Jeff Cooper's Commentaries

Previously Gunsite Gossip
Vol. 11, No. 14         December, 2003

Algid November

Winter is upon us again, and we cannot say that we are sorry. Cool weather has much to recommend it following the long, hot summer just past. We are getting good reports back from the hunting members, and our people in Mesopotamia can enjoy a welcome relief from that Mid-Eastern sun. I once spent a summer in the Persian Gulf and a winter in the Aleutians, and I remember that in both places we seemed to have arrived at the wrong time of year. Weather aside, there is a certain gratification to be found in fighting in desolate places. Smashing up civilization's treasures in war makes a bad scene worse, thus I am relieved to have fought my major wars in the depths of the Pacific - wrecking Tarawa and Iwo gave us no feeling of wastefulness.

The pistol seems to have come into its own in this Arab war wherein much action takes place at very short range in the dark. The Beretta 92 is not a good choice, but there are still plenty of 1911s floating around, and those fortunate enough to acquire them report continued excellent service rendered by this fine artifact after almost a century. It is interesting that the 1911 seems to work better in an unfriendly, sandy atmosphere than its GI successors.

Herewith the wisdom of the aged:
When you can't do anything about it - take a nap.

We have a greater selection of sporting rifle cartridges than we need, and it is interesting to see how some succeed commercially where others fail. A correspondent recently wrote in extolling the merits of the 300 Savage cartridge, the merits of which are well deserved, but oddly unappreciated. The 300 Savage cartridge, which is practically identical with the 308, was introduced with the Model 99 Savage lever-gun and seemed to be too good for its market. The Model 99 offered the advantages of lever-action, which include both certain safe-carry conditions along with suitability for both right-and left-hand use. In college a fraternity brother approached me for advice about the acquisition of a deer rifle, which his father wished to present him for Christmas. Since my friend was left-handed, we opted immediately for the Model 99 in caliber 300. Since this piece did not usually come over the counter with a good trigger or sights, we sent it immediately to Bob Chow in San Francisco for a trigger job and to be fitted with a four-power Weaver telescope. In those long gone days there was no difficulty in checking out the piece right there on the Stanford campus, and it shot up a storm. The war came along and knocked everything sideways, so I lost track of that rifle and any field success it might have enjoyed, but it was one of the better items I have been able to play with. The 300 Savage cartridge, like the 308, may be considered a bit much for deer, but I packed a Model 99 in caliber 250-3000 on the Rio Balsas expedition many years later and it gave perfect service.

We regret to report the passing of F. Bob Chow of San Francisco, one of the preeminent gunsmiths of the 20th century. He did the trigger work on the award pistol I took to war and he lasted longer at his trade than almost anyone we can think of. Bob lived to the ripe old age of 96. Nobody lives forever, but he sure did try hard.

And the great 50 caliber Browning machinegun carries on splendidly, affording a nice balance of power and portability. I was introduced to the 50 at Basic School, but I hardly dared believe that it would be still acquitting itself nobly here at the other end of the story. We know a Seabee officer who worked with a quad 50 mounted on a half-track up in I CORPS in Vietnam and his action reports were hugely satisfactory. Additionally, its service in the air placed us well ahead of both the Germans and the Japanese in the dog fighting days now past.

We have always insisted the most significant element in the "hitability" of the rifle is its trigger action, which should not only be light but crisp and displaying no creep. It seems that few people know how to evaluate a good trigger in a rifle. When asked to test the piece, they seek a target on the far wall, mount the butt into the shoulder and simulate a shot. This is not the best way. A trigger should be tested by sight, rather than by touch. It is not aimed-in, but rather held where the trigger finger and the trigger are clearly visible. With the two-stage trigger (which I prefer), the slack is taken up and then the trigger finger is watched as the striker is released. If you can see your finger move on let-off, your trigger has creep. Obviously the trigger must move in order to release the striker, but this movement should not be visible. All this is pretty obvious, but apparently it is not as obvious as it should be.

Gunhandling seems to be rather an obscure art at this time, if we can believe what we see illustrated in the shooting periodicals, but the lever-gun does offer certain advantages over the bolt in matters of safe handling. Specifically, the lever-gun may be carried ready for action in Condition 3 with a full magazine but no shell in the chamber. In skilled hands it may be loaded as the butt hits the shoulder with no time loss at all. We tried this on flying clays at Gunsite, to the considerable amazement of the half educated.

I am a firm supporter of President Bush, but on this religious matter General Boykin is right and Bush is wrong.

Dr. Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, maintained that if a lie is repeated long enough it will eventually become accepted as the truth. This would pertain to the repeated reference to the "Constitutional separation of church and state." Nothing in the US Constitution establishes any such separation. The Constitution states that Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion. That is certainly clear enough. The US Constitution is widely available in booklet form and should be carried around readily available for every occasion. It is an admirably simple and direct preparation. It is not obscure. It would be nice if more politicians would read it.

There seems to be a surge of interest in the heavy sporting rifle at this time, which is a bit odd when you reflect that nobody needs one. In the great hunting days between the wars people who could afford it undertook classic safaris which occupied several months and bagged enough animals to complete a natural history museum. There was also the matter of expense, since elephant ivory was a semi-precious commodity which could be sold for enough cash to pay for the enterprise. In this case big ivory was sought for more than trophy value. The same license would entitle you to a hundred-pound elephant, as well as a fifty-pounder. So the hunter would shoot as much ivory as his license would permit, and the purpose of the entire exercise was elephant. So what was needed was an "elephant gun," a piece which was capable of downing a bull elephant consistently with one shot at short range. The elephant hunter took his beast at distances varying from arm's length to perhaps 30 paces, and this led to the popularity of the large bore double rifle.

In the elephant contact the range is short and the target is enormous, though the exact location of a fatal hit is hard to find, especially when the scene is so nervously critical. It is obvious that placement is more critical than power, though it is nice to have both. Bell's legendary score on elephants with the 7x57 certainly establishes this, but it does not establish the 7mm as an "elephant gun." The heavy sporting double fired a large caliber bullet of good weight at moderate velocity, and it worked. The 470 Nitro (and its cousins) was the weapon of choice, the differences between the various offerings in this class being more a matter of proprietary bullet design than of impact energy.

But the great hunting days are long past. Elephant hunting can be arranged - for a price - but it is by no means a popular activity any longer. Besides the elephant, big game was rhinoceros (now, also, pretty much a thing of the past), hippo (huge and dangerous on dry land but hardly considered a game animal) and buffalo. Whether the buffalo calls for a heavy rifle or not is a subject always good for debate. A well-placed bullet from a medium rifle (375/300) is certainly adequate, but given a choice I should still vote for a heavy for Syncerus.

So where does that establish a need for a heavy sporting rifle at this late date? I cannot see such need, but I can appreciate the desire. A good many sportsmen yearn to own a heavy sporting rifle simply because they do so yearn, and the market bears this out. When the 458 Winchester Magnum first appeared a surprising number of people rushed to buy it, not because they needed it but because they wanted it. I was astonished to discover at a gun store in Copenhagen, of all places, that the 458 WM and its ammunition were hot sales items in Denmark. When I asked the counterman why this might be he said that his customers liked to shoot sharks. Sharks? In the North Sea? I must have lost something in translation, but people still like to buy heavies.

But the 458 WM was never a really sound item. In the first place, its case capacity was so slight that an unwieldy long barrel was necessary to achieve advertised velocity, which was not high. A 26-inch barrel is awkward in any sort of cover where pachyderms are usually found. One solution to this situation was the 460 Guns & Ammo Special, which used a shorter, fatter case to get that 500-grain bullet comfortably over 2000f/s. I have used the 460 G&A quite a bit with uniform success. I like the cartridge but it was never offered commercially. Instead what appeared was the 458 Lott, a design of our late friend Jack Lott, which achieved satisfactory muzzle performance by means of a long case without a shoulder, head-spacing on a belt. The long case of Jack's cartridge does encourage "short stroking" in unpracticed hands, but the belted case avoids the rather annoying head-spacing problems of the G&A cartridge.

All these latter day heavies will do when properly used and, of course, they are normally available in bolt-action rifles, which are both more familiar to most sportsmen and less expensive than a double.

And now we see the rebirth of the old reliable 45-70, which while not truly a heavy, in the classic sense, may well be classified as "light-heavy," and the 45-70 is now available in the compact, takedown "Co-pilot"of Jim West. I am much taken with this ingenious piece, and I have promoted its use in Africa to the evident delight of all concerned. Where I cannot see any real need for a true, modern, heavy sporter, I can certainly see situations in which the "Co-pilot" is an ideal solution to an unusual problem. It is one of the really good offerings on the modern list.

It is famously told that at Bunker Hill the colonists were ordered to hold fire until they could see "the whites of their eyes." Have you ever checked that out? How far away can you see the whites of an antagonist's eyes? You can run that test among friends without leaving the pad. It does make you appreciate the bayonet, does it not?

The 223 cartridge (556 NATO) has now been with us for quite some time. I did not think it was a good idea in the first place, and time has not changed my opinion. If you ask just what is a 223 for, a good answer does not pop right up. The 223 is essentially a varmint cartridge, though I suppose it could be considered proper for the smallest of four-footed game animals such as chamois, reedbuck, or those half-size Texas whitetails. It also might do well for coyotes or baboons and, of course, we shoot people with it with moderate success. I note that Steyr Mannlicher has offered a couple of presumably sporting firearms in this caliber, but about all I can see in a purpose here is a means of employing the profusion of ammunition which is available throughout the world. It makes a pretty good ranch-patrol item, if you have a rifle to take it, but I certainly would not run out and buy a rifle on that account.

"If you have a right to be respected that means that other people don't have a right to their opinions."

Thomas Sowell

One of the current locutions which I would like see dropped is the assertion that something "couldn't be further from the truth." This is not a statement which is going to be made by anyone who thinks about what he is saying. Another such statement refers to "innocent civilians." The implication here is that there are innocent civilians and guilty civilians, and who is to decide?

We are glad to see that "The Art of the Rifle" is enjoying a modest commercial success. I do not claim that it is the best book of its kind, but rather that it is the only book of its kind. Marksmanship is an imperiled art in The Age of the Wimp, but we do understand it, and we have made the theory available to those who desire it. Anyone who studies the matter, practices it on the range and in the field, and sets his mind correctly on the task at hand pretty well commands the action. We know of a recent case in which an African hunter, after observing four clean, one-shot stops in the bushveldt, opined that the Steyr Dragoon in action was "a very dangerous rifle." Well, yes, the Dragoon is a truly excellent rifle for the bushveldt - probably the best - but the rifle did not do the job, it is the shooter who was dangerous.

Those ingenious Chinese keep coming up with new versions of the old, for export to collectors. We understand now that Norinco is offering a Broomhandle Mauser for sale. This is one of the most delightful artifacts of the machine age. It was never a particularly efficient combat tool, nor was it adopted as official by any major government, but for those of us who are fascinated by guns, it is especially attractive. I just may break down and buy one as a Christmas present to myself.

The Declaration of Independence - not the Constitution of the United States - declaims that it is a self-evident truth that all men are created equal. The more one thinks about that the more it is obvious that that statement may not stand as factual, but rather as theological. All men may indeed be equal in the sight of God, but they are by no means equal between the goal posts, nor at the wheel of the racing car.

Bear in mind that it is more blessed to give than to receive. I know a certain amount about naval gunfire, and I am certainly impressed with the truth of that proposition.

When we played with the Chase-Away drill at Whittington I discovered a proper niche for the new Smith & Wesson 500 Megawheely. If you choose to drive pop cans hither and yon across the landscape with a pistol, this may be your weapon of choice. I do not think, however, that it will necessarily facilitate repetition of Jack Weaver's nifty demonstration on this drill, at which, having hit the ground just enough to toss a tin can high in the air, he managed to hit it again as it flew with his second shot. I saw him do that, but I did not ask him to do it again.

Media people seem to throw around the term "mainstream" as if it were an object to be sought. In our opinion it is a poor figure of speech. The Rio Balsas expedition sometime ago proved to me that the mainstream is by no means necessarily the right course to be followed.

It appears that we may have discovered a new psychosis, which we may call arctophilia, signifying a psychopathic affection for bears. This lad who went up to Alaska and managed to get himself and his concubine eaten by a bear is a case in point. He certainly seems to have achieved perfect union with the object of his affection - internally. This may be called a clear case of terminal arctophilia. Bears are okay, and we are glad that nature has provided them, but that does not mean we should get silly about it. (See Bear Rule 2, to wit, "Bears are not cuddlesome.")

The news people seem to think that the object of a military enterprise is to get home. They keep talking as if the only thing a soldier wants to do is to get back to base. If that is indeed true, he had best stay there in the first place. The objective of any military enterprise must be victory, at no matter what cost. When you put on that uniform you lay your life on the line - for reasons which must seem good to you. To maintain the ideals for which this country was founded, we must fare forth at least once a generation to wreak our will upon the enemies of liberty. This is the worthiest political effort, and it must be extolled rather than deplored. Men get killed in war, and often enough they die unworthy deaths lying in a hospital bed stuck full of needles. "Death comes at a crawl or comes with a pounce, but whether he's slow or spry, it's not the fact that you're dead that counts, but only how did you die." That may be an old-fashioned attitude, but that does not make it wrong.

We recently had occasion to discuss the history of the Bren Ten with a correspondent who was obviously more of a collector than a shooter. The Bren Ten was a concept of mine, and while I am not ashamed of it, I admit that this concept was not entirely sound. What the Bren Ten pistol achieved over, for example, the 1911, was range. The full-house, 10mm cartridge - definitely not the attenuated 10s which are popular now - pushed the effective range of the combat sidearm out beyond that which is usually expected. But extending the manageable range of a combat pistol out beyond the ability of the shooter to utilize it does not accomplish much. The full-house Bren Ten should be able to achieve reliable one-shot stops out to at least 50 meters, but pistol actions do not take place at 50 meters. The combat pistol is best employed at distances hardly more than across the room, and the Bren Ten will not do this any better than the venerable 45 ACP, or so it would seem.

In the commercial world, what is good is what sells, but whether excellence sells is debatable. The variable-power telescope is a poor concept, but it certainly sells. On the other hand, the Steyr Scout and the Wild West "Co-pilot" are very superior concepts, but do not seem to sell. Commerce by its very nature seeks to make the customer unhappy with what he has and in search of something new and better. But this makes the gun business a bad commercial proposition because it is nearly impossible to improve upon the personal firearms we have had for much of the 20th century. It is possible to attack this problem by the idea of variety, and truly a great many shooters would rather own a large variety of specialized weapons than better examples of instruments that do several or all jobs better in one package. If you have genuine need of a rifle you can get by perfectly with a 22 and a Steyr Scout. If you wish to specialize in elephants or grizzly bears you may add a couple of specialty rifles, but this postulates a somewhat unlikely lifestyle.

There are five essential attributes of the soldier. The first two are skill at arms and discipline. Next come valor, hardihood, and pride. Above all else a soldier must be proud of his occupation. This will cause him not only to do his job perfectly, but to look and act the part. It is possible for a slob to fight well, but he will fight better if he is proud of his station in life. Unfortunately we have lost sight of this in this present rather scruffy age. The clothes we give to our soldiers in which to fight are in large measure more suitable for field hands on a second-rate rice paddy than for the champions of liberty. Clearly combat is an untidy activity, but that does not mean that we should make it appear any worse than necessary. I have seen many warriors fight, in many parts of the world, and I am convinced that pride in personal appearance is a vital aspect of morale, from the Guardsman to the Gurkha. Thus it is that I wish whoever it was who came up with that unseemly "booney-hat" now in evidence in Mesopotamia should go out and come in again. A soldier's aspect is dignified by some sort of helmet, and we wish that those in charge would give some thought to this matter. Our fighting man should look sharp, not just when he is on liberty, but also when he is in contact. This is not an unreasonable proposition (see George Patton).

Please Note. These "Commentaries" are for personal use only. Not for publication.