Pete's random thoughts

Friday, March 21, 2008

Skinning the mink

To follow up on the mink story, I thought I'd share the process of salvaging the hide from it. Click on the links to see pictures and use your browser's back button to return here.

I had kept it in the refrigerator down here in the shop, so it was good and fresh. The first step was to prepare a mink-sized hide stretcher. Jeff only had muskrat sized stretchers, but gave me a copy of a page in an old book that showed the dimensions of what the proper sized stretcher for a mink is. Earl cut one out of the plywood from a musket crate while I ran to town on an errand.

Here it the hide stretcher, ready for action.

To remove the hide, first I used a scalpel to cut around the mink's genitals and anus, so as not to let anything yucky leak out. Then two cuts were made along the inside of either rear leg. The hide then peels off inside out as if you were removing a sweater. The tail is slit the long way and the skin peeled off of it. I cut off the rear feet at the ankle, and removed them later when I could get a better grip on the hide to pull the feet inside out.

I had clipped the little guy's tail to a metal chair that I put on the table to hang the mink at a handy working height. Here you can see it with it's hide halfway off. It isn't as messy as you'd imagine.

It takes some careful knife work, but you can remove the skin from the front legs and leave the paws and claws intact. In this picture, the hide is nearly off.

A bit of careful scalpel work, and the head is skinned out, leaving as much of the face intact as possible. I managed to save one ear and the nose. The other ear was removed by the shotgun blast.

Finally, here is the mink and the inside-out hide, neatly separated.

Notice the fat layer around the rear legs? I trimmed it off to render it down for "mink oil", the stuff that you put on your boots. It is used as a base for skin care products as well.

Interestingly, I only found 2 shotgun pellets in the thing, and a small piece of shot cup. As it turned out, he turned his head to get a better look at me just as I pulled the trigger and was killed by the blast at the muzzle more so than being hit with shot. The blast opened up the side of his head, and I found the pellets under the skin behind his front shoulder. Think of the power that is unleashed at the muzzle the next time you fire a blank at someone!

In the next post, I'll show how the hide gets stretched, scraped, and tanned.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Period-correct, documented stupidity

Hello, my name is Pete, I'm a book addict.

Lots of books here. Gotta be a thousand, no exaggeration. I'm usually in the process of reading a dozen at once, and have a good sized stack of books with bookmarks hanging out of them all over the shop, my desk, and the house. One of the books I am currently reading is "A British Soldier's Story - Roger Lamb's Narrative of the American Revolution" as edited by Don N. Hagist. It can be ordered here.

Lamb was a Redcoat from Dublin who served in North America for 8 years, was captured twice, escaped captivity twice, and was witness to events such as the capture of Ticonderoga, Crown Point, the battles of Hubbardton and Saratoga, and even the southern campaign. We can look at artifacts today and make our guesses about what they are and how they were used but there is no way for us to recapture the original thoughts and feelings. Period journals are required reading for anyone calling themselves reenactors. I'll talk about journals another time though, today I want to talk about one particular paragraph in Lamb's journal.

Here it is:

“In fighting in the woods the battalion manoeuvring and excellency of exercise were found of little value. To prime, load, fire and charge with the bayonet expeditiously were the chief points worthy of attention.

It was our custom after loading and priming, instead of ramming down cartridge, to strike the breech of the firelock to the ground, and bring it to the present and fire.

In this usage much care was necessary, lest the cartridge might remain undischarged, as sometimes happened, when, from the confusion of the moment of action, the end of the cartridge being unbitten it might not catch fire from the burnt priming.

In this way several cartridges have been discovered together in the piece unexploded, which, in the bursting of his firelock from an overcharge, could not fail to be very perilous and sometimes destructive to the soldier himself, and even some of those around him.”

I find this fascinating, as this loading style nearly mimics the way we are required to load our muskets when in the field at any reenactment. Prime, load, fire. Many, I dare say most, reenactors have never fired a ball out of their musket. Ever. That means they have no idea about how the gun really works, how it behaves under "normal" circumstances, and how to be safe with it. Some of us shoot on a regular basis, but most do not.

I have seen the exact same situation Lamb described repeated at many events in the modern day. Because people don't shoot, they don't really grasp the physics of what is going on when the pull the trigger. I've seen many people close their eyes or even turn their head away when pulling the trigger. The people who do this have no idea whether or not their gun has gone off. Sometimes, on a muggy day or in a dirty gun, you just get a flash in the pan and the main propellant charge doesn't go off. Since the "shooter" doesn't know it didn't go off, he just primes and loads again...and again...and again.

Next thing you know, there are 300, 400, 500 grains in the gun...then all of a sudden the next shot sets off the charge and the shooter finds himself sitting on his butt because the massive charge knocked him over. I saw a dude do this at Ft. William Henry last fall. The guy literally knocked himself down with the recoil. It happened a couple of years ago at a Canadian event too, the guy had 4 or 5 charges in the gun; in that case the guy managed to break the stock.

In the old days, gun barrels were made with a seam up the bottom, sometimes they would fail along the seam. Henry Knox, the bookseller turned General of RevWar fame lost a few fingers when his old worn out fowling piece blew out at the breech. Modern day muzzleloader barrels are made of seamless tubing or drilled out billet steel and have no seams to be weak points. With the exception on certain CVA inline rifles with pressed in breeches, research has not turned up a single instance of a black powder gun failing that could not be traced back to user error.

I have often made excuses for the dumb people who make mistakes with muzzleloaders because they are on the fringe of the gun world. People just don't grow up around them. I didn't. My early years of muzzleloading were very much a solo experience. If there is no one to teach the right and wrong way to load a muzzleloader, you gotta learn somehow. Anyone who is a reenacting group doesn't have any excuse because they are surrounded with folks who have been doing it a while.

The guys Lamb talks about seeing with multiple loads stuck in their muskets had even less of an excuse. The flintlock smoothbore was the current technology, all of their gun experience was with them, they were not the obscure novelties that they are today.

Simply put, they were stupid people with guns, loading them in an unsafe manner. It is interesting to note that the people who overload their muskets, attempt to use smokeless powder, short-ram the ball, shut their eyes when pulling the trigger, and take the field as a reenactor without ever actually having fired a round out of the gun are just continuing the habits of those guys who were blowing up their muskets and hurting bystanders back in 1777.

Lamb's paragraph describing the habits of not seating the ball or opening the cartridge properly actually documents stupidity. Unfortunately, we allow documented practices to be recreated at events, and stupidity is one of them.

There are ways to keep accidents from happening. The first thing that can and should be done is to require reenactors to qualify with their muskets with ball. There are a lot of guys out there who have absolutely no respect for the fact that it is a real, honest-to-God firearm in their hands. If they could see what it is capable of, perhaps they be a little more muzzle-conscious.

The drills that are used to try and look so sharp out there don't take into account the fact that sometimes flintlocks misfire. For a while there, at the Battle Road event, the powers-that-be were teaching a drill that included the tipping downward of the muzzle to spill out any unfired powder that may be in the bore. Sure it is less than authentic, but if the alternative is allowing stupid people to overload their guns and endanger themselves, the people in ranks around them, bystanders, and indeed the entire hobby of living history because they don't have the sense enough to keep track of whether or not their guns have gone off, is an authentic drill really all that important?

Guns and powder are not dangerous all by themselves, they are inanimate objects. When these things become a problem is when stupid people are allowed to handle them. At least in Lamb's day, he recognised that the danger came from the half-assed loading practices that were adopted in the field to keep up with American tactics.

In today's world, stupid people perform an unsafe act, damage themselves, the gun, and the people around them and the first response is that it is someone else's fault. It must have been the gunmaker's fault that Private Dumbass put six or seven charges in his musket and pulled the trigger, right? Maybe it was the powder manufacturer's fault, or the event organizer. It certainly couldn't have been the fault of the guy who overloaded his gun in complete disregard for accepted load standards, the manufacturer's instructions, the safety rules they were taught when they joined the unit (assuming they were taught, if not, the unit certainly shares responsibility) and just plain common sense.

I've been reenacting for nearly two decades. People would mock me if they knew the historical details I have spent time obsessing about. The authenticity I can achieve pales in comparison to the level of the guys who are willing to injure themselves and their friends by correctly reenacting period correct stupidity.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A mangled mink

Over the past few weeks, we have been having trouble with a predator killing birds. Not carrying them off to eat mind you, just killing them, drinking the blood and eating the head and neck. This is the M.O. of a weasel. A weasel can be a devastating thing to a flock of birds. It will kill one after the other until all are gone, then move on to the next farm.

So far, the death toll had been 2 chickens and 3 ducks. Needless to say I was pissed off about it. We tried a leghold trap set in a box. He ignored it. We tried a leghold trap set in such a way as to boobytrap one of the duck carcasses, all I caught in it was a very embarrassed chicken. We tried a hav-a-hart live trap. He set it off and reached in to get the bait through the mesh sides. The little bugger was outsmarting me.

Until last night.

I stayed up late to work on my book (a topic for another post, I'm very short on sleep and will try to stay on topic here) and about 11:30 last night a big ruckus made enough noise that I could hear it over the music in my headphones. I grabbed a flashlight and ran out to see what was going on. The chickens that are lined up on a roost outside my office window were angrily discussing something, and at first I thought it was just about who got to sleep where on the roost. But I had a gut feeling.

Investigating further, I looked in the tool shed that is located under the deck, and saw a dead bird. As I reached down to turn it over, it moved. I flipped it over to reveal a gash in it's neck and new the culprit was close. Since it was a fresh kill, actually in process, I knew he would be back, so I went inside to get my jacket, the 1,000,000 candlepower flashlight, and a shotgun.

As I walked out of the shed, the little monster ran in front of me, stopped, looked at me, and ran off over to the dog kennel. This was the first time I had seen it. Until then, I had only seen the aftermath and some tracks in the snow.

As I walked away from the shed, the wounded bird spazzed out as it began to lose it's muscle control, and it flopped out into the path in front of the shed. I knew that all I'd have to do to locate the predator was to locate the chicken on my return.

When I came back, he had stashed the bird under a folding table that is leaning against the rabbit shed. He lived under the shed, and was doing his best to cache his food near his house. When he saw me coming, he zipped under the pallet that serves as a self-draining work area when we butcher. I could see him between the slats of the pallet.

As I stood there pondering just blasting him right through the pallet, wondering if #4 shot retains the energy to pass through oak and still be lethal, the little monster stuck his head out to look at me!

Big mistake on his part, because I let him have it with the 12-gauge at a distance of about a foot.

Turns out it wasn't a weasel at all, but a mink. With a pretty nice pelt, except for the gaping hole in the side of the head.

It is a cool little animal, would be neat to watch doing it's thing in it's element. The problem is that "it's thing" involves voraciously killing my livestock. He would have kept going until all of the birds were gone, then taken the rabbits, and when they were gone he would have moved on to Jeff's house and his chickens.

Unfortunately, the hen, his last victim, didn't make it. I cleaned her, plucked her and she'll make a pot of chicken noodle soup later on this week. It was one of Caleigh's very tame pet hens.

Chickens come and go, so do predators. It is a small victory to blast one with a shotgun, but I'll take my victories where ever I can. It amazes me to think that such a little creature can cause so much damage to a flock. It is not even as big as a cat, and an actual weasel is even smaller than a mink!

Snapped a few pics of it. Click on the link to see them, and use your browser's "back" button to come back here.

Here is one of the whole mink, from the side. Not too graphic.

Here is one of the business end, he's got sharp teeth meant for biting his prey on the head and neck to kill them.

OK, this one is graphic. It shows the damage done at close range by a 12-gauge. I think I'll try to salvage the skull, depending on how much is damaged.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Now THAT is an egg...

It is staring to show signs of being spring. Seemed like a really long winter and I've had enough winter for one year.

One more sign of spring showed up this week. I found an egg. Two day later, I found another. Both were in the old rabbit hutch where the chickens always brood their eggs.

These are no ordinary eggs. Take a look at the whopper that Caleigh is holding here.

No, there isn't a really tired chicken out there, the big white eggs are being laid by the Sevastopol goose. I'll see how many she lays in a week, week and a half, and perhaps put them in the incubator. Sevastopols are funny looking, kinda like a sheep crossed with a goose because they are white and have curly feathers. Truth be told, they are kind of silly looking.

I don't have convenient photos of our Sevastopols, but you can learn about them here. They are kind of a rare breed.

9mm Kaboom!

We've all been sick with the flu here. Nonetheless, we are still going full-tilt at our workload. It gets crazy sometimes. Since they are still sick, Earl and Kathy have been going home a little early. This afternoon Wendy and Caleigh went off to the gym to swim. Perfect, thought I, I'll take 1/2 hour and tinker with the PPSH semi that was mentioned a few posts ago. I have a new trigger/hammer assembly for it that mimics the experimental one that we made up here in the shop.

I grabbed my earmuffs, the rifle, and a drum that still had some rounds in it from last time and headed up to the back door where I could stand out on the back stairs and touch off a few rounds without trudging through the snow. I clicked in the drum, racked the charging handle to chamber a round, took aim and fired.

I was using Winchester White Box 9mm ammo from Wal-Mart, which is the best deal on commercial 9mm around, because the earlier version of the fire control group didn't have the "oomph" needed to set off the hard primers on most military surplus stuff. The new FCG has a better designed spring, so it shouldn't be a problem.

What was a problem was that the shell wasn't loaded quite up to par. Instead of having the power to push the projectile out of the barrel and cycle the action, it just pushed the round to a little over 3/4 of the way down the barrel. The rest of the gas pressure blew the unlocked bolt rearwards and attempted to eject the empty shell. The problem is that the shell was still under pressure and blew apart into my face. I got peppered with hot gasses, burning power, and shards of brass. The receiver was damaged in the process. Pretty exciting.

Here is a picture of the shredded 9mm brass cartridge and the slug that I drove out of the barrel. These are all of the brass parts I could find. Running my fingers along my forehead, I think I found a few more. The PPSH ejects straight up, so the gasses came straight back at me.

This is why it is always a good idea to wear safety glasses and my day-to-day glasses are polycarbonate, just like safety glasses.

The good news is that the barrel is fine. The receiver will need a bit of attention, but the gun isn't a total loss. It is still in better shape than when I got it. Interestingly, as I sit and ponder this, I think if it had been a more advanced design with a locked breech, there would have been a lot more damage to the gun, probably ruining the barrel. Since the breech block/bolt is a blowback design, it just blew back under pressure. If it had a locked breech, the pressure would have had to escape somewhere and would probably bulged the barrel just behind the slug. Once the slug stopped moving, it became an obstruction.

Gotta hand it to the WW2 era Soviets, they built a robust gun!

Now if Winchester could just remember to put ALL of the powder in their shells...