Kim du Toit has a piece on the closure of the Winchester plant, and the end of an American era. It is an ode to one of the great symbols, a piece of technology that captured something at the heart of the culture: the miracle of technology, coupled with a vision of fearless human freedom.
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.These things are not going away quickly, not after six million were made. I have one in my closet. The old Winchester will be with us a long time, even if this marks the beginning of the end.
Now open it; shove the lever—that oblong loop affixed to the trigger guard—forward. Feel it slide-clack through a four-inch range of motion and watch the drama as the gun undergoes changes: the breech, which contains the firing pin, glides backward, ratcheting the hammer back. At that moment you can tilt it a little and peer into the opened slot in the roof of the receiver.
You see before you the gun’s most private parts: the chamber, the slightly bulged space in the barrel where the cartridge is encapsulated when it fires; the follower, a little spring-powered tray that lifts a cartridge (which has just been popped aboard by the pressure of the magazine tube spring) up to the chamber; the breechface with its tiny hole out of which will pop, whack-a-mole style, the firing pin when the trigger is pulled and the hammer falls.
You see: trays, pins, holes, steel walls. You see a miracle of timing by which all these elements have been choreographed to mesh in a brilliantly syncopated sequence. But you’re also looking back into the 19th century and to what it was that made this country great. For what you’re seeing is a solution—elegant as any poem, efficient as any mousetrap, smooth as any crooner—to a set of problems that might be enumerated as follows: How do you package chemical energy of roughly 3,000 foot-pounds safely in metal that is at the same time light enough to be carried, strong enough to be operated and simple enough to be manufactured?
And when those old rifles start to wear out, and only a few remain servicable? Perhaps we will move on to something else. Or perhaps we will see another miracle.
In 1941, Colt ceased production of the Single Action Army revolver, which must be one of the two most famous handguns ever made -- the other also being a Colt. Yet by 1956, they were re-tooled and began producing "Second Generation" Colt revolvers. The culture, you see, had changed: reinvigorated by Westerns on television, Americans had a sharp appetite for single action revolvers. Ruger had been offering one, and Colt found that it wanted back in to the game it had so long led. This second generation became the Third Generation, was licensed out as the Colt Cowboy, and now is back again at Colt as the Western undergoes another rebirth. The Single Action Shooting Society has a deal where members can get custom Colts -- hideously expensive ones, that Colt never imagined making when it thought it was done with the revolver in 1941.
Rebirths are possible, and often it is only when something is gone that you realize how much you needed it. That was the case with the Colt; and it is the case with the Frontier that the Colt and the Winchester symbolize, says Doc Russia.
We see young men behaving in a manner inconsistent with manhood. Men are not, as Jeff Cooper illustrated, learning to ride, shoot straight, and speak the truth. They are instead learning to bum around, play Xbox, and engage in droll sophistry. Look at today's metrosexual. You have a male who primps himself like a girl, and instead of behaving in a manly manner, he uses a woman's charms of emotional embellishment, and "snesitivity," which are attributes not best exemplified by men.The military offers a road out here for many young men. As we watch the chaos on our borders increase, and the situation in Iran worsen, we may find the Frontier closer than we expect all too soon. Will we be ready? Doc says that the teenagers of America already are, if only they knew it:
While I believe that part of this is due to enabling by women who want a man that is "non-threatening" and "a good listener," I think that there is a far bleaker emptiness that is at play here in the dearth of manhood.
Where, I ask, are the frontiers?
It was not so long ago in this very country when a young man could go out into the great vastness of America, and carve for himself a future in remote or undeveloped lands where there were no real rules yet. I look at my own childhood, and in retrospect, myself and my friends all had a certain restlessness in our hearts. Some have called it Wanderlust, the desire to go out and wander. Some call it cabin fever. I do not know what to call it, but I know that it is real. Unfortunately, there were no frontiers for us to venture off into at that time. No, we had nowhere to explore, aqnd found ourselves bored very quickly by the terribly humdrum existence that passes for life as a teenager today. So, we did like so many did, and tried to make things "exciting." What followed was a fairly quick series of events and mishaps that made for wonderful stories that I still tell sometimes. Unfortunately, these stories are laced thoroughly with terms like "overdosed on" "drunk and passed out," "cops showed up and cuffed"...
[E]very teenager has felt this urge. This urge to just get up, flick the cigarrette away, smash the bottle on the floor, and stride out. Yes, I have many times sat in a party, surrounded by a few friends and a lot of strangers, listening to them all say the same damned thing as everyone else does, and wearing the same damned things like a bunch of cookie cutter angst-riddled teenagers, and felt this great, almost paralyzing fear as a single horrific thought overwhelmed me.This longing is echoed in the very piece on the Winchester rifle with which we began. It too looks to the Frontier the Winchester symbolized, and mourns:
What if this is all there is?
And then the urge would strike, and I would want to get up and leave. No explanations, no diatribes, no monologues. Just get up and leave. Just get out and get away to somewhere that is more real, and more meaningful. Somewhere I am unfettered.
A famous ad that most boy baby boomers will recall from Boys’ Life, the old scouting magazine of the ‘50s, showed a happy lad, carrot-topped and freckly like any number of Peck’s Bad Boys, his teeth haphazardly arrayed within his wide, gleeful mouth under eyes wide as pie platters as he exclaimed on Christmas morn, "Gee, Dad . . . A Winchester!"The Boy Scouts still exist, and still serve the young man who longs for adventure. They still offer chances to explore. Not just the Frontier, though also that, but other adventures also: so-called "Explorer Scouts" can end up attached to police units, firefighters, and other places where the modern world still needs a man's spirit. We do need that spirit, and we may find soon that we need it as much as we ever did.
All gone, all gone, all gone. The gun as family totem, the implied trust between generations, the implicit idea that marksmanship followed by hunting were a way of life to be pursued through the decades, the sense of tradition, respect, self-discipline and bright confidence that Winchester and the American kinship group would march forward to a happy tomorrow—gone if not with the wind, then with the tide of inner-city and nutcase killings [.]
Doc Russia says the heart of the young man from whom we will need that spirit longs for it. It looks around and asks, "Is this all there is?" It wants so much for the answer to be, "No -- and we need you for what is to come."
I remember that feeling he describes. All my life, it never seemed to go away. And then one morning, my wife woke me out of slumber and said, "Darling, it's time." We went to a hospital and passed through fire, and on the other side was a new world.
To all you young men out there wondering, I will tell you: you have never known adventure until you've held your living son.
Yesterday my wife and I took my son, almost four, to the gun range for the first time. I bought him ear protection made to fit a little head. He was perfectly behaved. He sat on the bench behind the range and watched with wonder that miracle of timing: the meeting of steel and springs and clay, that sent a whirling orange disk sailing through the air. A man on the range, his father, raises a stick to his shoulder. There is a sound like thunder, and that little disk -- so far away you can barely see it -- breaks apart with a shock.
We had to drag him bodily back to the truck, the boy grinning from earmuff to earmuff. I bought him a water gun on the way home, and this morning we hiked out to a lake nearby. He stood on the shore and shot at the geese paddling by. They would honk gently when he hit them, but did not seem to mind.
In time he'll have a Winchester, mine or one of his own. It may be that they will make them again one day.
I suspect they will, when we are ready for them. When we have restored the trust between generations: when we have taught our youths how to be men, and our men to love their sons. All good things follow from that, rebirth and a greater world.