Tyro School – Late 1890’s

June 27th, 2015

Of photography’s benefits, the greatest is its ability to confer a sort of immortality.  So it is here.

When I visited my dad last weekend for Father’s Day, wherein I presented him with a series of of repaired and enlarged and re-printed pictures from the late 1940’s and 1950’s (see previous post), he showed me something else.  A faded, scratched, and wrinkled copy of an old school picture from the 1890’s.

Tyro is a tiny community hard within the fastness of the Blue Ridge mountains, a bit above Massies Mill.  The tiny thread of rt. 56 corkscrews up to the little village, connecting it with the valley below and even remoter locales further up.  Tyro has never been much, just a few hardscrabble families eking out a living, anchored by the early-1800’s-era mill.  What little is there was nearly wiped away during the catastrophic overnight flooding from hurricane Camille in 1969.

The picture was in sorry shape.  But despite that, there was a touch of magic.  You look at the image, of 29 people – young, hopeful, earnest, with what they hope and expect will be most of their lives still in front of them – and you can’t help but be touched.  This was the annual school picture, a tradition that echoes down even to today, and you can’t not notice the seriousness in their eyes.  The gravitas.

But you also notice other things.  The wide range of ages, from young child to young adult.  There was neither the population nor the economic capacity to provide the more targeted education we see today.

You notice the formal attire of the boys, and the severe, Victorian-style attire of the girls.  Like church, school picture day would have warranted one’s ‘Sunday best.’  And yet even that was tough for some to manage.  One boy is barefooted.

You notice the boy on crutches is missing a leg.

You notice the bicycle.  And one girl’s head tilted in what one wonders might be a hint of mirth.

You look at the names and you realize that several families supplied all these children.  You begin to appreciate the interconnectedness of all these people.

You realize that every single person here… is dead.  However their lives turned – good or bad, short or long, rich or destitute – they finished long ago.  Lives remembered, if at all, by a swiftly declining handful of descendants.

And this picture.


Tyro School – 1890’s


After getting the scan back from McClanahan’s, I set to work repairing the image.  It will never be great – the poor original quickly limits what can be done – but is world’s better than it was.


Left to right…


Back Row:

Tom Withers, Robert Massie, Nettie Massie, Florence Massie, Maria Massie, Frank Hughes, Miss Gertrude Coleman (teacher), Susie Gleason, Billy Hill, Minnie Coffey, Mattie Lee Wood, Emmett Gleason, Forest Coffey, Homer Gleason, and a part of Massie Yuille showing on side of picture.


2nd Row:

Lovie Mays, Maria Gleason, Jim Higginbotham, Lora Higginbotham, David Gleason, Sally Hill, Caskie Withers, Margaret Massie, Frank Massie,Eddie Wood.


1st Row, sitting:

Pat Withers, Harry Massie, Bland Mays, and Abby Wood.


Patrick Massie Withers:  Born Nov. 28, 1881

Thomas Austin Withers:  Born Sept. 25, 1883 – Died Nov. 23, 1966

Caskie Withers:  Born Nov. 22, 1888

Lora Higginbotham Withers:  Born 1892




The Gangsters

June 27th, 2015

Circa 1948. Young men of the Greatest Generation, during the interlude between the end of WWII and their taking on the mantle of responsible adulthood – wives and jobs and babies and all the rest.

That’s my dad, second from the right. The other three fellows are long gone.

Kent and I laughed when we squinted at the tiny (~2×3″) contact print a couple months ago. We quickly dubbed the shot “The Gangsters.” In a miracle, Kent had the sleeve of negatives that went with the little prints. I borrowed ’em.

A high-resolution drum scan later and I could see just how badly damaged the negative was. A million tiny and not-so-tiny scratches. Ahead lay hours of digital restoration work. But, finally, I had an 11×14″ print that I could present to my dad.

The gangsters, indeed.

Happy Father’s Day, Pop.

The Gangsters

The Garmin 590LM GPS

May 21st, 2015

After scrabbling about on the gravel for an hour next to the Harley, my aching knees have about had enough.

Am I really going to have to remove the goddam fuel tank?

Shaking my head, I head back inside and sit down with the laptop.  The wiring harness is a true… harness.  In addition to the expected twin power leads, with inline fuse, the harness comes with three audio/mic wires – terminated with individual connectors for headphones, audio in, and audio out – and a long wire terminated with a large, female USB connector.  The morass of wires is a fucking mess.

I’m a simple guy.  I want power to the GPS and that’s it.  I’d like to cut off the extraneous wiring, put a dot of silicone on the exposed bits of copper, and be done with it.

Alas, my google searches are indeterminate.  Some suggest you can perform surgery on the harness.  Others say that by so doing you’ll brick the GPS.

Sighing, I go to the fridge, extract a cold Pale Ale, and head back outside.

An hour later it’s done.  No surgery necessary.  No removing the fuel tank.  And the extra cabling zip-tied and coiled up under the seat.  It’s going to be okay.

My old Zumo 550 had been mounted in a beautiful, chromed piece of billet.  Looked like it could have come from the factory in York itself.

I go simpler this time, utilizing the Ram Mount pieces that came in the box.  Doesn’t look quite as good.  But it mounts up good and tight and is easily adjustable.  It’ll do fine.

A few days later the Touratech mount shows up and the BMW GS gets its turn.  Again, a few hours of scrabbling around in the gravel.  More shaking my head at the enormity of the wiring harness.  More zip-tying and coiling up under the seat.  Another beer.

And back to square one.  Finally, once again, having a GPS unit that I can use on my R1200GS, my Road King, my pickup truck, my car, or in a rental vehicle.


That old Zumo 550 of mine had been a revelation.  After using it for a while I became convinced that a good GPS was second only to electrics (for the non-cognoscenti, that would be heated clothing…) in terms of its positive influence on our sport.


Alas, after eight years of yeoman service, my old Zumo was feeling its age.  It was taking an inordinate amount of time to locate satellites – and frequently required a power cycle or two to complete that necessary task.  Its touch sensitive screen was increasingly not so sensitive, requiring greater finger pressure and more and more offering up a quizzical game on what might be selected when you did push hard enough.  And most frustrating of all, its 1GB of flash memory had long been superseded by map size requirements.  One night two summers ago I sat in a hotel room in Huntington, WV, shaking my head while trying to pigeonhole a partial map of the eastern United States onto the aging GPS.

It was clearly time for a change.

I looked at smartphones, of course.  My iPhone 6+ is a very nice piece of gear.  And mapping in that world has gotten better by leaps and bounds in recent years.

Alas, smartphones still lack the robustness, weatherproofing, and back-end-software routing and trip planning that I consider essential.

Which sent me back to the only game in town… Garmin.

Garmin has released a number of motorcycle-specific GPS units since the original Zumo.  But theirs has been a schizophrenic product road map, as hinted at by the all-over-the-place model numbers.  For a while it looked like they were trying to deprecate the original Zumo design and get everyone moved to what were essentially waterproof Nuvi’s.

It took quite a few years for them to get back to their roots.  The Zumo 590LM finally seems like the fitting upgrade that the legion of original Zumo owners have long waited for.

What Garmin charges for the 590LM is obscene and unwarranted.  More on that, anon.

The device itself?

The screen is the first thing that hits you, of course.  The whole unit has gotten larger and the screen is 2x or 3x the size of the Zumo 550.  After using the 590 for a week, picking up the old Zumo feels like playing with a toy.  Very much the same experience as picking up an old iPhone after using the 6+ for a while.

The screen itself is a mix.  Garmin calls it transflective.  The good news is that when sunlight shines directly upon it – heretofore the Achilles heel of motorcycle GPS screens, a scenario where most wash out – it remains very visible.  In fact, to me some of the very best screen viewing on the 590 is with direct sunlight in the picture.  The not so good news is that in more muted light, say in softly lit overcast conditions, the screen, even turned all the way up, is not bright enough.  Sunglasses – and, presumably, tinted shields – exacerbate that difficulty.  And if the angle is just right, even in good, bright sunlight, the screen can wash out.

I should stop and point out that I wear reading glasses for any kind of close-range work.  But I don’t wear them while riding or driving.  My vision is quickly challenged by dim light.  I suspect younger eyes won’t have as much issue with the 590 screen, regardless of conditions.  Us older guys just have to get our squint look down.

On balance, the screen of the 590 is a major upgrade over that on the 550.  The extra screen real estate combined with the much higher resolution means much more information can be presented, in a much cleaner way.  Watching and interacting with the screen is a very pleasurable experience.

The 590 is vastly more responsive than the 550, the result of a much faster processor.  Everything from boot time, to searches, to route calculations, to going into data storage mode when plugged into a computer, is very quick.  Much better than the old 550.

Garmin has also added a sleep mode which makes access even faster.  When disconnected from power, the 590 counts down to power-off just like the old Zumo – with the user having the option, just like with the old Zumo, to interrupt that and move to internal device battery power.  But with the 590, the default behavior is now to turn off the display and move to sleep mode.  Upon reattaching to external power, or by clicking the power button, the GPS instantly awakens and is ready for use.  You can still do a complete power-off by holding the power button for several seconds.

The touch screen interface is worlds better.  Very little pressure is required to talk to the GPS.  It’s not as sensitive as a smartphone, but the touch screen responsiveness is much closer to one of those than to the original Zumo.  You can even swipe the screen to pan around.  Not as quickly and lightly as the delicate swipes on a smartphone.  But it works.

The whole user interface is improved.  There is a screen of dedicated apps that are available.  Different ‘layers’ that a user can configure.  Shortcuts that can be added to the Saved Places / Favorites window.  Interacting with the 590 is a lot better than working with the 550.

Internal flash storage has been bumped from 1GB to 8GB.  A huge upgrade.  It’s wonderful to once again be able to have a map of the entire United States when you go on a road trip.  I added a 32GB micro SD card and suddenly, after years of feeling pinched, I now feel like I have plenty of storage.  I even loaded my 24K Southeast Topo map to go along with the usual City Navigator map.  Something I normally use with my 62st handheld unit while hunting and fishing.  Now, should I find myself in some off-road wilderness after that single-track peters out, I can see how fucked I truly am!

The new unit has ‘look ahead’ features that very much enhance its usefulness.  If you are following a route, the very top of the screen will tell you where your next turn is, the name of the road that turn joins, and the distance.  At the very bottom of the screen, in smaller font, is the name of the current road on which you’re travelling.

The scrolling map also presents POI (points of interest) icons for fuel and food.  A little bit less of the quick double-take as you pass some establishment and then scramble to do a U-turn to come back.

The unit alerts for school zones as you approach, a nice touch.

In addition to the speed-you’re-travelling indicator that all GPS’s have always had, the new Zumo adds a separate field displaying – where available – the posted speed limit.  It also helpfully turns the speed-travelling-indicator a magenta color if you are above that posted limit.  Garmin cautions that this field may be inaccurate – and, of course, certainly has no bearing on any legal difficulties you might find yourself in.  But I find that speed limit data for most roads, including remote secondary roads, are in the mapping database and are pretty accurate.  I find this feature very helpful.

The unit has an intelligent auto-zoom feature, which zooms in to show pertinent intersection features, where appropriate, then quickly zooms back out to show the larger map.  It works better than you’d expect.  Another very nice feature.

Lane Assist and Junction View are related features, utilized when following directions or tracking a route, that tell you which lane to be in and – frequently on major roads like interstates – dropping a split-screen with an actual picture of what the intersection looks like.  On my old Zumo I frequently had to hit the screen to see if the next turn was left or right, so I could be in the appropriate lane.  Not anymore.

The 3-D mapping looks and works great.  It gives the impression that the road you’re following just kind of gets smaller and trails off into the distance.  Just like visualizing a real road.  It’s a nice effect, probably the salutatory confluence of greater screen size and greater screen resolution.  The older 2-D option is still there.  But to be honest, I haven’t tried it.

Bluetooth connectivity is supposedly one of the 590’s strengths.  I say ‘supposedly’ because beyond pairing my iPhone to the device – something that was very simple and straightforward – I’ve not tried any of that stuff.  I don’t listen to music when I ride.  And I don’t use helmet communicators.  So although I appreciate the option to do those things, they’re far down my list of wants.

That said, there is indeed one handy thing that this robust Bluetooth capability opens up…  Garmin has written a separate smartphone app  that talks to the 590 and provides a channel for presenting traffic and weather information.  The app is free.  But you have to subscribe to the traffic and/or weather data.  And, yeah, Garmin hits you with a one-time charge for those:  twenty bucks for the traffic subscription; five bucks for the weather.

You’d think that after dropping all the serious coin that you did to buy the 590, Garmin could throw in those relatively low-cost extras.  I mean, really?!


The business of pricing aside, the app does seem to work okay.  Traffic, especially.  I’ve thankfully been excused from the pain of commuting, but if I was still in that game I could see enormous everyday benefits to knowing what the traffic situation is.  You don’t normally think of a GPS as being a great asset on a commute you’ve done a million times.  You might be wrong.

That commute aside, it’s less helpful for a motorcyclist.  Most riders I know head for the hills when they’re doing a ride for fun.  They go where the traffic ain’t, in other words.  Still, once you’ve ponied up the twenty bucks, it’s there whether you need it or not.  I’ll need to play more with the traffic and weather to see how they might be helpful, or not, in my world.

Supposedly, the 590 does Pandora through your smartphone.  Garmin thought enough of that feature that they wrote about it on the box.  I haven’t tried it.

The 590 sports one feature that I think is potentially huge:  a tire pressure management system, or TPMS.  Tire pressure is kind of nice to know about in a car.  But on a motorcycle, it’s critical.  There are very few rides I go on that I don’t first bend to each wheel, early in the morning before the first mile has been spun, and check those readings.  An automated, consistent, accurate readout of air pressure in both front and rear tires – accessible in real time while you’re riding – would be an enormous safety benefit.

Alas, the system requires yet another expenditure… sixty bucks, apiece, for the sensors that go on each wheel.  They’re simple, simply screwing onto the valve stem, but they require metal valve stems.  Those sensors then pair – Bluetooth, again – with the 590 unit on your handlebar.

Yes, Garmin continues to rape your wallet.

No, that threaded stem that you screw the cap on on your wheels is almost certainly not a metal valve stem.  Even though, um, it’s made of metal.

I have bought two of the sensors along with a pair of chrome valve stems.  I’m really looking forward to trying out the system, but am not going to pull the wheels and break the beads and install the new valve stems until I’m ready for a tire change.  So it’ll be later this summer before I get to try it on the Harley.  And later this fall, or early next spring, before the BMW gets a go.

Beyond the improvements in the interface and the screen, navigation as a whole is improved.  One thing I’ve always wished for is a ‘Scenic Roads’ option.  Garmin now provides that very thing – they call it Curvy Roads – to go with the standard Fastest Time and Shortest Distance selections.  You could get something of the same thing in the old unit by deselecting all big roads.  But this seems to work a little better.  And it certainly is quicker to get to.

Another neat navigation addition is something called ‘Round Trip.’  You select a location (which can be your current location, a saved location, an address, etc.) and then tell the GPS the distance you’d like to travel, the duration, or some remote location you’d like to hit, and it calculates several route options for you, ending with you back at your starting point.  I’ve only played with this feature a little bit, but it seems to work great.  Especially for motorcycle day trips – “okay guys, how long do you want to ride today?” – I can envision it being a great ad hoc planning tool.

The 590 includes a ‘TracBack’ feature, allowing you to reverse the route you’ve followed.  The old Zumo could get you back to whatever destination you like, of course, but more often than not via a different calculated route.  Especially on curving, complicated routes where many turns have been made, you often want nothing more than to backtrack the same route you came in on.  Now you can.  Another great addition to a motorcyclist’s toolkit.

On the back end, Garmin has equipped the 590 to recognize selected via points as ‘shaping points.’  The difference between regular via points and the new shaping points is that shaping points do not alert as you approach them and do not attempt to route you back to them if you miss one.  You make that property change in Basecamp – where any serious trip planning is taking place.  Since, for me, the vast majority of via points are simply to nail down my route, to force the GPS to route along a particular road, I don’t want to be alerted.  And if by hook or by crook I happen to miss one, I sure as hell don’t want the GPS contorting my route in Lord knows how many ways trying to make sure I go back and ride over that spot.  Garmin still has work to do, IMHO, to get us to the point where we can easily and simply ride the roads we’ve selected on a route.  But shaping points go a long way towards getting us there.

Physically, the cradle mount of the 590 is simpler and more robust than its predecessor on the 550.  The GPS unit pops in and out without any of the futzing that the old mount sometimes required.  And once seated it seems very secure.  I like it.

So, with all these cool, new things, what’s not to like?

Well, it’s hard to not be hit square between the eyes by that cost thing.  The 590LM unit itself costs a ton.  Far more than automobile-oriented Nuvi units with comparable features.  Far more, arguably, than it should.

The simple, vinyl zipper case, which Garmin included in the package with the original Zumo 550, is now a $25 extra.

The traffic and weather subscriptions are extra.

The TPMS sensors are extra.

If you have multiple bikes with which you wish to use the unit, you have to buy additional mounts/harnesses and additional mounting hardware.

The plastic weather cap that serves as a protector for the exposed pins in the cradle is a separate piece.  You’d think after spending $67.95 for a second mount/harness, the weather cap would be included.  Nope.  If you want another one, you have to buy it separately.  Another five bucks, for a part that probably costs ten cents to make.

Looked at as a whole, the Garmin 590LM ecosystem is very expensive.  Not expensive in the sense that you’re paying a premium, because it’s a top-of-the-line product by the market leader.  But expensive in the sense that Garmin is taking advantage of customers during what is probably a closing window of opportunity.

True, the market bears what it will.  And the fact that many of us have jumped suggests that Garmin has thought this through.

I think, perhaps, though, that Garmin will rue the day it made customers feel like they paid what they had to, in order to get the equipment they felt they needed, but made them feel naked in the process.

The smartphone cometh.

Other nits?

That awesomely humongous wiring harness.

The lack of a security screw.  It now takes all of two seconds – literally – to pop the 590 from its cradle.  I’m using a lockable Touratech mount on the BMW.  On the Harley?  Well, let’s just say that every five-minute stop at a gas station or convenience store will now be charged with the question of whether to pop the GPS from its cradle and take the unit inside with me, or leave it exposed to the wandering public.

The only this-might-be-more-than-a-nit I’ve discovered is the 590’s handling of Favorites.  It seems to store all the waypoints you choose to save (up to 1,000, I believe), but it only displays the closest fifty.  You can get around this limit, inelegantly, by selecting a distant city as your Searching Near… locale, but a thoughtful fellow might ponder why such clumsy machinations should be necessary.  The only thing that makes sense is the engineers were trying to limit the hit to active memory (I’m talking about actual device memory, not flash storage).  Yet even that ancient Zumo 550 of mine managed to lift its way past fifty.  You just kind of shake your head.

The last thing I’ll mention, hinted at above, is that usability science and software engineering do not appear to be Garmin’s strengths.  Their mapping software – Map Source, Road Trip, and, now, Basecamp – have always seemed rather arcane and non-intuitive.  But then that’s often true of powerful software – Adobe’s Photoshop comes to mind.

What’s more concerning is that Garmin seems to struggle at having a clarity of what users truly want and need – and then getting that implemented.  The 590 has now been out for about a year, for instance.  It’s already gone through a couple of firmware updates.  Yet in the latest release (firmware version 3.10) the TPMS system will instantly begin nattering at you when you take the GPS off of your motorcycle, on which you have installed sensors, and place it in the automobile cradle in your 4-wheel vehicle, on which you have not.  The GPS software knows you’re in your car – the vehicle icon changes to reflect that – but is not intelligent enough to deduce that the TPMS system, paired with two sensors, is for a motorcycle.

In the meantime, while ignoring that fairly obvious flaw, they took it upon themselves to have their software team implement a whole new feature called ‘Dynamic Fuel Stops.’  As if every motorcycle most of us have ridden in the last thirty years – and every car any of us have ever been in – didn’t already have a perfectly functioning fuel gauge.

Garmin is clearly not a software company.

That all said, I don’t want to leave on a sour note.  On balance, I am utterly delighted with my new GPS.   The Zumo 590LM performs amazing feats of navigation.  It is a wizard at getting you where you want to go; and, sometimes, where you didn’t know you wanted to go.  It integrates seamlessly with a leathered old motorcyclist’s wandering lifestyle.  And it works equally as well in a pickup truck, with a camera on the seat beside you, and a fly rod or rifle in the back.

I love it.

Looking for Infinite

February 28th, 2015

A couple weeks ago I had the task of printing a 16×20 baryta print for a gallery exhibition scheduled shortly.  It’s a nice image, taken with my Leica Monochrom – a camera that renders stunningly good images – and an excellent print, using a split-toned Piezography K7 pigment inkset on very nice archival paper.  As I slid it into its sleeve, preparatory to driving it around to the framing shop, my eyes came to rest upon the very large, dark brown envelope that has stood between my desk and my printer stand for well over a dozen years.  It was and is the only print from another photographer I have ever bought.  But I had never had it framed.  Pulling it out, I carried the envelope out onto the deck and carefully blew away the years of dust. Back inside, I carefully undid the tabs, and then slowly withdrew the print from the envelope.

It took my breath away.

22″ x 26″ matted, with an actual image area 13″ x 17.”  Silver gelatin.  Taken by a photographer named Dave Beckerman in New York City with a large format camera.  On film, of course.

The print just simply glows, with a tonal depth you think you could almost step into.  I was stunned.

I’ve always loved film.  I still carry two boxes of long-expired film – one of Kodachrome 64, one of Delta 3200 – in the console of my pickup truck.  Not because I’ll ever use them.  But because it just makes me feel good when I glance down and see them.  Remembering how it once was.

But loving something and embracing it aren’t always the same.  Like so many others, for many years now I have fallen under the siren song of digital. Its quality is amazing.  And it is just sooo much easier.

It took the infinite grays in that Beckerman print to remind me.  As good as digital is – and I remain one of its staunchest fans – maybe, just maybe, there are some things it doesn’t do quite as well.  Maybe it never will.

And so, in the last couple of weeks, in addition to getting my print and the Beckerman print framed, I ordered fresh Tri-X and Xtol and HC-110 and fixer and hypo clear.  A few days ago I stood in the kitchen and developed the first roll of film in a long time.  I had forgotten what a kick that is.  A little piece of Christmas when you unroll the film from the reel and see those images, made whole of a sudden, glistening in the wetness.

Maybe there really is magic.

To that end, I’ve been in dual mode of late.  Still carrying the Monochrom with me nearly everywhere.  But now also a second camera, my M6, loaded with Tri-X.  Seeing what a companionship of analog and digital might do.

The svelteness of film Leicas is a bit of a revelation after years of digital M’s.  Not to mention that amazing shutter, its snick like a razor, cleanly slicing off an actual, tiny piece of time.  Yes, the M6 is a crazy good camera.  You take it out of the cabinet and put a roll of film in it and take it out to the truck and it feels like meeting up with your childhood best friend.  Off to get into some trouble.

But I already know I need more negative. Infinite is a lot. Large format may, indeed, lie in my future.  I don’t know.  First, I want to see how far medium format can take me.

So there’s the not-very-good short answer to what my plan is. So rough it hardly deserves to be called a plan. Just… looking for infinite.

The Bessa III came out.  Another nice camera.  The one quick lesson it leaves is that that 6×7 negative, hanging from the clip, drying, is a honking nice piece of real estate.

There will be more, soon.  There is a grandeur about medium format.  And something very special about film.

Back to the Beckerman print… I have been true to my New Year’s resolution.  I have been printing a lot.  Nearly every day.  And wondering about the ineffable qualities that define a fine, master print.

And although I’m enjoying my trip down memory lane with film – a road trip I hope extends far into the future – my printing is all digital.  No apologies for that.  Piezography rocks.

With Beckerman’s master print hanging on my wall, a constant reminder of what to strive for, the question still begs… how close can I get?  Do I really need to do the whole Ansel Adams tripod and dark cloth and view camera thing?

Another trip to Beckerman’s site (www.davebeckerman.com), a bookend to that one years and years ago, and I’ve purchased a digital license to the image.   Just so I can play with the high-res file and see how close I can get to what hangs on the wall a few feet away.

A priceless bit of self-education.

And for anyone interested, I believe Beckerman still sells the image.  Poets Walk.  Way too cheap, if you ask me.  It probably ought to go for anywhere from ten to a hundred times what it does.  But that’s Dave’s call.  A discussion for another day.

As usual, a jpeg on the internet doesn’t begin to do it justice.  Especially in the highlights, which are lost on the screen but which are delicate and exquisite on paper.

Get the print.  As big as you can.

Poets Walk Central Park NYC

Adventures in Piezography

December 21st, 2014

It’s kind of like birthing a child.  You see the paper just starting to emerge from the printer, the white of the margin first, and there’s that expectant hold-your-breath moment while you wait to see ink.  When you do, when the first lines of darkness appear, abstract and amorphous, there’s that instant of relief.

Then there’s the longer pause while you wait for the image to gather itself, to gain coherency.  It’s very much cousin to that earlier way, when you’d hold the sheet in a tray of liquid.

When it drops, you reach for it tentatively.  You hold it gingerly, by the edge, because the ink is only just dry.  The paper is ever so slightly tired, with a tinge of dampness in its core, still awakening to its new partner.

There’s the first quick glance, taking in the whole.  First impression, a feeling of relief, or exultation, or disappointment.  Then your eye sweeps back around, begins to penetrate the details.  Your conclusion hardens.

Sometimes it’s a mix.  That’s the way it is now.  It’s an image chosen quickly, at random, a picture taken a couple days ago.  Just to try the new inks.

Even at letter-size the tonal richness is apparent.  I see details I didn’t before.  In the water.  In the tree.  In the bricks of the hundred-year-old building.

The elation of that overall impression is tempered by the corner.  The few inches where the sky is hot.  A faint hue of yellow streaks through the highlights like a meteor.

It takes me a second.  Of course.

Back in Lightroom, searching quickly.  Something high-key, forcing  the faint, wispy light gray Shade 7 to flow through the old used-to-be-yellow channel.

Back at the printer, another print.  Another power clean.

Finally the yellow stain is gone.  Pure white and black and gray.  Lots of grays.

Now, holding this second image – now, pure monochrome – in my hands, there’s a tangible moment.

Like the first picture, there are details I hadn’t noticed before.  The barn just pops, in an understated, elegant way.

But there’s something more.  Something almost intangible.  This picture is full of fog, the blankness of the sky merging with the simple landscape.  Except that, in the print I now hold in my hands, that rolling white isn’t blank at all.  It’s touched with hints, barest hints, of what lies within it.  There’s a… delicacy to the image.  It holds the mood I had felt that day when I saw the scene and pulled the truck over.

Oh, wow.




When walking the city I usually let the light guide me.  How it falls.  The way it shapes the buildings and the street and the people.  Often as not one side of the street is in sunlight while the other is in shade, and I want one or the other.

Today, though, while not really in a hurry, I do have a destination in mind.  I let the pedestrian walk signs direct my route.

So it’s pure serendipity when, having crossed down Tenth Street to Pennsylvania Avenue, I see the motorcycle cop slow, due a U-turn, and then halt, blocking traffic.  A moment later another joins him.

My first thought is motorcade.  President Obama, perhaps.  Or maybe Biden.  Motorcades are not that uncommon around here.

But then I notice the small group of people across the street.

By the time the white hearse pulls around, stopping right in front of me, I have it figured out.

The crowd walks slowly across the street.  The back of the hearse is opened and the coffin is removed.  The pallbearers slowly begin walking down Pennsylvania Avenue, in the direction of the White House, surrounded by and trailed by the chanting crowd of people.

I hadn’t expected to be doing any documentary photography today.   But, going with the flow, I join the small queue of news photographers walking backwards in front of the procession.

I’m glad I chose the 35 this morning, rather than my usual 50.  Still, manually focusing the Leica while both myself and what I’m shooting are moving is challenging.  As is the constantly re-organizing geometry  within my frame lines.

But one of the bits of photographic wisdom I’ve gained over the years is to take what the world gives you.  I’m delighted to have been presented this little vignette of local history, a counterpoint to my more conventional street photography.  Marion Barry, former mayor of DC, infamous for both his politics and his personal peccadillos, loved and hated in equal measure, is having his send-off.

After several blocks, deciding that I have enough, I take one last shot with the Monochrom and then pull my iPhone from my pocket.  Not everyone appreciates the texture and beauty of black and white.  Might as well get a color snapshot.




An hour later I emerge from the salon.  “You sure were in there for a long time,” the guard outside offers with a smile.  “Are you a professional?”

Usually I find the guards at DC’s various museums to be a humorless bunch.  Afraid, I’m sure, I’m going to take a picture with the camera inevitably slung over my shoulder in their No Photography Allowed exhibits.

They’d be right.  Sometimes I do.

We chat for a bit and I try and explain what I found so compelling about the small exhibit in the room behind us.  Nodding at my Leica, he asks about film.

“No,” I say, shaking my head.  “I still shoot film sometimes, but this is digital.”

Struggling to explain the contorted, now-more-than-a-decade-old question, my mind circles around the exhibit I’ve just left.

“Those pictures were all made from large-format negatives, then printed with one of the most beautiful processes ever invented.  Digital gives you much of the same kind of quality, in a much more accessible format.”

Turning to leave, I glance one last time at the placard:  A Subtle Beauty:  Platinum Prints from the Collection.  The exhibit will be open for another month.

“I’ll come back again before it closes,” I smile.

“I hope you do,” he replies.




It had begun innocently enough.  An online query about whether a RIP – shorthand for a small, arcane bit of software called a Raster Image Processor – might elevate print quality.

There was lots of discussion about that.

I never considered different inks.  I had subscribed to Digital Silver Black and White, The Print the internet meeting ground for those early inkjet pioneers, back in the day, when alternative ink sets were first being developed.  The epic stories of clogs and other mini-disasters were legion.

No thank you.

Beyond the tortured history, the first pillar that I circled was that Epson’s ABW – advanced black and white mode – did an excellent job.  I’ve had a number of prints exhibited and have never felt particularly constrained by the limitations of ABW.

The second was a reluctance to disturb the Maytag-like reliability of my 3880.  I’m an episodic printer – I’ll often go weeks or months between bouts of printing (which then tend to be intense) and have never had the clogging problems that have plagued some of Epson’s other professional pigment printers.

Still, in the end it’s all about the print.  You go to the National Gallery of Art or the National Portrait Gallery or the Corcoran or any of the others and you see the great work of great masters.  Most of that genius you take in lives within the canvas or the paper – the idea and the composition and the color and the tonality that the artist wrought.  But part of it – a necessary part of it – is in the execution, the craft itself.  How the artist transformed what was in their heart into a physical object.

The very best of them can be magic.  They have a luminous other-world quality that transcends simply being a picture hung on a wall.  You look at them and you catch your breath.

And so you’re left wondering.  And, sometimes, trying something you didn’t expect.




The first disappointment didn’t take long.  The obvious question anyone contemplating a 3rd-party inkset wants answered is how do they compare with what I’m currently using?  And with Piezography it’s even a little more complicated, as Jon Cone sells five different inksets – Neutral, Warm Neutral, Selenium, Carbon, and Special Edition.

The good news is that Cone sells a sample pack of five prints, of the same image, using each of his inks.  A pretty straightforward way of comparing the inksets while also letting one examine an actual Piezography print in hand.

The bad news is… the prints are the size of a postcard.  Frankly, I am shocked.  For forty bucks I expected at least letter-size prints.  What you get is just sufficient to see how the inks differ.  The prints are too small to make any kind of judgment about Piezography itself.

The good news for him – and for me, I suppose – is that I decide to give his inks a try in spite of that disaster of marketing.




The strengths of Epson’s OEM professional inks are well known.  Pigment-based inks are now a mature product, with outstanding qualities.  Color gamut is very good.  Fade resistance is excellent.  And pigment encapsulation has made piezo head clogging a (mostly) manageable issue.  Most of the metamerism, bronzing, and gloss differential problems that plagued earlier generations of inks have been solved.  Printing directly out of Photoshop or Lightroom are very straightforward.  And the ABW mode produces excellent results while at the same time reducing to a minimum the amount of non-black ink used, further enhancing long-term fade resistance.

It’s a very good product.

It’s singular downside is ink cost.  The nine 80ml carts in my 3880 each cost a bit over $50 apiece to replace.  After shipping, you’re close to five hundred bucks – half the typical street price of that 3880 printer – to replace the full set.  And if you do any amount of serious printing, you’ll be replacing them with some frequency.  It’s made worse by the design of Epson’s printers themselves, which use ink every time a cleaning cycle is run or when one changes between matte and glossy papers.  I’m sure I’m not the only one who cringes every time I switch papers.  Finally, Epson’s chipped carts will cease sending ink well before they actually run out.  Out of that 80ml of ink that you paid fifty bucks for, you’ll actually only ever get to use around 60ml.

In fairness, the larger pro models do include separate ink channels for matte and photo inks.  And they have larger ink cart capacities, which brings the unit cost down.

Still, there’s no way around the cost of OEM ink.  Epson has very much bought into the we’ll-give-you-the-razor-but-charge-you-up-the-ass-for-blades business model.

Having said all that, I’ll be honest.  Cost is a distant factor in my consideration of a 3rd-party inkset.  The thing I’m interested in answering – the only thing I’m interested in answering – is can I get better pictures?

While waiting for the inks to arrive I busy myself with printing a bunch of recent images.  I have a spare set of Epson carts sitting in my printer stand, ready to get me back square, should that be indicated.




Sperryville is a tiny little hamlet snugged up tight under the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  I’ve run through it a million times on my motorcycle, headed towards or coming back from the rolling, dizzying curves of the gap just west of the town.  I’ve stopped a bunch of times for a break, or to enjoy a quick meal.  But until two weeks ago I had never walked the town, with a photographer’s eye.

Wouldn’t you know it, I do street photography in DC and Arlington and Alexandria and New York, and lots of other places.  Hundreds of hours.  Thousands of pictures.  Rarely do I get challenged.

The guy at the apple stand in Sperryville was not happy.

As I steer the truck westward, I keep glancing over at the print.  The shot itself is pedestrian.  Little more than a snapshot.  But the picture holds a fascination for me that belies its unremarkable origin.  Its subject and obvious rural setting and slight hint of sepia are reminiscent of a picture one might have seen from the Great Depression.  The baskets of fruit in the soft sunlight have a depth and a dimensionality to them.  The deep shadows of the shed hold subtle detail.  It’s an ordinary photograph on the one hand.  And yet…

Finally it comes to me what it reminds me of.  Walker Evans.  Using a large format camera.

After printing the barn, I quickly began printing a whole bunch of other things.  Portraits.  Landscapes.  Street scenes.  Documentary.  Daytime.  Nighttime.  Low key.  High key.  The whole eclectic range of imagery that has always attracted me.  Mostly, shots that I already had printed using ABW.

I made a lot of pictures.  After two days, I had to fill up my ink carts again.

I used lots of different papers, both matte and glossy.  Epson’s Hot and Cold Press Natural and Exhibition Fiber.  Canson’s Baryta Photographique and Rag Photographique and Platine Fibre Rag.  Jon Cone’s Studio Type 5.  Hahnemuhle’s Museum Etching.

And, so?

My starting point, my baseline, is Epson’s ABW.  As I’ve already mentioned, it’s a very good product.  It’s easy to use.  And it produces excellent results.  I like it very much.

If I was going to make a change, I wanted it to be a turn-key product, similar to ABW.

Jone Cone touts Piezography as just that.  And it is, mostly.  You can go to his retail website (inkjetmall.com) and buy a set of refillable carts and a set of inks and pretty quickly be in business.  The task of removing your chips from your used set of Epson OEM carts and inserting them into your new refillable carts – something you’ll need to do only once – is easy.  And the process of filling carts with ink from bottles is about as straightforward as it sounds.

Alas, it’s not perfectly turn-key.

Both Cone’s retail website and his more technically oriented piezography.com blog and forum site are rich with information.  Everything you need to know to become a successful Piezography printer is there.  But organizationally they are something of a mess.  You’re going to have to work a bit to pull together all the pieces of information you’ll need.  Mostly, it’s little things.

Like when ordering a set of refillable carts with syringes – the syringes being used to fill and prime the carts – for a 3880, you’ll receive, as expected, nine carts.  But, curiously, you’ll only get eight syringes.  Huh?

A little digging reveals that you can use the same syringe for both Neutral Shade 1 and Opaque Photo Black (analogues to the OEM matte and photo black inks).  It would be nice to have that little tidbit more prominently communicated.

Or, for the process for the one-time chipping and first filling of ink in your new carts, there is a wonderfully helpful 5-minute video on the website.  Helpful, at least, until you get to the last, priming step, where you find it simply doesn’t work.  Turns out that priming with the newer carts is done differently.

Or that there are a number of references to the Master Printmaking System (‘MPS’ – Cone’s label for a system comprised of both matte and glossy-compatible inks) being available only for the Selenium and Warm Neutral inksets, when in fact they are now available for all five.

The workflow is also slightly more difficult than the lovely, seamless printing from Lightroom through to Epson’s ABW.  At least if you’re on a Mac.  Apple, intent on saving us from ourselves, has screwed up color management.  You have to export out of Lightroom, make a quick trip into Photoshop to convert the color space, and then print your file from QTR’s Print Tool.

Probably the largest set of questions revolve around the profiles – ‘curves’ in Piezography parlance – that are available.  When using Epson’s OEM inks obtaining profiles is simply a non-issue.  Epson is the fine art elephant in the room and a paper manufacturer would be crazy not to provide easy-to-download profiles for all of Epson’s printer models whenever they introduce a new paper.  The question of Piezography curves is not nearly so clear.  For a product which has evolved and matured over a number of years, you would expect, similarly, a large library of curves to be available.  Not so.  Compared to the number of printer models and inkjet papers sold today, there is a relative dearth of Piezography curves.  That dearth is mediated by the ability to use a curve that is ‘close.’  I routinely use curves labeled ’SEL’ (obviously for ‘Selenium’), for my Warm Neutral inkset.  Or a curve labeled ‘7880’ in my Epson 3880 printer model.

When I inquired, Jon Cone affirmed that they did not feel it was necessary to create curves for each of their K7 inks, that one curve perfectly handles each of their five inksets.  That seems to be borne out in my own experience.

Still, if Jon Cone were asking my advice – something he most emphatically is not – the thing I’d suggest above all others is that he clarify the use of curves.  Which ones are generic (i.e. are intended to be used with multiple inksets or printer models) versus which are more specific?  Fix the labeling accordingly.  Ultimately, make sure curves are available for all mainstream papers.  Suggesting that folks simply try a curve to see if it suits them seems, at first, odd for a printing system whose entire raison d’être is about maximizing output quality.  Particularly since Cone’s natural constituency are those already well-versed in conventional OEM printing, where very precise and specific profiles are the rule, not the exception.

Reading all this might suggest that Piezography is plagued with issues.  Not true.  These are simply nits.  Irritations to those new to the process.  If Piezography fails at being as perfectly turn-key as Epson’s own ABW, it doesn’t do so by much.  In practice it is a very straightforward system to use.  The workflow is quite simple.

I’ll also point out that the support provided by Cone and his team is outstanding.  Spend some time on the Piezography forums and you’ll see that Dana Ceccarelli, Cone’s technical support manager, goes significantly out of her way to help people – even when their issue is clearly not a Piezography failing.  Cone frequently steps in himself to help customers.  And Wells Smith, who runs Cone’s shipping warehouse, gets stuff out very promptly – typically hours – and packed with great care.  Cone has an excellent team.  A lot of much larger companies could learn a thing or two from his operation.

More importantly – the reason I came down this road in the first place – the results truly do make a difference.  Piezography prints are unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.




W. Eugene Smith, when once asked about his process for printing, famously replied “I go into the darkroom in the morning with a gallon of Dektol in one hand, a package of 11×14 Polycontrast J under my arm, and a fifth of scotch in the other hand, and come out twelve hours later with a print.”

Ask John Sexton about printing and he’ll tell you to make a proof print early and often.

What both of these gentlemen allude to, of course, is that the process of making an outstanding print is an iterative and elusive one.  It has always been so.

The tools that we have today in the digital lightroom are more refined, more granular, and certainly more comfortable – if no less easy – than those that preceded them in the wet darkroom.  But what hasn’t changed is the road that we must travel.

There are a fair number of excellent photographers out there.  The number who can then translate one of those very good images into a fine, master print are quite a bit scarcer.  The visual literacy required for capturing an image is not exactly the same as for making that image into a print.  Certainly the process literacy – how one uses the tools at one’s disposal – when making an image versus making a print, is vastly different.  And that holds just as much whether one is dodging and burning under an enlarger and then dunking that contains-all-hope piece of paper in a tray of chemicals or whether one is sitting in front of a monitor, wondering which Photoshop tool might solve the problem that stares back at you.

It’s always been hard.

All of which is to say, there has never been a silver bullet.  And there doesn’t exist one now.  It’s important to understand that becoming a master printer requires every bit as much commitment as does becoming a great photographer.

For those willing to make that commitment, Jon Cone’s Piezography is a gift.  It does something that no other digital printing process I’ve ever seen, does.  It gives you everything – literally everything – in your file.

When I first started shooting with my Leica Monochrom two years ago, the conclusion I quickly arrived at was that the camera brought a nuanced improvement in luminance values and tonal gradation.  It wasn’t earth shattering compared to my other cameras – Leica M9, Nikon D3, and (now) Leica M-240.  But it was consistently, notably there, in every shot.

It was subtlety, writ large.

After a hundred-odd prints using Piezography’s K7 Warm Neutral inkset, on a half-dozen different papers, in different sizes, on both matte and glossy, I’ve come to the very same conclusion.  Cone’s product doesn’t bring a world-shattering improvement.  But in comparing K7 prints to ABW prints, using the same source files and the same papers, what’s there is a consistent, nuanced improvement.  It’s not an in-your-face thing, but the Piezography prints are nearly always better.  And the larger one prints, the greater that advantage shows itself.

That subtlety thing again.

Notably, some prints actually look worse with Piezography.  Until you delve into them and understand what is going on.  The singular thing Cone’s inks give you is this incredibly rich, long tonal scale.  If you have a print that depends, instead, on deep blacks, high contrast, and pop to give it its effect, you may find the initial Piezography version to be flatter than you like.  What’s happening is the Cone inks are giving you exactly what’s in your file.  If you have a pixel that is mapped to tonal values of 1 or 2 or 3, you’ll actually get detail from that pixel.  Only zero will give you true black.

Same thing on the highlight end.  Piezography’s inks will differentiate the entire tonal scale.  Most other printing systems, including Epson’s ABW, can’t do that.

Which is to say, if you want that deep black, high contrast image, you have to edit for it with Piezography.  You have to do it knowingly, not just arriving at it as a byproduct of your printer’s limitations.

The flip side is that images that benefit from a long tonal range are absolutely to die for.  Dimensionality in a photograph is created by tonal separation.  And most tonal values, in most of the photographic processes we’ve ever developed, going all the way back to those first daguerreotypes, are perfectly fine.  They live on the linear part of the densitometry curve.  Tonal separation is easy to achieve there.  But there’s always been this shoulder and toe on either end of that curve.  Where the values get compressed.  Where there’s less tonal differentiation.  Where photographers have always struggled to get detail.  It’s the whole reason for the old black and white film “expose for the shadows” and its close cousin “over-expose and under-develop” mantras.  It’s the reason Zone System practitioners have long sought to get shadows in zone IV.

Last spring I had a 16 x 20 print exhibited of a girl walking across the Brooklyn Bridge in the rain.  It was difficult image to get – I got very cold and very wet.  But I always liked the image and I very much liked the print that ABW produced.

A few days ago I re-printed that image using Piezography.  Comparing the two, I was astonished at the amount of additional detail that the new print exhibited.  The improved highlights were subtle, but there.  What wasn’t subtle were the shadows.  The Piezography print showed detail that simply didn’t exist in the original print.  It was a revelation.

It’s not as simple as just re-printing your old files.  You can do that, of course.  But I’m finding that the expanded tonal range that Piezography offers is usually best served by re-editing those files with that longer tonal scale in mind.

There are more downsides… I’m finding that Piezography will reveal every other weakness in your workflow.  That calibrated monitor that seemed to soft-proof perfectly fine with ABW?  Not so much anymore.  If you can’t see pretty much the entire Adobe 1998 gamut, you’re flying blind.  Making a print to see what’s in that black-as-night shadow seems ass backwards.  And it is.

Yes, you’ll need that Eizo after all.  And a GTI viewing station.

It’s not entirely painless, in other words.  But the results, for me, early on in this grand adventure, speak for themselves.  I like what I’m seeing.  I haven’t enjoyed printing this much in a long time.

And then, in the midst of all this latter-day fun… The RAID enclosure where I store all my digital images went kaput.  That triggered several days of high anxiety while I wondered if tens of thousands of images – and years of work – might have disappeared.  The good news is I was eventually able to recover everything from backups (a second RAID device) except for a number of soft proofs.  Cue up… huge sigh of relief.

But that near disaster reminded me of something.

Used to be, photography was represented by physical, tangible objects.  Now, with the advent of ubiquitous electronic devices and social media and all the rest, only a tiny percentage of images ever make it to paper.  The vast majority exist only as transient images on a screen.

When we’re gone, no one is going to go through our disk drives looking to see what neat pictures might be there.  The film guys don’t get a pass either – no one is going to browse through those old binders of contact sheets and negatives sitting on the shelf.

And so as we roll towards the New Year, my joined-at-the-hip resolutions are to print more often; and to do a better job of it when I do.

Piezography will be a part of that.



Barn in Fog




Marion Barry




Girl on Brooklyn Bridge



Piezography Prints


Musings on the OBR

October 14th, 2014

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


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

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

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

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

“Can I help you”?

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

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

“The H&K? Thirteen hundred.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was then that the thought began percolating.

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

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

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

Then it just came down to the waiting.




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

If I can see it, I can hit it.

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

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

And the shot breaks.

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

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

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

The awe, though, that ever remains.

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

This rifle shoots softly. That will be important later.

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Geisselle will be just fine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Magic, indeed.




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


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

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

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

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


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.








Unix Magic

October 1st, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

He can fix this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Almost Flying

August 26th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alas, Dubai is a stretch.

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

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

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

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

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

You bet.

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

I want to do more of that.

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

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

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

It truly was an amazing experience.




Leica Store DC 2014 Print Exhibition

June 3rd, 2014

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

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

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

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

Eternal Love

Brooklyn Bridge in the Rain

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

October 6th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I walked out.


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.