The Bishop’s Boys Blast Away…
I am sure that we have all shared the experience of finishing a conversation and, as we walk away, of thinking of the perfect reply to a question or barb too late. The French call it L’esprit de l’escalier. In English it is called staircase wit, or the more plebian term, a comeback.
The etymology for this term leads us to the writing of French Enlightenment philosopher Denis Diderot. During a dinner a remark was made to him for which he had no reply. It was not until he had reached the bottom of the stairs on his way to his carriage that he thought of a reply, too far away in time and space for it to be of any use.
The Old Man, of blessed memory, a learned scholar of Yiddish, would have called it trepverter, “stepwords,” the reply you think of on your way out when it is too late to use it, but I digress.
As an author a similar thing occasionally happens when you read an article that covers an area of your interest. The immediate response after reading it is to bang your palm against your forehead and blurt out, “Why didn’t I think of that!”
Such was the case when I saw an article by Dr. Larry E. Tise, the Wilber and Orville Wright Distinguished Professor at East Carolina University in USA Shooting Sports entitled Wright Brothers At Kitty Hawk: Hunters And Marksmen. It was a trifecta of my passion for flying and shooting and my involvement with the US Coast Guard.
As a pilot I have read extensively about the Wright Brothers, including the two most authoritative works, Tom Crouch’s The Bishop’s Boys and David McCulloch’s The Wright Brothers. But as a rifleman I had never once had come across any reference to the pair shooting. This may not be surprising as they apparently made little note in their journals of hunting and recreational shooting activities.
The boys grew up in late 19th century rural America. Therefore, it is not far-fetched to imagine them being familiar with firearms and potting away in a meadow with a .22 rifle while their father Milton, a bishop in the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, moved them twelve times across the breadth of the Midwest before settling in Dayton, Ohio.
The Wright shooting artifacts, four homemade targets, only survive because of an act of larceny on the part of a Miss Margaret Hallowell, from Nag’s Head. In 1909 she and a few friends rummaged through the abandoned Wright camp at Kill Devil Hills for souvenirs of the internationally famous bachelor brothers. This petty pilfering by Miss Hallowell must have been quiet out of character as there are several streets in Nag’s Head that bear the name of Hallowell so she may have been from a prominent family.
On the 25th anniversary of the First Flight she met Orville, confessed her sins, and returned her loot. Nearly a decade later Orville sent the targets back, telling Hallowell that the targets were shot by Wilber, Charles Furnas, and himself in May of 1908. The targets remained in Miss Hallowell’s possession until her death and later were acquired by Twiddy and Company of Corolla, NC where Tise came across them.
The homemade targets have about a one inch aiming black, roughly the same as the A-23 50 yard conventional prone target’s ten ring of 0.89 inches. There are six additional rings, but scoring was not by ring value but rather the distance of the shot from the center of the target.
Orville holds the rifle in a 1911 photo, and it appears to be a Marlin. The most popular .22 Marlin repeater of the day was the lever action Model 1897, and it is fair to presume that it is the rifle in question. It came in several versions and the romantic in me believes it to be a Model 1897 Special Style Bicycle Rifle. Let’s face it, what other type of rifle would the proprietors of the Wright Cycle Exchange own?
The nifty little gun was available with a round or octagon barrel and could be had for $15.35. The tubular magazine would hold either 16 short, 12 long, or ten long rifle black powder cartridges probably made by Remington Union Metallic Cartridge Corporation, Western Cartridge, or Winchester. Lesmoke, the first semi smokeless powder, was not introduced by Peters until after the Wrights left Kitty Hawk.
Bicycle riders have had an interesting relationship with firearms dating back to the late 19th century when cycling became all the rage. Cyclists legs became a favorite target for dogs to savage. In response the French developed a low powered small caliber revolver called the Velo-Dog, a contraction of velocipede and dog, which used cartridges usually loaded with cayenne pepper or bullets made from wax or cork for cyclists to use against any overly aggressive canine.
In that vein the Bicycle Rifle had an interesting feature, when a takedown screw in the receiver was removed the rifle broke down into two pieces. For an extra buck and a half, you could purchase a canvas leather bound case that would hold the rifle in two pouches and strap neatly and securely under a bicycle frame.
Orville seemed to have a leg up on his older brother as he won two of the four rifle matches-Wilber and Furnas splitting the other two, won the coin toss to see who would pilot the first controlled, sustained flight of a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft, and lived to the ripe old age of 77 while Wilber succumbed to typhoid fever at 45.
When the Wrights packed for Kitty Hawk, they also brought along a 5-by-7-inch glass-plate negative Gundlach Korona V view camera. On December 17, 1903 they asked John Thomas Daniels, Jr., a Surfman at the Kill Devil Hills U.S. Life-Saving Station to squeeze the rubber bulb shutter release when the Wright Flyer became airborne. Daniels, who had never even seen a camera before, reported that he was so startled when the Flyer left the ground that he almost forgot to take the iconic picture of the first flight.
And there lies my involvement with the Coast Guard for the Life Saving Service and the Revenue Cutter Service were merged in 1915 to form the modern Coast Guard and I am a rifle coach at the US Coast Guard Academy.