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FRIDAY SURPRISE: European design at it's finest -- A Braun Retrospective.

I remember being in grade school (circa 1967) and meeting some people who'd just moved to town from - of all places - Sweden. Now this sounds rather anticlimactic to you, but this was a small logging and farming town, up against the Cascade foothills of Oregon, where there were virtually no minorities. It was as lily white a town as one could find, free from the insidiousness of "outsiders" -- and as a result, as backward as you might imagine. Having 'furriners' move in was a cause for incessant gossip (and not a little jingoism.)

Time has erased the memory of the reason for their move to our little hamlet, but my parents weren't as scared of the newcomers as some others in town were. In fact, the lady of the house became our occasional babysitter when my folks needed a break from their children (not that we were a handful or anything; I mean, if they could survive my chemistry experiments they could survive anything, right??)

Going to their house for a day of non-parental supervision was fun, because of all the strange things they had: a odd little car called a Volvo (the first anyone had ever seen in those parts); a food called hardtack (which I grew to like smothered in grape jelly); and appliances named Braun that didn't have chrome and shiny knobs and mindless ornamentation like those in our house.

I had no idea what Braun was or where it came from, and little did I know that it was a company famed for its design. All I knew is that their products looked strange to my American eyes!

Image courtesy of

Apparently they didn't care what a kid in rural Oregon thought about their appliances, because they kept on making their unique and beautiful designs despite me. I'm glad they did, too, because their clean, sleek lines are today prized by collectors and those who appreciate a purposeful aesthetic.

You can view an
online retrospective of innovative Braun designs over at

-=[ Grant ]=-

There are talented designers all over the world.

In my book
"The Shooter's Guide To Handguns" is a short chapter on famous (and some not-so-famous) handguns and their designers. Once you get beyond Colt and Browning, most people’s knowledge ends, and that’s a shame; there’s more to life than just those two!

As Americans we tend to believe that all of the great gun inventors were American, but that's simply not true. From the earliest firearms history to today, there are great - and important - designers who were born and did their business well away from the United States. Some of them even worked for "the other side".

While my knowledge base is a little larger than most, I still don't claim to be an authority on gun designers. I may know a few more of them than the average person, but there are many even I've never heard of. Take, for instance, Arkady Shipunov. He was the chief designer at Russia's Tula arsenal for decades, and apparently produced a very wide range of firearm designs. My interest in him is because of a rather intriguing polymer pistol called the GSh-18.

If there's one guy I can point you to who knows about obscure designers, it would be Ian at Forgotten Weapons.
He knows all about Shipunov, of course, and has a good article on this unusual pistol. It's one I'd like to see in person!

-=[ Grant ]=-

A sadly forgotten gun designer.

Forgotten Weapons is a blog that should be read by anyone who is serious about the history of firearms. You'll find articles and information there that you just can't find anywhere else.

Take, for example,
their recent story on the gun of one Henryk Strąpoć. Henryk had the misfortune of being a budding gun designer when both Hitler and Stalin invaded his native Poland. He joined one of the many resistance groups, and their need for weapons prompted him to design an indigenous - and very novel - submachine gun.

Strąpoć, having no real education in engineering or gun design but possessing a blacksmith's practicality, came up with design for a stamped-steel machine gun that fired from a closed bolt - decades before the HK MP-5. Working with little more than hand tools (his lathe and drill press were hand-cranked) he constructed the first gun himself. The underground arranged for the "Beha" (as it would become known) to be made by employees of the Zakłady Ostrowieckie metalworks, but apparently only 11 were completed before the Red Army invaded that area. Today only one remains, in the Polish Army Museum in Warsaw.

The gun is remarkable, not just because of the conditions under which it was produced but because of its modernity. Strąpoć's design was truly inspired, and it would be many years before his various innovations would be copied by various firearms companies.

After the war he simply disappeared behind the Iron Curtain, and even the date of his death is unknown. He was obviously and incredibly talented designer, and it's sad that he apparently never made another gun.

The article at Forgotten Weapons has much, much more and there is some great historical discussion in the comments as well. It is
highly recommended reading even if you’re not into submachine guns. (If you think the sun rises and sets on John Browning, it will serve as a reminder that there have been people with that level of genius who didn't have the fortune to live in a country where it was allowed to be nurtured.)

-=[ Grant ]=-

History really is written by the winners.

The history of firearm design is fascinating, but even more interesting to me are the beliefs and assumptions that we make about the designs we see. Why do some designs persist, while other - sometimes quite promising - ideas never see the light of day?

It's often held that certain gun designs succeed in the marketplace (the military and police being a skewed adaptation of a market) because they're the "best". It's true that in some form any given design must win over others to succeed, but "winning" needs to be understood in context for it to have any meaning at all. Too many people assume that the winner is the best performer, and that's not always (if it ever really is) the case.

"Winning" means not just physical performance: the gun shoots well, is reliable and durable. It also needs to be economical to manufacture, easy to repair, use a minimum amount of resources, and not intrude upon political or social contracts. Sometimes it’s those political concerns which trump all.

Take, for instance, the case of the M14 rifle. The testing and adoption of the M14 was convoluted at best, with charges of test-fixing, tampering of the data, not a small amount of military pressure on our allies in NATO, and a strong dose of nationalism. Many people today hold that the FN Herstal design - essentially a FAL in American clothing - was the actual winner of the physical tests, but political pressure by Springfield Armory (which had been the origin of nearly all of our military's rifles up to that point) won over the more meritorious design. Regardless what one believes about the two designs, it's clear to all but the most myopic that there was more than just the rifle's shooting qualities that went into the decision to adopt the M14. The same could be said the of that gun's successor.

A military or police trial is not necessarily a good indicator of merit, even if it is run fairly and squarely. The easiest way to explain this is the old joke about the two guys being attacked by the bear; one says "gee, I'm glad I wore my running shoes!" The other guy says "are you crazy - you can' outrun a bear!" The first guy looks at him and says "I don't need to outrun him, I just have to outrun you." The winning design in a trial only needs to perform better than the others in the design pool to win; if all the designs are crap, it's simply the least crappy which gets the crown.

The entity which runs the trial can establish a performance floor through firm goals and requirements, but that's still not definitive. In the case where an entry meets spec just enough to win, it's helpful to remember the adage: "what do you call the guy who finished dead last in medical school? 'Doctor'!" Just because something completes a trial successfully doesn't mean there isn't something better out there that didn't even get entered - or wasn't allowed to because it didn't come from the right place.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Free radicals.

When you were growing up did you have a classmate who was, well, uptight? You know the type: boring, unimaginative, establishment, voted "most likely to become an accountant"? I sure did.

He was me.

I spent the first half (actually, more like the first two-thirds) of my life making
Alex P. Keaton look like an anarchist. Hippies? Hated 'em. I liked symmetry (LOVED symmetry), predictability; I couldn't stand the new, the non-conforming, the different. (My fourth grade teacher could tell you stories...)

Somewhere along the line I snapped and tilted a little toward the wild side. While I'm still anal retentive about many things, I've learned to embrace my adventurous tendencies. I'll always love opera, but I also like to listen to
The Fratellis. These days I'm a little less enthused with staid decoration and architecture and more interested in the crazy and creative ways some people find to enrich their personal environments.

That's why I found a recent entry on the
Salvaged Grace blog most interesting. It profiled a fellow named Jesse Hartman and his site Shift Build:Industrial Reclamation. Jesse's passion is making interesting things out of non-interesting things. He's very creative, something I try to be but rarely manage to achieve. At least, not at his level!

Check out his
reclaimed oak wall - then click on the '11' in the timeline to see its secret. Cool! I've GOT to do something like that, but I haven't figured out just where.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have a junk pile to explore.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: A re-purposeful life.

I've never made any secret of the fact that I'm basically just a dumb ol' country boy. Being from a farming and ranching family (with a smattering of logging thrown in for good measure) I look at the world a little differently than people who don't share that background. Certain things that the city folk do just amuse me to no end.

One of those things is the current 'green' movement. Particularly here in Oregon, this is a Big Thing; folks flaunting their green credentials and one-upping each other over their sustainable lifestyles. Trouble is, they can't see the forest for the trees.

Take, for example, an article I saw recently about how to remodel one's kitchen. Emphasis was placed on such things as making sure the cabinets were made of sustainably grown bamboo and picking appliances based on the energy used in their manufacture. Sounds great, except the article completely ignored the very greenest solution of all: not remodeling the kitchen in the first place!

Simply continuing to use those things which have already been made is far more green, far more sustainable, than gutting the place and starting over -- no matter how much one frets over the carbon footprint of the floorcovering. Replacing perfectly serviceable (though no longer fashionable) items with new items that must be manufactured from scratch isn't ecologically sound, but don't tell that to the people who desperately want a guilt-free way to keep up with the Joneses.

If one wants to truly live sustainably, one does what us poor country folk have been doing for ages: make do with what you have. Part of that is finding new uses for old items that might otherwise be cast aside, and here's where I must admit a certain lack of ability. I'm just not all that creative; I don't look at things and see new ways in which they might be used.

Luckily there are creative people in this world from whom I can steal ideas. One of my favorite sites for repurposing ideas is called
Poetic Home; the author is more into the yuppie-chic aspect than the hardcore saving-money-while-not-contributing-to-the-landfills bit, but I'm cool with that because the ideas are pretty good.

A redneck like me reading an urban design blog -- what's this world coming to??

-=[ Grant ]=-