John Barsness invented the term “Rifle Loony” long before his new book, Obsessions of a Rifle Loony. It is not necessarily a negative term; the readers of this blog who like guns are extremely likely to fall into the category. This is a book for not- so- rich devotees of good, useful tools who want to know what makes them work rather than just dropping a pile of money.
Barsness’s new book celebrates the kind of good guns that Hemingway, or my father, would have liked– is it too much to say that his writing is democratic in the best sense (meritocratic- democratic?) and is perhaps a healthier antithesis to gun porn? Not that there’s anything wrong with that…
He is knowledgeable about both guns and– perhaps more important– self- guided hunting; he is my age, was fortunate enough to grow up in Montana, and worked at it. He has probably taken more game in his bountiful home state than any other writer I know of. He and his wife, writer Eileen Clarke, eat only game. He has taught himself to be a fair gunsmith and even rifle maker. Unlike a lot of gunwriter pros, he actually has the experience to compare and contrast.
Which is good, because as a writer he is the anti- cliche, anti- conventional “wisdom” champ, and is unsparing of his fellows or sometimes himself. He starts in swinging in his prologue on “Gunwriterese”– hilarious if you have read much. “Gunwriterese is distinguished by words and phrases the writer would otherwise never use… ‘My Remington slays deer with aplomb’.Yet they would never say their 4- wheel- drive pickup climbs hills with aplomb. This is because they don’t know what aplomb means“. (Emphasis mine– I wish I could have hired him when I taught writing). “The list of such phrases is almost endless: pasture poodle (for prairie dog), kills like the hammer of Thor, kicks like a mule, tack driver, shoots like a house afire etc…”
Enough! Safe to say he doesn’t just deconstruct language; he tells you some interesting and contrary things too. He reminds the reader that the three most popular bolt actions have three different approaches to containing gasses, and one of the most esteemed and expensive does the least; he finds the bore of a new factory Ruger to be the equal of hand- lapped custom barrels. He says a lot about finding hidden old gems at gun shows and how to evaluate them (we are talking mostly under $400, up to less than 8).
A whole chapter sings the praises of iron sights and gives lessons in the nearly lost art of using them. This interests me a lot– I have never liked, living in the back country as I do, the modern practice of fitting new factory rifles with either no or vestigial sights, leaving all work to the usually- trustworthy but breakable scope. With my advancing years and failing eyesight most writers tell me I should fall back entirely on scopes, but my own limitations make me prefer light carbines with iron sights, if possible “ghost ring” apertures. Barsness is encouraging. “With the right target [do not try to sight in with targets designed for scopes!- SB], all of my iron- sighted rifles shoot 3- inch groups 2″ or smaller at 100 yards. No, that isn’t the half- inch so many modern hunters think necessary for hunting deer or even Cape buffalo, but still works.” (He then goes on to demonstrate by killing a caribou at a measured- by- rangefinder 350 yards).
He loves old calibers like .257 Roberts, 7 mm Mauser, .30- ’06. He turns cliches on their heads– for Townsend Whelen’s “only accurate rifles are interesting”, he substitutes “only UNUSUAL rifles are interesting”. A premature curmudgeon, he can bite some friendly hands– on the vaunted superiority of “controlled-round feeding” he growls that before it became a selling point “Nobody cared about the death of CRF, except for a few grumpy millionaires who went to Africa and sat around the mopane fire in the evening, drinking old Scotch,smoking Cuban cigars, and muttering about the high price of lions, pre ’64 Model 70’s and double rifles”.
All in all, quirky, iconoclastic, assured, and deadpan funny– a good curative for those overwhelmed by “gun porn” and the drumbeat of new, expensive, and buy buy buy. As Barsness (who like all of us probably still has too many guns) knows, it is not about collecting. Read Obsessions of a Rifle Loony, get to a gunshow, find a rifle with some history on it, and go outside.
Obsessions is available from Barsness for $23.50 at www.riflesandrecipes.com or from Deep Creek Press, POB 579, Townsend MT 59644.