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, November 30, 2014

No Weapons Allowed In The Atlanta History Center!

Yesterday Roberta and I took a trip up into Atlanta to visit the Atlanta History Center. I've only been there once before, a year or two after we moved to Atlanta. I took our daughters up for a special exhibition and to just get out of the house and give Mom a day off. By that time, having spent two years in the Atlanta area listening to all the self-indulgent whining generated by the grievance industry that rules Atlanta today, I wasn't expecting much out of the History Center. All I really expected were exhibits designed to bludgeon me into an elevated state of remorse over how my ancestors oppressed the ancestors of others (even though my grandparents on both sides didn't step off the boats from Europe until the early 1900's and settled well north of the Mason-Dixon Line).

However, I was delightfully surprised by the History Center. It had one of the best exhibits on Civil War history I've ever experienced (with lots of excellent equipment displays), a wonderful section on Reconstruction Era Atlanta, an interesting section devoted to folk art and crafts, and an outstanding section on the legacy of the famous Atlanta golfer, Bobby Jones.

The Atlanta History Center is where you go to see the other Atlanta history; the proud history of the city that predates the civil rights struggles that started in the late 1950s. I'm not implying that the history of the civil rights movement isn't important - it certainly is. However, visitors to Atlanta today only hear a narrative of the city's history that starts around 1960 and focuses tightly on only one aspect of what was happening during that period. Atlanta's history is much more than that, and the Atlanta History Center is where you can go to learn about it.

This second visit reinforced my impression formed a decade ago - the History Center is a great museum and well worth the time and cost.

When we arrived and went to the ticket counter to pay I notice a sign that stated 'No Weapons Allowed' and had images of both a knife and a gun with slash marks through them. I wasn't really surprised. Atlanta on the whole is pretty anti-gun. Remember, Atlanta is no longer a 'southern city'. Atlanta is just a city located in the south that's filled with people that either migrated in from other places that are known for their anti-gun attitudes (i.e., the Northeast) or people who's families have been here for generations but who's neighborhoods and culture have been ripped apart by gun violence. These folks are incapable of distinguishing between random, senseless gun violence sparked by illegal activity and lawful, safe carry and use of firearms by responsible citizens.

So it was with a bit of ironic humor that I noted the special exhibit going on at the History Center named 'Confederate Odyssey - The George W. Wray Jr. Civil War Collection'. The History Center cleverly describes the exhibit as a 'collection of Confederate artifacts'. Yeah, OK, but pretty much all of those artifacts are guns and knives - dozens and dozens of 'em! This is one impressive (and impressively displayed) arms collection.

But wait - guns and knives are banned at the Atlanta History Center. Oh silly me - just my guns and knives.

If you have an interest in Civil War era firearms and edged weapons this is an outstanding exhibit and I encourage you to take the time to see it. All I was able to collect were a few fuzzy iPhone pictures of some of the exhibits, but it give a sense of the scope of the collection. By the way, one of the most fascinating tidbits about this collection is that, as vast as it is, the owner George Wray kept most of this stuff squirreled away in his garage up in Sandy Springs before donating it to the History Center. He must have been a real popular guy ("Hey, let's go check out George's garage!")

And finally, since this is supposed to be a blog that focuses on knives, let's pause before leaving to view an impressive example of a Bowie-style Confederate bayonet:

And remember, if you do visit the Atlanta History Center leave your weapons at home. They have plenty for you to choose from should the Yankees return (oh wait...  there're here)!

- Brian

Saturday, November 15, 2014

True Grit

I'm a John Wayne fan. A huge John Wayne fan.

I should clarify that I'm a huge John Wayne western fan. I've seen just about every western he's made, even the pre Stagecoach B-movies where he cut his teeth as an actor and roustabout. In my opinion he never made a bad western. He's made some absolute classics (Stagecoach, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon), a few fun but middling flicks (McLintock, War Wagon, The Alamo), and his last movie, The Shootist is perhaps the best cinematic farewell ever made. If you understand what was going on in Wayne's life at the time he made the movie you realize that he is merely reflecting his real world anguish through the main character, John Books, who is dying of cancer and can't bear the thought of a slow, painful and undignified end.

John Wayne had an extremely prolific career and was a consistent box office draw right up to the end, but he only won one Academy Award, and that was for his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn in the 1969 movie True Grit. While this is certainly one of Wayne's best performances, the other lead cast members - Glenn Campbell and Kim Darby - are second-rate at best and drag the entire movie down. Campbell in particular gives a very stilted, wooden performance and I wince every time he comes into the frame. (An interesting historical 'might have been' is the fact that Elvis Presley was under serious consideration for Campbell's role but his manager blew the opportunity by insisting on top billing. Elvis was actually a pretty good actor and was desperate to grab more serious, non-musical roles to expand his film career. Sadly it was not to be.)

The lead cast from the 1969 version of True Grit - John Wayne, Kim Darby and Glenn Campbell

I put True Grit at second-tier status; a great story and a great performance by a leading actor but an otherwise middling piece of film making.

Then along comes 2010, and the Coen brothers remake of True Grit. The Coen brother's films are often so nuanced and so well crafted that I have to watch them several times before I fully appreciate them. I've watched Oh Brother, Where Art Thou perhaps a dozen times and I'm still marveling at the quality of the work and I'm still pulling things out of it that I hadn't discovered before.

I made a huge mistake when I went to see the Coen's True Grit in the theater. I went with the intent of comparing it to the original. I spent far too much time just listening to the dialog and viewing the scene construction and saying to myself, "Harumph, this is just like they did it in the 1969 version. Nothing new here." I left the theater under the impression that I had seen a good, solid remake that was perhaps a bit better than the original, but nothing really special. But I was wrong. I should have gone into the theater from the perspective that the 1969 movie had never been made and judged the Coen's work on its own merit. 

Since 2010 I've watched True Grit a number of times and now understand that the movie is not a reinterpretation of the earlier work, but instead is a reimagining of Charles Portis' original novel. From that perspective the 2010 version of True Grit stands as a classic western. It doesn't need the 1969 version to prop it up or to offer comparison, In fact, to consider the 2010 movie in light of the 1969 version is to do the Coen brothers movie a grave injustice. 

Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn and Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross in the 2010 version.
A far better cast in a far better movie

I'm confident True Grit will go down as one of the best westerns of the early 21st century.

- Brian

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A 10/22 Carbine Project

I've ignored this blog for far too long.  Two or three posts per year is just a sign of mental laziness. Time to put in more effort here.

I've hinted in the past that I like firearms. Actually, I'm fascinated by them and have been since I was old enough to hold a copy of 'The American Rifleman'.  Perhaps one of the reasons I joined the Army was the chance to play with an unlimited number of toys that go 'bang!', from pistols to rifles to machine guns to grenade launchers to anti-tank rockets.  I'm lucky to live in a state that takes a lessaiz-faire attitude towards firearms; as long as you don't act like a knucklehead with your guns the po-po pretty much leave you alone. I'm also lucky to be able to indulge my fascination with firearms (in a limited way) and be surrounded by friends and family who share the same fascination.

Of late I've been interested in the 22 calibers, from .223 and 5.56 to the venerable old 22 Long Rifle (22 LR) round. For almost the past five years 22 LR ammo has been all but impossible to find - a reaction to national politics that fueled an almost insatiable demand for anything that launches bullets. Firearm manufacturers literally could not crank out guns fast enough to meet the demand, and many of those guns were the relatively inexpensive models that shoot 22 LR ammunition. This in turn fueled an incredible demand for 22 LR ammunition. Ammunition manufacturers pushed their existing production capacity to the limit and added new capacity as quickly as they could, and still couldn't meet the demand. I had friends who had the ammunition delivery schedules for the local gun shops and big box stores synced with their smartphone calendars and would run off during lunch several times a week in the quest to pick up a box or two of 22 LR ammo. Sometimes they were successful, but often they showed up at the stores to find the ammo shelves empty and sales personnel singing the all-too-common refrain, "You shoulda' been here an hour ago!"

But it appears the five year drunk is over.  Gun sales have slowed (precipitously) and ammo of all types is becoming easier to find.  Military grade 5.56 ammo is available in near glut quantities and retailers are starting to offer some very good sales on bulk packages. I put this down to greatly reduced demand for 5.56 caliber ammo from the US military. We are pulling out of war zones, drawing down our military and struggling with budget restrictions, so Uncle Sam isn't buying as much 5.56 ammo as he used to. This means ammo manufacturers who ramped up to supply an almost insatiable demand for 5.56-caliber ammo during the Global War on Terror now find themselves with excess production capacity. Civilian shooters can finally get a break on 5.56 ammo supplies and prices.

22 LR ammo is also becoming more available. It's not in unlimited supplies yet, but it's becoming easier to find a box of CCI Mini-Mags here and there, and occasionally stores will get good supplies of bulk 22 LR ammo - the old 500 or 1000-round value packs that fueled many an afternoon of cheap fun popping off shots at soda cans, Neco wafers and spinner targets.

For years I've had 22 LR rifles and pistols in my gun safe, but during the ammo drought they came out only occasionally - I was afraid to burn through my limited stock of 22 LR ammo. But with the increased ammo availability I've become more and more interested in taking these fine old guns out to the range. A few weeks back some friends and I went to the range for an easy day of sighting in some rifles, trying each other's guns and trading old war stories. The 22 LR rifles and pistols were a universal hit, and with a couple of big 'ol 500 round boxes of Winchester ammo nobody worried about not having enough to shoot. It was pure fun, and reminded me again just why the 22 LR is so popular.

For some reason this range trip got me thinking about the potential capabilities of a low-end 22 LR rifle; just how cheaply can a reliable and 'accuratre enough' 22 LR shooting set-up be put together that would offer good shooting opportunities. I was interested because I've got an unused, bottom of the barrel Ruger 10/22 carbine sitting in my safe. This is the $200 Wal-Mart version - ugly wooden carbine stock, blued barrel, useless buckhorn sights. I stumbled into this rifle on a trade and wasn't really sure what I wanted to do with it (other than use if for future trading material). I figured what the heck, I'd use this as a test-bed rifle to lean some lessons about the 10/22 rifle.

The Ruger 10/22 Carbine in all of its low-end, big box store glory. Today they go for about $200 at Wal-Mart

Down through the years I've owned a number of Ruger 10/22s. In fact, my very first firearm was a 10/22 bought back in 1973. I was in high school, working as a stock clerk and wanted a good 22 LR for popping squirrels on some of the state hunting lands up in our area of Ohio. I wasn't 21 yet, so my Dad had to do the transaction.  I asked old man Cleland who owned Cleland's Gun Store out near the Toledo Express Airport order me a 10/22. What I got for my hard earned $98 was a very nice sporter model with a checkered factory walnut stock.  As a kid making $2.25/hour, and with college looming, about all I could afford was the rifle, an extra magazine and a box of inexpensive Winchester hollow points. The gray squirrels of northwest Ohio had nothing to fear from me - I never even tried to sight in the rifle, I just took it hunting as it came out of the box. I knew there were ways to gussy up this rifle, but things like Weaver mounts and scopes were way beyond my available resources. I had to make do with what I had. Down through the years that particular rifle was either sold or traded away, but 10/22s continued to flow through my hands as I traded things around. Today I've got two 10/22s in my safe, and one of those was about to become a test bed.

Let's take a quick look at the 10/22 before moving forward. The National Rifle Association's magazine 'American Rifleman' recently carried an excellent article about the history of the 10/22 so I'll just ask you to go out and read that article to get details on the rifle's history. The 10/22 has been in continuous production since 1964 (this is its 50th year of production), and the rifle has changed little since its introduction. It is the most popular 22 caliber firearm ever produced, with over 5 million sold. The reasons for it's success are many and varied. First, it's a Ruger, and the Ruger name means a lot to American shooters. Second, it's very well designed using a unique modular concept that makes it both easy to manufacture and easy to modify. Third, Ruger has been careful to not let the quality on these rifles slip. Now, these are not heirloom guns, but it's clear that, given the low price of the 10/22, Ruger still uses quality components and puts a decent amount of QC into the manufacturing process. Fourth, these rifles are reliable and reasonably accurate right out of the box.

The 10/22 has an almost mythical reputation among American shooters; for many it's the gun their fathers, grand fathers and even great-grand fathers used to hunt small game with. Many are passed father-to-son along with wonderful stories of fall hunting trips that are a deeply ingrained part of the American outdoor psyche. But to be honest, the 10/22 is a commodity item. It is the Chevy Nova of the 22 rifle world - inexpensive, rugged, reliable and a good (but not great) performer. And like the Chevy Nova it is very easy to customize the 10/22 and turn it into something its designers never envisioned. The 10/22 is a very good starting platform for fun and inexpensive projects, and that's what this post is all about.

Lately I've been reading about Project Appleseed and the Revolutionary War Veteran's Association efforts to foster a renewed understanding about the founding of our counrty. Part of this effort involves marksmanship training using standardized rifles which they refer to as the Liberty Training Rifle. The concept of the Liberty Training Rifle is an inexpensive 22 LR caliber rifle that can be used to teach marksmanship fundamentals. This sounded like a great starting point for my 10/22 carbine project. My goal is to end up with a light, handy, simple, reliable, inexpensive and accurate enough rifle that is fun and easy to shoot and is a good platform for teaching and reinforcing basic rifle marksmanship. Think of it as a 'mil-spec' carbine in 22 LR. I would look to modify or upgrade the stock rifle only where absolutely necessary.

Let's take a look at the 10/22 carbine as it comes out of the box from the Ruger factory to figure out what can be left stock, what needs to be improved and what needs to be replaced or added.

  • Wooden stock. The Ruger carbine comes with an inexpensive (read cheap) stained beech stock. Ruger is notorious for using soft wood for their stocks, and the 10/22 shock is no exception. The stock incorporates a plastic butt plate and a plastic barrel band. Yet the stock is well sized for most adults and, for me, it works just fine. We'll keep it as is.
  • Trigger. The 10/22 trigger assembly is a self-contained one-piece unit housed in a polymer 'box' that holds the trigger, hammer, hammer spring, sear, safety, bolt release and magazine release. A lot of people on the 10/22 forums gripe about the 10/22 trigger, and I guess if they are building a high precision target gun their gripes are well founded. However, as a stock 'mil-spec' trigger it's not too bad, with just a bit of take-up and a small about of creep before letting off at around 6 lbs. I've got triggers on AR-15's and other mil-spec rifles that feel worse. For me the Ruger trigger works OK

The stock trigger breaks consistently at just a bit over 6 lbs

Ruger stock trigger group showing the bolt release lever that will be modified to improve bolt function. The heart shaped hole circled in yellow will be modified (see below)

  • Bolt release. For some reason Ruger has insisted on a bolt release design that will not let the bolt go forward when the bolt handle is pulled to the rear and released. Letting the bolt go forward to load a round from a new magazine requires a two-handed fumble to simultaneously pull back on the bolt handle and manipulate the bolt release at the base of the trigger guard. It's actually easier for a left handed shooter to manage than a right-handed shooter, one of Ruger's very few concessions to southpaws. The fix for this is simple - remove the bolt release and do a bit of judicious filing to remove some metal in the hole where the bolt release rides on the bolt release pin. Yes there are inexpensive after market parts available to accomplish this, but in the spirit of this project (i.e., cheap) I decided to go the do-it-yourself route.

Modified bolt release mechanism showing the area that was modified to improve functionality. I used a Dremel with a 5/32" chain saw sharpening bit to quickly and easily grind away the material that needed to be removed

  • Trigger group sloppy fit. The trigger housing or 'box' is mated to the underside of the 10/22 receiver using two steel pins. This fit is sloppy, resulting in a trigger group that the shooter can wiggle around. While this poor fit doesn't seem to affect functionality, it is very annoying. As you'd imagine there's an after market solution - over sized pins. There's also a much cheaper recommendation; strips of thin aluminum tape run around the top edge of the trigger housing to acts as shims to tighten up the trigger group - receiver fit. 

Lining the upper edge of the trigger housing with aluminum duct sealing tape will snug up the fit of the trigger group to the receiver. Easy, cheap and effective

  • Safety. The 10/22 safety is a simple cross-bolt safety that works just fine for a right-handed shooter. Problem is, I'm a southpaw. This is one of the 'deluxe' upgrades I adopted - a Volquartsen 'big head' left handed safety.
  • Sling swivels. A 'mil-spec' carbine needs a sling, but the 10/22 Carbine does not have sling swivels. This means installing them yourself. The good news is that a set of sling swivels and mounting hardware is cheap - Uncle Mike's 10/22 sling swivel set will run about $15. However, most folks will need to buy the specialized swivel stud drill bit set, and those actually cost more than the sling swivels themselves. Plus in involves drilling a carefully located hole on a rounded surface. OK, I'll say this - if I can do it, and do a halfway decent job, you can too. A few minutes of careful measuring and drilling and the rear swivel stud was installed and ready to go. The forward swivel mates with the barrel band, so no drilling is necessary. What about the sling? For me the answer was simple - I already had a nice M1 Carbine sling sitting in my spares box.
  • Barrel. Ruger makes good barrels. They are one of the largest barrel makers in the business and they long ago figured out how to make quality barrels for 22 caliber rifles. The 10/22 Carbine comes with a good barrel and there's no need to upgrade.
  • Sights. Sights are the single biggest (and most expensive) upgrade I undertook. The best thing that can be said of the factory 10/22 sights is that they are there. The good news is that there's a company called Tech-Sights that makes an excellent 'mil-spec' replacement sight set that follows the classic M-16A1 design. These sights are the single best upgrade any 10/22 owner can install if he/she wants to stick with iron sights.

The Tech-Sights mimic the M-16A1 sight design, both front and rear sights

The rear sight is adjustable for windage

The front sight is adjustable for elevation

So what do these upgrades cost?

  • Sights - the Tech-Sights are the single biggest cost at $59, but they are absolutely necessary. 
  • Aluminum tape to shim the trigger group - bum 6" of duct sealing tape off of your local HVAC guy and you'll have enough tape to shim half a dozen 10/22 trigger groups.
  • Safety - this is something only 10% of the shooters would need, and clearly it's not 100% necessary, so I'll leave it off of the tally.
  • Sling swivels - $15 for the Uncle Mike's 1" 10/22 set. Try to find a shooting buddy who has the specialized drill bit set.
  • Sling - a good quality M1 Carbine sling copy will run about $15 from one of the major firearms parts suppliers like Brownells. You might be able to find one cheaper on eBay.

The cost of these upgrades adds an additional $89 to the base cost of the rifle ($200), but you end up with a very handy, reliable,and rugged little carbine.

Nice looking little carbine!

But how does it shoot?

I've had the rifle to the range just once so far, shooting standing off-hand at 10 yards. The light was poor, my eyes are old (and astigmatic) and the fool in the lane next to me was blasting away with a 44 Magnum. Not the ideal test conditions. Still, the little rifle managed to keep most of the rounds inside 3'. Not bad, and with practice I'm confident those groups will tighten up nicely.

This has been a fun little project, I can guarantee that this little rifle will be making a lot of trips to the range and it'll get a lot of quality trigger time!

- Brian