper so as to maintain a high charge weight density means retreating from the lands in your bore.  The exact opposite of what you usually want to do.

All of which is to say… it’s complicated.  Some parts of this fascinating endeavor are a zero-sum game.  You optimize one aspect, at the cost of another.

The one thing that is not unclear with this little project of mine is that caution is needed.  Nosler shows 19.5/W296 as their maximum load.  And I’ll be driving a slightly heavier bullet, at charge weights a fair bit beyond what the Nosler ballisticians ran their’s.

The real question is… how comfortable am I with Quickload’s modelling?  For sure, this is the kind of load development I never would have done before the advent of that software and an accurate chronograph with which to validate it.

To “stack the tolerances” in my favor just a bit, I do two things.  I change my case capacity spec from 25.1 gr (the most recent sampling of Norma brass I’ve done) to a slightly more conservative 24.8 gr.  That means Quickload will show pressure, earlier.   And I add just a smidge more case capacity by extending my COAL to 2.050.

Satisfied with the models I show with those changes, I load fifteen rounds, three rounds each, in 0.2 gr increments, from 19.4 to 20.2 grains of W296.  Quickload predictions are:

  • 19.4 = 51,300 psi / 2334 fps @ 98.5% load density
  • 19.6 = 53,091 psi / 2358 fps @ 99.6% load density
  • 19.8 = 54,951 psi / 2382 fps @ 100.6% load density
  • 20.0 = 56,884 psi / 2406 fps @ 101.6% load density
  • 20.2 = 58,892 psi / 2430 fps @ 102.6% load density

And so off to the races…

  • Berger 115 gr. Flat Base Target bullet (SKU #30421)
  • Norma Brass (previously-fired once)
  • Federal Small Rifle primer
  • Winchester 296
  • Ruger American Ranch rifle (16” barrel).
  • 50 Yards
  • LabRadar Chronograph

Actual, versus predicted:

One more reminder, especially when playing with max and over-max loads… we tend to look at actual results such as I’ve posted above and see them as precise.  They’re not.  They’re averages.  There will be excursions both higher and lower.

No, I would not recommend this approach to handloading.  But, yes, I did some fool things as a kid.  And I’m apparently still doing them.

I do very much like this bullet and am looking forward to working more with it.

.300 Blackout – A Tale of Ten Loads

Sunday, October 11th, 2020

You watch the videos with a kind of morbid fascination.  A city at night, lit by splashes of light.  Shouts and screams and movement and anger and chaos.  Fire around the edges.

The Kid is unwise is so many ways.  And yet it’s undeniable that when the matter is finally, irrevocably joined, he and his weapon rule the darkness, imposing a sudden, implacable justice upon the mob that sought to devour him.

Those of us who routinely carry weapons against the evil of this world inevitably look to the pistol.  A weapon compelling because of its size.  It’s small enough and portable enough that the burden of carrying it is judged acceptable.

Alas, its virtues end there.  Gunfights involving it are usually fraught affairs, challenged first by the difficulty in getting our bullet to go where we want.  And then, if we’re able to achieve that, having that bullet persuade the bad guy to change his behavior.  Those challenges together mean a tall order.  Like a batter at the plate, they usually fail more than they succeed.

Rifles?  Well, they’re long and they’re unwieldy.  They’re usually heavy.  And they require both hands to operate effectively.  Frankly, unless you’re walking in the woods, or in an environment where you expect to be shot at, carrying one is a pain in the ass.

But when the shit hits the fan and daylight turns to dark, when all your chips have been pushed to the center, the rifle brings a profound advantage.  It solves most of those two problems that burden the pistol.  Like Robert Redford striding to the plate, “Wonderboy” in his hands, the rifle suddenly changes everything.

Come now the PDW, the “personal defense weapon.”  A weapon that strives to split the difference.  A weapon that seeks to give us some of that portability that defines the pistol and lets it disappear into the everydayness of our lives.  And yet one that brings an actual rifle round to bear for when things go sideways.

The .300 Blackout lives at the center of that.  A purpose-built round designed for small rifles and short barrels.  Other calibers have tried, but mostly have been exercises in expediency over efficacy.  Ballistics is a hard mistress.

As usual, I’m late to the party.  I cringe when I think of how much ammo I could have bought, and the prices I could have paid for it, had I done all this a year ago.

But better late than never, right?  The Daniel Defense DDM4 PDW showed up a few weeks ago.  And I don’t know that I’ve ever been smitten, so fast.  

It took me a few hours to read through the gargantuan “Let’s talk PDWs” thread here (  But it was most enjoyable and I thank you gentlemen for that (sadly, I don’t recollect any of our friends on the distaff side taking part in the discussion).  I know most of you chose The Rattler for your own first toe-in-the-water in this niche.  And, of course, for a few of you, this wasn’t your first rodeo with small rifles and short barrels.  I look forward to your continued stories and experiences.

So, having now spent a few weeks exploring both a new firearm and a new caliber, I thought it might be helpful to share a little bit of what I have discovered.  Not much surprises me in the gun world anymore. But I did, indeed, encounter a few unexpected things with the .300 Blackout.

When I received the email from the boys in Georgia that my DDM4 PDW had shipped, I had precisely zero rounds of .300 Blackout in the house.  Had never even fired the caliber.  So began a mad scurry to try and scrape together at least a minimal inventory of factory loads.  As you might imagine, that ended up being something of a potpouri.  A potpouri I paid through the nose for.

I have not yet performed any rigorous accuracy testing.  My 5.56 AR’s wear ACOGs.  And my 7.62 battle rifles are topped with high-magnification variable scopes.  When the DDM4 PDW arrived I slapped on a Vortex Strikefire II – the only red dot optic I had in the house.  A Trijicon MRO in a QD mount will be arriving shortly to replace that.  Long story, short… I like magnified optics for any real accuracy work.  Once the MRO and its QD mount is here I’ll be able to pop that off and throw a scope on to test for accuracy.  In the meantime, the Vortex red dot has been adequate for chronographing loads and figuring out, in general, what is what.

I’ve dispensed with most of the fascinating data that comes from chronographing ammunition.  Things like shot-to-shot muzzle velocity, extreme spread, velocity decay, and kinetic energy can give great insight into a round’s performance.  But the numbers can get busy after a bit.  So I’ve narrowed things down to just three pieces of information:  claimed box speed, if the manufacturer listed it; actual muzzle velocity; and standard deviation.  Averaged across five-shot strings, with temps within five degrees of 70F.  

Muzzle velocity and standard deviation, in particular, tell us a great deal about a round, strongly suggesting both what terminal effects we can expect and how accurate the load is likely to be.

My DDM4 PDW checks in with a 7” barrel.  Those of you with shorter or longer barrels will have to adjust accordingly.  

We’ll start with some good news… the Barnes 110gr., load came to the party with some serious cred to uphold.  I’m happy to report that it measured up, registering both good speed – notably, the only load clocking north of 2,000 fps, albeit just barely – as well as good SD.  Its terminal effects are reputed to be excellent.  And because of all that it’s quickly become my go-to supersonic carry load.  It’s what I will zero my optic to, and will be the point-of-impact reference for everything else.

Team Never Quit is at least loosely associated with Marcus Luttrell of Lone Survivor fame.  I’d like to like their 125gr., load for that reason, if nothing else.  Alas, it came in with marginal speed and a marginal SD.  It’s good for plinking, but little else.

Winchester and Remington are both storied names, of course.  For many of us, there’s an assumption of a certain quality attached to their ammo.  Here, it’s a coin flip.  The Winchester 125gr., load made good speed, but with a pretty awful SD.  It’s plinking ammo.  The Remington 130gr., HTP load, on the other hand, with the Barnes bullet, brought decent speed with an excellent SD.  It would be my second choice for a supersonic self defense load.  And probably my first choice for whitetail deer, were I inclined to hunt large game with the .300 Blackout.

Freedom Munitions and Gorilla – two brands I had never shot before – brought the three middleweight offerings.  The 147gr., Freedom Munitions load was uninspiring, exhibiting good speed but with a moderate SD.  Plinking ammo.  The Gorilla 147gr., offering, on the other hand, gave slightly better speed, but also with an excellent SD.  Between the two 147gr., loads, it’s clearly the better choice.  It should make good target ammo.  And if I couldn’t get Barnes 110gr., or Remington 130gr., HTP I’d load up a magazine with this stuff and not feel terribly undergunned.

If the 147gr., Freedom Munitions load was slightly meh, their 168gr., HPBT Match round was anything but.  Good speed.  Excellent SD.  And a load, like the Remington 130gr., HTP, I’d consider as a second-tier self defense load.  If you’re debating between the two Freedom Munitions loads, their 168gr., offering is a much better round.

Finally, three subsonic loads bring up the caboose.  Subsonics matter in the .300 Blackout world, of course, because the caliber was designed with short barrels and suppressors in mind.  Want the quietest close-quarter, anti-personnel round possible, while still retaining a reasonable degree of terminal effectiveness?  A suppressed .300 Blackout, firing subsonic ammunition, is your answer.


The Corbon 220gr., load was the first subsonic I shot.  You know how when you trigger a shot and know instantly something is amiss?

Yeah.  You feel it in your shoulder and at your ears and, in my case, in the chronograph display staring back at me.

Corbon says their round makes 1040 fps.  They don’t specify what barrel length that’s from, but most manufacturers spec 16” for the .300 Blackout, so we’ll assume that.  So, yeah, we would expect a pretty good reduction when we light off their load through a 7” barrel.

But, crikey… 652 fps!  There wasn’t even enough energy to cycle the gun and feed the next round.  I was stunned.

Back inside, I quickly confirmed that all three boxes I had received were from the same lot.  I drafted a nice, little message and sent that off to Corbon, giving them that information, my results, and asking if they had any comment.  Crickets.

A few days later, my order of 200gr., Sellier & Bellot showed up.  The small, green box has kind of an old-school look to it.  Right on the front it says “tactical ammunition.”  They spec their load both in a 16” barrel (1060 fps) and 10” barrel (960 fps) – which is a nice tip-of-the-hat to real world usage.  And, alone among the ten loads I tested, theirs came with sealed primers.  Even their name has a kind of gravitas to it.  I really wanted to like it.

Alas, the bench doesn’t lie.  At 760 fps this load was notably better than the Corbon shit, but still well under what I’d consider minimum necessary velocity for anything going into harm’s way.  SD was good, though.  So if you want a really soft-shooting round that maybe will cycle your gun, while grouping pretty well, this one might be the ticket.

With two up and two down, my opinion of subsonic .300 Blackout wasn’t real high.  Especially after the rather mediocre performance its 125gr., sibling had put in, I didn’t hold out much hope when the Winchester 200gr., subsonic load showed up.  So it was a pleasant surprise when it proved itself to be head and shoulders above the Corbon and Sellier & Bellot loads.  At 913 fps it clocked good – which is to say, expected – speed for a subsonic load in a short barrel.  And it displayed a good SD.  Finally, we have a subsonic load capable of serious work!

Happy as I was to finally have a good subsonic offering, I still remained curious about the dismal performance put in by the Corbon load, and the not-quite-as-bad-but-still-sucky numbers put up by the Sellier & Bellot.  So I reprised all three subsonic loads, at the same time, with all shots happening within fifteen minutes of each other.  

Both the Winchester and Sellier & Bellot loads confirmed their previous performance, with very similar velocity and SD numbers.

The Corbon… geez, just when you think it can’t get any worse – 577 fps (versus 652 fps in the first series) and a SD of 38.36 (versus 25.78 the first time).  All from the same frickin box of ammo!  Far and away the most inconsistent factory ammunition I have ever come across.

One last thing and I’ll wrap this up.  Discreet Ballistics specializes in subsonic ammo.  Among other things, they ask you to specify your barrel length and twist rate when ordering – which suggests they are using different powders and/or different charges for those different barrel lengths.  That’s something a handloader would do.  But something almost never seen in the commercial world.  I hope it bodes well for their offering.  I’ll let you know when my order is fulfilled in a few weeks.

It’s been a very long time since I’ve explored a new caliber.  It’s kinda like that first dance with that pretty girl you had your eye on, back in the day.  Much to explore.  Much to hope for.  And much to learn.

Load:Claimed Box Speed (fps):Actual Muzzle Velocity (fps):Standard Deviation:
Barnes Vor-Tx 110gr., TAC-TX FB2350200418.58
Team Never Quit Training Ammo, 125gr. Matchn/a163534.18
Winchester, 125gr., Open Tip2185186453.13
Remington HTP, 130gr., Barnes TSX207517728.52
Freedom Munitions, 147gr., FMJn/a156329.28
Gorilla Ammunition, 147gr., FMJn/a15825.2
Freedom Munitions, 168gr., HPBT Matchn/a14826.98
Sellier & Bellot, 200gr., FMJ Subsonic1060 (16″ barrel)
960 (10″ barrel)
Winchester Super Suppressed 200gr., Open Tip-Range, Subsonic106091315.81
Corbon, 220gr. Subsonic104065225.78
Sellier & Bellot, 200gr., FMJ, Subsonic (2nd Series for Confirmation)1060 (16″ barrel)
960 (10″ barrel)
Winchester Super Suppressed, 200gr., Open Tip-Range, Subsonic (2nd Series for Confirmation)106090617.22
Corbon, 220gr., Subsonic (2nd Series for Confirmation)104057738.36

The End of Innocence

Wednesday, March 7th, 2018

The sound comes of a sudden. The first thought is it must be fireworks. Surely, it’s some wiseacre setting off firecrackers, isn’t it? Our mind grasps the sound, rolls it around in our head, calculating, the first certainty recoiling into hesitation. There’s something amiss in the noise, something we knew instinctively from the first pop. Disbelief comes next. Before the rest of it.

The guy walks down the hall, gun in hand. He turns this way and that, his very casualness a startling rebuke of a kind we don’t understand. How is it that such horror could ever be so random? How is it that a human being, any human being, could do such a thing, could inflict a miasma of terror so awful that there are no words?

Minutes later, after it’s over, the world is different. Who among us wakes our child in the morning’s rising light, sends them off to school – with the worst anxiety we or they can conjure being, perhaps, whether the homework they hastily prepared the night before is sufficient – ever considers we’ll never see them again? Who can even imagine such a thing?

Our mind will not even allow it.

The news travels swiftly, of course. Before it’s even over.

When we hear of it we instinctively recoil from it, even though we be distant and remote and safe. A pale, commiserating echo, a shared bereavement with those who were there.

It’s not the first time. If there’s a tragedy that can approach the horrific news we’ve just heard it’s that it has become so commonplace. That it has become woven into the tapestry of our existence. And so you’d think we’d be used to it. That we wouldn’t be so shocked by it.

But we are. We always are.

Please God, not again.

And then the other shoes begin to drop. The tragedies within the tragedy.

Full disclosure… although my political views are all over the map, disappointing, at turns, both my liberal friends and my conservative friends… I am, unreservedly, a “gun guy.” I’ve been a serious student of the shooting arts since I was a kid. I own firearms of all different types. I’ve been an NRA member for fifty-odd years.

I know. Some of you hate me already.

But even in your hate, know that I share in your repugnance at what has been going on. The shootings, malevolence made manifest, rocks my world as much as it does yours.

And I don’t know what the answer is. I’ll say that up front. I shake my head at the easy arm-the-teachers answers suggested my pro-gun friends as frequently as I do the knee-jerk ban-those-assault-rifles prescriptions of my anti-gun friends.

We got to where we are via a long, tortuously twisted path. It’s complicated. And although we’d all love for there to be a single, quick solution, I’m afraid that’s just not in the cards.

What I do know… it’s not the guns. And even as many of you shake your head in anger at that statement I’ll simply point out that the 300 million guns in this country didn’t all suddenly get built in the last couple of decades. We’ve been collecting them up for quite a long time.

Something else changed. I don’t know what it is, but I know we’re uncomfortable even talking about it.

We’re uncomfortable talking about how children are now raised from birth ‘til they are in their thirties constantly bombarded with the message that they are special.

We’re uncomfortable with the notion of disciplining children. You see it every day… young moms strolling the grocery store, cajoling their whining, manipulative young children to behave. Children who have never once felt a hand on their backside.

At dinner – a dinner where a grateful blessing to God is no longer uttered – we’re uncomfortable with any retreat from the idea that these entitled children are the centerpiece. The stars of the show.

We’re uncomfortable considering that the moral imperatives of behavior that once served as our ethical weathervanes are wholly missing. Stern expectations once imposed by parents, teachers, and the church down the street have been replaced by a carefree turpitude.

We’re uncomfortable contemplating that we might be overprotective. That instead of the hard, physical play that once was their treasure kids spend nearly the entirety of their time indoors, where we can keep an eye on them. Kids today have almost no time that is unstructured and unsupervised, time where they can explore things and make their own decisions and challenge the world. Time where they can make mistakes – mistakes appropriate to their station… and then learn from those mistakes. We’ve become terrified at the very thought of letting kids be kids.

Instead, we ply them with all manner of electronic devices. First as virtual babysitters – though we would never admit to such. Later as analogues to our own virtual world addictions.

They learn early that social media is both their foil and their bullhorn. We teach them that an abstract, virtual life is superior to the real kind. Instead of the complex, hours-long mental dynamics required to absorb a deep, detailed novel, we allow them to skate by with 140-character sound bites in their Twitter accounts. Instead of insisting that they learn to navigate the social minefield that is real life, we let them have Facebook.

We deny it, but we subject them to violence on a grand scale. From the television shows they watch, to the movies we send them off to, to the video games they play up in their bedroom… gratuitous, graphic violence is ever by their side. Uncounted hours immersed in the surreal violence of video games insulates and anesthetizes them from reality. Hollywood’s violent ethos – franchise after franchise built upon the compelling attraction of death and destruction – provides the leitmotif.

We teach them that everyone is a victim. And when they draw the inevitable conclusion, and a bunch of them end up with anxiety disorders, we medicate them into a stupor.

Everyone gets a trophy.

And later, when they head off to college – institutions suddenly devoid of intellectual vibrancy or discord – they’ll need their safe spaces and their trigger warnings.

I don’t mean to blame the kids. And I don’t mean to paint with such a broad brush. The headwinds in front of them aren’t of their doing. They’re put there by us, the adults, the parents. And most of them end up just fine, in spite of those things.

But then we wonder why the few there on the edge – for there always were and always will be a few on the edge – do what they do. I suspect at least part of it lies amongst those things. Somewhere in that mix of things that have changed.

And therein lies the problem. To even contemplate that any of these deeply entrenched and long-running social mores might have a hand in triggering the next mass shooting presents us with a dilemma: how do you solve it?

Isn’t it a lot easier to just ban the gun the shooter used? Especially if you come from a worldview that says that civilians ought not have that kind of gun anyway?

And so we come to the elephant in the room. The AR-15. The “assault rifle” that looks cool or evil or vicious, depending upon your viewpoint – but which with its black plastic stock and its Picatinny rail and its pistol grip and its flash hider… can never look anything less than provocative.

There are so many misconceptions surrounding this weapon that it’s hard to know where to start. Beyond noting that it’s been the bestselling long-gun in America for a long time, and that there are somewhere between five and ten million of them out there… I suppose I’ll start with what will come to many as a startling fact: the AR-15 is not a particularly lethal firearm.

I know. Many of you think that is simply preposterous. The U.S. military uses a full-auto version of this very same rifle as their main infantry weapon, after all. Surely there’s no way they would use a “not particularly lethal” firearm!

But, yes, they would. And they have.

The .223 Remington cartridge – which later morphed into the 5.56 NATO in its military designation – evolved from the earlier .222 Remington. And the .222 Remington, like the .22 Hornet, the .22-250, the .220 Swift – indeed, all the .22 centerfire rounds – was designed as a target and a “varmint” round.

Decades on, when the U.S. military adopted the .223/5.56 as its mainline battle round, the cartridge didn’t suddenly acquire some sort of magic. Indeed, it got worse… civilians using their .22 varmint rifles could at least avail themselves of any number of excellent hollow-point bullet designs that improved their chances against groundhogs and prairie dogs. The military was stuck with full-metal-jacket bullets. In essence, they bought into a round that shoots a very small, very light bullet – and which on larger animals, or human beings, has a far greater propensity to wound than to kill.

In many states, including my own state of Virginia, it is illegal to hunt deer with the .223/5.56. It simply does not have sufficient power to ensure humane kills.

Compared to the .30-06 the U.S. military predominantly used during World War II, the .223/5.56 is a stunningly inferior round. Indeed, in terms of its terminal ballistics – its ability to kill enemy combatants – it is arguably the most ineffective rifle round the U.S. military has ever used, going back to the days of black powder and muzzleloaders.

And that, of course, begs the question… why would they use it if its performance is so dismal?

The answer is simple: weight. A soldier can carry far more rounds of .223/5.56 ammunition than he could of a larger-caliber round. And when you combine a military doctrine that stoically acknowledges fewer and fewer recruits showing up at boot camp with previous rifle experience – and so puts less and less emphasis on aimed fire and instead has adopted a more-shots-is-better approach – with the reality that on the battlefield, wounding an enemy can be as good or better than killing him, as now his comrades must attend to him… and you can see the rationale.

There’s also a direct, linear relationship between a rifle round’s inherent power and the recoil that cartridge produces. Because it is such a small, low-powered round, the .223/5.56 produces a very gentle, soft recoil. That unintimidating quality is equally prized both by drill sergeants trying to teach recruits who may never have held a rifle before and by civilians who are simply shooting for fun. It’s a large part of the reason the AR-15 has become so popular.

None of which diminishes the horror when it is used in a mass shooting. The dead are just as dead. The wounded are just as wounded. I’m not at all trying to suggest that the AR-15 and the round that it fires aren’t lethal or aren’t dangerous.

But given that much of the emotion surrounding the AR-15 revolves around its supposedly mythic lethality, it’s important to understand the reality. Notwithstanding its aggressive, provocative looks, the AR-15 is quite simply not a very powerful rifle.

What it underscores is that any firearm, used indiscriminately or with evil intent, can be terribly dangerous. There’s a reason gun safety rules don’t exclude small or low-powered firearms. Even the lowly .22 rimfire can kill.

“Well, okay,” I can hear some of you saying… “maybe the round itself isn’t very powerful, but the AR-15 can shoot so many bullets, so quickly, that that is the problem. That’s why so many people end up being killed by it. And that’s why we need to ban them.”

I’ll simply point out that semi-auto rifles have been around a long time. They first appeared in the late 1800’s. Quite famous designs such as the M1 Garand and the M1 Carbine date back to the thirties. I’ll repeat what I said above… the guns have been here for years, many years before mass shootings became a thing. Something else changed.

Box magazines have likewise been around a long time. And whereas I can understand the seductive allure that limiting magazine capacity would somehow make a semi-auto firearm less lethal in a mass-shooting scenario, the truth is… not so much.

The singular benefit of a box magazine – the reason they are now used in virtually all military and police rifles and pistols – is because of how rapidly an empty one can be swapped out for one that is freshly loaded.

The sad reality is that it wouldn’t make much difference if a school shooter were roaming the halls with a pocketful of 5-round or 10-round magazines instead of the 20-rounders that everyone gets so spun up about.

And that really gets to the point. The reason these shootings become so casualty-laden is because they invariably happen in places where people are most vulnerable – “gun free” zones. And because of that the shooter has time. He’s free to slowly and methodically inflict his carnage upon people who have little ability to resist. When you’re talking about close-range, indiscriminate, execution-style shootings, the kind of weapon the shooter brings becomes almost immaterial. The Virginia Tech shooter killed 32 people and wounded 17 others… with a pistol.

Which brings us back to the question. What do we do?

I don’t know.

I shrink from the idea that we should just “arm the teachers” that my pro-gun friends think is the panacea. Count me in the camp that thinks there ought to be a place that is sacred… and that if there is such a place that’s where our kids ought to be.

Alas, it would seem there are no sacred places.

Equally, I shake my head at the naiveté of my anti-gun friends who so fervently believe that by banning a thing, they can somehow ameliorate the evil inside a person. Who think that by simply passing a law 300 million guns will suddenly disappear.

What I do know is that if it were piles of money inside those classrooms instead of our own flesh and blood, the problem would have long ago been solved.

What I know is that when school districts start to get serious about protecting our kids, there will be armed guards at every school. And, no, we won’t be calling them “school resource officers” or asking them to do presentations on drunk driving or mentoring kids or any of the other tomfoolery that currently enfolds their ranks. They’ll have one mission. You’ll know they’ve taken that to heart when you start seeing them ever with a long gun over their shoulder and plans in their office that lay out in excruciating detail every ingress and egress at the facility, every possible attack vector, how many seconds it takes to get from any one spot to any other spot, comprehensive communications and lockdown procedures, and documented simulations of how they would respond to any conceivable threat.

What I know is that individuals with mental health issues ought not have access to guns. I don’t know a single person who thinks they should. So why is it, in an age where the internet can so instantly dump so much mundane information upon us, that we can’t figure out how to alert the NICS database when the next wackjob-to-be is off his meds and is threatening people? Why is that so hard?

And, no, it’s not the NRA preventing that. The only thing the NRA insists upon is that there be quick and easy access to due process. Not all of us trust the bureaucratic bowels of government.

What I know is that we don’t need additional laws. What we need is for people to follow the laws that are already on the books.

What I know is that the reason we too often don’t see that is because people with the privilege of power are rarely held accountable. Oh, sure, there’s the odd high-profile case tossed up as an example… like Martha Stewart. Or the rare case that is so beyond the pale that its very publicity turns it into a public circus… like Bernie Madoff. But for the most part people in power remain startlingly immune to the consequences of their actions. When an FBI sniper can murder a woman holding not a weapon – but a baby; or his bosses back in Washington can serve up an unbelievable “shoot on sight” rule of engagement; and not a one of them ever sees a day of jail, you know you’re looking at a rigged system.

Who wants to take a bet that any of the many individuals who each received advance information on the shooter in the Parkland, Florida school tragedy will ever be disciplined? Any one of them, had they simply done their job, could have averted the disaster.

What I know is that until you start holding people accountable, nothing changes.

What I know is that symbolic acts may feel good emotionally, but they don’t move the dial a whit. They’re a distraction. Bump stocks, stupid gimmick that they are, are not the problem.

And the children continue to die.

An Echo from Across the Years

Friday, May 6th, 2016

I know it’s in here somewhere, the old camera.  Gently moving aside a couple of bags, several straps, an old light meter, and a potpourri of other little-used-anymore photographic detritus, it only takes a minute.

Carrying it into the living room, I sit down and slowly turn it over in my hands, waiting for the flash of cognition that will remind me how everything works.  After a long minute, concluding that no such epiphany seems imminent, I turn to Google.  I’m not really surprised.  It’s been a long time.

No worries.  In a couple of seconds I have a badly Xeroxed PDF of the old owner’s manual in front of me.

Ah, so that’s where the battery-check button is!  The new lithium battery seems to work just fine.

Gently pressing the shutter release button, the metallic thwack is much louder than the thin, muted snick of my film Leica’s.  But it still brings a smile to my face.  This camera and I go back a long ways.

A Canon AE-1, it was given to me in January 1978 by my then-girlfriend.  And it sparked a passionate interest in photography that has never abated.  My first serious camera – an honest-to-God SLR – for years that Canon and I went everywhere together.  It accompanied me to work, sitting ever ready in the telephone truck that was my home away from home.  It ascended telephone poles.  It went on motorcycle rides, near and far.  It chronicled family and friends, weddings and parties and graduations.  And a few years later it captured the first images of my children.  Ever present, always at hand, that camera became part of my life.

Alas.  In 1987, right about when I was contemplating buying a new camera – some of ‘em now even had this neat feature called ‘Auto Focus’ – Canon abandoned the FD lens mount, instantly orphaning my little three-lens kit.   I was pissed.  And the new camera I eventually ended up with bore the Nikon label.

And so began the long, slow progression of steadily better cameras and gear, across the years.  A parade of Nikons – N8008, N8008s, F4s, F5 – later to be joined by Leica, Hasselblad, Bronica, and Voigtlander.  Storied names.

Film.  Then digital.  Then both, together.

I loved it all.  And my delight in capturing a good image remains as charged today as ever.

Still, on the odd occasion when I’d remember that old AE-1, sitting in the dark in that cabinet, unused now for decades, there’d be a twinge of guilt.  Like abandoning an old friend.

And so it was more than a lark that prompted me to order a new battery from Amazon a few days ago.

As the sound of the shutter recedes, my thumb is reflexively stroking the film advance lever.  There is a flash of surprise – even after all these years I know precisely how that stroke should feel.  Glancing quickly at the film counter window, I confirm what I already know.

There’s film in this camera.

My eye moves from the ‘20’ centered in the counter window to the ASA dial.  It’s set on ‘25.’  What the hell?

Turning to the bottom of the camera, I press the small rewind button and then unfold the rewind crank and slowly, gently begin winding the film back into its cassette.  I can hear, feel, and sense that the film is brittle.

With the film rewound, I pull up on the arm and the back pops open.  I reach in and extract the cassette.

Tech Pan.

Huh?!  My initial wonder at what this old film might hold – if anything – instantly changes to… not much.

Kodak’s Technical Pan was very much a niche film.  Originally developed for the military, its extreme high resolution and lack of grain lent itself to high altitude aerial reconnaissance – think U2 spy planes photographing Soviet military infrastructures.

Its use in normal pictorial photography was limited.  Very slow, with extended red sensitivity and a very thin base, the film was finicky.  Developed in a conventional black-and-white developer such as D-76, HC-110, or Rodinal, the resulting images were very high contrast.

But Kodak did provide a special developer – Technidol – which extracted a full tonal response from the film.  And it was that combination – the film and the developer together – that was of interest to photographers.  If you could live with the slow speed and the slightly odd spectral response, the combination gave the promise of hitting way above its weight: grain-free enlargements from a 35mm negative that were more akin to what one might expect from medium format, or even 4×5 large format.

At least that’s what the magazines said.  The enthusiast, amateur rags would periodically run an article on Tech Pan, extolling its benefits.  To a poor young man who couldn’t afford those larger formats, it was an enticing promise.

The sidebar here is that even in the heyday of film, when labs were literally around every corner, you couldn’t get Tech Pan developed.  I suppose there might have been the odd professional lab that did, but when, after deciding to give it a go myself sometime in the early 1990’s, I couldn’t find one.  It was Tech Pan that forced me to begin doing my own film development.

Still, I never shot more than a very few rolls of the stuff.  And I certainly don’t recall ever feeding a roll through that AE-1.  Hence my surprise.

The other side of the story is that Kodak stopped selling Tech Pan a dozen years ago.  There’s no fresh Technidol to be had.

But… walking into the other room, I rummage through my box of darkroom supplies.  Sure enough, after a moment I have my hands on it.  The yellow box still has five of its original six foil packets.

Technidol comes as a liquid.  I have no idea how long it’s good for.  And, unusual for Kodak, I can’t find any kind of expiration date, either on the foil packets themselves or on the yellow box they came in.

Calculating, I muss that this film could be thirty years old.  Base fog will have increased, perhaps by a lot.  And my packets of Technidol are probably fifteen years old.  They likely have lost some – if not all – of their potency.

Wrangling everything together, I decide on twelve minutes at 68 degrees.

Sitting down with the changing bag, I first select two unexposed, sacrificial rolls of Tri-X.  I still shoot a lot of film, but in the last couple of years it’s been almost exclusively medium format.

I pick up the first roll of Tri-X and, in the room light, practice putting it on the Hewes stainless steel reel.  Just reaching back for the old muscle memory.  It feels tiny, after such a long time of using the much larger roll film reels.

After a time or two I take the second roll of Tri-X and place it in the changing bag, along with the reel, tank, scissors, and can opener.  Full dress rehearsal.

Then the main act.   As I expect, as soon as the Tech Pan is released from its metal cassette, it blossoms in my palm, an unruly mess of reverse-curl.  After a moment of fighting it I just go with the flow and begin feeding it on the reel backwards.  I know there are no do-overs with this.  I breathe a sigh of relief when it’s done and safely within the confines of the tank.

Two-minutes of pre-wet.  Develop.  Water stop.  Four minutes of fix.  Water rinse.  A single drop of LFN wetting agent.  Done.

There’s a long, bated moment as I drop the washed reel into my hand and slowly begin unrolling the film.  Inches and then more inches unfold… blank, blank, blank.  But, then, there it is… an image!  And then there they come, rolling slowly into view.

Hanging the film to dry, I’m happily surprised to see images of people mixed in with other stuff.  Not of the kids when they were little – that’s the only disappointment in all of this.  But squinting at the negatives I can already tell what this is from:  Hunt Camp.

It’ll be the next day, when the film is dry and I can run it through my scanner, before I have the rest of the story.  Turns out the pictures are from November 1991 – a fact evident from the car license plates in one of the images.

The images are far from great.  But that’s not the point.

Even a mediocre image from twenty-five years ago has a special resonance.  Some of the people in the pictures are gone.  And even those who remain, still, are very different.  Different places.  Different circumstances.  With much gained, but also much lost, in the interim.

That’s the special magic of photography.  And especially of film.

That it can provide a glimpse into the past.  An echo from long ago.

Jim Stephenson


Craig Gleason, Jim Stephenson, John Rolfe Lester


Jim Gleason, Craig Gleason, Jim Stephenson, Ron Settle


The Old Hunt Camp


This is our old camp. We cooked and ate in the trailer; slept and otherwise hung out in the tent. The structure to the right is the old “officer’s quarters.”

A year or so after this we moved upscale… into a permanent cabin one hollow up.


Ben Stephenson


Stu Rhodes



Craig Gleason



Ron Settle


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.


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.








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

Sunday, 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.


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.






A Hunting Trip… Lost

Thursday, November 19th, 2009

It was easily the hottest I had ever been while hunting.  Even with my vest and jacket shrugged off and laying on the ground beside me, the sun beat down with a steady directness.  I had already forsaken the still-hunting that usually frames my days in the November woods.  Now, just sitting quietly with my back against a tree was an uncomfortable chore.  And although in all my years of hunting I had never once carried pain killers into the woods with me, I couldn’t get my mind off the bottle of Ibuprofen tablets I had back at camp, and the relief they might hold.  Every muscle in my body ached.

Another hour went by, the day slowly wending towards mid-afternoon.  And it was then that I suddenly realized it was all for naught.  If I killed a buck there was no way I could drag it all the way back to camp.  Just the thought of it made my fevered brain hurt.

Reluctantly donning the jacket and vest, I began trudging back.


That was Monday, the first day of what was supposed to be my week-long deer hunt.  Back at camp I drank several bottles of water and took a couple of those Ibuprofen tablets, then climbed into my sleeping bag.  When I was no better the next morning, I packed up my gear and headed on home.

The week that was supposed to be enjoyed in camp, in the woods, ended up being spent, instead, in bed at home.

The Camp at Bolar Draft

The Camp at Bolar Draft

This shot was from our 2005 camp.  A handful of additional images from that camp can be found here, under ‘Rod & Gun’.

The Bear

Sunday, July 26th, 2009

“I need a gun,” Ginny said.

I laughed and shook my head.


Eight or nine years ago I was still-hunting one of the steep ridges northwest of our camp.  I was hunting deer, carrying the Ruger No. 1 single shot .270 that I had hunted with for years.  The breeze had shifted an hour before and I had adjusted my route to accommodate it – dropping down along the backside of the mountain I had spent the morning hours slowly walking up.  Now, angling slowly into the wind along the ridge’s steep incline, I heard the rustle of leaves from the cleft below me.  Moments later that resolved into a bundle of black.

“Well I’ll be damned,” I murmured to myself.

Maybe seventy yards away, the bear was slowly working his way up the ridge, rooting around in the leafy undergrowth.

Killing him wasn’t a consideration.  Black Bear season wouldn’t be coming in for another week.  Not that I would have anyway, probably.

For five minutes I remained frozen, watching in fascination.  By that time he had moved to within eight or ten yards of me, still unaware of my presence.  Having judged that close enough – I didn’t want to have to kill him – I slowly lifted my boot and gently brushed it sideways in the leaves.  The bear looked up, surprised, and gazed at me curiously for a couple seconds.  Then he seemed to acquire a look of embarrassment, as if asking himself “how the hell did this happen?”  He slowly turned his head down and began moving away from me.

That was the first bear I had ever seen in the wild.

A few years later a bear cub ran across the road in front of me while I was out riding my motorcycle along one of my remote mountain routes.  In a reprise, I saw another young bear just a few weeks ago, along that same road.  And a couple of times we’ve seen bears at Snowshoe, on our motorcycle visits there.

The two things all those places have in common is high mountains and serious remoteness.  They are all places where you might expect to see a bear.

Where you don’t expect to see them is at my home in Fauquier County.

So when Ginny called me yesterday – I had taken the Harley out for a ride – and relayed with a hint of breathlessness that a not-so-small bear had come cruising through our yard just a few feet from the deck, paying little heed to her shouts to get out of there, and that, yes, she needed that gun, I had to laugh.  I admitted that I had seen a pile of scat the evening before on our quarter-mile-long driveway that I was pretty sure was from a bear.

“Did you get a picture?” I asked.

She tried, bless her heart.  But the bear was gone by the time she got back outside with her camera.  I did get the impression she wasn’t entirely sorry about that.  “I do need a gun,” she tried again.

By the time I got home a couple hours later she had already called all the neighbors.  The farm next to us.  The fellow halfway down our driveway who likes to feed the deer.  And the new folks down at the end who have a couple of young kids.

And Animal Control, who told her that there had been several sightings.

Me… aside from worrying for the bear’s sake – the county here, despite being decidedly rural, is not nearly remote enough or rugged enough for a bear – I’m delighted.  I wish the woods were full of ’em.  Along with wolves and mountain lions and all the other a-little-bit-dangerous kinds of animals that used to live around here.

Makes it more exciting when you walk outside in the dark.  And it gives new meaning to the “what was that?” sound when you walk out to the shed at night.

A toast to wild things…

Assault Rifle Goodness

Sunday, July 12th, 2009

I spent a couple hours sighting in my Colt AR-15 and Trijicon ACOG (Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight).  A lot of people hate “assault” rifles.  Most of ’em, if you could cut through to the truth, actually hate guns, period.

Me, I love them.  Guns in general.  And those evil black rifles in particular.  But then they’ve been part of my mindset all my life.  I’m as comfortable picking up a rifle or a handgun as most people are using a pencil.

Colt AR-15 on the Bench

Colt AR-15 on the Bench

Law Enforcement & Military

Law Enforcement & Military

Looking at the rear of the ACOG (that’s a 4x optical combat scope) and the fold-down BUIS (backup iron sights).  The ACOG is the cat’s meow of combat gunsights.  I love the meter ranges scribed into those irons, but the ACOG is so good that they’ll get very little use.



A little more can be found under “The Splendid AR-15” here…