Flying Aces

Although I have something of a reputation for being a gun nut, I’m more of an admirer than an aficionado. Sure, I can tell the difference between most older bolt-action rifles with just a brief inspection (because that’s a particular passion of mine), but the model numbers of the various Glock, SIG and S&W guns leave me cross-eyed with confusion. Unless I actually own or want a particular model, I have little interest in its stablemates, clones, extensions or forerunners.

When it comes to things aeronautical, I’m likewise not one of those obsessive types who can tell at a glance the difference between a Spitfire Mk.III or Mk.IX, but my goodness, I do love the shape of the things:

One of the very few regrets of my life is that apart from puttering around with a friend’s ultralight, I never learned to fly and get my PPL, because I would love to have taken a WWII-era fighter aircraft for a quick flight. Even the much-maligned Hawker Hurricane has not escaped my gaze:

The great WWII flying ace Douglas Bader flew both in action during the Battle of Britain, and his comment was that while he loved the agility and performance of the Spit, he grew to appreciate the Hurri as a rock-solid gun platform that could withstand an incredible amount of punishment — even though its rear fuselage was made entirely of canvas-covered wood.

I’ve seen a Spitfire in the flesh, as it were, as well as its major opponent, the Messerschmitt Bf 109, as both were displayed at the War Museum in Johannesburg.

What struck me then, as now, is how small those wonderful aircraft are. Also at the museum was one of the few remaining Me 262 jet aircraft, and by comparison to the dainty 109, it was a great hulking brute of a thing:

…although I have to tell you, that shark-like fuselage has its own particular attraction for me too.

As a boy, I was fascinated by WWII fighter aircraft and built models of almost all of them: Spitfire, Hurricane, P-51 Mustang, Me 109; you name it, I probably built it. As I’ve aged, I’ve tried to understand just what it is that attracted me (and still does to this day) to these aircraft, and I think I’ve finally figured it out.

These were not the fragile, unreliable and dangerous aircraft of WWI, nor are they the techno-laden jet fighters of the post-WWII era. Instead, they were flying machines which made you feel like you were part of a miracle. The speeds were nowhere close to supersonic (a modern-day Bugatti Veyron has a top speed just 100mph slower than that of a 1939 Hurricane), and honestly, I think my criterion for these WWII fighter planes is one of enjoyment: you’re going fast, but not that fast that you have no time to think about the experience. Kind of like the difference between, say, a Caterham 7 and a Pagani Zonda.

     

I like both, but I’d rather drive a Caterham than a Zonda for the same reason that I prefer a bolt-action rifle to a full-auto rifle: there’s more of an element of actively making the 7 and the turnbolt work, rather than just controlling the Zonda and (say) a BAR. Speed has little to do with it, although I suspect that the thrill of speed in a Caterham may be every bit as good as in a Zonda, even though the latter may be going half as fast again as the 7. Fast is fast: what’s the difference is how much one can feel it — and I suspect that without a speedometer to tell you the difference, you might not be able to quantify it that much.

So give me a good old WWII aircraft — the aeronautical equivalent of the Caterham — any day of the week.

And to quote a friend in a different context: when I see a pic like this one, parts of me start to tingle that haven’t tingled in a long while.

Can you imagine the sound those nine Merlin-engined beauties make as they thunder overhead? I don’t smoke, but I’m pretty sure I’d want a cigarette after that flyover.

Great War Rifles (Again)

[Note: please forgive me for re-publishing this old piece. The past week has been absolute hell — I thought I was going to pass out from exhaustion from all the house-clearing-out activity, and a new post just didn’t suggest itself in time for publication. That said: of all the hundreds of posts I’ve written about guns, this is my favorite.]

 

May 19, 2007
2:00 AM CDT
We know all about WWII-era rifles, and of course the more modern ones. But let’s step back just a tad earlier, and consider the ones from my Grandfather’s generation: the bolt-action rifles which functioned, and functioned superbly, in the mud of Flanders and Verdun, in the deserts of Mesopotamia and Palestine, and the snows of Italy, Austria and Russia. I’m not going to look at all the rifles used, just the principal ones.

Germany

Of course, the Mauser K98 needs little introduction to any longtime Reader of these pages, but its precursor, the Gewehr 98 (or Model 98, as it’s sometimes called), was an excellent rifle by any standards, even modern ones.

The Gewehr 98 can be distinguished from its successor by its straight bolt, longer barrel (29”), and in earlier variants, by the “ski-jump” rear sight, which was graduated out to 2,000 meters (!). Add a 17” bayonet to this beauty, and the Imperial German Army had a weapon of outstanding value. Chambered for the fine 7.92x57mm cartridge (aka. 8mm Mauser and 8x57mm Mauser), this is a rifle for the ages.

The Mauser bolt action is still the most reliable ever made, as evidenced by its many copies, some of which we’ll see below.

Austria-Hungary

If the Mauser action is the zenith of bolt-actions, the Mannlicher action would be the next best, and not far behind, either. Imperial Austria-Hungary’s Mannlicher Model 95, chambered for the hard-hitting 8x50mmR cartridge, was characterized by its straight-pull bolt, and the self-contained clip which ejected itself from the magazine when the last round in the clip had been fired. The sights were graduated using the archaic schritt measure (0.75 meter), to a maximum of 2,400 schritten (1,800 meters).

 

If the Austro-Hungarian Army left a lot to be desired, it was certainly no fault of its main battle rifle. The later rework of the Model 95 into the M95 “S” carbine (which paralleled the change of the Mauser Gew. 98 into the K98), and its re-chambering into the 8x56mmR cartridge, simply turned a fine rifle into an excellent one.

Russia

Essentially unchanged since the 19th century, the Mosin-Nagant Model 1891/10 was the perfect rifle for the Russian Army and its unsophisticated soldiers. It was reliable to a fault, used the wonderful 7.62x54mmR cartridge, and while not as smooth an action as the Mauser, the Mosin’s clunky action could not be broken—as evidenced by the number of old “91s” still in action today. Like the abovementioned Austrian M95, the Mosin 91’s sights were graduated in an archiac measure—the Russian rifle sights being measured in arshins, or .71 meters.

The 7.62x54mmR cartridges were loaded with a five-round stripper clip:

…but the WWI-era bullets were not pointed, but roundnosed (top):

Unlike what the Germans and Austrians did with the Gew. 98 and M95 respectively, though, when the Russians improved the 91 into the 91/30, they retrofitted and rebuilt their existing arsenal rather than reissue new rifles, so original 1891 or 1891/10 models are extremely rare today. Not that it matters much. The 91/30 is a fine rifle, and has all the qualities of the old one (and its sights are graduated in meters, withal), and the carbine versions (M38, M44 and the like) are still faithful to the old principles of simplicity and durability.

Great Britain

When the German Army was first repulsed by British defensive fire at the Battle of Mons in 1914, the Germans believed that they were being fired upon with machine-guns. Not so. The withering rapid fire came from professional British soldiers armed with the Short, Magazine, Lee Enfield Mark III Number One rifle (known then and now as the SMLE or “Smelly”), issued to all British and Commonwealth troops from 1907 onwards. Sights were graduated in yards, and the maximum (and optimistic) setting was 2,000 yards.

To work the butter-smooth bolt action of the SMLE is to fall in love with it. Also, unlike all other rifles of the era, which only had four or five rounds in the magazine, the SMLE’s magazine contained ten rounds—hence the volume of fire which a group of experienced soldiers could put down onto the foe before needing to reload. The SMLE’s mag is removable for cleaning purposes, but troops were only issued with one, which meant that reloading was done with stripper clips—and because said stripper clips were five-round clips, the mag had to be reloaded twice. Regardless: chambered for the powerful .303 Enfield cartridge, and with that action, the SMLE hit hard and quickly.

When the SMLE was later “improved” to the No.4 Mk.1, the action was left more or less untouched (thank goodness), but the rear sight was improved, from the barrel-mounted “V” sight to a receiver-mounted peephole, with two settings of 300 and 600 yards, and accuracy (the only knock against the SMLE) improved immensely as a result.

Italy

Amazingly, the Italians in WWI did not have their own bolt-action rifle, using instead a modified Mannlicher action in their Mannlicher-Carcano Model 91, which sported a 31” barrel.

Unlike the Mannlicher, though, the Carcano action was turnbolt (like the Mauser), and not the straight pull of the Steyr-Mannlicher Austrian rifle.

All other European (and American) rifles were chambered to shoot 7mm/.3xx bullets, but the “Carc” fired the smallest diameter bullet in Europe, the 6.5x52mm Carcano round, which was actually not a bad choice. The smaller, lighter bullet meant less recoil and its long, thin dimensions guaranteed excellent penetration.

Like almost all the other European nations, Italy would modify their WWI battle rifle between the world wars: the M38 (as the M91 became) had a shorter (21”) barrel and was re-chambered—I think, needlessly—for the heavier 7.35x52mm cartridge. The sights for the new rifle, instead of being adjustable, were fixed at 300 meters.

France

Of all the Great Powers, France alone came to WWI with an outmoded and obsolete battle rifle. The original 1886 Lebel rifle still fired the 8mm Lebel (8x51mmR) rimmed cartridge. Because the original Lebel had a tubular magazine, not a box, the bullets were roundnosed, not spitzers. Even when the Lebel was later transformed into the Lebel-Berthier Mod 1907/15 (below), with a three-round (!) Mannlicher-style magazine, French military doctrine still insisted that soldiers load cartridges one at a time, and use the magazine only under attack, when heavier volumes of fire were called for. The newer Mod 07/15 was only issued to the Army in large numbers in 1916.

A later version allowed for a five-round clip to be loaded in an extended magazine. Here’s what it looks like:

Only well after WWI did France introduce a brand-new bolt-action rifle, the MAS 36, in the new 7.5x54mm chambering—only to find that it, too, was soon out of date compared to the new wave of semi-automatic battle rifles.

Japan

In 1906, Japan introduced the Type 38 rifle to replace their Murata Type 22 rifles (which fired the 8mm black powder cartridge). The Type 38 was mostly derived from the Mauser bolt action, and had a 31 ” barrel. Called the “Arisaka” after the man (Colonel Nariake Arisaka) who headed the Army’s commission to test and adopt the rifle, the Type 38 was chambered for the rather weak 6.5x50mmSR (semi-rimmed) cartridge.

The Type 38 was known chiefly for its bolt carrier dust cover, which was supposedly added to protect the bolt action’s workings from dust and especially moisture, but which rattled alarmingly in action, and most soldiers simply removed and discarded them.

In the late 1930s, the Japanese would replace the Type 38 and the 6.5x50mm Jap with the shorter Type 99 (26” barrel) and much more powerful 7.7x58mm cartridge (a rimless copy of the British .303 Enfield).

United States

Alone among the Western Allies, the United States issued two rifles to their doughboys: the Springfield M1903 (top), chambered for the fine .30-06 cartridge, based on the Mauser 98 design, and the M1917 Enfield (also known as the Pattern 17 or P17). The latter was based on the Lee-Enfield Pattern 13 (itself a Mauser-like design), and like the ‘03, chambered for the .30-06.

The ‘03 had problems because of inferior metallurgy (later improved) in the receiver—that, and the shortage of ‘03s, resulted in more doughboys using the P17 than the Springfield. Like almost all the WWI battle rifles, the ‘03 was later modified/improved as the ‘03-A1, except that unlike the other rifles, this one saw service as late as the Vietnam War. The P17 pretty much disappeared after the war, but lived on in gun safes and hunting lodges all over the United States. Both are superb rifles, as much for their respective heritages as for their reliability, accuracy and efficiency.

As the saying goes: “In the First World War, the Germans had the best hunting rifle, the Americans the best target rifle, and the British the best battle rifle.”

I think, however, that it also behooves us to look at two European rifles of the same era which saw no combat: the Swiss Schmidt-Rubin K11, and the Swedish M96 Mauser.

First introduced in 1896 and improved in 1911, chambered for the powerful 7.5x55mm Swiss cartridge, the K11 had a straight-pull bolt action, and was unquestionably made to the highest quality standards of any rifle of the time (and higher even than many production rifles of today).

The K11 is a marvel of functionality, its workings intricate and precise, its accuracy outstanding. Interestingly enough, the Swiss would do to the K11 what the Germans would also do to the Gew 98: shorten the action a tad and shorten the barrel to carbine length, but retain the original chambering (7.5x55mm for the new K31, and 8x57mm for the K98). Both rifles were immeasurably improved by what was basically a simple set of changes.

The Swedish Army issued their soldiers with the Model 1896 in that same model year, choosing to chamber it in the superlative 6.5x55mm cartridge (probably my favorite medium-caliber cartridge of all time), and they didn’t change anything about the rifle (other than creating a carbine version) until they changed their entire infantry philosophy and armament to semi-auto rifles in the mid-twentieth century.

If I’d had to go to war in those times, I would have felt quite comfortable being issued with either the Mauser-action Gewehr 98/Springfield ‘03, or the Enfield-action SMLE/P17.

As a “second-tier” choice, I wouldn’t have felt that short-changed with the Steyr M95 or Schmidt-Rubin K11 either.

But of all the rifles issued to soldiers of that era, the one I’d have chosen to go to war with would have been the Swedish Model 1896 Mauser. It has moderate recoil, yet the bullet travels flat and hits hard. The rifle is also fantastically accurate: consistently-placed head shots at 400 meters and torso shots at 600 meters are quite possible even for an average shot like myself.

It’s too bad the rifle itself never saw service, because it would have acquitted itself well against any of the others.

Here’s the interesting thing about these rifles as a group: all performed well in the horrible conditions of First World War trench warfare; all provided their owners with excellent striking power (as witnessed by the millions of soldiers felled by them), and all were, essentially, first-generation bolt-action rifles shooting smokeless powder cartridges. Later on, faced with the next world war, all would be improved, whether in length or (occasionally) in caliber. The WWII generation of these rifles would be better than their forebears—but not that much better.

Only the advent of a revolution in infantry tactics and the introduction of the semi-auto rifle would finally put these fine old bolt-action rifles to rest. But despite all that, most are still capable of working as effectively today, over a hundred years later, as they did on the day they were issued.

We should all be so well-made.

Dutch Music

Warning note: following all the links in this post could take up most of your Saturday, so hold off until the very last one; then, if you want, listen to the others.

I’ve been a fan of the Dutch music scene ever since I first became aware of Focus — I know Golden Earring preceded them, but GE was just a Euro version of Grand Funk Railroad so nevermind.

It’s no surprise that a country which gave us Holbein, Vermeer and Rembrandt should also produce outstanding musical talent, but what astonishes me is that so small a population can churn out these musicians by the bucket load.

For a while I was enchanted by Epica — okay, maybe flame-haired singer Simone Symons had much to do with it:

…but I’ve come to enjoy that style of music a great deal.

Now before anyone starts in on me, I will acknowledge that modern Dutch bands are kinda stereotypical: a bunch of dudes with long hair dressed all in black, with plentiful rock-star posing / hair-tossing and Serious Expressions on their faces. (No eclectic neo-classical Thijs van Leer types in their ranks, oh no.) And the music is similarly formulaic: epic fantasy storytelling set to metal, with a powerful female singer.

Then, via one of the kids, came The Gentle Storm. Basically, this is one project of many produced by musical genius Arjen Lucassen (now he is like the multi-talented Thijs van Leer from Focus) and his accomplice, the astonishing singer/lyricist Anneke van Giersbergen. Most of their stuff is like all the other Dutch bands — I will grant that it’s an acquired taste — but the whole point of this post was to bring to your attention the brilliantfantasticamazing song Heart of Amsterdam. The first twenty seconds are standard Dutch-metal stuff, with a few unusual classical instruments thrown in, no synthesizers for our Arjen  — and then comes Anneke, in glorious Technicolor. Watch and enjoy this ode to one of my favorite cities in the world. I must have listened to the song over a hundred times since I first heard it.

Of course, I enjoy the thing even more with the knowledge that the term “gentle storm” is the Edwardian euphemism for an orgasm. I wonder if our Dutch friends know that.

Bucket List Entry #1: Mille Miglia

I have alluded to my Bucket List before — those things I’d like to do before I kick the bucket — and I was going to put up the entire list, but that’s too much to digest in one gulp, I think. So rather than that, I’ll do one item at a time. Here’s the first.

From Wikipedia:

The Mille Miglia (Thousand Miles) was an open-road endurance race which took place in Italy twenty-four times from 1927 to 1957 (thirteen before the war, eleven from 1947).
Like the older Targa Florio and later the Carrera Panamericana, the MM made Gran Turismo (Grand Touring) sports cars like Alfa Romeo, BMW, Ferrari, Maserati, Mercedes Benz and Porsche famous. The race brought out an estimated five million spectators.
From 1953 until 1957, the Mille Miglia was also a round of the World Sports Car Championship.
Since 1977, the “Mille Miglia” has been reborn as a regulated race for classic and vintage cars. Participation is limited to cars, produced no later than 1957, which had attended (or were registered) to the original race. The route (Brescia-Rome round trip) is similar to that of the original race, maintaining the point of departure / arrival in Viale Venezia in Brescia.

And here’s the course:

Remember that the course uses only public roads, and in the old days, it was one of the most dangerous races in the world… for spectators. (That’s why the actual race was suspended, by the way. Cars were getting so fast that they were becoming uncontrollable, and because people are stupid, they weren’t backing off from the cars whizzing past; they were trying to get closer to the track — with the inevitable results.) Nowadays, it’s more like a moving Concours D’Elegance, more’s the pity.

Now let me be perfectly clear: I don’t want anything to do with the race. What I do want to do is drive the circuit, but in a gentlemanly, leisurely fashion, with a companion in a small but quick car which can navigate some of the tiny, ultra-narrow village streets through which the course runs when it’s not barreling through the northern Italian countryside.

I also don’t care what vintage car I use, as long as it’s a convertible. It could be an actual Stirling Moss-type Mercedes 300 Gullwing in powder blue:

Lovely, except that the color is really gay. How gay?

Or the car could be modern, so that we don’t spend  a week or two marooned in some tiny dago village while the car’s getting fixed, with nothing to do but drink and… okay, let’s leave that part in abeyance for the moment, until we get to the discussion of Kim’s Partner.

So, a more modern conveyance, there’s the Fiat 124 Spider Lusso:

…which fits the bill best in terms of beauty and the ability to make it through some really narrow streets:

But enough about cars. Let’s talk about my companion. There are two options, male and female. Leaving aside the obvious attractions of a comely wench for the trip:

…I think I’d rather make the trip with a buddy than with a broad. Why? Let me count the reasons:

There aren’t many public restrooms along the Mille Miglia. This means I’d have to stop at several intervals along the way — i.e every time we saw a public WC — so that Milady would not be caught short in the middle of the countryside. Also, I’d probably want to stop often because romantic countryside plus miniskirt in the passenger seat… well, you get my drift, ’nuff said. Finally, most women are not capable of consuming large quantities of Italian plonk en route — something which cannot be said about any of my rowdy friends.

I’ll let you know if this part of my dream comes true.

 

A Thing Of Beauty Is A Joy Forever

I have a theory about men who are married to the same woman for a long time, and that theory is that she never changes (in his eyes) from the woman or girl he married.

I think the seed of this was planted when at age 20 or thereabouts, I met a man who’d married a beauty queen when he was 24 and she 19. At the time, they’d been married over fifty years, and I don’t know, but I’m certain that they’re both deceased by now.

He’d been a soldier in the British Army (he was a WWI veteran), was still a good-looking man and carried himself with that erect bearing that is unmistakably the look of a senior NCO — in his case, a sergeant-major. His wife had, as the saying goes, not aged well: she’d put on a lot of weight and her once-beautiful face was now moon-shaped. The only thing still beautiful was her hair, which was long, thick and grey, permanently worn in a plait down her back.

But he loved her; good grief, he loved her more than any man I’ve ever known to love a woman. One night, we were sitting in his living-room, both a little tipsy after dinner, when he suddenly said out of the blue, “You know what, boy? I know that _________ is old and overweight. But the only time I ever see that is when we go out and we’re with other people. When we’re at home all alone together, all I can see is the beauty queen I married back in 1922.”

I don’t think he’s alone in this, in fact, I think there are lots of men like him. The popular meme these days is that men divorce their wives as they get older, to “trade up” to a younger, more beautiful woman. That would certainly be true among the rich and famous set — because, let’s be honest, wealth and fame gives them the opportunity to do so, especially when those younger women throw themselves at their, ummm, feet.

But not every man is rich and famous, of course — let’s be honest and say that most men aren’t rich or famous — and among those men, and especially those men who have been married to the same woman for a long time, the very thought of “trading up” is not only ridiculous, but outrageous (i.e. likely to cause outrage). Men like my sergeant-major friend.

I’m going to illustrate the point by looking at a rich and famous man who hasn’t traded up, and has been married for sixteen years to his second wife (his first wife, to whom he’d also been married for about the same length of time, died of ovarian cancer). His name is Pierce Brosnan, and his wife’s name is Keeley. Here they are on their wedding day, in 2001 (they met in 1999):

Here they are today:

…and here they are at some red-carpet affair:

Whenever you see them together, they’re holding hands, or are walking arm-in-arm, or they’re kissing like damn teenagers.

Now I’m going to go out on a limb here, and suggest that Pierce Brosnan could have “traded up” on more than one occasion. In fact, I’m pretty sure that he could have had his pick from, oooh, about half a million women all over the world, had that been his intention. Yet he’s still married to Keeley, and he obviously still only sees the woman he married.

In case you’re wondering about the title of this post, the full sentence written by John Keats is:

“A thing of beauty is a joy forever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.”

As for me… well, I’m one of those men.

Way Too Daring

This wonderful picture is called “The Swing” by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, was painted in 1767, and it’s the Home picture on my cell phone (yeah, I finally got a Smartphone after only ten years with a flip phone… shuddup your laughing already).

It’s painted in one of my favorite styles, Rococo, and to my mind it is one of those little gems — yet another print I’d like to see on my wall. Here’s why I love it.

Basically, the story is simple: a young girl asks an older man (husband?) to push her on a garden swing. Unbeknown to the old guy, she has a young man (lover?) who’s lying hidden behind a flower bush, and who gets to watch her at play. Obviously she knows he’s there, because she tosses her shoe into the air towards him.

Here’s the fun part: remember that in those days, women wore long dresses and full petticoats — but no underwear. So the motion of the swing is causing the girl’s dress to fly up in the air, giving our young voyeur a straight look up into Madame’s Garden of Delight — and the little minx knows it. In its day, this would have been quite a scandalous piece of art.

It’s one of those playful yet sly little works which make Rococo art so enjoyable.

Of course, such “frivolous” art disappeared under the stern gaze of the Enlightenment establishment, who wanted art to “send a message” about the “nobility of man” and suchlike nonsense. Ugh. From that came the Academy (a.k.a. Academic art), which produced easily the most boring art ever created by man. I refuse to put up a typical painting of the genre, because it would quite spoil the mood created by Fragonard.

Enjoy.