Virtue

 

I like the word virtue. It has a fine, old fashioned ring harking back to early Rome, where the root word, “vir,” meant “man.” Today it has a broader meaning that encompasses noble character, moral integrity, uprightness and excellence. These are all concepts nearly lost by a society hustling toward the future with cellphone pressed to ear.

In our lonely corner of the universe, occupied as we are with the arcana of classic guns, rifles, pistols and revolvers, what better word is there to ponder than virtue as we take up the things we care about? It is the excellence of their fit and finish, the integrity of their design toward their intended use, and the character of those who made them that captivates us. It’s no shame that no one works anymore for weeks to achieve a nearly molecular smoothness of surface for nearly no pay at all, but we can all wonder at the honor of those who did that work for a pittance and didn’t let such concerns deflect them from achieving the perfection they sought for its own sake.

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We cannot speak as highly or as broadly of those who went afield with the classics we love today because we don’t know enough about those men – and, yes, women – who used the objects of our admiration to collect a little protein or to establish their positions on the ladders of skill or for self-protection. Presumably most shared an esthetic sense of the fineness of their tools, whether wrought by machine in the Connecticut Valley or by hand in the warrens of Birmingham, Edinburgh or London. It doesn’t matter for the hand fell on all in the end, to their everlasting betterment, their virtue. It’s not germane to our interest whether the users of our classics were good men and true or bounders or game slaughterers. They were humans and conducted the affairs of their lives accordingly, and there we must leave them to take up our own part in the play. We have inherited these remarkable objects of craft and skill, and now we must use them appropriately within the limits of their possibilities and the intent of the masters who crafted them.

To be sure, riflemen in the U.S. Civil War used astonishingly accurate examples of both hand and machine manufacture to shoot each other at prodigious distances. But though the possibilities were there for minute of human accuracy at 1,000 yards, surely the makers contracted no promises regarding the outcomes of such shots. And the users, motivated like the blind pig who still finds the odd acorn, must have felt that with the possibility there, they could do no great wrong by essaying such long shots.

Later, shooting for less mortal stakes, others took their rifles to hallowed fields of Creedmore, Dollymount and Wimbledon, where they lay or reclined or flopped down to attempt to achieve similar results on paper instead of blue or gray cloth. Today, motivated by somewhat similar impulses, we see the human desire to achieve results at distances expressed in thousands of meters instead of hundreds of yards.

Unquestionably shooting skills have kept pace with metallurgy, propellant technology, and optics to accomplish such goals, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq or on target ranges. Before I wade deeper into this slough, I must post a disclaimer: I’m an unalloyed admirer of all so-called snipers. Killing the enemy is what war is about, and picking them out is much more effective than shooting them randomly.

But I digress. I admire to distraction the icy abilities of those who can read the wind, temperature, Coriolis effect and what have you to plunk rounds into a bulls-eye at prodigious distances. Likewise, I admire the skill required to bowl over a prairie dog at 700 yards, but maybe not as much. I have this old thing that rules my range decisions when hunting. I feel that the prey should at least have the possibility of detecting the predator. After all, prey has evolved through much of the Cretaceous and all of the Quaternary by being able to spot predators before they can carry it off to feed their young. I’m not sure what a prairie dog’s awareness zone is, but I don’t think it’s a third of a mile.

I don’t expect anyone else to use my rule of thumb, but it works for me. It also plays into my sense of responsibility to the way the makers and users of the old guns thought of them in their own day. That’s why I bring it up here. Of course, the makers of the classic guns didn’t think about awareness zones, but the limitations of their technology kept typical hunting ranges to well within the distance at which a deer or stag or elk or bear was likely to notice a hunter.

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In the days of black powder and iron sights, few would try a shot at an elk at any great distance. It just wasn’t likely to produce the desired result of a dead elk at one’s feet. If the shot was the least bit off, the elk might very well swing into that mile-eating elk trot and never be seen again. One wanted to either anchor the elk on the spot or damage it badly enough so that it would soon collapse and not require the tracking skills of Leatherstocking.

In the days when there were lots of elk and bears, rifles were designed for their efficient dispatch at ranges of up to 200 yards, although that was stretching it for the average hunter. Since then, all of the factors involved in manufacturing have yielded rifles and optics that make killing shots possible at almost any range. But what we have lost along the way is a sense of connection with the prey that has existed since time out of mind. If shooting an elk over in the next drainage basin is your thing, then by all means practice it. Use the computing power of your phone and your scope and the efficiency of your rifle to slay the elk. Just try to make sure it doesn’t step forward during the flight time of your bullet and move from the lethal zone into the wounding zone.

As for myself, I like to go into the ranges of my Southern Arizona stamping grounds armed with a rifle that has a late 19th or early 20th century feel about it. My Savage Model 99 EG in .250 Savage may have been made around 1950, but its genes are a half-century older. It has a 24-inch barrel that stabilizes 100-grain bullets reasonably well, and it carries a well-preserved Weaver K-4 scope. That’s as much scope as I need at my self-imposed maximum range of 235 yards. Because the whitetails of the area are tiny – 85 pounds is a nice buck – and since one can only shoot bucks that are in any case scarce, I don’t go out with the expectation of bagging a deer. I go out instead with the expectation of having a very nice – and virtuous – day.