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  • March 31, 2006

    High-Priced Screwups

    By David E. Petzal and Phil Bourjaily

    This past week I tested a factory bolt-action rifle that proceeded to break with fewer than 60 rounds through it. The ejector jammed and a gas baffle rotated out of position so you couldn’t close the bolt.

    I was going to whine about this, and then point out that if you spend all that money for custom guns you don't have to put up with such malfunctions, but then I realized that I've had plenty of trouble with rifles that cost a lot of money. Here’s a short list:

    • A cheekpiece carved on the wrong side of the stock. The maker ignored the left-hand bolt.
    • A .222 that wouldn’t extract.
    • A .338 whose tang cracked.
    • A .375 H&H whose bolt stop didn’t work most of the time.
    • A Ruger Number One, restocked and rebarreled to .22 Hornet that came out of the bluing bath with a pit on the receiver flat that an armadillo could crawl into.
    • A very, very high-priced .30/06 with an oversized chamber.
    • A .458 that had so many things wrong with it that the list took two single-spaced typewritten pages. I wrote the maker about it in August and heard back in May of the next year.
    • A .375 H&H whose ejector worked only occasionally.
    • A 7mm Weatherby Magnum that arrived with the rear action screw missing. It shot MOA groups anyway. When I called the maker, he said “My life is such hell.”
    • And so on.

    The moral is that high price is not always a guarantee that everything will work. But usually it is.

  • March 30, 2006

    Hunting T-Rex?

    By David E. Petzal and Phil Bourjaily

    Since the late 1940s, I’ve paid periodic visits to the T-Rex skeleton in the American Museum of Trex Natural History. T-Rex and his kin departed the earth abruptly 65 million years ago, and nothing as fearsome has been seen on the planet until October 26, 1947, when Hillary Rodham came snarling into the world.

    We know comparatively little about them, but the best guess is that a big T-Rex was 40 to 50 feet long and weighed about 6 tons, the same as a good-sized African bull elephant. About their innards, and how they functioned, we know very little.

    Anyway, as I stood there contemplating the last earthly remains of this critter, I wondered: If you had the chance to hunt one, where would you shoot it, and with what?

    I invite your opinions.

    By the way, a few years ago there was a television show on the chances of re-creating a T-Rex for real, a la Jurassic Park. No one said it couldn’t be done, just that it would take time, cost a fortune, and what the hell would you do with the beast once you created it? So this may not be idle speculation after all.

  • March 29, 2006

    In Praise of Brownell’s

    By David E. Petzal and Phil Bourjaily

    In a world filled with disappointment and betrayal, one institution I’ve never lost faith in is located in Montezuma, Iowa. (Why is a town in Iowa named after an Aztec king?) It’s called Brownell’s, and is THE SOURCE to gunsmiths and gun nuts of all types.

    Since 1957, Brownell’s has issued a catalog that is doom and ruin, because it contains (in its most recent, 488-page incarnation) over 30,000 items, of which any committed shooter will just have to have 14,322. Not only that, but they are extremely nice people to deal with, and when you call them for tech help you get tech help. And they have never screwed up an order. Cabela’s once screwed up an order, but considering that I’ve spent the equivalent of the Bolivian national debt with them they were bound to. But Brownell’s? Never.

    Once, when placing an order, I allowed to the nice lady that I brushed my teeth with J-B Bore Cleaning Compound, which tasted terrible but gave me a lovely smile. She said “OH MY GOD,” but didn’t hang up.

    Give your credit card to a responsible adult and log on to

  • March 28, 2006

    Two Great Books on the Old West

    By David E. Petzal and Phil Bourjaily

    Okay, let me rant about these and then we’ll get back to guns. Here are two books that no Old West fan should miss. Oddly enough, both are fiction.

    First is a book called The Court-Martial of George Armstrong Custer, by Douglas C. Jones, written in 1975. Jones, who was a retired Army lieutenant colonel when he wrote his, had a great premise: Custer is the sole survivor of the Little Bighorn, and is brought back to Governor’s Island, in New York City, for trial. The Army, it seems, it very cross with him for getting a third of his command killed.

    Jones is a hell of a fine writer, a meticulous researcher, and had a deep understanding of the way the Army works. Once you get into his book you’ll be unable to put it down, and you’ll have to remind yourself periodically that you’re reading fiction, not history. It’s that good.

    Second is The Shootist, written in 1976 by Glendon Swarthout. (Yes, the very same Glendon Swarthout who wrote the anti-hunting book, Bless the Beasts and the Children. ) The book was made into a truly lousy movie of the same name, and it was John Wayne’s last film. He deserved better.

    Swarthout, like Jones, is a first-rate writer and researcher, and his book is not only a vivid look at the very last of the Old West (the story takes place in 1900) but is probably as good a look inside the head of a gun man, or shootist (which is what they were called then, not gunfighters) as we are likely to get. It will make your blood run cold.

  • March 27, 2006

    A Film Guide for Cowboy Action Shooters

    By David E. Petzal and Phil Bourjaily

    By a curious twist of fate, the Old West died out at just the time the motion picture was born, and the latter immediately glommed onto the former, transforming grubby reality into glamorous myth. Hollywood has produced more Old West b.s. than all the longhorns that ever lived.

    Probably the first realistic Western character seen on the screen was in Shane (1953). Jack Palance portrayed a gunfighter named Jack Wilson, and he was very close to the real thing because he shot farmers for a living and enjoyed it.

    Gary Cooper as Marshall Will Caine was good in High Noon (1951) because he was plainly terrified throughout the picture. But I’ve only seen three westerns in a lifetime of watching them that were real from start to finish.

    First is The Culpeper Cattle Company  (1972). This was a B movie with a no-star cast, and it portrayed cowboy life as it really was: dirty, dangerous, and something to get the hell away from as soon as a better opportunity came along. “Cowboyin’s somethin’ to do when you can’t do nothin’ else,” says the cattle-drive cook.

    Second is Ulzana’s Raid  (also 1972), a low-budget A movie with Burt Lancaster. It’s the story of a cavalry patrol chasing an escaped Apache chief (Ulzana) who murders men, women, and children for sport. It’s brutal, highly intelligent, and politically incorrect by today’s standards.

    Third is Unforgiven  (1992), directed by and starring Clint Eastwood. It was nominated for nine Oscars and won four of the major ones. Its central figure is William Munny, a reformed-alcoholic gunfighter who, having failed as a farmer, goes back to killing for money. There are no heroes in this one, just varying degrees of evil.

    So the next time you strap on your chaps and your sixgun, remember: There were damned few good guys, and you wouldn’t want to live within 10 miles of them anyway.

  • March 24, 2006

    How Much? The days when factories gave guns to writers are dead and gone

    By David E. Petzal and Phil Bourjaily

    This is in response to a gentleman who, in response to my rant on custom rifles versus factory guns, said that, in light of the prices some of these firearms go for, he’d like to know how much I’m paid. Fair question.

    In the good old days when I was breaking in, factories used to flat-out give firearms to gun writers, and the better-known of these guys used to accumulate veritable arsenals. When Warren Page passed on, his guns were baled like hay and sold by the ton. Custom gunsmiths used to give them guns too, because a kind word in print could make their careers.

    Well, those days are over. These days, we get guns on loan, and if we want to keep them, we send a check, usually for an amount that isn’t reduced a whole hell of a lot from list price. As for custom guns, we sometimes get a small discount. These guys simply can’t afford to give away guns. The components are too expensive and the labor costs are too high.

    I have to scrimp and save to buy the fancy stuff, but I’ve found this: Long after you forget about how much you paid, or what you went through to get it together, the performance of the gun justifies everything, and then some. Many of the golfers on the pro tour don’t make a lot of money, but their clubs cost a fortune, and have been diddled with to the nth degree. They are the tools of the trade, as guns are the tools of this strange profession, and we use the best we can.

  • March 23, 2006

    The Flying Dutchman: Is my old .378 Weatherby doomed to wander the earth alone?

    By David E. Petzal and Phil Bourjaily

    This was not a Hollander who could aviate, but a legendary sailing ship, doomed to wander the oceans forever, never reaching port. Wagner wrote a boring opera about it, but I digress. Apparently I have a former rifle that is a flying Dutchman, destined never to find a home.

    It began life as a .378 Weatherby Magnum that I bought new in 1971. It came with a beautiful claro walnut stock as did many Weatherbys at the time, but being a classic-stock snob, I took it to Griffin & Howe, the custom gunmaker, and had all sorts of neat stuff done to it, including the addition of G&H iron sights, a QD side mount, a Canjar trigger, and a custom stock—a very handsome piece of nearly black French walnut.

    The rifle was very accurate—you could shoot cloverleafs with it—but had one consuming fault: It kicked like the hammers of hell. The .378 Weatherby (actually a .375) sends a 300-grain bullet on its way at 2,950 fps, courtesy of 115 grains of powder, and produces 75 foot-pounds of recoil, which is a lot. But it was not the foot-pounds that killed you, it was the speed at which that rifle came back. You couldn’t roll with it—all you could do was suffer.

    So in the late 1970s I sold it, and since then I’ve had the chance to buy it back at least 4 times but never have. Other people have owned it (one of them had the floorplate inlaid) but no one keeps it. It just keeps popping up in the internet, forever an orphan.

  • March 22, 2006

    The Truth About Little Big Horn

    By David E. Petzal and Phil Bourjaily

    If you’ve never been to the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming, you should drop whatever you’re doing and go there right this minute. Among its many wonders is the Cody Firearms Museum, which was founded in 1976. In the early 1980s, the Museum received a Maynard carbine (used by the Confederacy in the Civil War) from a Nebraskan, who claimed that a Native-American ancestor of his had used it at the Little Big Horn.

    Half the old guns in the West were allegedly used at Little Big Horn, so the curators put the Maynard aside and more or less forgot about it. Then, in 1983  a range fire burned the Little Bighorn battlefield right down to the dirt, and for the first time, a team of forensic archaeologists was able to explore the battlefield and, in the process, dug up thousands of expended cartridge cases, including Maynard shells, and other artifacts.

    The cases went to the Cody Firearms Museum, and then to the FBI lab for examination. Then someone remembered the Maynard carbine, and sent it along for testing. And sure enough, some of the shells found on the battlefield came from the old gun. One of them might even have done in Lt. Col. Custer.

    The forensic examination showed something else. One of the enduring myths of the Custer battle was that his troopers were massacred because their copper-cased Springfield .45/70 cartridges jammed in their carbines. Over 1,700 .45/70 cases were recovered, and just over .3 percent showed signs of being pried from a carbine chamber. The jammed-carbine legend was one of many that started because Americans at the time couldn’t tolerate the idea of a major military hero being whipped by “savages.”

    The truth was best spoken by Sitting Bull. Speaking of Custer years after the battle, he said:

    “He was a fool and he rode to his death. He made that fight, not I.”

  • March 21, 2006

    Why is it that two consecutive rifles off an assembly line will shoot so differently?

    By David E. Petzal and Phil Bourjaily

    Here’s one for you to ponder: Compared to most other machines, rifles are very simple mechanism—very few parts, and those are uncomplicated. Then why is it that two consecutive rifles off an assembly line will shoot so differently? Or to take it a step further, why is it that two custom barrels, made with the most exacting precision, will shoot differently? I mean, I know one barrel maker who does his own spectrographic analysis of each load of barrel blanks he gets, just to make sure the steel mill that produced them isn’t slipping something by him, and even his  barrels don’t shoot alike.

    Kenny Jarrett, the South Carolina gunmaker who specializes in sub-minute (and usually sub-half-minute) rifles of all sorts, from prairie dog rifles to buffalo rifles, once told me that when he was using factory actions as the basis for his creations, he would get two or so a year that simply would not shoot. I mean, whatever they did to the rifle, and they did everything, it simply would not shoot well. All they could do was cut the receiver in half, throw it on the scrap heap, and start again.

    Kenny had no idea why this should be, and neither do I. If you have any thoughts I’d be interested in hearing them.

  • March 20, 2006

    When you push bullets above 4,000 fps, strange things happen

    By David E. Petzal and Phil Bourjaily

    During the 1980s and 1990s, Field & Stream was owned by a corporation based in Los Angeles. Its management, from my lowly vantage point, was comprised of dimwits, lickspittles, blunderers, Harvard MBAs, toadies, and no-hopers. One of the ideas this bunch had was to hand out Lucite plaques with the company logo on one side and the company motto on the other (“Bend over. Here it comes again”) to all its employees. I believe this was done in lieu of bonuses.

    Anyway, no one wanted these things but me. I thought they would make terrific targets, and when I let this be known, I shortly had more plaques than I could carry. And they did blow apart in a wonderful fashion. But when I shot them with a .220 Swift, a curious thing happened: The tiny, 4,000 fps bullets simply bored holes through the Lucite.

    When you push bullets above 4,000 fps, strange things happen. I’ve seen paper targets sprayed with molten lead from a bullet’s core as it passed through. Apparently the heat and stress of the trip up a rifle barrel at that speed melted the lead cores. I’ve seen highly frangible .22 varmint bullets go through mild steel plate that .30/06 slugs couldn’t penetrate. Perhaps the bullets acted in the manner of a shaped charge and burned their way through.

    And of course if you really want to make the prairie dogs fly, nothing beats 4,000 fps. But on Lucite blocks, it’s pretty disappointing.

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