Most of it has to do with the guns themselves, elegant single-shot rifles of small bore, circumscribed range, shotgun handling characteristics, lovingly hand-made by such luminaries of old-world craftsmanship as Holland & Holland, Rigby, Jeffery, Martini, Westley Richards.
For all intents and purposes, a rook is an English crow, and the pests are more ubiquitous in the UK than prairie dogs in South Dakota. But there are no wide open spaces in the British Isles, and a rook rifle had to be safe to shoot across a field or into the air beyond shotgun range without endangering neighboring villages. The same rifle was often used to hunt rabbits or, as the English often call them, hares. Of course, this was all back in the days when British subjects were trusted to own firearms. The fact that they are no longer allowed to shoot anything at all, neither pesky rook nor ax murderer, is the reason they call themselves subjects, not citizens.
We’ve always had pests in America too, which we call varmints. They are more often dispatched by a rusty rimfire .22 kept leaning up against the wall of the barn rather than by a gold-inlaid Holland & Holland with an engraved sidelever action. The old .22 works just as well, though it lacks the satisfaction that comes from using a refined tool for a pleasurable job. The more enthusiastic American varmint hunters went the other direction entirely, employing powerhouse small-bore cartridges like the .220 Swift and 22-250 to plaster critters five or six hundred yards away. In England, such cartridges are placed in the same category as intercontinental ballistic missiles.
There remains a niche for shooters on American farmlands reserved for those of us who keep our guns in the house instead of the barn, admit the possibility of a neighboring village or at least a strip mall over the next hill, and take great delight in dispatching with elegance all manner of vermin, including those we call crows even though they are often ravens.
We’ve always had Rook Rifles. We’ve just never called them that.
If you want to think about an appropriate and available American single-shot action it shouldn’t take you more than about five seconds. The incredible versatility of Thompson/Center frames that can easily stretch up to make elephant-busting pistols can just as easily stretch down to Rook Rifle or Crow Carbine dimensions.
I came into possession of such a frame, a very early vintage Contender, polished up and finished in hard chrome, with a very nice trigger job by David Van Horn. I briefly considered having a gold-plated rook/crow/raven engraved in the famous T/C cougar’s mouth, but decided that level of effort would be better spent on the Contender’s carbine stock.
Figured maple is either not quite as strong or quite a bit stronger than walnut, depending on which stockmaker you talk to, but in any case it’s awfully pretty in a svelte thumb-hole stock configuration. It’s especially pretty if you start with a very fancy piece of shell maple and then subject it to the imaginative knife of Robert Wood and the finishing touches of David Van Horn. What we ended up with is a custom rollover thumb-hole shoulder stock and matching fore-end with a thoroughly unique and downright voluptuous hand-carved shape and liquid lines. I’ve always liked thumbhole stocks on Contenders, because the factory carbine stocks look about as organic as a Broomhandle Mauser with its shoulder stock temporarily attached to the pistol grip. This is one Contender carbine that doesn’t look like a big pistol with a long barrel and a shoulder stock tacked on. The grip is solid, high and comfortable, the finger grooves are in the right places, the finished wood is sensual to the touch. Practicalities include a Herter’s butt plate with white spacer, and sling swivels. The pull length is very short for very fast target acquisition because, after all, crows can fly and so can some rabbits and squirrels.
When it came to selecting the caliber for the American Rook Rifle, I found myself in a quandary, pulled in two opposing directions at once, unable to make a clear decision and unwilling to compromise. Thanks again to the versatility of the T/C receiver, one rather amazing feature of which being that it accommodates both rimfire and centerfire cartridges, I simply proceeded in both directions at once.
Bored with the .22 rimfire and faced with the most exciting variation on it in a hundred years, I found the new and ultramodern .17 Hornady Magnum Rimfire irresistible.
Still yearning for the timelessness of a true classic, a cartridge that looks like it was designed on an oak drawing board instead of a glowing computer monitor, conceived by men with clear eyes for beauty who were not in the throes of semiautomatic fever, I also returned to the America of the 1930s to rediscover what is arguably the first cartridge ever developed with American-style varmints in mind, the venerable .22 Hornet.
Intrigued by the idea of combining old and new, I decided to build a whole new second rifle for the 30s-era Hornet on one of Thompson/Center’s new G-2 frames. Shoulder stocks are not interchangeable between original Contenders and the G-2, though fore ends and barrels are, so a new stock was called for. Denzel Roberts, well known T/C stockbuilder in Texas, volunteered to build one of his thumbhole rollovers out of laminated maple/walnut for the new gun. The only trouble was, he couldn’t get his hands on a G-2 frame to fit the stock to and, for various reasons, I couldn’t send him mine. This is probably the only instance on record where a custom stock was precisely fitted and inletted to a frame via email. It didn’t take long, and the stock fit perfectly the first time around. Thanks, Denzel.
The final components required for my brace of big black bird blasters were barrels.
David Van Horn, who was making T/C carbines long before T/C was, built the elegant little 18 ¼-inch barrel for the .17 HMR, which is plenty long enough to get all the velocity out of the miniature cartridge there is. In fact, Van Horn’s short barrel consistently delivered more velocity than advertised, at least with the initial Hornady Varmint Express V-Max load. The iron sight set mounted on the .17 HMR barrel is simplicity itself, classic Williams aperture, or “peep,” sights. The rear sight consists of a small hole in a thick disc, or ring, which you can unscrew and remove, leaving a thinner ghost ring with a larger hole to look through. The thick ring is a little more precise, the thin one a little quicker. The rear sight adjustment screws don’t move the sights, but loosen them so you can move them by hand. It takes a little hit-and-miss fumbling to get them right, but then you screw them down tight and you’re all set. Front sight is a steel bead on a post. These simple sights are fun to shoot with and satisfying in their effectiveness.
For the .22 Hornet barrel I turned to famous pistolsmith Gary Reeder, who’s done some fine work on T/Cs of all barrel lengths for many years. Reeder started with a stainless steel Shilen blank, put in a match chamber and a deep dish crown for a total barrel length of 20 inches. Where, for the .17, I wanted to enjoy the fundamental satisfaction of looking at my prey with my naked eyes as I pulled the trigger, for the Hornet I wanted to overcome the limitations of those naked eyes. So Reeder equipped his satin stainless barrel with stainless Weaver base and mounts and I added a couple of scope options, one tried and true and one far enough into the future to have a battery in it.
The Weaver Classic 6x38mm scope is a consummate example of simple, elegant and effective sighting equipment. I’ve owned many of these fixed-power Weavers, K-2s, K-4s and K-6s, and they’ve all provided clear, bright, high-resolution images. I wouldn’t trade the vintage K-4 that’s always graced my 35 Whelen for anything in the world.
The Swift 1.5-6x40mm scope with its illuminated reticle is a different bird entirely. The battery-operated illumination can be turned on or off and the intensity controlled by a simple rheostat. The scope works fine in the normal manner, without any illumination, but those neon-like crosshairs are a definite aid to accurate shooting in low-light or heavy-shade conditions.
If you haven’t yet played with the .17 HMR you may be surprised at the spirit of the little cartridge. It is not the .22 of your lost youth. Doesn’t feel like one. Doesn’t sound like one. Doesn’t hit like one. The new rimfire has all the characteristics of a small-caliber centerfire, except the cost.
You might think the impact of a tiny little 17-grain bullet would be negligible, even driven at the advertised 2,550 fps velocity (2,650 in the 18 ¼-inch Van Horn barrel as measured by an Oehler 35P chronograph at an altitude of 7,000 feet.) Tell it to the water-filled two-pound coffee can that jumped eight feet in the air on being introduced to the little projectile, or the two-by-four whose exit wound weakened its will to live, or the soft Ponderosa pine branch that looked like it had been shot with a 30-30. Pity the poor crow who acts like a rook within sight of this belligerent bantamweight. The Hornet pushes a 45-grain bullet at the same velocity, at least in the Remington load which is considerably hotter than the Winchester load. Both rifles are quite devastating in their unpretentious ways, and both easily and quickly shot breast-of-crow and head-of-hare size groups, well beyond a hundred yards with the scope-sighted Hornet.
In the four-pound, 15-ounce Contender, the .17 HMR even has a sort of recoil. Sort of like a tenuous tap on the shoulder from a two-year-old. No, you don’t need earmuffs. The miniature centerfire-like crack it makes on unencumbered ears is quite a bit more pleasant than the surprising concussion of air you feel inside a pair of earmuffs on firing. With earmuffs in place, however, I now know where Hollywood sound effects men get that muffled little whump they use to indicate a silenced pistol. The Hornet is louder, of course, but not by a whole lot. Could be because the same day we put the Hornet through its paces we were shooting a .416 Rigby with an 18 ½-inch barrel and a muzzle brake.
The varmint-stocked, heavy-barrel Hornet, set up with a scope, weighs in at seven pounds, 14 ounces. It’s nicely proportioned to sit on your lap as you rest on a log staring up into the skies of an afternoon, whereas the feathery Contender is a friendly companion to take with you on leisurely strolls down the garden path. In both cases, bring plenty of ammo.
There’s not a lot of difference between the original Contender and the new G-2 action, other than the fading into the sunset of the loved or loathed T/C cougar. The G-2 is, in most ways, just a smaller version of the Encore, though it is quite capable of handling some man-size cartridges. Gary Reeder set his up in a handgun chambered for one of his very hot 41-caliber wildcats and took it to Africa where it was used with definitive success. As you probably know, original Contenders like to be shut smartly rather than squeezed gently closed. That way the safety bar gets out of the way so you don’t have a misfire. You tend to shut it with the same force you’d like the firing pin hit. The new G-2 action doesn’t care how you close it, and it lets you re-cock the hammer after lowering it without having to open the action again.
Both David Van Horn and Gary Reeder engraved little groundhogs or hedgehogs or some kind of alien critter on their custom barrels, but we don’t have any of those around here. What we do have up in the mountains of northern Arizona is an overabundance of ravens. Most people call them crows. And some people call them, well, you know.