Friday, October 29, 2010

For Rifle Loonies...

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 or from Deep Creek Press, POB 579, Townsend MT 59644.


Anonymous said...

That is an interesting review, Steve. I very rarely read anything about rifles now but when I do it is usually a Barness story in one of the old Game Journal copies I have laying around here. I go to him like I use to go to O'Connor or Page when I was a kid. He seems the most sane and practical of the writers I have seen in the last 20 years. The rest are writing ad copy and I was soon sick of that.

His trout book, Montana Time, and upland book are excellent, as well. It is too bad he hasn't done more books like them.


M.L. Miller said...

I really have enjoyed your return to book reviews on the blog. It reminds me of the Bodio Review in Gray's Sporting Journal, where I first started reading you.

I am an avid hunter who is not a gun nut. The men who took me hunting generally had a rifle, a shotgun and a .22, and that's it. A lot of hunters used what they had, and buying a new guy was a noteworthy event.

To give some idea of the community where I grew up, when in high school I bought a new Mossberg pump, my friends almost uniformly referred to it as the "fancy gun" based solely on the fact that a new gun was not very common. I know there is the idea that all hunters once cared about quality guns, but in my experience, that wasn't the case. Most people just used what was cheap or inherited, be it good, bad or ugly.

That said, I'll buy the Hemingway book because I like books about Hemingway, and the Barsness book because I enjoy his writing, whatever the subject.

And WH's comment about Game Journal reminds me of that short-lived but excellent publication. I own every copy, because a friend/mentor (Jim Bashline) when I was in college covered trout fishing for it. Some of my favorite T. McIntyre pieces appeared there, under (if I'm remembering correctly) a pen name.


Steve Bodio said...

WH-- in this book he writes about how he couldn't make a living on such work (I can't!); he says, not entirely tongue in cheek, that fly fishermen in particular didn't care about being paid. He was interested in guns, and those markets paid better.

Most people don't know he started out as a poet. And Jack O'Connor was an English prof and a novelist.

Steve Bodio said...

MLM-- I think John started like that-- for years all he had for a shotgun was a '97 Winchester hammer pump (which I think he still has). Things just evolve...

Me? I am my father's, that is to say an artist's son-- it's in the blood.

The thought of the (good, rugged, not particularly esthetic) Mossberg, the go- to shotgun in my rural community, as "fancy" made me grin.

Neutrino Cannon said...

I was speaking to a German engineer about rifle actions, and one of the problems we ran into straight away is that firearms terminology does not translate between languages. The German term which means "blowback operation" translates to "inertia operation," which means something very different in English.

The fellow was perplexed at the terms "push feed" and "controlled feed," since neither is descriptive at all. Both systems push the round to feed it, and, he argued, the "controlled feed" system isn't particularly more controlled. Both terms seem completely arbitrary for describing a difference of design of the extractor claw.

I explained to him that in an open-topped rifle, "controlled feed" is considered critical, since otherwise the rifle will not cycle upside-down. Since the most common way to hunt Cape Buffalo is to climb up in a tree and dangle from a branch by your knees, this design is sine qua non for dangerous game hunters.

(Yes, I think it's silly too)


mdmnm said...

Nice review. Another book for the list!

J Caldwell said...

I must admit that I considered the term "rifle crank" to be well established usage for exactly what Barsness intends by what he calls a "rifle loonie". I see an 120 references to the term "rifle crank" in a search on Google books, the oldest going back to volume 100 of Forest and Stream from 1881. When Barsness started pushing his new terminology (as if it was new) I could only think that he was kowtowing to politically correct speech by trying to colloquialize the (perhaps) less threatening "rifle loonie". Personally, I am a crank.