January 22, 2020: The Season Begins With A Splash
Every year the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries holds an event they call "Christmas For The Fishes" at Claytor Lake State Park. It's a way to build up fish habitat by putting old Christmas trees on the lake bottom. The trees are tied to concrete blocks and ferried out to specific places, where they're dropped over the side. Each boat can carry 15 to 25 trees at a time. I'm a member of the DGIF's Complementary Work Force, so was asked to help out. There were at least 20 workers: CWF volunteers, members of the Friends of Claytor Lake (FOCL) group, a number of Park Rangers, and Conservation Police Officers. All told, we put about 400 trees into the water.
I don't know where the trees come from, but there were plenty of them piled up along the lake shore at the Park boat ramp. Some were scrawny "Charlie Brown" types, but there were a few that must have come from displays in large area hotels: one had a trunk at least 10 inches in diameter. We dragged them to the dock (above) the boats pulled up and loaded them on board, and then went out to dump them. Things go surprisingly fast: it took not quite 3 hours to get them all in place. The image above shows a few of the trees ready to load up.
This has been going on for some years, and so far as I know the trees are always put in the same locations. Claytor Lake is pretty old (it was built in the late 1930's) and whatever structure was there originally has long since disappeared or has been silted over, so the trees and blocks provide cover for bait-fish species: the baitfish attract larger ones like bass, so the idea is improve the fishing. I have no idea how long a submerged tree lasts, but over the years there have been thousands of them put in place, and the concrete blocks from years past are also still there.
So the season has begun. In a week and a half I'm to go for the annual Super Bowl Sunday Bird Shoot. So far, so good.
February 2, 2020: Groundhog Day Bird Shoot
Today being SUPER BOWL SUNDAY, which is the nearest thing the USA has for a national religious holiday, and also being Groundhog Day, my friend Phil and I (who are SUPER BOWL agnostics) set up a bird shoot at John Holland's Shooting Preserve in Glade Hill. With us came a third shooter, Arnold, a retired physician and a friend of Phil's. He's also a member of the same shooting sports club we are, and an avid shotgunner and bird hunter. So it was a congenial party all around. Three is about optimum for one of these put-and-take shoots. We've done it with more but it gets—ahem—crowded, which is not a good thing when shotguns are being waved around.
Phil likes to shoot quail; I'm more inclined to shoot pheasants because they're big enough that I can hit them now and then; to balance things off we added in a few chukar partridge (right) a bird midway in size between the two others. Incidentally, it's the national bird of Iran; the chukar is a middle-eastern and Asian species imported to the USA as a gamebird. They aren't established here locally but there are naturalized breeding populations in some western states and they're highly prized. We paid for 4 pheasants, 6 chukar, and 21 quail. John puts them out in his fields, we go out with the dog(s) to find them, and all we have to do is shoot them. Ha!
I brought my Stevens Model 311 12-gauge SxS, which gave me a bit of trouble (more on this below); Arnold was toting a lovely Browning Citori in 20 gauge, and Phil had his old reliable corn-shucker, a Browning Auto-5 in 12 gauge. I like 4's for pheasants, and 7-1/2's for the smaller birds. I've always had good luck with 4's on these big birds, and my guns seem to like 7-1/2's better than 8's.
My 311 has some personal history. In the Fall of 1980 I bought a cabin in Orange County, Virginia as a weekend place. My wife and I fixed it up, and I planned to hunt there. Since at the time I was living in Washington DC and the District had absolutely Draconian gun laws, I decided to buy a gun that even the Nazis in what passes for a DC government couldn't really gripe about: a double-barrelled shotgun. The 311 was the last US-made double of its day, and I wanted it to be as useful as possible, so I ordered a 12 gauge. It came into DC to the only store licensed to sell any guns at all, Herman's Sporting Goods on Wisconsin Avenue. They had to bring it in from their Virginia store, and before I could actually pick it up I had to go through DC's rigamarole of fingerprints, photos, what amounted to a security clearance, written police permission, registration, and all the other bullshit that only people who don't commit crimes ever obey. It took about two weeks for me to get permission to exercise my Second Amendment right to have this gun, and even then I was forbidden to have it in any condition except "unloaded and disassembled or bound with a trigger lock, except when in use for legitimate sporting purposes in the District of Columbia," of which there were precisely none; but bureaucracies don't worry about little details like that. I wanted to be able to legally transport it to and from my Virginia cabin and had to jump through the damned hoops to do so. Incidentally, it was also illegal for me to possess any ammunition of any kind except that for my shotgun. A single .22 Long Rifle cartridge in my car would have got me a stretch in the DC jail. So this gun was perhaps the last firearm legally purchased in DC until they were compelled by SCOTUS in the Heller decision to repeal their idiotic laws, which of course never made a single dent in the crime rate.
I've owned it since 1981. I had it restocked, because the original stock was a made from a piece of construction-grade scrap 2x4 with a "walnut finish" that flaked off if you looked at it hard. I had a piece of walnut lying around that would serve so I took it to a local gunsmith and had him make a new stock and fore-end. I have short arms so it's been more or less fitted to me, and I had him add sling swivel bases. Every long gun of any kind should have a sling! It has a good recoil pad and a rubber buffer behind the trigger guard because it beats the hell out of my right middle finger in recoil, especially with heavy loads. I also had it fitted with choke tubes. It will accept 3" shells but those are pretty fearsome things to shoot out of it, as are heavy rifled slug loads. I've never taken a deer with it, but I've used it on various species of birds, including barn pigeons, not to mention other small game. It's a sturdy, plain-vanilla workaday utility gun that has served me well. If I were a "one gun man," which thank God I'm not, this one would be a good choice for anything with fur or feathers.
I mentioned dogs. Arnold has a dog, Zeke, the skinniest Labrador Retriever I have ever seen in my life. He takes Zeke with him when he hunts wild pheasants in North Dakota, and to give him his due, Zeke did seem to know what he was supposed to do when he encountered a bird. He's a "pointing Lab," a strain I've heard of but had never encountered before. John Holland's dogs are Brittanies, mainly, and they're very highly trained and experienced. Zeke, though trained, has nowhere near the level of experience, though his enthusiasm is high. He spent the first hour running as fast as he could and covering a lot of ground, but not turning up as many birds as we thought he would. He does point, but unfortunately he's not rock-steady and the scent of birdies in his nose often got the best of him. He would lunge and catch the bird himself rather than flushing it for us to shoot. No doubt this habit can be trained out of him eventually but of the four pheasants we took, I shot two (and both were excellent shooting, if I do say it myself) and Zeke got the other two. He also got some of the quail. Alas, he also has the opinion that every bird he brings back should be the subject of an ownership dispute and/or used as a tug-of-war toy, but Arnold is working on that.
I was pleased with my shooting and I made one spectacular crossing shot on a chukar as well as knocking those two pheasants down handily. By the end of the morning Zeke was exhausted so Arnold put him in the truck and John brought his two dogs, Lexie and Molly, to bat clean-up. In the end we brought home all the pheasants, all of the chukar (I think) and 19 of the quail. Not a bad day.
I did have some trouble with my gun that was a bit disturbing. Firing it at a quail, it actually knocked me down! This had never happened before and I was a bit concerned about it. I had trouble opening it up, but when I did get it open, the left barrel, as well as the right, had an empty shell in it! In other words, it had "doubled," fired both barrels at once. With two pretty heavy loads in it, it's not surprising I was literally knocked off my feet!
When I got home, I took the gun apart. I found that a tiny sliver of wood from the inside of the stock, a piece no bigger than a matchstick, had come off, lodging itself under the sear for the left barrel. When the right barrel went off the recoil must have shifted the piece of wood, tripping the left sear! It also was large enough to get into the space where the safety catch had to go when the gun is "broken" to reload. On the 311 the opening lever automatically puts the safety on. Since the safety catch was blocked from movement I couldn't get the gun open because there was nowhere for the safety to move into.
I removed the piece of wood, lubricated the moving parts, and reassembled everything. There was nothing else I could find, and there wasn't any noticeable grit or dirt in the action which might have caused trouble, so I'm assuming things are back to normal. I haven't fired it again but it seems to work OK now.
So the hunting season—if you can call put-and-take "hunting"—has begun. Squirrels are still open until the end of this month but I probably won't get out again, too many other commitments. The DGIF's "kill permit" system is in abeyance for the moment for a variety of reasons, but when it starts up again I hope to be out in the field writing permits again. We'll see. Things have started off well so far, I have no complaints!
February 3-9, 2019: A Busy Week
After the bird shoot I had some time on my hands. It was a good time to do some reloading to bulk up my ammunition supply in several calibers, so I cranked up my little munitions mill. First thing was to load some 8x57JR: I had a couple of boxes of Norma's wonderful jacketed round nose bullets in the proper 0.318" diameter, and brass, both fired and new. I used once-fired brass by Sellier & Bellot, very good stuff, saving my brand-new Norma brass for later. The 8x57JR is an old round, and S&B are the only company still making it, so I wanted to have enough ammunition on hand for any hunting I cared to do with my drilling. Hence I kitted up to reload for it; but honestly I doubt I'll ever run out of this caliber now: between the reloads and the factory stuff I have enough to last me a long, long time.
I had recently acquired a revolver in .45 Long Colt, which is pretty pricey stuff if you buy it on the open market, but it can be reloaded for a few pennies per shot, so that was the first handgun caliber on the "to do" list. I had on hand a big batch of the bullets Remington uses to load that caliber commercially, so used those.
Then it was time to do some .38 S&W and .38 Special. Somewhere I'd acquired a bunch of cast bullets, 158- and 165-grain ones, and decided to use those. I have no idea where they came from: I know I didn't cast them myself. The 165-grain bullets were OK, but the 158's were very badly cast, with lots of "flash" from an improperly closed mold or loose sprue plate. Flash on the bases sometimes prevented them from entering the 0.358" sizing die properly. I was able to get the heavier bullets sized but in the end I gave up on the 158's, and tossed them into the "scrap lead" bin, to be melted down or perhaps even sold as scrap.
All this fill-em-up and cork-the-hole activity occupied several days because I don't have a progressive press, I do everything on a single-station one; progressive equipment such as the Dillon works best if you have one caliber that you shoot a lot, but I don't shoot that much and for multiple calibers a single-station setup is much more flexible, though much slower.
We had house guests, too: an old friend from college came up from Nashville, and he and I went to the Great American Outdoor Show in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, a distance of 350 miles from my home. Harrisburg is also home to a colossal Bass Pro Shops store, so since after the long drive up we'd arrived late in the day we went to Bass Pro on Thursday evening. While my friend wandered the fishing aisles, I went upstairs to the gun department, as a matter of religious obligation. I almost didn't get there: I got stuck in the elevator behind the gigantic fish tank, and it took some time for someone to come and let me out.
Once free I waddled over to the gun racks: and a pretty pedestrian lot of stuff they had, too: the usual AR and Glock derivatives, no used guns at all, and a pitiful collection of in-line muzzle-loaders (FOUR of them), all amazingly overpriced. Who in his right mind would spend $600 on such a muzzle-loader? The used gun racks at L.L. Bean or Kittery Trading Post have a far better selection and much classier merchandise.
Having survived the Bass Pro ordeal, we went to our hotel and the next morning, bright and early, went to the GAOS. This massive exposition gets something like 100,000 attendees over the ten days of its run each year. I'd been to it twice before, and to be candid, this third time will likely be the last time I go. It tends to be a bit repetitive and the emphasis is on many aspects of hunting in which I have little interest. Last time I was looking at the options for a moose hunt in Canada, but having settled the details of with whom and where I would go when or if I did, there wasn't much else that caught my eye. Pheasants in the midwest and perhaps waterfowl in the northeast, but I'm surfeited with whitetails here, and have taken all the species of African game I want. I can't justify the cost of another trip to Africa, even though I'd love to go, because I can't see killing more plains game just to kill more plains game; and much as I'd like another elephant, that's not in the cards.
My partner, however, is another story. He's a fanatical fisherman, a man to whom fishing is life. He has a strong interest in finding an outfitter who can guide him in the St Lawrence River's 1000 Islands, which apparently have become a hot spot for smallmouth bass. So we spent most of the day talking to fishing guides, though I did occasionally wander over to one of the African hunting booths to say hello and chit-chat with the exhibitors. Several of them knew the people I've hunted with, but that's not too surprising given that the African PH community isn't very large, especially Namibian PH's. We traipsed the aisles for 6 hours, ignoring the boats and the "outdoor lifestyle" and cooking halls. Hunting and fishing were enough for both of us.
One booth I did want to see was that from Taylor's Firearms. The .45 revolver I recently acquired is one of their products and I had some technical questions to ask them. Taylor's specializes in Cowboy Action Shooting stuff. They have some drop-dead-gorgeous replicas of classic guns, stuff Wyatt Earp or John Wayne would have been delighted to have.
It was a fun show but pretty exhausting. I think I've been three times now. A full day at the show, two days in the car and two nights in hotels pretty much took it out of me and I was glad to get back home!
February 13, 2019: Some More Reloading
"Put up" 150 rounds of .38 Long Colt yesterday and today. The .38 LC is dimensionally identical to the .38 Special except for a shorter case, so it can be fired in a .38 Special chamber.
Loading data for this very old round is hard to find, and what you do find is for 158-grain bullets, the standard for the .38 Special. Nothing wrong with those, but I had on hand a goodly supply of hollow-based round nose bullets weighing 165 grains. Since the actual groove diameter on a .36 caliber black powder revolver is somewhat larger than the nominal 0.358" of a ".38 caliber" round, hollow base bullets are preferred, the theory being that their "skirt" will expand and bump up to proper diameter. Whether this happens or not I can't say, but that's the perceived wisom of the Internet.
I had fifty cases I'd made by shortening some .38 Special, and 100 brand new Starline cases headstamped ".38 Long Colt." The shortened brass got loaded with Trail Boss powder, a type more or less specifically intended to be used in "Cowboy Action" loads. TB is very bulky and light and something of a PITA to work with, but I needed to fill up a box of 50 rounds so I used that.
For the Starline brass, I opted to go to Holy Black: that is, GOEX FFFg, 15 grains of it. This is a moderately compressed load with the 165 grain bullets. One of black powder's virtues is that you really can't overcharge a case with it, it's also quite bulky. Of course it's a mess to clean up, but I can deal with that, I shoot a good bit of black powder in rifles. Soap and water does the trick.
The black powder ammunition will be used in a replica Colt 1851 Navy fitted with a conversion cylinder for fixed ammunition. The Navy Colt is an open-top design and not the strongest revolver ever made; I didn't want to push it too hard and was thinking that using smokeless (even Trail Boss) might do that. Wild Bill Hickock (1837-76) wore a pair of ivory-handled Navies when he was shot dead in Deadwood, SD; you can see them in the picture above right. If he could use black powder, so can I!