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The Gatling Gun was a major innovation, but that step forward in the evolution of firearms provided little for hunters. Photo by Witthaya Khampanant
The firearms hunters carry afield vary considerably, from antique replica muzzleloaders to modern AR-style autoloaders, but they all have one thing in common. Make, model and action, they all originated for use in military conflict and were subsequently adopted by sportsmen, some eagerly, others reluctantly.
At the outset of the American Revolution, muskets were the most common military weapon. They were loaded through the muzzle with loose powder, patch and ball and had smooth barrels. As a result, they weren’t particularly accurate, but when firing into a crowd of soldiers standing in parade formation, they were effective.
It didn’t take the rebels long to figure out that wasn’t a very practical tactic, and they soon switched to guerrilla tactics like hiding behind trees and stone walls. While frowned upon by military purists, they gave smaller forces an advantage. However, longer shots required greater accuracy so the patriots replaced their muskets with rifled-barrel guns. Tiny spiral grooves machined into the barrels made the bullets spin, and fly straighter over long distances.
Over time, flintlock ignition systems were replaced with more reliable caplocks, just in time for the next conflict between the states. Loose powder loads were replaced first with paper cartridges, particularly in handguns. Then came the enclosed cartridge – a brass case containing primer, powder and bullet. Rather than through the muzzle, it could be loaded into the breech, one cartridge at a time. It was slow, but still a much more reliable system. Johnny went to war with a muzzleloader but he came marching home with a breech loader, and took it hunting.
The latter part of the Civil War also saw early examples of firearms capable of firing multiple shots without reloading like the Gatling Gun – the Devil’s Breath. Next came smaller versions of repeating rifles in either bolt or lever action. Shooters could reload simply by working the action, and the number of shots was limited only by magazine capacity.
While cowboys preferred the lever action, bolts were de rigueur in the military and the most common firearm carried during the first war to end all wars. They remained popular into the outset of the second war to end all wars, but were soon replaced with another innovation.
Ever seeking new and better tools, manufacturers perfected means of using recoil to automatically cycle another round, and the autoloader or semi-automatic was born. It was most prevalent in guns like the M-1 Garand and the M14, the latter of which was later morphed into Ruger’s immensely popular Mini 14. With a little tweaking, they eventually found ways to fire, reload and fire again, and again with a single pull of the trigger – a fully automatic firearm.
With the return of peace time, fully automatic weapons never really caught on with the sporting crowd, but they were quite popular with gangsters, until the federal government restricted ownership by private citizens. Semi-autos, on the other hand, became immensely popular with hunters, some popular examples being the Browning BAR, the Remington Model 740 and Winchester Model 100. Those, and the next big advancement in military arms represented changes in form, but not in function.
Gearing up to battle the global threat of communism, gun makers took the same auto-loading or semi-auto actions, replaced the fancy walnut stocks with synthetics and added a pistol grip behind the trigger. Among the first such weapons to see widespread use was the M-16, later replaced by the AR-15 (AR standing for Armalite Rifle).
When hostilities ceased, hunters weren’t as quick to adopt these post-military weapons into their arsenals. That’s probably in part because they offered no mechanical advantage to mainstream sporting arms, and they weren’t particularly attractive. Even at gun shows they were segregated into separate areas for “tactical” weapons or “black” guns.
Remington was the first U.S. manufacturer to build and sell production autoloaders based on the AR-style platform with their R-5. It took a while to catch on, but sportsman slowly realized while the collapsible, tactical stock lacked the comfort and style of polished walnut, it allowed for custom length-of-pull adjustment and compact transportation. And, these ARs were particularly accurate for an autoloader.
The recent proliferation of AR-style guns is somewhat akin to craft breweries. While most of the major gun makers like Winchester, Ruger and Browning stuck with their existing “old-style” guns, dozens, and then hundreds of smaller companies started to spring up, making whole guns and components. Unlike most other modern sporting arms, ARs are modular. Shooters can mix and match uppers, lowers, stocks and barrels from various manufacturers to build a gun that suits their personal preference. Rail systems also allow for the addition of accessories like optics and lights, making these guns particularly popular with varmint and predator hunters.
Because recent conflicts are still fresh in our minds and these modern sporting arms are somewhat intimidating, but that’s largely a matter of perspective. Your grandparents or great grandparents probably had a similar reaction to semi-auto actions replacing the bolt. Theirs likely had a similar response to enclosed cartridges and breech loaders instead of loose powder and muzzleloaders; and a few generations earlier they might have cringed at the idea of rifled barrels instead of smoothbores.
Times change. Four-channel black and white TVs with rabbit ear antennas have been replaced with smart TVs, AM radios the size of a small bureau with satellite radio you can listen to on a smart phone and increasingly more cars run on electricity rather than fossil fuels. Change doesn’t always come easily, but it’s inevitable.
Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and Registered Maine Guide who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at: [email protected]ne.rr.com
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