Category Archives: The Past is Another Country

The Strange Times of the “Suicide Specials”

“The poor,” the Bible advises us, “have always been with us.” And they have always had as much right to life, and as much right to protect theirs, as the rich — and perhaps,, more need to protect themselves, given that the poor workingman is economically sorted into the same neighborhood with the criminal class, crime paying rather poorly at levels below that of elective office.

A Hood Arms "Robin Hood" in .22. Not safe with modern ammunition!

A Hood Arms “Robin Hood” in .22. This is better than average condition for a Suicide Special — they are very prone to nickel flaking and rust. Not safe with modern ammunition!

In those lands and times when the crown does not forbid to the working man firearms, a large and legitimate demand arises for cheap firearms, and features of styling and gimmick are often applied that either imitate higher-quality firearms, or are flashy and appeal to people who know little about guns. In today’s environment, you have Hi-Points, Jimenezes, and to some extent Taurus firearms. Before 1968, you had cheap Spanish and other imported .25s and .32s. But in the period from approximately 1870 to 1890, you had suicide specials.

suicide-specials-websterThe term itself was coined, sources agree, by Duncan McConnell almost 70 years ago, when firearms collecting was, as always, centered on high-end guns. McConnell wrote about these guns and was the first to apply the term Suicide Specials; ten years later, in 1958, Donald B. Webster, Jr., of Bangor, Maine, published a book about them with Stackpole. Webster’s book was, he writes:

[A] culmination of over three years’ work. Most of the material has been compiled… from personal information, or information supplied by other collectors. Almost no documentary material was available, and what little there was was often found to be incorrect.

Suicide Specials are such a complex subject that this work is only an introduction…. a great deal is still unknown. Thee are a great number of problems left to confront the student of Suicide Specials, and the field is wide open.

Nowadays, of course, we have documentary evidence… even if it’s Webster, a secondary source. Webster notes that there was good reason for collectors to neglect these guns for many years: they simply weren’t that important.

A Lee Arms "Red Jacket." in .22. By far the most popular caliber for these rimfire revolvers -- it was cheapest!

A Lee Arms “Red Jacket.” in .22. By far the most popular caliber for these rimfire revolvers — it was cheapest! Engraving is common on some makes and never seen at all on others.

For one thing,Suicide Specials are unique in that they have almost no historical significance.They never won any battles, neither had they any part in the winning of any frontier, with the exception of an occasional brawl. Their only purpose was to provide a gun-toting era with concealable armament at the least possible cost.

A couple years after that, Rywell’s short pamphlet (which we just picked up for 30¢) was published. Rywell’s pamphlet is a somewhat disorganized history of Suicide Specials (which made us pull out Webster, and write this post), and a detailed history of one manufacturer, the Norwich Arms Co. of Connecticut.

This Bacon Governor was also made in Norwich.

This Bacon Governor was also made in Norwich.

After you’ve seen one or two of them, like pornography, “You’ll know ’em when you see ’em,” but the primary characteristics of a Suicide Special are:

  1. Single action revolver
  2. Solid frame, pull cylinder pin to reload. The cylinder pin is your ejector.
  3. Spur trigger
  4. Rimfire (in descending order of frequency found: .22, .32, .38, .41, .30).
  5. Nickel plated

They are often found without a maker’s name, sometimes with a brand or trade name. (The same manufacturer would sell retailers and retail chains an “exclusive” brand name, so that they needn’t fear the hardware store down the street underselling them by a penny or a dime). The brand names often are somewhat threatening, and a little optimistic, given the quality of the guns: Arbiter, Avenger, Defender, Excelsior, Faultless, Old Reliable, Penetrator, Protector, Rattler, even Terror. Everyone who has written about these at length has tried to compile a list of these fanciful brand names, and, some of them, to match names to manufacturers; and every one of them has given up. The purpose of the name, of course, was to sell the gun. (That’s unchanged. How many modern equivalents of Suicide Special customers bought a Taurus Judge?)

The other side of the "Robin Hood" shown above. There's a grand name for you.

The other side of the “Robin Hood” shown above. There’s a grand name for you.

They also tend to be cheaply made, of inferior metals and workmanship. They were made in various small factories, mostly in the Gun Valley, and these factories didn’t pay as well as Colt in Hartford, or Smith & Wesson or the national Armory in Springfield. (If the Armory had orders; if not, it laid men off and they found work in the other factories, at lower wages). Buyers of these guns were extremely price-sensitive.

Not all of them were junk: Forehand and Wadsworth of Worcester, the sons-in-law of Ethan Allen, whose production of Suicide Specials was small, made high-quality ones that Webster compares favorably to Colt pocket revolvers. The company was sold to Hopkins & Allen, which in turn sold to Marlin-Rockwell.

It is no accident that Suicide Specials appeared on the market in 1870. There were a few attempts before, but Rollin White had sold his 1855 patent on the bored-through cylinder to Smith & Wesson, which produced revolvers resembling the Suicide Special (but of higher quality) from 1858 on. Other Gun Valley makers were quick to try to imitate the Smith .22 Nº 1 and .32 Nº 2, only to learn that S&W intended to defend their patent in court. After the first couple infringers lost, the remainder settled quickly, or at least, responded positively to a Cease and Desist letter from Smith’s lawyers. But White’s basic patent expired in 1869. (That patent, by the way, is why Union cavalrymen had breechloading and even repeating cartridge carbines by 1865, but not cartridge revolvers). Thus, the explosion of Smith-alikes from 1870 onward.

White continued to contest other patents until his death in 1892. As Rywell records, it “kept him agitated.”

The small revolvers are found with five, six and seven-shot cylinders, with the lower count common in the larger calibers like .41, and the seven-shot common in .22s.

This unfortunately cut-off picture is a .32 rimfire Otis A. Smith.

This unfortunately cut-off picture is a .32 rimfire Otis A. Smith. As you can see, it’s a five-shot gun.

By 1890, the Suicide Special was too far behind the public taste, and, many municipalities and states were trying to outlaw gun-carrying. While this often was masked as a “good government” or “taming the frontier” measure, what really drove it was animus to the sort of people who bought these guns: immigrants, especially Irish, Italians and Eastern Europeans in the North, and blacks and “white trash” in the South. Most cops would not dream of enforcing local gun laws against a local, say, banker or landlord; but those guys could buy the Smith or Colt.

And this one is a "Dog," that is also marked, "Cast Steel." Or maybe that's the instruction book? If it doesn't fire, "cast" it at your assailant....

And this one is a “Dog,” that is also marked, “Cast Steel.” Or maybe that’s the instruction manual? If it doesn’t fire, “cast” it at your assailant…. The engraving and shape of the side plate mark it as a bit upscale (and is the grip ivory?). The cheapest Suicide Specials had a circular sideplate with a slot — because it doubled as the hammer screw! Here, they’re two separate parts.

And, technology had marched on. By 1890 “revolver” implied double action, and the more rapid reload of a swing-out cylinder, break-action revolver (in the small, Suicide Special follow-on type, they were called “Bulldogs”), or at the bare minumum a loading port and ejection rod arrangement like Colt’s single- and double-action revolvers of the day. In addition, foreign competitors began importing very inexpensive firearms into the USA, taking advantage of lower skilled labor costs in Europe than in Gun Valley.

While the Suicide Specials died a cold market death, a couple of the makers survived well into the 20th Century, notably Iver Johnson and Harrington & Richardson. They continued making small, cheap revolvers (and nickeling many of them) but followed the market away from the pull-pin solid frame single action. (H&R, at least, did make some pull pin revolvers into the 1970s, if not beyond). Unlike the Suicide Specials, an Iver Johnson or H&R from the 20th Century smokeless powder era is safe to shoot. (Do not be beguiled by a modern .22 fitting in a 19th-Century Suicide Special. Those two things were not made to go together).

One thing that continues to puzzle us is this: why were they all nickeled? (There are exceptions, but they are rarer than nickel guns in current production). Because the market demanded it? Because the buyers were easily gulled by shiny surfaces? Because the nickel finish would take, at least initially, more handling than traditional bluing? Because it cost less? Because it could be done with unskilled labor? Because the process was new, and created a fad? None of the sources we have read can really answer this question.

(Thanks for bearing with us on images. They’re in place now. -Ed).


Buffaloe, Ed. “Suicide Specials.” The Unblinking Eye. Retrieved from:

Rywell, Martin. The American Nickel-Plated Revolver 1870-1890: A History of and a Guide for This Classification for the Firearms Student or Collector. Harriman, Tennessee: Pioneer Press, 1960.

Uncredited. “Suicide Specials. Retrieved from:

Webster, Donald B. Suicide Specials. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 1960: Stackpole.


Another Thomas Hardy War Poem

WWIbattleAs these have been received rather well, let’s reach back across a century-plus to 1902, when Hardy was writing about the Boer War, which he (as most liberals of the day) opposed as, shall we say, an excess of the Empire. (In the United States, at the time, sympathies were also largely with the Boers as well).

The British defeated the much smaller (although equipped with higher quality arms at the squad and company level) forces of the Afrikaner settlers, only to find their foes continuing a shadow guerrilla war — which Britain then suppressed, effectively, with absolute ruthlessness. But this poem refers to the earlier, uniformed-units-on-units phase of the war, and, indeed, Hardy does what he can to universalize his sentiment.

The Man He Killed
Had he and I but met
            By some old ancient inn,
We should have sat us down to wet
            Right many a nipperkin!
            But ranged as infantry,
            And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
            And killed him in his place.
            I shot him dead because —
            Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
            That’s clear enough; although
            He thought he’d ‘list, perhaps,
            Off-hand like — just as I —
Was out of work — had sold his traps —
            No other reason why.
            Yes; quaint and curious war is!
            You shoot a fellow down
You’d treat if met where any bar is,
            Or help to half-a-crown.”

Here you see him prefiguring many of the themes and poems of the next great war.

Hardy is far from the first or the last to note that, whatever disputes the nations and their elites may have, the poor bloody infantry is pretty much the same character all the world over; and the riflemen in opposing rifle platoons were more alike one another, perhaps, than either of them was like his officers, or like the politicians or nobles who sent them to war.

One is reminded of the passage in All Quiet on the Western Front, in which Paul finds himself alone in a crater in No-Man’s-Land with a Frenchman he has mortally wounded, and complains to his dying enemy, as if he could understand, “Who do they never tell us that you are men like us?”

Scrap Metal Thieves in the 10,000 Ton Range

The glorious story of the fourth ship to bear the name HMS Exeter came to an end twice — in 1942, when she went to the bottom off the Dutch East Indies with fifty men of her crew, and the survivors went into Japanese captivity (where over 150 more would be slaughtered); and again in 2016, when her wreck and war grave, rediscovered in 2008, was found to have been completely plundered by Asian metal thieves.

Exeter was not the only ship to be erased from the seabed. British destroyers HMS Electra and Encounter, Royal Dutch HMNLS De Ruyter and HMNLS Java sunk in the same battle are gone as well (although some bits of Electra remain). HMNLS Kortenaer is partly gone. The US Submarine Perch sunk in an unrelated action is gone, but is not a war grave (her whole crew escaped the fire of sinking into the frying pan of Japanese captivity); along with the two cruisers sunk at the follow-on Battle of the Sunda Strait, HMAS Perth and USS Houston, war graves for over 300 Australians and Americans respectively, which were determined by surveys in 2013 and 2015 to have been invaded and partly stripped by scrappers.

While the British losses at the Battle of the Java Sea were not trivial, the Dutch lost over 900 seamen in the battle, including the Netherlands’ last great admiral, Karel Doorman. It was a Dutch expedition to place a plaque in memory of Doorman and his men that first discovered that the ships were not there. There’s no question of a navigational error, as the indentations where the ships used to be are still there.

dutch-outrageThe Dutch, as you might imagine, are fit to be tied. (See front page at left: “Puzzle in the Java Sea,” with an artists’ rendering of the now-missing Dutch ships as of 2008).

The Indonesian response has been flippant. Indonesian Navy Spokesman Gig Jonias Mozes Sipasulta suggested that it’s the Netherlands’ own fault for not requesting that the Indonesians guard the location.

The Netherlands, the former colonial power, is little loved in Indonesia, and the majority mohammedan population does not respect the graves of infidels.

The only remaining question, at this point: were the thieves Indonesian, Chinese, or Indonesians and Chinese working together?

Exeter may be the most historic of these lost ships. She was a proud ship. Built in the 1920s under the strictures of the naval disarmament treaties of the era, the 8,400 ton cruiser was the second and last of the York class and sufficiently different from York as to be readily distinguished. In order to meet the weight strictures of the Washington and London Naval Treaties, York and Exeter dispensed with belt armor, reducing weight but increasing tophamper and rendering the ships vulnerable in a fight with peer or larger units. (It was Exeter’s fate in WWII to get into such fights).

Battle of the River Plate

Exeter was one of the three cruisers that harried DKM Graf Spee into this harbor off Montevideo, Uruguay and caused, ultimately, the scuttling of the vessel and suicide of her captain.

Exeter, the best armed and armored of the three ships opposing Graf Spee (The others were HMS Ajax and HMNZS Achilles) went toe-to-toe with the German battlecruiser and paid the price.

Exeter took a considerable beating, as seen here. German day gunnery was thought to be the best in the world, and the 100-plus hits Exeter took in barely 20 minutes proved that conventional opinion was valid. But a couple of hits from Exeter drove Graf Spee into harbor to make repairs. Believing he was bottled up — an erroneous belief, as Exeter had already decamped for the Falklands and hasty repairs of its own — the German captain, Hans Langdorff, scuttled the ship and then shot himself.


Graf Spee remains on the bottom of the Rio Plata. Why? Uruguay and Argentina, the adjacent countries, are civilized. Indonesia? Not so much.

Battle of the Java Sea & 2nd Battle of the Java Sea

In 1941, Exeter transited the Panama Canal enroute to her new station in the Far East.


After the Sino-Japanese war that had been percolating for years broke out into general warfare after the Japanese  became one of the ill-fated multinational ABDA (American, British, Dutch, Australian) squadron in the southwest Pacific. Exeter fought a number of actions against Japanese ships and aircraft (see below), before the Battle of the Java Sea on 27 February 1942.

In the Battle of the Java Sea, the ABDA force sortied from Surabaya on the Dutch (now Indonesian) island of Java to intercept a Japanese landing force, under the command of Admiral Doorman. The Japanese force was screened by the IJN’s surface combatants, at that stage of the war probably the best in the world, man-for-man and ship-for-ship.

The ABDA force comprised 9 cruisers, including USS Houston and  Marblehead;  HMAS Hobart; HMS Exeter, Jupiter, and Express; and Dutch DeRuyter, Java, and Piethien.  

exeter-sinks-1-mar-42Exeter was again ordered to seek repairs. She buried 14 dead at sea, and was provided with two escorting destroyers, HMS Encounter and USS Pope, and set course for Surabaya. After hasty repairs to Exeter, the same three ships headed for the Royal Navy’s docks in Ceylon, but nine Japanese warships caught up to the squadron on 1 March 42 and sent them all to the bottom. (This is called, by historians, the 2nd Battle of the Java Sea). Most of the crewmen survived, with Exeter taking the most casualties — 52, fewer than she lost at the River Plate. This photo was taken from a Japanese aircraft.


The ships were found in 2007 by a US/Australian and identified in 2008, and wreck archaeologists were only beginning to study the wrecks to shed light on the 1942 battles. One of the then-living HMS Exeter survivors, Fred Aindow, then 88, remembered of his station in a gun turret:

We were firing until the last moment,” he said. “I think we were the last to stop. Then it was over the side and I hung on to an oar for an hour until I was picked up. The next three years were sheer hell.

It’s great news that they’ve found Exeter. I’d like to dive down myself and get my shoes from my locker that I had only just bought.

Another, Tom Jowett, a spokesman for the Survivors’ Association:

This is great news but it is important now to make sure the wreck is properly respected.

That didn’t happen. The UK MOD, seeking to protect the ships’ locations as grave sites, shared the closely-held location with Indonesian officials, which is now looking like a rather large error and a Judas-and-Brutus level betrayal by the Indonesians.

As the ship went down, her surviving company, afloat in the water, sent up three cheers.


For the survivors, Japanese captivity killed three times the men that the sinking of their ships had done. It didn’t start off that way; Japanese captains including Shunsaku Kudo of the destroyer IJN Ikazuchi hazarded their own ships to rescue survivors; Kudo took 442 on board his own ship. But once the prisoners were transferred from the relatively cosmopolitan and chivalric Navy to the custody of the barbarous Japanese Army ashore, they were badly abused.

USS Pope’s XO, Dick Antrim, was awarded the Medal of Honor for a selfless act of heroism during captivity: as the Japanese were beating another prisoner to death, Antrim demanded that they punish him instead. The Japanese were astonished by this act, and ceased the beating, and generally seemed to respect the Americans more and abuse them less after this. Antrim is buried in Arlington… where the Indonesians can’t get to him!


The Daily Express:

The Telegraph (destruction & desecration):

The Telegraph (original discovery, survivor quotes):

WWII Today (excellent long quote from surviving Exeter officer Lt. Cmdr. George Cooper).

Reuters (Dutch irritation over missing ships, Indonesian Navy flippant comment):

Japan Probe (story of Captain Kudo and the Itazuki. Kudo survived the war, but his ship and most of the crew were lost later).

Heroism of Dick Antrim:


To the Wall!

The Wall Gun, that is. This monster is up for sale in Rock Island’s December Premiere Auction.


The marlinspike looking thing was meant, they assume, to go into a socket in a fortress wall. (It appears to be well forward of the point of balance, for some reason). In most respects, this 5’2″ long, 33-lb .75 caliber rifle is just an overgrown percussion rifle-musket. A way big one.

How big is it? Here’s a snapshot.


And it’s also about the weight of three of those M1s.

It is a breech-loading(!) percussion gun, so was probably made between 1840 and 1870, but there are no guarantees. The sights resemble those used in the latter half of that period, as on an 1853 Enfield or 1861 Springfield. The unusual breech-loading mechanism is shown below.

Such guns may have been equipped with multiple removable chambers to promote rapid fire.

We also find the spring-steel pistol grip interesting. We do not recall having seen such a thing anywhere else in the world of firearms. Anybody?

This rifle comes from Belgium. Belgium has very little in the way of defensible positions on its borders. Accordingly, it has not only often been overrun itself, it has provided the unhappy battlefields for many a Great Power throwdown, from Waterloo to the Bulge. (Even earlier, Julius Caesar fought local Germanic tribes here).  Its defense in the First World War was armed neutrality, which failed spectacularly; after a postwar period of alliance with France and especially Britain, its strategy in the Second was ultimately the same (Belgium broke the alliances and declared neutrality in 1936, after the Anglo-French alliance didn’t react to Nazi repudiation of Versailles and militarization of the Rheinland), with an even more spectacular failure resulting. Fortresses were a major part of Belgian defense plans at all time of Belgian independence; some fortresses held out in World War I (think of Namur) but they were made irrelevant by technological and strategic advances by 1940 (consider the fate of Eben Emael and its brigade-sized garrison, defeated in detail by 78 gliderborne combat engineers).

In any event, fortress weapons were a Belgian specialty, one of several rational responses to the very difficult problem which is the defense of a small coastal nation from much larger neighbors.

RIA has relatively little information on the weapon, apart from what may be gained by inspecting it. It might reward European patent research. They do offer some general thoughts on the class of arms.

These guns can essentially be described as massive longarms. Initially designed as muskets, but developing into rifles as the technology became available, these guns are roughly the height of a man and accompanied by an appropriately large bore. If their size wasn’t enough to identify them on sight, the presence of a large hook or post on their bottom usually will. Used to help mitigate recoil, the use of such hooks can be traced back to the earliest of firearms, such as the arquebus and hand cannon. Posts or spikes (also called “oar locks”), as seen on the firearm featured in this article, are more indicative of the weapon’s placement at fixed positions in a fortification, as opposed to hooks which could be used on fences, bulwarks, trees, window sills, etc. While the post style may not be usable in as many locations as the hook, it would allow for easy swiveling and pivoting once in position. Not all wall guns have such devices.

Despite their many designs and firing mechanisms over the years, they were valued for pretty much three things: range, accuracy, and punch. Any one of those is a huge advantage should your opponent not have them, but all three is downright devastating. Though playing the intermediary role between small arms and artillery, these oversized longarms often served with artillery, and with notable success.

RIA doesn’t know of any tactical guidance for the employment of these monsters, but notes that it must have been highly limited and readily countered by a thinking, adapting enemy.  The US used them in the Revolutionary War (in flintlock, naturally) and that and a little more history is embedded in the Rock Island Auctions blog post. Read The Whole Thing™.

Large guns like this were often used as “punt guns” by market hunters, but those were even larger-bore smoothbores, used to take many waterfowl (usually, sitting waterfowl) in one shot. Four- and even two-bore punt guns exist, monsters even against this .75 in. rifle. Market hunting was once common, especially in the USA, but was outlawed even here in the 20th Century, after causing at least one species extinction (passenger pigeon).

If you’re looking for something a noodge more modern, we can recommend this article by Pete at TFB on a couple of catastrophic silencer failures… at least one of which turned out to be entirely exogenous.

The Talented, Tragic, Three Brothers Sym

Coat_of_arms_of_Poland-officialWhen nationalism breaks out, it’s always a threat to deracinated, intermarried and interbred cultural and economic elites. Many of them define themselves not as members of a nation but as members of a transnational movement. While some may get their back up at the idea of “transnational movements,” what is academic science? What is the top echelon of art? These activities are so hungry for real talent — and always have been — that international borders and ethnic differences fade to insignificance.

But borders aren’t, really, insignificant. And if you’re part this and part that and all focused on your international peers in your borderless, globally-oriented peer group, an oubreak of nationalism means you might have to make an uncomfortable choice. That’s what the Brothers Sym faced: three incredibly talented European brothers. Igo (born Julius) was an actor; Ernest was a chemist; and Arthur was a musician and composer. And they had the bad luck to live in tragic Poland during the middle years of the 20th Century.

A Matter of Mixed Birth

The three brothers were sons of Anton Sym, a Galician Pole, and the former Julia Sepp, an Austrian. As boys, they lived in both Austria and Poland, and were comfortable in both lands’ languages, but grew to adulthood in the latter nation. Each was marked by a precocious talent: Igo was marked for the stage, Ernest for science, and Arthur for music. (As a result of Igo’s high-profile life, he’s the only on we could find images of). At least two of them (Igo and Arthur) served in the interwar Polish Army, Igo as an infantry officer and Arthur as a bandmaster. In their educated, cosmopolitan circles there was nothing unusual about their ancestry; a man was judged by the content of his character, not the purity of his pedigree.

A Man Must Make a Decision

nazi brownshirtsWith the German annexation of Austria, and the subsequent Greater German Reich invasion of Poland, ancestry suddenly did matter. Now each brother had to decide which of the threads of his ancestry would call to him. Igo, the actor, became German; the other two chose their Polish identity, with Arthur, who had been a bandmaster in the Polish Army, keeping a low profile, and Ernest choosing to put his chemistry talent at the disposal of the Armija Krajova , or Home Army: the celebrated Resistance. He ran an underground lab making explosives, incendiary mixtures, chemical agents — he is thought to have been the genius behind the itching powder AK agents lovingly salted in every Wehrmacht uniform produced in occupied Poland — and even, his Polish-language Wikipedia page asserts, bacterial toxins. The Germans wanted to find their mystery chemist and close his lab, but they had undermined themselves: due to German racial policy, which saw Poles (and all Slavs) as Untermenschen, they had closed the universities — and lost track of the professors.

Three Talented Brothers, Three Tragedies

Igo Sym answers a door, in a movie publicity still. He didn't do that in real life, and died.

Igo Sym answers a door, in a movie publicity still. He didn’t do that in real life, and died.

Igo Sym, the best known of the brothers, got himself labeled Volksdeutsche (ethnically German) and accepted as a German by the occupation authorities. He served his Nazi masters primarily in his one great skill, as an actor; he was the lead in the movie Heimkehr (“Homecoming”), in which oppressed ethnic Germans, downtrodden by Poles, were saved at the last minute by the invasion of 1939. That annoyed patriotic Poles, but sometime in 1938 or 1939, the Gestapo recruited or impressed Igo as a spy. And he was horrible at it; the first time he betrayed an acquaintance, actress Hanka Ordonówna, the AK knew of it right away. They sent a three-man team from their underground organization to plug the leak in Polish unity. (Silencing the voice of an effective propagandist was a a bonus). None of the assassins knew Sym, although they must have seen movies with him, before the war — he had been one of the biggest stars in Poland. Still, the AK worried that they might inadvertently hit the wrong guy. They worked out a classically Polish, which is to say clever, way to be sure.

Like most urban Poles, Igo lived in an apartment. The two assassins, who moved against him on 7 March 1941, had thin cover — they were officials from a utility. The third man acted as a lookout and provided cover. The assassins knocked on Igo’s door, and stated their business. There was a question about a utility bill.

They asked him his name. (This was the precaution to prevent a mistaken murder).  “Igo Sym,” the man replied, marking himself for death. He was shot right there, in his doorway, with a 9mm Radom VIS service pistol.

The assassins followed their exit plan, and made good their escape.

The Germans did not catch them. Instead, they threatened to shoot hostages, demanding that the Poles turn the assassins in. The hostages seem to have come from among the Polish intelligentsia held in notorious Pawiak prison, rather than the more usual Nazi practice of łapanka, as the Poles named street roundups of random Poles for labor or as hostages.

"As a reprisal for the murder of ethnic German Igo Sym, a quantity of detainees were shot this morning" - Moder.

“As a reprisal for the murder of ethnic German Igo Sym, a quantity of detainees were shot this morning” – Moder.

The Polish public didn’t turn in the assassins. Nazi nabob Hans Frank ordered the hostages prepared for doom. He reiterated his offer. “Nice friends and family members you got there. Wouldn’t want anything to happen to ’em when my ultimatum runs out.” The murder would be carried out under the supervision of SS-Gruppenführer Paul Moder, a fascinating character himself, who would soon fall from grace and be ordered to the Russian Front, where Russian gunfire killed him in February 1942 at the beginning of the Demjansk encirclement. (He deserves a post of his own, but there’s a link in the Sources for German readers for now).

The Polish response: more dumb insolence. Frank and Moder had 21 hostages shot on 11 March 1941. His men rounded up more usual suspects for deportation to distant concentration camps, but there were no more shootings over this particular incident.

(l-r): Moder, Frank, Ludwig Fischer. Frank and Fischer would hang postwar.

(l-r): Moder, Frank, Ludwig Fischer. Frank and Fischer would hang postwar.

But meanwhile, Igo Sym was dead, felled by a single shot at contact range.

Ernest Sym emerged from the war like so many men, a hero who wanted nothing but to return to his prewar profession, and pretend that nothing had happened. But his new teaching position in the University of Gdansk (formerly Danzig) was fraught with unsought politics. Scientists who did not accept the pseudo-science of the Soviet fraud Trofim Lysenko were in eclipse, and scientists who, like biochemist Ernest Sym, were especially suspect. But before the secret police could get him, he died in a car crash in 1950. (Or maybe, that’s how the secret police got him).

His prewar work on enzymes wasn’t picked up by other scientists until nearly fifty years after his death — and was belatedly hailed as pioneering. It might have won him a chemistry Nobel, had it only been noticed at the time. He did leave a gift of posterity to his nation and his university — his son went on to become a professor of physics at Gdansk.

And what of Arthur Sym, who identified as a Pole? Without Ernest’s resistance record he was just another ethnic German, not wanted in postwar Poland. He migrated to Austria, where “don’t talk about the war,” was almost the national motto — indeed, it would have been, if the phrase itself hadn’t been “talking about the war.” Arthur lived out his life as a minor composer of classical works, and passed away in 1973, the last of the talented brothers whose lives were altered forever by the tides of world war.

In a century of peace, what renown and honors might have fallen on the Syms? But it was their poor fortune to be born of mixed parentage, in Poland, into the 20th Century, in the exact time in European history that a man with the blood of two nations in his veins might run into problems over it.

War Production: Propellers and Browning M2 .50s

They started with a factory that built refrigerators. But refrigerators is not what the War Production Board wanted Frigidaire to be making. So they converted one plant, and built new ones, including training new workers — many women — to replace drafted men.

The new products in Frigidaire’s Dayton, OH factories? Constant-speed propellers for training and combat aircraft, and Browning machine guns, mostly for the Air Corps.

The machine guns are mentioned near the beginning, in the context of the 250,000th Frigidaire M2 being produced on 22 June 1944, but after a long period of discussing propeller production, they go to the MG factory at approximately 9:42 in the video. Right after that, it shows an interesting test-fire cell for solenoid-fired MGs.

Frigidaire – These People – How a Frigidaire plant converts to Service goods production during 1940s.

via Frigidaire – For the Forces – Production During The 1940s – YouTube.

The technical information about the production of the guns is one aspect of this video, but what now seems like over-the-top patriotism is an interesting sociological aspect as well. We could use a little more of that can-do victory spirit, eh?

Dahlgrens in the Rain

This morning, a steady drizzle fell, and it brought down many of the remaining leaves with it. It remained warm, to a welcome if unseasonable degree, and on our way from one place to another we found ourselves in the Norman Rockwell village of Hampton Falls, New Hampshire.

Like most small towns that existed in 1865, it has a Civil War memorial that has accreted memorials for various other conflicts in the following ages. It was constructed like many other memorials, with an obelisk aspiring to the clouds, and a display of forever-silenced cannon and cannonballs. Unlike many, if not most, such memorials, the cannon and pyramids of shot survived the scrap drives of WWI and WWII. The memorial is located in a small park which is home to various festivals and events during the warmer months, but adjacent to the busy north-south (appropriately enough!) Lafayette Road, named for the French volunteer’s use of the road in the 1820s to visit old friends from the Revolution. Lafayette Road is also US Highway 1, which runs in an unending ribbon of strip malls, motels and neon signs from Maine to Key West. Lafayette Road is on the left in this picture; the yellow building is on the other side of it.


Thousands of people drive by this square every day and never give it a moment of thought.

Of greatest interest to you, dear reader, may be the Dahlgrens themselves. There are four of them, and four pyramids of projectiles, evenly arrayed around the memorial, in the shadow of the flagpole (were there any sun to cast a shadow today!)


The guns appear to be in nearly new condition, although they’re filled with something — probably cement. It’s possible that they were cast at a foundry nearby, and then never delivered to the Navy due to the end of the war. It’s also possible that the Portsmouth Navy Yard had them in storage for fitting out ships. The Navy Yard is a short distance away by road or rail.


The smoothbore Dahlgren guns have a distinctive, coke-bottle shape. They are beautiful machines, and were used in shore defense installations and on seagoing vessels alike. They often had a wooden carriage that resembled the cannon carriage of the Napoleonic wars.

These iron carriages are strictly for display.

Cannon balls may have been obsolete by 1865, but they sure did stack up nice. This pyramid has layers of 25, 16, 9, 4 and 1 ball = 55 cannonballs total.

hampton_falls13Each Dahlgren Gun is engraved with its maker, its serial number, and its weight, at least to the nearest 5 lb. This one was 4500 lbs. The others were all within 10 pounds plus or minus of this one.


Why bother recording the weight? One possibility we can think of is for trim and balance calculations aboard ship. Three guns were cast by “C.A. & Cº,” and on one the maker name was not visible, but might well have been the same.


Civil War has a useful page about cannon manufacturers, which breaks out this abbreviation as follows:

Cyrus Alger & Co.:  Cyrus Alger, who during the War of 1812 furnished the government with shot and shell, in 1817 started South Boston Iron company which at an early date was known locally as Alger’s Foundry and later became Cyrus Alger & Co.  The Massachusetts firm was a leading cannon manufacturer and when Cyrus died in 1856, leadership was assumed by his son, Francis, who piloted the company until his death in 1864.  During the war, both Army and Navy were supplied with large numbers of weapons.  The initials “S.B.F.” (South Boston Foundry) occasionally may be found on cannon, but the signature is traditionally “C.A. & Co., Boston, Mass.” or, rarely, “C. Alger & Co., Boston, Mass.”

The Serial Numbers of the gun whose maker was invisible (perhaps underneath, or marked on the muzzle) was Nº 105. The others were Nº 155, Nº 156, and Nº 157. (Without measuring them, these appear to be 32-pounder guns, of which 383 total were made by Alger and several other founders).

This gives some support to the idea that the guns came direct from production or storage, uninstalled and unfired, to the memorial. Since Alger had been casting cannon for almost 50 years at the close of the Civil War, these numbers must be unique to Dahlgren gun production at the Alger firm’s South Boston, Mass. facility.


Today, it is a place where you can see four Dahlgren guns at once.


And numerous plaques honor the town’s many veterans, of the nation’s many wars.


Unfortunately, our shot of the Vietnam War honor roll was not successful, nor the one we took of the Civil War honor roll. It was a very different America in 1865 — the names were all English or Northwestern European, and many families sent five to eight men with the same surname to the war.


The town and the veterans’ groups cooperate to tend this little memorial well.

While the Dahlgren Gun served the Union well, and Rear Admiral Dahlgren did, also, he paid a considerable price by giving his design to the nation free of charge. The USA then not only produced some 4,700 Dahlgren guns and howitzers for American used, it furnished the design gratis to various foreign nations. Alger did pay Dahlgren a royalty of 1¢ per pound of guns cast in South Boston for foreign customers, but his widow wound up in straitened circumstances and petitioned the Congress for relief.

Let’s Have Another Martial Poem by Hardy

This memorial at Crewe, England, is typical of memorials that served as cenotaphs for fallen soldiers whose names were not repatriated -- like Drummer Hodge.

This memorial at Crewe, England, is typical of memorials that served as cenotaphs for fallen soldiers whose names were not repatriated — like Drummer Hodge.

We’ve been planning to write something about President-elect Trump’s selections for national security posts and how they compare to the incumbents and recently departed individuals who warmed those chairs during the Obama and Bush administrations, but as of press time for this post (Monday night) he hadn’t named any names.

So instead, we go back to Thomas Hardy. We knew him as a novelist (Tess of the d’Urbervilles; Jude the Obscure), and only when we published a WWI (actually, barely pre-WWI) poem of his did we bother to look him up and learn he is better regarded in English Lit circles for his poetry — or was, before English Lit became the propaganda arm of the Great Buggernaut, in which only race, sex and social justice count, and Hardy is dismissed as a deceased cismale heteronormative cryptofascist, because white.

That’s why you’ll never see a poem like this brief lament of the short life and solitary death of the eponymous Drummer Hodge out of the current crop of would-be literati. Fortunately, Hardy’s stuff, like many others more talented than the post-talent postmoderns, has been written down for our reading pleasure.

They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest
Uncoffined — just as found:
His landmark is a kopje-crest
That breaks the veldt around:
And foreign constellations west
Each night above his mound.

Young Hodge the drummer never knew —
Fresh from his Wessex home —
The meaning of the broad Karoo,
The Bush, the dusty loam,
And why uprose to nightly view
Strange stars amid the gloam.

Yet portion of that unknown plain
Will Hodge for ever be;
His homely Northern breast and brain
Grow to some Southern tree,
And strange-eyed constellations reign
His stars eternally.

This memorial to the dead was erected at Kimberley, site of a long siege.

This memorial to the dead was erected at Kimberley, site of a long siege.

Hardy here is writing about the then-current Boer War. His vocabulary contrasts “homely” England — “Wessex” was his fictional county used in many works, named for an ancient kingdom, which he overlaid on the topography of rural Dorset where he was born, lived and died — with “strange” South African words: karoo, kopje, veldt, just as informed Britons learned these words in dispatches from war correspondents.

There is no poem this good that was published in a literary poetry magazine this year. Or last year. For all practical purposes, English language poetry is a dead art. Yet, in its grave, “uncoffined; just as found,” poetry from a golden age still sings…

…if one cares to listen.

A Historic Revolver Hangs in a Museum

In England, guns are really outlawed, and have been for twenty years (all handguns) or longer (semi rifles). Sure, whatever remains of the upper class can still shoot grouse with a £50,000 shotgun if they’re so inclined. But even historic and heirloom firearms were destroyed as part of the UK’s failed attempt to heal human hearts by taking guns out of human hands.


One firearm that was spared from the smelter was this .455 Mark VI Webley, the service revolver of one of George V’s subalterns who would survive the slaughterhouse of the Somme as a signal officer, and go on to such distinction in the literary world that every reader of this knows of his concepts and characters, and most if not all of you have read his books or seen movies made from them.



While this article in The Grauniad is three years old, we just saw it mentioned over at Ian’s place, JRR Tolkien’s heirs surrendered the pistol during the final British firearms amnesty.

The Webley Mk VI was the standard issue gun for British servicemen at the outbreak of the war. In 1996, Tolkien’s family gave the gun to the Imperial War Museum during a firearms amnesty in the UK, following the Dunblane school massacre, in which 16 children and one adult were killed. As a signalman, Tolkien took charge of communications for his battalion; it is not known if he used the weapon in battle.

Garth [John Garth, author of Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth,2003] continued: “An Oxford-educated man, he went to war alongside labourers and miners, like Bilbo among the dwarves. He saw and probably experienced war trauma – and Frodo’s psychological journey is remarkably like the ones described by war writers such as Siegfried Sassoon. Tolkien witnessed pitiable waste of life in the mud, which shaped his famous Dead Marshes scene, where bodies of warriors appear like ghosts in the marsh pools. His passions were medieval, but his work was a response to indelible experience.”

“He also said that Sam Gamgee, in The Lord of the Rings, was ‘a reflexion of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognised as so far superior to myself’.”

One thing that draws readers to Tolkien’s fantasies a century after he faced the horrors of the trenches — no, a signal lieutenant in a combat arms battalion is not in a safe position — is his accuracy in depicting, not the fanciful world of orcs and elves and mages, but the very real world of men’s hearts in combat with mortal enemies and eternal temptations. In Tolkien’s world, as in ours, weapons are tools that may be forged to serve good masters or ill, and men themselves have a choice as to which master they serve, at least spiritually.


Most people, perhaps, see this pistol only as an artifact that connects a dusty war museum with the popular culture. (Indeed, it was placed in the museum on a schedule timed to exploit a movie release). But look a little deeper and in its honest forged British steel you might see a symbol of the eternal battle of good and evil, which takes place in the hearts of all mankind.



The Dumbing Down: Lower the Standards to Meet the Men

Future Feds of America

Recently, frequent commenter JAFO reminded us on Gab of the disaster that was MacNamara’s 100,000. This was a 1960s attempt to use the Armed Forces for social engineering by deliberately admitting 100,000 volunteers a year who did not meet minimum standards for volunteers or the draft. What kind of standards? Today, the standards the services’ recruiters struggle to meet are fitness standards, given the latest Rotund Generation, and medical standards, given the universalization of psychoactive drugs. (And yes, social engineers decry those standards, but that’s a whole other issue). But fifty years ago, with a much larger military and an active draft, the people who wanted in but could not get in were disqualified, mostly, by low IQ.

They were too dumb to grunt. Process that. 

First, some background. Army mental standards are not especially high, although they vary from job to job. They divide the population into bins based on standard deviation from the mean. The bottom bin (Category V) and the next-to-bottom (Cat IV-B) are not ever supposed to be admitted. In 1966, the harsh term used for these people was mentally retarded. For the IV-Bs, perhaps, educable mentally retarded. Since then, we’ve had so many iterations of euphemisms, with each one in turn flaming out as the truth of it burns through, that we’re not really sure what the buzzword du jour is. It doesn’t alter the fact that these recruits could not do much meaningful military work in the far lower-tech Army and Marines of 1966, and they’d been even less useful now.

The next group up, Cat IV A, are admitted when the personnel wallahs are desperate for warm bodies. During the Vietnam War, for example, and during the Hollow Army of the mid and late 1970s. These are the ones the compassionate educator termed, fifty years ago in 1966, borderline retarded. 

Warm body desperation is a pathology all its own, given the highly incentivized recruiting realm, where carrots and sticks are both wielded with abandon by Recruiting Command. There are frequent test-cheating and recruiting corruption scandals as it is, most of which somehow involve tests being pencil-whipped or ringers being substituted at test time so that Slow Joe can become GI Joe. So some of these people scrape through or are smuggled through, all human-devised barriers being, ultimately, porous to incentivized human ingenuity.

IQ is highly correlated with a lot of things in life, from earning potential to impulsivity to educational attainment to crime. In fact, most psychometricians know, although few would write it down and nail it to the cathedral door, that a great deal of interracial disparities in outcomes of all kinds are downstream of interracial disparities in IQ.

Most people tend to sort themselves into groups of people of similar IQ. A Great Assortation has taken place since World War II. We mate with similarly smart spouses; we move to neighborhoods full of people much like ourselves; we work in offices full of people with similar levels of intelligence and education. Only people in public-facing jobs see the full range of human diversity in intellectual ability. Thus, because our personal heuristic field is rationally bounded by the people we know, and the people we know are not representative but are from a restricted range of a wider distribution, we’re likely to misjudge where “average” is and just how far it is to rock bottom.

We’ll get back to that, but first let’s talk about the history of The Dumbing Down.

MacNamara’s 100,000

In the mid 1960s, Robert S. Macnamara (the S. was, suitably, for “Strange” — we are not making that up), decided that the Army and Marines could cure some of the problems of underperforming civilian youth by giving 100,000 dummies a year an opportunity to excel in uniform. The project was successful at recruiting or drafting 385,000 people with IQs as low as 62 (!) into what Salon calls “McNamara’s Morons.” As you might expect, these pitiful privates did not excel in the military, and were disproportionately represented among courts martial and NJP’d troops.

FMI on Mac’s Morons, this weird site suggests it was a white man’s plot to exterminate black men, but it’s worth checking out the period (1968) New York Times story embedded therein, about the outcomes for the substandard soldiers. This dictionary entry from the Vietnam Project at Texas Tech gives a concise and neutral explanation. This Master’s Thesis from the University of Utah[.pdf] illustrates what happens when a modern, poorly educated but credentialed social justice warrior examines this through the usual SJW prisms of racism and marxist jargon.

The Colin Powell Commission and SF

SF PatchIn 1993, the first Clinton Administration wanted to start small in social engineering and work their way up. One of the first things the social engineers wanted to arrange in the military is ,not to put too fine a point on it, more minorities in Special Forces. Why this was necessary was so obvious to them that they couldn’t explain it rationally. All they could do, if you asked “why?”, was to label you racist and shriek at you — even though you were not the one trying to structure things racially. If pressed by some “racist,” they had slogans — you know the type. “Diversity is Our Vibrancy.”

Now, SF was at the time at least 40% minority, but these were the wrong minorities. SF had a lot of Hispanics. Lots of Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Central Americans, Tex-Mex border guys. We also had some other minority groups at higher-than-national average counts, including Asians, American Indians, Pacific Islanders, and Jews — when these four groups were extremely underrepresented in Big Green as a whole.

These “minorities” were invisible to the Clintonistas, who counted them all as “white.” (Fair cop, as far as the Jews and most of the Spanish-speakers, some of whom barely had a functional command of English, were concerned). “Minority” meant “black,” another one of those metastasizing euphemisms. (Remember, this was 1993; today, they’re “African Americans.” Do try to keep up, Winston Smith).

The only “minority” anybody in the Clinton Pentagon could  think of was Colin Powell, who had become a media hero for being the spokesman during the Gulf War. So they found General Powell and set him at the head of a commission looking into the desperate straits of Diversity is Our Vibrancy in Army Special Operations, especially SF.

During Powell’s career, which stretched from the sixties to the nineties, the percentage of blacks in the Army and in the combat arms had declined. One explanation (for the diversicrats, the only explanation) was deep-seated institutional racism. Which is why Powell was terminal at Lieutenant Colonel… oh, wait. Another explanation gave America a little more credit: in 1966, a bright black kid really did face a tough future, and one way forward that had a concrete set of rules and that did its imperfect best to treat all citizens alike was the armed services. It was a great pathway to the middle class for people who didn’t have another. But by 1996, their sons (and daughters) had other pathways. Colleges wanted them, employers wanted them, and the Armed Services were just one more option, not the standout option they’d been to Dad or Uncle Mike.

But Powell, at his core an honest man, didn’t come up with a bullshit report, but rather, with two possible structural changes in SF recruiting standards that might meet the quotas-not-quotas envisioned by the politicians.

Two things were keeping “minorities” out of SF, Powell said: the swim test, and the GT Score or IQ cutoff. An SF volunteer has to swim the length of a pool and back (although at least once they passed a guy for walking the whole thing on the bottom and periodically sounding for air like a marine mammal, because he was such a will-not-quit dude), and an SF guy has to be about one standard deviation above mean IQ. (Technically, GT 110, with GT 100 normed to the mean).

Now, for reasons known but to God (but that we’re going to offer informed speculation about here), blacks come to the Army less likely to be able to swim, statistically speaking, and they have a harder time learning to swim. Army diversicrats (a vast and extremely pampered group these days) have a bunch of nonsense about inner city kids, victims of racism, no swimming opportunities, yadda yadda. In the NCO corps, this same idea was more pungently expressed that “some kids played in the swimming pool, some kids played in the fire hydrant,” and there might be some truth in it.

But in our experience, a bigger swimming problem for black SF recruits was biology. Ceteris paribus, young black men have considerably less body fat than their white or Asian cohort. This translates quite directly into less buoyancy, making learning to swim both more difficult and more frightening than it is to your training teammates.

The swim test could probably be dispensed with, although it is very, very useful to be a strong swimmer in many surprising military situations. But SF guys work in teams; the water lovers self-select onto scuba or maritime operations teams, and on any other team, one weak swimmer or two is just something the team sergeant keeps a mental note of — one hopes the guy has other, strengths (as anyone who makes it through SF training tends to do). Nobody liked it but they saluted and carried on.

The IQ test was different. There is no place for a dumb SF guy, and the average team house probably has a higher average IQ than the liberal arts faculty at a state university. The guy you thought was your team’s village idiot was at least one standard deviation at least above the general run of humanity.

Moreover, the diversicrats knew the toxic effect of just lowering the GT Score — the military test’s IQ equivalent — for the desired minorities, would serve to flag members of that minority as “probably dumb,” and engender rather than diminish discrimination, unfairly, especially against the guys who were already capable of meeting the extant standard. (Mind you, there was no evidence for discrimination, just uneven volunteer rates and pass rates by race). So they did something that the guys hated even more — they lowered the IQ gate for everybody. This meant a rivulet of borderline black recruits amidst a Niagara of borderline whites.

And we waited, out in the team rooms and company HQs, for the deluge of idiots (actually, average-IQ men) to the teams. But it didn’t happen. What happened was this: completing SF training, too, had always been highly correlated with IQ or GT Score.  So more dumb (really, average) guys entered the training pipeline, but almost all of them flunked out, or dropped out. The Army just wasted a ton of money encouraging good but not-SF-material guys to try out. Even more unfortunately, the experience soured some of them on the Army overall, depriving who knows how many conventional companies of competent commanders, and platoons of solid sergeants, down the line?

After some years, and the departure of the Clinton suits (although they left behind plenty of sporulating diversicrats in the civil service ranks) the GT score gate was put back up, at least partially. We don’t think about the racial make-up of the SF Regiment today, but it’s probably about where it was in 1993, 60% white, 40% minority, maybe 5-8% of those minority guys being black. But they all met a known standard, and that’s solid gold in a profession where intramural trust is paramount.

They’re now saying that recruiters have to be able to recruit troops with criminal records. You know, for Diversity. Because Diversity is Our Vibrancy.


The Department of Justice Today and Police

And now, we have the Department of Justice arguing in a position paper on Advancing Diversity in Police Hiring (press release and .pdf) that we need to turn the cops into a modern equivalent of MacNamara’s Morons, plus we need to stop doing background checks on candidates because Diverse Vibrancy candidates are more likely to be felons and/or gang members. Therefore, being a felon or gang member, says DOJ, should not be a DQ.

Gee… even MacNamara just hired retards, not retarded felons.