Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Two Ranch Revolvers from Days Gone By....

Grow up in the South Texas Brushlands and you grow up with guns.  That’s not to suggest you’re a gunfighter or any of those stereotypes, but now and then a rattlesnake needs dispatching especially when it’s a couple of feet from you, angry and making the sound of a buzz bomb about to hit its target.  There are other occasions too.  Some years back I came across a rabid raccoon.  We were in the middle of a rabies outbreak that covered all of the Texas Brushlands as well as the Texas Hill Country, and the Feds were dropping vaccine pellets from the air.  But curbing the rabies problem took time and during that episode I shot the raccoon, a couple of skunks and a coyote all of them with rabies.  If you’ve never seen rabies then you might have the impression that all rabid animals look like Old Yeller from the 1957 Walt Disney movie.  There is a type of rabies the locals call “dumb rabies” and all four of the rabid animals I was forced to deal with exhibited the bizarre symptoms of an animal that’d had far too much to drink.  The rabid raccoon even had a smile on its face and there is no other way to describe the weird expression the animal possessed.  In truth I actually walked past the critter leaving it alone.  But when I got to the house my wife said, “You what?”  The two youngest were still little and she added, “Show me where you last saw that raccoon.”  So we walked to the spot and the animal had only moved a few paces.  “Shoot it right now!  What were you thinking?” she said.

A few months back I gave a talk at a nature club about 80 miles from here.  The talk was on ethnobotany as it related to primitive technologies of the region and, as always, I included anecdotes about living in the woods as well as my attempts to save the Texas Brushlands.  I mentioned that I’d recently lost one of my blue heelers to a rattlesnake and that we’d had some nasty confrontations with big snakes around the house.  In fact, the day before I’d walked back to the house and found a six-foot rattler on my front steps.  When I mentioned in the meeting that I’d shot those snakes one man in the group said, “You should’ve caught them and transferred them somewhere else…”—or something to that effect.  Now I’ve encountered this sort of extreme naiveté in the past and it’s always from well-intentioned folks who love nature, as do I, but have no true understanding about what it’s like to confront a monster snake on or around your casita.  That guy just had no concept about what life in the woods is about.  Don’t get me wrong, I usually leave rattlesnakes alone and I deplore Chamber of Commerce stunts like “Rattlesnake Roundups” and assorted stupidities but when a big snake is about to strike or crawl under your house you’re faced with an immediate dilemma.  You shoot or suffer the consequences.

Now I was a rifleman for most of my life but in my “senior years” I’ve taken to simply carrying either one of two old 9-shot .22 long rifle revolvers I inherited from relatives who were once woods roamers in their own right.  Both revolvers were made by the now defunct company High Standard.  One was sold through Sears (back when Sears sold guns) using the Sears brand name J.C. Higgins and the other was sold at local hardware stores.  Neither revolver is what you’d call a top of the line model.  The J.C. Higgins model was purchased by one of my uncles around 1957 and the model sold directly from High Standard they called the Hombre was purchased by another uncle around 1970.  The earlier model is decidedly a better made revolver with vastly superior trigger pull and overall smoother action.  The Hombre has a double-action akin to pulling a biscuit back out of your dog’s mouth.  But the J.C. Higgins model 88 is very smooth.  Actually, I seldom shoot either gun double-action but prefer instead to go single-action only.

 With 9-shots you can load several snake-shot loads and a few standard rounds.  I usually carry five snake-shot cartridges and four lead bullets.  The number however can vary.  The JC Higgins model 88 has a much more comfortable pistol grip than the Hombre.  The model 88 has a longer grip that fits my hand more comfortably.  The grip is made from a material called Tenite that’s a cellulose product that was popular between the 1930s and 1950s.  The model 88 above has a 6-inch barrel.  Back in the early 1960s my dad owned a ranch in Mexico and his foreman carried a Stevens single-shot 12-gauge shotgun with a Tenite forend and buttstock.  Now and then I’d borrow that lightweight shotgun to shoot ravens.  I was in junior high and that shotgun would rattle me every time I shot it. 

Both revolvers have aluminum alloy frames and steel barrels and cylinders.  The Hombre above has a 4-inch barrel.  Lightweight and scuffed up I keep them cleaned but don’t fuss too much with cosmetics.  I make my own leather holsters and usually dangle them from my shoulder via a cord.  Simple and effective, these old revolvers have been taking care of business for a long time.  When the model 88 was purchased I was in the third grade.  It’s neat owning old guns.  Of course, old-timers like the Woods Roamer don’t make the gun manufacturers very happy.  But, in fact, they really don’t make them like they used to.  And those are honest words from a guy who’s walked a bunch of miles in the woods and shot thousands of rounds over the years.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Make a Nessmuk Style Knife from an Old Hickory Skinning Knife....

A drawing of the original Nessmuk Knife from the book, Woodcraft and Camping by George Washington Sears who wrote using the pseudonym Nessmuk.

The knife George Washington Sears aka Nessmuk used is essentially nothing more than a skinning knife.  Sears wrote a book about woodcraft a longtime ago and that book has had a lot to do with encouraging people to learn woodcraft (bushcraft) skills in America.  Sears had both his camp axe and knife custom made and perhaps that reflected his desire to use something unique.  Except, neither his axe nor his knife were anything other than modifications of designs that had existed for decades.  Nonetheless, both Nessmuk’s knife and axe have gained something akin to cult status amongst nostalgic types and the like.  And besides, the designs are timeless and highly functional.

But the classic skinning knife design—despite attempts to discover some unique feature about it—is a product of the forging process and not much beyond that.  Yes, there are some people out there who want to bestow magic to that design and that, of course, always makes for interesting conversation.  But the facts are that a dozen or more designs will serve for skinning and as you will learn at the end of this post a knife (at least as most of us identify one) is not even needed.  Still, one fellow on YouTube even goes as far as to describe the Nessmuk knife as owning the special effect of lifting upwards to enhance the skinning process etc.  But if you take a piece of bar-stock or a steel mill file and start pounding one end then the steel will bend upward into a curve.  Put a bevel on that piece of bending steel and call it a skinning knife if that pleases you.  Heck, shape it a bit at the tip and call it a Nessmuk Knife if that makes you happier.  The metal forger knows better but is content to let people go their merry ways.

If perchance, however, you want to make an Old Hickory “skinning knife” look like a Nessmuk knife then you can do so as follows:

First, buy an Old Hickory skinning knife.  These look to be stamped steel knives and the shapes are simply a matter of the stamping process and not any particular forging operation.

Now you can either remove the handle scales like below or you can work with the existing handle.

Make a cardboard template and draw a curvature resembling the curve as seen on the Nessmuk knife.

If you desire you can remove the handle scales and reshape the tang as seen below.

Caution:  You can cut the steel with a Dremel tool or angle grinder but don’t overheat the steel.  Keep a can of water handy and constantly dip the steel into the water as you work.  Otherwise, you might burn the steel and then you’ve got a real problem on your hands.  You’ll know if you’ve burned the steel because the part that has been burned will turn dark blue.  That’s a no-no!!  So be sure to keep the steel cool by constantly dipping it in the water can.

SECOND CAUTION: Old Hickory knives are made from 1095 steel.  That is an excellent high-carbon steel.  Old Hickory tempers their blades down a bit to make them easier to sharpen and since it’s used to gut and skin game it doesn’t need to be all that hard.  But you must keep it clean or it will discolor or even rust.  So remember to wipe down the blade after you’ve reshaped it to prevent rusting.

THIRD CAUTION: Wear eye protection and a dust mask.  I always wear a respirator.  Work in a well-ventilated area.

A finished Old Hickory Nessmuk style skinner will look like this before you attach the scales.

Afterward, you can attach the scales using either a piece of wood from around your house (all you need is a small, well-dried branch) or you might buy a piece of kiln-dried wood from a wood store.  The knife pictured below has a handle made from Catclaw.  

These knives make great kitchen knives and I’ve altered them into designs of all shapes.  It’s a fun project.

PS: When we were kids we’d gut out deer with broken beer or soda bottles we’d find scattered around because we didn’t want to get our knives messed up.  Then we’d skin the deer using our fists or a makeshift wooden paddle.  That’s something to remember in a pinch.  Remember that humans used rock flakes for thousands of years to skin animals and a broken piece of glass is simply an extension of that idea.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Old Coyote Calls from Days Gone By....

As a kid I was always in the woods and it was probably inevitable I was going to try calling coyotes sooner or later.  Somewhere about the ninth grade I ordered a “varmint” call from a store in Marble Falls, Texas owned by a couple of brothers named Burnham.  The call came with a 45 rpm record but I only listened to the record a couple of times because I’d already heard jackrabbits squealing since before I could remember.  My high school buddy, Mario Hernandez, and I set out to call coyotes and we soon found that summoning Old Wiley while sitting in a tree was a lot more successful than wooing them from the ground.  The only suitable gun I owned at the time was a Winchester model 12 full choke in twelve-gauge.  But Mario owned a true varmint rifle: A Winchester model 43 in .218 Bee.  We made several attempts before we had any luck.  One crystal clear and very cold day we climbed a couple of leafless mesquite trees and I issued a fusillade of enticing notes and within a few minutes a gang of coyotes appeared.  Mario’s .218 Bee cracked and we had our first coyote.

                                  A couple of 50-year old Burnham Brother's Calls

Pictured below is the second coyote call I purchased about six months after I’d bought my first Burnham Brother’s call.  It’s from a long defunct mail-order company called Herter’s that was by far the best outdoor store that ever existed!  The call pictured produces a higher pitched sound reminiscent of a cottontail in distress.  I never found it as successful as my Burnham Brother’s calls but I used it now and then.

                                                             Herter's  Call

I don’t call coyotes anymore since I don’t hunt much these days.  Somewhere along the line I lost my taste for hunting and now I just enjoy sneaking up on critters and watching them.  The aging process perhaps—I don’t know.  Over the years I’ve relied less and less on handheld mouth-calls to coax coyotes in close.  These days I just make the sound of a distressed rabbit with my mouth.  Nonetheless, when I think of those days long ago I remember hunting with my pal Mario and climbing mesquite trees and about the time Mario got bit by a bunch of pamorana ants and had to jump down almost twenty feet and about sleeping on makeshift cots in the deep woods and showing up at band practice smelling of skunk scent and, of course, those old coyote calls that I still own along with a bunch of others I acquired over the years.  Those calls are dear to my heart and speak to me of a time that sadly doesn’t exist anymore.

                                                Part of my "varmint" call collection

PS: If you want to read more about varmint calling in South Texas then look up my book, Adios to the Brushlands, from Texas A&M University Press.  You can find a link above.