Okay, men, this book’s for you! I often look at the books I choose to review and lament that I don’t seem to have enough variety for the menfolk. I repent, and I present to you “The Rifle” by Gary Paulsen.
Our main character in this book is not a person at all, but rather a rifle, handcrafted by master gunsmith Cornish McManus in the year 1768. He was accustomed to making everyday, run-of-the-mill rifles, but when he picked up the piece of wood that would become the stock for this particular firearm, he knew it had to be something special. Taking great care, he painstakingly created every element from scratch, leaving nothing to chance as he molded and fitted everything into place. Each step of the process is described in the book, and although weapons aren’t really my area of interest, it was intriguing to me to learn some of the philosophies behind why the barrels of the guns were shaped the way they were and how the inner chambers, when made so they twisted the bullet slightly, added to the speed at which the bullet flew.
The final step in the creation was also the most disgusting. Cornish got a couple of buckets of cow urine from a nearby farmer and brought the rifle to a red hot state over the fire, then rubbed it down with urine-soaked rags. When the acid in the urine hit the hot metal, it caused the metal to take on a dark plum color that sounded beautiful, even though the process to make it so was really gross.
When Cornish completed the weapon and tested it, he was delighted to find that it had the most true shot of any gun he’d ever made, and he didn’t plan to sell it. But he soon became engaged and needed the money, so he did sell it to a man named John Byam, who had been out hunting and trapping in the wilderness for the last two years and didn’t know there was a Revolution going on. Byam ended up working as a sharpshooter for the Colonists, using the rifle so carefully made by Cornish.
The book follows the rifle through its many owners down to the present day, and we are left with a message that came out of the blue and actually left me a little bit discomfited. Who would have thought that a book so carefully detailing the making of a beautiful gun would in fact carry an anti-gun sentiment? The story ends with a child being accidentally killed in a freak accident that no one could have anticipated, and then the author closes the book with the rifle being put into a gun closet. The last two sentences are, “And in the meantime the rifle sits in the gun cabinet. Waiting.” As though the gun had some sort of personality and had killed the child knowingly.
Novelists, by right, can insert any message they like into their writing. It’s part of free speech. But that last little bit, tacked on the end, seemed disjointed and out of place to me. I thought we were reading about the history of a fascinating weapon, not a treatise on gun control.
Be all that as it may, and putting my soap box off to the side, I enjoyed this book. I never realized just how much went into the making of the rifles our pioneer ancestors used; they didn’t have the machinery we do now, and every step was long and arduous. And, regardless of your own stand on gun control, I think this is a book you could enjoy for its rich descriptions and attention to detail.
(This book was published in 1995 by Bantam Doubleday.)