Category Archives: The Past is Another Country

The 1911 in .38 Special

There’s a post at The Firearm Blog where one of the regular contributors, Nicholas C, is intrigued by a gun that a customer brought in to his shop: a Colt 1911 National Match in .38 Special. He couldn’t even find ammo to fit it as regular .38 Special defense rounds wouldn’t go in. We explain what it is, and why.

As you can see it looks just like any other target 1911 of the period (and that word “target” has real meaning here):


The give-aways of a 1960s-70s target gun include the adjustable sights, the marking “National Match” (this gun predates the Series 70 Gold Cup), the adjustable trigger and the target grips. If you look closely at the gun, you notice that the toolmarks are less prominent and the polish and blue better done than a bog-standard Colt.

It was definitely made as a factory .38 Special target gun. The barrel is marked with NM and .38 Special, and as you can see, so is the slide:



There’s always something good at The Firearm Blog. It is rare for them to have an article so incomplete as this one, but then, by 2014 standards this fifty-year-old relic is a forgotten and obsolete gun.

“Automatic .38 Special Mid Range?” What’s that? Well, it’s a clue to what goes in the gun and what it’s for. These Colts were made for one purpose only: bullseye target shooting. At the time, it was the most popular pistol sport by far, and the rules required shooters to shoot in several calibers: .22 Rimfire, Centerfire, and .45. (In addition, a “Service Pistol” category requires you to use, naturally, a service pistol which then meant a 1911. Now you can use a 1911 or M9 in Service Pistol).

“Centerfire” was loosely defined but a minimum of .32. A low-recoiling round was best for rapid fire accuracy, and by the 1950s the hot ticket had become Colt or Smith revolvers in .38 Special, firing low-energy cylindrical lead “wadcutter” bullets. These bullets come out of a 4.5″ barrel at about 710 fps, compared to the 920 or so of old GI .38 FMJ ball. But they’re manufactured for consistency (although, most of the serious bullseye shooters handloaded for more consistency, even then).


The wadcutter ammo was once extremely common and popular. It’s still produced, but has been overshadowed in the market by FMJ for practice and  hollow points for defense. And other sports have taken most of the popularity away from bullseye. For example, the only wadcutters LuckyGunner has in stock right now are Fiocchi; but this page of Remingtons that are out of stock has some pictures showing what the rounds look like. The idea was that the truncated, sharp-edged (for a bullet, anyway) bullet neatly punched holes in paper, making scoring certain.

In the 1960s or so, the .45 auto began evolving into a superior target pistol and replacing the revolvers previously used. Likewise, .22 auto pistols like the Colt Woodsman and High Standard series replaced the Smiths and Colts on the firing line, and shooters began asking for a .38 automatic pistol. The .38 Super didn’t have the accuracy potential of the .38 Special, given the tools of the time, so the question was: can a smith do the impossible, and make a 1911, of all things, feed rimmed-case, flat-faced wadcutter ammo?

The first to respond were custom gunsmiths, who built guns using 1911 frames and custom barrels, and fabricated their own magazines. See, you couldn’t make a 1911 feed .38 special ball, because the rounds would be too long to fit in the factory magwell. But wadcutters solve that problem: they don’t extend beyond the length of the case, so if you can get them to feed, problem solved.

colt_gold_cup_manualArguably the first to make a working .38 Special 1911 was Jim Clark, Sr. of Clark Custom Guns (currently run by Jim Jr., a talented smith and competitor in his own right). Clark Sr. was a lifelong competitor, and he built .38 Specials from Colt .38 Supers with a lot of custom work.  The magazine, like Colt’s later mag, is sufficient to accommodate a bullseye stage — five rounds.

He did not try to maintain trade secrets, and it does not seem that Colt paid him when they began producing the National Match .38 pistols. However, the Colt is very different from the Clark! The Clark retains the locked-breech Browning design, and the Colt uses a slightly retarded blowback (via a floating chamber). In addition to the standard National Match and Gold Cup .38s, there are some handbuilt AMU .38s made for the Army Marksmanship Units that were, as we understand it, prototypes for the .38 National Match.

Smith & Wesson also made a very heavily reworked version of their Model 19 39 (corrected typo -Ed.) as a five-shot .38 Special semiauto target pistol, the Model 52,  at around this same time for this same reason.

In time the National Match was replaced by the Gold Cup Series 70 in .38 Special. (See manual cover at right). These guns remain in demand by the dwindling number of bullseye shooters, and by Colt and target-shooting collectors.  The Colt that was brought into Nicholas’s shop is a valuable rarity that is probably worth several thousand dollars if auctioned. (These are never seen with a spare mag, and a mag from a parted gun is worth many hundreds). We hope Nicholas sees this and can contact the owner (whose father’s gun it was) and hook him up with some wadcutters. The guns are world-class in accuracy, and that makes them a thrill to shoot, whether you’re trying to murder an X-ring for Master, or splitting crab apples in the north forty.

Building an M1 with the CMP

A few times a year, the CMP holds an M1 armorer class. At the end of the class, you go home with an M1 that you assembled and that’s pretty much guaranteed to work. Assembling an M1 has a little more gunsmithing involved than the shake-the-box assembly of an AR series rifle or the “make it approximate and it’ll work” construction of an AK. There are special skills — like lapping bolt lugs — and special tools required. Here’s the end product:

Freshly Minted CMP Special M1

Fortunately, CMP has the tools, jigs, fixtures, and most of all, the tribal knowledge to not only help you get your M1 right, but also to understand it and how that clever little Acadian intended for it to work in the first place.

Unfortunately, the annual quota is opened once the dates are set, and fills up in minutes. So it seems to be an insidery thing, to which we, and probably you, are all outsidery.

Fortunately (again! It always comes back around to fortunately) for all of us, blogger Keads (whom we don’t know, but think we might like), was one of the lucky attendees, and spent some of his time not just building a sweet Service Special Grade M1, but also documenting the process in three informative and photo-rich blog posts.

  • Part One: Begins with a tour of the plant and its facilities — including pallets of ungraded, yet, M1 rifles, vast metric craptons of ammo, and , of all things, an ultra-high-tech air gun range used by Olympic hopefuls. Then it gets M1-active, with the mating of barrel to receiver and reaming the barrel to proper headspace. One of the first specialty tools, a receiver wrench, shows up here (in a reverse of AR practice, the M1′s barrel is secured in a vise, and the wrench is used on the receiver). The bolt lugs need to be lapped for proper mating with the receiver’s locking lugs. Go to Part 1.
  • Part Two: With the receiver barreled and the barrel reamed to proper headspace, it’s time to start assembling the parts that turn a barreled receiver into an M1 Rifle action. The CMP armorers assist as the students raid the parts bins for inspected and refinished parts. The op rod has a special gage for both dimension and trueness, or correct “bend.” The trigger mechanism was, to Keads, the hardest thing to assemble. The class did both early and late M1 rear sights. Finally the fully assembled M1 barreled action goes into a new walnut stock — more hand-fitting is called for.    Go to Part 2.
  • Part Three: In the conclusion of the piece, the students hit the CMP store (MOAR GUNZ!) and final-prep the rifle (in Keads’s case, redoing the trigger) for test fire. You can take your rifle home or ship it (which makes a difference to which tax, if any, you pay). Here’s a snip of what Keads had to say, in retrospect, about the whole experience:

My thanks to the Armorers John, Ryan, and Chris. My thanks as well to the person that herds the cats around the Custom Shop and made sure our paperwork was in order and all the other ancillary tasks that made sure the class went well, Deshay. …. If you desire to own one and learn more about it, I cannot say enough about this class or the CMP. They have both the passion and the knowledge of these tools and it shows. It is one thing to be a subject matter expert and another to relay that knowledge to others.

Go to Part 3.

For those that can’t attend the class, at least you can buy one of the CMP rifles.  If you do wither of those two things, of course, you may need this link afterward. Just helping ya out.


Hat tip for this story, the incomparable Tam.

St. Louis’s M1921/27 Thompsons Going on the Block

In a thorough and well-reported article at the St Louis Courier-Dispatch’s website, STLToday, police-beat reporter Joel Currier documents how 28 early Thompsons (and one M1A1) are about to hit the market, and why.

STL Police Thompsons

The department’s Thompsons are the survivors of Prohibition-era police firepower, and they’ve been armory queens since, as near as any living cop or retiree can figure out, the 1950s.

St. Louis police took them out of service perhaps 60 years ago, but 29 are still stored in a basement bunker at the Police Academy downtown, with a 30th in the crime lab. Chief Sam Dotson and some collectors think it may be the biggest police-owned stock of Thompsons in the United States.

And it is about to go on sale.

The bottom line is that the police need money, and the St Louis Police Officers’ Union is demanding a change to .40 caliber guns.  (About 20 years too late, as other departments roll back to 9mm thanks to the development of superior rounds that have closed the terminal-ballistics gap while retaining the 9′s human-interface superiority. But hey, that’s what they want, and they went 9mm in the 1990s, a good 10-15 years behind the rest of the country. They’ll be back to 9 in 2035 or so).

Jeff Roorda, the union’s business manager, understands the lure of the Thompsons. “It’d be nice for nostalgia to have those in the police department forever,” he said. “But the more pressing need now is that officers have firepower that matches the firepower in the hands of the bad guys.”

The department plans to keep at least one of the Tommy guns as a historical piece.

The collection, which includes rare 1921 and 1927 Colts and a model made in 1942, was appraised by a local dealer in May 2012 at $770,000. Police and some collectors, however, think the stash could fetch far more. It is not clear how or when the department acquired the one newer Tommy gun.

An auction of two-dozen-plus early TSMGs will bring out the advanced collectors and the top tier of NFA dealers. The early Colt-made Thompsons have a number of features particularly desired by collectors, and also have both military and civilian (criminal and police) cultural significance. The market is distorted by the 1986 manufacture ban’s imposition of an artificial ceiling on numbers, but the low production of early Thompsons (only 15,000 by Colt), and the great numbers lost, destroyed, or exported — current US law forbids their reimportation — already imposed a much lower actual ceiling on the numbers of authentic early guns, which are the guns that collectors most desire.

These particular guns have an interesting history in St. Louis, too, as the armament of an elite police squad called the “Night Riders.” That only adds to their collector cachet.

“St. Louis was one of the few cities in America where the cops beat the hoods to the punch” by getting Tommy guns, [gangster historian Dennis Waugh] said.

Police here bought at least 75 in the 1920s for use by the “Night Riders,” an overnight motor squad that targeted bank robbers and gangsters by raiding saloons and crime hangouts. It’s unclear what happened to 45 of the guns. Police say records of the original purchases were either not kept or disappeared.

A 1921 Globe-Democrat editorial painted the Night Riders in colorful terms: “Now the citizen of evil intent, skulking down dark streets or lurking at alley mouths looking for a chance to do a little porch-climbing or flat-robbing or holding up of unaware, belated residents, is most likely to have a motor car appear mysteriously in his immediate vicinity … It is the police car against the thieves’ car, the night-riders of public security against the night-riders of violence and dark deeds.”

Fifty Tommy guns arrived for the Night Riders in October 1921, according to the Post-Dispatch, which characterized the squad’s hunt for criminals during Prohibition as “red hot.” The department bought 25 more in 1927.

Whether the guns ever killed anyone — or if they were even used on duty — is a matter of debate. The guns have been used in training sessions over the years.

In examining their armory, the police also found two Lewis guns, that appear to have been lent to the department by the FBI in the 1920s and then forgotten. The Lewis guns will not be auctioned, at least not at this time. (But they’re rarer than, and probably worth as much as, the rarest of the Thompsons).

Currier’s report is very thorough and is quite accurate about what the TSMG was, and is; you owe it to yourself (and to him for his efforts!) to Read The Whole Thing™, even though we’ve excerpted some parts of it.

A Longitudinal Analysis of the All-Volunteer Army

Army LogoLeonard Wong, the sort of West Point grad who stayed as far as he could go from troop command and as deep as he could get in library stacks, has a thoughtful, and, what else? scholarly, take on the history of the all-volunteer Army. It’s online at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He begins, suppressing the zero to some extent, not any time in the great and centuries-long history of American volunteer service, but in 1970, when the military began planning to end the politically divisive peacetime and, not coincidentally, Vietnam War draft.

Therefore, he doesn’t examine any of the thought that went into the maintenance of the draft after World War II. He doesn’t make any comparison of post war heroes 250 years of prewar experience. For Wong, 1970 is Baby Duck Day.

Given the limitations inherent in that decision, the piece is quite deep and thoughtful. We may have a few criticisms below, but bear in mind that those are criticisms of an excellent and well-researched work. Wong begins by dividing the post-Vietnam all-volunteer force into five longitudinal segments.

An effective way to survey the evolution of the all-volunteer force is to examine the different eras of the all-volunteer Army. … The following paragraphs distill the evolution of the U.S. all-volunteer Army into five eras. Examining the all-volunteer Army in five distinct phases highlights the many factors that have impacted the force over time, yet is parsimonious enough to allow larger trends to emerge.

Wong’s phases, which he simply gives ordinal numbers too, are the 1st, from 1973 to 1980; the 2nd, 1980 to1991; 3rd, 1991 to 2001; 4th, 2001 to 2014, and 5th, 2014  to some future date.

He says little about the events that suggests these divisions, and he seems to read far too much into such material inducements as pay and bonuses (although he’s not blind to intangibles, like the power of a good slogan). Certainly the demarcation between the hapless army of the first phase and the ascendant army of the second was the replacement of the hapless Carter administration in the 1980 elections with an administration dedicated to national defense in a way that Carter was not.

Here’s a short excerpt from this most excellent long document to give you the flavor of what Wong has done. He’s clearly worked like a dog to winkle trends out of forty years of data.


The first all-volunteer Army began with what, on the surface, appeared to be solid footing.  Shortly before the draft ended, Congress gave first term soldiers an unprecedented 61.2 percent pay raise.[3] The increase in pay combined with rising unemployment appeared to give the fledgling all-volunteer Army a favorable start. Unfortunately, the pay increase also had unanticipated second and third order effects. The large pay increase achieved pay parity for young soldiers, but subsequent military pay raises were consistently capped below wage increases in the private sector by a Congress and society who believed they had already done enough for the military. The reduced pay comparability, combined with the pay compression caused by newly recruited privates earning almost as much as their sergeants, eventually led to a gradual despondency in the mid-grade non-commissioned officer (NCO) ranks.

Compounding the problems were inadequate funding to ensure the ability to recruit quality soldiers and the loss of the Vietnam era GI Bill that attracted high quality recruits in search of federal aid for higher education. With morale still low because of the lingering effects of the Vietnam War, disillusionment gradually overcame the force and drove many NCOs and officers out of the Army as they encountered low quality soldiers and deteriorating conditions. In 1973, the Army Chief of Staff Creighton W. Abrams turned to the faculty and staff at the Army War College and asked them to answer the simple question, “Why an Army?” In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the profession was struggling to define its raison d’être.

Declining enlistment rates, low quality recruits, high attrition, and plummeting morale were indicators that the fledgling force manned with volunteers was becoming dangerously fragile. Despite the mounting problems, a 1978 Department of Defense report on the status of the all-volunteer force reported that:

The quality of those serving on active duty, as measured by the education levels of active duty personnel and the average test scores of new recruits, has not declined as popularly believed but has markedly and steadily improved since the end of the draft.[4]

Unfortunately, the new recruit test scores mentioned in the report were derived from the new Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) and subsequently the Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT).  Unbeknownst to the Department…

via From Black Boots to Desert Boots: The All-Volunteer Army Experiment Continues | Foreign Policy Research Institute.

As Wong goes on to explain, and as we know first-hand from having been in that Army, the DOD report was thoroughgoing bullshit. The Army, under General Abrams and the men that preceded and followed him, had created a system of incentives to dishonesty in everything from readiness reporting to recruiting. (For the readiness reporting failures, Gabriel and Savage’s Crisis in Command is the classic source). Wong deals with the recruiting scandals of 1979-80 briefly but accurately: recruiters had quotas and bonuses to produce high-quality recruits, so the sweepings of homeless shelters, mental-disability group homes, pretrial confinement, and drunk tanks became, on paper, high-quality recruits. Half the Army enlisted force was coming in in Mental Category IV (2nd Quintile from the bottom, with the centerline of Cat IV being about where the demarcation of “retardation” is). Some recruits were illiterate, some even fell below Cat IV and probably weren’t legally autonomous enough to sign a contract.

This is the Army portrayed in the Bill Murray comedy, Stripes. True, it’s a Hollywood, over-the-top portrayal played for laughs, but by any measure of human quality the Army of the Carter years (1977-80) was the worst the US has fielded since the Indian Wars.

While such endogenous factors as the pay and benefits made Army (and other Armed Forces) service undesirable, the military was at a nadir in the popular culture. It was blamed for Vietnam (a war that was conceived by, run by, and lost by alumni of Harvard Law and Harvard Business School almost exclusively, in a case of mismanagement that would make a great HBS Case Study, if anybody in Cambridge had the cojones), and reviled by swaths of the public. The time period was harder on the Army than on the other services. The Air Force and Navy could at least stake out some technological ground; the Marines were quick to recover from Vietnam and restore their selective appeal to the youth seeking challenge and adventure. But the Army was the generic option, and it flailed with a huge recruiting budget and an incredibly lame slogan: “Join the people who’ve joined the Army.”

Several things made it possible for America to love its Army again, and restored fine (as opposed to desperate or broke) American youth to its line of recruits. Certainly Reagan’s “Morning in America” and his overt respect for the Armed Services played a role. A variety of popular entertainments showed soldiers and veterans as heroes again. Even the last Carter-era military debacle, the attempted Iranian hostage rescue, was understood by the public to be a matter of “crap luck” more than “crap plan,” and the first great Reagan-era adventure, the invasion of Grenada, was a solid win (even if we learned a lot of things needed to change).

Wong sticks close to personnel policy and incentives, and ignores these larger geopolitical issues, but we think they’re important, because they’re sort of the substrate upon which the recruiting pool builds the Army. Perhaps if Wong expands his thoughts to book length, there will be room for some of these ideas. We know one blog that would review such a book in depth!


Here’s the .pdf of the report:


Sorry about that. -Ed.

Wednesday Weapons Website of the Week:

Screenshot 2014-06-04 22.49.33Under the pressure of time and duty, we were inclined to skip the W4 this week, but the mysterious forces of Serendip aligned in such a way as to present us with an interesting site:

The site is a military history site with the support of some heavy-hitting authors and their publishers. The writing we saw was of conspicuous quality.

We were particularly taken with the small section about or, in the Command Posts parlance, “focus on,” the Son Tay raid of 1970. This improvised mission was a sophisticated joint special operation that can be compared, in its imaginative conception, daring execution, and outsized psychological effect compared to its military utility, to the Doolittle Raid of 1942. The target was a North Vietnamese prison camp known to house American POWs. Unbeknownst to the raiders, the PAVN had closed the camp due to flooding, and the raid hit a dry hole.


Fortunately for the aficionado of such history, there are several good books, by analysts, historians and participants, on the raid. Some of the Command Posts posts on the Son Tay raid are excerpted from certain of those books. Specific links include:

There’s much more there, including many suggestions of interesting books on a wide range of military history subjects. You can find many flimsy excuses and even a couple of solid reasons to spend some time exploring Command

In 2014 the site was subsumed into a new, less-focused and considerably less interesting, site, the History Reader. So there will be no new posts on Command Posts; military history posts will be, it seems, buried in the general history site. But there’s content enough remaining in the archives at Command Posts to keep you all entertained for a while.


Timeless Advice on Point Shooting

The original Remington Model 51 designed by Pedersen.

The original Remington Model 51 designed by Pedersen. Hatcher considered it an archetypically well-designed pistol for instinctive shooting.

Sometimes the age of a document shows. But the underlying principles may actually be timeless. Take, for instance, this brief excerpt from p. 487 of Julian Hatcher’s 1935 Textbook of Pistols and Revolvers, a bonus bound in a single volume with his Firearms Investigation, Identification and Evidence, a wide-ranging book whose title does not truly do it justice. The subject Major Hatcher is discussing is one of great interest here — shooting without sights, and whether the ergonomics of some weapons (he is specifically talking pistols) enable this more than others. Here’s what Hatcher said:

While I fully agree with the ideas of Mr. McGivern about the necessity of sights, I consider it important for the practical pistol shot to know how to get fairly good results without using the sights at all, but rather, pointing the gun entirely by instinct, as the finger is pointed in indicating an object. This is really very important, because any shooting that may be done at night will have to be this kind. Also pistol shooting on the battle field or in holdups is more likely to be at night than it any other time.

Ed McGivern, who passed away some 20 years after Thatcher’s book hit the shelves, was already all but retired, due to rheumatoid arthritis. McGivern is less famous now than he was when Hatcher penned those words, but he was a legendary trick shooter capable of prodigious feats of shooting speed and accuracy. How good was McGivern? Watch the NRA’s National Firearms Museum’s senior curator Phil Schreier wax rhapsodic about him:

And in 1935, night shooting meant blind shooting. Night vision equipment was unimaginably futuristic at the time, and even the laser was decades in the future as a laboratory device, and decades more before anyone could do anything practical with one.

And it’s understood it when Hatcher speaks about holdups, he’s talking more about interrupting or resisting them, than he is dispensing advice on how to  commit them. (One hopes).

The sort of instinctive shooting Hatcher is talking about here, the sort made famous by McGivern, is even more out of favor these days. Modern instructors teach you to acquire and use the sights at all but the shortest — contact! — ranges. But the fact is, in 1935 as well as today, you can engage targets at quite a considerable distance without using the sights at all. The Major continues:

You will find that if you will suddenly extend your arm and point your finger at any object near you, the finger is pointing pretty closely in the direction of the object in question. In the same way a pistol or revolver can be pointed without looking at the sights. One thing that makes it hard, however, is the fact that pistols and revolvers are of so many different shapes and that most of them do not point in the same direction that the finger would — without considerable practice.

The Remington Model 51 automatic was carefully designed after months of study, with the object of having it point just where the finger would point if it were not on the trigger. Many other pocket automatics point the same way, and the Colt Woodsman and the Luger are among the best in this respect. The .45 Government Model Automatic also closely approaches this ideal, especially with the improved mainspring housing adopted about 10 years ago.

Now that’s dated. The “improved mainspring housing” he’s referring to is the arched housing, introduced as part of the M1911A1 upgrade in 1926. Even with that, we never found a 1911 pointed as well as a Luger or another gun with a similarly raked grip, like the Woodsman Hatcher mentions or the High Standards that he doesn’t, because they weren’t designed yet. That said, some prefer the 1911 grip, which is why High Standard diversified from its traditional grip (that was exactly the same rake angle as the Woodsman’s) and later added the Military product line with a grip angle that was an exact match for the Government Model .45.

Celebrate Diversity! we always say.

Hatcher goes on to describe how to develop the art of pointing a gun, like a revolver, that may not point as naturally as some of those early-20th-Century self-loaders.

If you use one type of revolver and stick to it, you can easily learn to point the barrel accurately without using the sights.

He suggested a five-step program to master point shooting:

  1. Select some distant object as a target, and then close your eyes and point the gun. Open your eyes. How near are you pointing to your target? With practice, you’ll get better at it.
  2. Standing about 10 feet from a mirror, point the pistol at your own eyes. The reflection should tell you how close you are. Again, the more you do this, the better you get at it.
  3. Once you’re “accurate” enough just drawing and pointing, it’s time to add dry-fire: snap the gun when you present it. What happens to the muzzle when you do this? Practice, again, is the key to muzzle control.
  4. Move to live-fire, working on shooting without the sights. This requires a range that’s safe enough; back in the twenties, Hatcher had used the ocean off a then-undeveloped Florida.
  5. Optionally, continue at night, with white targets. You’ll be sble to see the target, but not your sights, forcing  you to shoot by instinct.

In the end, Hatcher promises that such a program will lead you to success:

Such practice as this, especially if you will stick to one particular gun, will rapidly train the subconscious mind so that the hand will always hold and point the gun so as to send the bullet into the right place.

It is surprising how soon you get so that you can simply extend the gun toward the object in question, at the same time smoothly contracting all the muscles that do the trigger pulling, and strike just about at the mark.

We have mentioned several times, both in this chapter and elsewhere, that the best way to aim is to extend the revolver straight out the object you are going to shoot, and not swing it from the shoulder in the old western style. This gesture had a reason in those early western days and was necessary. The reason was that the muzzle-loading or cap-and-ball revolvers were used, and when a cap was exploded it split in fragments which were liable to get into the revolver mechanism and clog the works. Swinging the gun with the muscle vertical when cocking allow these pieces to fall off the nipple and drop to the ground.

We can confirm that practicing instinctive shooting, which the Army once taught as “quick kill,” does rather rapidly show up as improvement in your instinctive fire results. But we didn’t know that percussion Colt trick before reading of it here.

Hatcher continues (p. 489 and following) with a discussion of the pros, cons, and methods of instruction for “hip shooting,”  which he considers “spectacular and interesting,” but more or less completely lacking “practical value.” There is no royal road to Ed McGivern level skills, Hatcher explains: “Lots of practice is what really counts in acquiring ability in hip shooting.”

You could substitute any other modifier for “hip” in there. Or leave it out entirely. Lots of practice is what really counts in acquiring ability in shooting.

Of course, it has to be focused, disciplined practice with concrete objectives, but that’s a post for another day.

Eli Whitney and Interchangeable Parts

Whitneyville, CT, and the Eli Whitney Armory on the Mill River, c. 1862.

Whitneyville, CT, and the Eli Whitney Armory on the Mill River, c. 1825, by William Giles Munson, 1827. Source: Eli Whitney Museum.

The clothes you’re wearing at this moment are made of fiber. Since the mid-20th century, man-made fibers have become extremely commonplace in textile manufacture. But in all the previous centuries and millennia of civilization, the only possible source for fibers was nature. Natures bounty in providing these fibers is not remarkably varied: the four fibers that are generally made into clothing have been cotton, silk, wool and flax. Silk and wool are animal products. Cotton and flax are grown in the fields.

Cotton_gin_EWM_2007Of these, the last to be economically manufactured was cotton. The nub of the problem is that the desirable fibers are attached to seeds; in nature, they help the seeds spread on the wind. Removing the seeds from the fibers (or vice-versa) was a difficult manual job, uneconomical for even a slaveholding economy. A Massachusetts man and Yale graduate named Eli Whitney invented a machine that solved this problem, just as industry needed it. That’s what the cotton gin (short for “engine”) did: combed the seeds out of the fibers so the fibers could be spun into threads, then woven into cloth, all of that depending on other machines invented by other New England Yankees (and old-England mechanics, too).

A staccato drumbeat of new inventions in the late 18th Century increased the throughput of textile operations over a thousandfold in 20 years, producing industrialist millionaires overnight across the British Midlands, while exhausting existing cotton supplies from India, and giving the dying institution of slavery a new economic boost in the southern States. The efficiency of this novel textile industry was so great that a British merchant in India could ship the raw cotton from Calcutta and receive back finished cloth that he could sell for less than local mills could produce it. It made Whitney rich, but not as rich as it might have done, as intellectual property protections were weak at the time, and his cotton gin was widely copied.

Eli Whitney, 1822.

Eli Whitney, painted from life in 1822.

Whitney was born in central Massachusetts, in the then-unincorporated town which became Westborough in 1717. His birth house was long gone, but his family’s barn stood, in bad repair, until a vandal burned it down in the 1970s. But he did not stay in central Massachusetts and would be associated most of his life with the Connecticut River Valley and especially the State of Connecticut. The Connecticut River and its tributaries were larger and had more drop than the smaller rivers further east, making them ideal for powering machinery.

Whitney turned to another field of invention, one that was the lifeblood of the Valley: gun manufacturing. He knew that placing gun manufacturing on an industrial footing would require specialization, and the only way to do that would be to have parts so standardized that they would interchange without handwork or fitting. This required several enabling technologies to have reached maturity, such as measuring tools, manufacturing parts with tools and dies rather than forging them by hand, and manufacturing to understood, and drawn-to-scale, tolerances.

The explanation is well laid by Whitney’s son, Eli, Jr., in an 1890 letter to the author of a monograph on the cotton gin: 

His invention of methods for making practical and successful his system of making the parts of arms, and any-other article, often repeated in manufacture, is of the utmost importance to mankind, and is undoubtedly the foundation of the mechanical prosperity of the United States, and the superiority of American manufactures over those of any other country.

I refer to his uniformity system—or making the similar parts of an arm or machine so near alike in shape that they can be used in assembling the piece without working. In 1798, when he proposed to make arms with parts interchangeable, the French and English ordnance departments laughed at the idea as an absurdity, saying that each arm would be a model, etc., and would cost $100; but he soon proved the advantages of his inventions, so that the United States government adopted his system in all the armories under its control.

In 1798, there were very few skilled mechanics in the United States, and this uniformity system enabled the manufacturers to employ unskilled mechanics to great advantage. In1856, the British government, and in 1871 and 1872, the Russian, German, French and Italian governments adopted the uniformity system of m^aking arms, invented by Kli Whitney in 1797-98. It has been worth many millions to the United States and the world, but he received a very trifling compensation, scarcely worth mentioning, and that indirectly. At the present time, guns, clocks, watches, sewing machines, and almost every article of wood or metal which is often repeated, is made on the plan of his uniformity system, and it would be a loss of many millions every year for the manufacturers of the United States to go back to the old European system of manufacture.

Whitney did not patent any aspect of his interchangeable parts work, which goes back to his difficulties with the cotton gin. His working model of the machine was stolen, and broadly duplicated; and he found that his patent, for all the pride in brought him, was practically unenforceable. So he chose trade-secret protections instead.

Whitney saw clearly what exactly was difficult about firearms manufacturing to an interchangeable standard:

A good musket is a complicated engine and difficult to make — difficult of execution because the conformation of most of its parts correspond with no regular geometrical figure.

A “stand of arms” was the flintlock-era term for a musket and its accessories (ramrod and bayonet). The accessories had traditionally been hand-fitted to the gun, too: as strange as it sounds to a modern soldier, if you and the fellow in the next rank inadvertently swapped bayonets, you might both be left unable to fix them. When Whitney got a contract for 10,000 stands of arms, with interchangeable parts, in 1798, he had to start by building his factory.

The conversion of metals into ramrods, bayonets, barrels, locks, and “mountings” took place, broadly speaking, in two stages: the first shaping required heat and the second required cutting tools. Except for the barrels, these two processes at the Whitney Armory took place in buildings on opposite sides of the Mill River. On the east bank were the forge fires for the shaping of parts; on the west bank were the machines and tools for the cutting of parts. It is probable that the welding, grinding, and boring of the barrels all took place on the west bank, although the evidence on this point so far is inconclusive, after which they were test-fired in a proof house on the east bank. In Eli Whitney Jr’s day, the heat-treating operations of case-hardening and annealing also took place on the east bank and a foundry was added to the complex of buildings there, to allow shaping by casting as well as by forging. Conversion of hardwood into shaped and “inletted” gunstocks and of softwood into shipping crates took place on the west bank, as did the assembly of the parts and packing of completed weapons.

This comment, from the Whitney Museum site, is admittedly partly speculative; the historians at the Museum admit that there is scant information about the layout and day-to-day operations of the Armory, and that most of what we know about Federal period firearms production comes from the archives of Springfield Armory, where ordnance officers obsessively recorded and filed information that, if it existed at private plants like Remington’s, Waters’s and Whitney’s, was treated as ephemeral and not saved after the plant was reorganized. Whitney’s plant underwent many changes in its ninety years of arms making. The Whitney scholars warn about giving too much credence to inferences drawn from records at the the more-systematized Springfield, but note that:

In 1825… 195 separate operations in musket production were listed in a report about Springfield Armory, and were identified as performed by hand or by waterpower. The number of operations per part ranged from three for the sear to 24 for the barrel. Among them were, for instance, five for the trigger: forging by hand, trimming by water, filing by hand, polishing by water, and hardening by hand. At the Whitney Armory, as we currently understand the site, if a trigger went through the same sequence, it would be forged in the east bank forge shop, then taken to the west bank machine and filing shop for trimming, filing and polishing, and returned to the east bank for hardening before finally joining other parts of the “mounting” in the stocking shop on the west bank. Each of the other 29 musket parts mentioned in the list would follow its own sequence of journeys back and forth across the Mill River for shaping, cutting, and heat treating. Although this seems an inefficient arrangement by modern standards of industrial engineering, it was a far less awkward situation than the one at Springfield, in which the water-powered operations were a mile away from the hill-top location of the manual operations. Eli Whitney had initially acquainted himself with this difficulty at Springfield before deciding to locate all of his musket production at the mill site instead of using his cotton gin shop on Wooster Street, two miles away, for hand operations.

Whitney’s guns still had a lot of hand work in them. In general, parts that could be turned and screw slots on early Whitney muskets show machine tool work, and flat and irregular parts show hand filing. His key innovation may have been organizing the work by type of work rather than by type of gun part. Workers seem to have been specialized, also: if you were a filer, you were likely to be a filer of lock plates, or of triggers, rather than a generalist. And these filers were paid, apparently, piecework rates.

Some machine tool historians also credit Whitney with the design of the first practical milling machine. While claims of primacy are always hotly disputed, it seems indisputable that he did build and employ such a machine in Whitneyville near the end of his life.

Whitney had several descendants who worked in the firearms industry, and who jealously guarded their famous ancestor’s reputation, which makes sorting out man from myth at this two centuries’ remove fraught with complexity.

Other New England makers, such as Asa Waters and Thomas Blanchard of Millbury, Mass., and Simeon North of Berlin, Conn., were also working on interchangeable parts and repeatable machinery at the same time. Blanchard’s stock “lathe” would be adopted practically universally by gunmakers; North would introduce his system to the national armory at Harper’s Ferry. And while the system of interchangeable parts with sizes confirmed by jigs and gages would come to be called the American System, French ordnance officers including Honoré Blanc had already tried to apply similar concepts to the manufacture of cannons and muskets.  (As is commonly the case, intelligent men see a similar need at a similar time, quite independently, but Jefferson knew of Blanc’s experiments and promoted the US contract to Whitney, so the Frenchman may truly have primacy).

Now, during the life of Eli Whitney (up to 1825) there was a limit to what this “interchangeability” meant. A hammer from one of Waters’s muskets might interchange with another Waters musket, but a Whitney musket, which might have been made to the same specifications from the War Department, would have parts that would interchange only with other Whitney muskets. To make truly interchangeable parts, that would be a future step, one achieved in Springfield, Whitneyville, and other facilities by the late 1840s. And it comes at a price: hand-fitted parts often have very tight clearances that ensure repeatability and accuracy. Machine finished parts are often finished to somewhat more open tolerances, trading some “perfection” in the individual weapon for the undeniable benefit of easy parts replacement and repair (and, perhaps, reduced skills required for assembly workers).

By the US Civil War, American muskets and rifle-muskets were made of fully interchangeable parts, as were French and English arms, and other nations were working to the same goal.

So Whitney’s interchangeability was but a baby step. But we can see the ancestry of today’s highly modular ARs, not to mention today’s international-partsbin-mongrel AKs, in the late-18th-Century efforts of Eli Whitney to build a couple dozen muskets that could be disassembled and reassembled after the parts were jumbled. It was taken as gospel at the time that every part of every gun required hand fitting by a gunsmith.

Eli Whitney, then, was a key figure in the transition of gunmaking from hand artisanship to mass production. And one of the delightful and cool things about the gun culture is that he didn’t eliminate hand artisanship; competition from mass-produced guns forced artisans to either raise their quality above that obtaining in the factory product, or to reinvent themselves as designers of guns for production (as John M. Browning, whose father had been an old-style handcraft gunsmith, did).

Russo-Japanese Riflery

Over the century-plus since its decisive conclusion, the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 has faded into obscurity, but quite undeservedly so. When it is remembered today, it is either for the brilliant Japanese naval victory at Tsushima Straits, or for President Theodore Roosevelt’s efforts in bringing about a peace treaty, efforts which brought him the Nobel Peace Prize. (In those backward days, this came to pass only after peace had been concluded between the warring parties, not in the modern fashion of participation trophies and forsworn scorekeeping. But we digress).



Setting the impact of Tsushima Straits on history aside, the War was not entirely a naval war, and the land conflict was broad, vast, and modern, in 20th Century terms: it was a massive land war in Asia featuring two Great Powers’ armies. The army of 1905, as deployed by both Russia and Japan, was the levee en masse of Napoleon supercharged with modern smokeless, small-caliber repeating rifles and breechloading, recoil-managed artillery. Along with these vast increases  in infantry and artillery firepower and lethality, the Russo-Japanese War also introduced two new complications to field fortifications: machine guns and barbed wire. The last wars of great consequence, the US Civil War (1860-65), the Lopez War of Paraguay against all its neighbors (1865-70), the Franco-Prussian War (1870), the Russo-Turkish War (1877), and the Spanish-American War (1898) had predated most of these developments, although the Russians had seen the sharp end of repeating rifles at Varna and the Americans had been given cause to reassess their choice of breech-loading rifle and had already copied the superior Mauser. But in America in 1905, the Army left barbed wire to cattlemen and were content with adapting their hand-cranked Gatling gun to newer cartridges, despite a few visionary soldiers’ experiments with Maxims, which we’ve recounted here before.

Russo-Japanese War

In addition to the armaments and their employment, which are of greatest interest to us, military-technical developments since the mid-19th Century included the telegraph, still exclusively wired, and the increased use of specialized support troops such as combat engineers. In some ways, Napoleon would have recognized these armies, drawn by horse and trailed by disease. But Napoleon would probably have grasped the tactical utility of the new weapons, and there’s evidence that not all the combatant officers did.

American soldiers were also little interested, it seems, in the doings of the great Asian empires, but not so the British. The British sent a doughty expedition of field grade and general officers to the combatants as observers, these men, men of considerable talent and accomplishments both before and after this war, wrote detailed and highly readable accounts of the efforts of both sides. We have at hand a collection of British attaché officer reports from the victorious Japanese side of the war, and it’s fortunately available to all through Google or here as a .pdf.

(stand by, we are experiencing technical difficulties loading the file).

We’re looking for the countervailing reports of the officers who traveled with the defeated Russians, and expect it, too, will be rich in insights. The books were published by the GPO in three volumes in 1908, with Volume 1 being the reports of the officers attached to the Japanese forces. It also contains, as an entirely unexpected bonus, a transcript of a lecture given by Japanese staff officers to their British counterparts.

One gets a very strong impression that the Japanese Army had its act together in ways that the Russians did not. This general operational superiority seems to be more than just the expected ability of an advancing army to hold together vis-a-vis one driven into retreat, but seems to flow from superiority in leadership, tactics, drill, and, frankly, grit. The Japanese superiority extended even into the fundamentals — such as riflery.

This excerpt comes from Page 46 of the book, and is the sixth numbered point in remarks of Lieut.-General Sir Ian Hamilton on the subject of operations along the Yalu River, or the Ya-lu as Sir Ian transcribes it:

Another marked contrast between the two armies was in their musketry. The Russians mainly used volleys, even in the confused struggle at Ha-ma-tang ; the Japanese, individual fire. It was thought that the experiences gained in the South African war had given its quietus to volley firing, but there is no doubt as to the fact, which I have had from the mouth of a divisional general, as well as from numerous junior officers. Moreover, l have satisfied myself that, whereas the artillery practice of the Russians was good as long as it lasted, the musketry was inaccurate to an extent not entirely explicable by the fact that they were attempting to fire volleys in face of combined shrapnel and individual rifle tire. This is specially interesting on account of the different principles underlying the musketry training of the respective armies.

The regulations and conduct of Russian musketry practice have been dominated for the past few years by a school of thought which is not unknown in our army. It is urged by these officers that the most practical method of instructing a. battalion is to cause it to expend the greater part of its annual allowance of ball cartridge at Field Firing at unknown distances in the open country, because it is “just like the real thing.” Their opponents, whilst admitting that a little field firing may be useful, protest that as far as instruction in marksmanship is concerned, a soldier might just as well fire blank cartridge if he does not know where his bullet has struck, or what faults he has committed in elevation or direction. As in most technical and theoretical disputes there has been much to say on either side. Now, however, we have the Russian army, which expends a. large proportion of its rounds in Held firing, meeting the Japanese army, which expends all but a. very small proportion of its ammunition on the rifle range, in the careful individual instruction of each soldier at target shooting. The Russian infantry shot badly, the Japanese infantry shot excellently.

You could sum up the entire war using that sentence as a model, just substituting any arm or service for “infantry” and the appropriate verb for “shot.” But the superiority in shooting is noted. One expects that it is rooted in Japanese superiority at even more fundamental martial arts: discipline and drill. And it always comes back to leadership. Despite its assistance from European powers (including Britain and Prussia), Japan resisted the taint of class or aristocracy and their officer selection and development was considerably more meritocratic than their counterparts’. Imperial Russia selected her officers from among an inbred and enervated aristocratic and gentry minority.

RussoJapaneseWar.Print2This had consequences on the battlefield. While the Japanese had rifle superiority overall, the Russians were not without their marksmen, and Japanese depth and sang-froid of leadership was occasionally tested by the decapitation of units by precision shooting. The overall tendency of the infantry and cavalry actions of the war seem to suggest that technology had given a boost to the defensive over the offensive art.

The reports do not mention the quality of the nations’ small arms, suggesting that the attaché officers thought them unremarkable. Indeed, the rifles were not vastly different in quality or capability from one side to the other, or from those of other Powers. Russia fielded a modern, reliable and lethal weapon in the M1891 Mosin-Nagant Rifle, and Japan had a counterpart in the Type 30 Arisaka with many borrowed Mauser design features. (Not enough to be sued by Mauser, unlike the USA). While the Japanese rifle was better, it was probably not better enough to make a difference; Russia’s World War enemies would be similarly equipped, and Russia would hold her own with the Mosin. (Special Operations Truth #1: Humans are more important than hardware. Applies to conventional operations, too). Both sides had formations still carrying previous-generation large-bore black-powder single-shot breechloaders, the Russian Berdan and Japanese Murata being similar to that generation of weapons worldwide.

The machine-gun balance was different: technically, Russia’s Maxim was arguably superior to Japan’s Hotchkiss, but Japanese officers were satisfied enough with the Hotchkiss to stick with it for 40 more years, and they either had more of them, or employed them with so much more skill that it appeared that way. Humans > Hardware, again.

James Aylmer L. ("A.L") Haldane, later Sir James GCMG KCB DSO.

James Aylmer Lowthorpe (“A.L”) Haldane 1862-1950, later Sir James AL Haldane GCMG KCB DSO.

The entire book is of great interest. This paragraph which begins on p. 60 is the redoubtable (then) Lieut-Colonel A. L. Haldane, D.S.O.’s, assessment of the problem of assaulting positions defended with wire and Maxim. (Among other Eminent Victorian achievements, Haldane helped Churchill escape during the Boer War). Ten years later, British officers, and their French and German counterparts alike would be at a similar loss for a solution to this problem; one suspects from reading the report that Japanese officers might have thought more and hoped less than the collective combat leadership of Europe 1914-18.

In the battle of Nan Shan the men of the Second Japanese Army, for the first time in their existence, found themselves opposed to barbed wire and machine guns, and in almost every succeeding engagement the main difficulty to be overcome has arisen from the presence of these two creations of modern war. No entirely satisfactory method of destroying either has yet been discovered, though artillery has, on rare occasions, been pushed sufficiently near to silence machine guns, and it is stated that bombs charged with dynamite are effective locally in breaking down wire entanglements. The matter is still engaging the earnest attention of the Japanese, and is no doubt receiving due consideration in England and India.

As a Corps commander in World War I, Haldane would still have no “entirely satisfactory method of destroying either.” Haldane also noted heavy, largely ineffectual, volley fire from the Russians. “The Japanese certainly did not fire away as many rounds as the Russians.”

RussoJapaneseWar.cartoonIt is quite an interesting book, and one is left with a profound impression that the Japanese, only 45 years from being a feudal empire without firearms or modern machinery, had built a uniformly first-rate war machine from sheer stubborn discipline and hard work, and that the Russian Army had pockets of excellence in a vast peasant mass of mediocrity (or worse). Would that impression be changed if we read the reports from the attachés to the Russian forces? Probably not. The verdict of history is that the Russians botched the war; the verdict of the Russian people was that the Russians botched the war, and it led them into revolution; and the British are likely to have had more and better officers placed in better position with the Japanese, who were closely allied with Britain at the time. It seems unlikely that the Russians would have been quite as willing to open up to foreign observers as the Japanese Army did to their distinguished British visitors.

Colt AR15 and M16 Serial Numbers, 1960-1972

Colt GX-5857

This memo’s been around as a scanned, non-OCR’d .pdf for a long time. We’ve OCR’d the PDF, and double-checked the numbers against the original data. The PDF is here:M16 Serial Number List OCR[.pdf].

The complete text is below this editorial comment. We would add the following remarks:

  • The first few Colt serial numbers (001-100) were toolroom prototypes and mules, and numbers were reused, and some were built on unnumbered receivers. Most of these were destroyed.
  • The first ~15,000 guns were, as the memo notes, marked as “Armalite AR-15″ and these weapons went to the USAF for Security Police use and for testing by the services, including the Project AGILE tests and Vietnam tests by USSF.
  • The Model 03 Army Rifle was rollmarked XM16E1 until the rifle was type standardized as M16A1 on 28 Feb 1967. (The nature of mass production being what it is, this rollmark change took place over a period of months, and is uncorrelated with any physical change to the rifle).
  • The Model 04 Air Force Rifle is rollmarked M16.
  • The 10,000 guns in the 900k range are believed to include most experimental GX guns and all XM177/E1/E2 guns. We have observed GX’s outside this range. GX’s are tool-room prototypes with a four digit number which is reportedly their master drawing. We believe that there are multiple GXs with the same number. There are also GXs that also have a serial number as well as the GX number. A lot of the GXs have serial numbers in the 14xxx range. Prior to 1969 some mil experimentals were made with no serial numbers, and there are duplicate serial numbers in this area as well.
  • The British contract guns were originally intended for special operations forces including the SAS and SBS.
  • The number that Mr Northrop did not calculate, total military Colt AR-15s and M16s plus AR-15 SP1 Sporters to the date of whenever his data cutoff was, comes to 2,778,586.

We hope this document is of use to collectors and historians. For a look at a serial number list that draws on multiple sources, see this thread at ARFCOM.–Eds.

To: W. H. Craven

From:  B. Northrop

Subject: M16 Serial Numbers

Date: February 2, 1973

In December of 1960 we started roll marking AR15 rifles. The following is a general breakdown by serial number of major types model 03, 04, SMG, model 613 and Lebanon rifles.

Starting S/N 101 through 14,484. For General Curtis LeMay (AR15).

14,500 through 14,916 for S.A.W.S. Contract (AR15)

15,000 through 99,999 for Air Force — Model 04

100,000 through 199,999 for Army – Model 03

200,000 through 202,426 for British Contract

202,447 through 379,353 for Air Force – Model 03

400,000 through 407,297 for Air Force – Model 03

500,001 through 701,100 for Army — Model 04

703,278 through 749,999 for Army — Model 04

750,000 through 752,443 for Heavy Barrel Assault

760,001 through 899,999 for Army — Model 03

900,000 through 909,999 for Commando SMG

910,000 through 1,999,999 for Army – Model 03

4,000,001 through 4,060,000 for Air Force — Model 04

4,060,001 through 4,221,800 for Army – Model 03

4,221,801 through 4,265,400 for Air Force — Model 04

4,285,401 through 4,521,000 for Army – Model 03

4,521,001 through 4,521,850 for Air Force — Model 04

4,521,851 through 4,638,400 for Army – Model 03

4,638,401 through 4,643,400 Model 613 for Malasia (5000)

4,643,401 through 4,701,400 for Army – Model 03

4,701,401 through 4,701,900. for Model 613 Commd (500)

4.781,001 through 4,844,400 for Army – Model 03

4,844,401 through 4,849,400 Model 613 for Taiwan (5000)

4,849,401 through 4,926,00 for Army – Model 03

4,926,001 through 4,928,00 Model 613 for Phillipines (2000)

4,928,000 through 4,936,400 — Model 03 Army

Serial numbers 2,000,000 – 2,999,999 were set aside for Harrington & Richardson. This company produced approximately 240,000 guns, serial numbers 2,000,000 – 2,240,000.

Serial numbers 3,000,000 – 3,999,999 were reserved for General Motors, Hydromatic Division. They produced approximately 480,000 rifles, serial numbers 3,000,000 - 3,480,000.

Colt Summary:

Model 03 Army 2,300,171
Model04 Air Force 394,855
British 2,427
AR15 (Early) 14,801
Model 613 12,500
Commando SMG 10,000
Lebanon 14,014
Others (approx.) 1,600
Heavy Barrel 2,444
Total (mil) 2,752,812
Sporters 25,774

B. Northrop


A Wild West Story, Complete with a Presentation Winchester

Hendry N. Brown, during a stint on the right side of the law. (Does embiggen a little).

Hendry N. Brown, during a stint on the right side of the law. He does look a bit charismatic to us. (Embiggens a little).

Hendry N. Brown (sometimes “Henry”) was a man who moved fluidly from one side to the other of the law, and was a character who begs to have a Western made about him. Today, Medicine Lodge, Kansas, is smack dab in the middle of the United States, but in April, 1884 it was on a steadily civilizing frontier. A rough 17 years prior, Medicine Lodge Creek had been a rude outpost where the Kiowa and Comanche signed a peace treaty with the United States, a treaty that is apparently still held in the National Archives; but in 1873 a settlement was established there, and by 1880 it had been formally incorporated. There was a downtown, with a brick courthouse, and other public buildings; and, germane to this story, a bank and a Town Marshal.

It was still a pretty rough place. The first newspaper in town, the Barber County Mail, one Cochran, had, for reasons unclear, offended the locals, and absent tar and feathers, he was coated with sorghum molasses and sandburs, and ridden out of town on a rail. Rescued by another group of townsmen, he opted to leave the town anyway and had one of them make him an offer for his business, and journalism in Medicine Lodge tragically continued. (This puts Jill Abramson’s whining about her loss of her half-million-dollar job into a certain perspective, doesn’t it?).

Brown was well known around town. After a youth spent in the company of criminals, including Billy the Kid, which gained him a certain notoriety, he had gone straight as the town Marshal of Tuscosa, Texas, and later, Caldwell, Kansas. As a lawman, he brought order to Caldwell:

While assistant marshall, Brown had numerous items appear in the newspaper attesting to his fearlessness. For a short time during October of 1882, Brown left the police force and went to the “Strip” to hunt for rustlers. After rejoining the police force in the middle of October 1882, Brown was appointed as Marshall.

How he brought order was right out of a Hollywood Western: he shot the disorderly. As the Kansas Historical Society writes,

Caldwell’s tough cowtown reputation had worsened in the months before Brown’s arrival as the city recorded four murders (all of them lawmen) and eight lynchings.

In the face of such lawlessness, Brown was a welcome addition to the town’s police force. The Caldwell Post, advocating “a little bit of fine shooting” to keep order in the town, bragged he was “one of the quickest men on the trigger in the Southwest.”

Brown shot two men dead in Caldwell’s main street in 1883, as the historical marker on the site of one of the shootings records.

Brown's Winchester's Presentation Plate. Kansas SHS. (Barely embiggens).

Brown’s Winchester’s Presentation Plate. Kansas SHS. (Barely embiggens).

Brown settled in well; he fell in love with and married a local girl. He hired an old friend, big Ben Wheeler, as Assistant Marshal. In January, 1883, the grateful townspeople presented him with an engraved (and some sources say, gold-plated) Winchester repeater. The rifle, Brown’s most prized possession, had an elliptical plate with an inscription that read:

Presented to City Marshall H.N. Brown for valuable services rendered in behalf of the Citizens of Caldwell Kas., A.N. Colson, Mayor, Dec. 1882.

Several sources suggest he actually took the Winchester along on his ill-starred expedition to Medicine Lodge.

Brown's gang of robbers, hauled back to Medicine Lodge and hobbled with ankle chains. l-r: Wesley, Brown, Smith, Wheeler. (Click to embiggen).

Brown’s gang of robbers, hauled back to Medicine Lodge and hobbled with ankle chains. l-r: Wesley, Brown, Smith, Wheeler. (Click to embiggen).

How Brown squared his life as a lawman with his return to bank robbery is unknown, or why he did it. But in a little over a year from receiving the presentation rifle, he led a robbery of the town bank in Medicine Lodge. Wheeler joined him, as did two local cowboys, William Smith and a man known variously as John Wesley and Harry Hill. Unlike Brown, none of the other three had a criminal history.

They were about to get one, but they wouldn’t have long to enjoy it.

Shortly after 9:00 a.m., during a heavy rain storm, four men rode into town from the west. There were few people on the streets and the men were able to hitch their horses to the bank coal shed. The bank had been open a short time. Mr. Geppert, the cashier, had just begun work settling the monthly accounts, while Bank President, E.W. Payne, sat at his desk writing. Three of the four members entered the bank, one going to the cashiers window and one going to the lattice door in the rear of the office. When ordered to throw up their hands, Mr. Geppert complied while Mr. Payne seized a revolver. Four shots were fired by the robbers, two were received by Mr. Geppert and one by Mr. Payne. Rev. Friedly, who was standing across the street, heard the shots and alarmed Marshall Dean, who was standing in front of Herrington’s & Smith’s grocery store. The Marshall opened fire on the robbers and they also returned shots. The robbers broke for their horses and rode out of town. In a few minutes a group of well mounted, well armed, determined men were in hot pursuit. The posse was headed by Barney O’Conner, Vernon Lytle and Wayne McKinney.

Those that remained in town rushed into the bank only to find Mr. Geppert laying dead in the vault, weltering in his blood with two holes in his chest. Mr. Payne was lying near the vault groaning with pain. The pistol ball had entered behind his right shoulder blade, probably grazing his spine. Hope for his survival was doubtful.

The Medicine Lodge bank-robber posse (This one doesn't embiggen, sorry).

The Medicine Lodge bank-robber posse (This one doesn’t embiggen, sorry).

The robbers escaped at first, but the posse quickly tracked them and surrounded them in a ravine. The entire town turned out to join the armed encirclement, and the thwarted thieves gave themselves up. The posse members were surprised to find that the robbers were men that they knew and didn’t regard as criminals, prior to that day. But the deaths of Geppert and Payne (who succumbed the next morning) changed the calculus. Both men were well-respected; Geppert left a wife and son, and Payne a wife and nine children.

The Kansas State Historical Society suggests that Brown committed the robbery because he was “living beyond his means.” According to a letter to his wife Maude, written on what he never knew would be the last day of his life, Brown’s objective was, quite baldly, to get money:

…it was all for you, my sweet wife, and for the love I have for you. … Oh, how I did hate to leave you on last Sunday eve, but I did not think this would happen. I thought we could take in the money and not have any trouble with it; but a man’s fondest hopes are sometimes broken with trouble.

Well, of course; no one ever robbed a bank for any other reason but for money, and they always think they can get away with it. Historically, most have wound up with neither money nor liberty, yet even 130 years later they still do it. And some of them have wound up dead.

Brown denied firing any shot, and said only one man fired, in his letter to his wife (transcribed completely at the link). And Wheeler is the man who fired the two shots that killed Geppert (who had his hands up!), so perhaps he also shot Payne. But the Kansas State Historical Society thinks that Brown did it. Regardless, all the robbers seem to have fired at Marshal Dean and their pursuers.

One more act in this frontier drama remained to play out. Medicine Lodge was a civilized town, a part of the United States. It had a courthouse and a judge as well as a bank and a newspaper. But its people were still rough frontiersmen, and their idea of justice was not the idea current in what was then the refined city of Philadelphia, but a rough frontier justice. Geppert was dead and Payne dying, and someone had to pay. The Caldwell Journal  — the newspaper owned by the dying Payne — wrote that, “The impression prevailed that before many hours the bodies of four murderers would swing in the soft night air.” 

A mob gathered, as Brown had feared. In the ancient pages of Tacitus, in today’s streets, and certainly in 1884 Kansas, in  a mob is a thing with a life of its own.

When the part returned to Medicine Lodge, they were placed in jail and were surrounded by a crowd of angry citizens who cried “Hang Them!”. Later that night, three shots fired rapidly broke the silence. By this signal a crowd of armed men marched to the jail and demanded the prisoners. The sheriff refused but the sheriff and the posse were overpowered and the jail doors opened. The prisoners in the cell made a sudden dash for freedom and shots rang out from everywhere. Brown ran a few steps from the jail and fell shredded with gunshots. Wheeler was then captured and was badly wounded. Smith and Wesley were captured at the jail door. Wheeler, Smith and Wesley were taken by the crowd to an Elm tree in the bottom east of town and told that it there was anything they would like to say, to say it now for their time of life was short.

At the last Wheeler showed weakness and begged for mercy. Wesley was also upset, but answered by requesting that his body be sent to friends in Vernon, Texas. When the ropes were ready they were fastened around the robbers’ necks and were tossed over a limb. In a few minutes the bodies hung swinging in the wind.

The jail where Brown and his men were held was torn down long ago, and the site redeveloped. In 2000, at least, it was the site of the 1st National Bank drive-through window.

Of course, any true weapons man will be thinking: whatever became of Brown’s prized Winchester? It was in the possession of Sheriff C.F. Rigg, who intended to dispose of it as Brown had desired — return it to his widow in Caldwell. But it was stolen from Rigg, and for a long time its whereabouts were unknown until it surfaced in the hands of a Texas collector. It came, by a circuitous route and at great expense, to the Kansas State Historical Society in Topeka in 1977, where, as of 2000, it could be seen by appointment; it’s now on display in the main gallery.

And so we have one more illustration of the sad fact that crime does pay, just not in the coin the criminal intends to collect. For the four doomed robbers of Medicine Lodge didn’t get a dime from the robbery for which they threw away their lives and their previously good reputations. “The wages of sin is death,” is not only Scripture but also a fairly practical guide to the consequences of violent criminality — then, or now.