Awww geeze, not another blog!

Welcome to A Fine Blade!

This blog will focus one of my lifelong passions and one of man's most basic tools - the knife!

As time and events permit we'll tiptoe into other territory where we can use the knife as a metaphor in discussions about current events and have a little politically incorrect fun.

Because you see, knives rank just below guns as the most politically incorrect subject on the web today.

Guns & Knives = Bad. Gay Marriage & Recreational Drug Use = Good

We'll see if we can't have some fun with that.

So stay tuned, and welcome aboard!

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Slyšíš mě, soudruhu?

That's Czech for, 'can you hear me, comrade?' 

As an Amateur Radio operator I've always had an interest in military radios and communications. In particular I've had a long interest in fully self-contained backpack transceivers that can operate on the Amateur Radio HF (high frequency) spectrum. If you are a radio guy and you spent any time in the military you just see things that catch your eye. For most of my Army career (1979 - 2002) the ubiquitous small unit radio was the AN/PRC-77. We used this iconic Vietnam-era backpack radio for everything; if you had to go run a rifle range, control a convoy, set up a drop zone, chase Iraqis around the desert or run a guard mount you grabbed a couple of 'prick-77's', some spare batteries, and moved out. While these radios had limited performance (their transmission range was just a few miles over ground) they were rugged as hell. The radio case was a thick extruded aluminum box that was sealed at the top and bottom, making the unit completely watertight. The radio was heavy as hell, but it was damned near indestructible.

AN/PRC-77 manpack radio (from Wikipedia)

What attracts me to military radios is, I think, the same thing that attracts me to knives, firearms, stoves, backpacks, compasses, etc. Deep down I'm something of a survivalist/prepper. I like things that are rugged, foolproof and will help me and my family get through the worst of times - either a hurricane (don't laugh - Hurricane Irma just paid us a visit) or a nuclear attack (don't laugh - Kim Jong Un claims he's got a hydrogen bomb that he can strap to a missile). For that time when an EMP pulse turns your iPhone into a smoking lump of plastic and glass I want a radio that will keep chugging along.

From an electronic performance standpoint Amateur Radio systems are good - very good. What they are not, with very few exceptions, is rugged, waterproof, self-contained and easy to use while on the move. Many of the small handheld units are pretty tough little devices, but they operate only on the VHF & UHF frequencies (with an occasional unit dropping down into the 'semi-HF' 6-meter band territory). Radios that operate on the HF bands, say 50 mHz and down, tend to be desktop queens. There are niche manufacturers like Codan that make MILSPEC rugged units that can operate in the Amateur Radio HF bands, but those radios are eye-bleedingly expensive.

So this leads us to military surplus radios. Just as armies around the world dump their excess or obsolete vehicles, clothing, tools, weapons, ships and aircraft onto the surplus market, they also occasionally dump obsolete, excess or damaged radio gear. This feeds a small but dedicated group of radio enthusiasts who grab these radios, get them back into operating condition and use them on the Amateur Radio frequencies. But these surplus radios can be hard to find, for a number of reasons. First, military radios tend to be 'low density' items. This means that compared to things like boots, mess kits and pup tents, radios were not issued in great numbers. Next, because of the high development, manufacturing and sustainment costs for communications gear most armies tend to hang on to their radios longer than other systems, and use them right up until the point where they are obsolete and the supply is exhausted. And last, many of these radios get refurbished and sold to other countries under military assistance programs. As a result there are relatively few good condition surplus radios on the market.

This means that good examples of the AN/PRC-77 can be hard to find. As the US pulled them from service starting in the 1980s they were re-furbished and sold in huge numbers to countries like Israel, Australia and Pakistan.

Still, the itch must be scratched. While I've been looking for a good working 'prick-77' for some time I've also kept my eye open for other suitable manpack military radios. A few months ago I got wind that a surplus dealer in Pennsylvania, Coleman's Surplus, was selling complete surplus Czech military radio kits for an amazingly low price. How low? Well I'll just say this - the radios were being sold untested, but the price was so low that it was worth taking the risk and buying sight unseen.

The radio is the RF-10, a fully transistorized manpack radio designed by Tesla Electronics in Czechoslovakia in the 1970's and produced through the 1990's. It was designed to fill the same role as the AN/PRC-77 was filling in US Army units - a short range squad or platoon radio operating in the FM mode near the 50 mHz frequency segment.

RF-10 on the right. On the left is my Yaesu FT-817 that was
used as a reference transceiver

Here's the rundown on the radio's capabilities, straight from the RF-10 operations manual:

Frequency Band:
44.000 to 53.975 MHz
Channel Spacing:

25 kHz. All 400 channels are directly selectable using the 3 rotary switches

Single channel simplex using frequency modulation (FM)
Transmitter Power
Nominal Power: 1 W
Low-transmit Power
0.1 to 30 mW
1.5 meter whip antenna - 5 km
0.5 meter whip antenna - 1 km
Dipole antenna (3.3 meters) - 10 km
Directional dipole antenna (30 meters) - 20 km
(these are average ranges over moderately wooded terrain)
Operating Temperature:
-35℃ to +60℃
The radio set can be operated at reduced efficiency in the temperature range from -50℃ to +70℃
The radio set is powered by a 6 volt DC battery
Operating time:
At full charge the battery pack will permit operating for up to 10 hours at a 5:1 listening/transmitting operating ratio

As you can see, at 6 volts and only 1 watt transmit power it is very low power radio, suitable only for local communications. But that's in line with other military radios of its type. The PRC-77 only puts out between 1 - 2 watts on battery power, and it uses a 15 volt battery. It looks like the RF-10 is a very power-efficient design.

There's some information about the RF-10 on the web in both Czech and English. The Czech site 'Military Radio Station RF-10' does a good job of laying out the radio's operational characteristics and covers some troubleshooting options. The site also provides some interesting shots of the radio circuitry. I was surprised to see some early integrated circuits (labeled 'Tesla') on the boards (Google Chrome does a pretty good job at translating the content). The site has a good page on the RF-10, and it's in English.

The RF-10 is simple to operate. The user sets the frequency using the mHz/kHz/Hz mechanical dials on the front of the radio, attaches the handset and any one of several whip or long wire antennas, switches the radio on and talks. Not much to go wrong or mess up.

Front of the RF-10 showing the antenna connection, volume control,
frequency dials and handset connector
The RF-10 was issued as a complete radio set consisting of the transceiver, handset, whip and long wire antennas, battery power supply, carrying bags and straps, and a small spares kit. All of these issue items fit into a large Styrofoam container that slips into a rubberized carrying satchel.

The RF-10 radio 'set' is stored, transported and deployed in this
large Styrofoam container
Take note that this Styrofoam box isn't just the shipping container - it's what the Czechoslovakian soldiers took the radio set to the field in. I'm not sure how much confidence I'd have in a big piece of Styrofoam protecting my radio, but I guess it worked. And it was cheap.

Opening up the container you find a complete radio set:

The set consists of:

  • RF-10 transceiver
  • One handset
  • One battery pack
  • Carrying pouches for the radio and battery pack
  • Carrying straps
  • Two whip antennas, very cleverly wound up in the lid of the Styrofoam box for storage/transport
  • One long wire antenna
  • One dipole antenna
  • One documentation packet that includes an instruction manual (for you old Army types, think of it as the -10 manual), a component list and a host of assorted and official looking certifications with lots of stamps and signatures

Virtually all of the components can fit into the radio's carrying bag, and using the supplied straps the bag can be worn over the shoulder or on the back. This makes for a very portable and versatile radio system. With a proper antenna setup, and by choosing your ground carefully, you should be able to communicate 20 miles or so. Remember, this is an FM radio, so you won't get much of the radio wave atmospheric 'skip' that is common with AM or single sideband signals.

The biggest issue with the RF-10 as I received it is the battery pack. The Czechs developed an interesting battery design that utilized five rechargeable D-cell sized NiCad batteries soldered together. The batteries were rated to provide 6 volts at 5 amp hours. The battery pack sits in an aluminum battery case that connects with the main radio via a waterproof electrical connection.

The battery case seen connected to the bottom of the RF-10 radio.
Note the operating instructions printed on the side of the radio. Not
very tactical, but not a bad idea either!
The problem is, the 1980's era batteries were shot, and leaking, and because of the odd nature of the battery contacts (remember, I said they were all soldered together) the fix isn't as simple as just dropping in some new D-cells.

The battery case with the top off showing the battery cell arrangement. Note the
leaking batteries. Yuk

The batteries have a 1984 date stamp

After some thought, and checking some on-line resources, I decided to modify the battery case to accept a modern 6 volt, 3.3 amp hour AGM battery. These small batteries fit just fine in the battery case and are relatively inexpensive (about $15 on Amazon). The modification ended up looking like this:

I reused the battery connection sockets and leads from the original NiCad battery pack.
It's these sockets that carry voltage to the radio via matching plugs on the inside of the case lid.
When closed up the battery case slides on and locks to the bottom of the RF-10 radio (seen here)

The 6 volt AGM battery snuggled down in the battery case just fine. I used some Styrofam
pieces to keep the battery from sliding around

This modification seems to work just fine. I have not 'stress tested' the setup to see just how much operating time I'll get out of the battery, but based on 5:1 listening/transmitting ratio I'm estimating a couple of hours of operation before I have to recharge the battery.

How does the RF-10 perform? To test the radio my friend Bill and I used it on the portion of the 6 meter band (50 - 54 mHz) that US Amateur Radio General and Extra class license holders have access to. Using a modern Yaesu FT-817 transceiver for the other half of the conversation, and testing just short distances across parking lots and city parks, Bill and I discovered that the RF-10 performs very well. The audio quality coming out of the RF-10 is quite good. Not broadcast quality, but certainly what you would expect out of a 1970's - era military radio. There are no other indications of issues and radio seems to be spot on frequency.

So following the prepper mantra of two is one and one is none I decided to order a second RF-10 set from Coleman's. Like the first set, this second could be described as 'new in the box'. The transceiver looked unused and most of the components were still sealed in plastic. Only the battery case looked used - very, very used. But this new radio had some issues. First, the handset was inoperative. I could hear through it, but when transmitting there was no audio coming through to the other radio. The other operator could hear my radio breaking squelch, but no audio. After acquiring a junked handset from a third party I was able to determine the issue was a defective microphone element. A quick swap out of mic elements and the problem was solved. Next, this new transceiver (which has a later production date than my first one) has a very sensitive squelch setting, and the squelch will open up when the radio is around even the slightest RF interference sources. Third, there's a low hum generated by the radio during transmit. Not enough to interfere with communications, but it is annoying. Still, the radio seems to be perfectly serviceable. The battery case got the same modification as the first one, and RF-10 #2 is on the air!

Ready to communicate, Comrade!

Do these radios represent the be-all and end-all in SHTF communications preparedness? No, not by a long shot. These are just interesting examples of Cold War-era tactical communications systems. They are obsolete and I consider them nothing more than a last-ditch communications option. So what are they? They're fun! They are the kinds of radios you take to an Amateur Radio Field Day, a reenactment setup, a Boy Scout event or a local ham radio club meeting and just have fun with. And besides, playing with stuff like this keeps me off the streets at night. 😀

So I guess these toys will keep me busy while I continue my search for nice 'prick-77'.

Stay sharp!


Monday, June 5, 2017

Through The Rabbit Hole

I read this morning a piece in the ultra leftist Village Voice about how liberal politicians in New York are scrambling to loosen New York's 60 year old laws prohibiting 'gravity knives'. These were laws put in place as far back as the 1950's to ban switchblades, implements of death that scared the hell out of lawmakers that watched 'The Blackboard Jungle' and 'West Side Story' one too many times.

The Village Voice piece, titled Trump's Immigration Crackdown Sharpens Need To Cut Bogus 'Gravity Knife' Law makes for some pretty humorous reading as the story unfolds. It goes something like this:

  • Knives are bad
  • 'Gravity' knives are particularly bad
  • We need to lock up folks who carry gravity knives
  • But wait - a lot of immigrants carry gravity knives
  • Getting caught with a gravity knife is a bad enough offense to get immigrants deported
  • Donald Trump supports deporting immigrants
  • Getting caught with a gravity knife gives Donald Trump all the excuse he needs to deport otherwise 'innocent' illegal immigrants
  • Ergo Donald Trump is worse than gravity knives
  • We must deny Donald Trump this opportunity
  • Therefore we must make the previously illegal gravity knives legal

As I've written about in the past, the laws against switchblades (which morphed into the current laws against 'gravity' knives) are ridiculous. I'm all for easing restrictions on all types of knives, and I think using a blade that is perfectly legal in 99% of the rest of the country as an excuse to lock people up is a classic example of the liberal nanny state gone mad.

So I'm all for 'liberalizing' New York's knife laws and I hope this change goes through. Not for the illegal aliens but for the thousands and thousands of otherwise law abiding Americans who find themselves the target of silly, capricious laws put in place by knee-jerk politicians.

And watching the New York politicians twisting their logic and arguments to fit their political agenda is really delicious!

Stay sharp!

- Brian


Friday, November 25, 2016

Ham Radio - A Decade On

About a month or so ago I started getting back in to Amateur (Ham) Radio. This renewed interest in the hobby was triggered by an innocent question from a long time friend and fellow Ham, who asked if I'd been on the air lately. After I told him that no, it's been a long while since I've been on the air I asked myself "just why haven't you been on the air?"

I've been a licensed Amateur Radio operator since 1995. I got my Technician-class ticket (KC5YNP) while stationed at Fort Hood, Texas. There were a few repeaters in the Killeen/Copperas Cove area that I enjoyed chatting on. One was a closed repeater run by a used car salesman. For $10/year you'd get use of the repeater and phone patch capability. At a time when cell phones were just coming on the market the ability to make a free phone call from a handheld radio was actually a neat and useful function. I bought a Radio Shack HTX-202 handheld transceiver and would take it to the field and let my Soldiers make phone patch calls back home during long field exercises. At our house on base I stuck a cheap 2 meter ground plane antenna up in the air on a piece of PVC pipe lashed to a fence and using a signal amplifier I was reliably hitting repeaters in Austin, over 60 miles away.

One ominous afternoon in 1997 my wife and I stood in our back yard and watched a nasty looking cloud formation move south past our house. To this day that is the ugliest storm system I've ever seen. We gathered up the kids and dogs and got them inside and I fired up my radio and just listened. The storm system passed us by, but 30 miles to the south it put an F5 tornado on the ground that wiped the town of Jarrell off the map. It was literally gone - if you were not underground when the storm hit you were dead. As I listened, the Amateur Radio repeaters within earshot were lighting up with reports from weather observers and storm chasers describing the ugliness and intensity of the storm and the fact that there was a huge tornado on the ground that was sweeping away everything in its path. It was fascinating - morbidly fascinating - to listen in as the realization of what had happened unfolded live over the radio. I was hooked.

About a year later the Army moved me and my family to Germany and all the radio gear went into storage. In 2000 we found ourselves back in the US, living just south of Atlanta. On one lazy spring afternoon I pulled out my trusty old HTX-202, found the settings for a local repeater in an old copy of the ARRL Repeater Directory and threw out my callsign. I was amazed when the acknowledgements came flooding back over the radio. In Texas it was common to sit on a repeater frequency for an hour or more and not hear any activity. Here in Georgia there were what seemed to be a half dozen or more folks on the local repeaters at all hours of the day and night. I didn't realize it at the time, but I had plopped myself and my family right smack in the middle of one of the most active Amateur Radio scenes in the southeastern US!

In short order I went out and earned my General-class ticket, giving me access to the high frequency radio bands that provide the real fun in Amateur Radio, built up an impressive 'shack' full of HF/VHF/UHF gear that allowed me to talk (literally) around the world and got deeply involved in the local Amateur Radio scene, ending up as the president of the local radio club. I even petitioned the FCC to reassign me my late father-in-law's callsign (W8BYH).

Then life got in the way. I changed jobs, put kids in college, found myself taking on other responsibilities in other areas and I found myself burned out on Amateur Radio. Slowly, bit-by-bit, I dismantled my gear and put it in storage. The antennas came down during home renovations but never went back up. The final blow came when I sold my old Ford Ranger pickup and had to pull all the radio gear out of it. The gear never made the transition into my new F-150. I had gone silent.

Now almost a full decade later my interest is coming back. I've spent the last month or so just poking around the Amateur Radio scene to gauge what's changed. I think what's surprised me most is what hasn't changed. The old repeaters are still working on the same old frequencies with the same tones and offsets. Most of the same equipment manufacturers are still making the same old radios with the same old features. The American Radio Relay League (ARRL) is still the single most influential voice in Amateur Radio, still seems the place to go to follow all the Amateur Radio discussions, you still go to to look up callsigns and MFJ still means 'mighty fine junk' (just kidding!). In many ways it's like all I did was take a 20 minute nap.

But in reality things have changed, some for the better, some for the worse:

  • Amateur Radio as a hobby/service still seems to be on the decline. In the age of the cheap smartphone, where any kid with a data plan can instantaneously call or text their friends around the world, this isn't a bit surprising. After all, you actually have to work and study to get an Amateur Radio license, and who wants to do that when you can't even get the latest updates on the Kardashians over that noisy, hard to use radio. (Does this mean Amateur Radio is irrelevant? NO - it just means we are dealing with changes in culture and expectations and perhaps need to do a better job of 'selling' Amateur Radio and what it offers.)
  • Ten-Tec is gone. I was (and still am) a huge Ten-Tec radio fan, even taking the time one weekend to attend their annual open house/hamfest in Sevierville, Tennessee. Their Jupiter radio was the centerpiece of my high-frequency station or 'shack'. The word on the internet is that the owners wanted to retire and had trouble finding a buyer, and the buyer they did find has been dragging his feet in getting the Amateur Radio side of the Ten-Tec line back into production. So much for a well thought out succession plan. My quandary now is, do I trade in my orphaned (but still capable) Ten-Tec gear for something more modern or do I hang on to it in the hopes it increases in value enough to contribute significantly to my 401K?
  • Just as surprising, while Ten-Tec has faded away there still seems to be a fairly strong Amateur Radio manufacturing base in the US. Amateur Radio is a very niche market and there's not a lot of market room for manufacturers, but companies like Elecraft seem to be doing quite well.
  • It's quiet and lonely out there. As I said earlier in this post, when I moved to the Atlanta area the local repeater scene was very active, with lots of local Amateurs hanging out and chatting virtually 24 hours/day. Today those same repeaters are all but dead quiet. I've had my multi-band VHF/UHF radio monitoring almost constantly for the past two days and all I hear are the automated repeater IDs. It appears that, like me, so many others have left the hobby or, sadly, have passed away.
  • True digital modes on VHF/UHF. When I left the hobby there was a lot of discussion starting up about the introduction of true digital communication modes in the VHF/UHF bands (as opposed to digital data carried on analog signals, like APRS or Packet). The portions of the VHF/UHF spectrum allocated to Amateur Radio were becoming increasingly crowded and in many regions it was becoming difficult to find repeater frequencies and tones that didn't interfere with other repeaters. Everyone knew digital was coming - it's just more efficient. The question 10 years ago was, which digital standard? It seems that the D-STAR standard developed by the Japanese Amateur Radio League has won the day. It's an open standard (meaning anyone can adopt it) and seems robust and well supported. There's a D-STAR repeater just down the road from me and it looks like I'll have to give it a try.
  • Speaking of the Japanese, the big four Amateur Radio manufacturers - Icom, Kenwood, Yaesu and Alinco - seem to be going strong. In my opinion these four manufacturers are singularly responsible for keeping Amateur Radio alive around the world. They offer extremely well designed, world-class equipment that is very affordable. I suspect these manufacturers don't make a lot of money in Amateur Radio manufacturing (all of them are big-time commercial telecommunications systems manufacturers), and may actually lose money on this side of the business. But since many of them got their start making radio gear for American and European ham radio operators in the 1950's & 60's and I think they stay in the market as a way to honor their roots.
  • Like just about everywhere else in the manufacturing world, the Chinese have stuck their noses under the Amateur Radio tent and are now making what seem to be very capable transceivers at rock bottom prices. This has to really be hurting the Japanese manufacturers. 
  • Shortwave. In addition to Amateur Radio, I was a fairly active shortwave listener. Shortwave monitoring and Amateur Radio have always been very tightly intertwined. I'd spend hours tuning in broadcasts from Radio Havana, BBC World Service, Deutsche Welle, Radio Netherlands, the Voice of America, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and more (my Ten-Tec Jupiter was also an outstanding general coverage shortwave receiver). I'm saddend to find that the Internet has all but wiped out many of these excellent shortwave services. I understand that shortwave broadcasting costs money and that delivering programming via the internet is much cheaper. But compared to shortwave broadcasting, the digital architecture that delivers that programming to the end user via the Internet is much more expensive and fragile. And regardless of what Google likes to claim, Internet service is NOT ubiquitous and won't be for a long, long time (if it ever does happen). On top of that, when a major disaster like an earthquake or hurricane strikes a 'developed region' the Internet is one of the first things to go dark. That's why aid organizations still hand out thousands of inexpensive self-powered radios every year. Radio - particularly AM and shortwave - just works, and keeps working in the worst of situations.

My new 'shack' in its very luxurious surroundings

So now that I'm re-entering the hobby where do I go from here? I'm still trying to figure that out, but for now I've got a bunch of gear to sort through, radios to test, wire antennas to untangle and battery packs to recharge. Hopefully I'll see you on the radio sometime soon!.

Stay sharp & 73!


Friday, August 26, 2016

A.G. Russell On Sharpening

I was notified today that A.G. Russell has made a short series of videos on proper sharpening technques. It's good to see A.G. up and about. I saw him several years ago during one of my first visits to the Blade Show here in Atlanta, but to my knowledge he hasn't been at the show in several years.

A.G. is one of the last of what I refer to as the 'knife renaissance men'. Men of his generation - Bill Moran, Bob Loveless, Jimmy Lyle, Gil Hibben, Harvey Draper and others - ignited the modern knife revolution beginning in the mid-1960s, and it's a revolution that continues today.

A.G. isn't really a knife maker. He's a knife designer, promoter and retailer who started A.G. Russell Knives in the 1970s. Many up and coming knife makers got their first national exposure when A.G. promoted their knives in his catalogs. But A.G. really got his start in the mid-1960s by selling Arkansas whetstones. Arkansas whetstones are made of natural novaculite, a metamorphic form of chert. The Ouachita range in Arkansas is famous for it's novaculite formations, and the region is the largest US source of natural sharpening stones. A.G. quickly became the largest retailer of natural sharpening stones in the US. In the last 20 years or so the demand for traditional Arkansas whetstones has fallen off as high quality man made sharpening products like diamond sharpening stones or ceramic 'V' sharpeners have taken their place. The lack of demand eventually caused A.G. to drop Arkansas stones from his catalog all together.

But at the last Blade Show here in Atlanta I spent some time talking to the folks from Dan's Whetsone Company of Pearcy, Arkansas. They told me that A.G. is again interested in carrying Arkansas whetstones in his catalog and is talking to Dan's about supplying the various sizes and grades he's is interested in. That's great news for someone like me who likes to sharpen knives the traditional way. EVERYONE who owns a knife should have a good Arkansas whetstone!

Here's one of a series of several videos A.G. recently made. The entire series is available on YouTube or is linked from the A.G. Russell Knives website.

Stay sharp!

- Brian

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Is Being Different A Good Thing?

For almost two years I've been mildly interested in the sad tale of the Remington Arms Company's attempts to introduce an updated version of their early 20th century Model 51 pistol built around the Pedersen delayed blowback system ('hesitation-locked' as it's officially known). I won't go into details about how the recoil system operates other than to say it ain't your daddy's Browning-designed locking breech system. If you want more information you can check out the Remington Model 51's Wikipedia page. The Pedersen system to me appears to be an answer in search of a problem. But to be fair, Pedersen was a smart guy (and he actually worked for a time with John Browning), made a lot of contributions to firearms technology in the first half of the 20th century and his delayed blowback system worked quite well in the original Model 51, and it was a fairly popular pistol in its time.

Fast forward almost 100 years and Remington is struggling. It still makes great shotguns and bolt action rifles, but has largely missed out on the concealed carry pistol craze of the first decade and a half of the 21st century. In fact, Remington had zero pistol offerings of any type, and didn't really seem interested in playing in the market. It sat by and watched competitors like Ruger, Smith & Wesson, Glock, FN, Springfield Armory, Kimber, Kahr, Beretta, and even second tier manufacturers like Taurus and Kel-Tec and (gawd help us) High Point raked in truck loads of cash as consumers rushed to buy something - anything - with a hole in the barrel. Most of these makers were selling out their entire annual production within a few weeks of opening their order books at the start of each fiscal year. I'm just speculating here, but one of the things that likely caught the Remington execs' attention was the fact that an old line gun maker like Smith & Wesson was able to achieve dominance in the concealed carry market in large part by simply ramping up production of a 60 year old revolver design - the iconic J-Frame Airweight series. For several years running the S&W Model 642, a simple hammerless aluminum frame revolver in 38 Special, was the company's #1 seller. They couldn't make them fast enough. The little revolver was a cash cow for the once ailing company.

Maybe the Remington guys thought the way to break into the market was to introduce an updated version of a popular pistol the company used to make. After all, if it worked for S&W it should work for Remington, right? I'm guessing they took a look around their gun room and quickly lighted on the Model 51. The original models were well liked (and somewhat collectible), the design was unique - there wasn't another pistol being made that used the Pedersen delayed blowback system - and the gun could be scaled up to handle the more powerful 9mm cartridge.

Original Remington Model 51 in 380 ACP caliber

There was only one problem. Remington hadn't made a pistol in over 85 years. Sure, a company called Remington (actually Remington-Rand) made the bulk of the 1911A1 45 caliber pistols the US used from World War II through the 1990's, but that was a typewriter manufacturing company, spun off years earlier from the Remington Arms Company to maintain the 'purity' of the firearms side of the business. The gun maker Remington made its last conventional pistol, the Model 51, way back in 1927. I say 'conventional pistol' because for decades Remington made the XP-100 pistol, but that was little more than a shortened rifle action fitted to a plastic grip. It was a very successful design, but it was not a pistol in the conventional sense.

So we have a rifle and shotgun manufacturer with no institutional pistol design or manufacturing expertise deciding to produce a pistol based on a complex design dating back to World War I, a design that no other arms manufacturer has deemed reliable enough to put into production. What can go wrong? Well as Remington found out, plenty. Here's where the sad tale starts, and I'll just supply the Cliff Notes version:

  • Remington announces the new R51 pistol at the 2014 SHOT Show in Las Vegas. The press is invited to shoot the available examples. Everybody's excited. The pistols seem to shoot well. The Pedersen design is unique in today's market and it represents a historic tie back to when Remington last manufactured handguns. The gun industry press begins its usual fawning. Soon the pistol is gracing the covers of virtually all the popular gun magazines and YouTube videos are popping up all over the internet praising the pistol
  • Remington ships a limited number of pre-production R51s out to gun writers and internet celebrities for more extensive shooting sessions. Remington assures everyone that although these pistols are pre-production, they represent the final approved production design and the pistols soon to come off the line at their North Carolina plant will perform exactly the same as these T&E models. The fawning continues. Everyone is excited that America's oldest gun maker is getting back into the pistol business, and with a historically significant design that is not John Browning's
  • Production pistols begin to make it out into the hands of the gun buying public and immediately problems crop up. Complaints of poor manufacturing quality, loose fitting parts (like sights that shift around in their dovetails!), inconsistent triggers, slides that are all but impossible to rack, poor accuracy and, worst of all, frequent reports of the pistols firing out of battery. The gun press stops its fawning and goes silent on the R51. The problems with the pistol are simply too obvious for even the most in-the-tank industry shill to ignore
  • To Remington's great credit they stop production after the first few thousand pistols ship, acknowledge the problems and claim they are going to fix the QC issues and do a re-design to address some of the performance issues. The also make a very generous offer to those who had already purchased the R51 - Remington would either buy back their pistol for a full refund, let them trade their pistol for one of the new models when it ships, or let them trade the pistol for a new Remington R1911 pistol. This is in 2014 and Remington estimates it'll take about a year to get the problems ironed out and the re-designed pistols into production
  • It actually takes Remington over two years to get things squared away. Part of the delay was due to moving production from North Carolina to Alabama. Finally a few weeks ago Remington announced the new pistols were shipping, first to those original buyers who had waited patiently for their replacement R51s and then to retailers. They were scheduled to be in dealers hands around August 12th. 

The Remington R51

Just earlier this week I was catching some of the internet chatter regarding the newly released pistol (now known as the 2nd Generation R51). A few folks who had received their replacement pistols were already posting YouTube videos. Reviews still seemed a bit mixed, but nobody was reporting the kinds of dangerous issues the first generation pistols exhibited. I told myself that if one ever appeared in my local gun range rental case I'd give it a try.

Well yesterday I went to the range and sitting there in the rental case was, surprise of surprises, a shiny new R51! The gal behind the counter said they got it just yesterday and it was unfired. I told her I'd be more than happy to put the first few rounds through it.

First impressions? The quality looked good. The fit and finish was well done. This is a sub-$500 pistol so we can't expect too much embellishment, but overall it looked nicely done. Visually it's an interesting pistol, sort of like a cross between a Walther PPK and Flash Gordon's ray gun. I think it works. I even like the 'reverse sloped' rear sight, which I think is actually a pretty good idea.The sights are the conventional 3-dot style and target acquisition is fast and easy. If you like Novaks you'll like these. The grip angle is good and the pistol points naturally. One of the features of the Pedersen design is that the recoil spring surrounds the barrel, allowing for a very low bore axis. The rear of the slide sits right at the web of your hand, and I'll talk more about that in just a moment.

2nd Generation R51. A nice looking pistol

Actually firing the pistol is a somewhat different experience compared to other hammer fired semi-autos. The R51 sports a very aggressive grip safety. I say aggressive because unlike the grip safety on a 1911-style pistol, where the simple act of gripping the pistol deactivates the grip safety, on the R51 you have to consciously squeeze the grip safety until you feel it click, and then you'll be able to pull the trigger. You can't just 'grip and pull' (the trigger), you have to 'grip, squeeze until click, then pull'. It is a very deliberate process to get on the grip safety and squeeze until it clicks.

Next is the trigger itself. It doesn't 'click' when the sear releases, instead it 'pops'. Other reviewers have noticed this too. It's hard to describe, but once you pull the trigger a few times you'll understand. It's as though the tripping of the sear is wrapped up in a series of other simultaneous mechanical events going on inside the pistol when the trigger is pulled, so you don't get the crisp 'click' of the release, instead you get a more ambiguous 'pop'. I'm not sure if this is directly related to the Pedersen design or just the way Remington designed the trigger mechanism and its relation to the grip safety. I'll just say that it's different.

Accuracy. In this department it's OK. Not bad, not great. But an accuracy evaluation at this point is unfair. I only put 30 rounds through the pistol, it was brand new and I was unfamiliar with it. I'll just say that it does show potential and I'm confident that if I shot it more and got used to the trigger I'd get much better groups. Here's how it does at 12 feet:

About a 4 inch center group at 12 feet

I should also add that while I only put 30 rounds through the R51, these were the first rounds fired through it since it left the factory and it was 100% reliable.

So does the somewhat unusual grip safety and trigger make R51 so odd that it is not a viable product in today's market? Well they shouldn't. The handgun market today is full of 'odd' examples that don't just work, but have succeeded spectacularly. Glock is the best example. It is also valid to point out that the R51's trigger and safety are much less different from a traditional Browning design semi-auto pistol than a 1911 is from a double action revolver. I think what I'm trying to say is that there's enough elbow room in today's handgun market for the R51 to gain some traction and succeed.

Yet, sadly, the pistol doesn't work for me. Let's get back to the low bore axis issue. While it is great for controlling recoil it puts the rear of the slide uncomfortably close to the web of the shooting hand. If you are like me and you have somewhat 'beefy' hands you are going to get slide bite, and it hurts.

No blood, but plenty of scraped skin. And yes, I'm a southpaw

Is the R51 worth taking a look at for concealed carry? I think so - but shoot one first to make sure you don't have the problem I encountered.

Would I ever own one? I think if Remington ever did a re-design of the frame to add a slight beavertail to protect the shooter's hand I'd go for it. It's a unique design that seems to work. As a firearms enthusiast and amateur historian I applaud Remington's efforts to bring the Pederson design back into production. I could see plunking down cash for one if they ever fix the damned slide bite issue.

Stay sharp!

- Brian

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Franklin Roosevelt, Sharpshooter

As I was doing research for yesterday's posting on Camp Perry I pulled out my old copy of Jeffrey Rodengen's excellent coffee table book, 'NRA - An American Legend'. For anybody interested in the history of the National Rifle Association and the shooting sports here in the US this is a great book with lots of information and excellent illustrations.

While thumbing through the book I happened upon an image that caused me to pause and reflect. It appears today that America is ramping up for yet another battle over gun control. After a decade of progress on gun rights issues, mainly at the state level, and one landmark Supreme Court decision (District of Columbia vs. Heller) the Democrats were in retreat, wisely choosing to do battle on other fronts. It also didn't help that their president had inadvertently turned out to be the biggest firearms salesman in the history of the United States. (I really think he deserves of some sort of industry award.) But with election season in full swing and a two term president unfettered by having to appear reasonable in order to get re-elected the Democrats are back at it. This time they have wind in their sails as their leader stumps around the country decrying violence and blaming the inanimate object rather than a rotten, poisonous culture that has laid waste to our cities and communities.

But like Yogi Berra once said, it's deja-vu all over again.

The image in the book that caught my eye is one of Franklin Delano Roosevelt taken just before WWI. Roosevelt served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy from 1913 - 1920 and during that period also served as chairman of the National Board for the Promotion of Rifle Practice.

Looks like a real competitive shooter, doesn't he? But note the dress shirt cuff and cufflink
peeking out from under the shooting jacket. I'm guessing this was little more than
a staged photo op and the upturned shooting jacket collar hides a starched collar and tie

You read that right. The father of national-level gun control in the US (see the National Firearms Act of 1934) once served as the chairman of the National Board for the Promotion of Rifle Practice.

The original National Firearms Act (NFA) proposal that FDR's administration put forward called for punitive taxation not just on machine guns and silencers but on all handguns, along with a national gun registry. The Democrat argument in 1934 was pretty much the same as it is today - in order to get a handle on gun violence we need to restrict and punish the law abiding. In the mid-1930's the nation was in the midst of a rising wave of organized crime violence brought on, in large part, by Prohibition. Just as today nobody in the Democrat party stopped to ask, "Hey, if criminals by their nature ignore laws why do we think they'll follow any gun control legislation we put in place?" Why ask when you know the answer and it doesn't really matter anyway. It's not about crime control, it's about gun control.

The provisions of the NFA were scaled back when Congress got it in their hands. In the end all it affected was fully automatic weapons, silencers and short barreled rifles and shotguns. But the key point is this - the Democrats under Roosevelt had no problem with gun control provisions that at the time were more restrictive than England's.

Roosevelt was a master political chameleon, appearing as everything to everybody. To voters during the Depression he could come across as your best friend, your wise uncle, a comforting neighbor or an understanding yet powerful leader who was going to make it all better. But at his core Roosevelt was just a scheming liberal hack who's only concern was moving the Democrat party political platforms forward.. I have no doubt that during the discussions over the NFA he trotted out his bonafides as the past chairman of the National Board for the Promotion of Rifle Practice and said, "Gentlemen, I'm not against legal gun ownership, or hunting, or target shooting. Just look at my background. But we have to do something to get all this crime under control, and what we propose is reasonable and doesn't conflict with the Second Amendment."

Of course as part of the political elite the rules he wanted to force on the average citizen wouldn't apply to him or his fellow patricians. Evidence?

At a time when the average schmo couldn't dream of getting concealed carry permit in the State of New York the ultra-liberal leftist Eleanor Roosevelt was handed one just for asking. In fact, she had been schlepping a revolver around in her purse since the 1930s when the Secret Service gave her one for personal protection.

For me but not for thee. Think about it.

Stay sharp!

- Brian

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Camp Perry

I grew up near the shores of Port Clinton, Ohio and spent much of each summer girl watching at the Cedar Point amusement park. I was vaguely aware that just west of the roller coasters, log flume and giant piles of french fries (a Cedar Point specialty) was a place called Camp Perry where each year hundreds of shooters from the military and civilian world convened to compete for some of the most exclusive titles in the shooting sports.

A few years later I was enrolled in the ROTC program at Bowling Green State University. Camp Perry was the closest military installation and we would spend time there working on our military skills, using the Leader Reaction Course and other military related activities we couldn't do while on the school campus. One of my strongest memories was staying in what were refereed to as the 'huts' or 'hutments'; small 4-man cabins built during WWII to house German and Italian POWs. While not luxurious by any means, the huts were a damned site better than what our American POWs were housed in while guests of the Third Reich or the Empire of Japan.

Camp Perry was opened in 1906 as an Ohio National Guard training facility. The Ohio State Adjutant General at the time, Ammon Critchfield, had the camp laid out with extensive rifle and pistol range facilities, including one of the longest military rifle ranges at the time - 600 yards. The goal was to build ranges that could support marksmanship training with the newly adopted M1903 Springfield rifle and it's powerful .30-03 cartridge (soon updated to the even more accurate .30-06). In 1907 Critchfield convinced the newly formed National Board for the Promotion of Rifle Practice (now known as the Civilian Marksmanship Program, or CMP) to move the National Matches from Sea Girt, New Jersey to Camp Perry. For almost 110 years, interrupted only by two world wars and the Korean conflict, Camp Perry has been the home of the National Matches. In the minds of many shooters Camp Perry and the National Matches are inseparable.

I've had the opportunity to go to Camp Perry twice in the 1990s while the National Matches were being held. I didn't go to compete, just to drop by and see what was going on. Unless you are a participating shooter it can be pretty boring walking up and down behind the ready line, listening to the tower commands and the sound of gunfire. Perhaps more than any other sport, precision rifle and pistol shooting is a lonely individual endeavor - man against paper target. No cheering crowds, no waving foam fingers, no fans painted up in their favorite team colors. From that perspective the matches can be pretty dull. But behind the ready line things can be interesting. All the service marksmanship units have their trailers set up and they are more than happy to talk shop and give tours. Commercial Row, where the vendors set up, is always a fun place to wander through. You can buy just about anything shooting related except, of course, a gun. The installation itself is quite picturesque and it can be relaxing just sitting by the lake and watching the boats go by.

But for me it is the history of the place that beckons. Since 1907 all of America's greatest marksmen (and women) and gun writers have passed through Camp Perry. As you walk around the huts and tent areas you can almost hear old timers like Elmer Keith, Charles Askins, Townsend Whelen and others of their generation sitting under the trees swapping lies, griping about their scores and discussing the newest developments in firearms and cartridges,

That's why Camp Perry is considered hallowed ground by thousands of American shooters.

This Camp Perry post card collection is an offshoot of my collection of cards highlighting life in the pre-WWII Army. As I searched for cards I inevitably stumbled on a few specific to Camp Perry and the National Matches. They paint an interesting picture of activities at the camp before WWII. Let's have a look!

Main entrance to Camp Perry. This is likely a 1950s vintage photo  that shows the iconic 'lighhouse' towers that guard the entrance

A very early elevated view of the pistol and rifle ranges. The large building in the background is the camp's mess hall, built in 1909 .The photo was taken from atop the camp's water tower

The same perspective as the picture above. This is an example of a 'linen' postcard produced from a colorized photograph. Based on what we see in the photo - the cars, larger trees, more permanent structures and the target pits. I'm guessing this is a 1930's vintage shot.

One of the earliest buildings at Camp Perry, and it's most iconic structure, was the Club House. It sat right on the water's edge and served as a recreational facility, restaurant and meeting center for the camp. Sadly it was badly damaged by a tornado in the early 1990's and destroyed in a controlled fire soon after. A new conference center sits on the site

The Club House was fronted by a bathing beach that was apparently quite popular with the family members of competitors at the National Matches

Another view of the Mess Hall. It was built in 1909 using the revolutionary (for the time) process of pre-cast concrete construction.

The Mess Hall (again) with a company of soldiers lined up waiting for the facility to open. Whoever colorized this photo did a particularly good job capturing the features of the individual soldiers

One of the earliest detailed photos (1908) I've been able to find of Camp Perry match participants. I first spotted this image on the website where it was captioned as showing members of the California National Guard rifle team. The soldiers in the photo are wearing a eclectic mix of Spanish-American War uniform items - dark blue shirts, crushed felt campaign hats, leather puttees and wide cartridge belts originally designed for the Krag-Jorgensen rifle. The soldiers are all holding the new M1903 Springfield rifle and based on the age of the photo it is likely they were all chambered for the early 30-03 cartridge 

While this postcard doesn't provide a date or unit identifier we can still glean some useful information from what we see. The uniforms indicate this photo was taken prior to WWI. The headgear and uniform color is the give away.  And of course they are shooting the newly adopted M1903 Springfield

Fast forward a few decades and we have the Texas National Guard rifle team, considerably better equipped than their California brothers (above) but still shooting the venerable M1903 Springfield!

In the early days, back before anti-gun political correctness and scare mongering set in you could actually shop for and buy firearms at the National Matches. Yes sir, guns and 'military equipments', whatever those were

Even Winchester got in on the act. And everybody was welcome!

By the 1930's commercial activity at the National Matches had gotten so big that they decided to put up a building to house all the retailers that showed up. Called Commercial Row, it became another iconic building at Camp Perry. By the 1990's most of the space in this building had been turned over to the Ohio National Guard for use as offices and a drill hall and Commercial Row was moved yet again to a permanent space on another part of Camp Perry

Let's take a look at some shootin! This post-WWI post card shows some interesting items. First, note the civilians on the firing line. The National Matches were always intended to be a mix of military and civilian participants. Some of the finest shooters ever to compete at Camp Perry never wore a uniform. And get a load of that monster spotting scope!

Here we see what is likely unit marksmanship training or qualification taking place on the 300 yard range. This is a WWI - era photo so it's not connected with the National Matches. During both world wars Camp Perry was dedicated fully to military training

Based on the uniforms and equipment I'm guessing this is a post-WWI shot of a military only match. Perhaps the Ohio National Guard match, which was (and still is) a qualifier for the National Matches

The pistol competition is a big part of the National Matches. Here it looks like a small-bore competition - the gal in the foreground looks like she's shooting a Colt Woodsman , I'm not sure about the guy standing next to her holding an M1911 style pistol. He may have the 22 caliber conversion kit installed. Or he's lost and shooting on the wrong range

This postcard is fun for several reasons. First, the colorization is very well done and it shows little of the cartoonish overpainting found on most other cards. The stances of the shooters reflects a good bit of their personalities (particularly the bandy-legged little civilian on the left). But the real fun character is the fellow sitting in the left foreground. He's holding his M1911 pistol with the slide back, either having just finished shooting his round or waiting to go up to the firing line. He wears his holster in an interesting fashion - through the belt loops so it rides high vs. using the traditional brass wire hanger to suspend it from his pistol belt. And last, he's smoking (a pipe)! No way in hell would you be allowed near a firing line today with a cigarette or pipe in your mouth. It's a clear fire hazard and, more importantly, it's just so damned politically incorrect to be seen using tobacco

We can't forget that Camp Perry is a military installation. From it's opening in 1907 it was used primarily for training Ohio National Guard units. Here we see an example of a 'company street' with the orderly room tent in the foreground. The flag is the unit guidon (likely an infantry unit based on the color) and we can see the unit bulletin board and mail drop box (both in white). If I had to guess I'd say this picture was taken while the unit was at Camp Perry for it's two week Annual Training perioud

Let's wrap this up with an aerial view of Camp Perry taken prior to the 1930s (the Commercial Row building have not yet been constructed). We can see the beach side Club House, the Mess Hall in the distance, the red and white checkered water tower and the range areas just beyond the water tower. The tents to the left of the Club House were traditionally used for family camping during the National Matches. This was before Disney World and cheap Caribbean cruises, when many competitors brought their families along for the week. Mother and the kids would enjoy the beach while Dad was shooting. That area was nicknamed the 'squaw camp'

Here's another view of the Club House and the 'squaw camp' area. I'm sure, except for the sound of gunfire, it was a nice place to spend a week with the family


All's well that ends well

And so fair reader we bid you good night. Remember to keep the home fires burning, make sure the guard is set and maybe a tune or two from the Camp Songbook would be appropriate before the bugler blows taps.

Stay sharp!

- Brian