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Finding the soul in steel

As I poke around various trade shows and events in the gun world, I like to find interesting people who tell a story. A special class of skilled craftsmen often catch my eye– master engravers. I profiled such a craftsman a couple of years ago– a hardworking artisan some 74-years young who started hand-building rifles back when Eisenhower was in office.

Recently I met a similar gentleman at SHOT Show.

Busy over his workspace, his brushy mustache flared, Springfield, Missouri’s Jim Downing was meticulous in his craft.

Mr. Downing (Chris Eger)

You see, back in the golden days of steel-and-wood firearms manufacturers, gun makers kept engravers on staff for regular work. Those days are long gone and the occasional scrollwork and filigree you see from the factory today usually come from a computer-controlled laser. Just upload the design and press a button and you get the same, exact, thing every time. In short, it is just a copy of a copy of a copy. The same technology allows you to go and get some personalized dog tags for your cocker spaniel at a machine by the check out registers of your local big box pet store for pocket change.

When asked about laser engraving, Downing said the newer practice “has no soul,” and, while it is push-of-a-button convenient, “doesn’t produce an item that has artistic value.”

I agree.

One of Downing’s pieces, a Colt 1908. (Photo: Jim Downing)

More in my column at

President’s day: Campaigning with a British general’s pistol

A young George Washington, sitting for his 1772 portrait as Colonel of the Virginia Regiment done by Portrait of George Washington – Charles Willson Peale. Washington had been appointed colonel in 1756– the year after Braddock was killed. (Photo: Washington-Curtis Collection, Washington-Lee University)

Aged just 20 years, George Washington was appointed a major in the provincial militia by Virginia’s Royal Governor, Robert Dinwiddie, in February 1753. As the tensions between Britain and France boiled over into the Seven Years’ War/French and Indian War, Washington found himself on the colonial front lines along the frontier at Fort Necessity and all points west. Appointed as an aide to British Maj. Gen. Edward Braddock in the summer of 1755 during the failed attempted to capture French Fort Duquesne (now in downtown Pittsburgh), the 60-year-old professional campaigner and veteran of the Austrian War of Succession was taken with Washington. So much so that he gave the young man one of his personal guns, a large .71-caliber horse pistol made by English gunsmith William Gabbitas. Engraved with Braddock’s initials, Washington carried the gun throughout most of his military service

(Photo: Smithsonian NMAH-JN2014-3130)

Of course, Braddock was killed during his campaign in the Ohio Valley, but Washington continued to carry the pistol, which was engraved “EB” after its former, late, owner.

In 1777, although he had numerous pistols (Mount Vernon has no less than seven sets) Washington was still carrying the old British horse pistol as commander of the Colonial Army. After mislaying it briefly, a note sent behind in an effort to retrieve it just before the Battle of Brandywine noted that, “His Excellency is much exercised over the loss of this pistol, it being given him by Gen. Braddock, and having since been with him through several campaigns, and he therefore values it very highly.”

The gun is now in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

The Long Gray Line and their endless gold bands

Occupied by the Continental Army in 1778, the strong point in a sharp S-bend above the Hudson River at West Point, New York was considered a strategic key to the region– which is why one of Washington’s most trusted generals, known then as “America’s Hannibal,” given command of the garrison there the next year.

“The Million Dollar View” from Trophy Point at the USMA, an easy way to see why West Point was the key to the Hudson River Valley in 1778.

Following the war, West Point was one of the few military installations retained by a cash-poor Congress, and by 1794, new cadet artillerists and engineers were being trained there. That made it a logical place to establish the U.S. Military Academy in 1801, some 43 years prior to Annapolis opening its doors. The first class, consisting of Joseph Gardner Swift (later, Colonel) and Simeon Magruder Levy, matriculated in 1802.

Fast forward to the USMA’s bicentennial in 2002, and the West Point Association of Graduates assisted with a plan in which class rings worn by past cadets were donated, melted, and mixed into the gold used for the new rings of the rising First Class cadets.

The tradition continues today, with the most recent Ring Melt ceremony saw the 575th vintage ring recycled to help cast the new rings for the 2020 Class.

More here.

Over a seaman’s grave, no flowers grow: USS Thresher to be remembered at Arlington

USS Thresher. Starboard bow view, July 24, 1961. (Official U.S. Navy Photograph)

More than a half-century after their loss, 129 brave submariners will be given a standing memorial at Arlington.

USS Thresher (SSN-593), commissioned in August 1961, was the lead ship of a new class of nuclear-powered, fast-attack submarines and was the most technically advanced ship in the world.

On April 10, 1963, she sank approximately 200 miles off the coast of Massachusetts. All souls aboard were lost that day; 129 U.S. Navy Sailors and civilian workers. Thresher was the first nuclear-powered submarine lost at sea, and the largest loss of life in the submarine force’s history.

As a result of this, the Navy immediately restricted all submarines in depth until the causes of this tragic loss could be fully understood, leading to SUBSAFE.

Loss of the Thresher by A. L. Karafylakis NH 86731-KN

Now, Veteran Navy submariner and president of the non-profit USS Thresher Arlington National Cemetery Memorial Foundation Kevin Galeaz formally announced Monday night that a proposed memorial had received approval of Secretary of the Army Mark Esper.

“This is a long time coming for the families, 55 years, and I have tears of joy that it is finally being realized,” said Galeaz.

More here.

Vale, CPT Mariner

Rosemary Mariner in the 1990s when she was commanding officer of red-star-insignia’d ‘Flashbacks” of VAQ-34, the last Skywarrior and EA-7L electronic aggressor squadron in the Navy.  

Texas-born Rosemary Bryant Mariner (nee Conaster) grew up in San Diego fascinated with aviation, graduating from Purdue in 1972– at age 19– with a degree in Aviation Technology, picking up both flight engineer and pilot ratings before she signed on with the Navy the next year when she became one of the first eight women to enter Naval Aviation training at NAS Pensacola.

She went on to be being assigned to fly the rather pedestrian S-2 Tracker with the “Blue Tails” of VC-2 before she checked out on both the A-4C Skyhawk and A-7E Corsair, going on to become the first woman to fly a front-line tactical aircraft in U.S. service when she joined the fleet in 1975 and later contributed to studies on the ability of female pilots to withstand G-tolerances.

When placed in command of the “Flashbacks” of Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron 34 (VAQ-34)– an EW squadron flying the classic ERA-3B Whale and the rarely-encountered EA-7L Corsair in 1990– she was the first American female military aviator (in any branch) to lead an operational air squadron, which she did in Desert Shield/Storm. In all, she racked up 24 years of service with over 3,500 hours in 15 different aircraft types.

After she retired she was a scholar in residence and lecturer at UT for over a decade.

She recently passed away at age 65, in the fifth year of her battle with ovarian cancer.

Update: To honor Mariner, the U.S. Navy will conduct the first ever all-female flyover this Saturday, Feb. 2 in Maynardville, TN

All of the aviators participating in the flyover are from squadrons based at Naval Air Station (NAS) Oceana and will be flying F/A-18E/F “Super Hornets.”

The participants are:

Stacy Uttecht, Commanding Officer, Strike Fighter Squadron Thirty-Two (VFA-32)
Leslie Mintz, Executive Officer, VFA-213
Cmdr. Paige Bloc, VFA-32
Cmdr. Danielle Thiriot, VFA-106
Cmdr. Jennifer Hesling, NAS Oceana
Christy Talisse, VFA-211
Amanda Lee, VFA-81
Emily Rixey, Strike Fighter Weapons School Atlantic

Richard Overton, America’s oldest living WWII veteran, has died. He was 112 years old

A native of the Lone Star State, T5 Richard Arvin Overton began his military service when he enlisted in the Army at Fort Sam Houston, Texas in 1940. Serving with the (segregated) 1887th Engineer Aviation Battalion, USAAF, he served throughout the Pacific Theatre including at Palau and Iwo Jima.

Even late in life, he liked his cigars fat and his coffee Irish.

We profiled Mr. Overton back in 2015 and he showed off some of his personal guns. He was a hell of a man. Ave atque vale

T’was The Night Before Christmas at 400 Feet

Remember, at any given time at least 15 Navy SSNs, SSBNs, and SSGNs are underway on patrol somewhere around the world in addition to those heroes On Eternal Patrol. So be sure to hold up your eggnog and toast for the iron men in the steel boats tonight!

Holiday lights are displayed aboard the fast attack submarine USS Tucson (SSN 770) at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, Dec. 22, 2012. Photo 121222-N-DB801-014 by MC2 Steven Khor

T’was The Night Before Christmas at 400 Feet

T’was the night before Christmas, and what no-one could see,
The men with the dolphins were under the sea.
Most of the crew was flat on their backs,
Snoring and dreaming all snug in their racks.

Those men on watch were making their rounds,
Some manning the planes or listening for sounds.
Back in maneuvering or down in the room,
They all hoped the oncoming watch would come soon.

I’d finished some PM’s whose time was now due,
And hoped for some sleep, even an hour or two.
Against better judgment, I took a short stroll,
And found myself wandering into control.

The Nav had the Conn, the COW was in place,
The COB had the Dive and a scowl on his face.
The helm and the planes were relaxed but aware,
The QM and ET were discussing a dare.

To comply with the orders the Nav told the Dive,
To bring the boat up with minimum rise.
The orders were given and soon they were there,
At periscope depth with a scope in the air.

The QM confirmed our position with care,
The broadcast was copied, we brought in some air.
The Nav on the scope let out a small cry,
He shook his head twice and rubbed at his eyes.

He looked once again to find what it was,
That interrupted his sweep and caused him to pause.
Try as he might there was nothing to see,
So down went the scope and us to the deep.

I asked what it was that caused his dismay,
He sheepishly said, “I’m embarrassed to say.”
It could have been Northern Lights or a cloud,
Or a meteorite he wondered aloud.

But to tell you the truth I guess I must say,
Whatever it was it looked like a sleigh.
And though it passed quickly and never was clear,
I almost believe it was pulled by reindeer.

We laughed and teased him and I got up to go,
When our moment was broken by “Conn, Radio.”
They told us a message was just coming in,
We looked at the depth gauge and started to grin.

“Radio, Conn, I feel safe to say,
Your attempt at a joke is too long delayed.
If it had been sooner it might have been neat,
But I doubt we’re receiving at four-hundred feet.”

“Conn, Radio, you can come down and see,
We’re not playing games to any degree.”
I headed aft with nothing better to do,
Surprised by the fact it was still coming through.

It stopped and was sent to control to be read,
The Nav read it slowly and scratched at his head.
Then again he began but this time aloud,
To those that now waited, a curious crowd.

“To you Denizens of the Deep and men of the sea,
Who risk your life daily so others stay free.
I rarely have seen you on this, my big night,
For far too often you are hidden from sight.

But purely by luck, I saw you tonight,
As your scope coaxed the plankton to glow in the night.
And lucky for me I’ve finally won,
The chance to say thanks for all you have done.

I know that you miss your families at home,
And sometimes you feel as if you’re alone.
But trust what I say and I’ll do what’s right,
I’ll take something special to your families tonight.

Along with the gifts I’ll take to your kin,
I’ll visit their dreams and leave word within.
They’ll hear of your love, and how you miss them,
I’ll tell them that soon you’ll be home again.

It might not be much I know that is true,
To thank you for all the things that you do.
But I’ll do what I can, while you do what’s right,
Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”

By Sean Keck

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