Archive for the ‘Miscellaneous’ 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.

Barnes 110 gr. VOR-TX 300 Blackout Load – A Followup

Thursday, December 24th, 2020

Well, Ben B. predicted what I would find.  And Dellet articulated why…

Dellet’s suggestion to run a more granular ladder series struck me as on point.  And so that’s what I did.  I loaded a second ladder, in 0.1 gr. increments, from 19.6 to 20.2 gr.  

With seven individual loads in the series, I dropped the round count in each to three shots in order to keep the total shot count reasonable.  

As with the original series, all charges were individually weighed on an RCBS Chargemaster 1500.  COAL was 2.250.  The test rifle was a Ruger American Ranch Rifle (RARR) with a 16.12” barrel.  And the range was 50 yards.  Chronograph readings were made with a LabRadar.  Ammunition – though not the weather itself – was approximately 70 degrees at the time it was fired.

As before, the first group was of the Barnes factory load.  Because the group from that factory load was so abysmal during the first series, I put five fouling shots – versus two in the original series – down the barrel before going to paper.  Yes, I know it’s de rigueur these days not to clean one’s guns between shooting sessions – to “let the gun tell you when it needs cleaning.”  I confess, though, to being old school in lots of things, and this is one of them.  My guns all get put away with freshly cleaned, freshly oiled bores.

That said, some guns need a few more rounds before they settle in, therefore the five foulers.

One other minor tidbit regarding the factory load… I found it interesting that the three previous record groups all came in at just over 2300 fps, notwithstanding their poor extreme spread and standard deviation numbers.  This time the muzzle velocity came in a touch higher.  Thinking about it… I went and pulled the boxes.  Sure enough, the first three groups were all from one lot; this last group was from a different lot. 

There’s a seductive compulsion to take that 3-shot group we just shot and compare it to the 5-shot effort a week ago.  You have to resist that.  They’re apples and oranges.  Group size and extreme spread never shrink with more rounds downrange.  They only ever grow.

But you can still see patterns.  In this case I’m actually more interested in the vertical dispersion from group to group than I am in group size.  And because of that I’m already rueing a bit my early decision to shoot at 50 yards rather than 100.  The information is still there at the shorter distance, but it’s a little harder to see.

But it all comes together back inside, the rifles (I put a few rounds through my No. 1 in .45-70, as well) cleaned and put away, sitting in the easy chair in front of the wood stove, with the laptop and the chrono data.

We’re never done with the shooting, of course.  The journey continues, on and on.  There will be more testing, more experimenting.

But in the meantime, 20.0 grains of Win 296 looks like a nice place to start.  Or to end.

Merry Christmas.

Replicating the Barnes 110 gr. VOR-TX 300 Blackout Load

Saturday, December 12th, 2020

You don’t have to spend much time in the .300 Blackout world before you realize that the Barnes 110 gr. Factory load is extremely well thought of.  There is an awful lot of anecdotal evidence attesting to the round’s effectiveness.  Which probably shouldn’t surprise us.  Barnes has been making very serious bullets, for very serious people, for a very long time.

The only problem with the Barnes load is… finding it.  It is perpetually out-of-stock.  And if you do happen to stumble upon a retailer with a couple of hours worth of inventory, you’ll pay through the nose for it.

The kinda, sorta good news is that Barnes also sells the TAC-TX bullet that holds within it most of the magic of the factory load.  That bullet, as an individual component, is also perpetually out-of-stock.  But the kinda, sorta good news part is that, on the odd occasion when you can find any, the price is rather less awful.  So you can imagine my delight when the FedEx truck showed up a couple days ago with my long-backordered stash.

Working up a load for new bullet is something I never grow tired of.  And when you have an inventory of the actual factory load… you already have a very clear target, and a very clear measuring stick.

So that’s my initial goal.  To achieve comparable accuracy and comparable velocity to what Barnes themselves did with their factory version.  That’s not a particularly tall order.  But I’ve been surprised a time or two in my handloading career.  We will see.

Powder is easy.  I’ve already created loads for the Sierra 125 gr. Match King and Barnes own 120 gr. TAC-TX younger-but-bigger brother – bullets within spitting distance weightwise of what we’re working on now.  And I used Win 296 in both of those, with good results.  

IMR 4227 is also on my short list of powders to try.  A single-base powder has some benefits (and shortcomings) over a double-base powder like Win 296.  But 296 and I have a long history and I am very fond of that ball powder.  So that’s what we’ll roll with to start.

Next question is what range to load?  Start too low and you leave too much on the table… not to mention questions that remain unanswered.  Start too high and you can end up in the la la land of high pressures and all that comes with that.  I tend to be conservative until I have evidence – in my own guns – that all is well.  I hate whacking away with a bullet puller.

My starting bias is usually towards the bullet maker’s own load data.  I figure they know the behavior of their projectile better than most.

Here, Barnes doesn’t even list Win 296.  But they do list H110, so we’ll use that as a reference.

I’ll pause here and note that many folks claim that H110 and Win 296 are the same powder.  That notion has been out there for a very long time.  I have no idea whether it is true or not.  What I do know is that I have seen enough load data, from enough respected ballisticians, that differs enough between the two that it begs the question.

What’s not been challenged is that H110 and Win 296 are, if not identical… very, very close.  Using one as a reference for the other seems perfectly reasonable.

After looking at the bullet maker’s data, I like to survey similar weight bullets from other makers.  I’m looking for two things:  consensus and outliers.

Consensus suggests a well-trodden path that tells us we’re probably safe, and that we are likely to see predictable results.

An outlier can mean anything from an unusual oddity in the test environment to actual incorrect data.  If I can’t determine the reason for the anomaly – say a lab using a long-barrel universal test receiver, versus another lab using an actual gun; or a projectile with an unusually long or unusually short bearing surface compared to other bullets of its weight – I will discount the outlier. 

Hornady Load Data:

Nosler Load Data:

Sierra Load Data:

Hodgdon Load Data:

A few observations…

Hornady shows the same max load of 20.2 gr. of H110 as does Barnes, with very similar velocity.

Hornady used a significantly shorter COAL than did Barnes… 2.050 vs. 2.250.

Nosler shows a significantly lower max charge of H110 than does Barnes… 19.0 vs. 20.2.

And like Hornady, Nosler used a significantly shorter COAL… 2.050 vs. 2.250 (COAL matters because it speaks to bullet seating depth – a critical dimension in pressure/velocity).

Also of interest, Nosler shows their case capacity as 19.2 gr. of water.  That is a stunning outlier, 4-5 full grains less than most headstamps.  It is such an overt outlier – were it true their listed charge weight range would be way over-pressure – that I am inclined to dismiss it as a simple recording error.

Sierra shows a max load of H110 slightly higher than Barnes – 20.5 gr. vs 20.2.  But more importantly, in the same range.

And Sierra’s three 110 gr. bullets all come in, again, at shorter COAL than Barnes (1.970 and 1.845, respectively, vs. Barnes’ 2.250).  

Hodgdon shows a similar max charge of H110 (20.0) as Barnes, with similar velocity.

And, once again, Hodgdon shows a shorter COAL of 2.040 vs Barnes’ 2.250.  I’ll stop here and note, given the many other makes of bullets seated to a shorter COAL… that Barnes 110 gr. TAC-TX is an all-copper projectile.  A conventional bullet with a lead core will typically be shorter, all other things being equal.  And so the shorter COAL’s we see are something to note and be aware of, but are not a surprise.

The last couple of things…

Some companies average their velocity numbers.  Notice that Hornady’s numbers all end in hundredths.  And Sierra rounds theirs to the nearest 50th.  The real world is not nearly so clean, of course.  I’m not complaining – having velocities rounded up or down that way certainly makes presentation a little neater.  But it also tells us that there is a bit of error injected there.

And, similarly, most companies average their charge weights and resulting velocities across a certain weight class of bullet.  Hornady averages across five 110 gr. bullets.  Nosler across two.  And Sierra across three.  Again, it’s an example of making the presentation somewhat cleaner, at the cost of less accuracy.

Ultimately, there’s no magic to this.  You noodle over the various puts and takes, plot out the charge weights you think will work, based upon all the information you have at hand and the priorities for what you’re trying to achieve, along with your own personal experience with the gun you’re going to be using and its previous behavior with various combinations of components… and write down a tentative set of numbers.  In my case, I’ve decided to run a 25-round ladder, five shots each, in 0.3 gr. increments, from 18.5 gr. to 19.7 gr.

For many, then, it’s time to head over to the loading bench.  For me, there’s one last detour before I do that.

QuickLoad is not a magic bullet.  It’s not a panacea.  Used blindly or by rote, it can easily convince you you’re in a place very far from where you actually are.

But used thougtfully and with due care, it can lend great insight into what has mostly been a black box to us – what happens inside our gun between the time the firing pin hits the primer and the bullet exits the barrel.

This post isn’t about QuickLoad, so I won’t belabor the point.  Suffice it to say that once the software is dialed in, it can be remarkably predictive of what pressures your loads are producing, and their resultant velocities.

What I do is run a model for each of the charge weights in my ladder.  The results get added to my handload log under “Predicted Velocity” and “Predicted Pressure” columns.  And it’s only after those numbers fall into a range that I am comfortable with, and which meet my load objectives, that I head over to the loading bench.

Here is what QuickLoad shows for the maximum load in my ladder…

And, then, having carefully and lovingly crafted that ladder series, it’s down to the shooting.

All groups were shot at 50 yards.  So, yeah, that Barnes factory load on the left – the thing we’re trying to reproduce – is even worse than it looks.  

That said, the magic of the Barnes bullet is about its terminal effectiveness, not tidy little groups on paper.

Still, that group is awful enough that you probably should just blame the shooter.

The ladder series begins with the group on the right.

Most smokeless powder is temperature sensitive, to varying degrees, of course.  When testing loads I try and shoot within five degrees either side of 70 (farenheit) to minimize that factor.  When that’s not possible – like now, in December – I’ll leave the rounds inside my living room, close enough to the wood stove to stay nice and cozy, and retrieve each five round series one at a time.  That way they get sent downrange before they have time to move far off that 70-degree median.

Yes, it’s enormously convenient being able to shoot on your own property, mere feet from your front door! 

Now the Barnes factory load – the load we’re chasing – has a spec’d box speed of 2350 fps.  In three separate 5-shot strings, fired on three different days, this is what I get:

So although the extreme spread and standard deviation numbers are pretty sad, the load is consistently averaging just over 2300 fps.  

For the handloads, here are the stats from my chronograph, along with QuickLoad’s predictions:

The last two charges?

After completing the original ladder series and seeing the chrono results I was confident enough in the pressures I was running to take it up to the SAAMI maximum of 55,000 psi.  So the next day I loaded those last two charges, and shot them that afternoon.  Here is the print for that…

And, finally, here is what the Barnes factory load looks like when taken apart, compared to its handloaded brother…

The Barnes factory load is running 17.9 gr. of an unknown powder.  That powder is similar in appearance to 296, but is almost certainly something faster.  17.9 grains of 296 in a Barnes case does not generate enough pressure to make the ~2300 fps muzzle velocity that we see.

I would estimate the Barnes VOR-TX factory load is somewhere around 47,000 psi.

The handloads?  

I’ll probably end up doing some additional testing, but as a first point of departure I’ll probably settle on that 19.7/296 load.  The extreme spreads and standard deviations are all pretty dismal, but there certainly seems to be sufficient accuracy for what the TAC-TX bullet was designed for.  I would hunt with it in a heartbeat.

You can run it hotter, of course.  But the 50-70 additional fps you gain isn’t compelling enough for me to want to linger in that savage land.  Running max loads is kinda like carrying around a pet rattlesnake in your pocket… easily enough managed… until that hurried, forgetful day that it’s not.

As always, YMMV.

.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

False Expectations

Wednesday, May 13th, 2020

As April turned into May, two hundred and four years ago, people across the northern hemisphere expected what they had always expected… the happy arrival of spring.  What they didn’t know is that the sudden eruption of Mount Tambora, a volcano in the Dutch East Indies the year before, would change everything. 

1816 came to be known as the year without a summer.  Winter held tight to its grip.  And even when it finally relented, it never let go entirely.  

Ponds and lakes in northern latitudes remained stubbornly frozen.  And even in more temperate regions, hard frosts continued into August.

Crops failed.  Food prices skyrocketed.  Famine spread across much of the globe.  Riots and mass migrations and wars ensued.  Millions died.

It was no one’s fault.  Human beings had simply stumbled onto one of nature’s countless haphazard twists of fate.

Now, here we are in another spring, a couple centuries later.  And as luck would have it, we’ve stumbled onto our own not-so-very-funny bit of whimsy from mother earth.

The hubris that we wield, the notion that we ever and always can control events, can bend the world to our needs, has been found wanting.

Remember how it all began, lo but a few short weeks ago?  

Remember “flatten the curve?”  

Remember “fifteen days to slow the spread?”

Alas, we’re only a few weeks in, but already it feels like a lifetime.  Already the wheel has turned, in ways that no one is grasping.

The good news about Covid-19 is that its lethality appears rather less than we had first feared.

The bad news about Covid-19 is that it is a remarkably nasty bug, with a stunning repertoire of ways in which to make human beings ill.  And it’s only just begun.

There was an illusion around all this.  A belief that if we just shuttered inside for a few weeks the pandemic would somehow just magically go away.  We could go back to our normal lives and all would be well.

That’s not how it’s going to be.

Covid-19 is almost certainly going to be with us for a very long time.  Sure, we might get lucky and one of the pharmaceutical companies might sprint to the finish with an early vaccine.  More likely, though, is that we’re still many months away from that happy day.

In the meantime, the disease will continue its slow and steady burn through human populations.  And all the self-isolation and social distancing and cloth masks that people wield with such fervent hope, like talismans held aloft against an angry god, will prove for nought.

Covid-19 will not release its hold upon our lives until one thing happens:  60-70% of us have become infected by it and have thus become immune.  Even then, we don’t know how long such immunity will last.  But the one incontrovertible fact in this whole disaster is that that herd immunity is the inflection point where things can once again begin to return to normal.

We can reach that point quickly.  Or we can reach that point slowly.  The one thing we can’t do, is somehow to avoid it.

The hope for many, of course, is that we simply hide in our darkened basements, wearing a homemade mask whenever we venture out for groceries – meanwhile holding to the fantasy that all those online deliveries, the daily mail, and the occasional interaction with our neighbor holds no threat – until a vaccine is available.  We all count on being one of the lucky ones.

Remember ventilators?  Remember all the talk a month ago about how we didn’t have nearly enough of them?  Remember all the angst and urgency to quickly build more of them?  Now, of course, hardly anyone mentions them.  Because now we realize that they don’t work.  If you go on a ventilator, chances are high you’re simply going to die on it.

And, of course, we argue.  Like children, we torment ourselves with pretend certainties.  We rage about staying “locked down” or “opening back up,” never quite realizing that it doesn’t really matter.  The math is, simply, the math.

There’s a very good chance that a year from now – next May – we’ll still be in this.  Covid-19 will still be the central actor in our world.

There’s an even better chance that ten years from now, when the first histories of our time are written, that Covid-19 will be only a footnote.  Simply the trigger that ushered in the greater calamity of our lives.

That is the real story. 

Does a Dystopian Future Await?

Monday, March 23rd, 2020

Everyone is focusing on the numbers, of course.  The number of cases.  The number of hospitalizations.  The number of deaths.

And this new world of “self isolation” and “social distancing” and suddenly-empty grocery stores certainly has everyone’s attention.  Who knew a roll of toilet paper would ever be cause for such rejoicing?

Alas.  People are staring in the wrong direction.  While angst over the lack of N95 masks and hospital ventilators is reaching epic proportions, a beast slouches towards Bethlehem.

Not to make light of Covid-19.  It will probably kill millions before it’s done.  But its lethality is modest.  And we already have a model for how this will likely go… the Spanish Flu of 1918.

Like that long ago pandemic at the end of World War I, Covid-19 will exact its pound of flesh not from a terrible lethality, but rather from its remarkable infectiousness.  Infect enough people in a population and you don’t need a high mortality rate to suddenly be in a very dark place.

But that is only the prologue.

Mention economics and finance and people’s eyes quickly glaze over.  So let me distill it all down to a single, historically inarguable premise:  human health and well-being is directly correlated to GDP.  I don’t mean there’s some kind of vague, abstract correlation.  I mean they are directly correlated.

And GDP is now headed dramatically, profoundly lower.  Probably lower than we’ve seen in decades.  And probably for a very, very long time.

When this is all over, far more people will have died because of what is coming in the economy than ever died from Covid-19.  And the survivors will inhabit a landscape littered with carnage and misery that is today unimaginable.

There will be suffering aplenty, for everyone.

I know the eyes are already growing dim, so I won’t belabor the point.  But for those wondering why I pose such a depressing vision, why – those of you already turning and waving at the talking head on television who keeps talking about the “V-shaped recovery” – why can’t that be our future?

Let me put it this way… if we human beings had collectively led economically prudent, rational lives – sober is the word that comes to mind – the financial effects of Covid-19 would still be beyond awful.  

But, no, we didn’t live that sober, wise existence.  There is hardly a society on earth which has not lived beyond its means – far beyond its means – for years and years.  Global debt-to-GDP reached 322% in the third quarter last year, with overall debt north of $250 Trillion.

Debt doesn’t matter… until the day it does.  

Debt seems innocuous when interest rates are staring at the zero bound.  And that’s the lovely fantasy we’ve all been living since… well, a very long time.

Here is what will happen:  governments around the world will soon implement epic, extraordinary “stimulus” measures.  Corporations – those selfsame companies whose officers repeatedly rewarded themselves over the last decade by ordering share buybacks, in order to juice their stock price, in order to trigger their bonuses and amplify the value of their stock options… all in lieu of building factories, hiring workers, or otherwise doing something productive – will be bailed out.  

Banks, already the beneficiaries of a rigged system, will get even more rigging.

Small and mid-size businesses will get something, albeit they will be shunned to the smallest teat on the pig.

Individual citizens will receive helicopter money.  Who won’t love those checks in the mail?

Modern Monetary Theory, the notion that a government can essentially spend as much as it wants, unconstrained by such inconveniences as tax revenues or fiscal deficits, will have its day in the sun.

Interest on debt of all kinds will be suspended.  Loan payments will be delayed.

Everything you can imagine to keep the edifice upright will be tried.  Anything to keep the illusion alive.  To keep the dancers on the floor.  Politicians from both parties will promise anything and everything.

But, then, in spite of these herculean efforts…

Layoffs will come, slowly at first, but then with shocking speed.  Unemployment will spike to levels never before seen.

Interest rates will rise, even as asset values of nearly everything else collapses.

Companies will go out of business.

Banks will fail.

What remains of commerce will turn ever more slowly.

Currencies will fail. 

Social unrest will make its appearance.  We can expect police and military crackdowns.

Citizens will demand that government “do something.”  Socialism will be embraced by those who today cannot imagine themselves on that part of the political divide.

Ultimately, there may be a financial reset… with a new currency, new national and international monetary plumbing, and perhaps a debt jubilee. 

If you were alive in the middle of November, 1929, you’d surely have breathed a sigh of relief that all that chaos up on Wall Street a few weeks ago had turned around.  You’d have no idea, none at all, of the long nightmare that actually lay in front of you.

None of this will happen quickly.  This will be a long, extraordinarly painful slog.

But it was a reckoning we had coming.  Covid-19 is simply the dagger that began the dance.


Tuesday, January 14th, 2020

The ground, cold and frozen the first few inches, is hard to cleave.  I have to alternate strokes, first a time or two with the mattock, then picking at the loosened soil with the shovel.  

Under the frost line it eases, the soil softer.  Or not.  My tears, hot in the December chill, fall wet into the growing hole.  When Ginny comes out after awhile I shake her away with a strangled “no.”  I’ll do it.


Life is funny.  We never really know how things will turn.  How the things we once imagined to be so damned important… turn out not to be.  Even while there are all these little things that smile at us, unbidden, as they float through our lives.  And when we eventually look back we realize that those were the only things that ever really mattered.

If there’s a blessing here, it’s that I knew.  This one time, I knew.

His life with us began in trauma, a long, cold, noisy airplane ride, alone.  When I saw him trembling inside the small cage as it descended the cargo ramp at Reagan National I was immediately struck by overwhelming guilt.  I knew instantly I would never again do that to a dog.

But 8-week-old puppies are nothing if not emotionally resilient.  As we walked back to the car, Ginny carried him in her arms.  He fell asleep in her lap on the long drive westward.  And when we arrived, now in full darkness, Ginny gently nudged the as-yet-unnamed little fellow awake.  Sleepily sniffing the ground in front of the house, his new domain, he pee’d on the grass.  The first of a million times he would do that.  Then the three of us walked inside.

Our home would never again be the same.


So how do you capture what it all meant?  And the answer, of course, is that you don’t.  You can’t.  There’s simply too much there.  To unpack it all would require another whole lifetime.

All I can say is that he was my best friend, ever.  That there aren’t words that even remotely begin to describe how much I loved him.  He had the gentlest soul of any creature – two or four-legged – that I ever knew.

Three weeks in, I’m still walking around in a stupor.  You seek normalcy.  But, save for the occasional motorcycle trip I’d go on, he was part of everything.  His presence intertwined with life itself.  So you turn your head and you expect him to be there.  And when he’s not, when you’re reminded, your chest tightens and you can’t breathe and the tears come once again.

And so I whisper what I used to always whisper when I’d head off to bed early and he’d come trundling upstairs and quietly pad over to the bed to nose my cheek, making sure everything was okay.

I’d roll towards him and stroke his head and touch his nose with my nose, murmuring “Daddy loves you.  Don’t ever forget that.”

And as he turned to leave, reassured, I’d smile at him and add “my sweet boy.”

A gallery of some of my favorite pictures…

And the last half-dozen pictures I took of him, during his last few days…

Orlean, Virginia: Witness to History

Tuesday, October 8th, 2019

Civil War histories invariably point to Gettysburg, and the famous battle fought there, as the high tide of the Confederacy.  The point at which the American South came closest to seizing its independence.

Only, those accounts are wrong.  By July 1863, notwithstanding the string of battlefield victories that Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia had put together, the prospects of the Confederacy were already quickly waning.  The west was nearing collapse.  Food and forage – never abundant – were in critically short supply… enough so that that spring had already seen bread riots in Richmond and Lee dispatching half his army (Longstreet’s corps) into North Carolina to find sustenance.  And Stonewall Jackson, Lee’s battlefield soul mate, lay fresh in his grave.

No one understood those quickly narrowing odds better than Lee.  When he began crossing the Potomac in the summer of 1863, with destiny pulling him towards the sleepy, crossroads town of Gettysburg, it was more out of a sense of desperation than because it was an obvious denouement to the then two-year-long struggle.  Yes, Lee wished to give battle, as he knew the sands of time were working against him.  But more than that, he needed supplies… and he knew where they could be found.

A year earlier though?  1862 began with the Confederacy on the ropes in every theater.  It’s prospects seemed dim.  The Union was ascendant everywhere.  Confederate morale was at its nadir.  And by the time McClellan landed his huge Army of the Potomac at Fort Monroe and began the Peninsula campaign, the growing feeling everywhere – North and South – was that the war would soon be over.  In a few weeks time McClellan would be at the very gates of Richmond… and there seemed nothing the Confederacy could do to prevent its fall.

But, then, two things happened.  In March, even as McClellan embarked on his half-sea, half-land end-run to seize the Confederate capital, Stonewall Jackson – the selfsame young VMI professor who had gained a bit of minor fame in the first major battle of the war a year earlier… along with the moniker which would forever be attached to it – initiated what would later be known as the Valley Campaign.  Over in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, Jackson and his small force again and again attacked and defeated much larger Union forces.  Marching what seemed impossible distances and shocking his foes by seemingly appearing out of nowhere, Jackson’s exploits electrified the entire Confederacy… even as they brought dismay to the North.  By spring’s end, the strange professor with the little bit of fame… was little-known no more.  The name “Jackson” was spoken in hushed whispers, with either excitement or dread appended depending upon one’s allegiance.

The second thing was the wounding of Joseph E. Johnston, the commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, on the afternoon of May 31st, outside Richmond.  This led Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president, to appoint Robert E. Lee, his senior military advisor, as commander of that army.

It’s important to realize that in June of 1862 Robert E. Lee was not viewed anything like he is today.  As a career U.S. army officer – one who had spent some years as commandant of West Point – he was well-known amongst that small cadre of professional army officers, of course.  But the common soldier tended to a derisive scorn for their new commander.  His first nickname was “Granny Lee” because they thought he was too cautious and afraid to fight.  And that was soon followed by “King of Spades” because of his penchant for breastworks and “digging in.”  Even among the professional officer class Lee was often viewed as distant and staid and by-the-book.

They – and the world – would soon see the real Lee.  And nothing in the Civil War would ever again be quite the same.

Lee faced an extraordinary quandary.  Significantly outnumbered by McClellan in his front; his capital at risk; short of food, forage, and armaments; and another three-corps Union army quickly forming under John Pope a few days march to his north… what to do?

Lee’s answer wasn’t long in coming.  He first initiated the Seven Days’ battles, which drove McClellan from Richmond and prompted that Union commander to abandon his idea of seizing Richmond from its eastern approaches.  Retreating to the protection of his gunboats, McClellan suddenly decided that he had had enough of Bobby Lee.  He punted.

Then, the first of many times he would do so while commanding the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee divided that army, sending Jackson northwestward first to Gordonsville, and then to a place called Cedar Mountain.  There, Jackson defeated elements of Pope’s new army.

Soon, once he was confident McClellan was indeed disembarking for Northern Virginia, Lee moved swiftly to reunite his army.  By mid-August Richmond no longer faced imminent threat, the vast Union army that had come to seize it were on boats headed back in the direction of Washington, and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was… back in northern Virginia.  Rarely in history have military fortunes changed so completely and so profoundly, as they did during those ten weeks from June to August, 1862.

And thus was the die cast and the stage set for the true high tide of the Confederacy.  A lone, narrow chance that wound its way through the late summer of 1862.  A singular Southern hope that marched through the village of Orlean, on its way to destiny.

Despite his recent victories, Lee still faced a grave challenge…  McClellan’s grand Army of the Potomac was moving rapidly to combine with Pope’s Army of Virginia.  Lee knew that if that happened the already-difficult odds he faced would become impossible.  Engaging Pope, before McClellan and his army could unite with him, was his only hope.  But how to accomplish that?  Pope’s forces were aligned in a wide arc, along the northern bank of the Rappahannock River, and Lee’s initial efforts at crossing that river were repulsed.

The western anchor of Pope’s line held fast at Waterloo… a few miles south of Orlean on Leeds Manor, and a mile or so above present-day rt. 211… there was a different (wooden) bridge there then, but it was at the same location as the present Waterloo Bridge… down off Old Bridge Road (rt. 613) – the very bridge that has been closed to traffic for the last year or so.  (The present, closed-to-traffic, metal bridge was built in 1879).

What Lee conceived was startling both in its audacity and its risk.  He proposed dividing his army once again, sending Stonewall Jackson with half the army, and most the cavalry, on a long march around Pope’s right flank, forcing Pope to abandon the Rappahannock in order to deal with the Confederates in his rear.  He (Lee) would follow by a day or so and would reunite with Jackson before Pope could concentrate his forces.

Jackson always performed best, his eyes alight with excitement, when given broad autonomy and command discretion… and so this mission suited him to a tee.

The Confederate army was spread out in the fields around Jeffersonton, not far from where present-day rt. 229 joins rt. 211.  If you stand at the gas pumps at the Exxon station there at that intersection and gaze southwards, you can see where some of the brigades were encamped.

Jackson’s unit commanders were ordered to prepare three days rations and be ready to move at first light.  But the troops had hardly had time to light the fires to cook those rations before they were ordered to form up and move out.  Daylight of Monday, August 25 would find Jackson’s three divisions of 24,000 men already well on the march.

A word about the roads… western Fauquier County in 1862 was remarkably similar to what it is today.  It had the same rural character.  The same rolling hills.  The same interspersing mix of forest and field.  A person going back in time would be unsurprised by nearly everything… except for the roads.  The roads were generally pretty awful.

Although many of the roads we have today existed back then, they were of a very different character.  Think narrow, one-lane dirt tracts – dirt, not gravel – and you’ll be on the right track.  They were dusty when it was dry.  And quickly turned into difficult tracks of mud when it was wet.

The one exception were “macadamized” roads.  Macadam roads were invented in the early 19th century and were that era’s “hardtop” road.  They consisted of several layers of interlocking rock and gravel, graded and rolled to create a solid, stable surface. 

Macadam roads do not have any modern parallel.  Tarred, blacktop roads such as we have today did not come into existence until the automobile made its appearance in the early 20th century.  But macadam roads were much closer to the asphalt roads of today than they were to the otherwise dismal roads that existed during the Civil War era.  They were wide enough for easy two-way traffic, they featured engineered drainage, and they were little affected by weather. 

Alas, they were few and far between.  In 1862, the Valley Turnpike (present-day rt. 11) over in the Shenandoah Valley was macadamized; the Warrenton-to-New Market Turnpike (present-day rt. 211) was macadamized; and the Warrenton-Alexandria Turnpike (present-day rt. 29) was macadamized.  Pretty much everything else in the area was dirt.

The general lack of major, reliable roads in Virginia (and throughout the South) was one reason that railroads figured so prominently during the Civil War.  Sustaining armies of that era took prodigious quantities of material and the roads were simply not up to the task.

As if that wasn’t enough, maps were also almost non-existent.  Army cartographers and engineers on both sides largely documented their theaters of operations as they proceeded, based upon whatever scant intelligence they could find.

Speed was of the essence, so Jackson was travelling light.  From Jeffersonton, turning westward on present-day rt. 211, the long, snaking Confederate column had an advantage on this day.  They were led by Captain J. K. Boswell, Jackson’s 24-year-old Chief Engineer, along with members of Warrenton’s famed Black Horse Cavalry.  Boswell had a brother and two cousins in the Black Horse Troop and these young men all knew the local roads and countryside.

Within hours of dawn, Pope had reports that accurately sized the Confederate column moving west.  What he did not see or hear was that on the western outskirts of Amissville… that column suddenly turned north on Hinsons Ford Road (present-day rt. 643).  Then, as now, that road wends back towards the Rappahannock River.  Today the road dead-ends just below the river, with a private residence blocking passage.  In 1862, though, the road continued down to the water’s edge.  Along with the ford, there was a working mill and a post office there. 

Having already marched for several hours in the hot summer sun, one can imagine the Confederates were happy to wet their feet as they splashed across the cool waters of the Rappahannock.

But their relief was brief.  Once on the northern bank, their path was a long, hard pull, mostly uphill.  Their track put them largely on what is today Bear’s Den Road (rt. 743).

At Leeds Manor Road (rt. 688) they turned left, marching the mile north to where the citizens of Orlean were ready to be amazed.

Then, like today, war and rumors of war was usually a distant thing.  The people of western Fauquier County heard what was happening slowly, as newspapers and travelers made their way through the area.  Other than the occasional cavalry patrol, they had not personally witnessed much.

Pope’s General Orders 5 and 7, issued several weeks prior, had certainly made an impression, however.  Virginia’s citizens were outraged by his dictate that Union troops should “subsist upon the country” – a mantra that many Union troops took to mean they were free to steal and pillage; that Southern civilians living within five miles of guerilla attacks would be responsible for the damage from those attacks; and requiring oaths of allegiance to the United States.

And so with that anger as a backdrop, the citizens of Orlean had thrilled to the news… first from Richmond, and then from Cedar Mountain.  Standing at the intersection of Leeds Manor and John Barton Payne in the middle of the little village on that hot Monday in August, one can imagine the sudden shock of seeing the gray-clad column suddenly heave into view at midday.

The Confederates did not pause, but turned right from Leeds Manor onto John Barton Payne (rt. 732).  If you today stand on the rear deck of the Orlean Market and squinch your eyes, you can see them marching past, mere feet away.  They would have been younger and skinnier than the image we have of them today – Hollywood movies and present-day Civil War reenactors being well-fed middle-aged men, for the most part, while the real Southern soldier was mostly very young and almost always hungry.  But you’d have found them in fine spirits… cracking jokes and easily intuiting that this long march meant that Lee and Jackson were up to something special.

This, ladies and gentlemen – today and tomorrow and the day after – was the real high-tide of the Confederacy.  The singular moment during the Civil War when the South came closest to forcing the issue on the battlefield.  That it failed to do so turned on the narrowest of margins.

It would take a couple hours for Jackson’s corps to pass by the market.  After crossing the Rappahannock at Hinsons Ford, the Southern troops had become spread out in the fields and swales out along Bears Den.  But back on Leeds Manor and, now, John Barton Payne, they tightened up ranks again.  They marched in order, swiftly. 

They passed Thumb Run church on their left.  And when they reached present-day Wilson Road (rt. 738) they turned north once again.  It was just a quick, little dog-leg, before they turned eastward once again on Crest Hill Road (rt. 647).  They would pull up at Marshall (then called Salem), between 8 and 9pm (EST), exhausted, after having marched approximately 26 miles.

The afternoon brought more surprise to the citizens of Orlean.  Hardly had the tramping feet of Jackson’s men faded into the distance when came the sound of horses.  Thousands of them.  They were J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry and they, too, turned up John Barton Payne.

Meanwhile, back in Jeffersonton, where all this started lo those many hours ago… at Waterloo Bridge and various other points along the Rappahannock Lee directed Longstreet to make continued demonstrations – artillery barrages and cavalry feints and infantry movements – to hold Pope’s attention.  The ruse succeeded.  As Jackson’s exhausted Confederates finally fell out into the fields just outside Marshall as darkness fell, Pope believed the morning would see Lee trying to force his line along the Rappahannock.

Tuesday, August 26, 1862 was a remarkable day.  Jackson roused his men early, their exhausted sleep upon the hard ground outside Marshall not nearly enough.  But the fate of an army – of a nascent nation – hung in the balance, and Jackson knew it.

From Marshall, Jackson proceeded west on present-day rt. 55… through The Plains (incorrectly noted in most wartime reports as “White Plains”), through Thoroughfare Gap, through Haymarket, and, finally, to Gainesville.  There, he turned south along present-day rt. 619, to Bristoe Station.  And it was there, at dusk, when the telegraph line was cut and the trains stopped running, that Pope finally learned that Jackson was in his rear.  You can imagine his astonishment. 

Meanwhile, the good citizens of Orlean were not quite done as witnesses.  During the afternoon on this day Lee, with Longstreet and the other half of his army, left their positions south of the Rappahannock and began following the same route Jackson had taken a day earlier.  West on 211, north on Hinsons Ford, splashing across the Rappahannock, and the long walk up along Bears Den to Leeds Manor.  At dark, Longstreet’s men fell out into the fields just south of Orlean.  The residents of Orlean would go to sleep that night with nearly 30,000 sudden visitors.

Morning would see them depart, but not before one last bit of drama unfolded.

Lee, as was often customary at the time, dined that evening at a local home of standing.  In this case, he had dinner and stayed the night at Oak Hill, the home of Mrs. John Marshall, daughter-in-law of U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall, near Piedmont Station (present-day Delaplane).

Early Wednesday morning, August 27, 1862, Lee and his staff bid adieu to Mrs. Marshall, mounted up, and proceeded on horseback towards Marshall.  They were well in front of Longstreet’s corps, at that moment just arising from their camp at Orlean, when they were discovered by the 9th New York cavalry between Ada and Vernon Mills, who were screening Pope’s left flank.  Lee’s staffers drew up in a line, while Lee hurried towards the safety of Longstreet’s corps.  The Union cavalry, believing the gray-clad horsemen were part of a much larger Confederate cavalry unit, quickly retreated towards Warrenton.  It was probably the closest Lee ever came to being captured or killed during the entire Civil War.

And so ended the little village of Orlean’s witness to the momentous high-tide of the Confederacy.  Events would continue to unfold, of course… Lee’s narrow escape would be followed that day by the continued march of Longstreet to join Jackson.  Late the next day, Thursday, August 28, 1862 would see the Second Battle of Manassas joined.  Lee’s two corps were once again reunited.  And on Friday, August 29, 1862, Longstreet would hammer Pope with the greatest infantry assault ever seen in North America.  It was a crushing defeat for the Union commander.  That he escaped with his army at all was down to darkness… and the heroic, tenacious defense mounted on Chinn’s Ridge by subordinates who were far better at war than he was.

WKCW and AM Broadcast RFI

Friday, September 6th, 2019

I have three HF antennas at my QTH… a 40-meter OCF dipole, an 80-meter OCF dipole, and a 160-meter horizonal full-wave loop.  As a newly-licensed ham a few years ago, the 40-meter dipole was my first antenna and (thankfully!) performed largely like the books suggested a dipole ought to work.

Two months in, though, I hung the 80-meter dipole.  That antenna was not just longer than the first one, it was higher.  No surprise, it was (and is) a better antenna pretty much everywhere.

But it brought with it a strange curiosity… my MFJ 259C antenna analyzer rendered inconsistent numbers in some cases, and flat-out crazy ones in others.  Wonky enough that I wrote MFJ about what I was seeing.  They suggested I send the unit back to them so they could take a look at it.

But, then, on a hunch I took a set of readings from that first, 40-meter dipole… and those numbers were both in the range I expected as well as consistent with the spreadsheet of readings I made when I first hung the antenna.

More than a little confused, I put my 259C back in its box and put it on the shelf, fairly convinced it was an unreliable piece of gear.  (You can’t go long in the ham radio hobby without hearing all the disparaging remarks about MFJ – much of it justified – and so such conclusions aren’t terribly surprising).

Hint:  Those biases we too often wrap ourselves in rarely help us towards the truth!

Fast forward another couple of months and a much awaited box from Elecraft showed up.  You know those moments of anticipation when you first hook up a new rig, imagining all those people and all those places it might connect you with?  Yeah.  You can imagine my surprise when I first hooked up that glistening, new radio to my coax switch and slipped the headphones over my ears, only to find the bands were alive with… the sound of music!  Classic, 60’s and 70’s rock music to be precise.

Turns out the Elecraft KX3 has an astonishingly capable receiver.  The epiphany began to unfold.

On a hunch, I pulled out a little-used transistor radio and with the headphones to the KX3 still over my ears, punched up the AM broadcast band.  In a couple of seconds I had my answer.

WKCW.  1420 AM.  The radio station – or, at least its broadcast antenna – that I had driven past a million times.  Because it’s less than a mile from my house.

The good news is that a little dab of attenuation was all that was needed to extinguish Neil Diamond and The Beatles and Diana Ross whenever I wanted to operate HF.  But there was a larger story going on there.

A Sark-110 and, later, a Rig Expert AA-600 joined that unjustly-maligned MFJ 259C in the shack.  WKCW’s 22,000-watt daytime signal might easily be hidden simply by turning to the attenuation control on my rigs.  But the miniscule signals those antenna analyzers depended upon to suss out their data were completely overwhelmed.  A long conversation and a series of tests with Melchor Varela, EA4FRB – the Spanish designer of the Sark-110 – confirmed as much.

Elecraft’s panadapter for the KX3 – and, later, the bandscope on my Kenwood TS-890S – gave a visual reference to what was going on.  Without attenuation the displays light up with yellow and white RF energy, pulsing with the peculiar, strobe-like beat I’ve come to jokingly call “The Marching Band.”

The bottom line is that one simply cannot make accurate antenna measurements of physically long or tall antennas – the irony being that the better the antenna is, the more it is affected – at my QTH while WKCW is broadcasting its daytime signal.  You have to wait until darkness, when their signal drops to 60 watts.

It begs several interesting questions, including the degree to which even “reasonable” and expected SWR readings – like on that not-too-high 40-meter dipole of mine – might not actually reflect the true nature of things.

And although the mixing products of that commercial AM signal can easily be dialed out with an Attenuator button, that’s kind of like throwing the baby out with the bath water.  You lose more than just WKCW.

My survey of the literature found a lot of superficial references to “Broadcast AM interference,” mostly under the larger rubric of RFI in general, but not much in-depth dissection.  In particular, there wasn’t much on the actual mechanism of how AM interference does its thing.

Visit DX Engineering or Ham Radio Outlet or Palomar Engineers or even widely accepted subject matter experts like Jim Brown, K9YC, and you’re left with the inference that it’s a common mode current problem.  That the bouncing beat of Jefferson Airplane is riding down the outside shield of your coax.

A bunch of expensive Mix-75 ferrites will quickly disprove that notion, however.  WKCW is intent on taking a much more direct route into your shack.

Short of throwing your antenna up inside a gargantuan Faraday Cage – I think John, KX40, might be the only one around who might be able to do that – I don’t see there ever being a solution to the conventional put-a-miniscule-signal-out-on-the-wire-and-read-what-comes-back antenna analyzer problem.  But lighting up your antenna with 100 watts of RF and reading that with a Vector Network Analyzer gets around that nicely.

Or just wait until it’s dark.

As for sharing your receiver’s front end with all that wonderful classic rock… here’s a high-pass filter that works a treat…

Yeah, it’s pricey.  But it’s got a very sharp roll-off between 1.7 and 1.8 MHz, so if you’re wanting to work top band, you can.  And other than the very, very bottom of 160 meters, insertion loss at 0.1 dB is hardly noticeable. It’s limited to 200 watts, but if you put it between your rig and your amplifier, that’s not a problem.

It makes a profound difference.

I’d love to hear how others may have dealt with AM broadcast RFI in general, and WKCW in particular.  Especially if you’ve had any experience with wave traps, as they’ll probably be my next area to explore.

73, Jeff K4EI


Sunday, September 23rd, 2018

Twelve days ago my dad died.  He was the most remarkable man I ever knew, a man I looked up to more than any other.  It’s hard to imagine this world without him in it.

April 1st, 1945. Easter Sunday.

As dawn breaks in the western Pacific, an armada of 1300 American ships lies offshore Okinawa, poised to assault the first of the Japanese home islands. The ships have dodged a typhoon en-route and many of the sailors and soldiers and Marines are seasick. That’s in addition to the terrible anxiety of what lies ahead. The 36-day Iwo Jima campaign, conducted by their Marine brethren 855 miles east, just concluded a few days ago. That one cost more than 26,000 American casualties. No one, from the lowliest cook to the most seasoned general, can imagine what this one, this battle for Okinawa, will cost. But no one has any illusion that it will not be paid for very, very dearly.

April 1st. The pre-landing bombardment has been going on for two and a half hours, since just before light. The air literally buzzes with the sound of rockets and the duller, heavier reverberations of the huge ship gun shells as they impact. Every man, on every ship of this immense armada, hears and feels the air rent by the sounds. There is no closet, no corner, no wardroom, anywhere in this vast armada from which one can escape it. The leaden minutes tick by, pregnant with portent.

April 1st. As the landing craft begin moving towards the beaches shortly after 8am, it is a beautiful, clear day in the East China Sea. There is just a hint of breeze. It is not quite 75°

It is his 19th birthday.

Back here in Roseland, one imagines that his mom and sister are getting ready for church. Perhaps a sunrise service. It’s dry on this Easter Sunday. But clouds are moving in. Tomorrow will bring a light rain.

His mom doesn’t know, of course. Which is just as well. She has already lost her oldest boy, nine months ago, in the hedgerows of France. Her second son is in the Fifth Marine Division and has just survived that bloody, difficult campaign just finished on Iwo Jima. Here now comes the third son, in the First Marine Division, here on Okinawa. And the fourth son is just finishing high school and will soon be in the Navy.

It must have been an awfully hard time to be the parent of a young man.

We know now how the battle on Okinawa unfolded, of course. It took 82 days and cost 82,000 American casualties. Over 110,000 Japanese died and nearly a third of the civilian population were lost. Ninety percent of the buildings on the island were destroyed. Cases of what we today call PTSD were rampant.

The experience marked him. He liked being a Marine. He liked the Spartan, minimalist discipline it instilled, the stoic resolve to do the things that were necessary. But, like many of that era who experienced what he did, he afterwards rarely spoke of the war itself. I suspect he knew that only those who were there could ever truly understand.

There was an interlude after the war, a handful of years, when he came home and did the things that young people everywhere do, to enjoy themselves and find themselves and figure out what they’re going to do next. On the one hand, the men who had been overseas and experienced the adrenalin-high of combat must have found civilian life to be drab and mundane. On the other, all those young people of what we now call “The Greatest Generation,” having come out the other end of a terribly fraught time, must have felt an exhilarating joy at simply being alive. I expect it was something of a mix.

He spent some time in college. And when that didn’t prove stimulating enough, he, almost on a lark, got on the bus to Norfolk and enlisted in the merchant marines. A year back out on the ocean, plying the sea lanes to Europe, was enough adventure to bring the perspective he was searching for.

When he came home he did what most the young people of his generation were doing… he settled down. He got married. And he and Joyce moved to DC, because that’s where the jobs were. And then we, the children who would later be called the Baby Boomers began to come along.

In a lifetime filled with memories, where do you begin? I don’t know. I haven’t a clue, only knowing that it is a tapestry that fills the heart.

He grew up with the Civil War close to his side, embedded in his soul. How could he not? His grandfather, his namesake, was a young medic in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and was captured during Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. When that young man came home from his war, he, too, settled down. He finished his studies and became a doctor and got married and began having babies. To the end of his days, though, he didn’t have much truck for Yankees. Long years later he named his thirteenth child, a little girl – Pop’s mom – Virginia Secession. Everyone called her ‘Sece.’ And most everyone knew what it was short for. So, no, there was no forgetting. They may tear down the monuments everywhere else, but if you go visit his home at East Branch you’ll find there a fine, fitting memorial to Southern valor and Southern sacrifice.

He was the most rigorously honest man I ever knew. Not honest just in the sense of never telling a lie, though that’s important. Beyond that, though, he was honest in what it means to ever be true to something. To hold to the essential core of what something means. To honor the fidelity of being honest when no one can see it, when no one knows, but you.

Watchful of the world around him, he early on came to see that the truth is malleable. That history is written by the victors… and then frequently gets re-written as it suits. He hated that. He hated even more that so few saw it.

When he found something he liked, he kept it. Long years after it was no longer in fashion, he would still don the wool, navy-blue watch cap after his morning shower, pressing back his short, still-damp hair so that his flat-top haircut – a fashion statement so many decades out-of-date that few barbers even knew how to do it justice – would take the proper set.

His wife and daughters were ever aghast at the – to them – tattered, used-up shirts and shoes and vests that he wore. But he knew what he liked. And he understood that the utility of something doesn’t depend on what other people think. Looking pretty for other people was something that never mattered. And as he got older I think that actually got turned on its ear… he took genuine pleasure in tweaking societal expectations.

As a young child he was a picky eater. Picky enough that Sece would often prepare a special dish for him for supper. When he grew up, though, that reversed, and food became an immense pleasure. He’d often laugh and say “I’ll eat anything that doesn’t eat me first.” For many years, the earliest sounds in our house were the soft tinkle of dishes down in the kitchen and the distant hissing of the frying pan, as he made his breakfast of eggs, bacon, and toast. Later, for supper, nothing made him happier than homemade biscuits and gravy, something that became a staple when we were growing up. I think his favorite of all, though, was probably a big plate of steaming fried tomatoes. With more of those homemade biscuits.

Pop didn’t spend a lot of time in the kitchen, but when we were young he’d sometimes be found there baking corn pone. Small, rounded loaves of coarse, dry cornbread about the size of your hand. Perfect for sliding in your pocket when you went outside. As we grew older he eventually stopped doing that. I never knew why, but suspect it was because Snu and Mops had become such good cooks by then that he just didn’t feel the need to cook.

He was a smart kid. Something of a bookworm. And that smart kid turned into a thoughtful, observant man. He loved books. And although he greatly enjoyed many things – everything from golf, to gardening, to cutting the grass, to his famous Virginia boxwoods – I think he loved books best of all. From his earliest days, to his last, he ever had them at his side.

He wasn’t a particularly religious man, but, curiously, he always loved religious music. That wasn’t always a wonderful thing for the rest of us. When we were little, Susan, Martha, and I took accordion lessons. My two sisters really took to those. For me, the novelty wore off about five minutes into the first lesson… and after that lifting that heavy music box was just a tortured chore. But although the sounds that we made with that accordion may have had only a distant relation to what most would call ‘music’ – certainly, mine did – you would never know it from my father. He would lay down on the couch a few feet from where our daily practice was unfolding, close his eyes, and ask for a few of his favorite hymns. And so you’d dutifully turn the music book to the requested songs and play the pieces, periodically looking over at him lying in peaceful repose, praying he wouldn’t fall asleep, because that meant the practice session would just go on longer. Of course, he always fell asleep.

Which wasn’t a surprise. He loved his naps. And a nice, comfortable couch was always a prerequisite in every home he ever had.

There were tough times, too, of course. When he was 66, Holly Hill, his beloved home in Northern Virginia, burned down. He and my mother lost nearly everything they owned. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, what should have been a minor snafu with the insurance company turned into a major disaster… there would be no insurance payment to help rebuild.

For most of us, buying or building a home, and paying it off, is a herculean effort requiring most of a lifetime. So you’re 66 years old and one cold February morning the house you’ve spent thirty years paying for is suddenly gone, with everything in it, and there’s no insurance. What the heck do you do?

Well, he had to figure that out. And he did.

Probably more than anything, the thing that so many of us will remember was his sense of humor. It illuminated his entire life, from the time he was a mischievous little boy until he was, well, a still-mischievous old man. Rarely would you see him when his face wasn’t lit by a grin.

And, of course, we can’t talk about his sense of humor without also talking about the thing it was kin to… his epic storytelling. He loved a good story, and few had that intangible sense of timing and presence that make a tale truly come to life, as did he. You left an afternoon spent at East Branch with this sort of uplifted feeling, but one where your stomach hurt from laughing so hard.

He lived to be 92 years old. He would be the first to tell that’s a long time. I never asked him, but I’ve always imagined that must have been bittersweet. On the one hand is the great good fortune to see such a wonderful expanse of life. To see your children and grandchildren and great grandchildren make their appearance and begin making their own marks upon the world. But on the other… we all come into this world shaken and afraid. We cling to our moms and our dads, to our brothers and our sisters, our foils against the hurt and the heartbreak and the aloneness of the world. As we grow older that cast of humanity that abides us and holds us grows larger. First, friends and schoolmates; later, acquaintances from work. Our circle grows large.

At some point, though, it reverses. We begin to lose people from that circle. Slowly at first, but then with an accelerating impatience, the people we clung to when we were little begin heading for that distant shore. Our original circle grows smaller and smaller. Eventually, if we live long enough, all those souls who made up the world when we entered, all those loved ones who once were our rock and our foundation, are gone. How difficult that must be.

He never complained, though. He loved family more than anything. And even in his later years – especially in those later years – he took immense pleasure in having that family around him. He loved being the patriarch of such a large, extended brood.

He’d also be the first to tell you how lucky he was. For living as long as he did, sure. But more than that, for living that long with both his wits and his body intact. He knew, far more than most, how rare that was.

If imitation is the greatest form of flattery, he was flattered, indeed. I don’t know anyone he ever met who wasn’t influenced by him. I certainly was. You look around and you see his imprint everywhere.

The world may not be quite as bright as it was eleven days ago. But it is a vastly better place because he once lived in it.

And actually, that’s not quite right. Because Papa is here with us – present tense – in so many innumerable ways.

And always will be.