Category Archives: The Past is Another Country

An Unwanted First for the Destroyer Okhotnik

Three Okhotnik-class Ships at Anchor, early 1900s.

The ship was patrolling an anchorage in the Baltic Sea on 26 September, 1917. The Germans had been softening up the Russian forces in the area for what both sides expected would be an offensive against the Russian-occupied seacoast. German naval air forces, which had air superiority, conducted aerial bombing from airplanes and Zeppelines. They destroyed the magazine of one shore battery with a lucky hit, a fire, and secondary detonations. German land-based naval aviation attacked Russian ships with torpedoes, and scattered mines. The torpedoes had mechanical problems; the mines, too, had yet to score.

Rendering of Okhotnik. As the photos show, the bow rake of this model is incorrect.

As luck would have it, the ill-fated Okhotnik and her ill-fated skipper, Lieutenant Second Rank V.A. Fok, went down in history as their ship went down in the Baltic, first naval vessel sunk by an air-deployed mine. And Fok went down with his ship, a testament to the collapsed discipline of the revolutionary Russian armed forces (this was the Provisional Government period).

As the Russian torpedoboat destroyer Okhotnik carried out picket duty in the manoeuvre basin near buoy number 4 on 26 September, she struck a German mine. This mine had been laid by a German aircraft and Okhotnik carried the dubious distinction of being the first warship sunk by an aerial mine. Neither the commander nor officers wished to abandon ship. Harald Graf described the situation as follows:

Soon all the boats were overflowing with sailors and nobody thought to offer the officers a place. They considered it improper to ask for a place and remained aboard the torpedoboat, silently observing the leaving of the boats. The torpedoboat sank, and soon water flooded over the deck on which the officers stood….

With Okhotnik two more officers were lost, the commander Senior Leitenant V A Fok, and Leitenant V K Panferov.1

We’re still looking for information on German air-delivered mines of WWI. But this US patent was granted in 1917.

This first effective use of aerial mines was far from the last; air-laid mines would sink hundreds of ships in the Second World War. But given the Baltic’s situation as a forgotten theater of World War One, this far-ranging and effective German air-sea campaign is practically unknown today. In a master’s thesis for the Air University in 1992, USAF Major John Chilstrom, an FB-111 and B-52 strategic bomber commander, did a deep dive into aerial mining history, but while he credited the Germans for kicking the technology off, he missed his target by one war:

In World War II, the Luftwaffe was first to lay mines from the air and first to field many of the weapon’s innovations.2

The first recorded aerial minelaylng in combat occurred on November 20. 1939, when nine Heinkel 59 floatplanes flew to the Thames Estuary. Although five turned back due to navigation difficulties, four aircraft laid seven mines that night and thirty-four more in the following two days.

However, two of the mines dropped on the third attempt fell in shallow water, enabling the British to recover examples of Germanyís “secret” weapon–the magnetic mine. “Britain had captured her biggest prize since the war began.” 3

While that could be read as giving the Germans credit only for being first in World War II,  nowhere else in the manuscript does he credit WWI with aerial mines. This is not to discredit Chilstrom’s work overall; it’s an engaging history of a little-studied aspect of World War II, and has direct applications to the future.


  1. Staff, p. ? (using an electronic copy lacking page numbers).
  2. Chilstrom, p. v.
  3. Chilstrom, p. 7.


Chilstrom, John S. (Major, USAF). Mines Away! The Significance of US Army Air Forces Minelaying in World War II. Maxwell AFB, Alabama: Air University, 1992. Retrieved from:

Staff, Gary. Battle for the Baltic Islands: Triumph of the German Navy.  Barneley, S. Yorks: Pen and Sword Maritime, 2008.

Poetry Minute: An Irish Airman Foresees His Death (Yeats, 1919)

An Irish Airman Foresees His Death
William Butler Yeats, published 1919

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public man, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

Many people take this poem as an example of Yeats’s powerful gifts of imagination and imagery, and his ability to bring modern events into classical poetic forms. But there actually was a real Irish Airman on the poet’s mind: Robert Gregory served with the Royal Air Force Flying Corps and was killed on the Italian front in 1917. Like Yeats, Gregory came from the wealthy Anglo-Irish gentry; his mother was a friend of the poet. This is the one that is best remembered, but Yeats actually wrote several poems about Gregory’s loss; In Memory of Robert Gregory is, after An Irish Airman, the one that is most critically admired. It uses a number of literary devices but then comes back to Yeats’s assessment of Gregory, the man:

Soldier, scholar, horseman, he,
And all he did done perfectly
As though he had but that one trade alone.

Gregory was a tragic figure. A 19-victory ace, at least according to Yeats, he had received the Military Cross and the French Legion d’Honneur, and was appointed to the command of 66 Squadron, RFC. Unbeknownst to Yeats, when he was shot down and killed on 23 January 1918, he fell not at the hands of a German or Austro-Hungarian enemy but either as a result of friendly fire from a mistaken Italian ally, or otherwise accidentally (the records are not clear).

Many fans of English poetry, especially Great War poetry, know An Irish Airman Forsees His Death. Break it down into quatrains and it’s easy to memorize, a great party trick — at least, with English Lit coeds. But relatively few of them can name the Irish Airman. Now you can.

Use your knowledge wisely.

More on Whitworth and his Rifle

Yesterday’s post on Civil War Sharpshooters was meant to be a shallow overview, but one thing leads to another, and so this morning’s scheduled post was thrown back into the sea so we can have some further discussion of this subject, and especially of the English rifle used to such great effect by the Confederates, the Whitworth.

Fred Ray, whom we cited in that post, commented and included a couple of links that may be of interest. First, he has traced the English word “sharpshooter” back to 1795.

I think the question is settled, at least as far as any reference to Christian Sharps is concerned.

Also check out my articles on the web site for my book, Shock Troops of the Confederacy, which deals with Confederate sharpshooters. There’s much more to them than Pat Cleburne! Couple of articles there on the killing of Gen. John ” Couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance” Sedgwick and one on Joseph Whitworth and his rifles.

Fred’s Whitworth article is this one. It’s well researched and was a good read.

Among the things we didn’t know about Whitworth were that he invented scraping for a flat surface; invented an early caliber, and was instrumental in standardization of threads and fasteners in Britain.

Because one good article deserves another, here’s the section on the Whitworth from Fuller & Steuart’s Firearms of the Confederacy. The Whitworth was not the only English rifle used by sharpshooters in gray, as they also made good use of Enfield and Kerr rifles, but the Whitworth is the one that has captured the imagination of historians, collectors and reenactors.

This rifle is of particular interest to students of Confederate arms, as it is believed to be the only one of the imported arms that was used exclusively by the South who used them in small numbers for arming sharpshooters. They were an accurate and powerful weapon — good for a range of half a mile and were responsible for the taking off of many a federal officer.


Note: all of these illustrations are pulled from the web, not from the book quoted. This Confederate Whitworth has a replaced lock, but is for sale for a LOT of money.


The specimen shown is marked on the lock plate Whitworth Rifle Company, Manchester and on top of the barrel Whitworth Patent.

This is a Whitworth lock; it’s not from a sharpshooter’s rifle, but from a target rifle sold by James Julia. Hammer price was $10,300 in 2014,

This is the barrel marking referenced in the text, also from the Julia target rifle.

Length of barrel, 33 inches. Total length of arm, 49 inches. The bore is hexagonal. Caliber .45, using an elongated bullet weighing 530 grains.  the twist is one in twenty inches. The arm is an exceptionally well-made piece — iron mounted throughout and besides the regular site equipment, is provided with attachments for a telescope site to be mounted on the left side of the gun. The stock is nicely checkered and the arm has all of the characteristics of the highest type sporting piece. All parts bear the serial number 554.

From the Julia target gun, period “globe” or aperture sights.

In the year 1852 when the British ordnance department conducted extensive experiments to test the comparative merits of various rifles submitted to the government they found a wide variation in the accuracy updatable. Whitworth, one of the leading technicians of the day, was commissioned to make exhaustive experiments at the cost of the Government in order to discover the best form of rifling.

This gentleman had devoted a great deal of time and study to the design and manufacture of cannon and had adopted the polygonal bore as giving the best results and decided to use this type of rifling for his small arms. The advantage of the elongated bullet had long been demonstrated but in attempting to use it in connection with the polygonal bore considerable trouble was experienced from the ball “capsizing” or “turning over”.  He became convinced that this action was due to the slow spiral and eventually after testing every graduation from one turn in seventy-eight inches to one turn in five inches found the necessary rotation to impart the required steadiness to the ball and cause it to maintain a flight parallel to its axis was best obtained at a pitch of one turn in twenty inches.

On tests before the Minister of War and many distinguished officers the Whitworth rifle of .45 caliber beat the Enfield of government factories by three to one. The mean deviation at 500 yards was four and one-half while the recorded best of any rifle previously tried was twenty-seven.

The rifle was never adopted into the Government service but 40 of them were made for the competitive shoot of 1860 for the Queen’s prize at the meeting of the [British] National Rifle Association. Plate XXIII shows an enlarged view of the bore of this arm and the machine made bullet used with it.

While the original bullet for the Whitworth rifle was hexagonal to fit the rifle bore, those used by the Confederates were for the most part cylindrical.

This is characteristic Whitworth hexagonal rifling. Also from the Julia gun.

He notes that “20 or 30” of these rifles were slipped through the blockade, and divided equally between Eastern and Western rebel forces, but Bilby thinks that a much greater number of the Whitworths must have been on hand — probably hundreds.

Fuller & Steuart also reproduce this period article:

The Richmond Daily Examiner of November 10, 1863, says:

We have a wonderful gun in our army, the Whitworth rifle. it kills it 2000 yards, more than a mile. It is no bigger than the Mississippi rifle. [US Rifle M1841 -Ed.] With a few of these rifles Longstreet shot across the Tennessee River, killing the Yankees and completely blocking the river road.

They go on to reproduce some combat tales of the rifle in action.

Sergeant Grace of the Fourth Georgia killed General Sedgwick of the Union Army with a Whitworth rifle at a range of 800 yards.

Sergeant Grace used a globe sight. Most of the Whitworths were equipped with telescope sights, but these were easily lost.

Whitworth rifles are said to have done terrible execution at Fort Wagner, Charleston.

General Cleburne, writing in 1863, said: “The fire of five Whitworth rifles appeared to do good service. Mounted men were struck it distances ranging from 700 to 1300 yards.”

Twenty men of Company F, Eighth North Carolina Regiment, were armed with Whitworth rifles with globe sights at Morris Island. South Carolina sharpshooters also had Whitworths and General Lytle is said to have been killed at Chickamauga with a bullet from a Whitworth rifle.

This is one type of False Muzzle, from another target gun (this one a Maine gun for sale by Joe Salter). It was used to ensure the bullet was started right, aligned with the bore. A False Muzzle was usually part of a target gun’s standard accessoried.

One of the great Whitworth mysteries remaining is: why did the Union never buy any? Both armies bought plenty of Enfields from Britain. But if the Union bought even a single Whitworth, no trace of the transaction has been found.


We’d be remiss if we didn’t point out Fred Ray’s book on Confederate States sharpshooters. You can probably find it at your favorite online bookstore, but the promotional website has more information…

…and you can buy it there. (We did, hard and soft cover editions).  There seems to be more useful information on the website in terms of an errata page, and more of Fred’s articles, that extend his work, and are free to read for those of who who can’t explain to Mama $30 on another book. (“What’s wrong with reading the books you already have?” <– one downside to making an important choice based on pulchritude alone, in the bloom of youth).

Update II

We let this go live without images, in the interests of speed, but Holy-Wall-o-Text, Batman, so we’ve added some illustrations to ease the barrage on your eyes. Apologies to early readers.

Civil War Sharpshooters

They stare at us out of ancient daguerreotypes and glass negatives, or take aim in a Winslow Homer print (right): serious young men. In the photos, they’re posed in a frozen position because of the photo technology of the day, dressed in rough uniforms and clinging to a long rifle. Most of them were, like soldiers of time immemorial, youths in their teens and twenties; a few of them were wise old men in their forties and fifties. They were the sharpshooters of the Civil War. And what does that mean, exactly? Who were they?

Berdan’s US Sharp Shooters. (All images do embiggen with a click).

The case of Civil War Sharpshooters is complicated by the English language. The term “sharpshooter” has come to mean an excellent shot, especially with rifle; in modern American military usage, it is the intermediate of the three grades of marksmanship badge, from superior to inferior: Expert, Sharpshooter and Marksman. But there also was, at the time of the Civil War, an important early breechloading rifle manufactured by the firm of Christian Sharps.

So, were sharpshooters soldiers who are sharp at shooting, or soldiers who shot Sharpses? Would you believe, the answer is: both, and neither?

Yeah, that calls for an explanation.

Etymology of “Sharpshooter.”

The word actually was “culturally appropriated,” as those whacky college kids say, into English about 1800 from modern German, and is a true cognate of the German Scharfschütze. In German that term now means a good marksman, often with precision equipment, but 200 years ago in America (or 300 years ago in the German principalities) it meant troops armed with (more accurate and slower-loading) rifles, not smoothbore muskets. These troops were used as pickets and skirmishers as well as being deployed as the 18th and 19th Century equivalent of designated marksmen. They were closer to what English military practice would call rangers.

In an interesting post on the term on a the Civil War blog, Fred Ray dismisses the idea that Christian Sharps and his breechloader had anything to do with the coinage of the term:

A persistent story attaches it to Berdan’s Sharpshooters, who with their Sharps rifles were then (so the story goes) called “Sharps shooters,” and later just sharpshooters. Trouble is, it’s not true, any more than is the tale that Fighting Joe Hooker gave his name as a synonym for prostitute.

In fact, sharpshooter goes back in Germanic Europe at least as far back as the early 1700s or so, when the modern rifle-armed troops were first used in the Austrian and Prussian armies….

[W]hen Christian Sharps was born in 1811, the term had already been in use for a hundred years or so. Sharps did not patent his breech-loading design until 1848.

Interestingly, the word means the same in German and English, and appears in both Old High German and Old English. One etymologist, Carol Pozefsky, traces the English variation of the term as applied to riflemen back to 1802. My surmise, then, would be that it came into modern English by way of the 5/60th Royal Americans, a mostly-German unit raised by the British Army as a result of their experiences during the American Revolution. The 5/60th pretty much went with the practices of the German jaeger light infantry, including, one would presume, the term sharpshooter. NOTE 1

The link to Carol Pozefsky’s etymology of the word, unfortunately, breaks.

Sharpshooters as skirmishers

At the time of the US Civil War (1861-65), then, “sharpshooter” was a term of art, already of considerable antiquity, and it meant rifle units either constructed for, or at least detailed to, skirmishing duties.  “Skirmishing” is not something one sees in a modern operations order, so what was that? Basically, it meant that they screened the army, almost like foot cavalry. With the Army in a static position, they would be posted forward as checkpoints and observation points — called by the now-archaic term vedettes, which like most sharpshooter tactics of the American armies was borrowed from French chasseur doctrine and practice.

On the move, the sharpshooters would screen the van and the flanks of the army. In theory, they would use their superior skills and greater weapons effective range, if need be, to break contact and deliver the ground truth to the commander. If it sounds like the Ranger companies in the Korean War US Army, well, unit names changes but tactical principles endure. They were not meant to be the equal of a regular infantry company or regiment in the line, although sometimes they were employed that way. (Indeed, that’s what broke the Ranger companies in the Korean War).

There was little difference in the employment of sharpshooters in the Union or Rebel armies. The difference was greater, in fact, between the more important armies around Virginia, and the less well-resourced armies contesting the West. The Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia both found reason to employ sharpshooters both as skirmishers and as long-range marksmen.

Berdan’s USSS

Berdan’s Sharpshooter, Reenactor

Hiram Berdan makes an an interesting character. In Joseph Bilby’s Civil War Firearms, which has a whole chapter on sharpshooters (NOTE 2), he describes the man’s character and attainments:

Hiram Berdan, born in New York and raised in Michigan, was a talented engineer, practical scientist and inventor responsible for such diverse devices as a gold crushing machine and a mechanical bakery. In addition, he was one of the premier American rifle shots of the 1850s. Berdan’s inventive genius, applied to firearms, would secure his place in history. The burdens centerfire primer for metallic cartridges, for example, is still in use world wide. One thing Hiram Berdan was not, however, was a soldier. He was a self-promoting windbag.NOTE 3

Contemporary news page with scenes of Berdan’s sharpshooters. Man at center is not Berdan.

But the windbag, self-promoter, and worse — Bilby also calls him out for “strong reluctance to personally confront the enemy,” a toxic accusation in the world of 1860s manhood, and one that was leveled at Berdan by his contemporaries — was an excellent recruiter of superior men. He ultimately recruited two regiments, the 1st and 2nd United States Sharp Shooters, promising them Sharps rifles, and paying any man for his target rifle, if he brought it along.

The men were selected, probably, by a marksmanship test. (That’s how other sharpshooter units did it, but there’s no proof in the case of Berdan’s Sharpshooters). The standard was not too terribly high, Bilby thinks: a 10-inch group with the service rifle, at 200 yards.

Berdan changed his mind about the Sharps and decided to get his men ordinary Model 1861 Springfield rifles. These were good weapons, more appreciated than the smoothbores, 1841 rifles, or Austrian Lorenz rifles many Union units had to reckon with. But the men rejected them, holding out for the Sharpses they’d been promised. They were fobbed off for a while with Colt repeating rifles, but Colonel Ripley, the director of ordnance, ultimately relented and let Berdan order 2,000 Sharps rifles, with any surplus to be stored in Washington. (Berdan spent the rest of his time in uniform defending his spare rifles from raids by other Union officers. He would resign before war’s end, and sell carbines of his own design to the Union Army). Berdan’s Shar’s rifles came with double-set triggers, and nlike all other Sharps rifles, with a socket bayonet. (The regular Sharps bayonet was a bulky sword bayonet. The USSS troops seem to have, mostly, thrown their bayonets away in any case).

The Colt revolving rifle had the problem of all cap-and-ball revolvers: you can generate a lot of shots, briefly, but then it takes a very long time to reload. Reloading was also a problem with the telescopic-sighted 30-pound target rifles of the era, which were shot in a now-forgotten supine position; one set of sharpshooters that found themselves in close-quarters combat had to use their rifles as clubs.

Other Union Sharpshooters

Because the term “Sharpshooter” was in general use for any rifle-armed skirmisher, there were quite a number of state Sharpshooter regiments of varying quality and equipment. The Massachusetts company shown below is well-stocked with monster target rifles!

They lacked Berdan’s regiments’ unique designation and green uniforms, but had their own tales of combat. We recommend you read Bilby’s works for more detail on these guys.

Sharpshooter Weapons and Equipment

Rifles for sharpshooters were always in short supply. The Ordnance Department was loath to let sharpshooter regiments buy Sharps rifles, because every time Sharps filled a rifle order, carbine production suffered, and the Sharps was the most preferred of the many breechloading carbines used by the Union cavalry (at least until the emergence of the cartridge Henry and Spencer later in the war, which still couldn’t match the Sharps carbine for range).

The bifurcated nature of sharpshooter operations meant that sometimes a heavy target rifle was just the thing, and other times a rapid-firing carbine or other breechloader was the right weapon. The USSS wound up issuing everybody Sharps rifles and maintaining a quantity of the target rifles as organizational equipment, brought up with the supply trains and operated by the best of the best shots.

The target rifles originally were recruited into sharpshooter regiments, as it were, alongside their owners. Some regiments paid a substantial premium for a soldier to bring a suitable long-range rifle. But these rifles were problematic as each used a unique bullet mold and false muzzle (for loading) that came with it, unlike ordinary rifle-muskets or even Sharps rifles that used a manufactured paper cartridge. Accordingly, the trade-off for the target rifle’s range and precision was a much lower rate of fire. And with their weight, they were disruptive on the march.

Rebel Sharpshooters

The Confederacy, too, used sharpshooters, but they do not seem to have sustained entire organized regiments. They would stand them up and break them down. They always struggled for quality firearms; a couple of state militias had bought some Sharps rifles before the war broke out and cut off that supply.

The South did have one rifle that that the North would have envied, had its military leaders had any sense: the Whitworth. (Its designer was the same Whitworth whose patent fasteners are cursed by restorers of old British cars and aircraft).  This was a .45 caliber English rifle with a hexagonal bore. It was meant to be used with hexagonal bullets, but could also shoot a cylindrical projectile — for which, it came with a mold — accurately to 900 yards (Bilby says even to 1,500, by using expedient extensions of the sights). Moreover, it was not significantly bulkier or harder to load than an ordinary Springfield or Enfield rifle-musket. Here’s a video of a presentation on the Whitworth:

The Whitworth was sometimes used with iron sights, sometimes with a high-mounted scope, and sometimes with the side-mounted Davidson scope seen below.

A rifle was only half the equation — maybe, less than half. The human factor was key to sharpshooter success.

Where the North had Hiram Berdan, who, whatever his failings, understood marksmanship perfectly for the era, the South had a similar impresario of sharpshooting, Major General Patrick Cleburne, who lacked Berdan’s character flaws. (Notably, he was not combat-shy, which led to his death in action on 30 November 1864). Cleburne drilled his men intensively, not on the parade-ground like most of his contemporaries, but on the rifle-range, stressing both marksmanship and — something that seems otherwise absent from the literature of the war — range estimation. Where did Cleburne learn all this? Born in County Cork, Ireland, he’d been an enlisted man in the British Army before emigrating to the United States!

In fact, most units’ marksmanship, including Sharpshooter units, was pretty dreadful, on average. This was offset by the fact that commanders often closed to smoothbore ranges before engaging the enemy, anyway.

Sharpshooter Tactics, Techniques and Procedures

It is unsurprising that Rebel and Union TTPs were mirror images, as most of the leaders of the Confederate States Army grew up in the United States Army. They went to the same schools, read the same books, adapted the same tactics from the manuals of the French Chasseur à Pied and Zouave units.

Cleburne seems to have developed one tactic that the North did not use: using his men and their accurate Whitworth fire to deny the Union the service of their artillerymen. In this period, artillery generally engaged using direct fire, and that meant that the only safety for the gunners lay in the fact that their guns outranged the enemy’s small arms.

The Confederates also used the superior range and accuracy of their sharpshooters, at times, to compensate for an overall lack of firepower or general lack of ammunition: the sharpshooter as a force multiplier or economy-of-force measure, not out of intent so much as out of necessity.

By and large, sharpshooters did not use the camouflage, concealment and stalking tricks of a modern sniper, although Bilby does recount one story in which a sharpshooter learned from a Native American buddy to camouflage himself with corn stalks whilst moving through a cornfield.


  1. Ray, Fred. Origin of “Sharpshooter.” TOCWOC Blog. Retrieved from:
  2. Bilby, pp. 103-128.
  3. Bilby, p. 105


Bilby, Joseph. Civil War Firearms: Their Historical Background, Tactical Use, and Modern Collecting and Shooting. Conshohocken, PA: Combined Publishing, 1996.

Six Millimeter Shorter Casing = $1,000 in Collector Value

This Czech vz. 52/57 rifle just sold last night on GunBroker for $1,375.00, or roughly $1,000 more than a typical vz. 52 in similar condition goes for. Where did the extra grand come from? We’ll tell you, which will require a short trip down the Warsaw Pact memory lane, and a little bit of supply and demand economics. There’s going to be some numbers, perhaps, but we will not tax anybody’s rusty math skills.

(By the way, we didn’t bid on this rifle, even though we’ve bought from this seller and were watching the auction. No reason but the sleep-intensive weekend; as a normal practice we never bid until the last minutes of the auction, and we were racked out with Small Dog Mk II when the vz. 52/57 found its new home).

Where a vz. 52/57 comes from

The Czechoslovak model 52 semiautomatic rifle is an interesting gun that borrows many manufacturing processes from the German weapons that had been made in the same factories just before. It was part of an immediate postwar reimagining of Czechoslovak small arms that produced new rifles, pistols, submachine guns, and light machine guns over a period of four years from 1948 to 1952. The firearms were initially intended to be chambered for a new 7.62 x 45 mm intermediate cartridge (rifle and MG) and the old European standard pistol round, 9 x 19 mm  (pistol and SMG).

As it happened, though, something else happened in 1948 — the Soviet-controlled Czech Communist Party overthrew the republic in a nearly bloodless coup (there were only a couple of murders and disappearances).

Within a year or two, the Czechoslovak Army was renamed the ČS People’s Army, and directed to conform to Soviet calibers. Or else! (But a resistant Czech or Slovak didn’t get shipped to Siberia… someone who didn’t suck up to the Fraternal Soviet Big Brother sufficiently went to the mines at Jachymov, to mine radioactive pitchblende with hand tools. For ten years or death, whichever comes first). Needless to say, everyone disinclined to a career-change towards uranium mining thought changing calibers was a brilliant idea.

The pistol was easily redesigned before it shipped to use the 7.62 x 25mm Russian round instead of the 9mm Parabellum, and so there were no production Model 52 pistols made (at least, initially) for the Western round. Even though the prototypes had been developed with the 9 mm, the pistol’s roller locking system was, like most such, adaptable to a wide range of loads and only a barrel swap was required. Likewise, conversion of the Sa. vz. 48 submachine gun was fairly straightforward, although with the magazine in the grip, a new, awkward grip angle was required to make the necked 7.62 feed properly.

This is one tell of a 52/57 — they wrote the nomenclature right on it.

Converting the vz. 52 rifle and the light machine gun vz. 52 to the Soviet caliber was not as easily done; some of the engineering talent in the Czechoslovak arsenals was tied up doing this until the converted rifle and companion MG rolled out in 1957, as the vz. 52/57. New production immediately converted, and sufficient existing guns were converted to arm active-duty ČSLA units, with the knowledge that a new assault rifle (the vz. 58, which was developed from the start for the Soviet M43 7.62 x 39 mm cartridge) was coming.

Another tell is the forward handguard, painted black.

Excess stocks of the old vz. 52s and their 7.62 x 45 ammunition were stored and many were exported to “fraternal socialist states” and “national liberation movements,” which is to say, guerrilla and terrorist movements worldwide. Vz. 52s turned up in Laos, Vietnam, the Congo, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and a decade later in Africa and Central America. The global diaspora of vz. 52s and 52/57s took on a new direction with importation of surplus guns to the United States. Prior to 1990s importation, the only vz. 52s in the country were GI bringbacks from Vietnam or Grenada.

The Collector Consequences

As we mentioned, a 52/57 is worth three to four times the value of a “slick” vz. 52. We believe that this is a function of supply and demand — some factors lower the supply, and others increase the demand.

Supply Factors: We don’t have numbers at our fingertips yet, but we believe raw numbers are one factor in the higher value of the the vz. 52/57. We believe fewer were made. The vz. 52 was made in plants in Považska Bystrica (coded aym) and Uherský Brod (she); the vast majority were coded “she.”  But the vz. 52 was in production from 1952 (late; it’s a rare date code to find) through 1957. Peak production seems to have been 1955/56. The vz. 52/57 was introduced in 1957, but that’s a rare date code on that version; most are coded 58 and 59. We’ve never seen one coded 60 or later.

In addition, the vz. 52 was widely exported, especially to Cuba which demanded 100,000 of them, 400,000 spare magazines, and 4 million rounds of ammunition. The Cubans in turn re-exported the Czech weaponry to every hippie with a cause and dictator wannabe worldwide in the ’60s and ’70s; this ensured that lots of surplus vz. 52s were here and there for importers to find and pounce on in the 90s and oughts. But by the time the Czechoslovaks replaced their 52/57s with vz 58s in the early 60s, they’d been cut out of the supply chain to Cuba by their Soviet masters. The Soviets had initially approved them supplying the Cubans to provide plausible deniability of Soviet arming of the island nation; once the cat was out of the bag, there was no more need for indirection in weapons supply. Ergo, the Cubans got few if any vz. 52/57s and the smaller numbers of this model were also less available for export to the USA.

Demand Factors: One of the obvious ones is that, with the vz. 52/57 being rarer, people trying to complete a collection of Czech weapons, or semiauto service rifles, or 7.62 x 39 service rifles, need to find one and people pursuing these collector themes are competing with one another to an extent that doesn’t happen with the vz. 52. But there is also competition for the 52/57s from shooters, because 7.62 x 39 ammunition is available everywhere and relatively inexpensive, but 7.62 x 45 is unavailable, after an initial brief splash of surplus that came in with the rifles.

The magazine is also a “tell.” Only the 52/57 has this about 25º angled base. Rifles were issued with two magazines, but troops were expected to load with stripper clips. Spare magazines for either vz. 52 are rare and expensive.

Given that shooters have many 7.62 x 39 options for far less than the $1,400 of a vz. 52/57, it seems probable that the main thing driving the price difference between the 52 and the 52/57 is collector demand vs. short supply; a secondary factor is that collectors who also desire to shoot the arms in their collection will have a preference for the version that shoots common ammo.

Are these Factors Generally Applicable?

Supply and Demand is not only an important economic concept, it’s as good as a natural law. If you see a price for what seems to be a common arm, your first reaction may be that the buyer or bidders is/are on crack. But when you look closely, most of the time you will see the hidden supply and demand factors that conspire to set that price point at which the market clears. If you don’t see them, then you will be tempted to conclude that someone in the transaction is using mind-altering chemicals. However, before you commit to that as your final answer, reconsider the possibility that there are supply and demand factors that you may have overlooked.

In our case, we know from experience that we make errors in understanding firearms valuations more often that we actually encounter drug-addled collectors. After all, what collector needs a drug? You’ve got all the serotonin and endorphin jolt you can imagine when you score something rare. Like, say, a vz. 52/57.

Powder Pioneer: Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier

Antoine Lavoisier was a reformed lawyer, whose curiosity made him, in some ways, the modern founder of the science of chemistry; and whose patriotism and scientific acumen led him to the leadership of King Louis’ XVI’s powder works in the very peak days of the Bourbon monarchy in France.

In other words, his timing could have been better.

The son of well-to-do, educated parents, he took the law degree as his father wished, but appointment to the privatized firm that collected Louis’s taxes gave him an income of his own and the freedom to pursue chemistry. He is revered today as one of the founding fathers of the science; his book, Traité élémentaire de chimie, was published in 1789 and was the first textbook of the science of chemistry — arguably the first textbook of science, period.

In 1775, the King appointed him as one of France’s Gunpowder Commissioners. Chem Heritage:

In 1775 Lavoisier was appointed a commissioner of the Royal Gunpowder and Saltpeter Administration and took up residence in the Paris Arsenal. There he equipped a fine laboratory, which attracted young chemists from all over Europe to learn about the “Chemical Revolution” then in progress. He meanwhile succeeded in producing more and better gunpowder by increasing the supply and ensuring the purity of the constituents—saltpeter (potassium nitrate), sulfur, and charcoal—as well as by improving the methods of granulating the powder.

Thus, chemistry was bound up with armaments even in its creation. As Michael Freemantle puts it in Gas, Gas, Quick, Boys!:

Gunpowder provides another example of the application of chemistry to warfare. The powder consists of a mixture of charcoal, the chemical element sulfur and one chemical compound – potassium nitrate. Its use in warfare dates back to the introduction of the gun as a weapon in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In fact, gunpowder chemistry also played a role in the birth of modern chemistry as we now know it.

His contributions to chemistry include such fundamentals as the naming of oxygen and hydrogen, and the understanding of how they could be combined to synthesize water, or water split to produce them. And someone had to be the first one to understand and report that the mass of reaction ingredients must equal the mass of reaction products — that someone was Lavoisier.

M Lavoisier and his wife, by French master Henry-Louis David. The scientific apparatus in the portrait is described here.

Putting a state arsenal on a scientific basis using these principles gave France a technological advantage in its longstanding conflicts with its neighbors, especially its cross-Channel nemesis. As mentioned above, improving the purity of the ingredients in the mixture, and adjusting the granulation of the powder, went a long way to improve the power, consistency, and reliability of gunpowder in the later 18th Century. This superior powder, made in the royal arsenals, using Lavoisier’s scientifically improved methods, was shipped in quantity from France to their allies in the endless wars with England, the American revolutionaries.

Unfortunately for Lavoisier, revolution didn’t stay on the far side of the Atlantic. Being in the good graces of the King had just hit its sell-by date, and hit it hard.

The American Chemical Society, as part of an in-depth exploration of the man and his impact, closed with this description of the end of Lavoisier:

Ironically, Lavoisier, the ardent and zealous chemical revolutionary, was caught in the web of intrigue of a political revolution. The TraitÉ was published in 1789, the same year as the storming of the Bastille. A year later, Lavoisier complained that “the state of public affairs in France…has temporarily retarded the progress of science and distracted scientists from the work that is most precious to them.”

Lavoisier, however, could not escape the wrath of Jean-Paul Marat, the adamant revolutionary who began publicly denouncing him in January 1791. During the Reign of Terror, arrest orders were issued for all of the Ferme Générale, including Lavoisier. On the morning of May 8, 1794, he was tried and convicted by the Revolutionary Tribunal as a principal in the “conspiracy against the people of France.” He was sent to the guillotine that afternoon. The next day, his friend, the French mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange, remarked that “it took them only an instant to cut off that head, and a hundred years may not produce another like it.”

Lavoisier experimenting, draw by his wife (who drew herself into the pictue!)

His wife, who had been a key collaborator,  and many of his friends and fellow scientists would make it through the Terror; the unpleasant Marat, the Heydrich of his time, would not. But that’s another story!

Persistence of “Obsolete” Gun Designs: 5 Reasons

At a very well-stocked gun shop, the most expensive new firearm might be a Barrett .50 or a TrackingPoint precision guided weapon. But it might not. It might very well be a European trap or hunting shotgun, a well-decorated and supremely finished, but technologically simple double-barrel over-and-under, with lockwork a 19th Century gunsmith would have recognized.

A Luciano Bosis ‘Michelangelo’ 12-bore shotgun. From the Bosis website.

For about $600 a buyer can take home the latest high-tech defensive pistol, or for about the same price a basic clone of the high-tech defensive pistol of 1911. He’s well armed either way, but why has technology marched on in the pistol world, but stood still on the shotguns used by bird busters (of the meat and clay variety alike)?

Any rifle problem in the world from rimfire plinking to open-range elk hunting has a version of the AR that can conceivably be applied to it. But hunters still buy lots of bolt-action rifles, with bolts that owe their basic design to the 19th Century efforts of Mauser in Oberndorf.

Indeed, here in New England, the single-shot break-action firearm continues to hang on in the market; new production continues.

The firearms market, then, is unlike other markets. In 1960 only a few car models sold in the United States came with automatic transmission standard; by 1970, air conditioning was in that market position, by 1980 electronic fuel injection… but these technologies are nearly universal now. Why do “obsolete” firearms actions persist and thrive in a market that has seen centuries of innovation? Why does the innovative product take its place alongside the venerable one, and not replace it?

Here are some thoughts.

  1. In some cases, the innovative product does replace the venerable one. Consider the police revolver. 30 years ago, a mainstay of industry magazine publishers was “revolver vs. automatic for police.” Nowadays, if you brought that article to your editor, he or she would suggest you need your head examined. Many agencies don’t let a cop carry a revolver, any more, even off duty.

    One of Colt’s best loved guns isn’t even made anymore.

  2. The gun buyer is inherently conservative. It’s much easier to sell a driver on the benefits of fuel injection than it is to sell a hunter who’s perfectly happy with his .30-30 on the benefits of a funny-looking plastic and alloy semiauto. (This also hurts European makers who tend to make guns that “look funny” to Americans. Think HK’s hunting rifles of the 80s and 90s).
  3. There is a draw to history in old-fashioned firearms. We double-dog dare you to pick up a Colt SAA and not think about the Old West (even if the Old West of public memory was mostly the creation of dime novels and moviemakers). Ditto, a 1911 and World War II. For many in the shooting sports, the draw to history is personal and familial. If you were the unloved grandson who didn’t inherit Gramps’s Winchester 64, you pine for one; this seems especially true for bird hunters, almost all of whom were introduced to the sport by family.
  4. Sometimes you’re tied by rules. Nobody’s going to get to use a Saiga shotgun in a trapshoot this year. Some states’ hunting laws ban semiauto or detachable-mag-fed semi weapons, on the theory that they promote snap shooting and bad sportsmanship.
  5. Sometimes the older design is perfectly fit for the task. Evolution stops because it has reached a plateau or point of equilibrium (just as evolution of living things is currently thought to do, between incidences of salutary mutation). While many jurisdictions’ regulations restrict hunting weapon magazine capacity, there’s little impetus to change these laws because the game gets a vote, too, and it tends not to stick around when the guns open up. Hunting upland game birds, two shots is often one more than you can practically get off when the birds flush, and two is pretty much the limit. Same with bolts and hunting of ground game. Doesn’t matter if you’re belt-fed, one shot and Bambi is outa there. Likewise, if there is a better gun to teach a beginner the rudiments of safety and shooting than a break-action, exposed-hammer single shot, we surely can not think of what it is.

We’re “thinking out loud,” here, and there might be more than five reasons. We’re most partial to #5 of the explanations above. But you’re welcome to shoot holes in this theory. Are there other guns than the police revolver that have become eclipsed in living memory? The .25 Auto, perhaps… what else?

Have You Gymnasticated Your Gun Today?

You can, perhaps, Gymnasticating the M1 Garand via the op-rod and follower rod. Image via CMP.

Wait, what? “Gymnasticate?” What’s that?

Well, that was exactly our reaction to seeing this word in a very interesting book, Roy F. Dunlap’s Ordnance Went Up Front. Dunlap is an interesting character, about whom little is known apart from his two books — this history of his work as a small arms maintenance NCO in World War II, and a comprehensive gunsmithing manual that remains in print. Rereading Ordnance recently, these lines jumped out at us, right off of Page 94.

In the spring of 1943 an officer approached me with the idea of finding out what this M38 [German Anti-Tank rifle, per Dunlap – Ed.] could do, as he had a gun in perfect condition. I scratched my head, gymnasticated the rifle, trying to look intelligent, and finally gave my opinion it would penetrate 1/2 inch armor at 100 yards, but not much more.

Now, Dunlap went on to discover that the gun had considerably better performance than that, but what struck us funny was the word, “gymnasticated.” And Dunlap must have expected it to, for he provided a footnote:

That word “gymnasticate” may have a few of you on the ropes, but is simply an ordnance term meaning the artificial operation of the recoil mechanism of a weapon. Usually it is applied only to artillery, but is perfectly proper for any weapon operated by or having a recoil system. When you push back on the barrel of an auto loading shotgun or a Colt.45 pistol, you are gymnasticating the arm.

Auto loading shotgun? Remember, he wrote this book in 1948; in this passage he’s talking about experiences he had in North Africa in 1942 (he would later go to the Pacific Theater, putting him in position to be able to make comparisons of Allied and Axis weapons from most nations, although he only encountered those Russian small arms that were recycled for use by Germany early in the war). The Remington 58, first ancestor of the 1100, had yet to demonstrate that an effective gas-operated shotgun was a possibility. Almost all semiautomatic shotguns of the time were based on Browning long-recoil designs, and the conventional wisdom was that a gas system would not work with low-pressure and highly variable shotgun loads.

But seriously, has anyone encountered this term, “gymnasticate,” before? We haven’t seen it, but we just have books on artillery, which is not like having experience on artillery. We know we have cannon cockers in the audience. What say ye?

Meanwhile, let’s make 2017 the year in which we spread the word “gymnasticate” far and wide, in memory of Roy Dunlap, who sharpens swords in Valhalla lo these many years. And let’s all gymnasticate a gun today. The guns seem to enjoy it.

When The Army Resisted the M16A2, Part 3 of 3

The previous two stories set the stage, for a look at a report drafted for the Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences the Army was still pursuing the “best” (an upgraded M16 meeting all Army objectives) instead of the “good” (the M16A2, which was developed and revised to meet Marine objectives). Of course, we all know the spoiler aleady: the Army accepted the Marine M16A2 as is, leaving the report as an orphaned artifact. The report is here:

Colt factory shot of the M16A2. The A2 was developed by the USMC, but was manufactured by Colt and FNMI.

This is the third of a three part series. In the first part, Thursday on, the Army contractors noted the specific solutions implemented on the A2 and the problems the Marines solved thereby, but complained that the problems and solutions were too USMC-specific. In the second part, posted yesterday, we discussed just what they thought was wrong about the Marines’ product. In this, third, part, we’ll list the modifications that they suggested in lieu of or in addition to the A2 mods.

Most of the Army’s problems with the A2 related to the burst mechanism, and the sights, especially the complicated rear sight. (This is actually an A3/A4 or M4: note the knobs, left, for removing the carrying handle. The A2 handle was forged as part of the upper receiver.


We should note that the Marines’ tests, as reported in this document (p,7), demonstrated significantly lower reliability, and increased fouling in the A2 compared to its older brother. These tests are suspect because the early lot of XM855 used was considered bad ammo, but the M16A1 did outperform the A2.

Thirty Ml6A1 rifles firing 26,010 rounds of M193

Failures to fire – none
Failures to feed – 3 (Not locking magazine in place)

Thirty M16A2 rifles firing 26,010 rounds of XM855

Failures to fire – 52 (27 – bad ammunition) (25 – mechnanical [sic] malfunctions)
Failures to feed – 3 (Improperly loaded magazines)

Those failures to fire that were not attributed to bad ammo were thought to be caused by the A2 trigger system’s Achilles’s heel, the burst trigger mechanism. The A2 performed even worse in a cold weather test, but again, it was with the questionable ammunition, and many of the failures to fire were also laid at the feet of the burst mechanism.

The report has an interesting discussion of the burst mechanism and its rationale in Marine, but not Army, small arms doctrine:

The M16A2 has less combat capability due to the elimination of full automatic fire. Full automatic fire enhances the ability of Army units to clear and defend buildings, to conduct final assaults on enemy positions, to defend against an enemy final assault, to conduct an ambush, to react to an enemy ambush, to engage an enemy helicopter or fast moving vehicle, etc.

While the Marines claim greater accuracy and conservation of ammunition for the 3-round burst control, no data were generated during the test to support these contentions and no supportative [sic] data are known to exist.

Also, it should be noted that room-to-room fighting was conducted with blanks, no close-in firing was conducted, no firing with short time limits was conducted, no firing at aircraft was conducted, etc. In other words, for all of the automatic/burst firing conducted during the test, a semi-automatic mode of fire would have probably resulted in a greater number of target hits.

Finally, to be given very serious consideration, is the fact that the burst control requires nine (9) new parts in the lower receiver, evidently contributing to the large number of weapon malfunctions during testing of the M16A2.

They also took issue with the heavy barrel (“heavy in the wrong place”), the twist rate (preferred 1:9), stock length increased when even the A1 stock was too long for small soldiers, and the fast twist’s incompatibility with the .22 subcaliber system. 

The article includes an extensive comparison of the pros and cons of Marine KD vs. Army Trainfire marksmanship modalities. These training differences result from the different combat envelopes for the rifleman: the Marines need to engage with rifles in the 300-to-800 meter space, because they don’t have the supporting arms that the Army can count on, at least, not in the same quantity. A unit that must fight with just its organic weapons needs to get the very most out of these weapons. The Army of 1986 did not consider a 500 or 600 meter target a primary rifle target, but a crew-served-weapons target.

In the end, the recommendations the contractors made were mostly about the sights. They put their recommendations in a table with the M16A1 and M16A2 stats. Since the latter are probably familiar to most readers, we omit them now to save time, and just show the contract recommendations.

Item Recommended
Front sight (day) Fixed blade, 0.090″
Front sight (night) Luminous dot on each sightguard
Rear Sight (day) single 2mm peep. A single elevation knob marked for 200, 250, 390, 25, 400, 500, 15, 600, 700, and 800 meters. Windage knob at rear. Each click equal to 1 MOA
Rear Sight (night) Two luminous dots on upper portion of receiver (or a single flip- up luminous dot located forward of the carrying handle) are aligned with front dots for shooting at night
Zero Recording Yes
Zero Inspection Yes
25m setting (day and night sights) Yes
Mechanical Zero Yes
250-m battlesight Yes
Firing mode Semi and Auto
Barrel 20″. Slightly heavier than A1 at receiver and mid-barrel. 1:9″ twist
Handguard Same as M16A2 except held in place with a securely fastened ring nut to provide rigidity.
Buttstock Same material as M16A2. Same length as M16A1. Option for adjustable length.

There are several interesting observations to make here. First, the contractors recommended that the Army make changes that would decrease the mechanical accuracy of the proposed M16Ax relative to the Marines’ A2. Specifically, these changes included the wider fixed front sight blade, the 1-MOA adjustments on the rear sight (A2 offers ½-MOA), and arguably the simplification of the rear sight. The trade-off was simplicity and ease of training, instead of superior bullseye performance.

Second, some of the proposals would definitely improve the utility of the firearm, including restoring the short stock, or replacing it with an adjustable one; increasing the barrel diameter towards the chamber rather than the muzzle, thus improving sustained fire accuracy and reliability; reverting to automatic fire from the burst mechanism (which also has side benefits, in improving the trigger’s feel and consistency). The night-sight proposal was truly ingenious.

Third, in some of these road-not-taken proposals, the Army was reverting to the original AR-10 design and rejecting changes that were largely imposed on the AR design by the Army in the previous decade. These include the rigid fastening of the handguard, and the fixed front sight blade.

Finally, these proposals were almost the last gasp of the iron-sighted military rifle. As this  document passed from the contracting officer to file cabinets across the service, without action, special operators were already wringing out scopes and single-point sights, and a few visionaries were already arguing that the day of the iron sight had run its three centuries, and was now at an end. A new generation of optical technology was eliminating the two objections that had kept optics off the rifles of most soldiers: less durability than irons, and slower target acquisition. Many men’s efforts went into winning over the Voices of Experience who still said “no” to anything with a lens, thanks to memories of Uncle Joe’s elk lost because his scope fogged up, or the VC that got away because somebody attached an unauthorized 4×32 Colt scope to the carrying handle of his M16.

What’s a Duffle Bag Cut?

It never occurred to us until recently that there were people in the gun culture unfamiliar with the Duffle Bag Cut, until a knowledgeable young gun guy asked us, “What’s a Duffle Bag Cut?” as we described such a cut on a Mauser that Santa brought us this year.

Some of the WeaponsMan related Christmas stuff, posing at the tree. The cut doesn’t show with the rifle at rest.

Thing is, if you grew up in collecting in the 50s, 60s or 70s, many WWI and WWII vintage long guns had this cut, and everybody knew why.

Rear side of the cut, which was done with the stock off the gun. The dual sling swivels (left side for cavalry, bottom for infantry) was often seen on Czech long arms like this early 7.92 mm vz.24.

But circumstances have changed, a lot. The military, especially the military police and the judge advocates, have fallen under the sway of gun control activists, and the guys are no longer permitted to take and keep war trophies.

Taking an enemy firearm as a trophy was widespread (and even encouraged, or at least permitted) in World War I and II and the Korean War. It came under some restrictions in Vietnam, and by the GWOT was totally and utterly banned.

Here’s the nose end of the cut. It looks like it was ineffectually (WECSOG?) glued in the past.

But during its heyday in the 20th Century, war trophy taking was a norm. The weapons were brought back by the frontline troops who took them, the rear-echelon troops who traded for them, and the MPs who confiscated them for their own personal benefit, which was definitely a thing, if you listened to the WWII guys when they were still around to talk.

There was a problem, though. A Mauser or Arisaka didn’t fit in a GI duffel bag (and often, all a troop had for luggage was a duffle bag and a field pack). Enter the Duffle Bag Cut. Someone would cut the stock where the cut would be hidden by the barrel band.

This WWII bringback in a genuine WWII duffle bag (late Great Uncle Ovide’s) shows how the cut made it possible to close the bag on a disassembled Mauser, where even the bare stock would have been several inches too long. .

A permanent alteration to a firearm usually gets collectors all wound up, but this cut now a 70-year-old marker, an authentic part of the gun’s history and the tale it would tell if it could talk. Under the barrel band, it doesn’t hurt the utility of the gun for display, and so few collectors would consider repairing the cut (although any gunsmith not of the Wile E. Coyote School of Gunsmithing could). Those WWII soldiers who brought back Mausers and Arisakas, etc., were looking to keep them as trophies, or have them sporterized as deer guns, and the last few inches of the wood was not of any use on a sporting rifle.

A Duffle Bag Cut should not be seen on a gun with import marks. Instead, it’s the second-best indicator (after military capture or bringback papers) of a GI bringback. And it’s just one more interesting little thing about our Christmas VZ.24 Mauser.

(Note: We were expecting to put the 3rd Part of our M16A2 paper analysis up at this point, but have delayed and delayed and fiddled, waiting for a resource that has been unavailable; should we get our mitts on it again, we’ll have the post Monday morning. We regret the delay. -Ed.)