March 08, 2007

That Old Time Religion

Speaking (er, typing) of movies I stumbled on something last week. I was in Best Buy rummaging around looking for a gift & happened to glance at this one section of shelf. What I saw was something I had searched for on & off over the last few years. It was Sergeant York on DVD. I immediately snatched it & scanned my 3, 9 & 6 every few steps least someone try to wrest it from my grasp. The last few times I checked at several different stores the helpful sales representatives sadly informed me that Sergeant York was not available on DVD. So to find it was an unexpected bit of fortune. I won't review the movie but I do want to discuss a few things (including discrepancies) about it.

The movie was released in 1941 & starred Gary Cooper. York had refused to release the rights to his story unless it was guaranteed that Cooper would play York. Before you go thinking that was mighty high fillutin' of old Alvin I should point out that it was a much humbler approach than Audie Murphy took (who played himself, albeit uncomfortably). :) Considering their gallantry I won't begrudge either of them for how they handled the Hollywood experience.

Though there are many more notable feats of marksmanship in combat (especially Simo Hayha) it cannot be said that old Alvin did not do a good piece of shootin' during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.

There's some debate on which rifle he used during his combat duty. The M1903 Springfield was the issue rifle but the substitute rifle was more plentiful. That substitute was the M1917 Enfield (which I have a sporterized version of & prefer it to any other type of bolt action rifle I've handled or shot).

Wikipedia has a nice entry on Sergeant York for anyone who'd like to learn more about him. I also found a site that has printed his diary. For the helluvit here's the entry from March 1918 about his issue rifle (presumably a M1903 Springfield) :

"MARCH, 1918

Camp Gordon: Well, they gave me a gun, and oh my, that old gun was just full of grease and I had to clean that old gun for inspection. So I had a hard time to get that old gun clean, and oh, those were trying hours for a boy like me, trying to live for God and do His blessed will. So when I got this gun, I began to drill with the gun, and we had to hike once a week. So I have seen many boys fall out of the hikes. We would have to take long hikes with all our stuff on our back and carry that old gun. Ho ho. And we would have to go out before daylight and have sham battles. So I began to want a pass to go home. That first Army rifle they issued me was all full of grease. Of course I didn't like that. The rifles we used in the mountains were always kept clean. They were muzzle-loading rifles, cap and ball. They make their own guns there in the mountains. They are the most accurate guns in the world, up to 100 or 150 yards. I would rather have had a clean army rifle than a muzzle loader for what we were going to use them for, on account of the repeating shots, but they are not any more accurate than the muzzle-loading rifles. The Greeks and Italians came out on the shooting range and the boys from the big cities. They hadn't been used to handling guns. And sometimes at 100 yards they would not only miss the targets, they would even miss the hills on which the targets were placed. In our shooting matches at home we shot at a turkey's head. We tied the turkey behind a log, and every time it bobbed up its head we let fly with those old muzzle loaders of ours. We paid ten cents a shot and if we hit the turkey's head we got to keep the whole turkey. This way we learn to shoot from about sixty yards. Or we would tie the turkey out in the open at 150 yards, and if you hit it above the knee or below the gills you got it. I think we had just about the best shots that ever squinted down a barrel. Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett used to shoot at these matches long ago. And Andrew Jackson used to recruit his Tennessee sharpshooters from among our mountain shooters. We used to call our most famous matches "beeves." We would make up a beef, that is, we would drive up a beef and then each pay, say a dollar until we had made up the value of the beast. The owner got this money. And we were each allowed so many shots. The best shot got the choice of the hind quarters, the second best the other hind quarter, the third the choice of the fore quarters, the fourth the other fore quarters, and the fifth the hide and tallow. Our matches were held in an opening in the forest, and the shooters would come in from all over the mountains, and there would be a great time. We would shoot at a mark crisscrossed on a tree. The distance was twenty-six yards off hand or forty yards prone with a rest. You had to hit that cross if you ever hoped to get all of that meat. Some of our mountaineers were such wonderful shots that they would win all five prizes and drive the beef home alive on the hoof. Shooting at squirrels is good, but busting a turkey at 150 yards--ho ho. So the army shooting was tolerably easy for me."

Here's an entry from after he arrived in France:

"MAY 21, 1918

LeHavre, France: So we got to France at Le Havre. There we turned in our guns and got British guns. Well, we went out from Le Havre to a little inland camp. I had taken a liking to my gun by this time. I had taken it apart and cleaned it enough to learn every piece and I could almost put it back together with my eyes shut. The Greeks and Italians were improving. They had stayed continuously on the rifle range for a month or two and got so they could shoot well. They were fairly good pals, too. But I missed the Tennesseans. I was the only mountaineer in the platoon. I didn't like the British guns so well. I don't think they were as accurate as our American rifles. Ho ho."

It's assumed that by "British guns" he was talking about M1917 Enfields, since they were a British design & Enfield is the name of the town where the Royal Small Arms Factory was located as well as several firearms made there having "Enfield" in the name someplace.

He preferred the M1903 Springfield so much he insisted that it was used in the movie instead of the M1917 Enfield, but it was most likely the latter that he had in his hands when he took those machine gun nests.

The movie also shows Alvin using a German 1908 Luger but in his diary he says he was using a 1911.

Another thing about the movie - it shows Alvin licking his thumb then rubbing it on the front sight to "cut down the haze" (I'm paraphrasing what the line was - excuse any inaccuracy). What bothered me is that the way to "whet" the front sight is to lick your thumb then rub it in the dirt & then rub the front sight. This transferred some of the dirt to the front sight which cut down on any glare from bright or polished metal. Omitting the dirt from the practice defeats the whole purpose as it'd make the front sight shinier. But that's Hollywood for you. Nowadays most folks either use a little lamp that leaves carbon deposits on the sight or a spray to cut down on the glare, but licking your thumb, rubbing it int he dirt & then wiping the front sight still works just fine should you ever have need of a sharper front sight picture in the field.

But overall it's a great movie. If you've never seen it I'd suggest putting it on your "things to watch" list. & if you don't know where the title of this post comes from then definitely check out the movie.

Posted by Publicola at March 8, 2007 06:25 AM | TrackBack

I'm planning to see it at IMAX. I budget one in-theater movie a month, because I enjoy the immersive experience, and if 300 was made to hold up under IMAX, there's going to be a huge amount of visual detail that will simply be lost on my (non-HD) TV.

Usually, my monthly movie is a reduced-price matinee (although increasingly "matinee" prices are only available before noon). I never stop at the concession stand anymore.

Posted by: refugee at March 8, 2007 11:13 AM