Category Archives: Firearms

Black Talon

I used to be an avid deer hunter but gave it up about 20 years ago. I just sort of burned out, and my interests shifted elsewhere. If you hunt or just like shooting, you have probably accumulated a few firearms. Among them is likely one that is very special to you, one that when you handle it, your mind is flooded with memories, hopefully, good ones. I have such a rifle.

It is a rather strange creature that started out its life just over 100 years ago, in 1917 to be exact. It is a Model 1917 rifle, often referred to as the U. S. Enfield or American Enfield (More on that later). It began life as a military rifle, probably serving with the Army. Its history back beyond 1970, when I came in possession of it, is known to me only through what has been recorded by historians writing about the M1917 in general. When the U.S. entered WWI, the standard infantry rifle was the Model 1903 Springfield, a marvelous product of American gun making. However, upon entering the war, America was woefully short of M1903s, and it would be impossible to increase production fast enough to meet the war needs. But there was a solution. It resided in the form of a rifle Remington Arms had been producing for the British to supplement their shortage of what the Brits called the Mk 1 Short Magazine Lee Enfield, or SMLE (pronounced “Smelly”). They had been working on a replacement rifle in caliber .276 Enfield instead of their then standard .303 caliber when the war started. This rifle was called the Pattern 13 or P13. They quickly canned the idea of changing calibers as impractical with a war cranking up.  With British gun makers pumping out SMLEs as fast as they could and maxed out, they approached American gun manufacturers to make the new rifle but in standard British caliber .303. That stop-gap rifle became the Pattern 14 Enfield or P14.

About the time America entered the war in 1917, the British had finally reached the point that their supply of rifles was meeting demand, and they canceled the remaining orders with American suppliers. This was fortuitous for America. Unable to meet the demand for M1903 rifles for U. S. needs, it was determined that since Remington, Winchester, and Eddystone had all the tooling in place and ready to make rifles, it would be much quicker to simply convert the British P14 from the British .303 caliber to the standard American caliber .30/06, and a new rifle was born, the M1917. Mine is a Winchester. More M1917s served with American Expeditionary Forces in Europe than M1903s.

When the war ended, America reverted back to the M1903 as their primary rifle and relegated the m1917 to war reserve status. It was brought out of reserve status during WWII and issued to some rear area troops, used for training, and loaned to allies. With WWII ended and the American semi-auto M1 Garand rifle developed just before WWII in active service, the U. S. began ridding itself of the surplus M1917 and M1903 rifles. Many of these found their way into the civilian market. The M1917 was particularly liked by gunsmiths to build custom rifles in magnum calibers. The reason it was preferred is that the action was very robust and able to stand the higher pressures of these magnums. My particular Winchester M1917 went through this process and was converted to a sporting rifle with a scope sometime before I acquired it. It was left in .30/06 caliber and retained its original barrel.

I traded for my rifle in 1970 and took it to Alaska with me when I was transferred to King Salmon AFS in 1971. I hunted with it there in the fall of 1972 and took a nice caribou bull. After I was discharged from the Air Force, I hunted whitetail deer with it in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, taking numerous deer. The rifle always shot well even though the barrel’s bore was pitted from the use of corrosive ammo during its military career. Along about 1990, I decided the old girl needed a facelift and had her re-barreled with a brand new barrel. Then I had the whole works Parkerized. Parkerizing is a protective metal finish used by the military on small arms. It is usually a dull greenish-gray or charcoal black finished. Mine was a working rifle and not a safe queen, thus I thought Parkerizing was more appropriate than a high-gloss blue, which would have been prettier. In addition to re-barreling and refinishing, I bought a new stock for her, a nice laminated wood stock, which I shaped to my desires and needs. I chose resin impregnated laminated wood instead of some fancy grade of walnut because it is virtually impervious to weather and warping. I did this for the same reason I chose the Parkerized finish. I finished off the rebuild with a really nice new Burris scope. In effect, I had a brand new rifle, and the only remaining parts of the old was the heart, the action.

It is fairly common for gunners to name their favorite firearms. I had never done that for my 1917 and decided it was time. In testing ammunition loads in my “new” rifle, I discovered she really liked Winchester Black Talons and easily put three shots in a group well under an inch at 100 yards. So, “Black Talon” she became, and I even had a small nameplate made and mounted on the side of the stock.

Black Talon is semi-retired now, but every time I take her out of the safe for a cleaning, my mind is flooded with the memories of the many adventures we shared together.

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The Brave Rifles

Near the end of my book, The Last Day of Forever, I have my main character, Ethan, as a young second lieutenant in a unit called the 1st Regiment of Mounted Riflemen out in New Mexico Territory. They did exist—and still do. Here are some highlights of what I discovered in my research for this portion of the book and this particular regiment.

3rd ACR copy

The Regiment of Mounted Riflemen was created as a very early version of a modern mechanized infantry regiment, in a manner of speaking, that is. They were mounted on horses and rode to the fight, but once there, they dismounted and generally fought on foot. They were also issued rifled muskets instead of the usual smooth bore muskets the infantry of that period carried (prior to 1861) or the much-hated Dragoon muskets carried by other mounted troops. The Dragoon muskets were inaccurate, and the ball was prone to rolling out of the barrel if the barrel was pointed downward. In my book, I have the Brave Rifles armed with Sharps carbines. I could not determine if they were actually so armed prior to the Civil War or not. Some mounted units were indeed armed with Sharps during the prewar period, so I took a little artistic license on that point.

The Sharps carbine was a breech-loading weapon (verses muzzle loading, which means it was loaded from the back or breech end instead of the muzzle end). This made reloading much faster and easier, especially on horseback. The cartridges of the early model Sharps were made of paper and contained powder and a bullet. The trigger guard/lever was swung down, dropping the breech block to expose the chamber for inserting the cartridge. Once loaded, the lever was returned to the closed position, and the breech block closed with a sharp edge clipping off the back of the paper and exposing the powder to the priming charge. A primer cap was inserted over the nipple. Pulling the trigger dropped the hammer on the primer, igniting it and in turn the powder charge. Being rifled, they were much more accurate and had longer effective ranges than the other smooth bore arms of that period. Later model Sharps used metallic cartridges that were fully self-contained; projectile, powder, and primer cap all in a brass case. The longer rifle versions of the Sharps became favorites of buffalo hunters. If you ever saw the movie Quigley Down Under with Tom Selleck, it was a Sharps rifle that Matthew Quigley used.

Sharps Model 1853 Military Rifle

1853 Military Sharps

The Regiment of Mounted Riflemen was formed in May of 1846. Under various names, it has seen action in all of America’s major conflicts since then, including The Mexican-American War, The Indian Wars, The Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I and WWII, as well as service in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It was in the Mexican-American War in 1847 that the regiment got its nickname, “Brave Rifles,” and its motto, “Blood and Steel.” After several major engagements, the exhausted regiment was visited by General Winfield Scott. He had come to order the regiment to Churubsco for an even more difficult battle. He removed his hat, bowed low, and said: “Brave Rifles! Veterans! You have been baptized in fire and blood and have come out steel!” Even today members of the unit greet each other thusly: An enlisted trooper renders military courtesy to an officer by saluting and yelling out “Brave Rifles!” The officer will return the salute and reply just as loudly, “Veterans!”

The regiment is also thought to be the origin of “Gringo,” the modern Hispanic slang for an American. The regimental marching song, which dates back to the Middle Ages, is named “Green Grow the Rushes, Ho!” Legend has it the Mexicans slurred the “green grow” into “gringo.”

In 1848 the regiment returned to Jefferson Barracks, MO where it was originally formed, and in 1849 was sent on a grueling march all the way to Oregon Territory. Two years later, they returned to Jefferson Barracks and were officially designated as the 1st Regiment of Mounted Riflemen (previously without the “1st” designation) because the Army expected to raise two more such regiments. That never happened.

In 1851 the regiment was ordered to Texas, and in 1856, they moved further west into New Mexico Territory. (Ethan joins the regiment in 1860 and resigns in early 1861.) They had a very large territory to police and never enough troopers to do so.

With the advent of the Civil War, all mounted regiments were organized as cavalry, and the 1st Regiment of Mounted Riflemen became the 3rd US Cavalry Regiment. They fought in the Civil War, mostly in the western theater, first in Texas and later in Missouri, Tennessee, and Arkansas.

In 1866 the Brave Rifles were ordered back to New Mexico Territory to campaign against the Indians.

Old_Bill_Cavalry_Mascot_Poster

In 1898 the Brave Rifles arrived in Tampa, FL for deployment to Cuba during the Spanish American War. The famous western artist, Fredrick Remington, was visiting the regiment’s camp. One of the regiment’s NCOs, Sergeant John Lannen, caught his attention as representing what Remington considered to the epitome of the American cavalryman, and he sketched him. The drawing eventually became known as “Old Bill.”

During World War I, the regiment deployed to Europe and saw only limited action, but during WWII, they traded in their horses for armored vehicles and were reorganized as the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, serving in Europe. It was troopers from Troop B, Reconnaissance Squadron of the 3rd ACR that were the first Americans to cross into Germany, albeit only a short excursion to prevent the Germans from blowing a vital bridge.

The Brave Rifles served in Iraq during Desert Storm. In 100 hours, they covered over 300 miles, rolling over three Iraqi divisions in the process. They also served in Bosnia and more tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In 2011 they were renamed yet again as the 3rd Cavalry Regiment and traded in their heavy armor for lighter and faster Stryker armored vehicles. They are currently based at Fort Hood, Texas.

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Filed under Catahoula Books, Civil War, Firearms, History Lessons, Last Day of Forever

The Parrott Rifle

During the Civil War, most canons were smoothbore (no rifling), which tended to limit range and accuracy. One notable exception was the Parrott Rifle, which came in a number of different calibers from mobile field pieces to heavier immobile defense pieces used on fortifications.

The gun was invented by Captain Robert Parrott, a West Point graduate. He created the first example in 1860 and patented the design in 1861, just in time for the “festivities” we call the American Civil War.

Parrott Crew

They were manufactured as a combination of cast and wrought iron. Because of the increased resistance of the rifling slowing of the projectile’s trip down the barrel, higher pressures were generated than in smoothbore canons. As a result bursting at the breech end was a problem. This was solved with the addition of a large wrought iron band added over the breech end of the gun. This can be seen at the back end (breech end) of the guns in the two attached images. This is a distinguishing feature of the Parrott Rifles. The band was heated red hot and slipped on while cold water was poured down the bore of the gun as it was being rotated. This ensured uniform attachment of the band to the gun.

The Parrott was used by both sides in the war and came in different sizes from 10 pounders (weight of a bore size round iron projectile) to rare 300 pounders. For the largest field piece, the 20 pounder, the gun alone weighed 1,800 pounds.

The Parrott had a poor reputation for safety and was not liked by some of the crews. But they were effective out to about 2,000 yards when handled by a well-trained crew. The more common smoothbore canon, the Model 1857 12 pound Napoleon, was effective out to only about 1,200 yards

Limbered Guns

The gun rested on a two-wheeled gun carriage. Its trail was attached to a two-wheeled limber for transport and drawn by a team of horses. Ammunition, fuses, sights, and its friction priming device were carried in the limber, which was positioned well behind the gun when deployed for action. Additional ammunition was carried in caissons, which replenished the limbers in a fight. The crew usually consisted of eight men, and each had a specific job when fighting the gun. They rode the gun’s horses and on the limber when transporting the gun. A battery usually consisted of four guns, but was fewer in many cases.

Ammunition consisted of solid shot, exploding shell, and canister or grape shot. The exploding shell had a timed fuse set by the crew to explode on arrival at the target. Grape shot and later canister consisted of a “package” of round cast iron balls about 1” in diameter. It can best be described as resembling shotgun buckshot ammunition but a lot bigger. It was used at relatively short ranges against charging infantry. You can see the awful effects of canister in some scenes of Pickett’s Charge in the movie Gettysburg, a classic Civil War movie. Look for the scenes where the canister takes out dozens of charging Confederates as they cross a fence. It takes out the fence, too.

Captured guns were a great prize during the war, especially for the equipment-short Confederates. And with the advent of rifled muskets, increasing their range and accuracy, the gun’s crews and horses became prime targets. If the crew was killed or wounded, the gun was out of action. If the horses were killed, the gun could not easily be repositioned or removed from the field, lending them to the possibility of capture.

There is a scene in An Eternity of Four Years that took place at the Battle of Port Republic during Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862, when the Louisiana Tigers were tasked with capturing some particularly troublesome guns that had a high-ground position sweeping the battlefield with their accurate fire. When the Tigers took the position, capturing the guns, and were in danger of being repulsed, they slaughtered the artillery horses to prevent the guns from being moved. That actually happened in that engagement, by the way.

The Civil War was generally fought with the linear battlefields of previous wars; that is regiments, divisions, and corps lined up facing each other and blazed away. The smoothbore muskets were not very accurate and hitting a man at 100 yards was pretty iffy, thus the need for massed fire. Throw enough lead at them, and you are bound to hit something. Unfortunately, that required massed troops, making them easy targets for the other guy’s massed fire.

With the advent of rifled muskets and the rapid reloading Minié ball, all that changed, and casualties went up dramatically. The same held true for canons, which were generally placed to the rear of the infantry. The added range and accuracy of the rifled muskets and field guns made those obsolete tactics suicidal.

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Filed under An Eternity of Four Years, Catahoula Books, Civil War, Firearms, History Lessons

The Whitworth Gauntlet

I began a discussion here about the Whitworth Rifle used as a sniping arm by both sides in the American Civil War. I promised an excerpt from An Eternity of Four Years that featured Ethan “interacting” with that rifle. Here it is. The scene takes place during the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863.

*****

Book 2 1I left Pepper in the care of Blue at the Johnson home and made my way down South Stratton Street to find Hays. Aware of the threat of the sharpshooters, as I got closer to Winebrenner’s Run, I moved more cautiously from cover to cover to present as small a target as possible for them to take any interest in. At the end of South Stratton, I asked some Rebs taking potshots at Cemetery Hill from an abandoned building where I could find General Hays.

“He is in Winebrenner’s Run, sir. You ain’t planning on going down there are ya?”

“Yep.”

“You sure you need to do that, Captain? They’ll be takin’ shots at ya with them Whitworth rifles with the telescopic sights all the way down to the run. You’ll be a big fat target from here on.” He gestured towards the back corner of the building, and I saw a dead Confederate slumped against the wall with the top of his head shot away. “Ask him; he’ll tell you. He stuck his head out to just have a little peek, and splat! Them Whitworths are deadly. You’ll know when you have been shot at by one, ‘cause the bullet makes a shrill whistling sound on account of its hexagon rifling.”

That was sobering.

I nodded, and he shook his head. “It’s your funeral.”

I took several deep breaths to steel myself to run the “Whitworth gauntlet.” No use waiting any longer, I thought and pushed off. I had at least sixty paces of open ground exposed to observation from Cemetery Hill before I had any more cover, a small shed sitting forlornly out in the open. I was not even halfway there, when a ball kicked up dirt not two paces past me. Before I was to the little shed, a shot went past near my head, making the shrill whistling sound just described to me. Any slower, and I would have been hit. I reached the shed just as another round chipped wood splinters from its edge.

Some of the boys down in the run saw me coming under fire and began to cheer. I sank down behind the shed to catch my breath. For good measure, one of the Yanks put a round through the flimsy little building to remind me of the difference between cover and concealment. The ball whistled through the wooden structure right over my head. Had I been standing instead of crouching down as I was, I would be dead.

I peeked around the building to see my next objective, and they put a ball into the edge of my little shed just as I withdrew my head. I was most impressed with both their rifles and their shooting skills. I did see enough to know this next leg was going to be a long one. There was a sizable oak tree about ninety paces away. I took two deep breaths and then stuck my head around the left side of the shed to draw their attention but quickly withdrew it and ran around the other side and headed for my oak tree.

The ruse worked. They put three balls into the edge of the building where I had stuck my head out, but they were not prepared for me to show myself at the other side. I ran like I was headed for the Baltimore Pike then cut back in the other direction. They fired two more shots at me just as I changed directions. I made it to the tree as another ball chipped bark off its side. The stout oak was more than concealment; it was cover. The cheering from Winebrenner’s Run grew louder as others joined in, but I was getting tired.

One last dash left to go. This one was only about forty paces and then the relative safety of the run’s high sides. Even though I was getting winded, I could not afford to wait and allow the Yankee sharpshooters time to reload, so I took one quick breath and broke from behind my tree and headed for the run. I ran left then zigzagged right, then left again with balls hitting all around me. As I neared Winebrenner’s Run and leaped into the air to clear some brush on its bank, I felt a ball tear through my shell jacket. I landed in a heap against the far side of the run and pulled myself up against its protection as close as I could get. Cheers went up and down the line. I even heard a cheer from the Yankees on Cemetery Hill.

I examined myself to make sure I had not been perforated and only found entry and exit holes in my shell jacket but none in me.

“They ventilated your jacket, Captain?” asked a familiar voice. I looked up and realized I had landed almost in Hays’ lap.

“My apologies, sir. With the compliments of General Ewell…”

Whitworth-with-side-mounted-Davidson-scope-1

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Civil War Sniping and The Whitworth Rifle

The two main shoulder arms of the American Civil War, for both the North and the South, were the U.S. Springfield Rifle-Musket of 1861 and the British Enfield Pattern 1852 Rifle-Musket. Both were nearly the same bore diameter, the Enfield being .577 caliber, and the Springfield being .58 caliber. Both accepted the Minié ball, developed by a Frenchman Claude Étienne Minié.

imageD0AThe Minié ball was not really a ball shape; rather it was conical shaped with a hollow base. Prior to its development and general adoption, military muskets were smoothbore (no rifling) because they were much faster to reload than rifled arms, which required a lubricated cloth patch to surround the ball and engage the rifling, more reloading steps, and more effort to get the ball seated against the charge. The Minié ball in a rifled musket was as easy to load as an unpatched ball in a smoothbore musket, but rifled muskets loaded with Minié balls were considerably more accurate.

The Minié ball was sub caliber like the ball in a smoothbore musket, but when the charge detonated behind it, its hollow base skirt expanded to engage the rifling so the projectile would have a stabilizing spin. The combination of adding rifling to the muskets and the Minié projectile greatly increased the accuracy of infantry small arms. And since the Civil War was fought using tactics designed for the less accurate smoothbore muskets but used “modern” more accurate weapons instead, the casualty rate went up dramatically.

Whitworth-with-side-mounted-Davidson-scope-1Sniping was not new to the Civil War, having been used in previous conflicts, usually using a very heavy barreled target rifle and open sights or slow-loading “Kentucky rifles.” Along came a British gentleman by the name of Sir Joseph Whitworth, who experimented with rifled WhitworthBulletandRiflingartillery that used hexagon-shaped bores instead of rifled round bores. The hexagon-shaped bores were twisted like the rifling in traditional rifled arms, affecting the projectile like rifling does, giving it a stabilizing spin. He extended his ideas to small arms and developed the “Whitworth Rifle.” Not only was the bore hexagon-shaped, but the bullets were an elongated hexagon shape, matching the size and twist of the Whitworth Rifle barrels. Whitworth discovered the longer projectile needed a faster twist rate than the Minié to stabilize it. The result was a major leap forward in small arms accuracy.

enfield-vs-whitworthTested against the Enfield Pattern of 1852 Rifle-Musket, the Whitworth could hold 9-inch groups at 500 yards (less than 2 minutes of angle), while the Enfield, which was considered very accurate in its day, could only hold 54-inch groups! For comparison, modern military small arms, like the M-16, can only hold about 2 minutes of angle (2 inches at 100 yards) unless accurized. The Whitworth could reliably hit targets out to 1,000 yards and beyond. Even though demonstrably superior in accuracy to the Enfield, the British rejected the design, because the Whitworth was four times more expensive than the Enfield to manufacture. That was not the death of the Whitworth.

Both Confederate and Union sharpshooters employed it as a sniper weapon, usually targeting artillery crews and officers at previously unheard of ranges. Most of these Whitworth Rifles used open, iron sights like those on the Springfield and Enfield, but some were equipped with 3-power telescopic sights mounted to the left side of the breech. These Whitworth Rifles were exceptionally deadly!

According to popular accounts, on May 9, 1864, during the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, Union General John Sedgwick discovered just how accurate the Whitworth could be. Shots from Confederate Whitworth rifles, easily identified by the shrill whistling noises their hexagon-shaped bullets made in flight, caused members of his staff and artillerymen to duck for cover. Sedgwick chastised them and proclaimed, “I’m ashamed of you, dodging that way. They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” Seconds later he pitched forward with a bullet hole below his left eye.

On Sept 19, 1863, at the Battle of Chickamauga, Union General William Lytle was leading a charge and became the target for a Confederate with a Whitworth. He was mortally wounded.

On the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, disregarding warnings about the Federal sharpshooters armed with Whitworth rifles with telescopic sights mounted on them, Confederate General Richard Ewell and his engineer ventured to within 1,000 yards of the Union lines on Cemetery Hill. Ewell took a Whitworth round in his wooden leg, and the engineer was shot through the body and killed.

In An Eternity of Four Years, I have a scene where Ethan has an encounter with these same sharpshooters who shot at Ewell. That excerpt will be the next post.

Battlefield “technology” made huge advances just before and during the Civil War, and the resulting casualties were staggering compared to previous conflicts.

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Gunfight at the Not-So-OK Corral

KIM RS TARGET RI sleep with a loaded, cocked-and-locked, 1911A1 .45 Auto pistol beside my bed. Some of you might question the wisdom of that, especially after reading this story. The one on the left is actually an abbreviated Officer’s Model with a 4″ barrel, my favorite carry piece. These nights, it rests on my Bible on my bedside table, but I used to keep its big brother with the 5″ barrel in a holster jammed between the mattress and side rail of my bed. All I had to do was reach over the side of the mattress and my hand naturally fell right on it.

It was after midnight one night some thirty plus years ago, when I was disturbed from a very sound sleep by my wife exclaiming, “No! No! Nooo!”

Needless to say, that got my attention. In the darkened room, bleary-eyed moi looked over at Janis beside me—AND a man in a plaid shirt is leaning over her!!!!

Ninja-like, I sprang into action. In one not-so-smooth movement, I reached for my trusty 1911 while rolling out of the bed and, very un-ninja-like, my feet became entangled in the covers. I landed with my butt on the floor, my feet still up on the bed, and I was folded in half and firmly wedged with my back against the chest of drawers beside my bed. Thus positioned, I was virtually helpless!

But I am armed!

I had my pistol in my hand, observing proper gun handling by keeping the muzzle pointed in a safe direction (Rule 2) and my finger off the trigger until I had a target (Rule 3).

Still hopelessly jammed between bed and chest, with my left hand, I frantically pawed for the big Maglite I kept on the lower shelf of my bedside table. Flashlight in hand and arm fully extended, three “D” cells of Maglite power lit up the night on Janis’ side of the bed, and I was fully expecting to ventilate the intruder.

But no one was there.

I was thinking, my ninja-like movements must have scared him off. To be certain, I passed the beam around the room and then over Janis. When the beam hit her face, she stirred, sat up and looked at her husband still solidly jammed between bed and chest. And she sees two feet sticking up, a gun held aloft in one hand, flashlight held aloft in the other waving around like a drunken lighthouse beacon, and the top of my head about down to my frantic-looking eyes, and she calmly asked, “What are you doing?”

Well now, under the circumstances, I had to give that question some serious thought. I finally replied as evenly as my excited self could, “I am not really sure…”

After I disentangle myself from my “hole” between the bed and chest, I did a house clearing drill just to be certain there were no intruders. As expected that exercise was fruitless. Evidently, Janis had been dreaming and said what I heard, and I am sure I heard it, because it woke me up. I must have “joined in her dream” and “saw” the plaid-shirted man leaning over her and reacted accordingly.

Good thing he wasn’t there, because I would have ventilated him!

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