Happy People: A Year in the Taiga – Movies for Sportsmen

When one thinks of a movie that appeals to sportsmen the first thing that comes to mind is a movie about doing something for sport, such as hunting or fishing for trophy examples of a species—perhaps something like Gordon Eastman’s High, Wild and Free.  Happy People: A Year in the Taiga is not about hunting for sport; it is about people who live a self sufficient lifestyle and who hunt, fish, and trap to survive—more along the lines of Richard Proenneke’s Alone in the Wilderness.

I think a lot of sportsmen have a soft spot for the lifestyle of self-sufficient people—the people who buy very little and do their best to provide for themselves and make do with what they have.  If this applies to you at all, you will thoroughly enjoy Happy People: A Year in the Taiga.

The movie follows a village of people who live in the Russian Taiga and focuses on how they provide for themselves over the course of a year.  More specifically, the movie follows the men of the village—who are trappers—and their yearlong preparation for the sable trapping season.

The movie starts in the late winter, after the trapping season is over, and progresses through the seasons until the following winter, when the trapping is in full swing.  Over the course of the year we see the work that must be done in each season to prepare for the winter hunt; including building skis, repairing cabins, building traps, and catching fish.  We also get a glimpse at politics and family life in the Taiga.

The village is populated mostly with Russians who came from the eastern part of the country several decades ago to trap for the government.  However, we also get a quick glimpse at the lives of the native people of the Taiga as well.

The look at the natives’ story is a depressing one, as alcoholism and laziness run rampant through their village and destroys their society from the inside.  In an interesting moment of self-examination, the men of the society discuss why they have become so lazy and lost the skills of their ancestors.  One man is eager to blame the Russians because they are the ones who introduced vodka, but another man is insistent that the blame lies with the natives themselves for allowing the vodka to corrupt them.

The examination of the native people is brief and is used as a contrast to the lives of the Russians, who are hard working, skilled, and genuinely happy.

I went into this movie thinking that the best parts would be the scenes of the trappers at work setting traps and collecting their furs, but I was wrong.  The scenes of the trappers at work are still excellent and make the movie worth watching on their own, but the true beauty of this movie is found when the trappers stop working and speak.

The trappers seem eager to share their view of the world with the camera and we learn about their opinions on everything from dogs to hunting and trapping ethics.  It is these introspective moments that are the highlight of the movie for me.  The men speak with a clarity of thought that only those who have spent most of their lives alone can.  They have had decades of time alone to hone their thoughts and words into a consistent philosophy of life and they are ready and willing to share it with the audience.

As the title of the movie suggests, these people are truly happy.  Although they live in a very harsh environment with little in the way of modern conveniences, the movie is not about their struggle to survive, but their sheer joy at the freedom their lifestyle permits them.  All of the hunters express their love for their chosen line of work and the freedom they have found.

It is this sentiment that makes Happy People: A Year in the Taiga a great movie for sportsmen.  We may not live a subsistence lifestyle or get to spend every waking hour preparing for the hunting season, but when fall rolls around and we get to hit the hunting fields we can feel what the people of the Taiga feel—the freedom that comes from providing for oneself and of being in the outdoors.

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga is available to stream on Netflix and I highly recommend that you set aside an hour and a half to watch it.

Here is a trailer for Happy People: A Year in the Taiga:

Happy People – Promo May 14, 2010 from Kay Mode on Vimeo.

What’s So Special About the 3-Screw Ruger Blackhawk?

If you happen to stumble onto an online forum for Ruger firearms or single action revolvers you may find that the term “3-screw Blackhawk” appears quite frequently.  You may also notice that some people have a certain esteem for the 3-screw Ruger Blackhawk over other Blackhawks and will go to great lengths to acquire one.

Many people new to revolvers probably have no idea what a 3-screw Ruger Blackhawk is, and even those who know what a 3-screw Blackhawk is probably don’t understand why revolver cranks covet these relics over all others.  This post will explore a little of the Ruger Blackhawk’s history and tease out why the 3-screw Blackhawk is such a desirable gun and why collectors and non-collectors alike should seek one out for themselves.

A History of the Ruger Blackhawk

The history of the Ruger Blackhawk begins with the Ruger Single Six, a single action revolver based on the Colt Single Action Army Revolver of 1873 and chambered for the .22 Long Rifle cartridge.  The Single Six was a popular seller for Ruger and indicated that there was a demand for single action revolvers in post WWII America.

In 1955 Ruger introduced the Blackhawk chambered for the .357 Magnum cartridge.  The Blackhawk replicated the size of the old Colt Single Action in both frame size and grip size.  The Blackhawk also had adjustable sights mounted on a flattop frame like many of the custom Colts and Colt Single Action target models.

Besides replacing the Colt flat springs with coil springs for better durability and using a frame mounted firing pin, the lock work of the Ruger Blackhawk was very similar to that of the Colt.  The Blackhawk hammer had four distinct clicks that could be heard while it was brought back to full cock—which was characteristic of the Colts—and to freely spin the cylinder for loading the hammer had to be placed at half-cock, another characteristic of Colts and older single action revolvers.  Because the lock work was so similar to that of the Colt, the Ruger Blackhawk had three screws on the side of the frame just as the Colts did.  This model 3-screw Blackhawk is commonly referred to as the “flattop” due to its flat top strap.

Ruger Blackhawk Flattop Model
The original .357 Magnum Ruger Blackhawk—The Flattop. Notice the flat top strap, adjustable sights, and the 3 screws in the side of the frame.

Around 1956 Ruger introduced a .44 Magnum version of the Blackhawk built on a larger frame to handle the increased pressures of the new cartridge.  The .357 Magnum Blackhawk continued to be manufactured on the smaller Colt-sized frame, so Ruger was now producing Blackhawks in two frame sizes.

Starting in 1962 Ruger added “ears” to the top strap of the revolver around the rear sight.  In Sixguns, Elmer Keith had recommended that Ruger add some protective “ears” to the rear sight to protect it from being knocked out of alignment when the rear sight was raised for long distance shooting.  I am not sure whether Keith actually influenced the decision by Ruger to add the “ears”, but Sixguns was released in 1955 and a revised edition was released in 1961—both predating the “ears” on the Blackhawk—so the ears may be his handiwork.

In 1973 wholesale changes were made to the Ruger Blackhawk.  The lock work was changed from that of a Colt to something completely new.  Instead of setting the hammer to half-cock for loading, the loading gate now regulated the cylinder for loading and the hammer no longer had the four clicks found on previous Blackhawks and Colts.  A transfer bar safety was also added which made the gun safe to carry with six rounds in the cylinder.  As a result of the changes to the inner workings of the Blackhawk, there were now only two screws on the side of the frame.

In addition to the inner changes to Blackhawk, there was one notable outward change.  Probably to simplify manufacturing, all Ruger Blackhawks from 1973 onward, regardless of caliber, would be built on the larger .44 Magnum sized frame.  This revised revolver was renamed and released as the New Model Blackhawk, thus ending the life of the 3-screw Blackhawk.

What’s the big deal?

“So,” you may be asking, “what’s so special about the 3-screw Blackhawk?  Isn’t it just an older Blackhawk?  Why would a non-collector care about it?”

It’s true that the 3-screw Blackhawks are coveted by collectors for their age and status as the inaugural model the popular Ruger Blackhawk series (particularly the flattop 3-screws).  But what many people overlook is that the most important change that came with the New Model Blackhawk wasn’t the new innards, it was the new body the innards were put in.

Over the course of the Blackhawk’s life it had increased in size with each revamping.  In 1955 the Blackhawk was released with a grip and frame the size of the Colt Single Action Army—the gun by which all other single action revolvers are judged; a gun which had the perfect combination of size and strength for someone wanting an all-around revolver for packing into the woods or wherever he may wander; a gun which pointed so gracefully that the sights were almost unnecessary at close range.

In 1962 the “ears” were added to the Blackhawk but so was a new grip frame.  The new grip was slightly larger than the previous Blackhawk grip, and consequently, larger than the Colt’s.

Some people liked the new grip while others preferred the smaller grip found on the flattop, but the change was minor and the 1962-1972 Blackhawks still handle and point well.  Besides, replacing the larger grip frame on a Blackhawk with a smaller one is a relatively minor modification.

The blow came in 1973 when all Blackhawks were moved to the large frame originally built to contain the pressures of the .44 Magnum.  Now all Blackhawks—whether .44 Magnum, .45 Colt, or .357 Magnum—would be built on this hulking frame.

The larger frame was obviously needed to safely chamber the .44 Magnum, and the .45 Colt certainly benefited from the larger frame size as it essentially became a .45 Colt Magnum.  But the poor .357, one of the most ideal rounds for packing into the woods, receives no benefit from the larger frame at all.

The medium sized frame of the Colt Single Action Army and 3-screw Blackhawks was more than enough beef to contain .357 Magnum pressures.  Heck, the .357 Magnum is safely fired in J-Frame Smith & Wesson revolvers without fear of blowing up.  The .357 Magnum deserves better than being shoved into a bulky and heavy frame; it deserves a frame which matches the versatility of the cartridge itself; a frame which can be comfortably carried all day in the woods whether you are on the prowl for small game, large game, or even nothing at all.

Even the .45 Colt, a cartridge which had always been housed in the larger frame Blackhawks, is perfectly fine in the medium framed guns.  Sure, the .45 Colt in the large frame Blackhawks is capable of extreme power that matches or exceeds .44 Magnum, but is it really necessary?

The .45 Colt’s legacy was built on the medium framed Colt Single Action Army, where it developed a reputation for throwing heavy pieces of lead at moderate velocities.  Who could realistically need more power than a 255 grain lead bullet traveling at 900 feet per second?  Perhaps more importantly, who would want to endure the recoil associated with the increased power?

Because of the size of the 3-screw Blackhawks, they became popular platforms for people to build custom revolvers on.  The most popular customization was to rechamber the .357 3-screw Blackhawks to .44 Special—a cartridge which needs only the medium sized frame to reach its full potential and which Elmer Keith pushed to near .44 Magnum velocities in his custom Colt Single Actions.  Skeeter Skelton had at least a couple of these conversions done and it remains a popular conversion today.  If a single action aficionado is looking for a good packing or working gun, the 3-screw Blackhawk is often the revolver they turn to.

A happy ending?

Once thought to be lost forever, the medium framed Ruger revolver has made a comeback in a big way.  Starting with the introduction of the New Vaquero in 2005, Ruger put the medium sized single action frame with Colt sized grips in production.  These new guns still use a transfer bar safety and New Model Blackhawk lock work for the most part, but the important thing is that they returned to the svelte sized frame and grips of the old 3-screw Blackhawks and Colt Single Actions.  The New Vaqueros had fixed sights, so they were no replacement for the 3-screw Blackhawks, but it was an important first step.

Shortly thereafter, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first Blackhawks, Ruger released a limited run of .357 Magnum New Model Blackhawks built on the medium sized New Vaquero frame with adjustable sights and a flat top strap, finally coming full circle.  Unfortunately, this medium framed .357 Magnum New Model Blackhawk was only a limited run and today the .357 Magnum New Model Blackhawk has returned to being produced only in a large frame.

For a comparison of the sizes between the original Colt Single Action, the 3-screw Ruger Blackhawk, the New Model Ruger Blackhawk, and the newest medium frame Blackhawk, check out this article over at Gunblast.com.  They have a table with various measurements from these guns for comparison purposes.  When looking at the table, keep in mind the dimensions for the “Old Vaquero” are the same as the large frame New Model Blackhawks and the “New Vaquero” is the same size as the medium frame New Model Blackhawks.

Happily, with the help of Lipsey’s, Ruger was persuaded to introduce a .44 Special New Model Blackhawk built on the medium sized flattop frame previously used for the 50th Anniversary Blackhawk.  Lipsey’s special order of these revolvers was so successful that Ruger added the revolver to their regular product line and now they can be ordered from almost any firearms retailer.

Lipsey’s also did a special run of .45 Colt New Model Blackhawks on the medium sized flattop frame, and these can be ordered from a Lipsey’s dealer.  However, due to the success of the large frame .45 Colt Blackhawk, I don’t believe we will ever see this item as a regularly cataloged product from Ruger itself.

So, on the bright side, we now have the .44 Special New Model Blackhawk; a revolver which fires a spectacularly versatile cartridge in the handy medium sized frame.  Elmer Keith had written about his hopes for such a gun in Sixguns in 1955 and Skeeter Skelton had dreamed of such a gun as well.  Finally, fifty years after the Blackhawk was introduced, the wishes of these two men—and many other sixgun enthusiasts—came to fruition.

On the other hand, if someone wants a .357 Magnum Ruger single action revolver on the medium frame they have no viable options currently being produced.  The New Vaquero is offered in .357 Magnum and is built on the medium frame, but it lacks adjustable sights.  One is forced to look on the used market for a 3-screw Blackhawk or the 50th Anniversary New Model Blackhawk.  The Anniversary models regularly sell for more than the 3-screw Blackhawks, plus the Anniversary models only came with the 4.625 inch barrel, so the 3-screws are still the best option.

I have hopes that someday Ruger will produce the .357 Magnum New Model Blackhawk on the medium flattop frame as a regular catalog item.  After all, the medium flattop frame is already in production for the .44 Special New Model Blackhawk, the medium .357 Magnum cylinders and barrels are already in production for the New Vaquero, and the .357 Magnum has no need to be housed in a large frame revolver.  To me, it looks like all the pieces are in place and I sincerely hope that this ideal .357 Magnum revolver can somehow be produced and reclaim the romance and tradition of the 3-screw Blackhawks of old.

Why We Read Old Books Part III

In the first two parts (Part I, Part II) of this series we discussed why someone might read an old book about outdoor activities for the purposes of entertainment and for historical enlightenment.  In this final part of the series I will seek to explain the value of reading these old books for their intended purpose—to instill in the reader some practical knowledge of how to hunt, fish, shoot accurately, etc.

When originally published, these books were written by the foremost authorities on sporting activities and many of the books are still regarded today as the standard by which other books on the subject are judged.  Still, we must admit that fifty or more years is a long time and face the possibility of out-datedness head on.

Many modern hunters will eschew these books as hopelessly out of date and not worth reading because so much has changed in the last half century—heck, many of these books are so old as to predate the .223 Remington and .308 Winchester.  There is some merit to this way of thinking, after all, many of the companies discussed in these books are no longer in business and many of the rifles, cartridges, and other technology which were used in the 1950’s are out of production and impossible or impractical to find nowadays.  Furthermore, given the advance in technology over the years, the techniques and technology may no longer be the most efficient way of taking game or fish.  All of these statements notwithstanding, these books are still of immense value to the modern sportsman.

It is simple to overcome the issue of out of date information regarding what rifles and cartridges are available on the marketplace.  First of all, many of the guns you will read about in these books still exist in a modern form—for example, the Winchester Model 70, 1894, or 1886—or they can be found on the used market relatively easily.

And if that is not comforting enough, you can always use a little creativity in following the advice found in the books.  If Townsend Whelen suggests a modified Mauser military rifle for hunting in the backwoods, you can take a look at the Ruger Model 77, which is based on the Mauser action and retains many of the original features such as the claw extractor and the angled recoil lug.

The same goes for cartridges.  You will find that many of the writers suggest cartridges that are still readily available in today’s sporting goods stores, such as the 30-30, .375 H&H Magnum, .338 Winchester, and the venerable .30-06 Springfield.  And just as with rifles, if someone suggests a hard to find cartridge you can always find a modern equivalent that will offer comparable ballistics.

For example, if someone recommends the .300 H&H Magnum—which is still available, but maybe not readily so—you can substitute the .300 Winchester Magnum, or if Elmer Keith recommends his 334 OKH wildcat cartridge—which probably never saw use by many people outside of Keith’s own circle—you can substitute the .338 Winchester Magnum and get equal or better performance.

The point is this; even if some of the rifles and cartridges referred to in these books seems archaic, there is always a way to bring the information into the present.  And given that the authors of these books were esteemed for their expertise on these subjects, it seems prudent to try our best to bring this information into the 21st Century.

Let us not also forget that some things don’t change when it comes to our preferred outdoor activities.  The best way to dress and pack out game hasn’t changed and likely never will until the day we all go into the wilderness in our own private helicopters.  The techniques for marksmanship which earned Col. Whelen and C. S. Landis national championships haven’t changed and anyone would be well served to follow their advice for hitting the bull’s-eye.  The laws of physics haven’t changed, and the tables for drop and wind drift of a .22 caliber bullet in Small Bore Rifle Shooting are still accurate to this day.

The best area to place your bullet, or look for game, or drop your lure also hasn’t changed.  While technology may have changed in the past fifty years, we can take comfort in the fact that the quarry has not.  If Edward Freeman made his hunting trips with a .38-55 Winchester Model 94 and dropped hundreds of deer in the Maine woods, you can be sure your .308 Winchester has the potency to take down a whitetail.  Hunters may have added camouflage, scent blockers, and range finders to their bag of tricks, but the animals have remained the same.

For all of the above reasons, classic sporting books still have a place in your library for their original intended purpose—to teach you how to bag your quarry or hit the bull’s-eye.  Good information is good information, regardless of when the words were put down on paper.  Much of the information in these books stands the test of time and requires nothing of you, other than to read it, for it to make your outdoor excursions more enjoyable and successful.  And whatever information has become outmoded due to advances of technology is easily transported into this century with just a modicum of creativity on the part of the reader.

And this is to say nothing of the man who prefers to take to the woods in the fashion of his father or grand-father and is steadfast in his commitment to tradition.  I know these people are out there.  People who wish to take the woods with wood stock and blued steel instead of synthetic and stainless; people who prefer wool, cotton, and leather to acrylic, polyester, and rayon; people who value patience and perseverance; and people whose foremost desire is to enjoy the outdoors and their time spent in it, rather than to simply get in, get their game, and get out.  For these sportsmen, books like this provide hours of enjoyment and a lifetime’s worth of valuable knowledge.

Why We Read Old Books Part II

In the first part of this series we covered how classic books about the outdoors can stand the test of time purely for their entertainment value to readers, particularly the enjoyment that is can be had from the stories of hunting and fishing.

The second part of the series is similar to the first part, but instead of deriving enjoyment from stories of trophy elk or trout, the enjoyment comes from connecting to another time.  Granted, these books are not that old, ranging anywhere from fifty to one hundred years old, but to many people, it’s an era that holds a certain level of fascination.  Whether the fascination stems from learning how your father hunted, how your grandfather hunted, or remembering how you hunted as a youth, the fascination is undeniable and these books provide a way to learn about the history of hunting.

Some people are simply captivated by how things were done in the past, even if they have no intention of using those tools and techniques in their own sporting excursions.  For people like that, classic books about the outdoors are a goldmine of information.  Almost all of these books cover in great detail the tools used for the particular subject—rifles, cartridges, clothing, rods, reels, lures, tents, packs, etc.—so that one can get a complete picture of how hunting, fishing, or match shooting was done decades ago.

History of hunting and camping
A hunting camp the old-fashioned way.

Examples of books of this kind are ample, the most notable being Wilderness Hunting and Wildcraft by Townsend Whelen, Keith’s Rifles for Large Game by Elmer Keith, and Rifle-Craft by C. S. Landis—currently the oldest book published we publish, dating from 1923.

We can learn about the history of hunting from C. S. Landis
Information circa 1923

One of the more unique books that comes to mind for its historical value is This Business of Exploring by Roy Chapman Andrews.  While this book is not about hunting or fishing or any other sportsman-like pursuit, it remains a fascinating account of a bygone era.  The book is about one of the expeditions of the author, a noted explorer, in his search for fossils and other artifacts in Mongolia in the late 1920’s.  In the book, Andrews writes of death, war, and groundbreaking discoveries in an age of scientific exploration which no longer exists.  Reading almost like the journal of a real-life Indiana Jones, Andrews’ book has tons of entertainment and historical significance.

history of archaeological expeditions
An account of the 1928-1930 Mongolian expedition of Roy Chapman Andrews.

Smith & Wesson Hand Guns by Walter Roper and Roy McHenry is a book written about the history of the Smith & Wesson Company from the founding of the company through World War II.  This particular book was written from the ground up as a historical account and has been used by Smith & Wesson collectors as a reference for decades, as the book contains a fair amount of detail on the changes to each Smith & Wesson model through the years.

history of the Smith & Wesson company
One of the standard references for Smith & Wesson buffs.

Elmer Keith makes reference to Smith & Wesson Hand Guns many times in his own brief historical account of the revolver—which can be found in Sixgunsand Keith’s history of the revolver is itself a valuable reference work to firearms historians as a secondary source, since Keith personally interacted with Civil War veterans and other Old West survivors.

history of hunting and revolvers used in hunting and self defense
The standard by which all other books about revolvers are measured.

It is impossible to deny that these books are valuable to those of us who read books for their historical content.  From learning how things were done by a prior generation, to learning about the founding of a company and the technological advancements of firearms, these books have it covered.

In the final part of this series we will discuss the practical value of classic sporting books.

Why We Read Old Books Part I

Sportsman’s Vintage Press publishes books which were generally written in the first half of the 20th Century by men who were born as early as the late 1800’s, so we clearly have a stake in the old-fashioned ways of doing things.  Not everyone will be interested in reading books from several decades ago, but for those who are thinking about picking up a classic book about the outdoors, I thought I would provide some rationale for doing so.

The most obvious reason that someone might pick up a classic book is purely for entertainment value.  Just as with a novel, many of the older books about hunting are plenty entertaining to read regardless of any practical knowledge they may contain.  While the original purpose of the these books was to instruct the reader about how to do certain things, the authors almost always include a good deal of first-hand accounts and fishing and hunting stories.

Elmer Keith’s books, for example, are chock-full of his experiences in the game fields and the match shooting ranges.  Keith’s stories about his successes and failures with a firearm are so entertaining that a book like Sixguns—which at its core is a practical volume on the use of a revolver—can rival a novel for its ability to keep the reader firmly planted in their chair and their eyes glued to the page.  Additionally, Keith tells many stories which he heard second-hand from an even older generation of men who lived through the Civil War and Old West era–which is reason enough on its own to read one of his books.

Elmer Keith told great hunting stories
Elmer Keith: A legendary American sportsman and a great storyteller

Many of these old books give us the chance to live vicariously through someone who had the means to take a sporting trip we can only dream of, and did it in one of the golden ages of hunting.  For example, many hunters dream of making it to Africa someday for a safari, but such a trip is expensive and time-consuming, so the opportunities for excursions of this kind are limited.  However, Charles Askins made many trips to Africa and a recounting of one of his more extensive trips is available in Asian Jungle, African Bush.  This book not only includes practical how-to information for the travelling hunter but also includes a journal of Col. Askins’ trip which details in both words and pictures his hunting experience on two continents.

hunting stories from Asia and Africa
Asian Jungle, African Bush includes a journal of Col. Askins’ hunt on two exotic continents.

Another writer who gives us a look at a world we may never experience first-hand is John “Pondoro” Taylor, who was a professional hunter in Africa and whose book African Rifles and Cartridges draws on his decades of experience on the Dark Continent.  And a book like Greatest Fishing by Joe Brooks is a similar recounting of exotic trips taken in pursuit of game, but this time the quarry is fish.

Hunting stories from the golden age of African hunting
“Pondoro” Taylor was a professional hunter in Africa and wrote “African Rifles and Cartridges” specifically for Americans who planned to venture abroad

So, while the original intent of these books was primarily to teach the readers how to do something—whether it was how to hunt, fish, or shoot—these books can and should be read purely for their entertainment value.  Whether one wants to be regaled with stories of a far away land or hear of events which happened on our own continent, authors such as Elmer Keith, Charles Askins, “Pondoro” Taylor, and Joe Brooks are happy to oblige.

In the second part of this series, we will cover the historical value of older books.