Category Archives: The Past is Another Country

The Spetsnaz Ballistic Knife

From the WeaponsMan.com collection: ballistic knife.

From the WeaponsMan.com collection: ballistic knife.

Here’s an item from the Cobwebbed Arms Locker here at Hog Manor. Acquired during the weapon’s brief flowering of legality in the USA in 1984, it was sold as a “Spetsnaz ballistic knife.” Recent research has convinced us what we believed at the time was true, that this knife was a US-made knife intending to capitalize on the “ballistic knife” craze. In this post, we’ll tell you what we’ve learned about these knives, and our still-unsatisfied search to see if Soviet Spetsnaz ever did issue such a toad-stabber.

And yes, we’ll tell you how it works.

The “ballistic knife” hit the weapons world like a cannon shot in 1983 or 1984. In 1978, a series of books by a Soviet defector to Great Britain appeared in the West. The officer, Viktor Belyayev, was a GRU man who had served in the Soviet Army, then in Spetsnaz reconnaissance, then finally as a GRU officer under official cover in Switzerland. He used the pen name “Viktor Suvorov,” the name of a great Tsarist era general and legend of Russian arms whose name honors a series of Russian military academies (including the one the defector graduated from). We get the impression that modesty is not among his traits. In any event, people in the West (especially the US and UK) were always curious about the Soviet Union and its secret organs, and “Suvorov’s” books were very successful. They were well written and, we know now, told both deep truths and fanciful tall tales about the Soviet services.

We were absolutely sure that the first story of the Spetsnaz “ballistic knife” came from Suvorov’s Spetsnaz, but recently reread the book in e-format and even searched for instances of knife with no joy. So where did it come from? We still like him as the source, but wonder if it was a Soldier of Fortune article or something that spawned the Ballistic Knife craze.

Florida Knife Company ballistic 2

Knife identical to ours, from a GunBroker auction.

And craze it was. In a matter of a couple years, the usual foes of liberty in Washington, led by Five Families associate and later-disgraced corrupt senator Alphonse D’Amato (R-NY), had drummed up enough hysteria to push through a bizarrely written Federal ban. Their handmaidens in many state legislatures followed suit, and there is a spotty and uneven ban in effect that has stopped the interstate manufacture and sales of these knives, although “parts kits” are intermittently available. In some states, manufacture for personal use is also banned, and you have to be leery of “constructive possession” statutes and case law. The Federal statute has some exceptions, including for military personnel.

Why any military person would want such a knife is another question. We wanted it because it was a “Spetsnaz knife,” a story which seems to have proven a total fabrication.

(Due to the length of this post — over 2600 words — it continues after the jump, with The History, The Ballistic Knife in Use, Auction Action, and Misinformation and Information subheadings).

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Archaeology Find Confirms 1777 Battle Story

Archaeologists are always surprised to find that historical information from contemporary sources, pamphlets, or news stories is confirmed by the results of a dig (probably because they read the New York Times and watch TV news and assume today’s media is fabulistic, in the tradition of yesterday’s). The latest unexpected discovery is this cannon shard which from a New Jersey dig which seems to confirm some details of the October, 1777 Battle of Red Bank, a small but dramatic Continental victory, in which attacking Hessian mercenaries suffered extreme casualties under an artillery and small arms barrage, and the American casualties were light, comprising primarily a single gun crew slain when the gun exploded.

Historians who studied the Battle of Red Bank in 1777 have long known the tragic story of an American gun crew.

It was one of several defending Fort Mercer against a much larger army of Hessian soldiers, who were trying to dislodge them and open up the Delaware River for British ships to supply the Redcoats occupying Philadelphia.

The crew loaded a massive cannon, lit the fuse, and fired – but the breech exploded, killing a dozen members of Rhode Island regiments who were manning the gun and earthworks.

The battle, while a Continental victory, took place amid a series of strategic setbacks and defeats. Washington’s objective had been to cut off Philadelphia as he had in the previous year cut off Boston and forced a British defeat, and much as later in 1776 the British had forced him out of New York. To that end, the campaign that began with the upset of Hessian forces at Princeton and Trenton in December ’76 gave way to a plan to ring Philadelphia round with a number of fortifications. But Washington was in a weak position; he had to be strong at every fort, and he just didn’t have the men. The British, on the other hand, could use the Royal Navy to bring overwhelming force to one fort at a time, as they were not placed well for mutual support.

Hessian Map of the Battle Area

Hessian Map of the Battle Area. Fort Red Bank at lower right. As was customary in the 18th Century (under Vauban’s influence), the map’s legend is in French, which both the English and German officers could understand.

The fortifications at Red Bank were part of this ring around Philadelphia, which British forces had been rolling up through the summer and fall of 1777. A fort named Fort Mifflin stood on a rather insubstantial island in the Delaware called (appropriately) Mud Island, toward the Pennsylvania side; the fort on the Jersey side (in or just south of modern Camden, NJ) was called Fort Mercer (named after Brigadier General Hugh Mercer, a doctor turned warrior who died of wounds from the Battle of Princeton in January, 1777), but not knowing that name, the British called it Red Bank. The forts guarded water obstacles, chevaux-de-frise, and covered those obstacles with the observation and fires necessary to prevent English engineers from dismantling the blockages. To achieve Lord Howe’s strategic objective of the relief of Philadelphia, these forts had to go.

It was Red Bank’s turn to be reduced by amphibious attack on 21 October 1777. The operation was a success, in that the British took the ground they sought; but it was a costly success.  First, here’s the commanding officer’s spin. This is the report of the British commander, General Sir William Howe, in a letter he wrote to Lord George Germaine from Philadelphia on 25 October 1777.

 My Lord,

The enemy having intrenched about 100 men at Red-Bank, upon the Jersey shore, some little distance above Fort Island, Colonel Donop, with three battalions of Hessian grenadiers, the regiment of Mirback, and the infantry, Chasseurs, crossed the Delaware on the 21st instant to Cooper’s Ferry, opposite to this town, with directions to proceed to the attack of that post. The detachment marched a part of the way on the same day, and on the 22nd in the afternoon was before Red Bank; Colonel Donop immediately made the best disposition, and led the troops in the most gallant manner to the assault. They carried an extensive outwork, from which the enemy were driven into an interior intrenchment, which could not be forced without ladders, being eight or nine feet high, with the parapet boarded and fraized. The detachment in moving up, and returning from, the attack, was much galled by the enemy’s gallies and floating batteries.

Colonel Donop and Lieutenant Colonel Minningerode being both wounded, the command devolved upon the Lieutenant Colonel Linsing, who after collecting all the wounded that could be brought off, marched that night about 5 miles towards Cooper’s ferry, and on the following morning returned with the detachment to camp.

Colonel Donop unfortunately had his thigh so much fractured by a musket ball, that he could not be removed; but I since I understand there are some hopes of his recovery. There were several brave Officers lost upon this occasion, in which the utmost ardour and coverage or displayed by both officers and soldiers.

Contemporary woodcut of the Battle of Red Bank.

Contemporary woodcut of the Battle of Red Bank.

On the 23rd, the Augusta, in coming up the river with some other ships of war, to engage the enemies gallies near the Fort, got a-ground and by some accident taking fire in the action, was unavoidably consumed; but I do not hear there were any lives lost. The Merlin sloop also grounded, and the other ships being obliged to remove a distance from the explosion of the Augusta, it became expedient to evacuate and burn her also.

These disappointments, however, will not prevent the most vigorous measures being pursued for the reduction of the Fort, which will give us the passage of the river.

I have the honor to be, &c.

W. Howe.

PS I have the satisfaction to enclose to your Lordship a report just received a very spirited piece of service performed by Major-General Vaughn and Sir James Wallace up the Hudson’s river.

We’d planned on stopping the excerpt here, because Vaughan’s report doesn’t bear directly on the Red Bank fight and the attempted (and ultimately successful) relief of Philadelphia by Crown forces, but we know you guys would ask, and it’s a brief report, and illuminative of Vaughan’s character so here it is:

Copy of Major General Vons report. On board the friendship, off Esopus, Friday, October 17, 10 o’clock, Morning.

Sir,
I have the honor to inform you, that on the evening of the 15th instant I arrived off Esopus; finding that the rebels had thrown up works, and had made every disposition to annoy us, and cut off every communication, I judged it necessary to attack them, the wind being at that time so much against us, we could make no way. I accordingly when did the troops, attacked their batteries, drove them from their works, spiked and destroyed their guns. Esopus being a nursery for almost every villain in the country, I judged it necessary to proceed to that town. On our approach they were drawn up with cannon, which we took, and drove them out of the place. On our entering the town they fired from their houses, which induced me to reduce the place to ashes, which I accordingly did, not leaving a house. We found a considerable quantity of stores of all kinds, which shared the same fate.

Sir James Wallace has destroyed all the shipping except an armed galley, which run up the creek, with everything belonging to the vessels in store.

Our loss is so inconsiderable, this is not at present worthwhile to mention.

I am, &c.
John Vaughn

Esopus, New York, burned by Vaughan’s forces, was the initial capital of the state in rebelliion, so Vaughan’s irritation with the town was on solid ground. The name dated to Colonial Dutch times; when the city was rebuilt it was (and is) known as Kingston, NY. The Esopus fight was much more a British victory than was Red Bank, despite Lord Viscount Howe’s spin in his report above.

christopher-greene2-largeAt Red Bank, the Hessians drew up and demanded a surrender, threatening no quarter. The militia in the fort, under the command of Colonel Christopher Greene, defied the threat and informed the Hessians that no quarter would be given to them. (In the end, it was, and the militia did not murder their prisoners).

The colonials at Red Bank retreated in good order and their primary losses were the gun crew killed by the explosion of the gun; the Hessians suffered hundreds of casualties. But Red Bank was the exception; one after another the British forces levered the Yankees out of their positions and opened the sea roads to Philadelphia.

The Reduction of Fort Mercer at Red Bank. Modern sketch from a period Hessian sketch by Capt. J. Ewald.

The Reduction of Fort Mercer at Red Bank. Modern sketch from a period Hessian sketch by Capt. J. Ewald. The New Jersey militiamen escaped to the left of this sketch (southwest) after killing and wounding 325-400 Hessians. On withdrawal, the Hessians abandoned their wounded who joined other Hessians as prisoners, also.  

Howe’s report is full of spin. He tends to minimize casualties; for example, Colonel von Donop of the Hessians was in no way on the path to recovery, and he shortly died, and while he lists officer casualties in detail he evidences little interest in enlisted casualties, especially among the German mercenaries and local auxiliaries that were the bulk of his force. And he probably knew well that the two ships he lost were lost because of Continental obstacles, and the Augusta (a 64-gun ship of the line) was burnt by American fireships.

The house the Continentals used for their headquarters and hospital, and in which von Donop was treated a prisoner, still stands and is part of the Red Bank National Historic Site. (Von Donop was removed to another house, where he expired from his wounds three days later).

There is a ghost story involving Hessians with mismatched heads.

The surviving Hessians, beaten back by musketry and cannon fire, exfiltrated overland to Woodbury, leaving their casualties behind. The question of Hessians that died with their boots (and heads) still on was one of the things that motivated the modern archaeologists, who descended on the popular park this summer, and they did find buttons and bone fragments that indicate that they may have found a mass grave of the unfortunate Germans. (More analysis of the bones is required before that can be stated as fact).

Red Bank Cannon FragmentBut the most interesting discovery is a large fragment of a cannon breech, taken as being the one that exploded during the battle (we would need to see more documents to make sure the Hessians did not capture and blow up guns also, as it could have been one of those). Still, the archaeological team was not expecting such a historic find.

In the end, Howe kept coming, and he occupied Fort Mifflin on 16 November and Fort Mercer — finally abandoned by the Americans after the fall of Mifflin — on 20 November, 1777. The defenders had bought time, bled the occupying army, and most of them had slipped away to fight another day. Before they could do that, the privations of their winter in Valley Forge lay ahead.

 

 

 

The Quiet Special Purpose Revolver

We were sure we’d written about this before, but if we did, we can’t find hide nor hair of our previous report. So, just maybe we haven’t. Recently, we got some new information, and will share it with you.

The QSPR is an extremely rare special-purpose revolver that was developed and produced by the AAI Corporation. Formerly Aircraft Armament Incorporated, the name was abbreviated officially because they never sold any of their aircraft armament concepts. They worked on several ill-fated futuristic small arms of the 1960s (like the SPIW) and one very successful one, the M203 40mm grenade launcher.

The QSPR from the original report (the bad reproduction is due to the records being stored on microfilm or microfche).

The QSPR from the original report (the bad reproduction is due to the records being stored on microfilm or microfche).

The QSPR was made from a Smith & Wesson Model 29. Frames in white were provided to AAI by Smaith, and they were modified with a .40 caliber smoothbore barrel and the cylinders were bored out to 0.528″, leaving a minimal web between chambers. (The lost strength was made up for by the strong cartridges). The weapon was innocent of any sights — it was meant to be used at contact range, inside tunnels, although accuracy to 25 feet was claimed (and Vietnam users reported it was more accurate than their .38 revolvers). Both standard large-frame Smith and aftermarket or custom grips were tried.

The gun was issued with a flap shoulder holster and two ammo pouches holding an odd 7 rounds each.

The gun was issued with a flap shoulder holster and two ammo pouches holding an odd 7 rounds each.

The objective was to provide a weapon for tunnel combat, a weapon with reduced blast, noise, flash and yet increased lethality over the standard pistols and revolvers of the era. It was designed to produce a column of lethal buckshot at very close range, with no flash and very limited blast. Noise in the enclosed tunnels was equivalent to a .22LR firearm outdoors, which was a great improvement over the eardrum-shattering blast of the alternative, the M1911A1 .45 pistol.

Eleven QSPR revolvers were made, of which one was retained by AAI (and is still reportedly retained by a successor, Textron systems). Ten were deployed in 1969 for combat testing in Vietnam; one was reported as a combat loss. Of the existing revolvers, apart from the AAI reference piece, two (#5 and an unknown example) are in a US Army museum, and one is in the ATF reference collection. It was the missing Vietnam gun, which was used in a homicide in California and recovered, according to Dockery.

THE QSPR seems very sophisticated for a first shot, and that’s because it wasn’t. A previous S&W based tunnel revolver was a Model 10 M&P with reduced cylinder gap, a suppressor and an aiming light. It was part of a comprehensive suite of gear assembled by the boffins in the Army’s Land Warfare Laboratory and called the Tunnel Engagement Kit, illustrated here. (The vane switch in the guy’s mouth turned on the VC aiming point on his cranium). You can almost hear them saying, “Do bring it back this time, Mr Bond.” But this bit of lab genius was not what the guys needed, and so the boffins went back to the lab and cooked up the QSPR.

Different tunnel rat rig

Ladies and gentlemen, here is a recent photograph of a unicorn — a live QSPR round. This is believed to be the last and only live round in existence (the ATF caused the destruction of most of them maintained by AAI and the military museum system by declaring them suppressors). The material is high-carbon steel, because the case contains the entire energy of the round, inside a piston. An end cap is screwed on the base of the round; threads in the muzzle end act as a trap to catch a piston. A plastic sheath called a “sabot” wraps around the projectiles and is discarded, much like the sabots used with subcaliber projectiles, when the projectile column exits the muzzle. The muzzle end of the round has a silicone (we think) material applied as a sealant.

QSPR Round 01

The round has a dark finish which appears to be some kind of high-tech proto-melonite coating, although most resources describe the ammo as “blued.”

This is a schematic of the round from what appears to have been the final report on the weapon after development and combat testing in Vietnam. The report recommended further improvements and then general issue to Infantry and Ranger units. Those improvements were not pursued, and the firearm was never manufactured.

qspr_ammo_sketch

The high pressure inside the round breaks the “rim” of the piston free of an annular slot that initially retains the piston in the rearward position and forces it forward, ejecting the sabot-contained shot load, until the pressure snaps the piston rim into a similar annular slot positioned to receive it, and drives the “nose” of the piston into the muzzle-end threads. These two engagements arrest the piston’s forward motion. One purpose of the rearward slot is to retain the pistol and prevent it from sliding and ejecting the payload during normal gun handling.

This is the muzzle end of the round. As you can see, the sabot (or the sealant atop it) comes closer to the muzzle than indicated in the diagram.

QSPR Round 03

This is the breech end. As you can see, there are no markings on the round. The revolvers themselves were marked with the S&W trademark, so we suspect the lack of markings on the ammunition was more a reflection of the toolroom nature of the project than in any attempt to make a deniable or clandestine weapon.

QSPR Round 02

The missing detail from most of the reports, the reason the initial report was classified (albeit only at the Confidential level), and the cause of the QSPRs unusually high terminal effect for a handgun was in a material breakthrough. While most open source reports suggest that the projectiles in the shot column were lead, steel or even tungsten (Wolfram to you Europeans), they were actually depleted uranium.

DU is uranium from which the fissionable isotopes have been removed. It is a side product (a waste product, really) of uranium enrichment for weapons production and has a number of properties making t an excellent choice for projectiles.

While the US was developing the QSPR, Soviet scientists were working on similar captive-piston technology. But in the end, the complexity and cost of the system seems to preclude it from ever being made in more than nominal numbers. The ATF’s Firearms Anti Technology Branch has rendered research on this type of weapon in the USA functionally impossible; Russian designers, who have produced a great many widely varied quiet weapons, seem also to have moved on away from this technology.

The resources below are all worth reading but the most valuable is certainly the official report:

ACTIV QSPR Report OCR .pdf

Sources & Resources

Dockery, Kevin. Tunnel Weapon: The Bang in the Dark. Small Arms Review, Volume 5 Number 9. Retrieved from: http://www.smallarmsreview.com/display.article.cfm?idarticles=2423

Popenker, Maxim. Smith & Wesson / AAI Quiet Special Purpose Revolver / QSPR / tunnel revolver (USA), World.Guns.Ru. Retrieved from: http://world.guns.ru/handguns/double-action-revolvers/usa/qspr-silent-revolver-e.html  Note that Max’s report on the QSPR is pretty accurate but his photoshop job has the barrel a tad too long.

Schreier, Conrad F., Jr. The Silenced QSPR Revolver: An Answer to an Age-old Military Problem. Guns and Ammo Magazine, “Ordnance Department” feature, Guns & Ammo Magazine, October 1971, p. 64. Copy: Guns & Ammo QSPR Article .pdf

Weddington, David E., LTC, IN. Final Report: Tunnel Weapon. Army Concept Team in Vietnam (ACTIV), (Linked above).

 

Gun ID Question

What are we looking at here?

mystery_double

Every once in a while we’re going to open up a safe we haven’t been in, in a while, and show you what we find there. If there’s any interest, we’ll do this with stuff on the I’m So Awesome Wall, or in the Room of Oddball Militaria.

But at the moment, we’re looking at something you don’t see every day.

What are we looking at? Answer, and some more photos, after the jump.

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How Things Have Changed In National Defense

Washington, October 1962. The President, Vice President, and key cabinet and General Staff members gather in the situation room during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

JFK and LBJ

Everybody’s there — JFK, LBJ, MacNamara, Strangelove.

A few interesting things about this set-up.

  1. It’s  bunch of middle-aged white guys; the time when all the power brokers would be carefully selected for race and sex balance was far in the future. Then they wanted a war cabinet to lead America; now they want one that Looks Like America, college prospectus version.
  2. Most of these people got there because they had a reputation for competence, even if in some cases (MacNamara, for one) the reputation might have been a mistake. They came from diverse backgrounds. Now, it would be all Lawyers, Lobbyists and Leading Fundraisers who Look Like America.
  3. All of the men were veterans of some kind. Mac served as a statistician in the Air Corps. JFK’s combat record is well known; LBJ’s combat record is well known to be a fraud, but he did put himself in uniform, in the theater of operations. (He’s a lot like John F. Kerry that way). Now, a veteran in a war room meeting is rare.
  4. You could still be a general or a senator without a college degree in 1962, if you’d excelled in leadership. But most of JFK’s civilians came from Harvard, and took a dim view of anyone with a “lesser” education. LBJ had a degree from a state teacher’s college, and the Harvard men never let him forget it.
  5. It’s not a lavish place. Today, every White House function has the style and decadence of the court of Caligula, but look at the chairs these nabobs are resting their bones in: GI steel armchairs with vinyl upholstery. Look at the linoleum floor. Look at the utilitarian, Formica-topped drop-leaf tables with the water glasses on them — and note that they’re only in front of the President and VP.

Nowadays there would be five times as many people, most of them useless people who got where they are by sucking up or being born on third base. The President’s advisers are those who brought him the money it took to make him who he is. Those filling the room all have a life of “achievement” that began with admission to the “right” school based on family legacy or SAT scores. They are surrounded by trappings of luxury that Caligula could envy, and by a small army of staffers, aides, assistants and interns whose servility and devotion Caligula’s chattel slaves could not equal.

This isn’t a partisan observation, by the way. “No matter who you vote for, the Government always gets in,” as Neil Innes acidly sang. After JFK, both parties were increasingly dominated by a compact, narrow caste that makes the inbred, hemophiliac Crowned Heads of 19th-Century Europe look like a varied assortment. Politics today is the illusion of a deep partisan divide, in the service of a unified, decadent and self-perpetuating aristocracy.

Update

Several commenters (below) have pointed out that this was actually at Cape Canaveral. One even gave us the date: 11 September 1962. Using that date, we found some video on the JFK Library website:

http://www.jfklibrary.org/Asset-Viewer/Archives/USG-03-06.aspx

Along with a photo of JFK with Wally Schirra from the same date:

http://www.jfklibrary.org/Asset-Viewer/eFuIYlAyq0u5sS-uoHSaug.aspx

It’s interesting to see the President’s frail frame next to the lean but robust pilot and astronaut.

From the Cape, he took Air Force One to Houston, where the next day, 12 Sep 62, he viewed the Houston Manned Spaceflight Center (including a very early Apollo capsule mockup) and then spoke at the Rice University stadium. There he made his famous speech promising to put a man on the moon, and return him to Earth, within ten years.

http://www.houstonpublicmedia.org/news/1347274094/

Thanks to all of you who corrected our original mistaken atribution.

Submarines: The Soviet Sub Experience in WWII

This remarkable documentary is an English dub of an episode of a Russian TV series. In English the series, which ran in the UK in the dubbed version, is called Soviet Storm, and this is episode 13.  (Fear not the language; while the charts and maps still appear in Russian, the narration is professionally rendered in native English). This episode deals with the sea war, which really means, essentially, the sub war. The video shows why: when the Soviets tried surface operations, the Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe cleaned their clock. So Stalin’s sailors took their war below the surface, at great risk, but also, to great effect.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lQXeaTBB5KU

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lQXeaTBB5KU

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lQXeaTBB5KU

At the start of the War, for instance, the Red Navy was weak in surface power, but it had a numerically strong submarine fleet — not as big as the Germans’ but the Soviets weren’t trying to contest the Atlantic convoy routes.

We didn’t know about the 25-mile-long submarine net barrier that the Germans erected in the Gulf of Finland, from the Porkkala-Udd peninsula to Naissar Island and Makilyuto Island off Tallin.

The guts and daring of the Soviet skippers and crews you learn a little bit about here are not much different from their Allied or enemy counterparts. So are their fates — the Baltic Fleet lost nearly half of their subs in 1942. A sunken sub usually bore its entire crew down to the eternal depths; if sunk on the surface, there might be a handful of survivors. As we saw recently with the cunning mine trap the British laid for U-Boats, mines are deadly to submarines; German and Finnish minefields accounted for many of the Russians’ subs whose fates are known.

For a clearly nationally-oriented production, it’s notably even-handed, with neutral phrasing during a discussion of disputed Soviet sub incursions into Swedish waters. Likewise, neutral phrasing handles the  There is a very interesting treatment of German attacks on Halifax-Murmansk PQ convoys; it hadn’t struck us before that the first seven convoys got through without a scratch, because it took the Germans a while to react to the problem.

Unfortunately, there’s very little about Soviet sub technology. It seems to have been at par with that of other nations at the start of the war, but the thrust of this document is operational, not technical. There’s also nothing about the training or life of submariners, whether they were ace commanders, long-service salts or new recruits on their first patrol. These omissions merely whet our appetite for more knowledge of Soviet sub technology, tactics, techniques and procedures, and for some first-hand accounts.

Also, be aware that the show is very dependent on CGI, and the CGI is dated and blocky by today’s standards.

This link should work to take you to a playlist of all episodes:

Today in Bubba History: Tokarev Sporter

It’s probably not fair to call this the work of Bubba the Gunsmith, because it was the work of professionals, turning what was then an awkward, ugly, unwanted military rifle in a weird caliber into something a hunter might reasonably take afield, and in the process, turning a bunch of ex-Soviet arms dumped by the Finnish Army, which had captured and tried to use them, into dollars — in this case, Canadian dollars.

Globe Tokarev 01

How were the principals of Globe Firearms Ltd. to know that some day original, unmolested Tokarev rifles would be worth real money? For that matter, how were they to know that the uiquitous .303 British round would become a rarity in North America, and the Russian 7.62 mm x 54mm become more popular? You could not have predicted either outcome in the mid-1960s, unless you were an actual clairvoyant — or certifiably insane.

Remarked with customizer and caliber.

Remarked with customizer and caliber.

This gun has now turned up on Gun Broker, with $950 asked, about what a decent condition Tokarev goes for (but there are very few decent condition guns out there — lots of purple-bolt-carrier Century imports, really). You’d have to want this oddball sporter pretty badly to go that much for it, in our opinion.

Condition is very nice. Design of the sporter stock suggests late 1950s to early 1960s.

Condition is very nice. Design of the sporter stock suggests late 1950s to early 1960s.

Up for bid is a conversion of captured SVT40’s. Bought from Finland, Globe Inc. converted the rifles caliber to what the Canadians all used…the British .303. Gun is almost new condition.

The barrel is shortened substantially, and set back so it can be rechambered for the British round. It looks like the new barrel is about 18″, nice for hunting. Rear sight is standard — obviously the elevation marks are now no longer congruent with the changed cartridge — and front sight is a standard hunter’s ramp type.

Globe Tokarev 03

The gas port has been moved way back, which allows most of the handguards to be discarded. (It may do ugly things to function, which was never the Tok’s strength, though. Or it may have solved Tok problems — we don’t know).

System is like an SKS or FAL, a gas tappet whacks the bolt carrier which cams a tipping bolt up out of battery.

System is like an SKS or FAL, a gas tappet whacks the bolt carrier which cams a tipping bolt up out of battery.

The Russian bore diameter should work OK with the British projectiles.

You can see where the tappet comes through the receiver above the barrel.

You can see where the tappet comes through the receiver above the barrel.

This gleaming bolt carrier, incidentally, is what a Tok bolt and carrier should look like — not the sick plum finish of the Century guns. Those seem to have been ineptly re-arsenaled in some Soviet or satellite depot.

This is what a Tokarev bolt carrier is supposed to look like.

This is what a Tokarev bolt carrier is supposed to look like.

The magazine has an unusual marking on it, it looks like a registration mark, maybe from the ill-fated Canadian long-gun registry, a monstrously expensive failure.

Globe Tokarev 08

Does anybody know what that marking signifies?

The Globe Firearms Ltd. sporterized, caliber-converted Tokarev is a rare period piece, a slice of a time where gun aficionados were almost all target shooters and hunters, and military collecting was a small and sparsely populated niche. That alone would make it a good thing to buy, although not at this price.

Heck, you could even hunt with it (although you’d need a lower-cap magazine, most places).

The South Will Rise Again! Be Ready.

That means, keep your musket clean, powder dry, and hatchet scoured — and buy this 1851 Mountain Howitzer. If Johnny Reb comes marching up your driveway, give him a whiff of the grape!

1851 mountain howitzer firing

The gun’s a replica, but a very well made one. It has the perfect gestalt of a Civil War era artillery piece, to be sure.

 

1851 mountain howitzerAs you can see, the details, like these trunnion brackets, are visibly high quality. 1851 mountain howitzer mount

The gun is designed to be a live shooter. Here’s what the GunBroker auction says about it:

1851 Mountain Howitzer Cannon built to exact spec’s. 3″ bore. Wood is all white oak. All iron work is hand made then blued. Museum quality shootable cannon. You won’t find one nicer than this one.shipping available.

via Cannon Mountain Howitzer 1851 : Other Collectible Guns at GunBroker.com.

Like any firearm, it carries the DNA of the technology of its period. We find the details beautiful.

1851 mountain howitzer wheel

Personally, if we were preparing a redoubt for When They Come®, we’d want at least a battery of these things, but one’s a start.

These US Civil War and contemporaneous worldwide conflicts saw the last gasp of muzzle-loading, mostly smoothbore, blackpowder artillery, guns that had changed little ashore or afloat since the Napoleonic Wars or the 30 Years’ War. The Civil War saw the emergence of steel barrels, rifling as standard, and breech loading. In the next 50 years artillery would be revolutionized by the recoiling gun-carriage and much more powerful smokeless powders. By the turn of the 20th Century, guns like this would be fit only for guarding sleepy courthouses, village squares, and veterans’ halls; tens of thousands of them would be melted down in 20th Century scrap drives.

As a muzzle loader, it is considered an antique (even though it’s a recent replica). That means it’s exempt from regulation in many civilized nations (although local regulations, and regulations relative to the storage of the industrial quantities of black powder necessary to making it go bang, may be another matter entirely).

It’s not as cheap as a replica of something smaller, like an 1855 Springfield. The auction starts and $9k and buy-it-now is a stiff $14,000 or so. There is a small community of hobbyists, reenactors and dealers who trade in these remarkable pieces.

On the other hand, if you have a big family, you can develop the kids’ self-esteem by drilling them until they master period Service of the Piece drills.

And you can always be That Guy whose house people gather at on the 4th of July, just for the cannon blast. There is that.

Here Be Pyrates

pirate_museumArrrrrr!

What sort of weapons did pirates use? No, not Somali pirates. Those guys use the same AK and RPG combination, just like every other modern form of hostis humanae generis. We’re talking about real pirates: the Errol Flynn prototypes of the 16th through 18th Centuries.

Fortunately, Our Traveling Reporter [OTR] recently traveled to St. Augustine, Florida, to have a look at the Pirate Museum there. Let’s join his one-man boarding party, to see what kinds of pirate weapons they might have on display.

A display board at the Museum explains the essentials of pirate armament:

To survive battles in close quarters, pirates had to be walking arsenals. Pistols took time to reload, so most pirates carried more than one. Blackbeard carried six in addition to a cutlass and a dagger.

pirate_pistols

Pirates carried a wide range of pistols. Do you think they had the equivalent of Glock-vs-1911 arguments between opportunities for plunder?

Six pistols? Were he not as dead as Blackbeard, Jim Cirillo would approve. Should we call that a “New Amsterdam Reload?”

Close quarter battles were common with pirate crews. They were focused on capturing the enemy ship and valuables with us little damage as necessary to the attackers or the prizes.

Actually, sounds like the way a SEAL VBSS is supposed to go down today. Hmmm… maybe their heritage goes back further than just the Beach Clearance Units and UDTs?

Tools of Vessel Boarding, c. 1700 AD.

Tools of Vessel Boarding, c. 1700 AD. By the way, these pictures do embiggen with a click.

The boarding party was well armed with a wide array of weapons including pistols, cutlasses, daggers, and boarding axis. The blunderbuss was a highly coveted weapon for blasting a deadly spray of lead shot, glass, and nails across the deck of the ship for maximum carnage. And when the blunderbuss was out of ammunition, the heavy wooden stock would make a very useful bludgeon.

pirate_pistols_and_blunderbusses

Then, as now, there was a close combat weapon “sweet spot” between the pistol and the musket. Then, it was filled by the blunderbuss.

The classic pirate sword is the curved cutlass, but earlier pirates might have used straight rapiers.

The classic pirate sword is the curved cutlass, but earlier pirates might have used straight rapiers.

Of course, during the heyday of Caribbean piracy, the blunderbuss was a single-shot flintlock, so it was out of ammunition PDQ. Apparently nobody followed Blackbeard’s custom of the New York — pardon us, New Amsterdam — reload, at least not with blunderbusses; they were probably too heavy to carry more than one. So one shot, and then you were down to pistols or melee weapons — axes, swords, pikes, marlinspikes, belaying pins.

Given the limitations of period firearms, to be an effective pirate you had to be skilled with melee weapons — and strong enough and confident enough to rely on them in battle. Edged weapons are not for everybody.

Then again, with edged weapons, you never need to reload.

Swords were not only weapons, they were also valuable trade goods — whether for honest traders of for pirates who took their cargoes at sword’s point.

booty_and_trade_swordThe sword at left was a trade sword. It was made somewhere in India, most likely, and has interesting engraving including a Zoroastrian-looking sun.

This intricately-forged Indian Khanjarli dagger below might have been a pirate’s booty. It would have seemed to foreign or exotic to find customers in Europe, despite its craftsmanship.

khanjarli_dagger

A fanciful meeting between pirates who lived a century apart: Sir Thomas Drake (16th) and Robert Searles (17th C.). Can you find the weapons? Two Spanish rapiers, two Queen Anne flintlock pistols, and a dagger -- along with pieces of eight and a bottle of rum!

A fanciful meeting between pirates who lived a century apart: Sir Thomas Drake (16th) and Robert Searles (17th C.). Can you find the weapons? Two Spanish rapiers, two Queen Anne flintlock pistols, and a dagger — along with pieces of eight and a bottle of rum!

Piracy looks pretty antiseptic in the Errol Flynn (and Hays Code) era. In the real world it probably involved a lot of pain, fear and injury, fighting on blood-slick decks, and ultimately, a grisly and untimely death (probably involving a whole other lot of pain).

So while all the weapons are cool, we’re holding out for the Errol Flynn version.

Thanks to OTR for the pictures and for many more contributions to our education & entertainment over the years.

The Respected Spy

Maj. John André was tried by an ad hoc commission of Continental generals. Captured in civilian disguise, his uniform was sent across the line.

Maj. John André was tried in September, 1780, by an ad hoc commission of Continental generals. Captured in civilian disguise, his uniform was sent across the line for the trial, but his attire on capture sealed his fate. Yet, the Americans who hanged him held him in great regard. (Painting for the US Army by Don Stivers. Source).

It is rare for a spy to be respected. He’s often held in contempt by his own side of ultimate allegiance, not just by his enemy, or the side of his former allegiance, who can be expected to have their noses out of joint over the espionage.

If you run through the protagonists in certain famous spy scandals — names like Pelton, the Walkers, Kampiles, Hanssen, Ames, and our favorite whipping boy, Pollard, you can’t help but think that the professional intelligence officers of lands they spied for are not especially warm to them as human beings. They’re a rum lot; weasels and backstabbers and more weasels, and worse, small-time weasels.

For example, Israeli officers and diplomats work towards the freedom and ultimate aliyah of Pollard not because they love him, but because it’s what they must do for the good of their service — there are other spies out there who need to know they’re not going to be abandoned. Even if they manage to drag him to the banks of the Jordan, they’re not going to be taking long showers with the guy.

While the US and Allies held numerous trials of war criminals after World War II, we made little attempt to bring to book those whose sole crime was the murder of SOE, SIS or OSS officers or agents taken behind the lines. Sure, we’d tack the charge on when it was just one more count against some guy who had dozens of other misdeeds on his head. But spies? They entered the jungle, they entered the food chain. That seems to have been a widespread opinion among the sleek lawyers and judges who selected the trial defendants.

That’s why it’s always unusual to find a spy who was respected by both sides. One that sticks out rather remarkably was British officer Maj. John André, the ill-fated go-between between his own general and the legendary American turncoat, Benedict Arnold during the American War of Independence. André was a British subject of unshakeable loyalty and, by all accounts, remarkable character. We’ve just been reading Alexander Hamilton’s appreciation of André, and it’s a startling document — in part, because no one today writes English with the fluency and impact of the men of Hamilton’s class, place and generation. But also because of the real respect and affection which André’s captors clearly held for this charismatic young man.

Period engraving of André's execution.

Period engraving of André’s execution. Of course, all these pictures embiggen with a click.

André, of course, was hanged as a spy for his role in Arnold’s clandestine conspiracy to betray West Point to the Crown. André was what today might be called Arnold’s agent handler (old Army term) or case officer (more general IC term). But he was that in addition to being a rather important and involved officer on the staff of the British commander; even the British, who were old hands at intelligence by 1780, hadn’t professionalized the trade, yet. André was typical of the talented amateurs upon whom Britain depended for centuries.

A secondary motive for André’s execution may have been a tit-for-tat reprisal for the hanging of American spy Nathan Hale. (Hale seems to have conjured similar respect and affection from his British captors). After this incident, the hanging of spies seems to have been eclipsed as a matter of policy, although all bets were off if a marauding band of soldiers caught an enemy spy skulking around, red-handed; military justice had a frontier aspect, in those days.

André was caught with incriminating documents from Benedict Arnold in his boot. He confessed, although within narrow limits: he gave up nothing to implicate any other; gave cover to his friend and commander, Sir Henry Clinton; and even was able to send a letter to Clinton, in which he probably was able to make Clinton understand the limits of his confession and the effectiveness of his damage control in protecting British networks. He went to his death without a qualm, except that he hated the idea of being hanged like a spy, and had appealed to the Continentals for a firing squad instead, as more befitting the death of a soldier. General Washington turned him down.

It is not simply the changing times that account for the respect in which the men who incarcerated, tried, and ultimately executed them, held André (and Hale). Hundreds of Americans, including uniformed officers taken in battle, had been hanged by British forces on flimsy pretexts (although this was more positively a policy of Cornwallis in the South than Clinton in New York), and they are but little remembered today, and if they have a monument at all it is a grave-stone (Hale and André both have several; André is memorialized in Westminster Abbey and as the image below shows, in Tappan, NY, on the scene of his capture).

HPIM0342.JPG

Memorial to Maj. John André, on the scene of his hanging and original interment, Tappan, New York. After its erection in the 19th Century, the stone was dynamited twice by irritated Americans!

Likewise, you have probably heard of André, but never of Thomas Shanks. He was an American, an officer up from the NCO ranks in the 10th Pennsylvania cashiered for stealing shoes (!) who then went over to the British. Shanks was caught skulking around the periphery of the Continental Army, and made a confession of sorts. Shanks was tried by a commission of 14 General Officers (including Benedict Arnold!) that was set up by command of General Washington (in a document that is in Alexander Hamilton’s handwriting, and held in the National Archives). Shanks was convicted and sentenced on a majority (non-unanimous vote), had the sentence affirmed by Washington, and hung as a spy in Valley Forge, 3 June 1778. You probably never heard of Thomas Lovelace, a member of “the tory forces in the British Army.” Lovelace was the leader of one group of several elements of American-born Loyalists who were infiltrated from Canada in 1781. Their mission had been to gather intelligence for a possible British invasion southward, and also to conduct what acts of sabotage and, wrote General John Stark (of “Live Free or Die” fame), “brigandage.” Lovelace, who had his incriminating British commission in a pocket, was tried 2 Oct 1781, sentenced on 7 October, and the hanging carried out at dawn on the 8th. But there seems to be no one who attests to the good character or decency of men like Shanks and Lovelace; they were the Peltons and Pollards of their time, and seem to have merited the contempt of both sides.

What the changing times do account for is the speed of the whole process. Andre was captured, confessed, tried, had his one appeal (for death by firing-squad; he never asked for his life) rejected, and hanged all in the space of ten days — and documents had to be written by hand and carried on horseback! Today, we have email and web dockets and every death penalty case becomes Jarndyce v. Jarndyce; the lawyers are liable to pass on before the convict does.

King George III bestowed posthumous honors on André and his family (his brother was knighted). Washington and the Continental Congress honored the three militiamen who caught him with a silver medal and $200 annual pension each. (The pension was relatively small, the equivalent of $3,400 today according to Dave Manuel’s inflation calculator — the official bls.gov calculator, based on the Consumer Price Index, only goes to 1913).

After Hale and André, it seems that fewer spies were hanged. In a world of irony, stopping the executions of spies during the War of Indepndence probably didn’t save very many. The British tended to put their captives in prison hulks that were breeding grounds for pathogens of all kinds, and the colonials didn’t always treat their prisoners appreciably better; General Stark’s memoirs recount, in a footnote, that spies and traitors who were not imprisoned were sentenced to duty aboard “public American ships” for the remainder of the war — modern galley slaves! Hanging might have been a mercy.

The past is truly another country.