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 Guns.com.

The Moscow slap-chop

Below is a 5-minute primer posted last week by Rosoboronexport on Russia’s current crop of choppers for sale to international buyers with cash to spare. While many are new versions of old classics, such as the Mi-17V5 Hip and Mi-35 Hind, there are some other offerings covered as well.

The more you know…

Keep off Gov boats!

The sad fate of the majority of the U.S. Navy’s Great War splinter fleet.

Here we see a trio of disarmed 110-foot subchasers to include USS SC-216 and USS SC-225 in Boston harbor’s Dorchester Bay boat graveyard, likely shortly after they were bought by the firm of C. P. Comerford Co., who picked up at least seven of these ships for pocket change in 1921. Note the sign that reads “KEEP OF GOV BOATS.”

Boston Public Library Leslie Jones Collection

Designed by Herreshoff Boat Yard Vice President, the esteemed naval architect Albert Loring Swasey (Commodore of the MIT Yacht Club in 1897) on request of Asst SECNAV Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1916 and rushed into construction the next year, the Navy ordered hundreds of 110-foot subchasers to smother the Kaiser’s U-boats on the high seas. It was believed the vessels could be rushed out via commercial boatyards at $500K a pop.

Derided as a “splinter fleet” the SCs were built from wood, which, when powered by a trio of Standard 220-hp 6-cylinder gasoline (!) engines, a 24~ man crew could get the narrow-beamed vessel underway at a (designed) top speed of 18 knots, which was fast enough for U-boat work at the time. However, once the war was over, the steel Navy had little need or use for immense flotillas of these little wooden boats with their fire-prone engineering suites. Of the nearly 450 built, more than 100 were transferred to the French during the war, some to the Coast Guard in the 1920s, and most liquidated throughout the 1920s.

As a reference for just how short of a life the two named boats above had, here is the entirety of their DANFS entries:

SC-216: Built at Alex. McDonald, Mariners Harbor, Staten Island, N.Y. Commissioned 2/14/18. Sold 5/11/21 to C. P. Comerford Co., Lowell, Mass.

SC-225 Built at New York Yacht, Launch & Engine Co., Morris Heights, N.Y. Commissioned 12/10/17. Sold 5/11/21 to C. P. Comerford Co., Lowell, Mass.

Here are a few more shots from the same series:

Boston Public Library Leslie Jones Collection

110 Sub chaser No. 241 in the scrapyard. According to DANFS, she was, “Built at New York Yacht, Launch & Engine Co., Morris Heights, N.Y. Commissioned 4/8/18. Sold 5/11/21 to C. P. Comerford Co., Lowell, Mass.” Photo from Boston Public Library Leslie Jones Collection

By WWII, just a dozen of the Great War’s 110-footers remained on the Naval List although they were still in their 20s. A similar fate would meet the myriad of wooden PT-boats and rescue boats rushed into service during the 1940s.

Spellcheck, 1790

Thomas de Mahy, complete with the cross of the Order of St. Louis on his chest.

Thomas de Mahy, Marquis de Favras, was a petty aristocrat who served as a captain in the royal dragoons at the ripe old age of 17 during the Seven Years War and by age 28 was a lieutenant in the elite Swiss bodyguard of the Comte de Provence, King Louis XVI’s brother. However, Thomas, while he came from a noble family, it was not a rich family, and he couldn’t afford the expensive lifestyle, uniforms and mandatory fees that came with service in such a select unit, so he left the service to marry a minor German princess.

With 14 years of service under his belt, he was granted the title of knight in the Order of St. Louis (Chevalier de l’ordre royal et militaire de Saint-Louis) which afforded him a small pension.

Thomas, though no longer on active service, went on to be involved in a number of other intrigues on the continent and even at one point raised troops to fight for the Dutch Federation in 1787.

However, caught in France during the darkest days of the Revolution, the broke dandy fell into the periphery of a plot associated with his old boss, the Comte de Provence, to do away with the rabble and bring the monarchy back. Found out, he was charged by the Republic for high treason and, after a sensational public trial, was sentenced to be hanged.

Upon reading his death sentence the 44-year-old former officer commented, “I see that you have made three spelling mistakes.”

According to reports, he met “death with resignation, courage, and firmness of a conscience without reproach.”

He swung from the gallows on this day in 1790, leaving the subject of who got the last laugh open to debate.

Steel frame aesthetics done right

Walther a couple months ago introduced what they bill as the Q5 Steel Frame Match pistol, which takes their standard Q5 and ditches all the polymer (frame, guide rod, etc) for steel, which is a throwback that I can get behind. Kinda like what CZ did for the 46-ounce Shadow 2 a while back. Sure, it adds a pound to the gun but translates to easy recoil and better accuracy on the 9mm longslide.

Plus it gives you a lot of canvas for engraving, should you be into that sort of thing.

That flat trigger…

More in my column at Guns.com.

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.

S&W’s M1917: Packing up to head to Uncle’s house

The Smith & Wesson Model of 1917 was a beauty.

Popular and easy to use, they equipped military police, officers and the like as the U.S. Army girded for the Great War. The six-shot M1917 used “half moon clips” to hold the rimless cartridges. Weighing in at 36-ounces, it was very close to the same weight as the Colt 1911, which held one round less; was considered by some to be more accurate with a slightly longer barrel/sight picture; and reliable as any Smith & Wesson revolver. Best of all, it could be placed into production immediately.

Want to see how they were packed?

Head on over to my column at Guns.com for the magic.

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