Monthly Archives: January 2012

The Parrott Gun

No, it doesn’t shoot Norwegian Blues across the fjords (although that would be entertaining). It came up recently in the local newspaper that covers our sleepy seacoast HQ, when two adventure divers found a shell underwater that old ordnance experts thought was from a 100-lb. Parrott Gun of Civil War vintage.

So we had to look it up. The original Parrott was made in the West Point Foundry, across the Hudson from the military academy that produced the best generals on both sides of the Civil War. It was patented by Robert Parker Parrott, just a hair too soon to be a Union-only weapon in the war. A prototype was tested at VMI by a student team led by instuctor then-Major Thomas H. Jackson (later “Stonewall” Jackson), and at his behest Virginia ordered and received some before secession, so the Rebels had the technology too. The gun was identifiable by its rifling and by a thick cylinder or band of iron reinforcing the breech: the barrel was cast, the reinforcing band of wrought iron heated red-hot and shrunk around the ice-cooled barrel. The foundry cast Parrotts in several sizes — the largest were naval guns.

In an interesting coincidence, Robert Parrott was born within a few miles of the divers’ find — depending, as is usual on these things, on which of the biography links you believe.

His gun, so quaint and ancient now, was the high-tech of its day. Parrotts shot explosive shells, aimed at killing people, and solid “bolts,” which destroyed fortifications or ships with kinetic energy. Stone fortresses that shrugged off attacks by previous generations of cannon fell to the plunging bolts of the Parrotts. The legendary blockade runner CSS Alabama fell to the guns, including a 30-lb Parrott, of USS Kearsage. This was a weapon that made its mark — a high-water point, perhaps, for muzzle-loading, black-powder artillery.

The breechloading revolution was getting started at the same time the States were fighting out the bloody issues of the day: slave or free? Secession or union? State’s rights or Federal power?  And iron began to give way to alloy steel soon, also. So the Parrott’s time at the pinnacle of the artillery food chain was short. Like the blue-jacketed men who had fired them, they grew old, retired, and were forgotten.

Sometimes these guns appear in movies, not looking quite right (a cannon firing shot or shell recoils; a movie cannon firing blanks just sits there. Also, real Civil War cannons generate too much smoke to be practically filmed). And nearly 200 original 30-lb. Parrotts survive, mostly in museums or memorials, but some in the hands of (presumably wealthy) collectors (with presumably tolerant wives. The divers of the original story are not keeping the Parrott shell because, “[i]t has a pretty low wife-acceptance factor”).

That so many memorial guns survive is nothing short of amazing; once, many more were on display across the country, but World War II scrap drives denuded many public squares and American Legion posts. But certainly something this old, with such obsolete technology, could only be a static display. You would think that the sound of a Parrott firing live has not been heard in over 100 years.

You’d be wrong. To jam a second Monty Python reference into this post, it’s “not dead yet.” There are people today who shoot Parrotts and other Civil War artillery — and they fire  live, not just to nake noise and smoke.

You see, among the many living history buffs out there, the first were the Civil War reenactors, who are still perhaps the most advanced. Some reenactors go far beyond .58 Springfield rifled muskets. For them, there’s the Paulson Brothers Ordnance Corporation, who since 1976 have been cheerfully selling Civil War artillery. Their wares include Parrott rifles of several calibers (up to the 20-lb — the reenactors haven’t quite got to reproducing Kearsage yet), gun carriages to mount them on (field, siege or coastal) and various odds and ends, including other Civil War rifled cannon.

And they don’t just sell them, they shoot them, live. Look at the “action” page on the PBO website to see them firing on Army artillery ranges (possibly at Ft. McCoy, Wisconsin, although they don’t say). Most of the videos show the gun firing and then,  second (unmanned) camera’s view of the effect on target, downrange. These videos impressed us: the violent recoil, the freight-train rush of the arriving shell (much like modern artillery — being under a barrage of many of these things must have been gut-watering) and the accuracy of these “primitive” weapons. Quite amazing to see and hear the clang of a 19th century artillery bolt, propelled by black powder, nailing an armored vehicle hulk and tearing pieces off.  There are more such videos on YouTube. Enjoy, we did.


What’s the most powerful US weapon?

Hmmm.Is it the M107 .50 caliber sniper rifle?


How about the innovative XM25 “Punisher” (photo at left)?

Not that either, although it’s a great future subject for this blog. It’s the semi-auto bullpup grenade launcher that wowed the troops when five hand-built $40,000 prototypes went to Afghanistan last year (shooting $100/round prototype ammo). It’s the first individual weapon with “smart” technology in it, and it begins to fulfill, and surpass, the promise of the SPIW project from 50 years ago… the Army ordered three dozen more this fiscal year, so, yeah, we’ll probably cover it. But it’s not the most powerful US weapon.

What about the earth-shaking, widow-making, M1A1 tank?

Still not quite there. The tank requires a crew (of four), costs millions, can reach out and touch you from over a mile away, and along with two machine guns packs a smoothbore, sabot-firing 120mm main gun that can blast a fin-stabilized discarding-sabot round through the armor of any vehicle on earth. But we can escalate beyond that.

Could it be the B-2 stealth bomber, a weapon so powerful — and so expensive — that the US could only afford to build 21 of them? A weapon that can make whole grid squares vanish under the pummeling of conventional bombs, carry more JDAMs than anything else that flies, and erase whole cities, on command, with nuclear weapons?

It’s good, but it’s not Number One. Reading Big Red by Douglas Waller recently made us realize what number one is: the Trident submarine. Author Waller is usually a news-magazine correspondent, but despite that he knows a little about defense. An earlier book on Special Operations Forces didn’t stink —  and that’s apparently too high a bar for most of his competitors to clear. So we looked forward to reading his story of a rare three-month cruise on USS Nebraska, a Trident missile submarine, then based at Kings’ Point, Georgia.

That is the most powerful weapon in the US inventory; while even the XM25 usually delivers its grim message to enemies one and two at a time, the Nebraska and her sisters can erase entire nations. Officially the Ohio-Class Fleet Ballistic Missile Submarine, the Navy has 14 of these blue-water lurkers, each with 24 missile tubes, and each missile (per Waller) averaging 5 independently targetable warheads.

A couple hundred men from a Special Forces battalion can overthrow a country (and have done). The 150 or so officers and sailors in a Trident could annihilate that country. It’s a good thing they’re on our side.

Reading Waller’s book, it’s clear that, while these nuke sailors are SF’s match for professionalism, they have  vastly different culture. Some of it (like the feudal Lords and Peasants social model) seems inherited from Big Haze Gray. Other dimensions clearly result from the mortal seriousness of the work they do and the unique risks undersea sailors face. We wouldn’t trade places with them and suspect the feeling is mutual. A good thing about a volunteer military: it lets people sort themselves and fall in on the weapon that needs them, and that suits them the best.

Some theoreticians, mostly in the 1950s, thought that with such powerful weapons as ICBMs and these mighty submarines, we didn’t need the lowly rifle and its lowly rifleman any more. Of course, that’s silly; since Nagasaki we’ve fired millions of rifle shots in anger, but not one nuke. But nobody’s shot one at us either. Because Nebraska and her sisters are out there, waiting, on the ramparts, invisibly.

SHOT Show — We’re not there (w/Update[s])

We’re not there for a few reasons.

One, we’re new.

Two, it doesn’t really focus on military gear.

Three, most of the new stuff is vaporware at this point.

But primarily, number one above. .

To elaborate a little on point two, it’s a trade show, so there’s no action in historic weapons to speak of… it’s all new stuff.  It’s also not directly oriented towards defense, only towards stuff retailers can sell…other shows are better for that stuff, like the special ops expo. Although, to be fair to SHOT and its vendors, there’s been a big uptick in what we could call tactical (cough wannabee cough) gear in the last few years

To expound on point three, a bunch of stuff will be introduced and make a big media splash this week. A few companies (Ruger) are ready to ship their new introductions now. Some other products will ship in six months or a year. Some will never ship.

Consider some of the stuff that’s made a splash at past SHOT shows, like the Kel-Tec shotgun or the Surefire 4-column magazines (60- and 100-round for AR/NATO). You still can’t buy them at your local shop or at the big internet retailers… and you know they’d have had them in the shops for the holidays if they had production sorted out. The companies have left a lot of money on the table, but it certainly wasn’t intentional. Sometimes it’s a lot more work getting something into production than it first appears. Sometimes there are unanticipated problems. (Heck, look at the long and painful gestation of the M16-M4 series weapons for an example).

But primarily, we’re not there because we’re not ready. Here are some places where other sites, not so constrained, are posting their information:

ARFCOM SHOT show forum

ARFCOM SHOT 2012 photo/video thread

M4C SHOT 2012 photo thread

If you see anything interesting, shout out. Didn’t see anything magical in a quick run through these. It would be nice to hear from Kel-Tec or Surefire that they’re shipping the stuff from last SHOT to customers, but as of last week they still weren’t.

Update I: KitUp! has some good coverage. They employ a number of former SOF guys (SEAL sniper instructor, SF guy, Ranger, Recon Marine)  so their interests and ours align pretty nicely. Unfortunately they don’t seem to have a separate SHOT Show link or tag. But almost all their recent posts are new, military-oriented kit from SHOT. Don’t stop at the first page — this is some good $#!+, brethren.

Update II: Yeah, they had some good stuff there and we will get a post or two out of it. And credit them for the tip.

What is the mission of Special Forces?

Ultimately, to work yourself out of a mission, as SF has done in Iraq.

Friends of ours recently returned and saw little action on their tour. In fact, they spent much of the tour preparing equipment for turn-in or turn-over. The young guys whose first tour it was, were disappointed in not receiving the Combat Infantryman Badge.

But in fact, the miserable tour was how things shake out at the end of a war. The Washington Post’s Thomas Erdbrink reported on it early last year.

Special Forces works by, with and through friendly regular or irregular forces, in war, insurgency and counterinsurgency… and also in peacetime. TE Lawrence (the real one, not David Lean’s Peter O’Toole version) probably said it best when he wrote, “Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly.”

Or course, in that same list of 27 maxims for serving with Arabs, Lawrence also wrote, “I have never seen a successful combined operation, but many failures.” That quote should probably hang above the door of the CJSOTF.

Lawrence did, in fact, work himself out of the job.


For the spelling errors in the recent post, “When Gun Scholarship Isn’t.” Apparently we somehow saved the draft version over the spellchecked version. Those responsible have been shot, and it’s been respellchecked. By the way, “respellcheck” does not pass the spellchecker in WordPress. That’s WordPress’s problem.

WordPress’s other problems,  which are many, include the word count going stupid and counting all posts as having 0 words. Since we depend on the word counter to counter, no pun intended, our tendencies to prolix stylings, you may be in for some long posts.

When Gun Scholarship isn’t

In our post on the AR Forward Assist, we noted that not everything on the internet is true, and brought you info from a more authoritative source. Well, not everything in books is true, either. A reader gets nowhere if he does not trust his writer, but he gets further if he verifies that writer’s sources. (Indeed, one of the crucial weaknesses of the excellent book we cited in the Forward Assist controversy, The Black Rifle, is its lack of index and notes. Notes are there so you can follow up and learn more).

And that brings us to, we only realized when looking at some of Glenn Reynolds’s 10-year archive posts, the 10-year anniversary of the long, slow evisceration of a historian named Michael A. Bellesiles (pronounced be-LEEL, kind of like the Biblical demon of similar name, isn’t it?) that took place throughout 2001 and 2002.

Bellesiles produced a book called Arming America that made some bold assertions: hardly anybody had guns in the Colonial era. Civilians were seldom armed, and poorly armed when they were. Guns didn’t become common till after the Civil War. Bellesiles aimed his book squarely into the then-raging controversy over 2nd Amendment interpretation, and took a novel approach — one that no one had ever done — and saw things in the historical record that no one had ever seen. These were blockbuster assertions.

If true.

Perhaps it was just because his story hit the sweet spot of a narrative the media and academia wanted — one that reinforced their beliefs about guns — but it made Bellisles a success and a celebrity overnight. He got the Bancroft Prize , positive reviews in scholarly and general-interest publications, and a write-up in Playboy. He was a rock star of a historian.

For about six months. But then one reader after another was unable to follow up with his cited sources. Some sources didn’t say what he said they did. Others didn’t exist. Probate records he’d cited in colonial Rhode Island  didn’t map to wills that backed him up, just to names of people who died intestate. 19th-Century San Francisco probate records that he depended on turned out to have burned without trace in the earthquake and fire of 1906. These were not small, inadvertent errors. The book was a complete and systematic fraud.

Organized historians jumped to Bellesiles’s defense and stuck with him even as his stories changed, transmuted and twisted into unintelligibility. His hard drive crashed. His office flooded. His dog ate the date. The American Historical Association and Organization of American Historians defended Bellesiles. The History News Network’s gang of ponytailed 60s throwbacks shouted down questions. Roger Lane in the Journal of American History described Bellesiles’s research as “meticulous and thorough” — without ever seeing any of it. The National Endowment for the Humanities gave Bellesiles a fat government-funded library fellowship. But Bellesiles never did his part by producing the data. He couldn’t, of course: there was no data. He’d started with his book idea and made up data to fit.

The historians, protecting Bellesiles, did nothing to protect the reputation of their profession. It was amateurs and non-historian academics, particularly law professors, journalists, and amateur historian Clayton Cramer, a computer programmer, who did their work for them, and oh, do the historians hate them for that! Cramer’s two takedowns are here (intentional fraud) and here (90 pages of errors).

Bellesiles’s book was withdrawn by its prestigious house  (it was later republished by a radical fringe house). Columbia withdrew the hastily-granted Bancroft Prize (Bellesiles kept the money). He resigned in disgrace from Emory University. Roger Lane changed his opinion: “[T]he guy is a liar and a disgrace to my profession.” A few defenders stuck by him, Marxist historians like Jon Weiner who see history as propaganda.

Cramer ultimately got interested enough in the research Bellesiles had said he’d done, to actually do it — pore over Colonial probate records, seek period references. His book reached conclusions opposite to Bellesiles’s — but only after doing what Bellesiles would not, read the sources. Cramer didn’t get the Bancroft prize, he didn’t get a story in Playboy (is it still around, or did it die off when the last Baby Boomer couldn’t get aroused any more?), and he got panned by the pros.

Bellesiles surfaced again in 2010. A Connecticut state college, needing a warm body more than academic integrity, hired him as an adjunct, and he wound up teaching a military history course ( like hiring a Grand Kleagle to teach Civil Rights). He wrote a moving story about a student whose brother had died in the Iraq war. Like Arming America, the story teemed with liberal tropes, and like Arming America, despite Bellesiles’s reputation,  editors never bothered to check. They should have, as this, too, was a fabrication. Bellesiles did convince his superiors at the commuter college that the student, not the “professional historian,” was responsible for the historian’s falsehoods this time. His students have some comments here.

His new book in 2010 sold poorly, despite boosterism from his professional-historian friends. Supposedly it’s history. Well, according to Bellesiles, anyway. Meanwhile, he stands up in a classroom and gets paid to lie. And he still defends the book that was proven fraudulent: “It was a good book,” he told the New York Times. He reserves his bitterness for the critics who exposed his fraud and says the book “ruined my life.”

Gee, if the book did that, what effect has failing to take responsibility for it had?

The best gun magazine you never heard of

Gun magazines come and go. In the 1960s, I learned a lot from my uncle’s copies of American Rifleman, then the only NRA magazine. In the 1980s, we read titles like Combat Weapons and often learned of new small arms developments in the mag we called Soldier of Fiction — but read every month regardless.

But if you’re interested in the mechanics of guns, or their history, the best magazine ever published had a short run, from 1974 to 2001, in 123 quarterly issues. Waffen Revue magazine was small, and in the German language. Each had 164 or so pages of editorial content — the only ads were a couple of pages promoting the publisher, Journal-Verlag Schwend, of Schwäbisch Hall’s, other books and magazines.

Waffen Revue was what it was because of the excellent archive that its founder, Karl L. Pawlas of Nuremburg, had amassed. There was no question about the magazine’s accuracy on, say, the development of the MP44, because the article would reprint the original source documents. Weapons functions are clearly explained, with crisp — usually factory-original  — cutaway drawings and disassembled photos, or sometimes with pictures from original manuals. 

The magazine did not only cover small arms but also artillery, mines (getting into 18C territory there), combat and prime-mover vehicles, and much more. The Pawlas archive, we believe, passed into the hands of the publisher when Herr Pawlas passed away. Of course, it is all in German, and the subject matter is German-centric. But that’s not a bad thing.

Fire as a weapon

Weapons are guns and knives, but they’re also all around us. An essential way station on our peregrination from African arboreal apes of a million years ago, to today’s worldwide parade of humanity, was taking control of fire. Because fire is very powerful. It can maim and kill as well as cook, light and propel us.

The ancients used fire several ways, as any fan of 1950s sword-and-sandal epics knows. In World War I, pressurized gas was used to drive an inflammable liquid: first flamethrower. By World War II, all nations deployed them, although the best-known user was the USMC in the Pacific. In Vietnam, flamethrowers were also used., both the WWII vintage M2A1, but also the tank-mounted M67). Naturally there’s a go-to guy for flamethrowers out there, Charlie Hobson.

Incendiary bullets, mortar rounds, artillery shells and aerial bombs are also common. Active ingredients have included napalm and white phosphorous.

During the Vietnam War, the US replaced liquid flamethrowers with the XM197 (later M202) FLASH firing the M74 rocket. The acronym meant FLame Assault SHoulder weapon. Lighter, longer-ranged, more accurate, and less prone to collateral damage than the old backpacks, the FLASH replaced the M2 andM9 despite a so-so safety record. Russia also replaced liquid with rocket incendiaries, for similar reasons.

The M202 fires up to four incendiary rockets based on the M72 LAW Light Anti-armor Weapon (originally called the Light Antitank Weapon, until it rather spectacularly failed to stop tanks at Lang Vei in 1968). Unlike the LAW, which has a shaped-charge warhead, the FLASH has only incendiary warheads.

The fire weapon is often used by terrorists or would-be terrorists — thanks to the natural human fear of fire, it lets someone with few resources and few followers destroy property and (the ultimate goal of all terrorists) grab headlines, and even gives this power to creeps with no followers at all.

It can be used in a targeted way against a single person, as in this horrible murder in New York. (If the Times paywall cuts you off, “Cornered by Attacker in Elevator.” Then follow the Google link in).

That guy used a bug-sprayer filled with gasoline. He may not have test-fired his weapon, apparently, because he managed to burn himself quite badly while committing his crime. (The Times article, though, says he was burned in a separate arson). As we said, fire is very powerful. But his sprayer has no combat application.

Likewise, this hero tried a blowtorch vs. the police. The cops (in NH) showed remarkable restraint by not blowing his gizzard into the future and his life into the past. He “faces several charges,” it says here. We guess. For some reason, attempted arson of a police officer is not among them.

Special Forces employs certain manufactured and improvised fire weapons, mostly for point defense of camps, the classic example being the fougasse. (Many military-engineering terms, like fougasse, are originally French.  We owe to the Francophonia to the man who systematized the profession — Vauban). Flamethrowers, a staple of WWII Pacific War films, are no longer in US service; they were replaced by he M202 series, as noted above.

Interestingly enough, flamethrowers fall into a gap in Federal regulations and are not regulated by BATFE whatsoever.

Arsonists of course use fire (Depatment of Tautology!) In the 1980s and 90s, the ATF feared that arsonists-for-hire were using rocket fuel or a similar self-oxidizing material as an accelerant. (Reportedly, they have changed their minds about this, but they never solved the original Seattle case).

For the average citizen, though, fire is of little use as a weapon. Fire bombs like Molotov cocktails are considered Destructive Devices under the National Firearms Act of 1934 and regulated by the BATFE.  So all those internet experts that tell you how to make them and advise you to practice with them are setting you up to matriculate at Cold Stone College for the long course. (Tip: steer clear of Professor Bubba!). People who expect to use Molotovs against tanks are operating from a standpoint of ignorance of both weapons.

Yes, the Finns and the British produced them in 1940. Both nations were up against the wall and lacking better weapons at the time.

No, Manhood is not “in crisis”

…just because some seagoing hotelier didn’t measure up to the standards by which ship’s officers, and any kind of leaders for that matter, are judged. Yes, Francesco Schettino is a coward and a pathetic excuse for a man. But does that mean every man these days is a coward?

You might think so if you read some of the many stories like this one from Rich Lowry

“When they make the movie about the Costa Concordia, the cruise ship that grounded off the coast of Tuscany, there won’t be romantic tales about its captain. Italian authorities immediately arrested him on suspicions of manslaughter and abandoning ship prematurely. He might have been the skipper of the ill-fated vessel in all senses of the word.

Guys aboard the Costa Concordia apparently made sure the age of chivalry was good and dead by pushing it over and trampling on it in their heedless rush for the exits.”

..and this

“One of the features of the disaster that has provoked a great deal of  comment is the stream of reports from angry survivors of how, in the chaos, men refused to put women and  children first, and instead pushed themselves forward to escape; and how the Italian crew ignored passengers and reportedly shouldered their way past mothers and pregnant women to get into lifeboats.”

“The chivalry of Edwardian heroes such as Captain Scott is today seen as old-fashioned”

Well, what about this? Roberto Bosio was an off-duty captain deadheading on the ill-fated cruise ship. The UK Telegraph newspaper says this of him:

He is understood to have coordinated the entire rescue effort, working alongside crew members throughout the night, helping women and children into lifeboats.

Bosio, for his part, demurs. “Don’t call me a hero. I just did my duty, the duty of a sea captain – actually the duty of a normal man.” His assessment of Schettino is blunt: “Only a disgraceful man would have left all those passengers on board.”

There’s more such stuff at the link — read the whole thing.

In addition, contempt and derision of both Schettino and the passenger men who behaved in such an unseemly fashion is universal. It hasn’t reached the life-destroying levels that rumors of cowardice reached with respect to Edwardian gentlemen, but it’s real. One manifestation is t-shirts that riff off Coast Guard officer Gregorio De Falco’s disgusted command to Schettino: “Vado a bordo, cazzo!” which translates more or less as “Get back on board, dickhead!”

The question is, then: which is today’s man, Schettino or Bosio? Having answered that, mentally, look at the question another way. The men you surround yourself with are the sample that informed your decision, and like any small sample you are probably suffering from restriction of range and a non-representative sample.

If you spend time around the young men in today’s military, especially in SOF, you’ll never think for a minute there’s some existential crisis of manhood happening. So if you see that, ask yourself why you are in the company of a set of toxic men.

GMF 02 Update: Opt-Out

When writing about GunsAmericaa impresario Paul Helinski’s doing the Gun Marketing Fail figurative version of what our gun safety fail poster child in the photo at left did, we couldn’t remember ever reading the GunsAmerica blog. Turns out we had, because when we bloggers nobodies signed up for GA’s auction site, we signed up for the blog update emails.

A reminder came plonk into the mailbox bright and early Tuesday. And now we remember the GunsAmerica blog. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare this week, because it’s the SHOT Show week, but it’s all new product press releases. With plenty of dead picture links for some reason. But like any legal mailing list, there are opt-out instructions. Turns out there is nothing to it. Two clicks and our unworthy eyeballs no longer soil Mr Helinski’s cut-n-pasted press releases.

Well, there ya go. Wonder how many other bloggers nobodies are doing this across the net? But we’re sure Paul Helinski doesn’t care. We’re nobodies to him, and he doesn’t want our nodollars. Message received.