Women and guns - a long-standing love affair...


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Preacherman
March 27, 2004, 09:31 AM
From SFGate (http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2004/03/26/WBGOJ5OT5O1.DTL):

Pistol packin' mamas

Women have long been fond of firearms, S.F. historian says in new book

Rick DelVecchio, Chronicle Staff Writer

Friday, March 26, 2004

R.L."Larry" Wilson knows this about women: they aren't afraid to pull the trigger.

The San Francisco author and firearms expert is out with what he says is the first book to tell the whole truth about females' natural, historical, existentially joyful affinity for firearms. In "Silk and Steel: Women at Arms, " Wilson has collected thousands of bits of documentary evidence from his 35 years in the field to prove that women and weapons have been inseparable since the invention of gunpowder. For example, he asserts that:

Women shoot eagerly -- for necessity, for sport and for fun.

Women are good shots. They are as good as -- some say better than -- men.

Women love guns for their power and for their beauty. Same as men.

"This book must have 900 to 1,000 pictures of women with animals they shot," Wilson said. "They're happy as clams."

Always eager to delight with a curio, he will put on an 1894 Thomas Edison moving picture that shows the great sharpshooter Annie Oakley knocking targets out of the sky. Wilson noted wryly that Oakley's husband also appears in the picture -- but his role is tossing up targets for his wife to blast.

"It's contrary to popular belief, but I think a lot of people with preconceived notions about firearms will get a little enlightenment, if you will," said Jimmie Schein, co-owner of North Beach's framing and historic print shop Schein & Schein, where Wilson is scheduled to sign his books next week. "The fact of the matter is that historically, all persons have been involved in the use of firearms."

The book is the ninth installment in a history of firearms that Wilson is writing for Random House. Wilson also is working on a traveling museum exhibition on women and firearms and a six-part TV documentary.

"Silk and Steel" is generating more reader response than any other book in the series, though, and Wilson believes that is because women are buying the book for themselves.

"In all my books, I get a certain response," he said. "But this is a gender response."

Wilson approaches his subject matter as a naturalist would. He takes on women and firearms as a region of human experience -- not merely gender experience -- that hadn't been explored in any comprehensive way. Freedom and equality are human ideals, and initiation, power and just having fun are human urges.

Wilson does not go in much for philosophizing but offers glimpses of provocative ideas that intrigue him. For example, he quotes scholar Mary Zeiss Stange's image of woman as predator: "Being a predator, she says, is good."

He repeats Stange's analysis: "'When you are aware of yourself as a predator, you understand that the complexity of the stalk and the simple finality of the kill are two sides of the same reality -- and it is that reality that keeps you alive."'

Wilson is no Charlton Heston -- his work contains no overt pieties about the right to bear arms. Nor is he liberal in the mold of his parents, who were Franklin D. Roosevelt Democrats from rural Minnesota.

More like Teddy Roosevelt, he is a mix of adventurer, scholar and social animal. His friends regard him as a force of nature, lovable but somewhat ungovernable.

Wilson, who lives on Telegraph Hill, is 64 but still has in him the shy kid who grew up in the church manse in a small farm town and whose blood quickened with the sensations of fast cars, jazz drumming and guns. He got his first .22 rifle from the local Winchester dealer when he was 12, and that same year a Mickey Rooney movie inspired him to take up the drums. At 13, he approached Louis Armstrong and got the great jazz trumpeter's autograph. At 14, his imagination fired by antique arms he had seen in museums, he was locked and loaded for life.

"I've always been interested in everything with a trigger," said Wilson, a slender, polite gentleman whose feats include killing a hippo on safari in Africa by firing into its mouth from 5 yards away. That memory is one of Wilson's most vivid.

The mouth shot was necessary because Wilson's first round, though accurate, had glanced off the animal's skull. The hunted turned to face the hunter with gaping jaws and "tusks gleaming in the sun," to quote Wilson's journal. Hippos are apt to be vicious, nothing like the Disney characters, Wilson said.

"His mouth was open for a reason," Wilson said. "He'd love to have us in that mouth."

Wilson is a shooter of crocodiles, too, a specialist appraiser of sublime Colt revolvers -- he recently cataloged one for about $850,000 -- and a consultant to some of the world's great arms collections. He mingles with duchesses and Rothschilds, for in Europe, until the Enlightenment, arms were the province of royals and the old rich. But he is delighted to flip a snapshot of his younger self with such a character as Jerry Lewis, one of the many celebrity gun aficionados he has known.

He is the author of dense and scholarly books -- 45 in all, more than one a year since he started. He has also written 280 articles.

And he is an artifact hound with a whimsical bent whose possessions include a crocodile skull grazed by his own bullet and a personal Botswana safari journal bound in the hide of an elephant's ear. When he lived in Connecticut, he had a stagecoach in his house and a Ferrari race car that served as a coffee table. The treasures that he has with him in his San Francisco apartment are necessarily smaller but not less personal.

"This is a rifle I hunted with in Africa," said Wilson, a veteran of nine African safaris and three hunting trips to Alaska. "This is a scrotum from a buffalo."

Wilson's profession as a firearms authority began in his early 20s, when he got his first jobs that combined his love of the past with his passion for weapons. Primed by his many childhood trips to museums with his dad, he interned at Royal Armouries, H.M. Tower of London and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. At 23, he was named curator of firearms at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn.

Wilson's knowledge and enthusiasm place him as an organizing figure in an international firearms society that is far more complex than the stereotypical American "gun culture" celebrated in some sections and hated in others.

The media have been giving the gun world a hard time since President Kennedy was shot, but that would change if the issue were looked at closely, Wilson said.

The key to Wilson's prowess and productivity may be his nonjudgmental curiosity about the experiences of other firearms enthusiasts, living and past, bourgeois and proletarian, male and female, politically all over the map. In one conversation he can riff names as diverse as Mel Torme, David Mamet, Madonna, Jane Fonda ("brilliant shot"), Vice President Dick Cheney's daughter, Mary ("she loves to shoot"), Eleanor Roosevelt ("deadly shot with a handgun") and New York Times chairman emeritus Adolph Ochs Sulzberger ("boy, does he like his arms and armor").

At 10 a.m. one morning last week, Wilson entertained two descendants of Teddy Roosevelt, who were visiting from Boston. An hour or so later, he was describing the proper way to kill a Cape buffalo that is charging you.

"You got to shoot him up the nose and hope you hit the brain -- and good luck," he said.

Just then the phone rang with breaking news from the National Park Service. At the Presidio, they had found an artifact from the 1920s. It was a picture of woman, apparently the daughter of an Army man of the day.

"She's sitting behind a belt-action machine gun," Wilson said, quietly pleased at having scored another odd find. "She's a flapper."

Wilson grounds the book, like his conversation, in such anecdotes. He lets each female shooter's story speak for itself and stages them grandly with hundreds of photos, many of them in the form of collages by the fashion photographer Peter Beard, a long-time collaborator. "Silk and Steel" features 300 color plates for those who like a picture book, and detailed tables, notes and references for those who prefer a more scholarly experience.

Wilson roots the story in myth -- the Greek and Roman pantheons had goddesses of hunting, not gods -- and traces the branches through history. Here is stag-hunting Queen Elizabeth in 16th century England, and Lady Breadalbane, deer stalker of the Scottish aristocracy.

Women fight for their lives on the American frontier and underground against the Nazis during World War II. Actresses duel. Mae West takes aim. ("Miss West clearly knows how to wield this fully automatic weapon.") "Huntresses" pose with leopards slung over their shoulders.

Extending from hunt goddess Diana, the branches go all the way out to the likes of Madonna as a celebrity shooter who has taken up driving pheasant and grouse, and to the moms and daughters who are winning national shooting meets and sporting in such activities as cowboy-action shooting.

"I think women tend to do as well if not a little bit better because their nerve or reflexes may be a little bit better than men's," said Ruth Flayderman of Fort Lauderdale, a champion trap shooter and friend of Wilson's.

"Women are taking it up now," she said. "It's not a spectator sport."

Frank Tabor, alias I.M. Nobody, is a territorial governor of the Single Action Shooting Society and belongs to a group that meets in Richmond to re- enact shooting styles of the Old West in period costume. "There are a lot of women who are good shooters, unfortunately, and they beat us," Tabor said.

Wilson found that if he had fully explored all the branches of women and firearms he could have enlarged each chapter into a book. Instead, he had to cut his manuscript in half so it could fit the publisher's format.

"When Larry sits down to research a subject, there's no one who's going to do a better job," said Ellen Enzler-Herring, publisher of Trophy Room Books in Agoura (Los Angeles County.) "His thirst for knowledge is incredible.

"He has unbelievable energy. Somebody who would be happy with five references, Larry would try to find 10. The other thing that is great -- you get to Larry with a question, and I can tell you you're going to hear from Larry that day even if it's 11:59 at night. He won't go to sleep without getting back to you."

Some of his friends caution Wilson to slow his pace.

"I recognize the value of what he's doing, and on the other hand the poor guy is running 14-hour days," said Peter Buxtun, one of Wilson's neighbors on Telegraph Hill. "His idea of a good night's sleep is a flight to Frankfurt."

Buxtun tells Wilson there is no sense dying early from overwork. "His invariable answer is he has good genetics," he said.

Wilson's response: "He's probably right, but this book to me, if it's the only book I did, it was worth my time on Earth."

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Langenator
March 27, 2004, 10:19 AM
Nice story. It's downright amazing coming from the SF paper.

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