Sunday, August 14, 2011

Shooting Positions

In the next series of posts, we will look into the subject of shooting positions. There are many positions that one may shoot a firearm from: standing upright, kneeling, lying down, holding the firearm with only one hand, holding it with both hands, standing sideways and (if John Woo movies are any authority on shooting) jumping out of a door with a Beretta 92F pistol in each hand and firing alternately while in the air in slow motion, while a flock of white doves fly out :).

Back in the days when muzzle loaders were popular and rifling was non-existent, soldiers generally stood upright in lines of three and shot at each other. There were good reasons to do this:

  1. Without rifling, firearm accuracy wasn't very good. But if you lined up a group of men and asked them to shoot at a group of targets, chances were good at least one of them would hit a target, even if it wasn't the target he was aiming for.
  2. With a muzzle loader, the user stands it upright with the butt on the ground, pours some gunpowder into the barrel via the muzzle, then inserts a ball and wadding into the muzzle and then rams them down the barrel with a ramrod. These operations are not possible to do sitting down, especially when the muzzle-loader is some 4-5 feet long.
  3. It was considered more macho and gentlemanly by Europeans, to shoot from a position where the enemy can see you,  rather than shooting the enemy from behind cover.

In the early 1800s to about the 1840s, the British rifleman had a rifle with a handle extending down from the trigger guard. When this was grabbed with the left hand, it put the left arm at an angle that steadied it against the body.
A British Rifleman from the 1800s. Image taken from W.W. Greener's The Gun and its Development, now in public domain. Click on the image to enlarge.

This was a common position used by many European armies and shooting enthusiasts in the early 1800s.

We also have this account by a Dr. Scoffern, that describes the technique of shooting used by Swiss shooters:
"As regards the Swiss system of loading and firing, both are peculiar. The Switzer unslings a powder-flask of large dimension and turns in a charge of about 2.5 drams of powder. From a side pocket, he next extracts a linen patch, and, putting it into his mouth, turns it round and round, very much as Jack turns his quid. The Switzer's object is to saturate his patch with saliva. This is his way of solving the lubrication difficulty, and, mind me, it is not a bad one. His next move is to lay the patch upon the bore and the picket upon that: which being done, he takes the ramrod in both hands and drives the picket home with one thrust. To be assured that it is home, the Switzer jerks the ramrod down upon it with a ringing thwack. 'Bad practice,' you say: 'he meals the powder'. Not a bit of it! At the end of the ramrod there is a flat iron boss, which only permits it to fall down to a fixed and unvarying extent. Well, the anxious moments of firing are now come round. See how the Switzer employs them. He begins by planting his legs wide apart, left leg foremost. He tries the ground under him for a moment or so, to find whether it be soft, and if he can wriggle out two little graves, one for each foot, the better. Should you have turned away your eye for a moment, and then direct your glance at the Switzer again, you would have found him half as big again as you last saw him. He has puffed himself out with a deep breathing, like the frog who aspired to become a bull. By this deep inspiration, the Switzer has stiffened himself, just after the way one takes the limpness out of a macintosh cushion -- by filling it full of wind. The Switzer is firm planted and rigid now -- he could no more bend from side to side than can a hard rammed sausage. If he were obliged to hold his wind as long as we take to tell our tale, it would be bad for him -- he would burst outright, like an overcharged rifle. Well, with legs apart (like a little Rhodian Colossus) and bated breath, the Switzer shoulders his piece. At the end of the stock is a boss, which he tucks between his right arm and right ribs. Gathering his two hands close together, he rests his rifle on his left hand, placed close in front of the trigger guard; pressing his left elbow, not on the left knee, indeed, but upon the left hip. Lot's wife could hardly be more rigid. Limited power of motion, nevertheless, the Switzer has. Heavenward you see his rifle pointing, and if you observe the Switzer's nose (that organ given only for ornament, as some affirm), it has turned to a purpose of utility. The Switzer is steadying the butt-end of his rifle against it; his nose is a lateral rest. By this time that nose is red on the tip, the face turgid, the eyes projecting. The Switzer's whole position is decidedly not graceful -- one very suggestive of extrusion. Heavenward you see it pointing. Gradually down and down it drops. The blank is seen, the trigger pressed. Rifle crack and Switzer's grunt follow on the heels of each other. He could not hold his breath for ever. Picket and unpreserved breath fly together. Behold him now, panting and puffing like a Cingalese pearl-diver fresh from the worrying of a ground shark. Decidedly, our style of rifle-firing is more graceful and quick."

Method of holding Rifle and Position of Swiss Rifle Shot. Click on image to enlarge. Public domain image.

While Dr. Scoffern might not have thought the Swiss style as "graceful", it was a very effective style, as the Swiss won the majority of prizes as the first British National Rifle Association competition held at Wimbledon in 1860. It must be noted that the Swiss shooters made sure that they had a stable shooting position before pulling the trigger, something that is still emphasized in training today.

In the next few posts, we will look into more shooting positions, both historical and modern.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Cleaning Firearms: Modern Methods

In the last post, we studied some historic instructions on cleaning firearms. Actually, most of what was stated in that post still hold true today, though some of the cleaning solvents and materials have changed. So here's how a firearm owner cleans his weapon these days:

  1. Weapon is unloaded by the person cleaning the weapon. Person points the firearm in a safe direction, makes sure finger is far away from the trigger, magazine is removed and he/she also checks the chamber to make sure that there isn't already a cartridge in the chamber and also enables any safeties. Remember: SAFETY FIRST!
  2. Person disassembles the firearm for cleaning, only so far as recommended by the manufacturer's manual. Typically, disassembly should only involve removing a few parts at most (field stripping). It is not necessary, for example, to disassemble the entire trigger assembly to clean a firearm. If more extensive work is required, it is probably best to consult a competent gunsmith.
  3. After the person field strips the firearm, he or she visually inspects the parts for signs of excessive wear or damage. If any problems are seen, it is best to send it to a gunsmith immediately.
  4. The person cleaning the firearm should have a cleaning kit available. Most commonly available kits have a cleaning rod (usually one that is disassembled into multiple parts), a few cotton cloth cleaning patches, a couple of patch holders or jags (or both jags and cloth holders) that attach to the end of the cleaning rod and to which a cloth patch is attached, a bore brush whose diameter depends on the firearm being cleaned, a hand brush, assorted solvents and gun greases and a bottle of gun oil. The user may augment this kit with extra brushes, jags, cloth holders and patches of different diameters, especially if the user owns multiple firearms of different bores. Sometimes, additional cleaning rods may also need to be purchased in appropriate diameters for different calibers.
  5. When possible, the user always tries to clean from the breech end towards the muzzle (i.e.) following the same direction as the bullet. If it is not possible to do it in this direction (for instance, in some revolvers), then one should take precautions to not push any debris into the action of the firearm. Some cleaning kits include a muzzle guard for situations where cleaning is done from the muzzle end.
  6. The barrel contains a couple of types of fouling: the first is due to powder residue (powder fouling) and the second is metal fouling, which is caused by metal particles from the cartridge case (brass) and metal particles from the bullet itself (lead and copper) getting deposited into the rifling grooves. There are different solvents that deal with powder fouling vs. metal fouling and some solvents (such as Hoppe's #9) do both.
  7. The user first attaches a patch holder or a jag to the cleaning rod and attaches a cotton patch cloth at the end. The user then soaks the patch with suitable solvent and pushes it completely through the bore. This removes some of the loose powder and metal fouling in the barrel.
  8. The user removes the patch holder and attaches the appropriately sized bore brush to the cleaning rod. Then the user soaks the brush in more solvent and pushes it through the bore again. As the user does this, the brush turns as it engages the rifling in the barrel. The user completely pushes the brush through the barrel, until the brush emerges on the other side and then pulls it back completely through and repeats the process 12-20 times. This loosens all the tiny metal particles and fouling that are stuck in the rifling grooves. It is not a good idea to reverse direction with the brush while it is still inside the barrel, because it will ruin the brush prematurely.
  9. The user then leaves the barrel aside to soak the solvent for around 5 minutes, so that the solvent has a chance to dissolve some of the lead or carbon buildup still clinging to the barrel. In the meantime, the user grabs the hand brush (or even an ordinary toothbrush), dips it in more solvent and uses it to brush the exposed action, receiver, bolt, trigger assembly etc. and remove the gunpowder residue in here.  The user then dries all the scrubbed parts with a clean dry cloth.
  10. After the solvent has had a chance to work its magic inside the barrel, the user then takes the cleaning rod and attaches a cloth holder or a jag tip to the end and attaches a clean dry patch on it. The user then pushes it through the barrel completely. Most likely, this patch will come out very dirty. The user then replaces the patch with a new clean one and then repeats the process again for a few times, until the patch comes out looking relatively clean.
  11. The user then applies a few drops rust-preventative to a clean cloth patch and runs it down the barrel again. This leaves a very thin coating of rust preventative solution in the barrel bore, The user may also apply this to the outside of the barrel as well.
  12. The user then applies a very little amount of gun oil to lubricate the metal parts recommended in the manual. It is not a good idea to use too much gun oil for guns with wood stocks, as the excess oil could soak into the wood stock and ruin it (gun oil is very different from linseed oil and has a detrimental effect on wood). Excess oil also collects dust and dirt much easier, so it is a good idea to apply very little gun oil indeed, unless the gun is intended to be stored away for a while.
  13. For the same reason, it is not a good idea to put solvent or lubricant inside the magazine because the excess gun oil will collect dirt and dust in the magazine, while solvent will react with the cartridge casings and primer and degrade them. Magazines should only be cleaned with dry brushes if needed.
  14. Finally, the user uses a small flash light to look up through the barrel to make sure it looks clean.
  15. The user then reassembles the firearm and uses a silicone cloth to wipe away any finger prints.
Instead of a cleaning rod, some people use a bore snake instead. This is a long flexible cord with a section of brushes and cotton cloth on one end. The user merely drops the cord through the barrel and pulls it through to the other end. A couple of runs of this and the barrel is clean and ready to go.

Lastly, before we leave, here's a few videos that demonstrate what we just discussed above:

Happy viewing!

Cleaning Firearms: A Historical Perspective

In our discussion about carrying conditions a little while ago, it was mentioned that condition 4 is generally used by people who plan to store their firearms for a long while in a gun vault or safe (say, at the end of the hunting season). Which brings up a side topic -- the user also cleans their firearms before putting them into storage. This inspired the next series of articles which are going to deal with the subject of cleaning firearms.

First, we will look at some instructions for sportsmen, reproduced from W.W. Greener's book The Gun and its Development, Ninth Edition from 1910. Bear in mind that this was written for the English sportsman of the early 1900s. So while some of the cleaning equipment and solvents may appear to be a bit antiquated, these were possibly the best available from around 1850 to the early 1900s. The instructions proceed as follows:

To clean a gun after a day's shooting. If a gun be wet, it should be wiped dry at once, but the cleaning of the barrels and breech-action may be left until the sportsman or his servant has time to do it properly.

To clean the barrels. Use the cleaning-rod, with tow and oil, or turpentine. To remove the fouling, put muzzles on a piece of wood, and push the rod down to within an inch of the muzzle, and draw up to the chamber. Do this two or three times; and push right through. Use the bristle brush, or the rod with plenty of flannel; finish with the mop soaked in refined neatsfoot, pure Arctic sperm oil, or vaseline.

Never half-clean the barrels; always wipe them dry and clean before finally oiling, and do not put the mop used for oiling into a foul barrel. To remove leading from the inside of a gun barrel, soak well with turpentine; then clean well with a bristle brush, or even with a wire brush, but never use emery if the shooting qualities of the gun are valued.

Always wipe the bed, face, and joint of the breech-action with an oily rag or flannel. A little linseed oil may be rubbed over the stock occasionally.

Before putting the gun together, ascertain that all the bearing parts are free from dust and grit.

The joint may be lubricated with a mixture of half best Russian tallow and half petroleum. In most hammerless guns, if the cover plate underneath the breech-action body is taken off, the locks may be inspected, oiled, and any rust or clogged oil and dust removed from the bent.

The cocking-lifters of hammerless guns, the holding-down and top bolts, and the triggers, if they have a tendency to clog, may be touched up with a knitting-needle dipped in petroleum. They must be lubricated, whenever they require it, with chronometer oil, Rangoon oil, or finest neatsfoot.

Do not use a feather for the purpose of putting on any lubricant; a wire knitting-needle or bodkin is much better.

To remove rust from the inside or outside of a barrel, procure a tub, and with a kettle of boiling water well scald the barrels inside and out, inserting a wooden peg in one of the barrels to hold them by, wipe perfectly dry with flannel, and then oil. It is as well to do this before putting the gun aside for any length of time.

If the barrels are foul through using inferior powder, and the fouling has become hard and dry, cold water, or hot soap-suds, may be used to cleanse them. Water boiling hot kills rust.

Turpentine, often used successfully to clean the residue from gun barrels, will give great trouble if it gets into the fine-fitting parts of the mechanism of the breech-action and locks, and must therefore be used with care.

Rusty or tight breeches in muzzle-loading barrels may often be turned out, providing the breech-ends of the barrels have been soaked in petroleum, Very obstinate breeches may require to be well heated, as well as lubricated, before they can be turned out, but usually petroleum will be found a sufficient remedy for incipient rust of the working parts. All the parts of the mechanism may be cleaned with petroleum; it removes clogged vegetable and animal oils well.

So that was quite the read, wasn't it. A brief word on some of the solvents mentioned in the book:

Tallow is made by rendering the fat of beef or mutton, especially the fat found around the loins and kidneys of the animal. The process of "rendering" is as follows: raw fat is ground up and then placed in a vessel and heated with steam to drive off the moisture. As the moisture is removed, the fat is released from the fat cells. This fat is percolated off and the remaining solids are squeezed under pressure to release more fat as well (or they may be separated using a centrifuge). The tallow fat is a yellow liquid when hot, but cools down to a white creamy solid at room temperature.
Tallow being made. Note that it is currently a yellow liquid, as the tallow is still hot.

The tallow after it has cooled down to room temperature.

The tallow fat was traditionally used for soap-making, candle-making, food (it didn't spoil easily even without refrigeration), lubrication of  locomotive and steamship engines etc. Russian tallow was traditionally made from mutton mainly and by the 1860s, it was cheaper to obtain in England than English-made tallow and was much more available than tallow from other British colonies such as Australia, New Zealand, the East Indies and South America. People still make tallow today, for use in food (McDonalds used tallow for cooking french fries until 1990), lubrication, high end shaving soap, shoe polish, bio-diesel etc.

Neatsfoot oil is also still around today. Like tallow, it is also made by rendering beef parts, however the parts used are only the shin bones and feet (minus the hooves) of cattle. In fact, the word neat is an old word for cattle, which is where the word neatsfoot comes from. The resulting oil is a light yellow color. Neatsfoot oil is still made today and mainly used for conditioning leather products. It is available at places like or Walmart.

Click on image to enlarge. Public domain image.

Arctic Sperm Oil is a bit of a misnomer, as it is not actually made from the Sperm whale, but from the Northern Bottlenose whale, Hyperoodon Rostratus. This whale is a lot smaller (adult size is about 32 feet long) than the sperm whale and is found in the northern arctic waters between Europe and North America. Whalers in the 19th century found that this whale is also capable of producing oil that is very similar in chemical composition to Sperm Oil from the Sperm whale, but its oil has a more pronounced tendency to "gum" up at lower temperatures, which is why Arctic Sperm Oil was always sold cheaper than the true Sperm Oil. Because the two oils could not be told apart easily, some unscrupulous producers of Sperm Oil would sometimes adulterate their product with the cheaper Arctic Sperm Oil. Note that while both Sperm Oil and Arctic Sperm Oil were used as lubricants, but Mr. Greener appears to be recommending the cheaper of the two. Both oils were used for oil lamps and candle production, but were gradually replaced by cheaper petroleum products starting in the 1850s. However, they were still used as lubricants well into the 1960s. As of the late 1960s and 1970s, due to whaling restrictions, neither oil is available in the market these days. Animal conservationists will be happy to note that the Northern Bottlenose whale species is thriving again and the species population status is classified as "least concern". Sperm whales are also on the path to recovery and are now classified as "vulnerable" rather than "endangered".

Chronometer oil was made from extracting the oil from the head and jaws of the porpoise family (i.e.) porpoises, pilot whales, killer whales etc., in a very similar process to extracting the oil from sperm whales and bottlenose whales. It was used to lubricate the working parts of fine watches and ships' chronometers. As with sperm oil, it is no longer used and is replaced by other alternatives.

Petroleum is also mentioned. Petroleum was known about 4000 years ago, chiefly because it was available from natural oil springs in the Middle East. By the 1850s, the process of refining petroleum to produce kerosene was invented and drilling started soon after. However, petroleum refining really took off only after automobiles became popular. Before then (as in the early 1900s), it was possible to buy raw petroleum at the local chemists.

Linseed oil is made by pressing seeds of the flax plant. The oil is edible, but it is mainly used in paints, as a hardener for putty, in the manufacture of linoleum and as a wood finish. Linseed oil was traditionally used to finish wood gun stocks for centuries and it still continues to be used for that purpose.

Rangoon oil is actually a heavy petroleum distillate roughly along the lines of kerosene and fuel oil. It has a slow evaporation rate and was used as a rust preventative by the British around the 1850s. They found that it worked rather well, especially in hot and steaming jungles. The name comes from the fact that the first source was from a natural oil well found in Rangoon (now Yangoon), Burma (now Myanmar).

Rangoon oil may still be purchased today, especially from dealers who deal with antique and fine custom-made firearms.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Safety Mechanisms: Carry Conditions

With all the discussion about safety mechanisms in the previous few posts, it is now time to discuss the subject of carry conditions, i.e. how to carry a firearm in various conditions of readiness. The various carry conditions were defined by the legendary Marine Lieutenant Colonel John Dean ("Jeff") Cooper, who did much to teach the modern techniques of handgun shooting.

Before discussing the various carry conditions, it must be noted that Lt. Col. Cooper was a big fan of the Colt M1911 and its variants. So when he defined his carrying conditions, it was with such a pistol in mind (i.e.) a semi-automatic with an exposed hammer. Therefore, some of the carry conditions may not apply to other firearm types. With that said, let us discuss the various carry conditions (from safest to readiest) and where they are used:

Condition 4: This is the safest of the carry conditions. In this condition, the firearm is completely unloaded. There is no cartridge in the chamber and the magazine is removed from the firearm. The hammer is lowered as well. Also, all safety devices on the firearm are turned on. In some firearm types (e.g. shotguns, rifles), the firearm may be partially disassembled as well (e.g. barrel separated from receiver), so that it will fit in a bag or case. In this condition, it will take a while to get the firearm ready to fire, because the user needs to load a magazine, insert it into the firearm, feed the first round into the firing chamber by operating the slide (which also cocks the hammer in pistols), disable all safety devices and then pull the trigger. Many people put their firearms in this condition, when they intend to store them for a long while in a gun vault (say, at the end of hunting season.)

Condition 3: In this condition, there is a loaded magazine inserted into the weapon, but there is no round in the chamber. The hammer is also down and all safety devices on the firearm are enabled. In this condition, the user needs to pull back the slide to feed the first round into the pistol's chamber (which also cocks it) and then disable all safety devices and then pull the trigger to fire. In case of a shotgun or a bolt action rifle, the user pulls on the lever to load the first round and cock the weapon.  This is the condition that many people preferred to carry single or double action revolvers in, back in the day when there were no other safety devices on them. The revolver is loaded in all chambers, except for the one that is rotated to be directly under the hammer. Any unintentional impact on the hammer will not do any harm because the chamber under the hammer is empty. When the user intends to use the revolver, they pull the hammer back first to cock it, which automatically rotates the cylinder as well and now the next chamber with a cartridge comes under the hammer, ready to be discharged.  The early Israeli weapons training in the 1940-60s also emphasized carrying firearms with no round in the chamber and hence this condition is also called the "Israeli Carry" method. The reason the Israelis taught this method is because when the new state of Israel was founded, most of its weaponry was old, second-hand goods. This meant that quite a few of their firearms had worn or malfunctioning safety devices and therefore new soldiers were taught to use condition 3 carry in order to prevent accidents. Since then, Israel has started manufacturing her own firearms and also can purchase quality firearms from other countries now, hence they no longer teach this method to new soldiers. Other people who carry in condition 3 are usually owners of older revolvers with no firing pin safety, or those who own a firearm with no external hammer (such as a Glock, Springfield XD, many pocket pistols from Browning, FN, Colt, Astra etc.) and wish to be extra safe.

Condition 2: In this condition, there is a loaded magazine inserted into the firearm and one round is loaded in the chamber already. However, the hammer is decocked. Therefore, to fire a weapon in this condition, one needs to pull the hammer back to cock it and then pull the trigger. This condition only applies to firearms with external hammers. Therefore it is not possible to carry a firearm with an internal striker (such as a Glock or a Springfield Armory XD pistol) in this condition. Also, it is recommended that the firearm have some kind of firing pin safety enabled, if carrying in this condition and preferably a decocking lever to safely decock the weapon. A double action (DA) revolver or pistol may be carried in this condition because the first pull of the trigger is much heavier (because it cocks the hammer first before firing it). Subsequent shots on a DA pistol are much easier because each shot now automatically re-cocks the pistol as well. A single action revolver with no firing pin safety (or a pistol with no firing pin safety) should never be carried in condition 2.

Condition 1: In this condition, a loaded magazine is inserted into the firearm, there is a round in the chamber and the hammer is cocked. Only the safety device(s) is enabled. This is also called the "cocked-and-locked" condition. To fire a weapon in this condition, one merely disables the safety device and then pulls the trigger. On a pistol such as a M1911, the thumb safety is enabled and the user needs to merely flick it down with the thumb and pull the trigger. This is the condition recommended for concealed carry and also recommended for use by some militaries when soldiers are travelling through a potentially hazardous zone with no visible danger apparent.

Condition 0: This is the condition where the firearm is in its most ready state. A loaded magazine is inserted into the firearm, there is a round in the chamber, the hammer is cocked and all safety devices are disabled. The user only needs to aim and pull the trigger to discharge it. This is the condition that police and soldiers carry their weapons in, if they are in a danger area with known enemies in the vicinity.

Some people consider a loaded Glock or Springfield XD pistol with no separate external safety, to be in Condition 0.5 (i.e. between conditions 0 and 1). This is because the built in safeties are enabled, but they are all connected to the trigger and once the trigger is pulled, it automatically disables all the safeties as part of the action. How this mechanism works was explained earlier in our discussion about integrated trigger safeties.

Organizations that issue M1911 style pistols usually specify the condition it is to be carried in, as part of their training doctrine.

While the carry conditions were originally written for M1911 type pistols, they generally apply to other firearms as well. While military doctrines clearly define what carry condition should be used in what situation, the same is not true in the civilian sector. Therefore, one invariably sees many arguments about which condition is best on various internet boards :).