April 9th marks the 155th anniversary of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia to US Army General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Va., in 1865. News of Lee’s capitulation triggered a series of surrenders across the far-flung battle lines, and a month later, President Andrew Johnson considered the war over.
From the beginning of hostilities on April 12, 1861 when the Confederates attacked the US Army garrison at Fort Sumter, S.C., the American Civil War lasted just over five years and resulted in a greater loss of American lives than any conflict before or since. Total military casualties numbered 1,125,000, which represented 3.5 percent of the entire US population, in 1861. The total military deaths from all causes, numbered 654,000. Technically, more soldiers were killed in World War II, but the number of soldiers who lost their lives from disease during the Civil War puts that number ahead in overall loss of life. This is the human tragedy of war. The magnitude of this war deeply scarred the people who lived through it.
The Civil War is sometimes described as the last old fashioned, and the first modern, war. It was fought with the final generation of muzzle-loading percussion arms and artillery.
These were at the apex of their development as well as other new technologies in the form of breech-loaders, repeating rifles (that used self-contained metallic cartridges) and, of course, the first Gatling guns. The armies fought using linear tactics of previous centuries, but generally with less finesse than the highly disciplined soldiers of Europe.
Some historians now believe that artillery fire may have accounted for 20 to 50 percent of all casualties.
Rifled-muskets were eventually the standard infantry weapon for both the North and South. They possessed the speed-loading ability of a smoothbore musket and the accuracy of a rifle, thanks to the ingenious Minié bullet. Minié balls varied in detail, but the type commonly used during the Civil War had a hollow base that formed a thin skirt at the bottom, similar to a sewing thimble. It was cast smaller than the rifle bore so it could be easily loaded down the barrel. When fired, the expanding gas forced the Minié ball’s base outward and into full contact with the barrel’s rifling, stabilizing the spin. The result allowed the weapon to fire accurately against individual targets at ranges of 600 yards and against massed targets at 1,000. This increased the range 10-fold over smoothbore muskets.
It is still commonly believed by historians that the horrific casualties of war were the direct result of the range and accuracy of the rifled muskets versus the old fashioned linear tactics. These tactics involved maneuvering large bodies of men in close formations around the battlefield. Each group would line up in full view of each other and fire volley after volley, until one side wavered. At that point a bayonet charge would decide the winner.
At the 250-yard point, the bullet would reach the apex of its arch, rising 48 inches above the line of aim on it’s path to the target.
On the surface, the combination of better weapons and outdated tactics seems like a good formula for slaughter but the reality is less clear. It seems unlikely that the full potential of the rifled musket was realized since commanders rarely took advantage of its range and accuracy. For one thing, the field artillery’s ubiquitous 12-pounder Napoleon combination guns/howitzers were deadly effective at ranges well beyond small arms. Some historians now believe that artillery fire may have accounted for 20 to 50 percent of all casualties. Statistics on the effectiveness of small arms vary. Some suggest about one casualty for every 240 rounds fired, which is hardly more than the old smoothbore musket days of Emperor Napoleon. Other estimates state that Union forces expended over 1,000 rounds per casualty. It is worthy of note that a declining ratio of rounds fired to casualties produced is consistent with results found in subsequent wars as weapons technology improved.
Other factors played a part in limiting the effectiveness of the rifled-musket. The black powder propellants used produced such prodigious amounts of white smoke that at times it completely obscured large parts of the battlefield. The accuracy of the rifled-musket was of little consequence when the soldiers couldn’t see the enemy. Further undermining the myth, military marksmanship training was virtually nonexistent at that time. Soldiers had whatever shooting experience they joined the army with. Rural farm boys grew up shooting while urban laborers had, likely, never handled a firearm before becoming a soldier. Estimates show that 48 percent of the Union Army and 69 percent of the Confederate Army came from farming backgrounds. The figures suggest that the South should have had better marksmen, but keep in mind that the Union fielded twice as many troops as the Confederacy. If the Union had more good shots, it had more bad ones too.
How many of those rural men in the ranks, had experience with long-range marksmanship? There’s no doubt that a shooting background would help, but the real question is, how much?
To this day, typical hunting ranges in the Eastern states are less than 100 yards. To successfully hit a long-range target requires the soldier to understand bullet trajectory and know the exact distance.
The Civil War shooter had to compensate for the high arch of the heavy, slow-moving, Minie ball. A soldier shooting at the enemy from what he determined to be 300 yards would have to fire at the target’s waist. The Springfield Model 1861 had a three-tier notch rear sight (one for 50, 100 and 300 yards). The shooter would flip up the 300-yard sighting mecahnism, called a leaf, to make the shot. When he squeezed the trigger, the hammer struck the percussion cap on the nipple and instantly ignited the main 65-grain powder charge in the barrel. This launched the 505-grain projectile on its arching path towards the opponents belt buckle. At the 250-yard point, the bullet would reach the apex of its arch, rising 48 inches above the line of aim on it’s path to the target. That means it would pass over the head of a man standing 50 yards in front of the target. Let’s say the shooter’s windage was off and he missed. The bullet would carry only another 50 yards behind the target before gravity pulled it to the ground. Correct range estimation was key to success and even a 50-yard error in judgment would cause a clean miss.
In January of 1862, the Union had an army of 527,000 infantrymen, and by the end of the war, that number exceeded 1 million. The United States government purchased 1,565,250 weapons of all types. When the war broke out, the Springfield Model 1855 percussion rifle was the standard weapon of the US Army. It was a .58-caliber rifled-musket with a unique Maynard priming system that didn’t use conventional percussion caps, although it could if necessary. In the Maynard system, the primers were bonded to a thin tape, coiled inside its lock that functioned in the same manner as a roll of paper caps in a child’s cap-gun. Only 7,000 of these were available at the outbreak of hostilities, and though an excellent weapon, it was thought that its complexity would be a hindrance in mass production.
The Springfield Armory made a simplified version using an ordinary percussion ignition system and thus the Model 1861 Springfield was born. It became the most widely used weapon of the Civil War, and the main weapon of the Union Army. Springfield Armory made 250,000 from 1861 to 1863, but another 450,000 were made by private contractors. Design changes to further simplify manufacturing resulted in the Model 1863 Springfield, of which 273,000 were made before yet another round of simplifications resulting in the Model 1863 type 2. Only 255,000 of these were made in 1864.
The U.S. government also bought 428,292 .577-caliber Pattern 1853 Enfield rifle-muskets and another 8,000 Short Sea Service Pattern1858 models from the British. The Pattern 1853 Enfield became the mainstay of the Confederacy and was the second most common weapon of the Civil War. The American market quickly became a dumping ground for Europe’s obsolete weapons as both sides scrambled to find enough small arms to equip their armies. The Confederates purchased four blockade-runners (seagoing steam-ships used to make their way through the Union water blockades) to facilitate their imports. The U.S. government had no impediments to importation and bought 453,500 old rifled-muskets of various types in addition to 100,000 smooth boremuskets.
The American market quickly became a dumping ground for Europe’s obsolete weapons as both sides scrambled to find enough small arms to equip their armies.
Smoothbores saw considerable use at the start of the war on both sides. The state armories in the Confederacy only had about 160,000 weapons of the same type as the Union, including many Model 1842 percussion muskets. Even several years into the conflict, smoothbore muskets continued to be used, sometimes with buck-ball loads that combined a musket ball with several buckshot for devastating close-range effects.
The Union supplemented its rifled-muskets with small numbers of various innovative repeaters and single-shot breechloaders. The lever action Spencer and Henry rifles were the most famous and successful of the repeaters. It’s strange that the most iconic and advanced rifle of the Civil War, the Henry, was the one that held the least interest for the US government. Fewer than 1,800 were purchased, compared to 11,400 .52-caliber Spencer rifles and 94,196 carbines. Among breech-loaders, the standout was the robust and accurate Sharps arms. Nine thousand Sharps New Model 1859, 1863 and 1865 breech-loading rifles as well as 80,512 M1859 and M1863 carbines, were bought by the US government. The Sharps rifles were favored by Union sharpshooters for their accuracy and ability to reload while laying down. It might seem that the Union had gone carbine crazy when you consider that they also bought 55,567 .54-caliber breech-loading Burnside carbines (plus over 21,000,000 of their unique cartridges) in addition to 30,000 Smith, 25,000 Starr and 22,000 Gallagher breech-loading carbines. The fact was the Union had a lot of cavalry.
The Confederates found the utility of captured carbines limited, due to their varied calibers. In the case of Spencer and Henry repeaters, the South lacked the capacity to manufacture their special rimfire ammunition. Confederate cavalry made extensive use of short shotguns and later short rifled-muskets when they became available through capture, purchase or extremely limited manufacturing.
The Confederacy never developed a small arms industry of any consequence, but they were able to purchase weapons overseas and capture them in great numbers on the battlefield in 1861 and 1862. In the latter year alone, we know that 100,000 weapons were captured. It was helpful that the .58-caliber Minié ball of the Springfield and the .577 Minie ball of the Enfield were close enough that they could be used interchangeably. – AmSJ
I first encountered the Chiappa Little Badger single-shot, I pegged it as a survival rifle. It comes in basic black, either in 22LR or 22WMR, both of which are fine for small game. With an overall length of 31 inches, it is already small, but it also folds over and onto itself, creating an extremely compact triangle about 16.5 inches tall and 8 inches across the base. It weighs less than 3 pounds, making it only slightly heavier than large center-fire pistols.
The Little Badger’s overall design principal is minimalistic. The Chiappa engineers gave the little gun everything it needs but resisted the temptation to load it down with things it didn’t.
For example, it has no foregrip other than four 4-inch pieces of Picatinny tactical rail attached to the flats of the barrel shroud. They form a good gripping surface and give the shooter a place to mount a 4X scope and perhaps a tactical light for hunting nocturnal creatures, like raccoons and opossums. If you mount a scope, the factory offers a horizontal bar you can attach to the grooved thumb portion of the hammer that lets you cock it from either side of the scope. Also, there is no safety other than a half-cock notch on the hammer. A survival rifle should be rugged, and mechanically simple. The Little Badger fits the bill.
The factory sights are M1 Carbine-style fixed front with an adjustable rear. The large knob allows for precise click adjustments for windage, and elevation is adjusted using a sliding rear aperture that has six different positions, four of which are numbered, but this slide can easily be pushed out of place if you aren’t careful. The sights, like the rail, ammunition holder and buttplate, are made of plastic, which didn’t appeal to me, but this is not an expensive rifle with an MSRP of $225, and they worked fine. My only concern is that they might not prove durable enough for long-term field use. Then again, my testing was not destructive and these parts might prove fully adequate. The rifle’s receiver, barrel shroud and trigger guard are made of hard zinc alloy. The hammer, trigger, action-release lever, extractor, all the screws and pins, barrel and wire buttstock are made of steel.
The wire buttstock was surprisingly comfortable, and its length and comb height can be adjusted to a limited degree by loosening the screws that hold the left and right sides of the receiver, pulling the upper and lower legs of the stock in or out, and then retightening. I found that my eye naturally lined up with the sights, so I didn’t change a thing.
During accuracy testing, I shot from a sandbag rest at 25 yards. To get shots on my point of aim, I set the elevation slide to “2.” My best results came from Winchester 22LR, 36-grain, copper-plated hollow points, which turned out an average group size of 1.42 inches and an average velocity of 1,199 feet per second, measured 12 feet from the muzzle. A close second was the Federal Lightning 22LR 40-grain, solid lead bullet, which turned out groups averaging 1.54 inches and an average velocity of 1,204 fps. I experimented by plinking with a mixed bag of loose ammo that I had accumulated over the years and found that the rifle seemed to shoot quite well overall. I started to feel as though I couldn’t miss with it, which I credit to an excellent trigger. This is a survival rifle with a target rifle’s trigger. It breaks crisply at just under 5 pounds. Tin cans, milk jug caps, broken PEZ dispensers and squirrels, beware! There is a new sheriff in town and it is a Little Badger.
I had a lot of fun shooting this rifle. In the process of evaluating it, I concluded that this is a great rifle to teach youngsters to shoot with. Its small scale and light weight made it easy for them to hold. It is a single shot, which takes a lot of the is-that-magazine-empty anxiety out of the instructional process. Using the round ammo holder in the stock, young students feel they have responsibility for their rounds, and allows you to visually keep track of it so no one ends up having unauthorized ammo for show-and-tell back at school. We all know these days that that will lead to expulsion from school for the student, and potential life imprisonment for you.
In many respects, this rifle is a reincarnation of the old Quackenbush and other youth bicycle rifles. Inexpensive, small, light, collapsible for easy transport and intended for fun wherever a kid’s (or grown-up’s) feet might pedal them, this type of rifle was very popular around 1900. The Little Badger even comes with its own light nylon backpack carrying case, adorned with a Little Badger head. The Chiappa Little Badger is a kid-sized gun that any boy or girl could easily learn to shoot with, and then keep for the rest of their lives. AmSJ
Author’s note: You can get more information on this and other Chiappa products at Chiappafirearms.com
Building And Shooting The Vintage Ordnance Co.’s Reproduction Of The FP-45 Liberator
STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY FRANK JARDIM
Clandestine weapons like the World War II FP-45 pistol, later dubbed the Liberator by the Office of Strategic Services in 1944, have always intrigued me. It remains the rarest of American martial handguns from the conﬂict, with original examples usually starting in the $1,500 range for rusty, damaged pieces and the best examples, with their impossibly rare waxed shipping boxes, bringing over $7,000. Myths and misinformation hide the pistol’s real story; they weren’t wildly inaccurate junk guns that exploded after a few shots, and they were never tossed out of airplanes over occupied Europe en masse.
THE FP-45 PISTOL was inexpensive by design. Constructed mostly of welded, stamped sheet metal parts with a die-cast zinc cocking piece, each gun cost the federal government a bit over $2, boxed for delivery with 10 rounds of .45 ACP ammunition. Only 5 inches long and weighing a pound, this single-shot pistol was conceived as an instrument of chaos in the darkest times of the war. The idea seems to have originated with a Polish military attaché in March of 1942.
His request for assistance with arming resistance ﬁghters in Nazi-occupied areas was important enough that it reached the attention of the American assistant chief of staff for intelligence (G-2) of the War Department General Staff. In a little over two weeks, the Joint Psychological Warfare Committee completed a detailed plan of action and recommended urgent implementation, which was supported by Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall.
They recommended a light, simple, inexpensive, powerful handgun that could be dropped from aircraft – or other distribution methods they might contrive to suit the circumstances – to litter the countryside of occupied nations. Once delivered in theater, these little handguns would subject the enemy’s garrison troops to great mental anguish because even though they would ﬁnd some of the weapons, they would never know how many they didn’t ﬁnd. Hopefully, their anxiousness would be heightened by some fatal close range head shot casualties too. The expectation was that at least some of the weapons would be found by those intrepid souls who dared to resist the yoke of totalitarian rule forced on them by Germany and Japan.
SIX MONTHS LATER on August 21, 1942, one million FP-45 pistols had been completed. The FP designation stood for “ﬂare projector,” and was part of a subterfuge to mislead enemy spies. Manufacturing was done in total secrecy at General Motor’s Guide Lamp factory in Anderson, Ind. The assembly work took an astonishing 11 weeks. Three hundred employees worked around the clock to put together the 23 individual parts that made up each pistol in an average of 6.6 seconds. It took them less time to assemble it than it took the average shooter to load and ﬁre the weapon. It was a manufacturing tour de force, and Guide Lamp would later receive the contract to make the M3 submachine gun, which also utilized efficient welded sheet-metal stampings.
WITH 100 BOXCARS OF FP-45S at the Allies’ disposal, differences of agreement, some political and some practical, arose about how to best utilize them. In the end, the majority of the pistols were destroyed, but a signiﬁcant number – perhaps 383,000 – were at least sent to active theaters of war with no record of their return.
General Dwight Eisenhower, Allied commander in the European theater, got 500,000 FP-45s. He felt that air dropping them wasn’t a practical use of his precious air resources that were better utilized dropping bombs on the enemy. Contrary to the tales of mass airdrops, usually involving second-hand oral history from some now-deceased relative who did it, there is no written evidence showing that the FP-45 was ever distributed in any signiﬁcant quantity in France.
Ralph Hagen, in the research for his superb book The Liberator Pistol, collected and conducted many interviews with key people involved in American-, British- and even German-military intelligence and clandestine operations from the time, as well as accounts from French resistance ﬁghters. None of them could support anything other than a token distribution in the theater, if that!
Of the half-million weapons sent to England, less than 1,000 guns were sent to Sweden, and some small unknown quantity was issued for the D-Day operation. There is also one known veteran account of an FP-45 being used by a 101st Airborne paratrooper at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. He stated that he was given the pistol and an orange ﬂare cartridge to signal his position to armored American units trying to relieve the surrounded soldiers.
More of Eisenhower’s 500,000 FP45s went to the British War Office than anywhere else. The 30,000 they received went to the Suez, India and Gibraltar. What happened to them there is not known. This is the case with most of the pistols sent into the active theaters of the time. Once they arrived, any written record of how they were ultimately used has yet to be found and probably no longer exists. IN THE PACIFIC THEATER, General Douglas MacArthur was much more interested in the FP-45 pistol than his European counterpart. MacArthur requested and received 50,000 guns in total, which he appears to have made use of. Unlike the other theaters of war, there is solid written evidence that the pistols were distributed in the ﬁeld. MacArthur himself indicated in a report that he had used the ﬁrst 8,000 guns to arm native villagers in the Solomon Islands of Tulagi and Guadalcanal. American veterans returned home from this area with souvenir FP-45s.
The pistols were clearly used by the Philippine guerillas, and I have personally found original guns there. Some were delivered by submarine. Others may have arrived by airdrop, though the complexity of ﬁnding anything airdropped into the jungle suggests that wasn’t likely. Airdrops on the coastline, however, were made.
The second largest shipment of guns from America numbered 200,000 and was delivered to Calcutta (now Kolkata), India, in July of 1944. Forty thousand went on to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and another 44,000 to Burma. The rest were destroyed after the war.
The third largest shipment was 100,000 guns destined for Jorhat, India, in August of 1943. Their ultimate destination was China. There is evidence that the pistols did make it into the hands of the locals, guerillas and bandits alike, but exactly how many will never be known. The only recorded image of an FP45 pistol in theater during World War II shows the pistol in the waistband of an Asian man in Kunming, China.
In July of 1944, another shipment of 40,000 was delivered in Algiers, Algeria, and some of these guns are known to have made their way to guerilla operations in Greece.
THE NUMBER OF FP-45 pistols actually used to ﬁre a shot in anger is a matter of speculation only. Guerillas can’t be faulted for poor record keeping. It’s probably pretty hard to write a report with a Nazi or Japanese patrol hot on your trail. But for most of my adult life I’ve wondered what it was like to shoot an FP-45. If I was a Greek partisan in Thrace, or a Philippine guerilla in Luzon in 1943, could I actually make a one-shot kill with this clumsy-looking gun? I decided to make a replica of the Liberator.
The motto of Vintage Ordnance Co. LLC is “Just like the originals, only better,” and if there was ever an antique gun that could stand to be better, it’s the FP-45. From an engineering and design standpoint, the FP-45 is brilliant. However, in the assembly department it’s often pretty sloppy.
Many are quick to call the original guns junk, but I disagree. The original guns were at least as good as they needed to be and probably a little better. By the spring of 1942, the Axis powers had already conquered most of Europe and Asia. There was certainly no time to waste making the FP-45 a masterpiece of ﬁt and ﬁnish. It was actually the ﬁrst mass-produced US military small arm made of spot-welded, sheet-metal stampings. They may not have looked all that great, but apparently they all ﬁred. According to the project managers, every one of the million units built in the summer of 1942 was test ﬁred for inspection.
In creating the Vintage Ordnance Co. replica, I worked from the original plans and corrected against the actual pistol. The existing plans alone were not enough to build an accurate replica. Inconsistencies between the ﬁnished product and the plans were often dissimilar, which was typical due to the urgency of production. Often, design adjustments were made on the factory ﬂoor and never recorded on the drawings. Guide Lamp only expected their FP-45 to have a 50-round usable life, which was plenty for its intended purpose. Collectors today would ﬁnd that unacceptable. The “Better than the originals” objectives of my project centered on using stronger, tighter tolerances, materials, precisely controlled welding and accurate headspace. All of those improvements ensured my reproduction FP-45 was strong and safe to shoot without the built-in expectation of failure that makes ﬁring an original a fool’s errand.
I made the barrel, tube strap (breech ring) and cover slide (breech block) out of 1050 medium-carbon cold-rolled steel for greater strength. It’s the same steel Browning Automatic Riﬂe receivers were made of. I tightened the chamber tolerances to meet commercial standards and addressed the terrible headspace problems of the original that allowed them to batter themselves apart under repeated ﬁring. Also, my reproduction zinc cocking piece is cast from a denser alloy for greater strength.
Cosmetically, the replicas differed from the originals in a few ways: the reproduction has a riﬂed barrel and discrete markings to comply with federal law, and hopefully prevent it from being unscrupulously sold as an original antique. I marked the serial number on the front of the grip frame and company information, model and caliber designation on the underside of the barrel behind the trigger guard. All characters are the minimum 1/16 inch high.
In the course of prototype testing, I ﬁred over 100 rounds over numerous sessions. It took a day to recover enough from the pounding this little pistol gave me to go at it again and ﬁnish the testing. These marathon ﬁring sessions with high-pressure .45 ACP 230-grain loads were the most unpleasant experience in my 30-plus years of shooting. The recoil is very stout for sure, but it is aggravated by the small grips and the grip angle. In my hand, I found that I had to angle my wrist upward to the limit of its range of motion to get proper sight alignment. I simply can’t hold the pistol tightly enough to prevent it from snapping my wrist back past that limit. I didn’t feel it so much in the ﬁrst 10 rounds, but it got progressively more painful to shoot the pistol.
Another recoil characteristic was the tendency for the Liberator’s zinc cocking piece to move backward against the spring pressure, causing the point of the guide pin to stick in either the right or left side of the tube strap. This expedites reloading, but I have no reason to believe that it was an intentional design feature. Some ultrafast video recording showed that the cocking piece’s rotation under recoil appeared to be caused by the back of it hitting the shooter’s hand.
I SHOT THE PISTOLrested for accuracy at 6 yards and later 20 with results similar to Ralph Hagan’s tests of his original gun including some random keyholing, which he highlighted in his book The Liberator Pistol: Development, Production, Distribution. I shot two groups at each distance. Sight picture is somewhat obstructed by the guide-pin boss on the cocking piece. The cocking piece was originally designed without it. All bullets were clearly cut with riﬂing when recovered.
At 6 yards I found the pistol to shoot approximately 9½ to 10 inches above the point of aim and slightly to the right. Both groups were 3¼ minute of angle, which is certainly suitable for the pistol’s intended purpose. With a few practice shots, a partisan or guerilla ﬁghter could easily get a feel for the Kentucky windage required to put the bullet on target. I found that I could consistently burst gallon jugs of water with a one-hand hold before the recoil got the better of me.
At 20 yards, the point of impact was about 30 inches high and groups tripled in size from 8½ to 14½ inches despite my best efforts. This was clearly beyond the useful range of the original weapon, so it comes as no surprise that the replica performed in a similar manner. A target pistol this is not. The FP-45s trigger pull is not conducive to good accuracy. They take a lot of squeeze to move the cocking piece back and get the connector cammed off the sear. I measured it between 10 and 11 pounds.
At a hair over 1 pound, this little pistol packed a powerfully lethal punch. It took two shots to get the hang of it. An inexperienced shooter could certainly master it for closerange work with the 10 bullets provided. I can’t help but imagine that any resistance ﬁghter who may have fought with an FP-45 must have let out a great sigh of relief as he stooped over the motionless body of his adversary, picked up their Mauser or Arizaka riﬂe and disappeared into the night. AmSJ
Here’s Youtuber Weaponeer running the FP-45 Liberator out on the range.
Editor’s note: Author Frank Jardim founded Vintage Ordnance in 2008. For more on the company’s products, go to vintageordnance.com.
Revolutionary War patriot comes alive in the annual creations of Contemporary Longrifle Association artisans
STORY BY FRANK JARDIM • PHOTOS BY DAVID WRIGHT
This October, the Contemporary Longrifle Association will hold its 25th anniversary annual meeting and art show in Lexington, Kentucky. Dedicated to preserving the artisanal skills of American craftsmen and -women spanning the colonial era through the start of the 1840s, the CLA encompasses artists working as gunmakers, horners, leather workers, weavers, embroiderers, clothing makers, blacksmiths and bladesmiths, potters, furniture makers and more, with virtually all professions, as well as the conventional decorative arts, represented among its membership. If it was made by skilled hands in America before 1840, there’s someone in the CLA who’s still doing it that way.
To commemorate the event and raise funds to support CLA programs, 47 artists have contributed their skills to create 23 unique individual objects and sets that will be auctioned at the show. As I examined some of those wonderfully executed auction lots, the authenticity of their details took my imagination back in time. With a little photographic help from CLA artist and respected painter David Wright, I offer you a glimpse of where nine particularly evocative pieces took me.
Just after his sixteenth birthday in June of 1776, Private Joshua Meade, the educated son of a successful surgeon, eagerly presented himself to fulfill his civic duty with the militia of Westchester County, New York. In the not-too-distant past, before his constitution failed him, Joshua’s father served in the militia as a lieutenant and some of the older men recalled him as a competent and dedicated officer.
On the morning of Joshua’s arrival, the regiment’s 459 men were preparing to make the day-long march down the Hudson River Valley to New York City to join General Washington’s Continental Army. Joshua kept his mouth shut, as his father advised, and did his best to follow orders.
He had never marched before, or done any soldiering of any kind, but the other men assigned to his mess were quick to help him. They seemed to like him, and immediately bestowed upon him the obviously mock honor of carrying their iron cooking kettle. As the newcomer, and the youngest of his mess, he felt obliged to accept. He was strong and the extra weight was little bother to him at first, but that changed after the first mile. Various experiments finally revealed the cartage of the awkward pot was the least objectionable when it was harnessed in his leather blanket carrier and slung on his back over his knapsack with his untethered blanket stuffed inside.
The kettle notwithstanding, compared to other men in the regiment, he did not think himself over equipped. Some carried large swords, thick bedrolls and huge sacks whose seams were stretched to contain he-knew-not-what. To meet his militia duty requirements, Joshua had his father’s long 10-gauge fowler, a supply of cartridges loaded with lead balls instead of bird shot, 37 extra balls (all he could cast with the lead on hand the night before), a pound of gunpowder in an artisan-made, weather-tight, screw-top powder horn, a leather hunting bag instead of a cartridge box for his finished ammunition and small items to service his firelock, and a small belt axe instead of a sword. The axe was a more practical and useful tool than the sword, and, according to his father, a hand axe was about as useful in a fight as a sword would be in the hands of a man untrained in swordsmanship.
To this, he added a few more items. From the tanner, he bought a new lightweight, formed-leather canteen. It was more durable and easy to carry than a water skin, much more compact than a wooden canteen, and, he imagined, quieter to carry on patrol than the ones made of soldered sheet tin. On his belt he had a sharp and well balanced, bone-handled sheath knife, cleanly shaped and polished by a whitesmith.
It was small enough to eat with but still big enough to fight with. On his back he wore his father’s waterproof knapsack containing an extra set of small clothes and stockings, a hunk of soap, a tinderbox, the compass his father used as a militia officer, and six pounds of dried, salted pork, cheese and bread. From the weaver, his mother purchased for him a heavy wool blanket to keep him warm in the night and cold. Wool kept in the body’s warmth, even if it was wet. Before he’d taken on the kettle, he’d slung his blanket in its leather carrier on his back under the knapsack.
ALL ACROSS THE colonies, militias were being called to arms. The actions of King George III and his Parliament showed, again and again, that they regarded colonials as much less than full English citizens. When the crown turned to naked force to bring the colonies to heel, the colonial response was to meet force with force to protect their communities from British redcoats and their loyalist Tory allies.
Joshua, on this first march to his first campaign, was in high spirits over the prospects of adventure that lay ahead and the pride he felt doing his part for their Glorious Cause of independence.
Two and a half months later, Joshua’s view of his prospects was bleak. He stood on the Brooklyn shore of the East River shivering and soaked to the skin in the night’s rain. Although he could barely see anything beyond a few rods, another 400 or so of his fellow Westchester militiamen from 16 to 50 were crowded mutely around him, equally wet and chilled. There were no fires to warm them.
The only light to see by came from a sliver of crescent moon. Two hours earlier, they were ordered out of their posts in the earthworks overlooking British engineers slowly digging their way toward them. Their sergeants and corporals ordered strict silence on the march from the fortifications as not to alert the British of their movements.
The lack of the usual conversation, jokes and even complaints left Joshua unexpectedly lonely. The loneliness and darkness added a sense of acute isolation to his present despair. His thoughts turned inward to recollections of the momentous battle of the preceding day. It was the largest military engagement in the history of the Americas.
GENERAL WASHINGTON STARTED with nearly 20,000 men, some of them newly organized into equally new Continental Army regiments, and the rest state and local militias like Joshua’s. Most had never been to war. Some had experience in frontier-style war against the Indians, and a small measure were veterans of Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill and the siege of Boston. But almost no one in America had fought a professional army in the European manner. On the water, Washington had but a handful of sloops operating as privateers.
The British arrived with an awe-inspiring fleet of unprecedented size. It included 10 fearsome ships-of-the-line with 100 or more heavy cannons each, 20 swift frigates, and hundreds of transport ships. Any one of the warships had the firepower to completely destroy New York City. Only nature could limit the scope of the Royal Navy’s operations on the water, and the present battleground was surrounded by navigable waterways!
The transports reportedly brought Howe as many as 32,000 men, all seasoned, disciplined troops … all with bayonets. There was nothing Joshua feared more than British bayonets. He wasn’t alone in that respect. Many of the militia carried their personal firelocks, and many of these guns were not even capable of mounting a bayonet, had they had any.
By noon the day before, the battle was done and the British had driven them from the field with bayonets, overwhelming General Sullivan’s troops so quickly, Joshua’s regiment was never even called to the line. Without realizing it, he said aloud to himself, “August 27th in the blessed year of our Lord 1776, we lost our Glorious Cause.”
HE WAS JARRED back to the present when a strong callused hand cupped over his mouth, while another clutched the back of his neckstock tight. Then he was nose-to-nose with Elijah Oakley. The old man released his neck and gestured for silence with his finger to his lips. At home in Westchester, Old Man Oakley worked as a wood cutter. Here, he was called Corporal Oakley.
At 50 years old, he was at the upper age limit for normal compulsory militia service. Most men under 40, and that was the majority of the militia, had never served beyond the four or five muster days a year legally required for drill and training. Oakley had actually fought in the provisional regiments raised by the colony to support British regulars, against the French and their Indian allies in the Seven Years War. At that time, Joshua was a babe at his mother’s breast. A lot had happened since that time to turn Old Man Oakley against his red-coated former comrades-in-arms.
Standing on the dark shore, Joshua became aware that men were moving around him and looked up. Silhouetted against the moonlight dancing on the water, he saw the black outline of barrel-chested Corporal Oakley pushing and pulling the shoulders of other human outlines to get them walking up the shoreline. Joshua, along with the rest, fell in with them.
It was a short distance to a ferry landing, where they boarded a small sloop docked there minutes before. Once as many as the vessel could carry were aboard, she efficiently and quietly pulled away and made sail for Manhattan Island, navigating without landmarks or light. To Joshua’s surprise, the vessel’s crew were the very same Massachusetts Marbleheaders of Colonel John Glover’s regiment who had manned a section of the Brooklyn Heights perimeter near his militia regiment during the day. These men were professional seamen and handled their commandeered boats with great skill and what looked to Joshua like perfect confidence and discipline.
Aboard with nothing else to do, there was some whispering now among the militiamen, mostly of relief, but also troubling questions about their obvious defeat yesterday on Long Island. They were the same questions Joshua had asked himself since the British and their green-coated Hessian mercenaries turned the Continental Army’s left flank and drove Major General Sullivan’s troops from their main line of defense until only Brigadier General Alexander’s regiments on the far right held the line. The American retreat from their forward defenses was anything but orderly. It was more of a panicked rout than a retreat and he was shamed and terrified to see it.
In the early morning hours of the battle, it seemed from their breastworks on the Brooklyn Heights a few miles behind their forward positions, like the main British attack was focused on the right flank and Alexander’s men were at least holding their own. They drove off repeated frontal attacks, and when they realized the enemy was at their back, fought a valiant delaying action, allowing most of their line to retreat to the 2-mile-long defense perimeter on the Brooklyn Heights.
Joshua wondered how much of the Continental Army crossing the river tonight owed their escape to Alexander’s men on the right flank, who held their ground and kept up a vigorous fire. Reports were that the Maryland Continentals had fought nearly to the last man at the Old Stone House, repeatedly counterattacking so other troops could fall back to safety. There were few to tell the tale and General Alexander himself was feared captured or killed. Tonight, American morale was at its nadir.
AFTER A FEW minutes on the river, another soldier took up a spot against the hatch next to Joshua and let out a familiar sigh of exhaustion. It was Corporal Oakley.
“Have you still got your canteen, lad?” he asked. Joshua unslung his leather bottle and handed it to the old man. It was nearly empty.
“Keep your canteen full, lad,” Oakley added, and poured the contents on the deck. Then he pulled a small bundle from under his coat and put it to the mouth of Joshua’s canteen.
“I obtained this restorative libation from the first mate,” he said. “How a Marblehead fisherman came to possess such a fine brandy, I dare not speculate, but I hope when its rightful owner discovers it missing, he will not curse us too harshly. I suspect it will do the Glorious Cause more good warming our bellies than his. Have a sip, lad.
“Thanks, Corporal Oakley,” Joshua said, and took a stout swig from the canteen. Then he took two more and reslung it around his chest. The brandy did as the old man promised and they sat in the near silence without speaking. Others on deck, as suggested by their snores, had probably fallen asleep, and what little quiet talking he still heard was terse commands to sailors. In short order, the brandy loosened Joshua’s tongue.
“Corporal Oakley? Are you awake?”
“I am now, lad,” he replied.
“I … I …,” he uttered with a shaky voice, “I’m worried our Glorious Cause is lost … that we can’t win against the British in a test of arms.”
“What makes you think that, lad?”
“Howe is a better general than Washington. The redcoats know how to fight and we don’t. The colonies are rotten with Tories spying for the enemy, sabotaging our plans and betraying us at every turn. We spent months building forts and earthworks that did us no good yesterday and our shore batteries are just as useless to impede the British fleet.
Had we stayed in Brooklyn Heights, sooner or later the wind and tide would favor them and they’d have sailed up and blasted us off the hilltop. Now we’re sailing to another island we can’t defend against their navy. We’ve slipped one trap by jumping into another. I fear the Continental Army is broken, and what’s left of it won’t last past the next time Washington is outfoxed. I fear that if I stay, I’ll be killed, and if I’m captured or surrender, I’ll be bayonetted to the trees like Sullivan’s men. If I go back home, I’ll be given up to the British by our Tory neighbors and hanged in due time.”
“Might as well fight then, lad,” the old man replied.
“But we can’t win.”
“You worry a lot for such a young fellow. All we need to do to win, lad … is not lose.”
“What do you call this disaster?!” Joshua asked, gesturing with his hands at the tired men all over the deck, dozing where they sat, firelocks embraced against their chests, hats pulled low on their heads.
“I’d call it a greater failure for General Howe than Washington. Howe is a soldier by profession. Washington is a planter. Howe could have cleared us all off the Brooklyn Heights by storm before supper yesterday.
He could have destroyed over half of the fighting strength of this new Continental Army. Had he killed or captured all 10,000 of us yesterday, instead of just a thousand, he probably would have killed any hope of our independence from England. But he did not, lad. Instead, thinking us trapped in our own breastworks with a river his fleet could control at our backs, he stopped his advance to lay siege. And here we are, lad.”
“All night we’ve been ferrying our soldiers away right under their noses to fight another day. We won’t tarry long on Manhattan either. Washington may not be half the General Howe is, but he’s no fool. Mark my words. We’ll outlast them because liberty is our Glorious Cause and to them this war is just another grab for colonial treasure. Those Hessian troops aren’t fighting for King George for love of their cousin. They’re mercenaries, and mercenaries don’t fight unless they are paid. I know you have not been paid a cent of the $6 you’re due monthly. I’ll venture it’s the same with most of the men in our patriot army. If they quit the field, it won’t be over coin.”
“How are you so sure we’ll outlast them?” Joshua asked.
“Because, in one way or another, patriots have already been fighting for their liberty a dozen years, and we’ve not been dissuaded of its virtue yet, lad,” the old corporal answered. “The Declaration of Independence was forged slowly from a hundred insults to our rights as Englishmen. You’re too young to remember the crown’s first moves to put a boot on the neck of the colonies, but I remember the Stamp Act well.”
“I hope you are right,” Joshua replied, with more concern than challenge. He had no other response. As their sloop plied the East River toward the temporary safety of Manhattan, he thought hard about Oakley’s perspective on the rebellion. The more he thought, the more it seemed to ring true.
JOSHUA WAS FOUR years old when Parliament passed the Stamp Act in 1764, but its infamy was still fresh in the minds of patriots. It required every legal document and everything printed, like books or pamphlets, to bear a royal tax stamp. To do this, royal tax collectors were commissioned. Because of open defiance from every colony, and in more than a few cases a sound thrashing at the hands of an angry patriot mob, within a year, every tax collector resigned his commission and the act was repealed.
The Stamp Act spawned the Sons of Liberty in Boston. Its credo, “No taxation without representation,” spread from colony to colony. In their defiance of the Stamp Act, Whig patriots, Old Man Oakley and Joshua’s father among them, took a stand against tyranny and demanded their rights as Englishmen be respected. Unfortunately, what followed showed that mother England saw them as colonial children unworthy of a voice in Parliament. In 1766, with not one legally elected member in the House of Lords or Common representing the three million English citizens in North America, Parliament voted it had the right to tax them as proof it had the right to tax them.
Parliament tried again with the Townsend Acts in 1767, taxing all imported British lead, glass, china, paper, paint and tea. Patriotic merchants in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New York defied the laws with coordinated boycotts of English imports. In Boston particularly, merchants with English goods in their stores ran the risk of becoming the target of patriot mobs who were not above destroying their property and treating the Tory shop owner to a new suit of tar and feathers.
Parliament resorted to musket and bayonet to enforce its authority in Boston and sent 2,000 British redcoats there to suppress the Sons of Liberty and protect loyalists.
Protests and defiance continued around the colonies, and in 1769, all the Townsend taxes, except the most lucrative one on tea, were rescinded. True to what Oakley had told him, that partial success didn’t much dissipate the passion of the American patriots. In Boston, violent confrontations between patriot mobs, Tories and British troops escalated. Events there finally lit the fuse to a powder keg of festering colonial grievances against England. Those events in Boston pushed young Joshua ever closer toward the belief that King George III was no paternalistic protector of the colonies.
In 1770, British troops fired on a patriot mob, killing and wounding 11 of them. The news of the Boston Massacre was for Joshua, and many of his Whig neighbors, a tipping point in their attitude towards royal authority in the colonies. But it was Parliament’s response to the Boston Tea Party in 1773 that convinced Joshua they had no future as free men under English rule.
When Boston Sons of Liberty destroyed a fortune in taxable tea in Boston Harbor, Parliament responded by passing the Coercive Acts to punish the city. The port was closed, local government suspended, crown officials placed above the law, and the private homes of citizens could be seized for the quartering of troops. Boston was essentially under military control. Rather than frighten the other colonies into compliance with Parliament’s edicts, the Coercive Acts unified their resolve to oppose British rule.
The more authority the crown sought to exert over the colonial patriots, the more they resisted until, finally, they could stand no more. Joshua had decided to take up the Glorious Cause of independence sooner than many, but he was young, a third-generation New Yorker, and had no ties to England. He realized for others, a break could be harder, and some would simply remain unwaveringly loyal to the crown for personal or business reasons uniquely their own. The signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776 would be a bitter pill for loyalists to swallow.
A MONTH AND a half before the battle, on July 9, Joshua’s regiment was among a few thousand soldiers assembled with arms for parade on the New York City commons. General Washington was present, as were all the locals who could crowd in to watch. After the parade, the full text of the Declaration of Independence was read to them. At the conclusion, the troops let out three cheers. After they were dismissed, there was no joyous revelry.
Joshua walked to the piers at the southern foot of the city, where he could see the huge British invasion fleet anchored miles down the Hudson River between the western shore of Long Island and the eastern shore of Staten Island. It was the largest ever deployed to North America and its combined masts made it appear that forest had grown up where a river had once been.
It was a sobering sight. With the Declaration of Independence, Joshua knew there was no going back. Regardless of what the Tories or the fence-sitters thought, there were enough patriots to create a new Continental Congress to rule them, a new Continental Army to defend the united colonies, and finally enough to declare themselves a new and independent free nation. Soon he would be called on to back up those words on the battlefield. As he sat near the southern docks, he carved “1776” into the lid of his father’s compass.
ON THE DIMLY moonlit East River, Joshua’s sloop closed in on the Manhattan piers. He noticed two other sloops glide silently past them heading back toward the Brooklyn shore. Minutes later, their sloop docked as expertly and quietly as it had embarked. In 10 minutes, they were all ashore and it was pulling away again into the night for the next load of soldiers. The Westchester militiamen formed into small groups and made their way to their quarters. Joshua’s path took him past Bowling Green, where a big, gilded-lead equestrian statue of King George III once stood. Right after hearing the Declaration of Independence read, the locals gathered and pulled the statue down with ropes to melt down for bullets.
Joshua trudged ahead wearily under the waterlogged weight of his clothes and gear with his big fowler cradled against his chest by both tired arms. Passing the empty pedestal, he smiled and thought, “Our Glorious Cause makes patriots when they are needed.”
In 1944, the War Department Basic Field Manual FM 21-75, Infantry Scouting, Patrolling and Sniping defined the sniper as “… an expert rifleman, well qualified in scouting, whose duty is to pick off key enemy personnel who expose themselves. By eliminating enemy leaders and harassing the troops, sniping softens the enemy’s resistance and weakens his morale.” That definition remains consistent through the broader history of sniping, before and since, whether the weapon was a crossbow or a high-powered, telescopically sighted rifle.
The sniper is an incredibly efficient fighter, compared to the typical infantryman. Consider that in World War II, American infantry units fired 25,000 rounds to kill just one enemy soldier. By the Korean War, that figure jumped to 50,000 rounds, and the select-fire M14 and M16 infantry rifles of the Vietnam War only seem to have produced more misses, requiring the expenditure of 200,000 rounds to kill one enemy combatant. Nowadays, it’s a quarter million rounds of spraying and praying to kill a single Taliban.
By comparison, on average, a sniper requires only 1.3 bullets to kill an enemy. During the Vietnam War, it was noted on many occasions that a handful of snipers accounted for more enemy killed than the entire infantry battalion (and sometimes even regiment) they were assigned to.
It was the wildly disproportionate contribution of snipers in the Vietnam War that set the stage for the first permanent peacetime sniper training programs. The U.S. Marine Corps set theirs up first at Quantico, Va., in 1977, and the U.S. Army followed suit at Fort Benning, Ga., in 1985. Snipers were finally on the TO&E (Tables of Organization & Equipment) of combat units, which meant they would always be ready for deployment. The rigorous training programs ensured the accumulated knowledge, gained from combat experience, would be preserved and ready when it was needed.
Another critically important achievement of the USMC Scout Sniper and U.S. Army Sniper Schools was the creation of the U.S. military’s first purpose-built sniper rifles. Again, the USMC led the way with the M40A1 and the U.S. Army followed with the M24 Sniper Weapons System. Both were based on the Remington 700-bolt action rifle, chambered in 7.62x51mm NATO. Prior to that, snipers used standard service rifles, specially selected for their accuracy and equipped with telescopic sights or commercial, off-the-shelf sporting rifles, as was the case in the black powder era and the Vietnam War. The upside of using the standard service rifle as the basis for a sniper conversion was complete parts and ordnance maintenance support from the normal supply channels. The downside was that the most accurate service rifles were not nearly as good as the best commercially available hunting rifles. The accuracy of the service rifle was always hampered by hand guards, stacking swivels and bayonet lugs hanging off the barrel – items totally useless to a sniper.
It is ironic that a country built on a tradition of rifle marksmanship took nearly 200 years to formally embrace the sniper, the man that represents the military apex of that long tradition. In each major war, through Vietnam, our armed forces began with no snipers and had to create training programs, usually in the theater of operations, to train them on the spot. Training varied from none to good, but the typical formula that has made many a successful American sniper is a rural background with early and continuous exposure to hunting or competitive, rifle shooting.
It is ironic that a country built on a tradition of rifle marksmanship took nearly 200 years to formally embrace the sniper
Time after time, at the conclusion of the war, the sniper schools were closed and the snipers faded away. The knowledge they gained in the deadly art of hunting men faded away with them and had to be re-taught in the next war. This happened because America’s senior military leaders saw the sniper as a specialist, of small importance compared to the conventional infantry, artillery, cavalry (and later armored) forces who massively outnumbered him. From the general’s point of view, snipers didn’t win wars; huge armies did.
During the American Revolution, volunteers from the frontier colonies took their long rifles to war. No British soldier within 400 yards was safe, and 200-yard, one-shot-kills were common. Riflemen terrorized the British, on the march and in garrison, picking off officers and noncommissioned officers from hidden positions. Without any formal guidance, they were doing exactly the same mission as snipers do today, but the British had far greater respect for them than General George Washington. Slow to load and lacking the capacity for a bayonet, the rifles and the unruly men who wielded them were ill-suited to the linear tactics of the day. General Washington thought the riflemen were more trouble than they were worth and didn’t want them in the Continental Army.
In the American Civil War, snipers were called sharpshooters and recruited for their marksmanship skill. The percussion-lock rifled musket and minie ball of the period greatly increased accuracy, without sacrificing speed of loading, and made the battlefield a much deadlier place. Some sharpshooters made use of early telescopic sights and many used their personal weapons in battle. The breech-loading Sharps rifle was popular among Union sharpshooters because it could be loaded lying down, behind cover. The standard muzzleloading, rifled musket required the soldier to stand up to load it, thus exposing himself to enemy fire. Confederates favored the British Whitworth rifle, when they could get it. With its unique hexagonal-shaped, fast-twisting bore, instead of conventional cut rifling, it fired a six-sided bullet accurately just over a mile. It was the first military rifle built for long range accuracy. A Confederate sharpshooter, armed with a Whitworth rifle, killed Union General John Sedgwick at the Battle of Spotsylvania from a range of 800 yards.
During WW I, the skill sets and standard operating procedures of our present-day snipers were developed and codified in no-man’s land and the trenches. By that time, the bolt-action rifle reached the pinnacle of its development as an infantry weapon. It had a five- to 10-round magazine and fired a much smaller caliber, high-velocity and aerodynamic bullet, propelled by smokeless powder, up to 3 miles.
Once he had a suitable modern weapon, the scout sniper emerged in a form identical to the present day. Now actually called a sniper, he can engage targets at 1,000 yards with more precision than luck. Whether shooting from behind or in front of friendly lines, he selects his hiding place carefully and uses camouflage to conceal himself and his spotter. He may wait for hours or days to get a shot at his target. When and if he does fire, it is rarely more than a few shots before he must move to avoid detection. (Smokeless powder makes it much more difficult for the enemy to locate his position.)
Sniper rifles are now commonly equipped with telescopic sights. Germany, thanks to their world-renowned optics industry, initially dominated the battlefield by putting 20,000 scoped rifles (some of them civilian hunting rifles) in the hands of its best marksmen. The Allied nations had to play catch up. The United States Army fielded the ungainly 6x magnification prismatic Warner & Swasey scope, mounted on the .30-06 M1903 Springfield Rifle. It looked strange and it was clumsy, but it worked. It had over twice the magnification of most scopes of the day.
By World War II, telescopic sights improved and rugged, domestically made ones with fair weather resistance, like the 2.5x-power Lyman Alaskan (military M81/M82), were mounted on the standard .30-06 M1 semiautomatic rifle. The old M1903 Springfield, with an improved 10x-power Unertl scope, served the USMC, and the simplified M1903A4, with a 2x-power M73B1 scope was a substitute standard for both services.
In World War II, the United States was almost continuously on the offensive. Both the Japanese and Germans often used snipers, suicidally, to cover their withdrawals and stall the allied advance. The greatest threat to a sniper is another sniper, so U.S. Army infantry platoons commonly designated a scout sniper in the headquarters section to be employed at the commander’s discretion.
Contrary to our image of the American sniper as a lone wolf on the battlefield, they also fought as platoons. When the Marines invaded Betio in the Tarawa Atoll on Nov. 20, 1943, Lt. William D. Hawkins led his platoon of scout snipers on a mission, far in advance of the main forces. They hunted down, and eliminated, enemy machine gunners and snipers to protect the advance of their fellow Marines at the long pier. They fought with grenades and flamethrowers, as well as precision rifle fire. Lt. Hawkins died in the battle, but his ferocity in combat earned him the Medal of Honor.
The snipers role in the Korean War bore similarities to World War I: static lines, an attrition strategy and costly frontal attacks. Once again, the precision contributions of the hastily trained snipers (now equipped with M1D sniper rifles and 2.2x-power M84 scopes) was overshadowed by the mass slaughter wrought by concentrated small arms and artillery fire. Korea was a big war fought in a small place. If machine guns had trouble stopping human-wave attacks used by the Communist Chinese, what could snipers possibly do?
By contrast, snipers made undeniably significant contributions in the Vietnam War and all the wars that followed it. The nature and scale of combat changed in a manner that favored the sniper. Vietnam was a big war, but only in the aggregate. It was fought in small engagements over a large area and a long period of time. In this environment, the sniper was on more equal terms with the enemy. Combat actions in Grenada, Beirut, Iraq and Afghanistan were likewise small in scale, compared to the World Wars and Korea.
The superior equipment, training and communication of today’s snipers makes them the deadliest warriors on the battlefield. In Vietnam in 1967, USMC scout sniper legend Carlos Hathcock mounted a scope on an M2 .50-caliber heavy machine gun and used it to make the longest recorded sniper kill in history. His 2,286-meter record stood until 2002, when a Canadian sniper broke it by 24 meters in Afghanistan using a MacMillan Tac-50 bolt-action rifle in the same caliber. Hathcock’s improvised, ultralong-range, sniping demonstration was a harbinger of things to come. In 1990 the U.S. Army purchased the .50-caliber BMG M82 Barrett, semiautomatic sniper rifle for use in Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm in Iraq.
Later it would be standardized as the M107. This rifle was used by Army Ranger Sgt. Bryan Kremer in Iraq, in March 2004, to make the 2,300-meter kill that now stands as the farthest for an American sniper. His was the fourth-longest kill shot in recorded history.
For the record, the credit for the farthest kill goes to British sniper Craig Harrison, who made an incredible 2,475-meter shot with an Accuracy International L115A3 rifle in .338 Lapua Magnum. The .338 Lapua round was designed to outrange the powerful .300 Winchester and extend the sniper’s lethality to 1,600 meters. Chief petty officer Chris Kyle used a McMillan Tac-338 bolt-action rifle in .338 Lapua Magnum to make his farthest kill, at 1,920 meters, against an enemy combatant about to fire an RPG at a passing American convoy.
Army Ranger Sgt. Bryan Kremer made a 2,300-meter kill in Iraq that now stands as the farthest for an American sniper.
In World Wars I and II, American snipers were expected to make 600-yard hits. This was reasonable, in light of the limitations of their service-rifle-based sniper rifles, and the ordinary ball ammunition they had to use. Today’s sniper is expected to hit the target at twice that range. The sniper’s skills remain the same, but his tools have greatly improved. Laser range finders, bipods, high-magnification scopes, night-vision scopes, match-grade ammunition, rugged specialty rifles built to take the abuse of combat and deliver competition accuracy, and excellent, often continuous communication, all contribute to getting the bullet where the sniper needs it to go, with greater accuracy than ever before possible.
The film American Sniper has grossed over $250,000,000 as of this writing, making it the most popular war film in American history. Its themes resonate with the public right now and are sure to generate an increased interest in long-range rifle marksmanship that will serve the cause of freedom well in wars to come. The film tells a slightly fictionalized account of the life of the aforementioned SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, who learned to shoot as a boy in rural Texas, perhaps not unlike our sharpshooters of yore, and became one of the most successful snipers in U.S. military history, saving countless American lives on the battlefield with his shooting ability. AmSJ
The M240 SLR from Ohio Ordnance Works is an excellent replica of the M240 light machine gun, and it is a pleasure to shoot.
STORY AND PHOTOS BY FRANK JARDIM
Variants of the M240 general-purpose light machine gun may have earned a reputation for ruggedness and reliability on the battleﬁelds of Iraq and Afghanistan, but this 7.62x51mm NATO belt-fed beauty has provided U.S. Army and Marine Corps infantryman with hard-hitting ﬁrepower since the 1990s. And, although the weapon is heavier and more complicated than the Vietnam-era M60-series light machine guns it replaced, those drawbacks are far outweighed by the simple fact that it works much better.
The M240 was designed in the 1950s, and manufactured by Fabrique Nationale (FN) for the Belgian military as the FN MAG 58. It was eventually adopted by the armed forces of Britain, Canada, Australia and many other nations. Rather than sheet metal stampings, its receiver is made of heavy machined steel components riveted together like vintage Browning machine guns of the previous century, such as the M1919 series light machine gun and M2 .50-caliber heavy machine gun.
The United States military ﬁrst took an interest in the weapon as a coaxial machine gun for tanks in the 1970s. It was very successful and proliferated on various vehicle mounts through the 1980s before it was employed in a ground role.
BOB LANDIES of Ohio Ordnance Works (OOW) in Chardon, Ohio, outside of Cleveland, specialized in making semiautomatic versions of historic American machine guns like the Browning Automatic Riﬂe and M1917 water-cooled heavy machine gun for collectors. So when the M240 was seeing heavy use in ground combat against Iraqi troops and later al-Qaeda insurgents, Landies hatched the idea of making a semiautomatic version to satisfy shooters in the military collector market. Following a year of design and development work, OOW patented the M240 SLR (Self Loading Riﬂe).
DEAD FOOT ARMS
There’s nothing about the military’s FN gun that’s cheap, and the same holds true with its replica. That’s reﬂected in its $13,917 retail price. But before you have an aneurism, consider that you can’t own a real military full-auto M240 because there are virtually none for sale to civilian collectors. The closest thing to it would be a vintage original FN MAG 58, but that gun looks different and is going to start at $100,000 anyway. So, if you must have a shooting replica of the iconic, battle-proven M240 light machine gun in your collection, you’re already shopping in the luxury gun market.
The Ohio Ordnance Works model will live up to expectations. It comes in a custom hard case, and the color instruction manual is one of the best I’ve ever seen. Be warned, this gun is addictively fun to shoot. However, if you have the coin to buy it, you can probably spring for the ammo and other accessories without too much ﬁnancial strain.
There hasn’t been any good bargain military surplus 7.62mm NATO around in a long time, but relatively cheap, steel-cased, berdan-primed offerings from Russian makers Tula, Bear and Wolf can be had for as low as 37 cents a round in 500-round cases. Brass-cased, boxer-primed Winchester or Federal ammo sells in bulk for 75 to 85 cents a round in the typical military 147-grain FMJ load.
Each M240 SLR comes with 5,000 M-13 disintegrating links, which ought to be a lifetime supply for the average shooter, assuming you take a minute or two to recover them off the range with an old speaker magnet after you shoot. Making up your belts can be done by hand while watching TV, but it is faster and easier on the hands to use a special tray-like belt linker that loads 20 rounds at a time. Expect to pay around $200 for one of these, but the time saved will be well worth the price, and OOW makes a very nice aluminum belt loader for $225.
WITH A FEW 250-ROUND belts loaded up, I headed to Knob Creek Range in West Point, Ky., southwest of Louisville, to test out the M240 SLR at various ranges out to 300 yards using the built-in bipod and excellent iron sights. When the ladder rear sight is folded down, you aim through an aperture machined onto the back of it with settings up to 800 meters. Beyond that distance you can ﬂip the ladder up and there are graduations up to 1,800 meters.
When the ladder is up, the rear sight changes to an open “U” notch machined into the ladder slide. The front sight blade is quite narrow, which I liked because it didn’t obscure my target and allowed for more precise aiming. All of your elevation and windage adjustments to zero the riﬂe are done from the front sight, and once you lock it in place, it stays in place.
The manufacturer warns that the riﬂe should never be cocked while the safety is on because it can seriously damage the trigger group. Because of that warning, I didn’t load the gun until I was on my belly ready to ﬁre, and I kept the safety off except when I had to interrupt ﬁring to take notes.
To load the riﬂe, you depress the two knurled tabs on either side of the rear of the receiver top cover to open it, and push the belt into the feed tray from the left side of the receiver until it hits the built-in stops. You hold the ﬁrst round of the belt against the stops with your left hand while your right hand pushes the cover down, snapping it into place and securing the belt in the action.
Once you’ve done this, you can pick the riﬂe up and shoot from other positions and on the move and the belt won’t fall out. Be careful to keep the belted ammo clean. Don’t drag it on the ground behind you as you shoot and move.
The riﬂe’s integral bipod is made of heavy welded stampings. It’s very steady, and locks solidly under the gas system when not in use. Since the riﬂe weighs nearly 27 pounds (a couple pounds heavier than the old M60), I used the bipod for all my testing. The broad curved buttplate sits easily on top of your shoulder when shooting prone. I grabbed the wrist of the buttstock with my off hand to hold it ﬁrmly against my shoulder.
Past experience with belt-feds taught me that the barrel gets very hot, very fast, and I didn’t want any part of my body to touch it. The barrel assembly has a foregrip in the form of a built-in lower handguard with a strip of Picatinny rail solidly screwed on the left and right side and a snap-on ventilated heat shield on the top.
A rugged carrying handle is built into the barrel assembly, and it folds down so it doesn’t obstruct the sights. Like the military full-auto M240, this semiauto version has a quickchange barrel. To remove the barrel, grasp the carrying handle and depress the small lever underneath it while rotating it into the vertical position. This unlocks the interrupted threads that secure it in the trunnion, and allows the whole assembly to slide forward off the gun for cleaning.
This should go without saying, but when picking up the riﬂe by its carrying handle, don’t touch that little lever! If you do, you may embarrass yourself by dropping the rear two-thirds of the riﬂe on the ground in midstride. A blunder like that could take years to live down.
AS WITH ANY BELT FED GUN, there’s lots going on mechanically, and you can feel all those moving parts doing their thing while you’re shooting. Cases eject from the bottom directly below the action, and the links are tossed about 10 inches to the right in nice piles. And recoil is mild enough that my 8-year-old son had no issues shooting the M240 SLR.
Unlike the full-auto version, the semiauto ﬁres from a closed bolt, and I expected that this would improve accuracy. To evaluate its capabilities, I tested Black Hills Gold .308 Win Match loaded with 155-grain Hornady A-Max bullets, white box Winchester 7.62 x 51mm loaded with 147-grain FMJ bullets and Federal American Eagle .308 Win. loaded with 150-grain FMJ boat-tail bullets.
I ﬁred three ﬁve-shot groups, each at 100 yards from the prone position using the bipod. The Black Hills match lived up to its reputation and produced an average group size of 2.83 inches, with the best group being 2.44 inches. This was despite the plastic tips getting ripped off some of the bullets during the chambering operation.
When Winchester produced its famous 1873 lever-action rifles and carbines, Colt wasted no time in chambering its single-action Army revolver in Winchester’s calibers from .44-40 down to .32-20. There are times when the quick handling and easy portability of a handgun is of paramount importance for self defense, but when faced with dire threats cowboys knew it was much better to have a repeating rifle. A handgun and longarm in the same caliber was a winner on the American frontier. From a self-defense standpoint, today’s shooters can find a practical, cost-effective, modern parallel to the 19th century Colt/Winchester pairing in Hi-Point carbines and pistols. Hi-Points are chambered in popular pistol cartridges such as .45 ACP, .40 S&W, 9mm Luger and soon .380 ACP, and the .40 S&W and .45 ACP model carbines and pistols even share a common magazine. I tested a model 995ts carbine and C9 pistol chambered in 9mm and was favorably impressed.
It is known that you can get a Colt Defender pistol and Model 6951 AR-15 type carbine in 9mm; however, this combination will cost you about $2,000. The Hi-Points I tested cost less than $500! That puts Hi-Points into a unique niche as the least expensive centerfire firearms on the market. There is a lot more to the differences between Colts and Hi-Points than price, so to narrow the focus of the discussion, I will evaluate the Hi-Points as personal home-defense firearms. In this respect, based on my testing, Hi-Points represent an exceptional value.
Be careful not to make the mistake of assuming inexpensive means poor quality. Hi-Point firearms are engineered to be inexpensive. When I disassembled them, I was struck by the clever way parts were designed to serve multiple purposes and the use of highly efficient manufacturing techniques like metal stamping, zinc alloy casting, metal injection molding, button-rifled barrels, powder coating and injection-molded plastic. The martial spirit of the highly effective Soviet PPSH-41 submachine gun and the clandestine American FP-45 Liberator pistol of World War II are channeled through the Hi-Points. All of these firearms let the ease of manufacture and effective function dictate their form.
An important consumer byproduct of the care taken in designing the Hi-Points is that the production cost of parts is so low, the firearms are warranted forever. Not just for the original owner, but every owner (the instruction sheet with older production guns may still indicate the warranty is limited to the original purchaser, but the distributor at MKS assured me that is not the case). If any of Hi-Point’s firearms has a problem, it will be repaired by the factory free of charge. From my research, they are living up to their promise, and their reputation is excellent.
If Hi-Point’s design has a negative, I believe it is the trigger pull. The one I tested initially was heavy and erratic. Sometimes it let go crisply; other times it creeped one or two times before it released the sear. This trigger spoiled a lot of groups. I think the crux of problem is that by design, each pull of the trigger is doing a lot more than just releasing the sear. When you take the gun apart you’ll see what I mean. It is what it is, but take heart! If your trigger is stiff and creepy like a zombie, I found that dry firing the action a thousand times, like I did while I watched a TV show, improved mine significantly.
The 995ts carbine is a good choice for targets from 15 to 50 yards. It is probably effective at ranges greater than 50 yards, but if you are shooting at someone that far away, it may prove difficult to make a case for self defense in court. It comes with a 10-round magazine and mine had a very handy factory two-magazine clip. This clip attached to the web of the stock allowing me to carry 30 rounds total, in and on the gun. The buttstock had a recoil-absorbing butt pad that was probably more important with the .45 ACP version than it was with the 9mm I tested. The carbine was pleasant to shoot and the military aperture sights were easy to adjust and use. This model has plenty of surprisingly rugged polymer tactical rails to mount all of your accessories and they make a nice-looking vertical foregrip and muzzle-brake, which I did not test.
DEAD FOOT ARMS
The carbine used in this test had several hundred rounds through it before I formally evaluated it. I’ve been using it during our local Zombie Shooters United competitions in central Kentucky for over a year and it has never malfunctioned in competition. I do recall, when I first zeroed it for 25 yards, that the trigger pull was quite heavy. However, during my test for this story the trigger seemed a lot better.
As one would expect, ammo matters. The best of the three different loads I tested was remanufactured semi-target-grade, 124-grain, full-metal-jacket ammunition from AwesomeAmmunition.com. The average 50-yard, open-sight group from five separate five round strings was 2.25 inches, which is pretty darn good for a pistol cartridge at that range. The velocity through the carbine’s 16.5-inch barrel was 1,143 feet per second and was measured 12 feet from the muzzle.
Of the 115-grain full-metal-jacket factory ammo I tested, Winchester Target was clearly the better of the two. It was close behind Awesome Ammunition’s magic beans, with an average group size of 2.98 inches and 1,332 fps. The Winchester groups were more than an inch tighter than another popular low-cost factory ammo. This pattern of performance held for the C9 pistol too. Awesome Ammunition was the most accurate, this time a 124-grain, jacketed hollow point, followed by Winchester and the other famous brand, coming in at a distant third place.
Don’t expect the C9 pistol to shoot like a Colt Gold cup. It’s no target pistol, but it will be head-shot accurate at 7 yards and center-mass effective to 25 yards. I was able to easily put five shots through a green bean can at 7 yards with one hand after I broke in the trigger. When I bench tested at 7 yards, I found the same Winchester load I used in the carbine, printed groups averaging 1.62 inches and had a velocity of 1,104 fps. That cluster of 25 test rounds left a ragged hole in the target which you could cover with the bottom of a soda can. That’s pretty impressive for a $140 pistol. As a point of interest, I shot groups with this same load benched from 25 yards both before and after I broke in the trigger and the difference was dramatic. Breaking in the trigger shaved 2 inches off the group size, dropping it from an average of 9.74 inches to 7.75 inches.
The Hi-Points are heavy guns, but they are reliable, bargain priced, decent shooters and all American made. Without a doubt, they will be the best home-defense guns you will ever own for the money.
The Army’s best combat pump shotgun is back: Inland’s reissue of Ithaca’s M37 Trench Gun.
Two top-shelf Ohio-based firearms manufacturers have partnered to bring collectors and shooters a fine reissue – I hesitate to call it a replica – of the vintage U.S. Army Ithaca M37 Trench Gun.
This retro military model is made by the Upper Sandusky-based Ithaca Gun Company for their Dayton neighbor, Inland Manufacturing. The latter is best known for their excellent reproductions of World War II M1 carbines.
The American martial tradition is no stranger to shotguns. Militiamen employed fowling pieces in battle during the Revolutionary War, and the Confederate Cavalry wielded sawed-off shotguns in the Civil War.
It was during World War I that you might say the Army got serious about shotguns. It was, after all, the biggest war they had fought to date. Close combat in the trenches, and especially night fighting, favored the massive firepower of fast-shooting pump shotguns.
Each 00 buckshot round blasted out nine .33 caliber pellets, increasing the chances of a lethal hit on the enemy. WWI trench guns could shoot exceptionally fast because they lacked a trigger dis-connector.
This allowed them to fire with every pump of the action as long as the trigger was held back continuously. Today we would regard this as a safety flaw, but to the doughboy standing in an enemy trench in 1918, that extra bit of speed was regarded as an edge.
The Germans hated facing shotguns, and even filed a formal complaint that using shotguns was a violation of the rules of civilized warfare – to no avail. The trench gun was born. While it distinguished itself in battle, the trench gun was by no means a common frontline weapon. Records suggest that fewer than 40,000 were procured during the war, compared to more than 2,500,000 service rifles.
WHAT DISTINGUISHED THE military trench gun, with its 20-inch barrel and cylinder bore, from the era’s civilian riot gun (what we would today call a tactical shotgun) was the military’s addition of a barrel heat shield, bayonet lug and sling swivels.
The 16-inch M1917 Enfield bayonet could be fitted to the muzzle, and the heat shield on the barrel was added to allow the soldier to safely grip the hot barrel during bayonet fighting. The riot gun was made for civilian troubles and the trench gun for war.
In WWI, civilian riot versions of Winchester Models 1897 and 1912 and the Remington Model 10 were modified as trench guns. In WWII, shotguns from quite a few other manufacturers were procured to meet the pressing needs of a much bigger war.
The standard models were all pump action: the Winchester M12 and M31, Remington M31, Stevens M520, and rarest of all (with less than 1,500 produced), the Ithaca M37. Still, it wasn’t enough, and the venerable Winchester M97 joined other pump and even semiauto models from Stevens, Savage and Remington to arm American soldiers for rear-area guard duty and combat action on the front lines.
Since these weapons were obtained directly from civilian manufacturers, they were usually finished in the same blued steel as civilian models. Combat use of the shotgun in WWII was largely a Pacific Theater affair, where the dense jungles and close-range encounters favored its strengths. Both United States Marine Corps and Army infantry units equipped the point man of patrols with a trench gun, and Marine units institutional memory of the trench gun’s role in fighting the Japanese in the jungles in WWII was carried over into our next jungle war against the Communist forces in Vietnam 20 years later.
By the mid 1960s, military stocks of trench guns and their M1917 bayonets were running low and new contracts were let for both. The guns came from Stevens (M77E), Ithaca (M37) and Winchester (Models 1200 and 870). The majority of these new shotguns were in the riot configuration. Trench guns from the Vietnam era are quite rare.
Those Ithaca M37 trench guns that were delivered were virtually identical to the WWII model, differing in their markings and their parkerized finish. The Stevens M77E was the most commonly issued shotgun in the Vietnam era, followed by the Ithaca M37.
THE MODEL 37 WAS BASED on John Moses Browning’s improvements of an old Remington design when Ithaca introduced it in 1937. It was a fine sporting shotgun, and proved to be an excellent combat shotgun.
It was the lightest shotgun in the American arsenal, at least a pound less than its peers, with the exception of the graceful Winchester M12, which was still half a pound heavier. The M37 was a couple lighter than the old M97.
Despite being light, it was very strong and well suited to the battlefield. The top and sides of the Model 37 receiver have no openings, so the action is much easier to keep clean because nothing can fall into it from above. Because it loads and ejects from the bottom, it was essentially ambidextrous.
It was also exceptionally strong. The inverted “U” design of the receiver protected the shooter from injury in the event of a case rupture and the barrel attached to the milled steel receiver by means of an interrupted thread like a cannon breech.
They were built to last generations, and can take a beating better than any other pump shotgun. In fact, the huge Los Angeles and New York City Police Departments eventually adopted this model for use.
During the Vietnam War, the Ithaca M37’s performance and reliability earned it the reputation for being the best combat shotgun in the Army’s arsenal.
INLAND MANUFACTURING’S reissue of the M37 trench gun has all the quality and ambiance of an original gun without the multithousand dollar price tag. Since it is actually made by Ithaca, the quality of manufacture is superb. Collectors of martial shotguns should not sweat buckshot worrying that these trench guns will be passed off as originals.
Though they are marked “RLB” with an Ordnance Corps flaming bomb on the left side of the receiver like WWII era trench guns, the marks are not stamped in the metal like the originals are. Furthermore, the guns are marked with Inland’s name on the receiver and other historically incongruous laser engravings on the barrel indicating manufacture in Lower Sandusky, Ohio. Other differences include a 3-inch chamber instead of 2¾-inch, and, perhaps the most obvious marking never encountered on a vintage gun – the admonition “READ OWNERS MANUAL.”
As if that isn’t enough, you should know by now that WWII-era trench guns were blued, not parkerized. I guess an unscrupulous seller might change the barrel and claim this was a WWII-era M37 refurbished for use in Vietnam, but they can’t get around those receiver markings without a lot of metal work.
The reissue’s stocks are natural oiled walnut like the original military guns. The heat shield, brass front sight bead and bayonet lug look great too. I tested an original M1917 bayonet and it was a perfect fit. The slide release is on the right front side of the trigger guard. Unlike a Remington 870 or Mossberg 500, it requires very little motion to actuate.
The safety is a sliding push button type at the rear of the trigger guard. The action is smooth and solid with no ricketiness in it. In fact, the whole gun feels immensely solid. It weighs only 6 pounds, 11 ounces, but it feels like you could butt stroke an enemy senseless with it. Unlike the original gun, it will not fire continuously if pumped while the trigger is held back. Surely you had to see that coming.
Shooting the M37, you do sense its light weight in the felt recoil. The butt plate is just thin hard rubber so your shoulder gets it all. The 2¾-inch Winchester Super X and Federal Premium 00 buckshot I tested recorded average velocities of 1,242 feet per second and 1,243 fps, respectively, out of the M37’s 20-inch barrel. (Both were advertised at 1,325 fps.) The Federal Premium was much more consistent in shot to shot velocity with a standard deviation of 17 to Winchester’s 89.
Velocity was recorded at 15 feet from the muzzle with an excellent and very reasonably priced Competition Electronics PRO CHRONO digital chronograph I got from Brownell’s to replace the one I foolishly loaned to a friend who, unbeknownst to me, turned out to be a cold-blooded killer of chronographs. This one I’m keeping close hold on.
I SHOT MY TEST PATTERNS standing, offhand, at 25 yards, a range I thought would reasonably simulate a jungle encounter based on my limited experience hiking Bataan Peninsula jungle trails in the Philippine Islands.
I shot five-round test strings. That is actually all the M37 can hold if you fill the magazine and put one in the chamber. The early 1940s was not the era of high-capacity shotgun magazines. When you consider that the military rifles used by most nations at that time typically held only five rounds, a five-shot trench gun doesn’t seem that bad.
I chose standard 2¾-inch, nine-pellet loads to simulate the old brass cased military M19 loads used before plastic shells became common in the 1960s. My target was 22 inches wide by 25 inches high with a 3-inch aiming point. The cylinder bore (no choke of any kind) threw lethal patterns every time, but rarely did all nine pellets hit the target every time.
The Winchester Super X put 34 out of 45 pellets (75 percent) on the target. The Federal Premium put 37 of 45 pellets (82 percent) on the target. Both loads shot about 9 inches above the point of aim. The Winchester load seemed to pattern a bit more random than the Federal Premium, but, aimed at the enemy’s belt buckle, both would deliver devastating multiple hits to the upper body. As for the pellets that didn’t hit my generously wide 22-inch sheet, they could easily have hit another enemy soldier.
Broad patterns can cause collateral damage in a civilian encounter, but in wartime the ability to hit multiple targets with a single round is a good thing. While I see Inland’s M37 Trench Gun as aimed for the collector and historic military reenactor market, you wouldn’t be underarmed using it for personal defense. If they could fight their way through a few major wars, they’ll undoubtedly do fine after the EMP apocalypse.
The M37 shoots well, is virtually foolproof, and that 3-inch chamber opens up a lot of modern lethal and nonlethal load options. If short 12-gauge rounds will feed reliably, that might be one way to increase the M37’s magazine capacity. I know these mini-shells are made by Aguila, Herter’s and Nobel Sport, but could not get any in time to test the gun for this article.
If the M37 has a flaw, it is that in its trench gun configuration, it can’t be taken down without a screwdriver. The heat shield needs to be removed before the barrel can be rotated the necessary ¼ turn to dismount. In addition, you can’t take apart the receiver of any M37 without a long straight screwdriver to remove the bolt that holds the butt stock on.
That bolt is inside the buttstock, accessible only after removing the buttplate. On the upside, you don’t really need to take it apart to clean it. The only dirt you’re likely to get in it is some carbon from your smoking shells as they are ejected.
By design, it is a clean action. The online advertised retail price for this top quality reissue of the M37 Trench Gun is about $1,200. That might seem like a lot to some. It’s more than your typical used civilian Ithaca Model 37, but thousands less than any M37 Trench Gun. One thing is unmistakable when you handle and shoot it. It is made as well as any gun can be made, and your great grandchildren will still be shooting it. For more info, visit inland-mfg.com or call them at (877) 425-4867.
Story by Frank Jardim Featured photograph (above) by Joe Pucciarelli / www.loop.pics
Knowledge is a fleeting thing if steps aren’t taken to preserve it. Whether it’s building the pyramids or a family recipe, if knowledge isn’t passed on to subsequent generations, it is eventually forgotten and lost. Thirty-four years ago, the passionate desire to preserve the 18th century gun-making techniques, by which American longrifles were handcrafted, led to the creation of an extraordinary training seminar by Professor Terry Leeper, Ph.D., of Western Kentucky University (WKU) and master gunmakers Wallace Gusler and Jon Bivins. Three years later the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association (NMLRA) began cosponsoring the seminar and it remains the premier resource for serious subject-matter students. While classes are technically challenging, the instructional team has years of experience at meeting both the basic and most advanced skill levels of the participants. It is serious scholarly instruction in the true master-and-apprentice style.
Prior to every seminar, the instructors assemble a study collection of original and contemporary black-powder firearms (frequently valued in excess of a million dollars) for participants to examine and learn from hands-on investigation and observation. A glance over the five-volume Journal of Historical Armsmaking Technology that grew out of the early seminars indicates the depth of knowledge available for the asking. If you want to learn how every part of a firearm was made over 200 years ago, how to make the tools and dies required and what materials were used, there are instructors at the seminar who know.
Every year several of the best contemporary artisans/artists who specialize in making guns and related accoutrements in the manner they were made over two centuries ago, gather and spend nine to 10 days passing on that knowledge for the 50 to 70 students who attend.
Professor Leeper believes the success of the seminar stems from their focus from the very start in 1981 on getting world-class instructors. This year the House brothers – Herschel, Frank and John – along with Ron Scott, Mark Silver, Jim Kibler, Jack Brooks and Lally House taught nine different courses. In the past, Wallace Gusler, John Bivins, Lynton McKenzie, Monte Mardarino, Lewis Sanchez, David Wagner, Ron Ehlert, Jim Chambers, George Suiter, Jay Close and Gary Brumfield have all led classes.
The courses are intense and the days commonly run 10 hours. All but one of the courses are taught in the WKU industrial arts shops used for technical education labs on the Bowling Green, Ky., campus. The only exception is the Southern rifle-building class taught by the House brothers in the famous Woodbury School of iron-mounted gun-making in Woodbury, Ky., where they have several coal forges set up for students to learn and practice hand-forging iron parts.
The seminar is organized around three-, six- and nine-day classes, the longest generally focusing on the building of a complete firearm. Nobody can take it all in during one seminar, which is why many students opt to return again and again.
In the nine-day courses, the prerequisite parts (lock, stock and barrel) are usually brought to class either by the student or instructor. From a practical standpoint, there isn’t enough time to make every small part in class, so trigger guards, patch boxes, buttplates, nose caps, thimbles and the like are usually provided too. This allows the students to focus their limited class time on shaping the stock correctly (referred to as its architecture), proper placement, inletting and fitting of the various parts, and then finishing and decorating the wood and metal.
Herschel House was involved with the seminar from the start, and he and his brothers are the only instructors who teach the iron-mounted gun-making techniques prevalent in the mid- to late 18th century of the central South. The Houses set up three coal forges where students heat iron bars and hammer them into the raw shapes from which they will file out their own buttplates, trigger guards, lock plates and related stock furniture.
The atmosphere during the House course is like stepping back in time. The workshops are tucked into the forest and two structures that the students use are historic log cabins. I watched a dozen students beating iron bars into shape on the anvil, rasping out the first stages of their stock architecture, roughly grinding their newly formed iron parts to shape on an ancient bench grinder powered by a 90-year-old, single-cylinder engine, forge-welding their trigger-guard parts together, fine-filing the details of their metal stock furniture, and then locating and inletting them into their stocks. While this was going on other students were making knives, petting the many dogs that lounge around the area and firing rifles at targets in the woods. Throughout the day, the House brothers circulated continuously among the students, answering questions, demonstrating techniques, and providing guidance. To promote discussion and the exchange of knowledge, students and instructors ate their meals together on site either outside or inside one of the original log cabins. One student was living there during the entire seminar in the same cabin’s loft.
Master gunmaker Jack Brooks of Englewood, Colo., brought 40 years of experience to lead a nine-day course in stocking a Revolutionary War (circa 1775) Christian Springs-style longrifle. Brooks has extensively researched and documented the original weapon, which is heavier, plainer and more robust than the Golden Age longrifles of the postwar period. Students had to order the lock, stock blank and barrel in advance of the class while Brooks supplied them with reproduction rough castings of the trigger guard and buttplate, as well as patterns and photographs of the original historic rifle. In this challenging course the student’s form and inlet the massive rough-cut stock blank, file the parts to shape, and ultimately fit them to the stock. Not every student will complete the project during the seminar. The objective is to complete the most difficult parts of the project under instructor guidance and finish the fine details at home.
Brooks became interested in building long rifles as a college student in 1971. After graduation he worked as a chemist for the Environmental Protection Agency. His fascination with the American Revolution and the artistic elements of gun-making increased over the years but the pivotal moment came in 1976 when he was offered $1,200 to build a rifle for the bicentennial. He jumped at the opportunity and never stopped building.
Ron Scott, a long-time instructor at the seminar, believes its merit comes from more than just the exchange between teacher and student. The interplay between students is of great value because they learn from each other. Scott shared his gunsmithing expertise on European firearms in his course, designing and building a 1770s’ period fowler or rifle in the Parisian Rocco Art style. He conveys to students the architecture of the different schools of European gunmakers who worked within a rigid guild system, as well as the technical details of how they executed their work.
At the conclusion of the course, students know what the Old World masters made and how they made it. Scott provides the parts needed for the projects, including replicas of the highly decorative cast parts. He uses silicon molds to capture every detail of the original investment cast parts. These are ambitious projects!
Joe Valentin, a retired dentist from Marlette, Mich., has been a regular seminar participant since 1983. The artistic quality of historic guns appealed to him and drew him away from his previous hobby of target shooting with black powder rifles. He taught himself the decorative arts of engraving and gold-leaf application, and used these skills to finish last year’s seminar project, an ornate German holster pistol. Before the gold could be applied, the raised edges of the design were undercut and the flat surfaces covered with tiny “teeth” formed by gently tapping a pointy metal punch with a mallet, first in one direction and then another. This creates an array of mechanical connections so the back of the soft gold foil can adhere to it when it is hammered against them with a wooden punch.
At 40 years old, instructor Jim Kibler is one the youngest professional full-time longrifle gunsmiths, and an alumni of the seminar. He built his first longrifle in his late teens before college and didn’t build another for 10 years because he was too busy working as an engineer for the automotive industry. Longing to make a move towards gunsmithing as a vocation rather than a hobby, he took the loss of his job during the recent economic recession as a sign to do it. He taught a three-day course on the drawing and design principles for carving and engraving longrifles and a six-day course on the fabrication of rifle-stock furniture in sheet brass that covered patch boxes, inlays, thimbles and stock nose capes. I watched him expertly hammer out a nose cap from a cut brass blank in minutes, stretching and compressing the metal in a die of his own making to make a perfectly formed part.
One of Kibler’s students is Justin Chapman, the military programmer for Colonial Williamsburg, a historic city, whose job includes the building and repair of the reproduction weapons used by historical interpreters. He comes to the seminars for professional development and has built 10 rifles in last three years.
Master builder Mark Silver who made a career making custom sporting rifles before shifting to longrifles, also taught two classes. In a three-day course, his students learned their choice of American- or European-style silver- and brass-wire decorative stock inlay techniques, beginning with the making of the specialized tools and ending with the final finishing. Silver’s six-day course focused on both incised line and relief carving that commonly adorned both American and European guns.
Lally House, renowned authority and practitioner of the nearly lost Native American art of porcupine-quill and moose-hair embroidery, taught back-to-back classes for beginning and advanced students. They learned every step of the process, short of catching their own porcupines and moose. Instruction focused on traditional designs, materials and dying techniques to maintain the authenticity of the art form.
Tom Greco attended the Woodbury School iron-mounted gun-making seminar and felt he learned more in two weeks with the House brothers than he had in 25 years on his own. During my interviews with seminar participants, I found this type of high praise for the instructors common.
You may be asking yourself, “What would such and experience cost me?” The three-, six- and nine-day classes cost $360, $720 and $1,080, respectively, plus the cost of class materials. That’s no more than a cheap AR-15. If you want to learn how to build longrifles, there is no better way to do it than under the guidance of
At least 30 former seminar students have gone on to build rifles of such fine quality they were deemed worthy to include in the traveling Minneapolis Institute of Arts exhibition in 2003. Another five former students now build longrifles full time. Today, most seminar participants are middle-aged or older, with the time and money to devote to studying the complex and interdisciplinary art of building longrifles. Professor Leeper along with Herschel House and many other aging masters expressed to me the need to get younger people involved in the seminars to carry on the tradition for another generation.
They encourage men and women with passion and talent to make themselves known, as a lack of financial resources will not be an obstacle to a dedicated student. ASJ
Author’s note: For more information on the 2016 seminar, contact Professor Terry Leeper at Terry.Leeper@wku.edu.
[su_heading size=”30″]The Prentis Henry Rifle No. 19 Witnessed Generational Strife[/su_heading]
STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY FRANK JARDIM
One tangible connection to the human cost of the Civil War can be found in the Frazier History Museum in Louisville, Ky., in the form of a beautifully engraved Henry repeating rifle, serial number 19. The original owner was Connecticut native George Dennison Prentis, who was the editor of the Louisville Journal from 1830 to 1860 and a staunch abolitionist. After succession, he was an outspoken advocate of the Union even though his newspaper was absorbed by the pro-Confederate Louisville Morning Courier. On July 14, 1862, he wrote a report for the newspaper that praised the Henry.
“It behooves every loyal citizen to prepare himself upon his own responsibility with the best weapon of defense that can be obtained. And certainly the simplest, surest and most effective weapon that we know of, the weapon that can be used with the most tremendous results in case of an outbreak or invasion, is one that we have mentioned recently upon two or three occasions, the newly invented rifle of Henry.”
It is very likely that his Henry was a gift from the manufacturer. The Connecticut-based New Haven Arms Company hoped to make the Henry the standard-issue rifle of the Union Army and sought favorable endorsements in hopes of securing government contracts. As a matter of fact, a similar engraved rifle was presented to President Abraham Lincoln.
Ultimately, 1,731 Henry rifles were sold to the US Government for a $63,943 (about $50 each). Far more (approximately 10,000) were bought by individuals and state regiments like the 66th and 7th Illinois and the 97th Indiana. The rifles were highly prized on the battlefield. Confederates described the Henry as “that darn Yankee rifle that they load on Sunday and shoot all week.”
THE PROGENITOR of the Winchester repeaters, the Henry was a technological marvel in its time. It fired a .44-caliber, self-contained, metallic, rim-fire primed cartridge. The magazine held 15 shots, and one more could be loaded in the chamber, giving it more firepower than any other rifle on the battlefield. It was accurate by the standards of the day too, equipped as it was with a graduated ladder rear sight. Army tests showed it could keep 100 percent of its shots inside a 25-inch circle at 500 yards and a 48-inch circle at 1,000. Bullet weights were either 200 or 216 grains over 26 to 28 grains of black powder, giving it a muzzle velocity of 1,125 feet per second and a muzzle energy of 568 foot pounds. Ballistically it was between today’s .44 Special and .44-40 WCF of the same bullet weight, which leads me to wonder how much energy it had left at 200 yards, much less either of the Army test ranges. Compared to the standard rifled musket of the era, the .44 Henry was a pipsqueak, and that insured it would never be selected for general issue to troops. However, at ranges of less than 100 yards the Henry’s accuracy and power were perfectly adequate, and its speed and firepower proved devastating to the enemy in close combat.
THE HISTORY OF GEORGE PRENTIS’S Henry rifle is not a happy one. Though he supported the Union, his two sons, William Courtland and Clarence J., believed in the merits of the Confederate cause and actually fought for the South. William took his father’s rifle to war and died leading his troops in the Battle of Augusta, Ky., on September 18, 1862. The rifle and the sad news made their way back home to George. The Henry left his home again, for the last time, when his remaining son joined the Confederate cause. Reaching the rank of colonel, Clarence survived the war and his father pleaded that he be shown clemency. The rifle never came home. Hidden by Confederate soldiers, it was rediscovered a century later in a Memphis, Tenn. basement. ASJ
The Henry repeating rifle holds a longstanding legacy for its accuracy and being a technological marvel in its time.