A Letter From Skeeter Skelton

by Skeeter Skelton

 

Shooting Times Magazine

February 1970

 

Dear Bob:

 

Since you know my job as a lawdog takes me to some way-out places, you won't be surprised at my temporary return address. Persimmon Gap is a ranger camp at the edge of the Big Bend National Park, halfway between Marathon and Panther Junction. I'm about 40 miles from my nearest neighbor, and the chance to breathe some clean air and do a bit of relaxed shooting is welcome.

 

You've hunted the Big Bend around Marathon, and you'll remember the spectacular abundance of game. Of course, no shooting is allowed in the park, and the state of Texas has a big preserve, Black Gap, that covers about 1000,000 acres, but this is big country and there are plenty of good places for just about any shooting imaginable.

 

The ranches hereabouts are loaded with the fattest mule deer I ever got close to. Antelope and javelina are thick as fleas on a coon dog, and desert quail and doves are almost never out sight. Top all this with an ant-like population of coyotes, foxes, antelope, jacks, cottontails, and squirrels, and you've got an inkling of why I pick this particular desert for my browsing.

 

My work requires me to cover a mighty generous stretch of the Rio Grande, precluding time for any serious hunting. It's between seasons right now, leaving varmints the only legal targets for my handguns. But, Bob, you'd never believe how much shooting a man will do when he's moving around West Texas.

 

Everyone who lives here has a gun, and most of these westerners have several. Pickups are the accepted mode of travel, and one is seldom seen that doesn't mount a rifle - more often two or three - in a rack behind the seat. Texans can carry handguns on their own property or when they are traveling. This is perfectly legal in Texas, and in my almost 20 years in law enforcement I've never known one of these rancher's truck guns to be used in committing a crime. Conversely I have had the experience of calling on some of these weatherbitten cowpeople to help me out on corraling a thug or two, and it was comforting to know that they didn't have to drive 50 miles back to the house to arm themselves.

 

Because of some happy atmospheric phenomenon, television can't be beamed into this remote spot. You can't even tune in a radio program until later at night than most hard-working types care to stay awake. Amusements here are of the hairer-chested variety, like calf roping, bronc riding, deer hunting, and of course all sorts of informal shooting matches.

 

Every scouting Border Patrolman I run across wants to talk guns, and these boys are sharks with a sixshooter. Give them 10 minutes and a 50 yard target and they'll win a steak dinner from you quicker than you can let go 10 rounds. Most of the ranchers fancy handguns, and their idea of sport is to whistle up a coyote on a varmint caller and anchor him with a long range pistol shot. Or maybe you'll spend a long afternoon clearing a sparsely-grassed sheep pasture of jackrabbits to save a bit of feed for the woolies. It adds up to a lot of shooting, and I never seem to bring enough ammo.

 

One problem is to anticipate the kind of ammunition that will be needed during a month-long visit, far away from any gun store or from my loading bench at home.

 

The 357 Magnum serves me best as a combination police gun, plinker, target panner, and hunting gun. For these boodock safaris I carry two - a M19 Smith & Wesson Combat Magnum, and my old Ruger Blackhawk with 6 " barrel. When I thought I would be attending a lot of Sunday backyard pistol shoots, I would load the car's trunk with 38 Special wadcutter stuff. Sure as I did, I'd pass a week with some jasper who wanted nothing but 75 yard shots at jackrabbits. If I loaded my warbag down with hollowpoint magnums, a local ace from the Border Patrol pistol team would feel like running the National Match course a few times. No matter how I split it, I never carried a big enough supply of the right cartridges at the right time.

 

Packing around a case or two of shells isn't practical, and a good while back I bought a little Lyman 310 loading tool and stashed it with the road gear that lives in my car. Marked "38Sol.-357", this little nutcracker will turn out ammunition that is fully on a par with those loads I whomp up on my heavy bench presses at home.

 

Just about everyone interested in shooting has seen these nutcracker tools - they've been around about as long as centerfire cartridges have. The old buffalo hunters used essentially the same equipment to reload their big Sharps 50's, and packed enough pig lead, primers, and kegs of black powder in their hide wagons to keep a four mule team in trim just pulling the ammo supply.

 

I used to go the hidehunter's route, carry a mold, ladle and pot, and a few ingots of bullet mix and some lubricant with my diminutive Lyman. This turned out to be more trouble than it was worth. It's unhandy in camp to rig a fire hot enough to melt lead and keep it at an even temperature. I have done it plenty of times on my Coleman camp stove, but I don't always take the Coleman.

 

The 310 tool came as part of one of their Ammunition Maker kits, and includes a bullet sizing die and "Kake Cutter". This last little gadget is used in the lubricating operation and is a big help. Rather than trying to smear lube into the bullet's grooves with the fingers, you simply melt a stick of good lubricant. I've used Ideal for years, in a flat-bottomed, shallow can. The bullets are set base down in the lube, which is then allowed to cool and harden. The "Kake Cutter" slips down over the slug's nose, trimming away the excess grease. The bases are wiped clean, then you run the bullet through the sizing die of the nutcracker.

 

These slugs are quite satisfactory. One of my favorite molds for all around 38 Special and 357 use is the 358446 hollowpoint. At low 38 velocities this pill won't expand, making it a neat kill of small game with its flat nose and sharp shoulders. These shoulders cut clean holes in bullseye targets, and the 358446 is plenty accurate.

 

Loaded to hot 38 Special and 357 Mag velocities, this bullet really expands beautifully. It has two lube grooves under a crimping groove, and it can be seated out and crimped in the top lube groove when more powder space is desired for 38-44 class loads.

 

I've found, though, that it's much simpler to cast, lube, and size my bullets with the more elaborate set-up I have at home, and that the ready-to-use bullets, put up in boxes, are less bundlesome to take along on these outings.

 

As a practical matter I now more often find myself buying some of the wide assortment of factory bullets for my Lyman. The Speer 158 gr. semi-wadcutter, a plain based, swaged job that is similar to the Lyman 358446, is a great all-purpose bullet. Inexpensive, too, it comes sized, lubed, and ready to go. It's everything you could want up through medium-hot 38 velocities, but leads barrels a bit at top magnum levels.

 

For these magnum loads, the swaged Speers with copper jackets covering their bearing surfaces are excellent, and are of the good, semiwadcutter shape in both solid and hollowpoint form. Norma has a line of similar pills that are likewise first class. Speer, Hornady, Norma, Super Vel, and Remington-Peters are all now making really superb jacketed softpoints that can be corked into high velocity loads by the nutcracker.

 

I Suspect you'll print this letter, and you know I dislike to recommend powder charges because of the danger of some magnum fiend overstepping them. I load down a bit with my dipped charges, and these are the ones that work for me, used only in my 357 Magnum guns:

 

38 Special Cases         158 gr. bullet         5 gr. Unique

 

38 Special Cases         158 gr. bullet        12 gr. 2400

                                  125 gr. bullet        14 gr. 2400

                                  (Heavy Hunting Loads)

                                   

                                  (The Lyman 358466, sized .357",

                                  may be crimped in the top lube

                                  groove for higher seating over 13.5

                                  grains of 2400) 

 

357 Cases                 158 gr. bullet        15 gr. 2400

                                125 gr. bullet        16.5 gr. 2400

 

The 158 gr. 5 gr. Unique load is the only one of the above that I would recommend for normal use in 38 Special guns.

 

I use dipped powder charges with the 310. Before I learned about them, I couldn't believe that a dipped charge of smokeless powder could possibly be accurate. A little check weighing against my RCBS scales changed my mind. As long as the reloader uses uniformity in his methods, he'll get uniform weights from his little dippers. This means dipping in the same direction through about the same depth of loose powder in a bowl, cup, or whatever's handy, then carefully striking the excess powder from the dipper's mouth with a straightedge. A knife blade works fine.

 

Lyman makes good dippers, stamped with the powder type and weight of charge. I rather like the ones I make myself, soldering a wire handle to the base of an empty cartridge case. The 32 ACP case is good for small charges of pistol powder. Using the trial-and-error method, I grind down the mouth of the case , taking care to keep it level, with a high speed electric hand tool and a dentist's disc sander, check weighing against a scale until I have the charge I wand, then scratching the weight of charge and powder type on the side of the case. The case can also be trimmed in a case trimmer or with a file. For bulkier powders, like 2400, I cut down a 38 Special case in the same manner.

 

You're a reloader yourself, Bob, and it's not news to you, but lots of boys on a budget don't realize how simple, effective, and inexpensive the little nutcracker is. I use mine thusly: First I gather the cases to be loaded and lubricate them with RCBS case lubricant, which comes in a small plastic bottle. I don't use any fancy stamp pads for this - just rub a bit on the outside of each case until it feels slightly greasy.

 

Then I insert the case sizing die into the 310's handles, force each case into the die by squeezing the handles, extract it by pulling them apart. This necksizes the case so it will hold its new bullet tightly, as well as enter freely into the revolver chamber.

 

Next change to the decapping die, and the cases are run through again, kicking out the fired primers. The are then run the through the expander die, which bells their mouths slightly so the bullets will seat without getting a hunk chewed out of their sides by the brass lip of the case.

 

Repriming is easy, the rim of the case sets in a groove on the cut-away priming die as a primer is pushed into place by a spring-loaded rod, activated by the nutcracker handles. I usually give each case a half turn as it lies in the die and nudge the primer with a second squeeze. This insures full and even seating, and leaves no worry about misfires or high primers that might bind up the gun.

 

I've then got a shell ready for powder charging and the seating of its bullet. Some sort of loading block simplifies the charging operation, and I often use the styrofoam inserts that now come in boxes of Remington-Peters handgun ammo. A 44 or 45 insert makes a great block for 38's, is light, and costs nothing. A powder funnel is quickly fashioned from aluminum foil or even a piece of paper.

 

Once the cases are charged, and each one visually examined to insure against an empty case or one that has received a double charge, all that's left is to seat the bullet and crimp the case mouth into the crimping groove. This is quickly done with the combination seating and crimping die of the 310.

 

This sounds slow as molasses, but it's really not. I can turn out a box of shells in about half again the time that it takes on heavy, bench-mounted presses. And in the places where I take my little loader, which folds into an old army surplus parts pouch the size of a bottle of tequila, time doesn't rush me so.

 

With no television drivel, gibbering disc jockeys, or newspapers filled with warnings of impending doom, my evenings here are long and restful. I camp lone, and I don't care for solitaire or one-handed checkers. Last I watched a Panavision, Technicolor Texas sunset to its spectacular finish as I sat on the back step of the ranger station and loaded today's ammunition.

 

Your last letter said you might visit these parts, and you asked what you should bring along for the house. I'll be glad to see you, old pard, but I can't suggest anything to bring except your 357 sixgun, some powder, bullets, and primers.

 

I've got everything else.

 

Su amigo,

 

Skeeter

 

 

 

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