Saturday, January 21, 2006

Now Let Us Praise Famous Rifles

Like many a boy, Westerns were my cinematic meat and potatoes, and almost invariably the weapon of choice no matter who was doing the shooting was the Winchester lever-action rifle. This was true for the good guys trying to maintain law and order like Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne and Henry Fonda, and the bad guys trying to raise hell like Billy the Kid and Jesse James (pictured at left with his trusty Winchester).

So I shed tear or two onto my red paisley bandana when I read this week that the New Haven, Conn., factory where Winchester lever-action rifles have been made for over 150 year is closing.

Washington Post writer Stephen Hunter has penned a beautiful appreciation to the Winchester, part of which is excerpted here:
The Winchester lever-guns mean something to a variety of American imaginations. They have been manufactured in one form or another since 1849. The most abundant variant, the Model 94, has been built more than 6 million times since 1895 with only minor changes. Those 111 years span an era of extraordinary technological development. It's doubtful any other complex machine has a longer record of manufacture. Think about it: Today, in the age of the iPod and robots wandering Mars, essentially the same rattly contraption that felled troopers at the Little Bighorn is still found brand-new and brightly packaged on the shelves of most Western, Southern and Midwestern hardware stores.

If you take one down and examine it -- kids, don't do this at home, unless Dad has cleared the rifle first and made sure no moldy .30-30s from last year's hunt remain in the chamber -- you note certain things instantaneously.

How light it is, how quick to the shoulder, how pointable! It begs to come to the eye. It swiftly finds what's called the natural point of aim, the perfect equipoise between its own grace and its shooter's talent. There, it wants to be fired. It's knobless and trim yet hardly streamlined. It hails proudly from the pre-streamlined world. No ergonomic study went into its design, only the sound trial and error of Yankee genius that finally found the ideal form.

It's weirdly squarish, yet like other classic guns, it boasts an orchestration of lines of unusual harmony, which somehow seem to soothe the eye. The Colt Peacemaker revolver, the Tommy gun and the Luger have the same effect; all are instantly known and knowable. They have a design charisma that transcends their actual usage in the real world.

The funniest thing about the Winchester lever-action rifle is how American it looks. Its directness speaks to the honest greed of westward expansion, its reliability to the honest hunger of its manufacturers for the big houses it bought them, its toughness to the honest brutality by which it was employed in various arroyos and dry gulches. It lacks subterfuge, subtlety, pretension, airs. It's like the cowboy himself, elegant in its total lack of self-awareness. It's beyond irony or stylization. It's cool because it doesn't care what you or anybody thinks.

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