Category Archives: Industry

Why are Rock Island Auction Catalogs so Expensive?

It’s a lot of money for an auction catalog: one costs $60 in the USA and $75 overseas, and it’s $165 or $210 respectively for a subscription for three Premiere Auctions (which also gets the Regional Auction catalogs, containing pieces without such nosebleed prices as the one-of-a-kinds that fill the Premiere auctions). What chump would pay those prices, and why?

We do, and we’ll tell you. First, there’s getting a package that weighs something like 8 pounds, and that makes you take out your letter opener.

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Then, there’s what you see when you pop the lid.

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This catalog, for the Premiere Auction taking place from 09-11 September 2016, is actually three glossy, beautifully printed volumes. They are spiral bound to lie flat, and inside there are hundreds and hundreds of heirloom  and investment-quality guns. The photographs are made with a technician’s craft and an artist’s eye, and the page layout rivals the best work in coffee-table books. And it’s an auction catalog, for crying out loud!

The catalog cover above is a row of historic early semi-auto prototypes, of which any one could b the centerpiece of a million-dollar collection. They have enough of these that reading the catalog is an education in early semi-auto blind alleys and also rans.

Rare Walthers? This is one of two AP prototypes, more or less identical and consecutively marked, that are being offered individually and as a pair. Each is likely to

bring a six-figure sum.

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There are more rare and historic Colts and Winchesters than you can shake a peace pipe at:rock_island_catalog04

And Lugers. See what we mean about the photography and layout?

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Here’s a Luger to conjure with — marked with The Man’s own monogram, (GL), it’s an experimental designed to work with heavier loads. The toggle is “reversed,” with the finger-grip cocking pieces normally attached to the rear link of the toggle attached to the front one instead.

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Rock Island’s interest in getting the greatest possible amount for these firearms means they go all out to photograph them well and document their unique features and provenance.

There are a few lots in this auction that ran our Czech firearms gong. Along with a couple of ZH29s, an interwar semi rifle designed by the great Vaclav Holek and built in very small quantities for tests (including in England and  the USA), there were some great Czech and Bohemian pistols.

We’ve featured this very Bittner repeating pistol, built by the ethnic-German gunsmith Gustav Bittner in Weipert (Vejprty), Bohemia Province of the then Austro-Hungarian Empire, in the late 19th Century. At the time (if we recall rightly) it was offered for sale by Horst Held. This strange early pistol fit into the same sort of niche as the Volcanic pistol, in the interstices between single-shot and semi-automatic pistols. The trigger ring worked like a lever-action’s lever to reload from a Mannlicher-style en bloc clip. These pistols in any condition are rare; this is the nicest one we’ve seen.

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Several Weipert gunsmiths worked on similar ideas. This next is a lesser-know Czechoslovak-related pistol:

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In the period between the wars, the Czechoslovak Republic required a difficult-to-get permit for small pistols, defined by barrel length. This produced a quantity of domestic and imported guns with longer barrels. Most of the interwar long-barreled pistols, whether of Czechoslovak, German, Austrian, Spanish or other manufacture, tend to sport Czech proof marks.  There’s no mention of whether this Walther Model 1 has the Czech proofs, but we’d bet the guys at Rock Island a beer that it does.

Of course, not all good stuff is Czech! There’s also a good offering of Class III firearms.

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Clockwise from upper left: Japanese aircraft MG; MP-40; German MG tripod; Madsen LMG with tripod and on bipod. There are actually a couple of MP-40s, including a DLO tube gun.

Yes, the catalog will make you lust after guns you can’t afford. C’est la guerre, Legionnaire! But as a wish book and reference it stands alone.

Why Were Little Cartridges Ever Good Enough?

Colt 1908. The kinship to the FN 1906 is obvious. Image: Adams Guns via wikipedia.

Colt 1908. The kinship to the FN 1906 is obvious (Both are Browning designs). Image: Adams Guns via wikipedia.

Today the defensive caliber argument seems to have devolved into two warring camps: those who like a small .380 or 9mm, and those who sniff at anything whose Imperial measurement does not begin at .4. So the older pocket pistols of the 20th Century, and even the police revolvers and some military pistols of the early 20th, seem inexplicable to a modern shooter.

Sure, they’re small, but so is a Seecamp .380 or a Micro Desert Eagle (both of which, completely off topic, have Czech antecedents. We’ll get back on topic, now). And the standing joke, which we believe may have originated with .45 aficionado and 10mm impresario Jeff Cooper, is, “Never shoot a man with a .32. It might make him angry, and then he’ll want to fight.”

Millions of .32s like this Iver Johnson were sold in the 20th Century. Why?

Millions of .32s like this Iver Johnson were sold in the 20th Century, mostly for defense. Why?

Yet, who ever thought it was okay for cops to walk the mean streets of New York and Chicago with a .32 Police Positive, Official Police, or M&P? Why did European cops cling to the .32 ACP well into the 1980s? Why did the Wehrmacht, of all things, reopen a conscientious objector’s closed factory so that his product, a tiny .25, could be produced — 117,000 of them — for sale to German officials?

More generally, why were micro .25s and compact .32s made and sold in the tens of millions worldwide?

First, the small size of these firearms (and their ammunition) is not just a disadvantage. Ninety-nine percent of the time, it is a boon: you carry a gun a lot more than you shoot it. In this nation of 330 million citizens and probably 3 million legitimately armed law officers and everyday concealed carriers, there are almost certainly under 300 police officers and Federal Agents who have fired their guns at suspects in more than one situation. (There wouldn’t be that many, if not for the emergence of tactical teams). The civilian who’s been involved in two defensive shootings is rare enough that we can’t think of an example — maybe you can.

Second, a small gun encourages carry. A gun that’s small and light inclines you to include it in your pocket litter or slip its holster onto your belt or waistband. Remember the first rule of gunfights: bring a gun. A small gun is, ceteris paribus, more likely to “get brung” than a big hogleg.

Third, for ex officio gun carriers, if not constrained by regulations, any gun will do. That’s why the Germans wanted all those .25s and .32s. Most cops were never going to shoot anybody, but the pistol in its flap holster was a mark of authority, like the badge. While that’s true for the National Railway Police riding the trains under Hitler, it’s also true for the large amount of American and worldwide cops who have a house-mouse assignment or are promoted to management rank.

Likewise, an officer of the vaunted German General Staff was supposed to have a pistol, but he had no serious plans to go down guns blazing like a Karl May hero, in front of a Red Army assault. The gun was a badge of office. It’s possible more officers killed themselves with their small pistols than killed a Russian, Brit or American enemy.

Fourth, there was historical precedent for small guns. As far back as a before the Civil War, Colt made its revolvers available in small and large caliber (.36 and .45). Others made .32s at this time. When Colt came out with its cartridge .32 in the 1890s, it had actually made a small, spur-trigger .22 some 20 years before that. Some people wanted a big gun, some wanted to trade off that gun’s advantages for the advantages of a small gun, and the market responded.

Fifth, the small guns were thought adequate at the time. The advent of the much more powerful smokeless powders in the late 19th Century made it possible to pack more power into a smaller gun. The NYPD did not adopt the Colt .32 at the behest of some berk ignorant of guns: Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, a lifelong gun enthusiast, drove the 1896 adoption of the New Police, a longer-barreled and square-butt version of the 1893 New Pocket revolver chambered for the .32 Colt. (Later, an improved version became the .32 Police Positive, chambered for the slightly less awful .32 S&W Long, which Colt called “.32 Police” because they wouldn’t say the two initials of their despised competitor upriver).

Colt New Pocket 32Why was a .32 adequate in 1896 but not by 1996? Certainly there have been many improvements in firearms since those beautiful little Colts left Hartford 120 years ago. Some of it may just be that more powerful handguns are available.

But another possibility is that human beings have changed. Anyone who has observed collections, for instance, of WWII uniforms notes that, compared to modern soldiers, midcentury guys were small. They were shorter and much leaner. Statistics bear this out.

The Union Army in the Civil War:

The average height of the Federal soldier was put at 5 feet, 8¼ inches.  …  Incomplete records indicate the average weight was 143¼ pounds.

That’s definitely a lot leaner (and a little shorter) than today’s median GI.

And here’s a table showing the gradual but real growth of the American soldier to 1984. (The Civil War numbers here are better supported than those in the link above). We submit that this growth has accelerated since (and note the small of the 1984 study suggests it may produce a less reliable mean than the earlier ones). Also, the Civil War measurements were taken clothed, WWI and up naked, so the differences were probably greater. Source.

Table 3-1Comparison of Some Anthropometric Characteristics of Male Soldiers in 1864, 1919, 1946, and 1984
Year of Study (n)*
Anthropometric Characteristic 1864 (23,624) 1919 (99,449) 1946 (85,000) 1984 (869)
Height (inches) 67.2 67.7 68.4 68.6
Weight (pounds) 141.4 144.9 154.8 166.8
Age (years) 25.7 24.9 24.3 26.3
Neck girth (inches) 13.6 14.2 14.5 14.5
Chest girth (inches) 34.5 34.9 36.4† 35.5
Waist girth (inches) 31.5 31.4‡ 31.3‡ 32.7
Estimated body fat (percent) 16.9 15.7 14.4 17.3
Fat-free mass (pounds) 117 122 133 138

Source: Table 3-1 at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK235960/

As you see, not only the overall mass of the soldier had increased by over 25 lbs, but also, over 20 of that was fat-free mass — presumably, stronger bones and thicker muscle. A 15% or more increase in musculature on the average young man makes him harder to stop and to kill, once again all other things being equal. Scientists ascribe this in part to improved nutrition as civilization’s benefits came to include refrigeration, rail transport and industrial-scale farming.

The people police may engage with, criminals, are also likely to be obese, unlike soldiers.

In Conclusion

In the last 120 years, more powerful cartridges (and more of them) have been a trend in pistols. We identify several possible reasons for this trend. But when you break it down, they basically fall into two categories:

  1. More powerful pistols are possible now, given technology’s advances in powder chemistry, metallurgy, etc.
  2. More powerful pistols are necessary now, given the increased robustness of the mean and median human target.

In addition, there’s a third factor that may outweigh these two practicalities: fashion. We won’t raise it with reference to the present time — we’ll just point out that Roosevelt’s adoption of the .32 New Police for his New York coppers in 1896 set off a preference cascade that led many big cities to .32 Colt and Smith & Wesson revolvers within 10-20 years.

No sooner had the .32s graced police holsters than clamor for more powerful cartridges would set in. This led to a step up to .38, until S&W were finally convinced they had put the police firepower issue to rest for all time with the new .38 S&W Special cartridge.

But that’s another story.

Amateur turned Pro: The Amazing Owen Machine Carbine

One of the most remarkable weapons of World War II (and the two or three decades beyond) was the 9mm Owen Machine Carbine, an Australian weapon that bridged the gap between cottage industry and professional production rather neatly. Designed by an amateur, it remains to this day the first and most successful Australian-designed weapon to be standard in the Australian Forces. (The follow-on F1 was a modified British Patchett/Stirling, with the magazine placed as per Owen). It was also the only weapon to come from the factory in bands of green and yellow paint.

Owen SMG

The colorized picture below from New Britain shows two Owens in their native habitat: the artist who did the colorization missed the guns’ camouflage coats! The gun is simple, reliable, and almost ideal for jungle warfare: the lack of long-range targets eliminates the cartridge’s weakness at range, and the vertically-arrayed magazine, that you think would snag on everything, is actually much more easily maneuvered than a bottom-side magazine, let alone the left-side mag of the Sten or Lanchester.

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Owens were used as late as the Vietnam War, in which the Aussies were one of only two US allies that took combat missions (the other being South Korea).

“Machine Carbine” was the British term of art for any shoulder-fired, pistol-caliber weapon, what the Yanks called a “Submachine Gun.” (Many European languages use the equivalent of “machine pistol” and “machine rifle” for pistol- and rifle-caliber automatic weapons). But the Sten and Lanchester were both known by the then-standard term,”Machine Carbine.”

The designer of the Owen was one Evelyn Owen. In his early 20s, he designed an experimental .22LR submachine gun — and then put it away, and essentially forgot about it. It was a neighbor, Vincent Wardell, who was a manager for Lysaght Newcastle Works in Port Kembla, Australia who first figured out that Owen’s prewar .22 design had some potential for a military submachine gun.

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Owen Precursors, Prototypes and Trials Guns 1939-41. Australian War Museum, via Forgotten Weapons.

The story of the prototype evolution of the Owen is weird, wonderful, and well told already by Ian at Forgotten Weapons, but ultimately Wardell, his brother, Owen, and some other Lysaght workers overcame obstacles from the Army (they wanted prototypes in .32 ACP, .38/200 (.38 S&W), and .45 ACP as well as 9mm) and developed a simple and highly reliable submachine gun. In fact, it was more reliable than the weapon the British urged their Australian cousins to make, the Sten.

The secret to this reliability isn’t just simplicity — a Sten is just about as simple as an Owen is, really. But the vertical arrangement of the magazine provided two great benefits: the magazine didn’t have to fight gravity, and, with the ejection port on the bottom, gravity tended to clear the chamber area out of any malejected casing or debris. You would think that the bottom-facing ejection port would be inimical to reliability, but if it had any tendency to collect jungle goop, such a tendency was offset by the breech area’s self-cleaning nature.

The magazines were made of heavier-gauge steel than Sten or MP40 magazines, in part because the ejector is simply a raised part of the rear of the magazine. But this also helps reliability.  There were two distinct Marks (Mark I and Mark I*) and many small running changes during the gun’s production run of about 45,000.

By 1942, Australia was still waiting for a Sten data package, but the Owen was crushing the Sten in trials. About this time, someone decided that each one would be painted in a disruptive green and yellow camouflage, and the first gun off the line was squirreled away for the Australian War Memorial:

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Yes, that’s the paint job they came with. On the ones that didn’t go direct to a cushy museum, the paint gets scarred and scraped very easily (as you can see starting to show in places, even on this museum queen). Note that the grips are a hard, Bakelite-like plastic, and are not painted; the buttstock is made of wood, and it is painted.

Evelyn Owen did not have the long career of his submachine gun. Sources seem unanimous that, mustered out of Australian service at war’s end, he drank himself to death in 1949. The Owen would soon after that be called on to address human-wave attacks in Korea, where it acquitted itself well.

A uniquely Australian firearm, and a rare example of an amateur-designed weapon that outperformed its professionally-designed peers.

How Do You Get Around a Patented Design?

Over the years, this and that has been patented, in the world of guns. Given that patent law is the province of lawyers and therefore glacially slow and mired in massive transaction costs, patents don’t often benefit the poor throg filing the patent: by the time he has approval, his competitors have walked all over him and any advantage the patent might have conferred is long gone.

Original FN Browning 1900, right side, showing the ejection port. On this pistol, the barrel is below the recoil spring.

One illustration from US Patent 621747.

One illustration from US Patent 621747.

John Browning’s automatic pistol patents, for the pistol known as the FN Browning Model 1900, were filed in 1896 and 1897 (US Patents Nos.  and ) and secured, among other things, a solid patent on the idea of combining a breech bolt and other features into a “slide,” something lacking in other period auto-pistol designs (compare Borchardt, Mannlicher, Schwarzlose, and many others). The wording on these claims was a variant of this, the first specific claim of the 1896 patent:

In a firearm, the combination with a frame and a barrel carried by said frame, of a sliding breech-bolt and and a forward extension or arm attached to said breech-bolt, and extending forward alongside the frame and barrel, said extension or arm having a sleeve surrounding the barrel, whereby the movement of said extension and breech-bolt is guided by the barrel, and is limited rearwardly by contact of the rear end of said sleeve with the front of the frame.

The other illustration from 621747, showing the slide.

The other illustration from 621747, showing the slide.

Now, that claim alone might not have been a bulletproof securing of the monopoly on a pistol slide, but taken with the other Browning claims in these two patents, which were granted by 1899, meant that nobody was going to make a slide-bearing pistol without recognizing Browning’s patent, probably by giving Browning money. But his patents were part of why FN and Colt paid Browning for pistol designs, so would be copiers of the pistol were locked out until approximately 1913 — time that Browning did not spend idle.

And Browning’s Model 1900 was revolutionary, so revolutionary that “a Browning” became a European synonym for an automatic pistol.

So, if you were a would-be competitor, you could take a number of approaches, much as other pistol makers did to the similarly disruptive rise of Glock in the late 1970s and 1980s. You could, as a former Smith & Wesson CEO commanded, “just copy the mother[is only hald a word]!” which produced both the Sigma pistol line and, unsurprisingly, a lawsuit from Glock (which Glock essentially won, slaying the Sigma and sending Smith back to the drawing board). That’s the hazard of the “copy the mother!” approach, but you could use it if you were based somewhere beyond the reach of intellectual property law. In 2016 as well as a century ago, one of those lawless places is, and was, China. Not surprisingly, Chinese craftsmen didn’t feel constrained by patent law, and copied the living daylights out of the M1900. Some of them were quite close:

Browning 1900 Chinese Copy FW Browning 1900 Chinese Copy FW L

This one’s a little less close a copy:

Browning 1900 Chinese Copy

Some of the departures in the Chinese copy above include the palm-swell shape of the grip, the crudely hand-cut ejection port, the thyroid-case magazine catch, and the classically Chinese-copy sights, which often manage to have more parts than the original, but nothing that can actually be used to aim the firearm. The magazine also lacks the witness holes which were, by 1900, standard on auto-pistols worldwide.

But the slide does work like JMB’s, and if it was made before 1913 or so, it violates his patents. In China you could get away with that. In the Kingdom of Belgium, home of the factory making the authorized Browning 1900, and a nation that prides itself on rule of law, you couldn’t. So what’s a Belgian copycat to do?

“Copy the mother!”, but, cosmetically only. Meet the Mélior, whose name means “better,” and which is a shameless knock-off of the 1900 — cleverly arranged so as not to bust Browning’s patents. At a glance, it looks like another copy.

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In fact, the pistol, a pre-WWI Mélior (also seen as a “Jieffeco”) incorporates some ingenious ideas of its own, and it has its own patent (that’s a British patent number, even though it is a Belgian gun). It was designed about 1906=07 by one H. Rosier, of whom little else is known.

There are a few little “tells” that this is not a direct knock-off of the 1900, such as the shape of the bustle or tang above the backstrap. Some more of these tells include:

  1. Serrations machined in, not on a screwed-on part;melior_browning_1900_copy_-_6
  2. The mid-trigger screw that attaches the trigger bar (and, of course, the different monogram, JF&C for Janssen Fils et Compagnie; see here for some Mélior history);melior_browning_1900_copy_-_9
  3. Trigger bar travels in a large, unsightly cut in the right-side grip frame, that has to have a large gap because the bar’s travel is nonlinear (upper right corner of above picture);
  4. The rear sight, completely different from the 1900’s;
  5. The shape of the ejection port: rounded-rectangle front and rear (compare to the 1900, which has a rounded-rectangle corner after and a square one front);
  6. Magazine release (of which, more below); and,
  7. The pistol doesn’t have a slide!

And of course, there are different markings.

The word Mélior, by the way, implies “better” by sound (“meilleur”) and Latin etymology.

Look Ma, no slide!

Instead of a slide, the pistol has a moving breechblock. There is no moving part around the barrel. This is the biggest single difference between this design and its cosmetic cousin, the FN Browning 1900.

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The pistol seemed to have worked well enough, but after the war, the Robar & Cie firm that controlled the Mélior name commissioned a new design, one that looked more like Browning’s own Model 1910.

Pray for Release

Well, you can if you expect God to take the empty magazine out of this pistol, but the rest of us will shift for ourselves and use a rare feature: a push-button, base-of-the-gip magazine release, a lot like some early models of the Beretta 92 had.

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So there you have it. A gun whose design impetus was, essentially:

  1. Copy the FN Browning 1900 as closely as possible; but,
  2. Not so closely that we get sued for patent infringement.

There are no indicators that FN and Robar et cie. ever wound up in court, so apparently this approach worked!

Assortative Relocation Continues with Mossberg and possibly Stag

10x10_Mossberg-Logo_V01In an excellent report at Forbes, Frank Miniter covers what surely looks like the beginning of last days of gunmaking in Gun Valley.  An excerpt:

[I]n 2013 Connecticut rushed through legislation to ban some of Mossberg’s popular products. As a result, Mossberg CEO, Iver Mossberg, says, “Investing in Texas was an easy decision. It’s a state that is not only committed to economic growth but also honors and respects the Second Amendment and the firearm freedoms it guarantees for our customers.”

Mossberg has instead expanded its Maverick Arms, Inc. facility in Eagle Pass, Texas, with 116,000 new square-feet of factory space. Mossberg is not a small gun manufacturer. According to records kept by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), Mossberg made 475,364 guns in America in 2011. Of those guns, a total of 423,570 were shotguns made for sportsmen, for shotgun sports enthusiasts, for law-enforcement and for people who want a shotgun to protect their homes and families.

More than 90 percent of Mossberg’s guns are now made in Texas. Some of its Connecticut jobs are going there, too. Tom Taylor, O.F. Mossberg & Sons’ senior vice president, sales & marketing, tells me, “We’re moving all wood gun stock production to our Texas facility. More of our product lines—like our modern sporting rifles—might move to Texas in the future. Texas has been very good to us. Also, our gun sales have been so dynamic over the last number of years. We’ve outgrown our facilities. This major expansion will help us keep up with demand.”

Assortative relocation from anti- to pro-gun states isn’t just companies that have left, like PTR, or companies that have moved most of their production, like Mossberg. It also affects companies that choose to stay, like Stag Arms.

After Malloy signed his gun ban and other gun-control measures in 2013, Mark Malkowski, president of Stag Arms in New Britain, Conn., told me, “Some companies have seen brand damage because they operate in a state consumers see as unfriendly. We have to take this into account. We have to consider all our options. Tomorrow, for example, I have a meeting on the schedule with officials from Texas. They and other states would like us to take our business to them.”

Another gun company, PTR firearms, left Bristol, Conn., with about 60 employees to South Carolina. Stag Arms, meanwhile, is still considering its options as Mossberg—like Beretta, Remington and many other gun makers—shift away from states that treat law-abiding gun owners like they’re the problem, not a part of the solution.

If Frank says Stag is “considering its options,” that’s new. (Malkowski’s comments about meetinf with Governor Perry were from 2013).  Last time around, Stag management concluded that because of their workforce’s family ties to Connecticut, the right thing to do was stay in CT and fight to reform the state’s primitive gun laws.

We can only report that whenever we mention positively some firearm made by a firm headquartered in Connecticut, Massachusetts, or New York, whether it’s here or in a gunshop in meatworld, we’re instantly countered with language indicating that a significant segment of the market does not want to purchase firearms and see the manufacturer in turn redistribute a large part of that to totalitarian states’ tax coffers.

And one recalls Smith & Wesson’s near-death experience after it conspired with the Clinton Administration to undermine gun rights in 1994.

Sniping and Satisficing

Russians are smart, good shooters, and brilliant engineers. They could have built an M-24 equivalent. Instead, in the early 1960s, they built the SVD. What were they thinking?

Russians are smart, good shooters, and brilliant engineers. They could have built an M-24 equivalent. Instead, in the early 1960s, they built the SVD. What were they thinking?

We had an epiphany while at a foreign weapons course, zeroing in on a target with a Romanian FPK with a badly maladjusted scope. Fortunately, the instructor was an ace spotter, so he was able to talk us on to heart shots by using Kentucky windage — aiming, in fact, at the silhouette’s hand in his pocket to pop him just (our) right (his left) of the sternum.

It wasn’t the optimum way to fire the gun, but it worked. It was satisficing, not optimizing.

A McMillan .338 LM with a Nightforce or Schmit & Bender scope might well be an optimum sniper weapon, but the organizations that spring for weapons like that are few and small. A small, poor country like Communist Romania could put an FPK in every  or every other rifle squad. The USSR did something similar with the similar-looking (but better designed and made) SVD (Dragunov Sniper Rifle, in its Russian acronym). What were they thinking?

These weapons would not impress M24-equipped SOF snipers, or M40-wielding Marine Scout Snipers. But they were adequate for their task. They gave every rifle unit a few precision riflemen that could engage point targets out beyond the effective range of assault rifles. They got all the other benefits of snipers, too: ISR through direct observation being, perhaps, the most important.

The Soviet and Warsaw Pact (now Russian and CIS) program was a success even though it was not up to SF or Marine standards. But, thing is, it didn’t have to be. For the Russian architects of Soviet sniping doctrine, which drove the development of the SVD rifle, “good enough” was, well, good enough. They chose to satisfice, not optimize, a decision that met all their needs while working within their constraints.

Satisficing is often a more satisfying process than optimizing. If something is optimized for particular requirements, it may be less adaptable than something that was just good enough. And it’s entirely at the mercy of the wisdom and foresight of the guys who write those requirements. (Six years after adoption, for instance, even Army Ordnance figured out that the nifty-neat magazine disconnector that let you use a Krag like a Trapdoor really wasn’t enough of a killer feature to pick it over the Mauser, after all).

The US has many riches in Small Arms Development, but consistency is not one of them. Consider two development programs that brought contracts to H&K over the years: the Offensive Pistol and the Compact Semi-Automatic Sniper System. Both of these contracts were successful, in that the US military procured (or in the case of the CSASS, is procuring) at least some of the systems. But both might have gone better, had a satisficing approach been taken instead of a maximizing one.

The Offensive Pistol was a special operations project mostly driven by a SEAL wish-list. It produced a pistol that checked every box, but that was nearly as bulky and heavy (with its suppressor) as a carbine. Despite the weight, though, the Mk 23 pistol was handicapped by being a pistol that fired a pistol cartridge. That meant it could never be a sole weapon, the guy using the Mk 23 (presumably in clearing a linear or confined target) needed to have a carbine too.

Mk 23. This one from Cranston Gun and Coin in Rhode Island.

Mk 23. This one from Cranston Gun and Coin in Rhode Island. Without something for scale, the size of it isn’t obvious…

Here we see how the Mk 23 dwarfs even the pretty big .45 ACP USP Tactical (from this thread on HKPro).

Here we see how the Mk 23 dwarfs even the pretty big .45 ACP USP Tactical (from this thread on HKPro).

The Mk 23s are out there, but I’ve never heard of anybody using them for anything but playing on the range, or stylin’ and profilin’. It was optimized for its set of specifications, but nobody ever said, “Wait a minute, we say we want it to do X and handle Y, but did we ever do X and Y with a pistol before? Why not?”

In the case of the CSASS, the Army (in particular) had another firearm that was developed from a telephone-book-sized stack of requirements and specifications, the M110 Semi-Automatic Sniper System. The M110 SASS had the same thyroid problem as the Mk 23: it was unweildy for the ways the soldiers wanted to use it.

The M110 SASS came with lots of cool gear, but few of the end users were well trained on the system.

The M110 SASS came with lots of cool gear, but few of the end users were well trained on the system. And it was too long and unwieldy, hence, the compact semi-auto sniper system competition started to find a less unwieldy

The maker of the original M110, Knight’s Armament Corp., offered to modify the existing M110s to meet the new spec for short money but the Army wasn’t having any of that. They wanted all new guns, and hang the expense.

The CSASS, a cousin of the German G 28 (HK calls this variant the G28E), is basically a piston .308 AR, but it’s optimized for the new specification.

das-hk-g28e-im-cal-7-62mmx51What happens when the users of that rifle make contact with the enemy and suggest some changes? Or, somewhat more cynically, what happens when some new action officer replaces the old and brings a new set of prejudices to bear on the problem? Will the CSASS have as short a run as the M110 did? And be replaced, as it was, by what’s essentially the same gun?

Origins of the BAR, Part III: The BAR in WWI Combat

Val Browning with a BAR "Somewhere in France."

Val Browning with a BAR “Somewhere in France.”

The BAR was desperately sought by the AEF, and the officers of the Ordnance Corps recognized its brilliance immediately: while the equally brilliant M1917 water-cooled machine gun was subject to a degree of jiggery-pokery prior to adoption, the BAR was adopted, as is, at its very first demonstration.

But as we have seen, manufacturing took time to get started. There were drawings, and process sheets, and tools, and jigs and fixtures to prepare. John M. Browning typically worked in steel, and provided working prototypes: he never drew a set of production drawings in his life, and indeed, he is not noted for involving himself in questions of production, only of design. Therefore, the process of turning the BAR from his hand-tooled prototypes to a mass-producible arm for a citizen army took effort, which took time: about three months from contract kickoff with the outbreak of the war to first BARs with the AEF in France. Let’s go back to our expert, George Chinn:

In July 1918 the B.A.R’s arrived in France in the hands of the United States 79th Division, which was the first organization to be equipped with them and took them into action on 13 September 1918. The 80th Division was the first American Division already in France to be issued the weapons. It is an interesting fact that First Lt. Val Browning, son of the inventor, personally demonstrated the weapon against the enemy.

The B. A. R. was more enthusiastically received in Europe than the heavy water-cooled gun, and requests for purchase by all the Allied Governments were made immediately after it arrived overseas. The French Government alone asked for 15,000 to take the place of the inferior machine rifle, then being used by both French and American troops. The latter weapon was found so unreliable that many were actually thrown away by troops during action.

However, the War ended so soon after this that the bulk of the American forces were still equipped with machine guns supplied by the British and French.

While there exist some AARs praising the performance of the M1917, which went into combat about ten days later than the BAR, we’re not aware of primary source documents about the BAR’s performance. But while the contribution of a handful of BARs to the war effort might have been de minimis, the gun would embed itself in the American military postwar.

There is an interesting sidebar to the story of the BAR in France, as Tom Laemlein wrote in American Rifleman in 2012:

American divisions deployed to France after July 1, 1918 (including the 6th, 7th, 8th, 29th, 36th and 79th) carried the BAR with them. Incredibly, upon their arrival in France, most of these divisions had their BARs replaced with .30-cal. M1918 Chauchats, by order of Gen. John J. “Blackjack” Pershing. The first recorded use of the BAR was with the 79th Infantry Division, and that was not until Sept. 22, 1918, during the beginning of the Meuse-Argonne offensive. Just three other divisions would carry the BAR before the end of World War I.

General Pershing determined the best course of action would be to wait until most of the U.S. divisions could be fully equipped with BARs (and with a ready supply of the rifles and spare parts available) to gain the full advantage of deploying the new rifle. General Pershing also feared that if the BAR were deployed too quickly that the Germans would inevitably capture one, and seeing its great capability would reverse-engineer the weapon and make it their own.

Records of the Automatic Arms Section of the AEF present the status of automatic rifles in France as of Sept. 8, 1918: “At the present time 18 U.S. divisions have been equipped with the Chauchat. No more divisions will receive this weapon in the future. At the present time there are nine U.S. divisions equipped with the caliber .30 Chauchat. However this gun has proved to be not at all satisfactory, the cartridges sticking in the chamber after the gun becomes slightly hot. For this reason the gun has been issued as an emergency weapon and will be withdrawn as soon as the Browning Automatic Rifles are available. At the present time 27 U.S. divisions have been equipped with the Chauchat Auto Rifle, and two divisions with the British are using the British .303 Lewis machine guns. All divisions over and above this number have been equipped with the Browning Automatic Rifle.”

There’s even another interesting sidebar in there, relative to the Lewis gun, the British counterpart of the BAR at this time (1918). Lewis was not a Briton; he was, in fact, an American ordnance officer whose gun, due to branch politics, was never considered seriously by the US Army.

Finally, another American Rifleman story reproduces the text of a 17 September 1918 report b the Automatic Arms section of the AEF’s Engineering Division about what the report calls the “Browning Machine Rifle” or BMR, a name which apparenly didn’t stick. While the rifle had been in combat by the time, that’s not reflected in the report. A couple of interesting points:

The similarity in appearance between a B.M.R. and our service rifle is so great that when the guns are in the field that they cannot be distinguished from each other at a distance greater than 50 yds.

And the tactical employment envisioned was not the “walking fire” about which so much has been written. Instead:

The gun will be used for the most part as a rapid firing single shot weapon. It can be fired from the shoulder, kneeling or prone, the greatest accuracy, of course, being obtained in the latter position with the front of the forearm resting on some rigid body. In cases of emergency where the ammunition can be supplied, and where a large volume of fire is necessary, this gun will be fired automatically. Five hundred rounds were fired in 3½ minutes under field conditions, but this figure is a maximum for fire volume. Under ordinary conditions 300 rounds should be placed as a limit for continuous automatic fire except in cases of emergency.

Do Read the Whole Thing™. Automatic fire was envisioned as something to be used “In cases of emergency where the ammunition can be supplied, and where a large volume of fire is necessary.” That just goes to show that doctrine was evolving dynamically in 1917-18, and that it would evolve further in later years. By World War II, not only was the M1918A2 version not used “as a rapid firing single shot, weapon,” it couldn’t be: it had no semi-auto setting, and offered a low cyclic rate option in its place.

In the end, it’s impossible to avoid the thought that the BAR did achieve one very important result in World War I: it showed what was possible in wartime production.

Origins of the BAR, Part II: WWI Manufacturing

Where we left you yesterday, Colt had delivered to the Government the gages, tools and drawings for BAR (and M1917 machine gun) production. We’ll continue with Chinn’s story:

During July and August 1917, more than 2 months after our entry into the war, a survey was made of facilities and plants thought capable of turning out the water-cooled version in quantity.

Several different plants began M1917 production. Then it was the BAR’s turn.

The production of the B.A.R. followed a similar pattern. Browning carried on most of his early development on the machine rifle at the Colt’s Patent FireArmsCo. Later, Winchester gave valuable assistance in connection with the preparation and correction of the drawings, adding many refinements to the gun. Winchester was the first to start manufacture on this model. Since the work did not begin until February 1918, it was so rushed that the component part of the first 1,800 to be put out were found to be not strictly interchangeable. Production had to be temporarily halted until the required manufacturing procedures were altered to bring the weapon up to specifications. At the end of the war the Winchester Co. was producing 1300 B.A.R.’s a day. A total of 63,000 items were canceled at the time of the Armistice.

Chinn just leaves this hanging here, and doesn’t answer the obvious question: how many BARs did Winchester produce prior to the end-of-war contract cancellation? For that we have to go to a Winchester source. R.L. Wilson’s Winchester: An American Legend, which is at once a beautiful coffee-table book and a fact-packed Winchester source, says “about 47,000” in its brief paragraph on BAR manufacture (p. 171), which is worth reproducing in full:

In September, 1917, Winchester was instructed to commence tooling up for the manufacture of the Browning automatic rifle (BAR). Edwin Pugsley, then manufacturing engineer, went to the Colt factory see the only existing model. Since the BAR was needed at Colt’s during the work week, it was borrowed for a weekend, and in that time drawings were made and the project begun. By the end of December the first Winchester BAR at been completed. Production was well along by March, and by Armistice Day, November 11, 1918, Winchester had made approximately 47,000. Winchester also had begun construction of the Browning .50-caliber machine gun and had a working model completed within about two months. That gun, however, never entered into production, because of the end of hostilities.

Winchester found wartime contracting not to be the lucrative profit center it was imagined to be: the company took in vast amounts of money from Britain (for whom it made the P14 Enfield), Russia (Mosin-Nagant M1891) and US (1917 Enfield, BAR) but it sank it all into plant expansion to fulfill the contracts, and was fortunate to escape bankruptcy. It did, however, end up with greatly expanded facilities and an immeasurable increase in manufacturing know-how. Back to Chinn (p. 180-181):

The Marlin-Rockwell Corp. intended originally to use the Hopkins and Allen Co. plant for the construction of this weapon, but found that a contract for making rifles for the Belgian Government fully occupied its facilities. The corporation then acquired the Mayo Radiator Co.’s factory for use in its contract to produce the B.A.R. The first run from this source was made on 11 June 1918, and by 11 November 1918 the company was turning out 200 automatic rifles a day. The postwar cancellation was 93,000 weapons.

If Marlin’s contract was, like Winchester’s, 100,000 rifles, then Marlin turned out 7,000 BARs before the cancellation telegram arrived. (As we’ll see, this assumption is far from certain).

The Colt Co., because of the heavy demands of previous orders, produced only 9,000 B.A.R.’s. The combined daily production by all companies was 706 and a total of approximately 52,000 rifles was delivered by all sources.

Here’s where the lack of a BAR-specific book on our shelves shows. Obviously Winchester’s 47,000, Marlin’s 7,000 and Colt’s 9,000 doesn’t add up to 52,000 (more like 63,000), plus we’re doubtful that the production actually came down to round numbers like this. Somebody smarter than us has already done this research and resolved, or at least explained, these discrepancies. (Both Chinn and Wilson are well-regarded for accuracy, for what it’s worth).

Apart from the errors on the first 1,800 BARs made at Winchester, BAR production was relatively trouble-free; a more serious error in M1917 machine gun production required a doubler to be attached to the receiver, and this hand rework cost more than the actual production of the guns in the first place, a reminder of the risks inherent in modern mass production in wartime.

Tomorrow we’ll conclude this mini-series with Origins of the BAR, Part III: The BAR in WWI Combat, again quoting from Chinn.

(Note: we do have a picture for this article, but lacked time to prepare and insert it before press time. We will catch up and insert it later, if we can).

Two Training Firms Accused of Stiffing Instructors

burning-wasting-moneyOver the weekend, an interesting situation began to develop in the training community. It was kicked off by a message from Jeff Gonzales of Trident Concepts, breaking off his longstanding relationship with Alias Training & Security due to longstanding nonpayment and bad communication. Soon, several other top-level trainers had joined Jeff, including Pat McNamara, Mike Pannone and Larry Vickers. Jeff wrote:

As many of you are aware we have been utilizing the services of Alias Training and Security (ATS) over the last 20 months. Recently, we have experienced some major problems forcing us to reconsider our association with ATS. They have been delinquent on paying us for the last several classes and more than likely will not be paying us for our CQB class in Alliance, OH I am currently getting ready for this coming week.

I am not the only one who has experienced these problems, good friends and fellow trainers Mike Pannone, Pat McNamara and Craig Douglas have all had similar experience both in delinquency of revenue owed as well as lack of communications with ATS. I feel and I know I echo the others my level of frustration has reached a point where I have exhausted all avenues and the benefit of the doubt has reached the reasonable limit.

Alias was slow to respond (which, if you’ve ever had any dealings with them, is par for the course) but finally stopped taking deposits on all open courses, marking them “sold out.”

Finally they posted this to their Facebook page:

It is with a heavy heart that we must announce that as of Monday July 13, 1016 Alias Training & Security Services, LLC will be closing its doors. An ongoing dispute with our merchant services financial company has made things untenable. Our apologies to all affected students, instructors, etc. To all students of upcoming classes please expect an email early this week to explain the situation in more detail.

Again our most sincere apologies,

Alias Staff

What makes this interesting is the claim that “an ongoing dispute with our merchant services financial company” is the root of their problem. That certainly sounds like a Choke Point attack, the kind the DOJ, IRS and banking regulators have used in the past against the Administration’s political “enemies.”

But the problem with that is this: while Choke Point could keep you from paying Gonzales, Pannone or Vickers what you owed ’em, it can’t stop you from telling them about it. If that was the case, would Jeff really be talking about

…lack of communications with ATS…

…the rest of the group and I went above and beyond trying to remedy this situation. I take this matter very seriously and I’m sure you will all see how the group and I have acted in the most professional manner, but now it is time to move forward…

instead of criticizing the regulator?

By the way, it looks like Jeff is planning to go forward with the Alliance class even though he has not received and doesn’t expect to receive the money the students paid (through Alias’s web site).

Meanwhile, Paul Howe has been fighting his own battle with Pantaeo Productions. In his July newsletter (.pdf), he writes:

It is with regret that I ask CSAT followers not to purchase or stream any CSAT content at Panteao at this time. This is reference to not receiving compensation for my work.

Life is a people business and I try to give everyone chances and support them until I see things go in the wrong direction. Even then I still try to correct issues give positive advice. At some point I must step in and do what I think is right.

Pantaeo has made some dynamic videos and has an excellent e-commerce website. However, its principal, Fernando Coelho, is a convicted felon, and what’s more, what he was convicted for was, specifically, financial fraud. This was in relation to the long and drama-rich collapse of an ammunition firm, Triton Cartridge Corporation, he once owned in upstate New York. (The newspaper headline called him, “Swindler,” not an epithet we’d want to wear). He got five years’ probation and was ordered to repay $328k he had essentially embezzled from a creditor and/or stolen from his own employees by not paying them. We’re unaware of whether he ever paid that money back, or any of it. Maybe he did.

Unlike Alias, as far as we know Pantaeo hasn’t even tried telling a story about why they’re stiffing Howe.

So — are Pantaeo and Alias being squeezed by Operation Choke Point or some nameless, more deniable successor? Or are they themselves doing the squeezing, to the instructors they haven’t paid?

UPDATE

This story continues to develop. Soldier-Systems has a story with comment from both Mike Pannone and Larry Vickers (LAV is actually in the comments, not the story). Do read the comments — some of the background on Alias is, well, let’s just say it’s no wonder they called it “Alias.” They seemed to be planning on needing one.

 

Five Tips for Gun Shop Staff

Rather than rave about what we see people doing wrong, here’s some “do” bullet points for you.

5. Listen three-quarters of the time.

Your customers are not in the shop for what interests you, but for what interests them. Talking about what interests them is a good way for you to sell them products and services that you can provide. It’s also a good way to establish yourself as an excellent listener, a personality type that is never in oversupply.

4. Know your products and inventory.

We really, really hate to go into your store and be the know-it-all, and we’ll never do it just to kill your sale. But if you’re recommending something entirely wrong, especially to a newbie, we’ll probably set you straight — tactfully, if you let us.

3. Be careful with assumptions about your customers.

The ancient Greeks used to believe that the gods periodically took on human form, often the form of an inconsequential character. The gods would then reward the decent folks who had been kind to what they thought was a fellow human, and punish the folks who had abused them. We’ve never heard of a gunstore encounter with Apollo or Hera, but we’d just like to remind you that among the people who go to gun stores are people who really are experts on some aspect of your inventory.

2. Greet everybody who comes in your store.

No exceptions. Nothing you are doing is more important that a customer who just walked in, especially a new customer. It is the customers that enable everything else; it is the new customers that may need all kinds of nice, high-margin accessories.

1. Always tell the truth.

And stop when you run out of truth. If you don’t know the truth, don’t try to bullshit. Just say you don’t know, and offer to find out. The customer may know more than you do, for one thing.