Making your own: Why outdoor enthusiasts are always innovating
By JIM MATTHEWS
By the time I was 12, I was tying my own fishing flies. I was reloading my own rifle ammunition by the time I was 15. I made my first quail call around my 30th birthday, and started tinkering around with making bass poppers and plugs out of native woods not long after that. I had my first wildcat cartridge, a cartridge where you had to form you own brass and reload it from scratch. There are who industries that supply building-block product to shooters, hunters, and fishermen who are consummate tinkers and experiments.
I cannot think of another sport or activity that has so many of its participants actively involved in the innovate process of making better or niche items they perceive they need.
Do baseball players make their own baseball bats? Have they experimented with different woods to see if one will be more effective at driving the ball further? I remember the buzz when Barry Bonds used a maple bat to break the homerun record instead a usual one made of ash. Now maple has all but replaced ash (and bamboo, which has been used). But does anyone know who the first guy was to turn down a hunk of maple and say to himself, “This is lighter and has dense grain. It should drive the ball further with the same effort.” Are there tinkering baseball players out there experimenting with home-turned hunks walnut or hickory or ironwood or mesquite? I mean I’ve used all types of wood to make my quail calls to see the difference in sound (just an FYI, really hard woods have the best tone). I was an avid baseball player in my youth, but no one ever suggested we make our own bat.
Do you know any tennis players who have made their own rackets or tried stringing the racket with different fibers to get more pop out their power forehand? Do you know a single golfer who has filed a different angle on his driver to try to get more consistent drive or change the angle of the ball path? Do they change the texturing on the face of their irons to get a better grip on the ball? Do you know anyone who has made his or her own guitar? Do any of these people even think about their gear?
Well, we do. Those of you who pay attention in the world notice that every early spring, especially in wet years like this one, we have a plague of crane flies that end up in our living and dining rooms gangling around like giant mosquitos. Fly-fishermen see those big, awkward insects and just know that they must be falling into our lakes and streams in great numbers and the fish must be eating them. On my Instagram (@jimmatthews33) and Facebook (Outdoor News Service) feeds, I have seen six or seven posts from fly-fishing friends with their concoctions of crane fly patterns. One of those posts was mine.
Firearms offer endless opportunities for shooters and hunters who want to do things beyond what you can buy in a Turner’s Outdoorsman. When I started reloading, we rolled out own ammunition because the best hunting bullets and the most accurate ammunition came from people who made their own. Hunters dissatisfied with the standard copper jacketed-lead core bullets made for much of the 20 century, started experimenting with home-made slugs with thicker jackets, tapered jackets, partitioned cores so they wouldn’t expand beyond a certain point. Some even started using different materials entirely. Target and varmint shooters were making bullets with amazing consistency and uniformity for precise accuracy. By the time I started reloading in the late 1960s, many of these tinkers had started small businesses to sell their products to guys like me. Today, you can buy a lot of the best stuff in factory loaded ammunition today, but it really hasn’t put much of a dent in the reloading game, and the most innovate stuff continues to come out of garages across the nation.
I don’t know what it is that drives us to be those people who are constantly experimenting with things, and other than the software industry, I can’t think of any other activity where it’s the work of people working in garage shops and spare bedrooms who drive the marketplace like the outdoor sports. Perhaps it is because hunting and fishing, and by association also shooting, are activities that have infinite variables that can drive enthusiasts crazy.
I once described fishing and hunting to an editor (who didn’t fish or hunt, and never had) this way: Imagine golf, where the fairways, sand and water traps, and greens constantly moved every day, and often while you were on the course. And then imagine the hole on the green shifting its position as you put and sometime simply closing entirely so the ball could not drop in. The only thing that would remain constant would be the tees, and laying out before you would be a constantly changing course. That’s fishing. Hunting is the same only the cup could be anywhere on the course and hides from you. “So you are crazy for even trying,” he said.
I have been working up handloads for a wildcat cartridge called the .22 Super Jet chambered in a small Martini single shot rifle. Now, for those of you who are not shooters, I will try to explain how this cartridge is made and its purpose.
How it’s made: Thanks to the old movie “Dirty Harry,” most of you know about a thing called the .357 magnum. In its day, it was the whizz-bang: The most powerful handgun cartridge ever made. Today, it has become a mid-range handgun round and doesn’t make shooter’s eyebrows raise anymore. But the Super Jet I’m loading is made from the .357 case. The case is what we call straight-sided so it easily drops into a revolvers cylinders). It has a rim that rests on the back of the cylinder. Think of something about the size of a woman’s pinky finger from the second knuckle to end of the finger.
Rimmed cartridges work well in single shot rifles because of the rim. So the Super Jet is made from the .357 magnum progressively with about the first ¼-inch of the cartridge squeezed down from about .35 inches to .22 inches. You have to do this step progressively with four dies that squeeze the brass down gradually. If you try to do it all in once, you mash the thin neck and ruin the brass. I have pictures of this happening because – well – a guy has to try. You have to do it four steps. You then trim the end of the case to make it square and get it the correct length to match the Super Jet chamber. You can then proceed to load the brass and shoot it in the specially-chambered gun.
Purpose: I suppose you could argue there is no earthly reason for anyone to go to all this trouble when there are perfectly good factory-made rounds that duplicate its rough size and ballistics. Why not just shoot a .221 Fireball or a .218 Bee, which are both short enough to work through the Martini action. If you’re not a shooter and don’t know those rounds, just think of the pinky finger on the other hand of that same woman, and you have an idea: Maybe not identical, but pretty darn close. Plus you can buy factory ammo for both of those cartridges. All other things being equal, they will shoot as accurately and kill the same-sized game (squirrels to coyotes) at the same ranges. So why bother? Because this cartridge works perfectly in the small Martini single shot action uses as the platform to build up this gun. This requires a little hair-splitting to rationalize. However, the rimmed case of the .22 Super Jet is more desirable than the .221 Fireball, which has a rimless case and could make extraction a little more problematic (maybe, maybe not). Second, the .357 magnum brass is designed for higher pressures than the ancient, thin .218 brass, so it is better for reaching the desired ballistics and brass would likely last much longer. (OK, this part is true.)
Did the cup just disappear from the green for you?
I guarantee there are a whole bunch of shooters out there who are nodding their heads and thinking beyond this project: Wouldn’t this round be perfect in that neat Ruger 77/357 bolt action rifle? Indeed it would. I have thought that, too. And what about all those cool lever action .357s on the market? Couldn’t you just simply re-barrel one of those into a .22 Super Jet and use one of the several flat-nosed .22 caliber bullets on the market? Indeed you could.
I have to go. The UPS man just brought the custom 1/64-ounce jig mold I ordered. It’s my newest brain storm, and I have to go bend a bunch of hooks to fit it, and then start making these spiral-swimming jigs. They are going to be deadly on bluegill.
Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 909-887-3444.