Book Review #2: Rifle Looney News

John Barsness and Eileen Clarke seem like such normal people that is hard to realize at first just how unusual their “lifestyle” is. They are ubiquitous in the hunting and gun magazines, more so than any other couple I have known (I dare say I have known many of the sporting couples of my time). John writes technological piece in vivid and comprehensible English. He writes exotic hunting pieces, many of them on the big game of Africa, Europe, and Alaska, that make you feel that even a poor man might get to do these things.

Best of all, he writes of a life of hunting in his native Montana. As he once said to me, in a manner not entirely satirical, “I am a third generation Montanan… academic.” And though I believe that he ended up as I did studying biology, his first published material was a book of poetry. And his mentor in the woods and fields, before he met the old Lakota patriarch Ben Burshia, was the New York transplant Norm Strung.

Eileen’s history is even less likely. She came from New York and studied literature at Missoula. She was also a vegetarian. Needless to say, she got over that. I don’t think she and John ever eat any domestic meat ever, except possibly at restaurants. Furthermore, she has written some of the most important game cookbooks of our time, ones that can delight the sophisticate but explain everything to the rankest beginner. And she is this knowledgeable about everything. I think she is still the only published cook I know who puts enough fat in game sausage. 

They live the life of the hunt, also the title of one of John’s books. They may be the only writers of our generation who have made a decent living entirely as freelance sporting and culinary writers. As publishing changed, they decided that the best way to present and sell their work was by taking ownership and control of all of it, and publishing their own books. You can judge their success by going to their “Rifles and Recipes” website. It’s all there — all the books and cookbooks they have written since they started, and links to other things of note.

Around five years ago, they also started publishing a quarterly online newsletter, Rifle Loony News. At eight dollars for the year, it may be the best bargain in outdoor writing yet. Its eight pages contain some of the best and clearest- headed technical prose on rifles around, presented without the constraints of length that make all magazine writing difficult; all the more so these days, as so-called editors, searching for advertising space, shrink content to 500 word “essays”, captions, and bullet-point lists, all written by young staffers who would probably pay to be in print.

Generally John does most of the technicana, and Eileen the food. But don’t miss Eileen’s gun writing or either of their occasional story-telling. What it is exactly like is sitting down to a long fall dinner with both of them and somehow having a recording of what ensues. It’s too bad we don’t have an audio version, punctuated by Eileen’s whoops of laughter, which stepson Jackson used to claim kept him awake at night, and John’s dry interjections. He may have invented the genre of old-style outdoor writing we called “I knew an old dog who died”. I also remember telling them about how I shot a blue grouse off a limb when I was first dating Libby, at her… request. I opined that women were more pragmatic hunters than men (and perhaps more enthusiastic; when they first visited me more than twenty five years ago, in Magdalena, Eileen mimed her stalk of what I believe was her first pronghorn through a northern Serengeti of everything from mule deer and bison to sandhill cranes, with  prickly pear sticking into her hands).

John looked at this wife and said “Pragmatic? The first seven sage grouse she shot had skid marks on their breasts.” I believe that story is in there too.

So it’s fun, for sure; a hunting life lived 365 days a year. It will make you a better cook, and tell you of new products that are really useful rather than just pushed by marketers. As for rifles: John probably has 80 rifles wandering in and out at a time, though I bet fewer than 10 make his permanent list. He shoots constantly, and while he is the gentlest and most genial of men, he will neither praise crap nor take another’s opinion as truth without testing it for himself. If you read carefully, and are a typical modern hunter, he will save you a lot more than $8 a year while entertaining you in the process.

Rather than searching for quotes, I will give you Eileen’s account of last year’s first volume. “Year six started with Eileen’s feature on brining wild birds and venison (yes, it’s different from chicken and beef) and a to-die-for and easy-to-make Cookie Dough Truffles as well as John’s reports on laser range finders, the CZ Model 452 .17Hornaday Rimfire Magnum, ‘Guns I Don’t Buy Anymore’ and lots more.”

John also has another new book out, Modern Hunting Optics. I’ve hardly had a chance to open it in the chaos of the last two weeks, but I will say that it is the most up to date and comprehensible account of that ever-changing subject that I have seen yet. John also can’t resist debunking cliches. I always thought that the 25-yard sight-in worked, not that I actually did it. We who read more than do need John’s writing to admonish us for intellectual laziness.

It has 200 soft-cover pages and goes for $25 postpaid. Rifle Loony has 264 pages and a color insert as well as black and white illos; it goes for $28.95, media rate shipping. Both are sold exclusively through or from Deep Creek Press, PO Box 579, Townsend, MT 57644; telephone 406-521-0273.

John with Selous buff and CZ .416 which he bought in NM and modified to be like Harry Selby’s– one of his keepers I think…


“A great many rifles and shooting books have passed through my life since the day I purchased that first 7 X 57 40 years ago this month, and the lessons learned have been many. One was to hold onto rifles and books that continually prove not just practical but delightful, and get rid of those that don’t, because both make life so much more enjoyable.”

John Barsness,  Rifle Loony News (Vol. 6, issue 2)

Gos Grips

It may be relevant to my quandary below that the bird I put on my stationery (must scan– it is not a jpeg), western belt buckle, and autopistols has always been a Goshawk, designed from  from Japanese art.

I have had this:

And, on a Commander frame, this:

The artist who did the scrimshaw above was no longer working when I discovered that, contrary to what I had thought, I could still work the slide on a 1911– but only on full- sized guns, the way John Moses Browning designed them. Small frame guns needed stronger springs which, with arthritis and Parkinson’s, I found difficult, so I sold them all. Since I have always felt deprived if I didn’t have a .45 auto, I decided I would get another, a big one, but the deal is still a little down the road. Meanwhile, I looked around and found that Hogue Grips, while making more commercial grips than anyone, also did scrimshaw. With trepidation, I asked Rosalie, my contact, if they could do a Japanese Goshawk. She in turn asked me for an original image, and got back to me in about a week with the slightly stylized version below for approval. It was PERFECT,  catching the character of the legendary North- of- the- Waste- White, better known to us as the Kamchatka and east Siberian subspecies of the Gos, Accipiter gentilis albidus. She then quoted me a ridiculously low price, and cautioned me it might take ten weeks. That was three weeks ago, and I already have the grips, and love them.

Now I need a 1911, probably either a Colt I can improve on (but which is expensive) or  Springfield like the gun in the ad below. Ad? Well, with no .45 at hand, when I noticed the ad said “Actual Size”, I just dropped the grips onto the paper for your appreciation. The screw holes were in the right place

Guns: Keepers and Projects

In any realistic sense I have “enough” guns but I like to keep things rolling, preferably without spending any (or at least any significant) money, in order to keep my brain stimulated. Besides I like looking at them, just like my art and even the spines of my books– seeing them in the rack is like browsing the spines in a bookcase, (so I suppose shooting is more or less equal to reading…?)

 I also like to keep niches filled, which in my case means mostly working hunting niches; to be able once in a while to give a friend a gun or a screaming deal, since I have often been the beneficiary of others; Karma if you will. I practice selling what I don’t need, and am always up for bartering– whaddaya got? Having bought sensibly in the past helps, though obviously, as Burnham’s 4th Law has it, “You can’t invest in retrospect.”

And you have to drop your preconceptions and buy quickly if the right thing comes along, which is how I got my little Remington Model 17 pump 20 bore (the only gauge it was ever made in). The Model 17 was designed by no less than John Moses Browning, and is a close ancestor to today’s still extant and traditionally American- built Ithaca Model 37, which comes in all gauges but 10.

This is the first time I have ever seen one for sale since I became aware of them many years ago– they are not common. It is slick and but for slightly faded blue seems all original, and athough it weighs only 5 1/2 pounds its long 28″ barrel means it does not poke but swings like a mini trap gun. I am glad I picked it up and can’t even think of a reason to get rid of it– it cost virtually nothing. And to any who wonder about a pump gun’s value– three people have offered to take it off my hands for significant $$, and every one already has an English gun…

Another project is this English hammer “short” ten,  a classic back- action sidelock  with rebounding locks and chambers of 3″ for the old (but available even in expensive bismuth) 2 7/8″ shell. It has a set of modern proof marks for Nitro powder from between the 50’s and the 80’s ( I know the decades but I am not going to get up to look!)   So even if you couldn’t see or measure the massive thick walls of fancy Damascus figure*, you would know that it is safe. It is a big gun but not a monster, a bit over 8 1/2 pounds, and well balanced. The trigger pulls are excellent, with rebounding locks; the barrels unmarked. It has good figured walnut, but  rather masked and darkened, so is up for at least a partial refinish.

Most interesting thing is that it is the first Nitro proof gun and maybe the first gun period I have seen with NEW Damascus tubes sleeved onto an old (different pattern) twist steel bloc. The pattern on these tubes is wonderfully intricate, but the browning on the barrels (like bluing for steel guns; no relation to the inventor)) is so dark I thought it was blue until I got it outdoors. I need to get some but not all of this off to show pattern better, but I want to retain the rich color. In the photos I have tweaked the color to bring up the pattern– if they were already like that I wouldn’t do a thing. Worth it to double or right click to see better…

* If you are of the dwindling minority who think Damascus is inherently unsafe, step away from this box and read the 6 part series by Sherman Bell in Double Gun Journal between Summer 2005 and Winter 2009, called “Finding Out for Myself” (there were other experiments under the same title but those years covered the relevant issues), in which he and an engineering – minded team of friends, “Mythbusters” for the classic gun set, attempted for several years the task of making a Damascus barrel explode– this using repeated PROOF loads, too long for the chambers, on pre- wrecked or at least battered– some were loose, some held together by copper wire– American waterfowl double guns. And failed, period, stop. Not one, not one, even expanded. Now add modern English proof for Nitro in any gun so marked…

I think the consensus was that guns that did so blew up because someone had inadvertently dropped a twenty bore shell in ahead of the 12– which condition could and did blow up both Damascus and steel barrels.