I’ve written before about the old time radio program Dr. Sixgun, which stands out as remarkable amidst the Western genre for its compassionate depiction of typically disparaged groups, such as immigrants and Indians. Instead of sanitized history, the story lines unflinchingly portray cruelty by American settlers and the human cost of colonization is on full display.
Because Dr. Sixgun presents such a contrary narrative among stereotypical Westerns and doesn’t shirk from social issues, it wasn’t surprising that the episode No Guns Ordinance touched on gun control. This one began with Dr. Grey Matson, the famed Dr. Sixgun himself, entering a town called Rail End. He became surprised upon discovering open carry was recently banned by order of the local sheriff, Marshall Anders. Despite his proficient reputation with a revolver, Dr. Matson remained a thoughtful physician who frequently treated shooting victims. He checked his six-gun without argument and then sought out Anders, curious to learn more about this experiment.
The marshall explained: “I can tell ya, if I had my choice, once I get hold of a crazy drunk on the way to the pokey on a Saturday night, I’d just as soon I was the only one totin’ a gun.” He elaborated as having been inspired by the iconic lawman Wyatt Earp. With this reference, Dr. Sixgun writers knew their history. Back in the day, even such classic frontier locations as Deadwood and Dodge City were known for strict gun control ordinances. In fact, Wyatt Earp’s famous shootout at the O.K. Coral involved his opponents violating firearms regulations in Tombstone, Arizona.
It’s no exaggeration that modern Arizona gun control laws are far more permissive than during Dr. Sixgun’s era. For example, I personally possess an out-of-state permit issued by Arizona which lets me carry concealed firearms there, plus several other states, despite my residence in Oregon. Highlighting this is important, as so much right-wing propaganda builds upon skewed pictures of the past, falsely mythologizing the Old West as a place where Americans lived more freely and that some slow decline in liberty has progressed since then. It’s all complete lies, of course. Frontier times were far more restrictive on individual lives than any conservative today would admit tolerating.
As the story continued, Marshall Anders boasted his policy had successfully reduced murders and Dr. Matson left the town feeling quite inspired, remarking: “That ordinance, that must be the answer . . . . .take the guns away and they won’t be so quick to fight…. I get awful tired of probing for bullets and sewing up wounds. I got more important things to do.”
Dr. Matson subsequently attempted persuading others that gun control could work yet only met with derision from others in the territory. Ranchers and bartenders and even his own local sheriff showed complete disinterest or open contempt for such a scheme, several calling it “against nature.” Faced with overwhelming opposition, he finally gave up promoting the idea. Some time later, Matson’s travels led him back to Rail End where he turned over his revolver to a new sheriff named Marshall Benson. It soon became apparent things were not well, despite surface tranquility. Sinister armed men lurked about, closely monitoring conversations between citizens and keeping tabs on everyone. Each wore an official lawman’s badge
It turned out months before, Benson and a gang of corrupt deputies had pushed Marshall Anders out of power and began running the place as their own personal fiefdom. With everyone else disarmed, no one could oppose them. Whereas most episodes of Dr. Sixgun resolve conflicts, this one concluded on a tragic note. Fearing for his life, Dr. Matson fled the town which remained in the grip of unaccountable cops, maintained through fear, and of course, a firearms monopoly.
Appropriately, the first scene Dr. Matson encountered after leaving Rail End, with its chilling calm, was a boisterous crowd of drunken cowboys waving revolvers and firing off shots willy-nilly. He regretfully acknowledged this as a preferable trade off against the police state tyranny so recently experienced. Wrap up narration dismally recounted that Rail End residents eventually placed hope in electing a new sheriff, though Benson’s leading opponent was murdered before this could take place.
It sounds reasonable at first, yet Matson’s observation presents a false choice. Banning firearms simply isn’t required for an oppressive government to exist, as examples from the Colfax Massacre to Black Wall Street demonstrate. In more recent times, Black citizens of Ferguson, Missouri were no less armed than other Americans, yet knew shooting back against police terror, as their ancestors sometimes had, would be futile. Just as it’s foolish to imagine eliminating firearms automatically creates peace, the reverse is also true. Well armed societies are often rampant with injustice. Gun control might be one factor in maintaining systems of tyranny, but not necessarily constitute the main ingredient.
Old time militias enforcing government sanctioned gun control? That’s certainly an image contrary to the one cultivated by many 2nd Amendment supporters. But while some harken back to a selective version of America’s past, in her recent book The Second, historian Carol Anderson carefully examines what purpose that amendment actually signified in practice. It’s a far cry from what modern day patriotic propaganda would have people believe.
Anderson’s work parallels one of the most exciting genres in American historical scholarship, which has seen increasing numbers of academics researching Black resistance movements that mobilized against post-Civil War Reconstruction and Jim Crow era persecution. While most white-washed histories of the Civil Rights struggle spin redemptive tales about noble suffering and non-violent tactics winning victories toward greater social equality, these new explorations grasp gut level human realities, often less appealing than earlier sanitized versions.
In just one sensational example, the historian Akinyele Umoja looked at a Mississippi region where KKK influence waned in the early 1960s, allowing establishment of successful voter registration drives. Yet digging deeper, he discovered this power vacuum only developed after Black militia members successfully repelled invading nightriders, before posting the decapitated head of one fallen Klansman on a bridge as warning. This act so horrified nearby white militants that they simply gave up control of the area. (1)
Anderson wrestles with issues no less intense, but from a different angle. She begins scrutinizing how gun control affected Black populations in the Americas under various colonial powers. During British rule, each of the original thirteen colonies enacted stringent laws forbidding enslaved population’s arms, plus highly regulating their ownership by any free people of color. (2) But even these small privileges were curtailed once the War of Independence began. North Carolina offered rewards to those who successfully confiscated guns from Black communities and other states clamped down harder as well. (3) No wonder they were fearful. Martha Washington was perhaps the first to use the phrase “contagion of liberty” (4) describing the terror herself and others whose wealth originated in human bondage felt after realizing so much lofty talk about Liberty, Inalienable Rights, and All Men Being Created Equal might spark similar aspirations among African-Americans, free or enslaved.
Indeed, many people of color were thrilled hearing these values so openly praised, yet in most states, militia membership and firearms had long been exclusively for whites only. Only after US forces suffered repeated defeats did several states begin recruiting Black men, including Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Virginia. Then, when British forces began moving against South Carolina, US military officers begged state officials to let Black soldiers serve and bolster the ranks of exhausted militias. Incredibly, this American legislature deliberated and finally decided they preferred surrender to the British than allow non-whites arms. (5)
Still, some free Black militias had existed for decades who trained with their own rifles and earned exceptionally brave reputations. This was not under United States law however, but allowed by Spanish and French colonial administrations, especially in Louisiana. As soon as these areas fell under American annexation, the 2nd Amendment provided no protection and gun control laws enforced by white militias disarmed these populations as well. (6) It actually became an embarrassing point during the War of 1812 after British regular soldiers smashed through ineffective militia forces and captured the US capitol. Their next target was New Orleans, where the governor of Louisiana recognized state militia troops were greatly insufficient. Faced with dire circumstances, he offered rifles to Black militia veterans and begged for help. Six-hundred volunteered and joined with a multi-racial force that contributed one of America’s few military victories in the entire war. General Andrew Jackson (of all people) even commended them for special valor. Yet instead of medals, these courageous men were afterward awarded heavy labor details in swamps and the Black militias forcibly disbanded once more. (7)
Anderson’s study exposes a familiar repetition marching forward. While it’s not uncommon for modern pro-2nd Amendment advocates to reference what became known as Black Codes, when denouncing firearms regulations as racist, more rarely do they acknowledge the enforcement role militias played. In the case of Georgia, white men were required to own guns, but specifically in legal reference to the militia’s need for self protection while searching the homes of Black families for weapons. (8) Moving deeper into the nineteenth-century, numerous other states passed strict laws, from Virginia, where free Black people found with firearms received thirty-nine lashes, to Florida, where white militias could search the homes of Black families for arms whenever they pleased, and the more lenient North Carolina, which allowed free Black people to apply for yearly permits before owning anything from shotguns to knives. (9)
The list of draconian gun control measures considered legal under the 2nd Amendment, even long after slavery was abolished, stretches on. Time and again, it provided no protection for Black communities who defended themselves against organized violent attacks, from the Colfax Massacre of 1873, to the Hamburg Massacre of 1876, and the destruction of Black Wall Street in 1921. Courts and judges routinely dismissed the Constitution, Bill of Rights and 2nd Amendment included, as legal grounds for non-whites to enjoy their full human existence as Americans.
This should be a sharp wake up call to anyone still viewing the 2nd Amendment as some wise, holy governance handed down through time. It’s own authors supported the most invasive firearms confiscations in US history. Like the title of my weblog has long declared, the 2nd Amendment must be occupied and reformed… into a tool for seizing gun culture back from what the founders originally intended. Simply another way for maintaining white supremacy and upper class dominion. Liberty may be a contagion… and Martha Washington meant that as an insult- but we can still take pride spreading it far and wide.
Akinyele Omowale Umoja. We Will Shoot Back. New York University Press, New York. 2013. 58-9.
Carol Anderson. The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America. Bloomsbury Publishing, New York. 2021. 18.
I currently work for a low-income housing non profit. While being part of an industry that helps people in our community is rewarding, this regularly puts myself and my co-workers in contact with individuals experiencing crisis, whether mental health or substance abuse related. Despite occasional tense moments, we do our best de-escalating confrontations and negotiating solutions as best we can. Very rarely does anyone get hurt.
One exception took place several years ago at an apartment complex in our portfolio. A male resident barged into the leasing office with a baseball bat and struck the building manager over the head, knocking her unconscious. He then ran out and began assaulting other people nearby. Amidst this chaos, the manager recovered enough to retrieve a can of mace from her purse. She bravely intercepted the assailant and sprayed him down, incapacitating the man until police arrived.
Once she returned from a brief hospital stay, co-workers and residents congratulated this woman for quick thinking and resourcefulness that certainly prevented more serious injuries. Yet, our official corporate response was more subdued. An all-staff email reminded everyone that our employee agreement prohibited self defense instruments on company property. As one might imagine, this included firearms, but also pepper spray and electric tasers.
At the time, this sparked consternation, with several building managers openly declaring they would rather be fired than leave themselves defenseless. They pointed out how violent abusers stalk victims in many locations, workplaces included. Some women mentioned personally surviving domestic assault and how keeping a taser or pepper spray nearby was simply how they lived their lives now. Leaving self defense tools at home would create huge gaps in their personal safety… not just on site, but during commutes, plus any side trips or appointments along the way.
A damage control email quickly made the rounds, promising all field offices would soon have panic buttons installed under the desks. Some employees grumbled, pointing out any response would still be delayed, but in general, this declaration calmed things. After a couple months, I checked in with some managers, asking if their offices were set up yet. They grimly reported no. Perplexed, I questioned the head of maintenance, inquiring about progress. He responded vaguely, reporting that details were still being ironed out and assured me I’d be kept in the loop. More months went by…then years, and that was the last anyone heard about panic buttons as far as I’m aware.
So, what does this have to do with gun politics? Well, laws ostensibly regulating firearms sometimes reach much further than expected, just like workplace rules. Oregon Senate Bill 554, recently passed by the legislature reads:
166.370. (1)(a) Any person who intentionally possesses a loaded or unloaded firearm or any other instrument used as a dangerous weapon, while in or on a public building, shall upon conviction be guilty of a Class C felony.
The term “weapon” is defined by listing an array of objects including:
(c) Mace, tear gas, pepper mace or any similar deleterious agent as defined in ORS 163.211; (d) An electrical stun gun or any similar instrument;
Now, as everyone should be well aware, laws are not enforced equally. Regarding my earlier example, during an all-staff meeting following that incident, the head of HR reminded everyone about our policy against self defense items. I glanced over at one of the building managers who earlier voiced disagreement and sure enough, sitting on the table in front of her glinted a can of pepper spray clipped onto her key ring. Nobody said a damn thing.
It seemed moderately hilarious at the time, but looking back, highlights how privilege and bias play out. This building manager was a white woman, well regarded at our nonprofit after years of service, and clearly felt little concern over breaking a major company regulation while preserving her own sense of security. I absolutely support her in doing so, but also wonder about my other co-workers, Black and Brown women with similar safety concerns, yet less confident in their employment, who make personal risk equations every day. Which is more endangered right now? Their life or their job?
Likewise, as more locations adopt policies prohibiting many people’s self defense options, already marginalized populations necessarily feel the pressure more. Several years ago I received a tearful phone call from a friend in another city. She was sheltering in a public library after running from a man who had sexually assaulted her nearby. It seemed like an easy decision, but what if she had a mace canister buried in her backpack? Under SB 554, instead of finding sanctuary, she could now be a felon for violating laws promoted to the public as reducing gun violence. While my white co-worker might feel secure in authorities giving her a pass on that, in this case my friend hiding from her assailant was a Black woman, too afraid of the police to call 911.
None of these complications are discussed in major media accounts of SB 554. Instead it’s described only as a bill to mandate safe storage of firearms and allow greater restrictions on where guns can be carried. It’s understandable why people are concerned about these issues. Firearms remain a hot commodity for theft, and while hindering access in emergency situations is problematic, greater numbers locked up securely will hopefully reduce unauthorized access. Likewise, as someone who has faced down armed fascist groups on the streets many times, I understand more than most the knee-jerk impulse to ban firearms from public places.
Being a butch white man, personal safety is rarely a concern for me. Potential predators detect a hard target and cops see a buddy they’d probably enjoy some beers with. Yet among many women- or any less physically intimidating individuals, daily life often resembles an anxiety ridden obstacle course… taking inconvenient routes around dark streets, staying alert for signs an abusive ex is back in town or checking in with friends during dates. Large numbers of people I know habitually carry self defense spray. It’s unlikely anyone would support limiting their ability in doing so, yet SB 554 has done this with virtually no discussion. We can argue about gun control… but when the safety of our most vulnerable neighbors is compromised as a byproduct, only dangerous abusers benefit.
-Nicholas Kristof, New York Times editorial headline, January 12, 2011
“In the US we have more federal regulations over toy guns than real ones”
-Senator Cory Booker, tweeted May 7, 2019
“Everyone knows that teddy bears aren’t as dangerous as firearms. But these classic toys have to satisfy a wide range of safety standards before they make their way into a store, much less a child’s hands. Guns, on the other hand, face few such requirements.”
-Patrick Coffee, Adweek, March 31, 2017
Too many such false generalizations and emotional platitudes dominate firearm debates. It’s absurd, of course, as guns in the US are highly controlled, far beyond most consumer products. Particularly frustrating is how capricious and arbitrary many gun regulations are. For one, the difference between a rifle and pistol is defined by barrel length. Anything over sixteen inches is a rifle. Anything under that is technically a pistol, unless it has a stock for shouldering which makes it a short barreled rifle (SBR). An SBR requires registration, more background checks and additional taxation. This becomes more bizarre upon observing that barrels on US military standard issue M4 carbines are 14.5 inches, making semi-auto civilian versions without stocks technically handguns.
Even more obtuse is that SBRs are supposedly regulated out of fear that short rifles represent a special hazard as concealable for use in crime. This dates from the National Firearms Act of 1934, a legislative backlash against prohibition fueled violence during the ‘20s, sensationalized by gangsters wielding legal, full-auto Tommy guns. But much changed between then and now. Rifles with folding stocks or bullpup designs were unusual in the early 20th century, but later became much more common. Yet as long as their barrel remained over 16 inches, or entire length over 26 inches, no NFA violation occurred.
Such rifles were untypical among criminals, therefore, no reason was seen to close any alleged “bullpup or folding stock loophole” in the NFA. Gun violence in the US is essentially handgun violence. Pistols are small, easily concealed or disposed if needed, and because most armed exchanges involve only a few shots at very close range, best suited for most illegal endeavors.*
Now, the particular design of an M4, just like its more famous relations, the AR-15/M-16, involves a buffer tube that extends behind the hand grip, much like a rudimentary stock itself. Many shooters over the years saved time and money by simply buying short barreled AR pistols and bracing against the buffer tubes for steadiness while firing. Others used slings for the same purpose with stockless AK or other large pistol variations.
Eventually, a creative Iraq war veteran noticed some disabled vets, who formerly enjoyed sport shooting, might continue if a way existed to strap pistol carbine variants around their forearms. He began modifying the AR platform, which most obviously lent itself toward the effort, as it’s buffer tube already formed an anchor point. In 2013, a company named SB Tactical began producing arm braces for this purpose, with a letter from the ATF certifying them as legal pistol attachments. These became very popular, not only among disabled persons, but anyone who appreciated better controlability. Beside the benefit created using these braces as advertised, it soon became obvious they made shouldering possible. Internet gun culture quickly filled up with articles and videos discussing the potential legality of this practice, and cautioning against posting photos with pistols unstrapped and shouldered, lest regulators find an excuse to ban the devices.
For a couple years, braced pistols flew under the mainstream radar. I regularly read anti-gun newsletters and only once or twice saw brief mention. The apparent absence of these pistols (or even proper SBRs with stocks) among violent incidents weakened arguments for greater restriction, so in an odd unspoken truce, both gun control groups and shooting enthusiasts largely kept silent about braces, though for quite different reasons.
Eventually, as more manufacturers began selling braces, the original intent became muddied. From any observers standpoint, it was obvious SB Tactical’s brace was built to be strapped around the users forearm. By contrast, the later Shockwave brace looked more like an actual stock and didn’t even come with straps, though featuring slots they could fit through. The question of what made stocks and braces different revolved more around length of pull than anything else. This refers to the measure between a trigger and the end of a rifle stock, under the idea that a short brace is uncomfortable to shoulder, clearly making it a byproduct of design, not the primary intent. However, every person is different and while someone with long arms might find shouldering a brace problematic, smaller framed individuals could do so with ease.
As more braces became available, the ATF received increased queries for clarification. It’s understandable why companies desired individual affirmation, as nobody wants a product that is legal one day and a felony the next. In 2015, what many gun owners feared finally happened. A new ruling came out stating that shouldering braces transformed them into an unauthorized SBR. For two years, this firearms accessory actually made people criminals the instant they assumed a particular stance holding it. Then, in 2017 a reversal was issued maintaining braces were legal, no matter how an individual used them.
It took until 2019 before any notable crime involved a braced pistol, the Dayton, Ohio mass shooting which killed nine victims. This tragedy illustrates why cracking down on pistol braces makes little sense. The supposed reason SBRs were originally so heavily regulated is that smaller rifles are somewhat concealable. However, as decades of criminal activity demonstrate, rifles simply aren’t part of most gun violence, no matter their size. In this instance, concealment wasn’t even attempted. The perpetrator suited up with tactical gear from his vehicle before rushing across a parking lot and opening fire on a crowd. While the brace made his 10.5 inch barrel AR style pistol easier to handle, the increased velocity provided by a 16 inch rifle barrel would have actually been deadlier and a proper stock made it even more controllable. It’s obviously small consolation to survivors, but the fact a braced pistol was used likely prevented increased casualties.
This horrifying event was almost precisely replicated in March of 2021 during the Boulder, Colorado shooting which took ten lives. Again, a 10.5 inch AR style pistol wasn’t concealed by the shooter who wore blatant tactical gear and opened fire across a parking lot. Just as before, a more orthodox rifle would have only raised the body count. However, this took place following the 2020 elections which put Democrats in political majorities and after four years of Trump’s cozy relationship with the NRA, anti-gun supporters were hungry for anything, no matter how symbolic.
Therefore, the fact pistol braces wafted for years amidst a regulatory grey area suddenly became brandished as if they formed significant aspects of mass shootings. Just as Trump banned bump stocks with a simple executive action, President Biden could do the same, and while courts might eventually strike it down, a short term win would be achieved. That’s why anti-gun activists rejoiced when Biden asked the ATF to once more clarify if pistol braces create SBR rifles, with a statement that they “can make a firearm more stable and accurate, while still being concealable.” All this despite the estimated 3-4 million braced pistols already sold, yet which appear in few crimes and none known where concealability played a role.
What’s truly heartbreaking is America actually suffers from significant social violence. Structural racism. The failed war on drugs. Domestic assaults. Rising fascist movements with alarming support inside the police and military. Even within firearm related statistics, the overwhelming majority of deaths are suicides. None of these issues even slightly involve the the tedious minutia regarding how many quarter inches differentiate a brace from a stock.
Banning braces simply means widespread illegal materials abruptly in circulation, more opportunity for biased law enforcement ruining lives, and while many urban liberals likely envision White rural rednecks being persecuted, the reality is always more prisoners of color locked away. Democrats still have time to veer away from squandering political capital in a post-Trump era where real change is possible, not on pointless distraction from real problems.
*The actual number of shots fired during armed encounters is very difficult to determine. Police reports are typically unhelpful and so most estimations are based on anecdotal evidence. However, these tend to agree on the basic elements: that such exchanges are brief, close and with only a few shots fired. In my own experience of interviewing many persons who used firearms for self defense over the years, this bears up, except that in every time related, the mere presence of a gun was sufficient to defuse situations nonviolently.
“You’re family men, decent enough people. But you’ve got a lot of frustration and hate in you, so you get together and do things that make you feel big and brave, only they aren’t so big and they aren’t so brave when you stop to think about it . . . you’re all sort of ashamed and nobody looks much like a brave hero . . . You men are guilty of murdering your own souls… what’s decent and good in you!”
-Grey Matson aka Doctor Sixgun, addressing a mob of nightriders
One doesn’t usually think of old time Western radio dramas as a resource for positive social awareness. These epics were traditionally tailored as nationalist mythology to assuage White guilt over genocide against native populations during the bloody conquest of North America. So it’s particularly interesting a vein of the genre, known as “adult Westerns” took a highly complex approach that stood apart from the more common “black hat / white hat” cowboy narratives that portrayed settlers and European colonialism optimistically, while glossing over their human cost.
The most successful of these was surely Gunsmoke, which aired on radio stations from 1952-62 and also in a popular television version until 1975. Yet another lesser known drama from that era remains well worth examining. This show, called Doctor Sixgun, lasted only a single season from 1954-55 and informed listeners through an intro that it’s protagonist was a “symbol of justice and mercy” perhaps warning away Western fans who preferred more macho gunplay and less introspection.
It followed the exploits of a frontier physician named Grey Matson (played by Karl Weber) known to locals as Doctor Sixgun, yet famed for solving problems through wit and compassion more often than his revolver. While falling for occasional problematic ethnic stereotypes, it’s remarkable how well the storylines hold up. Throughout multiple episodes, Dr. Matson presents sympathetic perspectives regarding nearby Indian tribes without sugarcoating the actions of White townspeople and military officers attempting to exploit or murder them.
During one especially wrenching episode, ”Atonement for Cowardice” (November 7, 1954) Dr. Matson intervened after an elderly alcoholic continually degraded himself in public for liquor. However, the man refused any assistance, choosing instead to wear a dog collar and entertain local roughnecks who kept whisky flowing in return. It concluded with the man’s death, but not before letting him share the tragic story he claims caused his condition, lending a final tone of dignity instead of mockery.
Most notable in today’s political environment is “The Immigrant Settler” (October 21, 1954). It began with an introduction from Dr. Matson’s frequent companion, a Romani peddler named Pablo, who declared: “There was the time when my good friend, Doctor Sixgun, had to cure an epidemic, a strange disease which infects men whose heart is filled with hatred.”
The first indication of this epidemic came when a crowd of masked men called “nightriders” assaulted the homestead of an immigrant family, in obvious allusion to the Ku Klux Klan, who were often known by the same term. Significantly, earlier in 1954, Brown v. Board of Education struck down school segregation and brought about a major moment in the American Civil Rights struggle, alongside escalating Klan related political violence against it. Most Doctor Sixgun radio listeners would have immediately made the association with current events.
It’s important to note, while the KKK has since become synonymous with racist lynchings, bombings and other brutalities, this episode aired long before some of their most notorious acts. The 16th St. Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, for example, wasn’t until 1963. It’s possible many White people tuning in would have only associated the KKK with it’s much more socially acceptable incarnation earlier in the 20th century when politicians openly posed for photo ops with hooded Klansmen and President Wilson lauded D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, which celebrated them. In other words, painting the KKK as villains in a popular radio script that year was hardly easy virtue signaling.
What’s also interesting is the attacked family were Norwegian immigrants. Many today forget that the concept of White supremacy only recently evolved into an idealization of pan-European culture, often fixated upon Nordic peoples as pinnacles of racial purity. Years before, a strict hierarchy existed in the pseudo-science, which regarded Southern and Eastern Europeans as quite inferior, including the Irish and other western Celts. Scandinavians were sometimes singled out for persecution in America because so many of them became involved with union organizing.
Once Dr. Matson discovered members of his community were being terrorized, he approached the local sheriff, who suddenly showed little enthusiasm for law enforcement, stating: “I’m against this night ridin’ as much as any man, but it’s a thing you can’t fight! For one thing they wear pillowcases… you can’t identify them! . . . the boys are just gettin’ rid of a little steam!”
The reluctant sheriff only agreed he would take action if Dr. Matson could round up a posse of ten or fifteen men. Unfortunately, this attempt at playing Abraham to save the city of Sodom failed. Everyone Matson attempted recruiting either feared the vigilantes, or secretly counted among their ranks. However, his investigation did turn up one woman who informed on her deceitful husband and revealed their next target was Pablo.
Together, Dr. Matson and Pablo concocted a scheme that caught nine of the nightriders, including their ringleader, a leading sheriff’s deputy who immediately fled town. The remaining men were subjected to a tongue lashing from Matson who passionately decried their inhumanity, leaving them publicly unmasked and ashamed. Pablo then generously declined pressing charges, observing: “…they have harmed themselves enough.”
The whole story, despite being set one-hundred and fifty years in the past and broadcast almost seventy years ago, resonates deeply today. Waves of recent xenophobia would have saddened, but not shocked Doctor Sixgun. He spotlighted how common prejudices among ordinary people can be mobilized into violence, especially when law enforcement is actively complicit, like the guilty deputy- or simply looks away as the weak-willed sheriff preferred. There remains no simple vaccine against this epidemic, which still runs strong, turning infected hearts toward hatred and making immigrants targets. We can learn much from a well-intentioned physician who countered its spread, at least in his part of the West on old time radio waves.
Most political observers would agree that the relationship between American presidents and the truth is often a tenuous bond. Now ex-president Trump carried on that inglorious tradition, but remains remarkable in that his lies were obvious, habitual and frequently tied with discredited conspiracy theories. Now that his term as chief-executive against facts has concluded, the conditions which made it possible— still only faint scribbles against the zeitgeist bathroom wall, deserves deeper scrutiny. A more substantive research effort would surely uncover deeper roots, yet in my own life, one particular happening stuck out.
As someone who came of age politically during the mid ‘90s anti-globalization movement, political divisions seemed fairly clear cut. Leftists demanded corporate accountability and called for regulations on international business alignments. Conservatives advocated free trade and less oversight of companies, plus strongly supported government crackdowns against protesters. This continued through the early 2000s as pro vs. anti-war factions split predictably as well.
It wasn’t until early 2010 that I noticed a shift. The first glimpse took place around mid February that year when a fellow named Phil Schrader in New York contacted me regarding my old ‘zine American Gun Culture Report. We talked on the phone for almost an hour and he described having recently inherited some money and subsequently founded a newspaper called The Sovereign. Phil described it broadly as influenced by anti-authoritarian subculture, yet his political analysis wasn’t the most sophisticated. He came across like a lot of older punk rockers who loved Dead Kennedys and Black Flag back in the day but now get cranky if a friend’s gender pronoun changes.
Still, Phil talked excitedly about using his paper to rally Americans against neo-conservatism and foreign wars and I came away from our conversation feeling like his heart was in the right place. I agreed to write an article for The Sovereign plus trade him ad space. Nothing particularly unusual, as I often made similar exchanges between others in the ‘zine community.
I promptly composed a piece called “The Good News About Self Defense” and sent it off. Some time later, my first copy arrived in the mail. It took several moments to fully grasp the absurdity. Instead of pithy, punk inspired political rants, The Sovereign presented Trump-era conspiracy culture six years early. The cover bore an illustration of then-President Obama transforming into a reptilian creature and every article warned against military-nanobots, chemtrails or sinister plans to devalue the dollar. They nearly all bore bylines from sci-fi movie characters, clearly dashed off by a single author, perhaps Phil himself. Randomly interspersed between paragraphs were underground record album covers. I came away from the whole experience alternately cringing and chortling.
Over the next several months, more issues showed up, all containing the same peculiar blend of articles and cartoons juxtaposing sexual imagery and profanity against appeals for Christian values. Warnings about “Liberalism” meshed with condemnations of the banking industry. Advertisements pitched natural health remedies or resources toward becoming a sovereign citizen. One recurring blurb promoted an openly fascist group seeking members. My PO box soon filled up with letters from prisoners, who apparently formed a significant readership, requesting free copies of AGCR after noticing my article and ads.
I soon lost track of this odd project but now, looking back via internet trails, it went out of business in 2017, then under a new publisher named Donald Meserlian who died later that same year. The Sovereign’s official Facebook page claimed he owed people thousands of dollars and had violated contributors copyright agreements. It’s unclear if Phil Schrader was even involved by that point. Appropriately enough, Meserlian came from the 9/11 truther movement and once made news after being taken to court for threatening New Jersey police officers who wouldn’t launch an investigation into the World Trade Towers collapsing.
Back in 2010, characters like Schrader and Meserlian who sold fringe conspiracy theories seemed laughable, even harmless entertainers. But in retrospect, The Sovereign represented a warning of things to come. Seven years later, Q-anon hysterics, anti-vaxxers and COVID deniers have accumulated a body count and people who profited off such delusions are more complicit than the rest. Trump may be out of power, but injecting presidential endorsement into an industry spreading toxic delusions bore a cost we will all be paying back for a long time.
I began publishing my ‘zine, American Gun Culture Report, in 2005 to counter harmful firearms media narratives. These pervaded mainstream publications like Guns & Ammo or American Rifleman, where virtually every article was written by a white man from a right-wing political perspective. Fifteen years later, the old magazines have gone digital and their dominance is challenged by thousands of smaller weblogs, internet sites and video channels. However, it’s only a competition over advertising dollars. Firearms media remains overwhelmingly populated by white men placed along a regressive spectrum from simply conservative to outright fascist. If anything, diversity of opinion is shrinking and tolerance for others embracing the 2nd Amendment sadly diminished.
My past relationship with American gun culture figures was generally affable. Shortly before his 2006 death, I corresponded with Jeff Cooper, the developer of modern pistol shooting techniques, (and major right wing icon) who offered warm congratulations on my writing project.* In 2008 I confronted American Handgunner editor Roy Huntington, after his magazine seemingly endorsed anti-gay prejudice and he cordially wrote back, disavowing any accidental intolerance.** Then in 2010 I organized a fundraising event for the Oregon Firearms Federation with all leftist and other non-traditional gun clubs in the Portland area contributing. OFF director Kevin Starrett cheerfully accepted our cash and made a speech, stating that the 2nd Amendment was for everyone, no matter their identity or political stance.
Those days are long gone. Instead of conservatives pleased by others simultaneously accepting the twin gospels of John Browning and John Brown, it now only takes casual mention on the internet that I’m a leftist who teaches gun safety before death threats come along. Here in Oregon, Kevin Starrett currently spends time absurdly bemoaning public health measures amidst a pandemic that has killed over ¼ million Americans. In such abysmal times, it’s truly joyful when something better comes along.
Tacticool Girlfriend is definitely something better. Piercing through gun culture saturated by opinionated white men, she’s a leftist of color whose internet channel presents firearms advice suitable for beginners, yet more advanced viewers will still pick up valuable information. For instance, often neglected subjects like safety habits, first aid kits and hazardous lead contamination receive welcome attention. For a new voice where it’s most needed, check out her youtube and feel free to pick up TCGF gear as well.
RE: Is there anything particular that sparked the TCGF project?
TCGF: Honestly, I had been hoping to see something like this manifest for years. Everyone around me was constantly bemoaning mainstream gun culture and agreeing that we needed more diverse, alternative voices from our own communities within this realm. I certainly was one of those people and eventually got tired of asking and just decided to take it on myself. I’m really hoping to offer a refreshing, unique perspective that is more welcoming and not nearly as alienating as the majority of the monoculture around firearms tends to be. I have a strong stomach for it, but I’ve realized throughout the years how many people around me were holding back from getting into shooting because they were so repulsed by the paradigm around it. I’m really hoping to see that change.
RE: What’s your firearms background ? Is it something you grew up with or learned about later?
TCGF: I grew up in a home that was fairly anti-gun. The most I ever shot was an airgun in my childhood. It wasn’t until my late teens that I actually ended up getting into airsoft with some friends of mine, but I wasn’t terribly interested in the real thing yet. Eventually, those friends gifted me my first rifle – probably the same for a lot of people, a 91/30 Mosin-Nagant. I’ve always been an avid amateur historian and at this time, it was a perfect entry point to pique my interest in historical firearms. I would eventually snag a Tokarev TT-33 as well. It wasn’t until 2016, however, that I started to get into more contemporary firearms and look at them from a more practical, defensive standpoint.
RE: When studying the past, what events or epochs do you find most fascinating?
TCGF: It’s cliche, but I’ve spent a lot of time studying World War II. Beyond that, I really find the turn of the 19th to 20th century as well as the 1960s both very fascinating pivotal times across the world in general. Almost no matter where you look, things were evolving quite rapidly during those years, culturally and politically, often in tumultuous and unpredictable ways.
RE: Your videos are generally apolitical, though we live in an era where simply wearing masks implies taking a stance. Is it important for you to keep politics on the periphery?
TCGF: While I do have very specific political views, I want to make my channels as accessible and factual as possible. I could have taken a more specific BreadTube approach to appealing to a particular base, but I’m hoping to keep things more technical than anything. Also, while this isn’t normally my approach, in this project, I am hoping to span across spheres and reach people to bring us closer together and hopefully introduce perspectives where they normally wouldn’t cross otherwise. In essence, I simultaneously want to grow a more openly diverse community and normalize that moving forward. I need to break that mold somehow.
RE: How would you describe yourself politically and in what ways does that relate to firearm issues for you?
TCGF: That’s a good question. Labels are poor substitutes for describing the actual substance of a person’s identity, beliefs, and outlook. That being said, I’d call myself an anarchist without adjectives. There’s so many schools of thought and real life applications for various forms of ideology and understanding; too many to list and some that can’t truly be put into words. I don’t like being pigeonholed so I’ll leave it at that for now.
RE: So far you’ve covered quite a variety of subjects, from specific firearms reviews to general first aid and concepts like concealed carry. What would you like to cover next?
TCGF: I want to keep going with fundamentals and concepts such as techniques and gear, down to gear reviews like my latest. I don’t want to only become a gear review channel though, there’s so much to cover and I don’t have any shortage of topics on my ever-growing list. The skill sets and hardware required for various methods of firearm usage could be covered only in large volumes of books. Right now, I think I’m going to focus more on breakdowns of my setups and other examples to provide folks with a comprehensive base to build their own.
RE: For such a relatively brief existence, TCGF has really taken off in popularity. What factors do you see as creating that success?
TCGF: I’m really surprised just how successful it’s been so far. The audience I’m reaching is bigger than I could have ever imagined and it continues growing. I do truly think it’s because a lot of folks are relieved to finally have a source of firearms information that isn’t what they normally would be repulsed by. The base has always been there, it’s just been dormant and waiting for something like this, I think.
RE: The quality of your videos is very well done. Do you have a background in filmwork yourself or credit a talented production team?
TCGF: Thank you! I have always had a passion for photography, so I suppose that translates well into this. But I’ll be honest, I’ve never done video work until now. I’m certainly learning a lot as a result, though. It’s all been solo too, other than having friends do a little filming of me at the range for b-roll and such.
RE: Over the years I’ve enjoyed many encounters that really challenged gun culture stereotypes. Have you had notable experiences like that?
TCGF: The recent rise of people from the left arming themselves and organizing in ways that haven’t really occurred on such a scale since the 1970s is quite refreshing. We’re seeing a huge influx of people into this paradigm that normally never “belonged” in a cultural sense. Seeing clubs and groups across the country sprout up, bigger names being the SRA and JBGC, has been setting the stage for a significant shift in the status quo in this ecosystem. I think it’s allowed me to interface with people I normally wouldn’t and at least introduce visibility among people who may not otherwise come across certain people, outside poorly characterized mentions in news articles.
It’s really exciting to challenge the notion of what a gun owner looks like. Some people still have a hard time wrapping their heads around the fact that I’m actually doing what I’m doing – I get a kick out of that. Some of the responses I get on my posts on social media are especially entertaining. I’ll never forget the time that someone claimed that I have a boyfriend who let me “play with his guns” and that I had an elaborate training and filming crew, as if I couldn’t own firearms myself and run this entire channel solo, sans having a friend here and there grab some footage of me (with my camera no less) at the range.
RE: Do you have a favorite firearm, in whatever way that means to you?
TCGF: Honestly, not to be pedestrian, but I love my AR-15 more than any other gun I’ve owned. It’s boring because it’s so easy to operate and just works every time. It’s very utilitarian. I appreciate mine all the more because I assembled it myself.
RE: I really like the honeycomb pattern on it. Is that using spray paint and fishnets or from a higher end process?
TCGF: That was just a pattern created by using a laundry basket net mesh as a stencil with the spray paint.
RE: You described your upbringing as fairly anti-gun. Is that still a sensitive family topic or something you’ve had success getting past?
The topic certainly creates some tension among my parents, namely my father. He grew up in and fled a country devastated by war. I can’t blame him in the slightest for having such a negative association with firearms. He’s more than entitled to his disgust for them (especially from a political perspective when it comes to how he relates that to the arms industry) and I absolutely sympathize with that. We simply agree to disagree and get along just fine with that.
RE: If money and access was no object, what firearm or weapon would you like to review?
TCGF: Probably something full auto, like an MG3 no doubt.
(Above) If you have one of these, TCGF would like to borrow it.
* I initially sent Cooper a letter listing many of his most notorious stances over the years, from supporting South Africa’s apartheid regime, other fascist governments and making various racist statements. He exhibited zero remorse but seemed to appreciate being challenged. Cooper doubted that leftist gun culture existed, let alone any worth writing about, but urged me to “carry on” and said he found our discussion “stimulating.” 5/11/2005
Elise Letizia uses she/her pronouns, lives in New Hampshire and runs an internet project called The Liberal Hunting Enthusiast which exists on Instagram, WordPress and Youtube. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. All photos used with permission from her IG account.
Ross: How long have you been a hunter and what sparked that?
Elise: Two years ago my dog caught and killed a rabbit in our yard. I was going to compost it (since I worked for a commercial composting company that could handle meat and bones) but instead decided to utilize the meat, so I skinned and cleaned it and made a delicious rabbit stew. This was the experience that connected my theoretical interest in hunting to a tangible one.
Ross: What sort of raining or education have you undertaken?
Elise: My husband and I took an online hunter education with an in-person field day last April and obtained our New Hampshire licenses after that. We did a mentored grouse hunt in October as well as a deer hunt with a friend. Both hunts were amazing but we did not harvest an animal. I went out over the winter for a small game season (snowshoe hare and squirrel) with still no harvest. We’re participating in spring turkey and haven’t harvested anything yet, but love the experience and learning curve!
Ross: Is this related to other sporting pursuits?
Elise: I have always been an outdoor enthusiast with a love for nature and the environment. I studied natural resources at an agricultural high school and have been passionate about sustainability since then, including our food sources (in regards to both animal protein and produce). I took the NH Natural Resources Stewardship program in 2015 and one of the classes was about hunting and the North American Model of Conservation. I was amazed to learn about the history of hunting and trapping in the US and about how the current model is sustainable for both game and non-game species conservation. I love the idea of conservation through ethical consumption, and fully believe that supplementing my diet with hunting, fishing, foraging is the most sustainable way to source food, especially living in a rural area.
Ross: What do you feel are the biggest misconceptions about hunters?
Elise: One is that hunters just want to shoot an animal. I have never met a hunter that thought like that, and in fact, in my experience hunters are very concerned with the ethics of harvesting an animal for food. I think there is a stereotype of hunters being a certain demographic and while historically true, there are more women, people of color, LGBTQ folks, and Liberal/Left people getting into hunting and firearm ownership! That is exciting, I am passionate about making these practices widely available and accessible to all people.
Ross: Were you a gun owner before becoming a hunter? Would you still have firearms if not for that purpose?
Elise: My husband bought a rifle before we were into hunting with the intent to use for hunting and home defense. I was less than thrilled, but over time going to the range, I became interested in shooting sports. Then, when I wanted to start hunting I got a Ruger 10/22 for small game like squirrels and rabbits. I now own a 20 gauge Mossberg 500 for turkey, upland bird, and small game. I also have Glock 48 that I carry with me when hunting or hiking alone. I think now, with the understanding of firearms I have gained, I would still own firearms even if I did not hunt.
Ross: Do you use the term Liberal as your political identification in a general sense? Is there anything on the Left spectrum that you resonate with more specifically?
Elise: I do use this term in a very general sense. Liberalism: being open to new behaviors or opinions, a willingness to discard regressive traditional values and embracing education for broadening a person’s knowledge. Liberals typically believe that government is necessary to protect individuals from being harmed by others, but they also recognize that government itself can pose a threat to liberty. I am definitely Left-leaning in regards to social betterment and individual civil rights/liberties, and actually see the 2nd Amendment as a part of this – something that directly supports these views.
Ross: Many Liberals I’ve known considered hunting unethical. How would you respond to their concerns?
Elise: I love and respect animals, and was a vegetarian for several years, although my friends will tell you I was the worst vegetarian, frequently eating meat when local and sustainable options were available – for me, my body just feels better when I have some animal protein. I was definitely on board with the idea of hunting but wasn’t sure I could handle the complexity of caring about animals and also hunting them for food. I think this paradox is part of what keeps me interested, it’s a challenging practice – one that is almost spiritual for me (as an eclectic agnostic).
Ross: Does the Democratic Party resonate with you?
Elise: I no longer identify as a Democrat (for many reasons, mostly that partisan politics and the assumption that one will blindly accept a specific stance on any given issue) and think of myself as an independent and even a moderate who is willing to work toward common ground and better dialogue involving difficult issues. I am always trying to entertain new perspectives with the goal toward understanding and empathy, not necessarily agreement. I feel most strongly about the equity of all peoples, such as LGBTQ rights and achieving racial justice.
Ross: What led you to start this project and what are your goals with it?
Elise: I wanted to give my Left-leaning friends and family a unique perspective on hunting and firearm ownership, a lived experience not often portrayed by mainstream media (usually there is a very negative stereotype around gun ownership and hunting). My goals are simply to provide that perspective in hopes that it can cultivate understanding for these subjects.
Ross: Have you gotten any pushback? If so, is it more from anti-hunting folks or Right-wingers who don’t want Liberals taking away their issues?
Elise: Actually, I have received very little pushback. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many Left-leaning folks are open-minded to what I have to say (possibly because most of my current followers know me personally). There have been a few that simply don’t want to entertain this perspective, perhaps it complicated their own belief system and challenges them in a way they aren’t ready or willing to deal with – and that is okay, too. Most of my Conservative followers are supportive since my experience tends to shed a more positive light on them than mainstream media, and the gun community and hunting community are far more welcoming and accepting than I ever would have imagined. Of course, there are always outliers – I’ve been called a “snowflake” a time or two, it can sting at first but I remind myself that snowflakes are beautiful and unique and try to take it as a compliment.
Ross: Are you involved with any groups related to hunting or shooting?
(above) Seattle women during the 1918 flu outbreak
One might expect that the Covid-19 pandemic has nothing to do with US gun culture. After all, this is a war being fought at the viral level, with scientists struggling to develop a vaccine and essential workers as exposed front line troops while others remain under quarantine to slow the spread. But this is still America, where the 2nd Amendment creeps through any door left even slightly ajar.
Massive job layoffs highlight every divide across society and because this catastrophe has pushed the domestic unemployment rate over 14%, here’s an economic confession: I’m a commercial fisherman who often spends months in the Gulf of Alaska and currently works for the facilities department of a housing nonprofit. As long as appliances break, plumbing leaks and electrical systems fail, I’ll be repairing them. Of course, exposure to building residents puts my household at greater risk. The cruel reality is, many desperate people I know from affected industries would happily trade places to gamble their lives (plus those of loved ones) against paying rent and bills.
Therefore, I’m fortunate my paycheck hasn’t decreased as so many others desperately hope unemployment benefits will kick in while strained food banks now supply their families. It’s easy for tech sector employees and upper class professionals to work from home and stay safe, yet entire less fortunate industries have completely vanished. No surprise many among the laid-off lower class resonate with Right-wing agitators calling the epidemic a hoax or spreading other dangerous conspiracy theories.
It’s a convenient shift in reality for White Nationalist and other fascist groups who have surged since the 2016 election. Their xenophobic aims translate neatly into a world increasingly unfriendly toward outsiders, exemplified by President Trump ignoring accepted science based terms in favor of “Chinese virus” amidst a flurry of racist attacks targeting Asians. Right-wing rallies now call for ending stay-at-home orders, where marchers demand they be allowed haircuts in salons and venues be opened once again. Feigned concerns about disease transmission provides an easy smokescreen for anti-immigration measures that long predated Covid-19.
(above) 1919 ad from the San Francisco Chronicle
This is far from an unprecedented phenomenon. During the 1918 global flu pandemic, some Americans formed an Anti-Mask League, held large protest meetings and a bomb was even intercepted en route to a leading public health official. But support for protecting communities also ran strong. Fines were handed down against individuals who flouted mask ordinances and those who refused to pay or resisted found themselves arrested. In one instance, a San Francisco health officer shot and wounded three people after being assaulted while performing his job. Conversely, in today’s climate, several people have been attacked for either wearing masks themselves or simply requesting others do so. One store employee was apparently murdered after asking a patron to comply with company mask policy.
(above) from the San Francisco Chronicle in 1918. Let’s bring back “mask slacker.”
In the vein of so many recent Right-wing actions, anti-lockdown protesters now often bring rifles and publicly parade around wearing tactical gear. It must be unsettling to spend so much time and money in preparation for battling sinister forces, but instead find themselves facing overworked nurses and doctors. These medical professionals were generally unarmed, though at least one nurse stood up against the masses endangering her community with a holstered pistol on display.
(above) Arizona protesters vs. nurses
It’s all far removed from apocalypse scenarios long fantasized about in media and literature. Crafters fabricating masks on sewing machines out of scrap material to supply their co-workers aren’t obvious heroes for those who expected such roles would be played out by patriotic men with AR-15’s. One Right-wing figure I follow on the internet openly bemoaned his sorrow that the end days had seemingly arrived but without zombies or terrorists for him to shoot. I’m glad my original firearms training came from Leftists who taught me that guns form an important part of the activist tool box… but not the only one. Instead of flaunting firepower, my neighborhood quarantine actions have involved less sensational tasks such as building community relationships and sharing frozen fish from last summer’s catch.
(above) armed protesters outside the Michigan capitol building
However, such productive activities are less displayed in some quarters. On the most overtly militant front, armed protesters invaded the Michigan state capitol building, threatening lawmakers and waving anti-quarantine signs. It seemed they had taken a page from Black Panther tactics over fifty years before. The important difference being, when Black activists did the same thing in California to protest state sanctioned terrorism against their communities, political forces (including the NRA and then-Governor Ronald Reagan) immediately pushed through tighter gun control legislation. Less reported, was that following the Michigan occupations, one Black state Democratic representative refused to be intimidated and showed up at work surrounded by supportive citizens carrying rifles.
Still, the big picture remains grim for communities of color. Not only are infection rates higher because of greater job exposure and lower quality medical care, but law enforcement crackdown bias as well. The divide is especially obvious in hot spots like New York where likely well over 20,000 people have died. Under such drastic conditions, quarantine measures are especially serious and face covering remains mandatory. Yet cops in White communities have responded to lawbreakers by handing out free masks. The same activity in Black parts of town saw violators met with no such charity and at least one incident of police violence.
The pandemic has also proven useful to gun control groups, who always find images of militia types effective fundraising tools and aren’t above distorting a medical crisis to push their agenda. For example, in late April the Brady organization sent out an email decrying how some firearm retailers had adopted a drive-through model, claiming “guns should not be sold like fast food” and that this allowed “the quick, curbside pick-up of guns.” Of course, they didn’t mention that federal background checks still apply and while individuals might pick out a shiny new revolver while cruising by, they couldn’t take it home any sooner. The reality is, massive increases in purchases have caused delays making guns slower to own than ever before. One friend of mine recently bought his first pistol and took most of a week before being approved. Historically, a more typical wait in Portland is 10-20 minutes.
Covid-19 has highlighted social problems that long existed and simply amplified them. Police brutality, emboldened fascist activity, the growing wealth divide and skewed access to health care. None of these grim realities should be new information. Yet perhaps the most saddening element on display is how many Americans feel even the simple act of wearing a mask to be overly burdensome. President Trump and his staff refuse, even after outbreaks affecting the highest levels of government. On any list of sacrifices, this surely requires the least effort. Their symbolic value carries great weight, besides helping reduce the spread of disease.
Like the armed nurse who donned her mask while facing down anti-quarantine protesters, we can be prepared on multiple fronts and take a stand against harmful ignorance. Jobs come back and money can be earned again but lost human lives are gone forever. So wear masks with pride, demonstrating that some folks still care about making the world beyond themselves a better place. It’s a more necessary idea than ever.
Several years ago German Sport Guns, most well known for producing .22 caliber incarnations of iconic firearms, released a 9mm semi-auto version of the MP-40, probably the most recognizable sub-machine gun from WWII. The first available cost around $650 and received terrible reviews. Probably worse than any I’ve seen before. Videos showed the bolt handle flying off, rear sight loose, a terrible trigger, magazines falling out, repeated failures to feed and more. I immediately put the thought of taking such a risk far from my mind. Three years passed and suddenly an ad showed up in my email. It was the prodigal GSG MP-40, only now priced at $477. I checked the internet and discovered new reviewers reported the gun performing quite well. It seemed GSG had gotten their act together.
So I ordered one. When it showed up, the sheer weight felt impressive, yet improvements were definitely required. The charging handle was slender and secured by a weak spring inside the bolt but that proved easy to switch out with a thicker one and more robust spring combination. Likewise the trigger bar took only a few minutes to replace with an improved version. The rear sight seemed solid, with a flip up notch for longer range. It also came with several front sights which are easy to slip in place after removing the barrel nut. Original MP-40s used an under folding metal stock, available now as an extra for those who don’t mind the trouble of a tax stamp. I preferred a side folding SB Tactical brace which is much cheaper, avoids paperwork and aesthetically fits the style.
I headed out to the woods for a range day, with an Evo Scorpion and PSA AKV as sub-gun comparisons. For my first test, I threw in a magazine of FMJ rounds, expecting it might need a break in period. Instead, each shot rattled off just fine, the trigger breaking crisply every time. I ran through three more magazines with zero problems. Surprised but pleased, I switched to a mag of Federal 115 gr. +P+ hollow points. Earlier reviews specified GSG MP-40s struggled chambering FMJ rounds and performed even worse with other varieties. Again, no issues. Next I tried the same experiment with Magtech flat-nosed 95 gr. JSP. They worked great also.
Loading up again with FMJ, I made a serious attempt to make the gun malfunction. Some folks online claimed grasping the magazine at all while firing would cause jams while others suggested holding the extended magwell gently might not. I tried both ways, even gripping the magazine quite hard, yet nothing went awry. I shot it upside down, sideways, slow and rapid fire. The magazines are listed for 25 round capacity, while wartime originals held 32, but I squeezed in 28 several times. No matter what, the MP-40 cycled and went bang every time. All told, we burned through about 350 rounds without a single failure. Not the most exhaustive test, but for the subject of so many dismal experiences several years ago, quite an improvement.
Accuracy was impressive. My partner and I fired casually at cans from about 40 yards and made hits easily. She appreciated how the long forward mass kept it steady in her hands. I definitely agreed. If any contrast appeared between the other guns, it highlighted the advantage that heft ads for follow up shots. My Scorpion is a pure delight, but definitely bounces a bit from recoil. Same with the AKV, though less pronounced, as it has a solid steel fore grip. No such movement from the MP-40. It’s weight could grow annoying slung over your shoulder, but makes double taps feel like it’s tank mounted.
One other interesting aspect are the magazines. The MP-40 came with a plastic loader which I immediately tossed aside, priding myself on always filling mags without such contrivances. Yet, these magazines defeated me. Their follower cants forward in such a way that it binds unless something narrow pushes it straight down between the feed lips, letting cartridges slide into place. I’m sure some other method could be found in a pinch, but the loader does make it easier. I’m unsure why earlier reviewers had trouble with magazines dropping out accidentally. Mine all locked solidly into place, though sometimes requiring an extra slap underneath when inserted on the closed bolt. They slid out easily with a touch of the release button.
Takedown is somewhat annoying. A screwdriver or stout fingernail removes a tiny c-clip allowing the retaining bolt to be hammered out with a punch or dowel. Odds are good that pesky clip will escape forever someday. Before that happens, I plan on replacing the retaining bolt with one I can simply secure with a nut. To make it look more authentic and aid in field stripping, I cut the upper housing with an angle grinder. That makes it unnecessary to remove the charging handle, which is now spring-loaded solidly in place anyway. I’ve read others have chosen to weld it but for now, that seems like overkill.
The safety requires special mention. It’s a 360 degree spinning dial mounted under the receiver just behind the mag well. An arrow points forward for FIRE and crosswise for SAFE, assuming you have time to flip it upside down and check. I used red fingernail polish to highlight the F side and left it black for S which at least allows visual inspection from the side. Still, it’s a pretty questionable system. In times of urgent combat stress, unslinging the MP-40 and verifying its status seems dubious. I’d be curious to know what the WWII German manual of arms suggested regarding that. The best method could potentially be three main conditions.
Option A requires remaining on SAFE while carried at low ready, a round chambered, and one hand below the receiver with support fingers resting on the dial. If enemy contact initiates, one click either way and you’re good to go. Option B would keep the safety on FIRE, with the chamber empty and bolt notched open. Under ordinary circumstances, the MP-40 could be slung that way, yet brought into action quickly by slapping the cocking lever home. Not very stealthy, but potentially less awkward than a haphazard spin of the roulette wheel searching for FIRE in an emergency. Option C is for storage or other low risk circumstances and simply leaves the gun on SAFE with its bold closed and chamber empty.
(above) Partisans with captured MP-40s
The final issue is political. It’s a cop out to simply buy a weapon so heavily tied to Nazism and think no explanations are in order. We live in a time of increasingly violent xenophobia where misguided individuals embrace trappings of fascism while dismissing any scrutiny as unwarranted. I appreciate firearms no matter their origin and have accumulated a variety for training and community defense, but recognize the need to differentiate my MP-40 from others keeping it as a totalitarian fetish. Therefore, I decided to customize the gun in tribute to WWII European partisans who fought bravely against high odds with captured weapons.
At first, painting the silhouette of a hydra on the MP-40 seemed appropriate, because German anti-insurgency medals from the period depicted a spear piercing this mythical multi-headed beast. Still, a rather obscure reference. It ultimately made more sense to use the well known Iron Front anti-Fascist arrows, broadcasting my affiliation loud and clear. To accompany this aesthetic, I wanted the gun to look as if it had seen action from Italy and Yugoslavia to the Warsaw Ghetto. That entailed painting the original shiny black finish matt grey and then hitting most of the edges with sandpaper for a well worn patina. I also painted the plastic grip, brace and side panels brown before giving them similar treatment.
In the end, more range time will be required before my MP-40s status can be settled. At the moment, it remains an interesting project, significant in the development of modern weaponry, yet more than just a display piece.