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November 24, 2008
Petzal: The Hunter's Greatest Bathroom Book

First, you have to understand that I mean this as the highest form of praise. If someone tells me that they read my stuff in the bathroom, I swell up like a toad that’s been inhaling helium. So, with that understood…

My colleague at Field & Stream, Deputy Editor Jay Cassell, has assembled The Gigantic Book of Hunting Stories a collection that is astonishing in number (119; 782 pages) and outstanding in quality.  In most collections there are a few gems, some good stuff, and a fair number of pieces that were obviously included to pad out the page count. But TGBOHS is the best work of the best writers, all the way through. All the heavyweights are represented here.Gigantic

It starts with Teddy Roosevelt and progresses through nine more chapters: waterfowl, small game, big game, deer, Africa and Asia, and so on. Nothing is neglected.

A small example of how good TGBOHS is: Corey Ford was for years a mainstay of Field & Stream, and is remembered for his series, The Lower Forty, and for his story, The Road to Tinkhamtown, which is on the short list of the greatest pieces the magazine has ever run. Tinkhamtown is in here, but Ford also wrote a very short piece that may be its equal, or better, and very few people have ever heard of it, much less read it. It’s written in the form of a letter and is titled “Just a Dog.” It ran only once, in 1940, and created such a furor that it has never run again. Reading the piece is like getting punched in the chest. Jay Cassell has rescued Only a Dog from oblivion, and it alone is worth the price of the book, which is $25 from

Christmas is coming. Need I say more?

November 20, 2008
Petzal: Very Little Drops Dead

Two weeks ago, I showed up at a South Carolina plantation to hunt whitetails. The owner, a hunter of vast experience as well as a person of the highest literary and moral worth, asked me what rifle I had brought. I said a plain-vanilla .270, and his reaction was as though I had announced I was a descendant of William Tecumseh Sherman, or that I carried a turd in my pocket for company.       

The .270, he said, was notorious for letting deer escape, even fatally shot ones, and this was not only his experience but that of the owner of a nearby plantation who had kept careful records over many years.       
As it was, I killed four deer, all lung shots, one shot each. One dropped in her tracks; the other three ran 50, 75, and 30 yards, which is about average. I've been hunting whitetails in South Carolina since 1983. In that time I've used everything from a .257 Roberts to a 7mm Weatherby magnum and a great deal in between. I have not seen any evidence that one cartridge killed any quicker than another. My experience is that most deer (probably 70 percent) go on a last mad dash before piling up. I've never seen one go more than 100 yards, and very few have gone that far. I don't believe they run with any destination in mind; they only run.     

As the late Finn Aagaard pointed out, deer will go as long as there is any oxygen in their brain; when that runs out it's all over, and they can absorb the most horrendous damage and still cover ground. The moral is, shoot good and keep looking. None of my four deer left a blood trail, but they were found almost immediately. One time, I was around when a very good hunter shot a very good Alabama buck and it took a day and a half to find the animal. It would have been easy to quit, but the hunter didn't. Neither should you.

November 18, 2008
Bourjaily: The Ones That Got Away

Because my wife compulsively spends all our money on heat, electricity and similar luxuries (Do my kids really need new shoes? Couldn’t they just wear my old ones?), my gun fund is perennially tapped out. As a result, cool guns at great prices get away from me all the time. The latest was just last week. My local store took in a nice older 870 trap gun in excellent condition with well-figured wood and cut checkering. They priced it at $350. By the time I got home, figured out what gun I would trade for it and went back, it was gone.

Occasionally I get lucky. For years I was fascinated by the idea of the Browning Double Automatic. I wanted one desperately even though I had never actually seen one. In a stroke of serendipity, the same day I received a modest inheritance check, not one but two Double Autos magically appeared at my local store. I bought one of them, a Twelvette, loved it, shot a bunch of roosters with it, then foolishly sold it. Last year, I turned a windfall into an SKB 100 that I was able to grab before anyone else saw it.  At $500, it wouldn’t have sat unsold for more than a day or two.

All gun lovers have sob stories about the ones that got away. Share yours. It’s good therapy. On the other hand, if you’ve lucked into bargains on guns you always wanted and would like to tell us about it here, you can do that, too.

November 17, 2008
Petzal: Some Responses to Comments

Your comments are always interesting, but we seemed to hit the mother lode (not load) with my 11/10 post, “The Rifleman’s Badge of Honor.”

First, to all of you who suggested sources for deer targets, thanks and God bless. I shall pursue them.

To Jack, who asked for a Veteran’s Day post, this comes late, but I hope it strikes a chord. In 2000, when I fished on Midway Atoll, I ran into a retired Marine Lt. Col. who had spent his career as a logistics officer. It had been his job to get bullets and MREs and gasoline and water and everything else to the guys who were doing the shooting. He used to recruit Marines by saying, “If you want medals, go to the infantry. If you want to win the goddamn war, come work for me.”

For everyone who pulls a trigger there are probably 100 servicemen and women who repair gear, or man radar equipment, or work in hospitals, or process payrolls. They get no medals; they work long, hard hours; they sometimes do not have enough to work with; they are usually highly skilled and could make a lot more money as civilians but they stay in anyway. They are heroes.

About John Barsness: Don Polacek, who is president of Wolfe Publishing, says that John and the company had a disagreement about business and that their parting was non-hostile. Polacek says that he still considers John a friend. I asked Polacek why there was no mentiion of John's departure in the first issue of Rifle without his byline, and Polacek pointed out that this is a tradition with the magazine. In the past, when other greats such as John Wootters, Ken Waters, and Bob Hagel have left, there was no mention of their going, either. I think they're going to miss John a lot, but they have other talented people. I've been a subscriber since the 1970s, and will be keeping my subscription.

A blogger named Joe C. objected to my making light of scope cuts, and felt that they are a result of poor training and poor scope mounting. I beg to differ. If you work with horses for any amount of time you are going to get kicked or bitten or thrown no matter how careful you are. If you fish you are going to get hooked, no matter how careful you are. If you shoot enough you are going to get scope cuts, no matter how careful you are. I would be lying if I said otherwise.

True sportsmen are able to laugh at minor misfortunes, and every scope cut I’ve seen qualifies as a minor misfortune. Getting your teeth kicked out or getting a tarpon hook in the eye is not funny, but if you can’t smile at the lesser stuff, stay away from me. I don’t want to hunt with you.

To RJ, who has to learn to shoot right-handed. First, don’t give up on the idea of using a scope. It may be that if you give your right eye some help it can do the job. Get in touch with Decot Sport Glasses ( and explain your problem. They’ve been around forever, and have seen every eye-related shooting problem there is to see. Try that first. If glasses don’t work out, I would consider a ghost ring rear sight with a big bead up front. It’s the easiest type of iron sight to use, and you can do some very respectable shooting with it.

To Carney, who asked about Susan Casey. As far as I know, Susan has put down her rifle forever. She is simply unwilling to kill. The last I heard she is doing a book on a small group of surfers who are looking to ride rogue waves in mid-ocean—the 70- to 100-footers that sink ships. I wish her all the best. It was a hell of a story, wasn’t it?

November 14, 2008
Petzal: Timing is Everything

This past Sunday, I watched the Jets’ 47-3 disembowelment of the Rams, and one play stuck in my mind. Bret Favre (who is a hunter, by the way) rolled out to the right and, ignoring the four 315-pound life forms who wanted his blood, waited for what seemed an incredible length of time before he zinged the ball right between a St. Louis defensive back’s hands and into the hands of his own receiver.

A less experienced quarterback would have panicked and thrown an interception, or eaten the ball, or tried to run and got nailed, but Favre, who has done this a lot, knew how much time he had down to the hundredth of a second.

So it is with big game hunting. There are situations when you have to shoot right now and situations when you can take can take your sweet time. Beginners never seem to get it right. They will panic, throw the rifle to their shoulder, and fill the air with lead. Or they will fuss and fidget and aim, and aim, and aim, and in the meanwhile, the critter will get bored and leave.

A veteran hunter will know from years of watching animals and studying their body language, just how much time he has. Usually it’s more than you would think, and it increases with the distance between you and the victim-to-be. Whitetails, for example, have a distinct facial expression when things are not to their liking. It looks like a frown. Years ago, sitting in a rhododendron patch on a West Virginia hillside, I was approached by a doe and a fawn. The doe was perhaps 10 feet away, and there were enough of my scent molecules in the air to cause her concern. The expression on her face was that of a Detroit automobile industry executive pondering his/her future. Then she got the full load of essence de Petzal and ran like hell.

They study us, too. In 1981, I was hunting sable in Zambia, and the instant the big antelope saw me and the PH they would go thundering off in a cloud of dust and sable s**t. After I killed one, we practically had to kick them out of the way to get to other animals. Most herbivores can tell what our intentions are, so try to adopt a non-threatening demeanor when in the woods, and take your time aiming. But not too much time.

November 11, 2008
Bourjaily: My Favorite Flashlight

Bear with me. This really is a post about hunting gear.

When my younger son John was still a baby, we took a family car trip east. Right after we drove across the New Jersey line, it became pungently apparent that John needed a fresh diaper.

We pulled into a crowded service plaza to use a restroom, only to find the power out in half the building. When I walked into the men’s room, it was pitch black except for a circle of light bobbing over the changing table. There was a dad at the table, holding a mini-Mag Lite in his teeth to keep both hands free as he put a clean diaper on his child. He finished, saw me and John waiting our turn and handed me the flashlight. “Take this. A guy in here changing his kid gave it to me. Give it to the next guy who needs it.” With that, he disappeared into the gloom.

I was halfway through changing John when the lights came back on. My benefactor was gone. No one else would need the light, so there was nothing to do but keep it. Now, although I own eight or ten better, brighter, higher-tech lights, that blue Mini Mag  remains my favorite. It’s the light I wear on my belt for early morning and evening hunts. John is 14 now, and I brought the light with me on our recent Youth Duck hunt together. It reminds me of how much he has grown, and of the kindness of a total stranger in the dark. 

We tend to think of guns when it comes to hunting gear with sentimental value, but little things --  lights, knives, calls --  can have special meaning, too. Anybody else own some little item that means a lot?

November 10, 2008
The Rifleman's Badge of Honor

This past Friday I was coaching a young hunter in the finer points of riflery when he got careless with the .30/06 he was shooting and received a medium-good scope cut in his forehead. He asked me not to mention it to anyone and I said, Pish tush, you should be proud of it; it’s the mark of the rifleman. I then pointed out three or four of my choicer scars.

Eventually, if you shoot enough, you are going to get a scope cut. Actually, you’re going to get a collection unless you spend all your time shooting .22s or centerfires with IER scopes. (Given the choice between an IER scope on a rifle and a good, bloody scope cut, I will take the latter.)

The two best I’ve ever seen came from a .30/06 with a cheap scope that had no eye relief to speak of, and a .300 Weatherby, whose owner contorted himself into a weird prone position, shooting downhill at a caribou. The ocular lens bell caught him on the bridge of the nose and opened it up like an ax. My own best scope cut came from a .30/378 with a muzzle brake. I was curious how hard it kicked without the brake and fired it prone. I found out.

I came home with blood all over my face and my shirt. My wife summed up the situation in one word:
“A*****e,” she said.

Some people, upon getting a scope cut, are like to swoon, and develop PTSD. Others brush it off. Susan Casey, who wrote a wonderful story for Field & Stream about an elk hunt on which she could not bring herself to pull the trigger, got a medium one, and decided she liked it.

“It makes me look like a badass,” said Susan.

In 2003, I bought a bunch of life-sized whitetail deer targets from the NRA that have been by far the best teaching tool I’ve ever seen if you want to teach someone how to shoot whitetail deer. The vital zones are marked so you can’t see them at a distance, just like real deer.

Last week I tried to reorder, but no one at the NRA seemed to know what I was talking about, and I’m afraid they’ve been discontinued. Does anyone know anything definitive or, failing that, does anyone know of anything similar? My gratitude will be nearly boundless. 

November 07, 2008
Bourjaily: Bad Shells

My friend Dave recently became the range safety officer at my local wildlife area. Every Sunday evening, he stops by my house after work. I give him a beer, and he gives me a five gallon bucket filled with all the empty hulls he picks up at the range over the weekend. It is a sweet deal. I sort through the bucket, keep the reloadable hulls and toss the rest in the trash. In the last bucket he brought me, I found about 20 unfired buckshot loads. Every primer was dented, but not one had gone off. Out of curiosity, I tried them in my gun, to see if a weak hammer spring was to blame. They didn’t fire. Perhaps they had gotten very wet, or been stored improperly. Or, maybe they were just bad shells, loaded with a batch of dud primers. It happens.

Earlier this year I was surprised to hear a box of factory skeet loads rattling. Turns out the crimps in several of the shells had big enough gaps in the middle that the number 9 pellets could leak out. We all joke about shells without any shot in them when we miss, but a couple of these really didn’t have enough pellets left inside to break a target.

While patterning turkey loads this summer, I had a shell rupture, which was a first for me. The brass split, and enough burning powder escaped to melt part of the outside of the hull.  I sent it in to the manufacturer, who told me that a cracked die in the assembly operation scratched the shell, weakening it enough to burn through.

Given the speed at which ammo makers load shells and the sheer volume they produce, it’s surprising that more shells aren’t bad. But 99.9% of factory shotshells work fine. Let’s hear about the .1%. Share your bad ammo stories,  the duds, the squibs, the bloopers, and if anyone has a nomination for the worst shotshell ever made, I’d like to know about it.

November 05, 2008
Some Random Thoughts on the Election

“And I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, ‘Come and see,’ and I looked and beheld a pale horse, and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.”—from The Book of Revelation

“It is already dark in Moscow, and soon it will be dark here. I wonder: shall we see the light again in our lifetimes?”—Freidrich Wilhelm Kritzinger, in the movie Conspiracy

*It could have been worse. We could have gotten Hillary, and with her the same politics as Obama plus that voice braying at us for four years. On the other hand, I will miss the excellent antics of Bubba turned loose in the White House with no one in charge of him.

*Obama says he respects the Second Amendment.  And I am Ferdinand, King of Romania.

*We are probably not going to see any gun legislation for a while. Obama and Biden will have their hands full with the coming depression and our two wars, plus energy, plus who knows what else. Also, it will take Congress a while to figure out who is who in the pecking order, who gets to steal what and how much, etc.

*Eventually, however, they will get brave and propose something really hellish in the way of gun legislation. This may not come until Obama’s second term, assuming he gets one, but it will be a doozer.

*When it does come, if there is a fight over it, we can take some small comfort from the fact that Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi are two of the most ineffectual people ever to suck on the public tit.

*A gun dealer friend called and said that this past Saturday was the biggest day he has had in over 30 years in business. Much of what he sells is black rifles in one form or another, plus Class III goodies. “All the liberals who voted for Obama are scared to death they won’t be able to get guns once he takes office,” he says.

*In the weeks to come, we are likely to see an unprecedented run on any semi-automatic or quasi-military gun, plus magazines, ammo, and anything else that Joe Biden may not want us to have. As I’ve said before, hoard now and beat the rush.

*At the suggestion of one of our more intelligent contributors, I am appointing Ms. Elisha Cuthbert the Official Gun Nut Babe.

*Smile. What else can you do?

Petzal: Kenny Jarrett, in Perspective

I now write regularly about big-game rifles that break the minute-of-angle mark, and I’m still uneasy about doing it because for a very long time such guns did not exist at any price. You could shoot for years without seeing that kind of accuracy.

In 1985, I was hunting in South Carolina with the great knifemaker and die-hard Secessionist George Herron, who told me about a gunsmith named Kenny Jarrett, down the road in Jackson, who was building sub-moa big-game rifles. Yeah, sure, I said, so George went into his shop and brought out six benchrest targets  and a stubby 7mm/08 Improved that Jarrett had built on a Remington 700 action. Each of the six groups could be covered handily by a nickel. I was like to swoon, and had to grab a nearby canebrake rattlesnake for support. And down the road I went to  to meet Kenny.

Kenny Jarrett was a farmer (and still is) with no formal mechanical training who became interested in benchrest shooting in the 1970s. Being mechanically aptituded, it seemed logical that he should build his own guns, and so he did just that, and began winning. He was also a whitetail hunter who often shot at long distances across beanfields, and it seemed to him that if you could build a big-game rifle that shot to benchrest standards it would make the deer sweat.

And so he did. His first big-game rifles were crudely finished and heavy, but he got them to the point where they would shoot a half-minute of angle or better. At the time, this was unheard-of, but word got around, and so did the rifles, and eventually Jarrett found himself in the gun business.

Over the years he has gone from a shade-tree gunsmith who built rifles out of other peoples’ components to the head of a small factory that makes barrels and actions and assembles, finishes, breaks in, and develops loads for, completed rifles. (Jarrett’s Kevlar and fiberglass stocks are made by a separate contractor to his design and specs. He gets his triggers from Jewell and his scope bases and mounts from Talley.) It employs 11 people, and smacks as much of aerospace as of gunsmith. He is the only gunmaker I know of who has an EDM machine—and an employee whose sole job is to keep the EDM happy.

A number of years ago he developed his own bolt-action, a three-lug design which he calls the Tri-Lock, and since then his rifles have taken on a distinctive look of their own. There are six different models, but the representative one is the Ridge Walker, a gun that typically weighs 8 ½-pounds with scope, has a 25-inch #3 taper barrel, and almost invariably comes with a muzzle brake of Jarrett’s own design.

He has his own line of proprietary cartridges, the most popular of which (in a walk) is the .300 Jarrett, a fire-breathing .30 magnum based on the 8mm Remington magnum. Jarrett loads it with 150-grain (at 3,500 fps) to 200-grain (3,000 fps-plus) bullets.

Every rifle is broken in and has a handload (or loads) developed for it, and no rifle leaves Jackson with fewer than 150 test rounds through it.  They are very expensive guns, but from what I’ve seen they will outshoot anything else you can buy, when used with their tailored ammo. In .30-caliber and under, they will shoot a half-minute or less, and I’ve seen .300 Jarrett test targets—lots of them—that went under .200. There are plenty of factory rifles that will shoot MOA, and a great many custom guns will do much better than that, but I don’t know of anything else that will shoot to this standard.

And what Kenny will be remembered for is dragging everyone else along with him. The most influential rifle makers of the late 20th century are Chet Brown and Lee Six who pioneered the synthetic stock; Melvin Forbes of Ultra Light Arms designed and built the first truly light big-game rifles; and Kenny Jarrett, who said, in effect, “What you’ve got isn’t accurate; this is accurate.”
Long may he flourish.

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