Gun Book Reviews

I have received three good gun books lately, and I think I can almost see a narrative thread between them. They are not, as so many magazine articles seem to be today, advertisements in the form of product reviews. The first, Hemingway’s Guns, by Silvio Calabi, Steve Helsey, and Roger Songer, is a scholarly but lively history of the good guns owned by this iconic mid- twentieth century figure; the second, Vic Venters’ Gun Craft, is a celebration of what I would call the contemporary “art gun” that soars high above the ground, covering makers of guns so rarefied you will pay over six figures for many; the third, Obsessions of a Rifle Loony by John Barsness, (separate essay) returns us to more earthly precincts while keeping to the ideals of quality and utility– perhaps a return to the days when Hemingway shot good but plain versions of what the rest of us shoot.

Hemingway’s Guns starts in the 1920’s and continues to the time of the writer’s death in 1961. It is a profusely illustrated and meticulously documented chronicle of a good working armory owned by a man who could soon afford anything he wanted (if you doubt this check out the Hollywood and other luminaries in the photos, from a time when hunting was taken for granted). The thing that might strike a modern shooter with a longing for fine guns is how “normal” most are, and how little some which have become enormously expensive are cost back then, even proportionately. (A double rifle, always a rare, expensive hand- made tool for professionals and rich amateurs, is the exception– and even they were relatively cheap in the thirties).

A good example is the Winchester Model 21 double barreled shotgun. The Hemingway family owned several; Hemingway was in the habit of buying them for various wives, and son Patrick shot one as a boy. The M 21 was introduced in i931, and cost $59.50, which the text mentions is equivalent to all of $765 in 2010 dollars (to any non gun nuts reading, you cannot buy ANY double this cheap today). But the actual rock bottom price for the all- custom M21 today is $14,000.

Keep your mind on that. Nobody who is not wealthy buys a 21 today; I certainly couldn’t. But in the days stretching up- just barely?– to the seventies, a poor man who was sufficiently motivated could find one he could afford. I have owned three, second hand– and my father– photo below ca 1954– bought a new one after leaving the Army after the war– sadly, he sold it when duck hunting began to take second place to his career, before I started shooting.

Point being, the rich AND the less than rich who understood quality– my father was both an engineer and an artist– shot virtually the same guns in mid- century America.

This is made abundantly clear in Hemingway’s Guns. He shot Winchesters, Colt Woodsman pistols, Merkel shotguns, Mausers, Mannlicher- Schoenauer carbines, a Browning 16 gauge auto, a Browning Superposed, a Springfield, a Beretta- I have owned every one of these, admittedly NOT at the same time– serial ownership has its advantages. What he did not own was extravagant wood or engraving or bespoke London doubles. A legend, dispelled here with little doubt remaining, is that he killed himself with a Boss pigeon gun, which would have been within this group. In fact the fatal firearm was a pigeon gun by W & C Scott– a good gun but not a London Best (I have owned two).

If you are one of the remaining breed who loves literature, good guns, hunting, and history you will find this book a feast. The authors have balanced an appropriate amount of technicalia with good storytelling and, perhaps, a whiff of nostalgia for a time that was a bit more democratic and quirky, a time when the rich and the poor shared a vision of sport that may now be disappearing. I’m keeping this book, at least in part as a reminder of a time I can still remember.

Vic Venters’ Gun Craft: Fine Guns & Gunmakers in the 21st Century documents the high end of the gun trade: “Best” English and Scots contemporary doubles, with a few Italian engravers, American restorers, and Belgians, though the last one isn’t really contemporary. This is an unabashedly for- shotgun- nuts- only book, though even a non- gunner can admire the beauty of the firearms displayed here (oddly, not so obviously true of Hemingway’s guns). This is what Libby not unkindly calls “gun porn”, lovingly photographed, of an almost over- the- top beauty, and often somehow oddly pristine and untouched. In days of old Purdeys and Hollands and Bosses were shot hard, sometimes digesting thousands of cartridges in a season. Will anyone shoot these, or will they only hang on someone’s wall like a trophy? I know one world class engraver in Vermont who recoiled in horror at my suggestion that the client for his gold- bedecked Purdey 28 would shoot it and devalue its six figures worth of engraving and inlay.

Which still may be a justification for their existence– they are canvases for gun designers and engravers and woodworkers, where they can reach a peak of artisanship– or art if you must. Rulers and wealthy arrivistes alike have traditionally commissioned the best craftsmen of the age to work their magic on “weapons”. And such expertise can improve guns at “lower” levels of course, as the methods trickle down.

Though the possible use of computer- controlled machines even by “Best” makers may play more of a part in this transformation than the methods of most makers and artisans featured here, who still work with techniques that may be centuries old. The amount of hand work alone prevents too much of this labor being expended on production arms. Venters (like me– and you?) is a true nut about how gunmakers achieve their results, from barrel making to hand- regulating chokes to restoration; if you want to know why today’s Purdey 410’s are better than the old ones, even if you haven’t a hope of owning a miniature shotgun more expensive than your house; if in the words of Tom McGuane you have times when you find that “shoptalk is lyrical”, you will love this book. I am keeping it too.

I still wonder who buys these guns. Next up: John Barsness and Rifle Loonies, gun nuts who work at another level but still demand quality. EH would have understood.

Both of these books are available at Hemingway’s Guns is $40 plus S & H: Gun Craft is $30.

More Thoughts on Prof. McMahan’s Essay

Reading yesterday’s NYT (online) essay, The Meat Eaters, by Rutgers University professor of philosophy Jeff McMahan (forwarded by reader Daniela and shared below by Steve), I’m almost more puzzled by my own need to comment on the piece than I am amazed by it.

It’s tempting to lump this man’s essay in with the tiresome mass of animal rights propaganda, but I think it’s only superficially similar. This goes deeper, is arguably crazier, and may belong to another tradition entirely.

Professor McMahan’s work is principally atheist, by my reading, secondarily misanthropic, and only for the sake of example concerned with the welfare of animals.

His ignorance of animals and “nature” is obvious (Does he know some deer eat baby birds? Does he know ducks rape and kill each other?) and his ignorance of the human animal (his own animal self!) can be inferred. But I think the misanthropic bent of his argument hints that maybe he knows just enough about himself to be scared and disgusted by what he sees.

This is a very old theme, indeed. Man’s fear and loathing of himself long predates any “animal rights” movement (though it certainly seems to inform it.)

I can’t help but, as a parent of two children, recognize in this line of thinking a child’s deep-seated (and profoundly self-centered) sense of injustice.

Faced with the world’s certain measures of pain, bewilderment and abandonment, reasonable children seek comfort—and if denied that comfort, predictably lash out in self defense. They give hell to their parents, to their siblings, teachers, and tragically often to themselves.

To such a child, it is better to be alone than in the company of fellow sufferers. It is better, some will conclude, even to be dead.

For all the professor’s elaborate argument and educated language, he writes essentially from the perspective of a hurt child, ironically selfish in his lashing out against the “cruelty” of others.

This argument has been taken farther than the professor has yet come. Every religion and entire civilizations (spawning literatures and philosophies he must certainly know) have been created in the attempt to see past the problem of pain.

Although we still argue (obviously) and wonder about this problem, there is at least a shared understanding that the problem is sewn into the system and somehow essential to it.

Whether you chose to see this as life in a Fallen world or simply acknowledge, in the secular sense, that we’re all fucked, every adult must advance from that basic understanding to whatever conclusions can be drawn.

Only a child will chose to sit in a corner, hungry and hurt, while everyone sits at the table and eats what’s given.

Update: Chas’s thoughts here.

RIP Les Line

Les Line, the writer and editor who made the (old) Audubon into what might have been the best nature magazine in the world, has died.

Audubon has been very and appropriately kind in its obit. It doesn’t mention that they fired him in ’91 to change the magazine’s direction.

My friend Matt Miller of The Nature Conservancy informed me of his death. I wrote back what I will let stand as my own memorial:

“I knew Les and thought he was some kind of editorial genius, maybe the most brilliant natural history editor ever, publishing everybody from Peter Matthiessen and Robert F. Jones on Africa to John Mitchell (a five- part and fiercely controversial series) on hunting. He, if I remember correctly, broke the Texas eagle shooting scandal with Don Scheuler’s reporting (Scheuler may also be the first nature writer who wrote a gay memoir, though not for Audubon (;-)). Though it obviously still exists, Audubon magazine died as far as I was concerned when PC types pushed and business heads fired him, moving away from great nature writing to pure “enviro” (and both boring and routinely alarmist) stuff.

“He was also a delightfully strange man. He was ENORMOUSLY fat, had at that time– mid- Eighties?– hippie hair and a handlebar mustache, and wore things like turquoise bolo ties in his Manhattan office, where he also had a Weatherby cartridge board and a poster of a Smith & Wesson .44 mag! At Audubon!

“He took me to lunch and recommended a one- pound burger with CAVIAR and some kind of draft German beer. I ate one– he might have had two.

“It’s a cliché but they don’t make them like him anymore. I could have seen my (and my genre’s) own near-doom as popular coming when I invited him to speak about his experiences at Wildbranch Writing workshop post- Audubon and several young “writers” (none to my knowledge ever published before or since) stood up and dismissed– denounced– natural history as “irrelevant”. This at a nature writing workshop!

“I missed him even before he was gone.”

UPDATE: Miller on naturalists.


This weekend we found some. Odd– not many, but HUGE, two the size of my head. Although we only got about ten big ones they made up into a generous risotto, a side dish with elk steaks, and two gallon jars of dried ‘shrooms.

You can get an idea here:

We had so many that we covered all available indoor spaces and had to dry some in our immobile Jeep. Yard cars have their uses! (That’s Libby’s boss, postmaster Greg V, loading it up).

If it stays damp we have hopes for next week too.

Book Reviews

A Childhood by Harry Crews (also re-read: Florida Frenzy.)

Harry Crews is probably in his seventies, a professor of writing in Florida, and grew up among the rural poor of north Florida and southern Georgia.A Childhood is his memoir of that. Somebody in the NYTBR said that it is “..about a part of America that has rarely, except among books like this, been properly discovered.” I am tempted to say “by NYT readers”, but although hog butcherings, to give an instance, are not alien to me, Crew’s world is just enough removed in space and time from us to have a mythic quality. It is a world of stoicism and bleak poetry, where one can be hexed by spitting birds or witness a suicide by knife.Crews’ world does not have the nightmarish hillbilly Gothic and Biblical cadences of early Cormac McCarthy– his is a simpler, harder prose. I like both, but I never said of McCarthy “this is how it was.”

Florida Frenzy is a collection of essays by Crews, many published in Esquire in the seventies, and a few excerpts, including one from The Hawk is Dying, a movie recently made into a film. Most haven’t made the cut in previous collections, not because of any lack of quality but because they depict such activities as running fox with hounds, ‘gator poaching, cockfighting, and even dogfighting, in unflinching prose. He doesn’t so much defend them as to portray them as parts of the culture he belongs (belonged?) to, now fading but still worthy of a moment’s attention. Who would ever have known that a fighting bull wags its tail?

And who would ever publish such today? ESQUIRE??

(Thanks to Matt.)

Wolves at our Door by J. P. S. Brown.

Wolves takes up the stories of Jim Kane and Aidan Martinillo, old Brown protagonists (Aidan of my favorite Brown book, Forests of the Night, on which I have blogged before) as they get caught up in the border wars of the early 21st century. This a is both a subtle and a violent book; Joe Brown is the most knowledgeable chronicler of the borderlands alive today, having ranched in both Arizona and the Sierra Madre, and he has little patience with easy slogans– neither “Minutemen” nor WSJ free- traders will find much comfort in his portrait of an old, permeable border with a distinct culture of its own, under fire from a violent Sierra Madrean society warped in recent times by drugs and even terrorism. It would make a great movie (with heroic parts for old men– the best Jim Kanes are dead but I’d take Sam Neill)– but it is probably far too un- PC.

(Apropos of nothing– Joe, who is in his eighties, used to smuggle cattle across the border with an old Magdalenian rancher whom I knew slightly. Joe told me a yarn about Fred’s refusing to remove his boots in a bordello down there. When I read the book I asked his great granddaughter, who tends bar at the Spur, if this sounded right, and she said “That was Fred!”)

Thanks to MDMNM of Sometimes Far Afield— don’t know at this point if you got me this one or his memoir The World in Pancho’s Eye but I’ll get to that one soon!

SF/ Alternate worlds: S. M Stirling’s The Sunrise Lands. My favorite in the “Change” series (where advanced technology ceases to work) so far. But you must at least read Dies The Fire, the first novel in the first trilogy– this is the first in a second– to understand it. Libby is doing so and says it works. Actually all are varying degrees of good if you have the time, as is Stirling generally. I have one from another series on my wish list.

Natural History. First, Mean and Lowly Things by Kate Jackson, a book about doing herpetology amidst physically and culturally difficult conditions in the Congo. Isaac, who sent it, was not enamored of the book- I think her account of difficulties, including those inevitable ones that come of working with another culture, put him off. I liked it better, as I tend to do with such stuff. Though I am more prone to freezing than sweating, I have been there so to speak, one reason “difficulties” play such a large part in my own Eagle Dreams— they inevitably DO. The old narratives passed them over for the most part, except for occasional breakouts like William Beebe’s aside, in a caption about “The Shooter of Poison Arrows” in Pheasant Jungles, that he had shot and killed the Burmese crossbowman pictured a few nights later, for shooting into Beebe’s camp with bad intent! Better the warts- and- all tales like this and — soon– Jamie James’ Snake Charmer, in which our blog friend Chris Wemmer plays a small part, mediating between the egos of the protagonist, the late Joe Slowinski, and mammalogist Alan Rabinowitz, who apparently thinks he owns Burma’s wildlife.

Chris also turned me on to the delightful The Soul of the Rhino by Hemanta Mishry, an account of the history of the conservation of the Indian rhino, especially in the Terai of Nepal, by a Nepali conservation biologist. It is subtitled “A Nepali Adventure with Kings and Elephant Drivers, Billionaires and Bureaucrats, Samans and Scientists, and the Indian Rhinoceros”, which about sums it up. Most is fascinating, funny (often rudely), and gradually hopeful, but murder and politics intervene and the book ends on a dark note. Will the Maoists in power NOT do what Maoists have always done? I get the feeling Mishra is whistling in the dark a bit. Libby doesn’t want to go back, and she loved no place better.

Dog Man by Martha Sherrill is a Zen Buddhist dog book (if one buys Gary Snyder’s assertion that Buddha forbids nothing to the good hunter). It is the story of Morie Sawataishi, an old man who lives in the snowy mountains of Hokkaido and who is responsible for saving the old working type of Akita through the deprivations of that hard countryside through the war and after. It reminds me of Asian poetry and ink calligraphy and the photos that Life magazine ran of hawking in the snow there in the sixties. It is also a favorite of the Atomic Nerds, who know their way around Akitas.

Though David Zincavage may not be a Dino man he knows I am, and sent Feathered Dragons: Studies in the Transition from Dinosaurs to birds. Lots of good Dino- wonk stuff– think Tet Zoo but by more contributors. My favorites were a paper hypothesizing that flight feathers may have evolved as features for brooding, illustrated by many photos of modern birds and diagrams of such fossils as Oviraptor, and a paper by the too -elusive Robert Bakker improbably titled “Dinosaur Crime Scene Evaluations: Theropod Behavior at Como Bluff, Wyoming, and the Evolution of Birdness”, complete with his inimitable illos. More Bakker please!

More to come…