Rifles and Pistols and Guns, Oh My!

The Reason Why

October 23rd, 2017 27 Comments


I received the following comment from a reader:

“I find it disgusting that some people have to voice their opinions with threats. With social media that seems to be more and more the case. Would most of these people say these things to a person’s face? I also want to say that being a Canadian I am more liberal in my views although I would never put someone down because of more conservative views. I would never, nor do I know of any other Canadian, who would vote Republican.  Republicans are far too much to the right for most Canadians. What I am wondering is why a lot of Americans feel so strongly about the right to bear arms.  I realize that it is a right in your Constitution and that we should fight not to have rights taken from us. I hear many Americans say that they need to protect themselves. From what?  As a Canadian I am not given the right to have a concealed weapon in my purse and I am 100 per cent okay with that. I feel, just as you do, that I live in a free country. I hear that it is to empower yourselves in case there is an uprising with the government. Really? I have never feared my government nor the head of state of Canada, the Queen. Whenever I am on holiday in Florida I also think in the back of my mind “many of these people could have guns on them”. This is not a reassuring feeling. I do also realize that the majority of you are carrying guns for protection and peace of mind and are not about to shoot me while I’m shopping at Target. As a Canadian I actually feel safer at home.  I guess I just want you, or your readers, to explain to me why you feel so passionately about guns and the right to carry one?”
Nancy Ontario Canada

Dear Nancy,

Thank you for asking a very reasonable question. I won’t go into the Republican versus Democrat issue, because that is a separate topic and relates to completely different views on what kind of government is best for America, views that were, once, possibly, long ago, during a brief and halcyon moment immediately after our revolution, debated with courtesy and respect for the other man’s opinion, in a gracious and honest attempt to reach what both sides knew must ultimately be a compromise. Them days is long gone.

But as to the right to bear arms, I am delighted to try and explain our uniquely American outlook on the God-given right to self-defense.

First, we must accept that self-defense is a God-given right, something no government can take away from you. Throughout all of man’s history, from the earliest known records of the Mesopotamian civilizations, men have always gone armed and usually in groups, precisely to be able to defend themselves. It was only with the rise of unprecedented wealth created by the industrial revolution that people in Western civilizations began to relax a little and stopped wearing swords or carrying guns for the first time, but during America’s colonial days, weapons were a fact of life and, in rural areas, of survival.

(An anti-gun history professor at Emory University, Michael Bellesiles, was awarded the prestigious Bancroft Prize in 2001 for his book, Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, purportedly showing that firearms were relatively scarce in colonial America, and therefore proving the historical construct for the individual right to keep and bear arms was a bogus invention of a gun industry pandering to wingnuts like me who wanted to justify their strange obsession with guns. Obviously, I am taking liberties here, because I honestly don’t know, nor does anyone else, what Mr. Bellesiles’ motivations were, but while his book was initially, gleefully, accepted by gullible and eager anti-gun types and the virulently anti-gun media, his purported “scholarship” was almost immediately called into question by legitimate historians and scholars, with the result that within a year, the prize was rescinded and he was fired from Emory. I mention this incident only to show that, unlike Michael Bellesiles, I am not making things up when I say that owning and carrying guns has been a tradition in America since before it was America.)

Understand that our founding fathers, the men who initiated and spearheaded our revolution and subsequently created as close as we are likely to get to an ideal democratic republic, were men who decided to revolt treasonously against the crown precisely because they felt they were being crushed by a monarchy that neither cared for them nor for the colonies, except as a source of revenue and geographic expediency. There is much debate about what the final straw was, but the embattled farmers who stood by the rude bridge that arched the flood and fired the shot heard round the world (Ralph Waldo Emerson is rolling in his grave for how I’ve mangled his poem) were there specifically because they had received intelligence that the British army was coming to confiscate their weapons. That’s worth remembering.

So, America had a tradition of keeping and bearing arms even before it was America, and unlike Canada, which is still technically part of the United Kingdom as a parliamentary democracy within a constitutional monarchy, America had to fight for her freedom, enduring enormous hardship and great loss of life in pursuit of a dream of equality and autonomy.

Even the western expansion of our two countries was radically different: American settlers and the American government fought battle after bloody battle against various indigenous tribes (and routinely and serenely disregarded treaty after treaty, which is why pro-Second Amendment types frequently and ironically say, “Of course you can trust the government. Just ask an Indian.”) while Canadian settlers relied upon their government (the Mounties specifically, if memory serves) to broker peace treaties instead of waging war. (Perhaps a better and more humane strategy, but all those Canadian treaties worked far better for the settlers than for the native tribes.)

I’m not trying to praise or condemn either one of our separate histories here: I’m just pointing out that there are historical differences between America and Canada and that those historical differences are reflected in our different attitudes toward self-defense today. Canadians, judging by the ones I know personally, by statements like yours, and by the accounts I read in local papers and saw on the local news during the three-plus months I worked in Edmonton, really believe in their various levels of government, and in their national government especially. Americans, at least conservative (read Republican) Americans, tend to look at their various levels of government with a much more jaundiced and distrustful eye. We also tend to be more self-reliant (for want of a better phrase) from the point of view that we do not expect the government to be there for us when we might like it to be. Anyone who has ever frantically called for the police in a life-threatening emergency knows that, with the best will in the world, law enforcement can never get there as quickly as we need them to be there. (I did it once; my ex-wife did it once. In neither case were the police able to arrive until well after the danger was past. In my ex-wife’s case, she was saved, literally, by the fortuitous and random appearance of a private security guard.) Nor is that the police’s mandate: our courts have ruled that the duty of law enforcement is to protect society in general, not the individual, a ruling that compels law enforcement to try and solve the crime and arrest the bad guys, but not to prevent the crime from happening. And, realistically, how could they?

So, while you, as an individual, have the right to defend yourself, just as every individual in the wide world has the right to defend himself, only in America is that right codified in our Bill of Rights, and spelled out to specifically mention arms. Not only is it codified, but it is given the honor of second place, preceded only by the rights of freedom of religion, expression, press, peaceable assembly, and the right to petition the government for redress of grievances, all lumped together under Amendment One.

Even a cursory glance at the writings of the founding fathers, their letters amongst themselves, their diaries, and specifically and most importantly what we refer to as the Federalist Papers (a series of essays written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay), shows that they considered the armed individual to be a necessary requisite to balance the power of any government. Our anti-gun politicians and the media keep spouting fatuous nonsense such as, Nobody needs a (fill in the blank) to go duck hunting. But no kind of hunting is ever mentioned anywhere in the Federalist papers or any other writings. What is mentioned, repeatedly, is the right to self-defense, and the importance of an armed populace to keep a government from becoming too enamored with itself and taking liberties with individual rights. Think it can’t happen? Read your history. I won’t bother listing the all advanced, civilized, well-educated countries that descended into murderous chaos when their governments came under the thrall of leaders with evil in their hearts. It has even happened—on a very small scale—right here in America; the reason it hasn’t happened on a larger scale is precisely because an armed populace would, and more importantly, could, rise up.

So, what do I and other Americans, feel we have to defend ourselves against? Evil and stupidity and mental illness exist everywhere, and no legislation in the world will ever stop them. Fortunately, they exist in minuscule amounts, and are greatly outnumbered by good and kindness and selflessness, but they do exist. I have used a handgun to defend my life and the life of one of my sons. I have used a rifle to defend myself and my late hunting partner from a bear. Even our Center for Disease Control (CDC), an agency which has not had a traditionally pro-gun stance (to put it mildly), stated in a report commissioned by former and virulently anti-gun president Barack Obama, that “defensive gun uses by victims” [skip] “range from 500,000 to more than 3-million per year.”

Does that mean that 500,000 to 3-million times a year law abiding Americans whip out their gats and throw slugs around? Of course not. In my case, I never even got the pistol out of its holster; just the act of reaching for it caused the two men to spin around and jump back in their van. Usually (and countless studies and statistics prove this) just the presence of a firearm resolves potentially violent criminal situations without a shot ever being fired, thank God. Nor is the average person likely to go to places where bears will regard him as the first course of this evening’s dinner, but rabid animals and aggressive and out of control dogs seriously injure thousands of people every year.

Obviously, as someone who has been around firearms practically all my life, I have a very different feeling about guns than you or anyone who is unfamiliar with them. Not long ago, driving through Arizona, where constitutional carry is the law, I stopped in a big-box store and saw two men carrying sidearms openly (in holsters outside their clothes) and identified several others who were clearly carrying concealed sidearms. My immediate reaction was one of safety, of (to paraphrase Mr. T in The A Team): “I pity the fool who starts trouble in here.” But that’s a result of my knowing that guns are inanimate objects, tools that do not cause bad behavior or discharge by themselves. I quite understand that urban people who have never been around guns, let alone seen or handled them, might respond with fear, but always remember: there is far more good in the world than evil, so if you are in a state where law abiding citizens may legally carry firearms, take comfort in knowing that if evil should raise its head and see a man with a gun on his hip, evil is likely to retract its head and leave quietly for other venues. If that doesn’t happen, at least there is someone around who has the means to take care of the situation while you wait for the police to arrive.

Another Reason for the Second Amendment

October 18th, 2017 16 Comments

Two recent atrocities came together in an unlikely nexus.

The first was the horror in Las Vegas. The second was the horror in Hollywood with disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein.

The unlikely nexus is Dana Loesch (pronounced “lash”), the very beautiful conservative talk-radio host and NRA spokesperson. Since the mass shooting in Las Vegas, Ms. Loesch has received so many threats that she has been compelled to sell her home and move. The context of the nexus is that these threats are not just the usual death threats of the extremist looney-tunes on the far left to shoot her (no irony there), though there were plenty of those, but that there were apparently also many sexual threats, primarily to rape her to death.

Sexual abuse such as Harvey Weinstein’s, whether groping, masturbation, or rape, is not about sex. It’s about power, and I find it fascinating that the very sickest of the sick peaceful anti-gun types would use sexual threats in an attempt to intimidate Ms. Loesch.

Rape has been used by men as domination device since the dawn of time. It makes no difference whether it’s by sick and sleazy individuals like Harvey Weinstein, or by armies as a weapon of war, or by male convicts against other male convicts: it’s not about sex; it’s about power. And with that in mind, to find that the radical far-left would be so completely blatant is very revealing.

Radical progressive college professors and students have said, and proven, they consider violence acceptable if it prevents other people from saying things and presenting ideas the professors and students do not want to hear or see presented, First Amendment be damned. But to add the threat of such a crude and disgusting form of dominance, in an attempt to silence ideas and beliefs anti-gunners do not agree with, provides very effective proof of precisely why we need the right to keep and bear arms.

Kudos to Kimber

July 21st, 2017 17 Comments

Let’s give credit where credit is due.

I have a Kimber CDP in .45 caliber. (The 1911 on the gun rug in the lower left of the photo above.) It has a full-length guide rod and no barrel bushing, which means when you disassemble it, you have to use a little tool (basically a paperclip bent into an L-shape) to hold the recoil spring back.

With me so far?

Other than the pain-in-the-neck factor of having to use a little tool (Murphy’s Law #3: if you need a tool to do anything, you won’t have when you need it) everything is fine so far. The problem comes when you have to disassemble the guide-rod-recoil-spring-recoil-spring-cap unit into its three component pieces. Kimber recommends only doing this about every 800-rounds, but if you’re a clean freak, as I am, you tend to get a little anal-compulsive about doing things thoroughly.

Soooooo, when I came back from the range, I decided to clean this particular firearm thoroughly. Unfortunately, I have arthritis in my hands, and between the shooting at the range and the weather and possibly the alignment of the stars, my hands were hurting that day. It takes a certain amount of physical strength to hold the spring back as you release the little tool without letting anything slip, because if you let anything slip, the odds of your ever finding the recoil spring, the recoil spring cap, or the guide rod are slim to none and Slim left town.

I had a stroke of genius. I put gun rags on either side of my machinist’s vice to protect the metal, clamped the unit into the vice, and promptly turned it one turn too many, torqueing the whole damned thing.

I took the whole (disassembled) gun to my local gun store where I was told I would have to replace the three pieces of the unit, and since everything about Kimber firearms is proprietary, that meant calling Kimber.

Now, let’s review the bidding: Shooter decides to disassemble and clean a part that doesn’t need cleaning; Shooter gets frustrated and irritable because his hands are hurting; Shooter gets bright idea that wasn’t very bright after all and destroys an integral unit of the gun that didn’t need disassembly and cleaning in the first place; Shooter calls Kimber and when the young man answers the phone in the parts department, Shooter tells the young man honestly and forthrightly that he (the Shooter) is a moron who did and astoundingly moronic thing that didn’t need doing and shouldn’t have been done anyway.

And this is where the story gets interesting, because the young man on the phone in Kimber’s parts department restrained his impulse to laugh, said he would put the parts in the mail that afternoon, and then announced there would be no charge. No parts fee. No shipping fee. No stupidity fee. Absolutely free and gratis.

Kudos and a grateful tip of the hat to Kimber Manufacturing. (https://www.kimberamerica.com)

America At Her Best

October 12th, 2016 8 Comments



I do some work for the Weatherby Company, makers of some of the finest rifles in the world, including the renowned and vault-like Mark V, and I went to my local range yesterday to play with their new ladies’ model, called the Camilla.

It’s a private, unsupervised range, and the only other person there was an older gentleman shooting a few tables away. When I turned to signal for down time to check my target, I noticed he was shooting a Weatherby and that his truck had a “Semper Fi” sticker on it with the cursive Weatherby W decal right above that. I had never met this gentleman before, he had no idea who I was (we didn’t even exchange names until later), and I said nothing to him about my having any connection to Weatherby. This, paraphrased and condensed, is what came out, unsolicited, in our conversation:

His name is Jim Neal and he is an eighty-year-old former Marine, originally from Montana. He and his family (children and grandchildren) drive up to Dillon, Montana ever year for a couple of weeks of deer and elk hunting. His rifle is a synthetic-stocked Mark V .340 Wby that he bought secondhand thirty-two years ago as his all-purpose hunting rifle. He had Weatherby install a muzzle brake a few years back when age began to make the recoil a little unpleasant. He had a Kahles scope on it originally, but earlier this year, when he started to practice for his family hunt, the focus ring froze up. He sent the scope back to Kahles, but they told him it would be months before they could repair and return it. He mounted another scope and found, to his horror, that his shots were going all over the paper. He asked a friend to shoot it as a double-check. Same thing. Another scope. Same thing. He called Weatherby and then drove the rifle across the state to them in Paso Robles. He dealt with a lady named Cheryl in the Service Department who took him in back to talk to a gunsmith named Vladimir, who examined the rifle.

How it happened, or how he had been able to shoot the rifle, I don’t know, but this is what they found:

The stock was cracked, the magazine was bent, the floorplate hinge was cracked, and the safety wouldn’t engage properly. Weatherby put on a new stock, repaired the magazine and the floorplate, fixed the safety, and installed a new trigger, but the new trigger had too much creep in it, so they replaced their replacement. Then Cheryl and Vladimir gave Mr. Neal a Weatherby cap, a butt-stock ammo carrier, a sling, and Vladimir gave him his own ratchet screw-driver because Mr. Neal likes to do his own gun-smithing.

The total cost to him for all their time and labor was exactly zero. On a secondhand, thirty-two-year-old rifle.

Ask me why I’m proud to be associated with Weatherby.

All The News That’s Fit For Prevarication

October 28th, 2015 16 Comments



Really, sometimes the Grey Lady just makes it all too easy. No, no. Hillary is the Shady Lady; the Grey Lady is The New York Times.

Jameson’s Law of Convincing Argument states that if I wish to convince you of the absolute and infallible correctness of my point of view, I would be well-served not to cite sources that are known for agreeing with me or being on my side of a particular argument.

For example: I recently wrote an article for a magazine about a gun control initiative being launched in the state where that magazine is published. In the article, I quoted President Obama repeating a lie he has told frequently. He stated that, “The law already requires licensed gun dealers to run background checks, and over the past [twenty] years that’s kept millions of the wrong people from getting their hands on a gun. But it’s hard to enforce that law when as many as forty percent of all gun purchases are conducted without a background check.” [Emphasis mine.]

If I had then refuted that lie, which has been repeatedly refuted and debunked, with facts and figures from the NRA, you would have been wise to suspect me of being biased, lazy in my research, and even perhaps dishonest myself. Instead, I quoted the “Fact-Checker” column in the notoriously anti-gun Washington Post, which gave Mr. Obama three Pinocchios out of a possible four for dishonesty.

So, enter the Grey Lady, stage left, ranting wildly about the “myth” of defensive gun use, specifically as it pertains to concealed carry. The Editorial Board of the Times (wisely, no individual wished to attach his or her name to the piece) proceeded to trot out “statistics” purporting to show the relatively few (according to the Times) occasions firearms were used throughout the country for legally justifiable purposes of defense. Then the Grey Lady solemnly informed its readers, most of whom are sheltered and pampered urban and suburban dwellers unlikely to question any dishonest garbage the editorial board dishes as out, that their source for these “statistics” was The Violence Policy Center.

Oh dear, oh dear, Grey Lady, that’s just embarrassing. Anyone with an I.Q. larger than his hat size will hear alarm bells going off. Actually, the editorial board must have realized how embarrassing it was, because a disclaimer was immediately added to the effect that the Violence Policy Center’s figures were, “…necessarily incomplete, because the gun lobby has been so successful in persuading gullible state and national legislators that concealed carry is essential to public safety, thus blocking the extensive data collection that should be mandatory for an obvious and severe public health problem.”

(That, by the way, is an old trick, cynically summed up by the lawyer, Billy Flynn, in the musical Chicago, when he tap dances and sings the song Razzle Dazzle:

“Give ‘em the old flim flam flummox,

Fool and fracture ‘em,

How can they hear the truth above the roar?…

…Long as you keep ‘em way off balance,

How can they spot you’ve got no talents?”

In other words, if your argument is completely bogus, blame it in an outraged tone of voice on your opponent.)

The problem, dear Grey Lady, is that “the extensive data collection that should be mandatory” is in fact carried out and is available to anyone willing to look at an unbiased source. The United States Bureau of Justice, hardly a rabid pro-gun institution, estimates that firearms are used defensively in America 235,700 each year. Other sources, some pro-gun and some neutral, estimate legal defensive firearm use from an approximate low of one million, to a high of two-and-a-half million times a year.

You do see where this is going, right? If the Grey Lady can convince its naïve and uneducated (about guns) readers that the number of legal and justifiable defensive uses of a firearm is a tiny, insignificant amount, then no one can refute the old, emotional “if it saves just one life” gun control argument. Because the reverse of that argument is that if having a gun saves just one life, than there is no reason to ban firearms. And, in fact, as the very low Bureau of Justice figures show, many, many lives are saved by defensive use each year, a great many times more than are taken by criminals.

Then the Grey Lady went on to say, “Clearly, concealed carry does not transform ordinary citizens into superheroes.” That is possibly the only honest thing The Times Editorial Board was able to write in the entire article. Concealed carry does not transform anyone, but it does at least give him a fighting chance not to become another lamentable statistic.

Santa Barbara Monster

May 27th, 2014 24 Comments

Someone (or possibly several anonymous someones) takes me to task from time to time for my love of firearms and my support of the second amendment. I recently received an email on my “Comments” page that contained (in part) the following: “Have you seen the father of the boy who was killed in the Santa Barbara shooting? Have you seen him on television? How does he make you feel about your gun rights [sic]?”

(I am being persnickety about the “gun rights” correction, but guns are inanimate objects and have no rights. He or she meant second amendment rights.)

Yes, I have seen him, and my heart goes out to him. His pain and grief are unimaginable, and no one in their right mind could fault him for lashing out. I pray God will give him the strength to come through this and to eventually find some peace.

Having said that, I have to point out that his anger is misdirected. The gun didn’t shoot his son anymore the knife killed the three young men who had the misfortune to share an apartment with a monster, anymore than a BMW SUV killed (injured?) the bicyclist who had the misfortune to be on the street that night. Nor were craven politicians responsible, nor was the NRA. Nor were the police who obeyed the law and respected their own oath and the Constitution of the United States by not “doing more” (that seems to be the phrase I hear most frequently on the news) the night they went to the monster’s apartment. Nor were his parents. Nor were the mental health providers he saw. Nor was his Asperger’s Syndrome.

The young man who is responsible for the horror in Santa Barbara was a spoiled, narcissistic, jealous monster. He was evil, and there is no explanation for evil. Evil exists, just as good exists. Fortunately, there is far, far more good in the world than there is evil.

There are approximately ninety million gun owners in the United States, who enjoy sport and recreation with their firearms and never use them to commit any crime. More than that: legally-owned firearms are used defensively (to save lives and prevent crimes) approximately one million times a year in America. Those goods far outweigh the evil that is done.

Many tens of thousands of people (no one knows precisely how many) have Asperger’s and harm no one. Should we judge them all by the actions of an evil monster?

It is normal to cry out in pain, and it is normal to try and assign blame after a horror like this, but the blame lies solely with the monster. As my friend, gun-writer Dave Workman said in an email, “[He] had everything a kid could want, but nothing a young man needed: Character, self-reliance, a sense of responsibility, self-control, a sense of right and wrong.” No new laws, no further restrictions on the rights of gun owners or people with mental problems—or any other citizens—will ever prevent evil. We might just as well try to make ourselves feel good by banning BMW SUVs.

I read somewhere that over 2.2-million people have read the monster’s “manifesto” on line. I will not.

Rocky Mountain High

March 4th, 2014 28 Comments

Colorado flag


Arguably the most beautiful state in the West, Colorado seems to have veered off onto a course that has more in common with California, New York, Connecticut, and possibly Oz than with any semblance of sanity. Let’s review the bidding:

Just a little over a year ago, Colorado passed four questionably constitutional anti-gun laws, laws that a majority of the state’s county sheriffs publically announced they neither could nor would enforce. The passage of the laws, coupled with an extraordinarily insensitive response to a rape victim by then state Senator Evie Hudak, resulted in a recall election in which two other senators lost their seats and Ms. Hudak resigned. The passage of the laws also prompted one of Colorado’s larger employers, Magpul, a manufacturer of firearms and firearm accessories, to leave Colorado entirely. (They are still technically in Colorado, but are in the throes of moving their manufacturing plant to Wyoming and their corporate headquarters to Texas.)

Just a few months later, the state passed Amendment 64, legalizing the use of marijuana. Regardless of your views on drug usage, marijuana use, possession, sale, distribution, or cultivation is still illegal under federal law. In my state of California, marijuana is cultivated by drug cartel employees in remote places where both hunters and Fish and Wildlife agents have come under fire, making the once bucolic job of Fish and Wildlife one of the most dangerous law enforcement jobs in the state.  (Marijuana is also, according to the Sheriff’s Department in my county, considered to be as much of an impediment to driving as either alcohol or cell phone use. It is further considered to be a “gateway” drug, meaning it—pick a word—encourages, inspires, tempts young users to try other more dangerous drugs.)

And now, a U.S. District judge in Colorado, Christine Arguello, has handed down a two-year sentence for a woman who was convicted of buying a gun for a recently paroled felon and known white supremacist who subsequently used that gun to murder two men, to severely wound a Texas Sheriff’s Deputy, and to fire multiple rounds at other police officers during a high-speed chase. Purchasing a firearm for a person who is himself legally unable to buy a gun is a straw purchase. It is a violation of multiple federal and state (specifically Colorado) laws. Since in this particular case, the gun was knowingly bought for a convicted felon, and subsequently used in two murders, it would not be a stretch to charge the woman in question as an accessory to murder. Instead, Ms. Arguello chose to give the woman in question a slap on the wrist.

So what is cumulative message being sent here? We can deduce that Colorado state legislators regard federal laws more as suggestions than as laws and that they, the state legislators, may pick and choose which of those suggestions they wish to enforce. We can deduce that the state legislators also regard the (federally illegal) marijuana business as more desirable than the legal firearms manufacturing business. We can also deduce that Colorado state legislators regard passing laws restricting the freedoms of law-abiding gun owners to be an effective way of discouraging criminals, even as we also deduce that at least one federal judge regards being an accessory to the murder of two men and the wounding of third as a relatively insignificant crime. We can further deduce that if violating existing federal and state gun laws (conducting a straw purchase, for example) is not taken seriously by judges, those laws become as meaningless to criminals as, oh, all other gun laws, or let’s say the federal drug laws the Colorado legislators choose not to enforce.

And finally, we can deduce that perhaps Colorado is no longer the crown jewel of Western states. Unless of course you’re in the marijuana business.

Joseph Smithson, Riflemaker

December 12th, 2013


In Good Guns, Stephen Bodio writes, “At its best every good gun is a kind of time machine.” And he might have added that every custom gun maker is a link in a chain of time machines that stretches back to the Clovis spear point or beyond, a line of men obsessed with the pursuit of perfection.

No one becomes an artist – any kind of artist – with a view to getting rich. Painters paint and writers write and gun makers make guns because they can’t help themselves. They may find their avocation early (Mozart was composing at five) or late (Grandma Moses only started painting in her late seventies when her arthritis got so bad she could no longer embroider) but they are driven.

Joe Smithson found his avocation early. He was raised on the Navajo reservation in northern Arizona. His family had a large ranch and his father owned the local trading post.

“I think that’s where my fascination with firearms started, because [his father] was always taking in a lot of guns for pawn.”

After high school, Joe went to Trinidad State Junior College, renowned for the gunsmithing program started in 1947 by P.O. Ackley of Ackley Improved cartridges fame. He was able to study under some of the best gunsmiths in America, and went right from college to an apprenticeship with the legendary Jerry Fisher. Then he opened his own shop in Farmington, NM.

“I started a shop with Jim Mosley (the dean of the gunsmithing department at Trinidad) and we were in business for three or four years before I opened my own place. But then I ended up moving to Provo, UT as a single dad with three kids.”

Joe opened his own shop in Provo, but as he says, “Gunsmithing is a hard way to make a living if you don’t have an outside income. I was lucky enough to have one customer [Mario Zanotti] who kept me afloat ordering guns every year. Without him and the support of Mosley and Fisher, I couldn’t have made it go.”

Fortunately, he did make it go, and today he builds six to eight guns a year, depending on how involved the projects are. Eighty percent of his business is bolt actions, but he can make anything from double rifle or shotgun to lever action or single shot. (The rifle that got him accepted into the American Custom Gunmaker’s Guild was a Fraser falling-block single shot he made himself completely from scratch, action, screws, springs, everything, by hand. It was not, he learned, a productive way to do things.)


The rifle Joe sent me to play with was chambered in .275 Rigby (his favorite caliber for light game is the 7X57mm, the virtually identical precursor and inspiration for the .275), and built with the traditional looks of a British ‘best:’ a breathtaking walnut stock with a crisply defined cheek-piece; ebony fore-end; smooth metal butt plate; square bridge action made by Granite Mountain; flawless – and I really mean flawless – wood-to-metal fit; folding leaf sights; an extra front sight and dust covers for the scope mount slots (!) tucked away in the pistol-grip trapdoor; detachable scope mounts…. Stop right there. Detachable scope mounts unlike any I have ever seen before.

When Joe started using Granite Mountain’s double square bridge action, he wanted a flawless and failsafe detachable mount to go with it, one that would go back to zero every time. He started experimenting with traditional lever systems, but eventually abandoned them in favor of his own unique design.

Each mount has a button on the side. When the button is pressed to remove the scope, an internal ball bearing rises up into a hole in the cam, allowing the mount to slide free from the base. Putting the scope back on, the mounts slide forward into the corresponding grooves in the bases and, when the button is released, the ball bearing drops down into a hole, the button cams over the ball bearing and the whole thing is locked into place. It is simple, easy to use, and absolutely failsafe. If it feels as precise and solid as a Tomahawk cruise missile, it’s because the mechanism is made by the machine shop that manufactures parts for Tomahawk missiles. Of course Joe, being Joe Smithson, then hand polishes and laps the mounts before installing them on bases he makes himself. He has also modified the system to work on other actions or even on double rifles. It’s the relentless pursuit of perfection, and it’s so successful that he makes them for both Westley Richards and Purdey.

I admit to being a sentimental fool – just ask my wife – and I get swept away by romance when I should probably stick to practicality. Certain words and names conjure up irresistible images of adventure and excitement. Winchester, Parker, Holland & Holland, 416 Rigby, 30-30, .375 H&H, .30-06, and of course, .275 Rigby. 275 Rigby? It may be relatively unknown in America, but it is a distinguished and popular round in England. It is the round we associate with tiger hunter Jim Corbett and elephant hunter WMD “Karamojo” Bell, and it doesn’t get more adventurous and exciting than that.


The .275 was originally developed by Mauser in 1892 as a military round, designated the 7X57mm or 7X57 Mauser, or even sometimes the 7X57 Spanish Mauser, since the Spanish army was the first to adopt it. In case you were busy passing notes to the cheerleader seated next to you in history class, I will remind you the 7X57 is the round that caused such enormous losses for Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War. It is also the round that enabled 88,000 Boer guerillas and commandos to fight the might of the British Empire and 500,000 of their soldiers to a humiliating standstill. The British eventually prevailed, but only after instigating a series of scorched-earth tactics whose brutality would today result in Queen Victoria, her Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, and Lord Kitchener all being tried for war crimes in The Hague. (During the last 18 months of the war alone, over 20,000 – some reports put the number at over 26,000 – Boer women and children died in concentration camps.)

John Rigby & Co., originally an Irish firm founded in 1735, moved to London in 1897, and even before the end of the Boer War they already recognized the superiority of both the Mauser bolt action and the 7X57. However, knowing their British market, they offered the gun under the designation .275 Rigby, but by either name the round earned a reputation for accuracy and low recoil. And effectiveness: no less an authority than the late Finn Aagaard, who touted the 7X57 as a superior deer rifle and excellent all-round big game cartridge, reported that he once fired 173-grain solids from a 7X57 at plywood boards and achieved more penetration than he did with a 400-grain from a .416.

Ballistically, it is a little less powerful than the .270 Winchester, but an excellent choice for deer, antelope, wild boar, even much of African plains game. It is not a long-distance cartridge, but at moderate distances (out to 300 yards) it is extraordinarily effective.

The .275 Rigby is virtually identical to the 7X57, with the same case dimensions, the primary difference being that the 7mm is commercially available in more bullet weights than the .275.

The .275 Rigby Joe Smithson sent me was built on a Granite Mountain square bridge action. Granite Mountain Arms is a Phoenix, AZ based company that produces (in their own words) “the highest quality precision Mauser 98 style action ever produced… …the world’s finest double square bridge magnum action…” Based on Joe Smithson’s rifle, I tend to agree with their claims.

The Mauser action makes a great hunting rifle, especially for dangerous game, for the same reason (among others) that it made a great military rifle: that loose, sloppy action is very forgiving. If you fall on your face in the sand with a buttery-smooth action with close tolerances, like some of the old Mannlicher-Schoenauers or Colt-Sauers, you may have to take the gun apart before you can work the action again. I went bottom over teakettle down an embankment with a Colt Sauer many years ago, and it took about five minutes for me to get enough grit and dirt out to be able to extract the bolt. Five minutes in the sunshine on fine, cold day in southern Utah doesn’t seem like much. Five minutes in Alaska in the company of a grizzly who has lost his sense of humor might seem like an eternity. Fall on your face with the Mauser and its loose tolerances allow you to force the action. (The original Mauser 1898 had a bolt handle that jutted out at 90-degrees so that clumsy soldiers could use their boots to kick the action open or shut.)


Granite Mountain actions are CNC machined out of 8620 steel and case hardened. The receiver has an integral ‘C’ ring and a drop-bottom box with a hinged floor plate. The bolt has dual opposed locking lugs and a third safety lug, a recessed bolt face, a modified bolt handle to accommodate scopes, and the traditional three position wing safety. It comes with adjustable sporting trigger, and everything is hand lapped and hand polished. Of course Joe Smithson, being a perfectionist, does his own lapping and polishing on top of that, and the result is an action as slick and smooth as a politician chasing votes, but with Mauser’s loose and forgiving tolerances.

I have been privileged to shoot a good number of custom rifles built on Mauser actions and whatever hand polishing has been done by the maker has been superseded by that looseness. Not so with Joe Smithson’s work. It is still has that Mauser looseness, but it was without a doubt the smoothest Mauser I have ever handled.

I fired four five-shot groups, and with the exception of one stray (doubtless caused by a combination of global warming and the tilting of the earth on its axis) all four groups were under one inch. In one group that rifle put two bullets so perfectly into one hole that it took me a while to realize I hadn’t missed the target altogether. In another group three bullets created a single modified clover leaf under half an inch. Oh, yeah!


Perfection does not come cheap, but whenever a tool transcends mere function to become a work of art, price is no longer the issue. If you can afford to consider buying a custom firearm of this quality, what you are paying for is much more than just a hunting rifle. You are paying for the pursuit of perfection, a pursuit that takes you all the way back to the Clovis spear point.

Guns (and other items) As Art

March 19th, 2013

I received a comment in response to “Thank God Our Elected Officials Are Looking Out for Us!” It came from a man with impeccable credentials in various fields, a man who is nobody’s fool, but he said one thing I take exception to:

“I personally do not find anything aesthetic about [firearms] (though I know others do rever [sic] them as works of art).”

If you’ve ever read this blog, you know I love firearms and make a portion of my living writing about them. I suspect this love of firearms is a result of my father patiently and consistently taking me to the arms and armor galleries of countless museums when I was a child. This almost certainly had less to do with his own interest in firearms (which was less than zero) and more to do with his understanding of how to get a small boy drugged on art and culture in general. My father was an extraordinary man; take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again.

In addition to a love of firearms (and knives, swords, armor, the whole nine yards), one of the consequences of this early exposure was a fascination with any tool that is also a functional work of art. A quick list off the top of my head would include firearms, knives, saddles, bits, spurs, certain silver items, equine tools such as headstalls and mecates out of braided rawhide or horsehair (a process called hitching), certain antique cars, and I’m sure there are others that haven’t swum across my ken.

I could make an argument that an AR15 is as aesthetically pleasing as a hammer or wrench or any other tool that is perfectly distilled down to its functional essence to make it as efficient as possible, but let’s go for the more obvious examples.

Consider the lines of a fine side-by-side shotgun, a tool that has also been distilled down over the last one hundred and fifty years to its functional essence. Forget any fancy metal work or wood work; just look at the spare elegance of an Abbiatico & Salvinelli round-action shotgun,



or the classic lines of  Lebeau-Courally bolt action rifle Hemingway would have been proud to carry.



Both of these display the same kind of elegant and functional simplicity you might find on a Clovis arrowhead; all three, shotgun, rifle, and arrowhead, are made aesthetically pleasing by being perfectly designed for their purpose, with nothing extraneous or distracting. Still not convinced? Let’s take it a step further and look at some engraving.

Ken Hunt’s magic on a Purdey action.


McKay Brown’s adaptation of the classic Celtic knot.


A Civil War battle scene on a Piotti.



A Westley-Richards sidelock.


A mule deer by Tommy Kaye on a pistol grip cap.



Charles Lee’s engraving on a Dale Tate shotgun.


You may not wish to own such things—or any kind of firearm, for that matter—but no one can deny the artistic merit of these most basic tools.

Take a moment to check out the workmanship of some of the greatest artists living today at the Traditional Cowboy Arts Associationhttp://tcowboyarts.org/ the American Custom Gunmakers Guildhttp://www.acgg.org/ and the American Bladesmith Societyhttp://www.americanbladesmith.com/

The tool as art is one of the greatest accomplishments of the foolish human animal.

Rifles and Pistols and Guns, Oh My!

September 4th, 2012




Oh, ho!

 I received a snarky email from someone in response to the blog where I mentioned I make my living testing firearms. It was not the most articulate email I have ever gotten, but the implication seemed to be either that I liked guns because I am a lonely little man, or that I am a lonely little man because I like guns.

I assume that by “little” he or she means psychologically or intellectually little, since physically I am right in the middle of the pack. (Literally. When I boxed, I boxed as a middleweight.)

Psychologically, I am also pretty much in the middle of the pack. I’ve had my share of troubles (notably PTSD and its handmaiden, Depression) but I don’t hear voices, I’ve never been taken to outer space by little green men, and I don’t believe I’m really Marie Antoinette or a polar bear or anything, so I don’t think I’m in immediate need of a room with soft walls.

A lot of teachers over the years told me I was intellectually negligible (this was usually accompanied by a hearty whack on the side of my head, remedial teaching being a trifle more primitive in those days and those countries) but as I have managed to make my way in the wide world using whatever wits I do have, without ever having to resort to manual labor at minimum wage, here too I would say I’m staggering along in the middle of the pack.


But what really intrigued me about the email was the implication that, if you like firearms, there must, by definition, be something wrong with you. Wow. Those who dance are thought mad by those who don’t hear the music. Putting aside Olympic and other competitive shooters who enjoy using their unique skills to get a projectile from point A to point B (sort of like throwing a football or baseball or basketball), and putting aside the artists who love creating works of functional art using wood and steel as their canvases (sort of like the people who build and restore vintage cars or motorcycles or boats), what reasons might one have for liking guns?

I shan’t enter into any discussion here about need, or personal rights, but why might I like firearms?

For the same reasons Olympic shooters do. I may not have their skills, but just as they enjoy exercising a certain skill set and achieving certain goals, so do I. In my shotgun case I have saved those little patches you get for shooting a straight set of twenty-five. There are embarrassingly few of them, but I’m proud of the ones I do have, and I derived great enjoyment and relaxation from the process of earning them. I have never done any competitive pistol or rifle shooting, but I get great pleasure and relaxation from those activities too. And pride, when I shoot well.

I like fine guns for the same reason that people go to watch regattas or concours d’elegance. I have zero interest in building, restoring, owning, or even driving an antique car, but I can’t look at an immaculate old Duesenberg or a Jaguar Mark IV or practically any pre-war Mercedes or Packard without a gasp of delight. You may be terrified of water, but how can anyone with a soul not be thrilled by the sight of a brigantine under full sail, or a gaff-rigged ketch heeling in the wind? London “best” shotguns, exquisite rifles built by American custom makers on classic and greatly re-worked actions and capable of fantastic degrees of accuracy, those may be things I can never even dream of owning, but I can appreciate the skill, the artistry, the lifetime of commitment that goes into creating such things. It’s like looking at a great handmade watch, something by Patek Philippe, or Breguet or Audemars Piguet; you are looking a piece of exquisite working art that is also capable of performing extraordinarily accurate tasks. And when I am lucky enough to have someone like Joe Smithson, Ryan Breeding, Pat Holehan, Hill Country Rifles, or Kilimanjaro send me one of their works of art to test, I am profoundly grateful.

And if anyone reading this is a financial bracket that allows them to own a Patek Philippe or Breguet or Audemars Piguet, how would you like to adopt a nice middle-aged man?


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