Monday, May 07, 2018

BEAR MEDICINE II: HANDGUNS, OR, MAKE MY DAY





Does anyone really think this is a good idea?




 


I had to chuckle when I came across this Remington advertisement in an old pre-WWI era sportsman's magazine, advertising the newly-introduced .380 ACP. The .380 ACP, aka 9-mm Short, would not be my first choice for a 150-pound junkie let alone a 400-pound grizzly sow.


“Da Bears.” In particular, da grizzly bear. Even its Latin classification, given it by the naturalist George Ord in 1815, conjures up fear…Ursus horribilis (“terrifying bear”)…and the mountain men would come to call the grizz “Old Ephraim”. Native American tribes afforded these fierce bears the utmost respect; there was greater honor in slaying a grizzly bear than a human foe.
          Initially, Corps of Discovery Captains Lewis and Clark regarded the Indians’ fear and awe of grizzly bears as rather quaint and actually looked forward to their initial encounters with the grizzly. After all, the Indians had only bows and arrows and inferior smoothbore trade muskets while the Corps of Discovery was armed with the latest greatest military technology in the form of .49-caliber Pennsylvania-style flintlock Model 1792 Contract Rifles. They opined that the grizzly would be no match for skilled riflemen.
          After the first few encounters, they changed their minds, with Lewis noting that grizzlies were “extreemly hard to kill” and Clark describing the grizz as a “verry large and a turrible looking animal.” Clark and one of the men required a total of ten shots from their rifles to finally kill a 600-pound grizzly encountered on May 5, 1805. On May 14th six hunters tried to tackle a grizzly; all six hit the bear with their rifles on the first go-round, after which the bear chased some of the men into the river and some into the bushes as they desperately tried to reload their single-shot front-stuffers. It took a total of eight hits, the last one a headshot, to kill the bear.
          The explorers of the Corps of Discovery would hardly be the last white men to underestimate the strength of the grizzly or over-estimate their own firepower.
           As previously noted, I find the “fact” that pepper spray has been statistically “proven” to be 97% effective in stopping bear charges dubious to say the least. On the other hand, I don’t believe that simple acquisition of a .500 Smith & Wesson Magnum instantly makes you magically bear-proof either.

          Joe Blow can’t just waltz into any sporting goods store, purchase some cannon-sized hogleg revolver with a half-inch bore, and instantly transform himself from mild-mannered Clark Kent into Dirty Harry Callahan. You have to be familiar, proficient and well-practiced with your firearm. I remember an article in an outdoor magazine (Fur-Fish-Game, IIRC) many, many years ago where the author encountered a trout fisherman who was packing a Smith & Wesson Model 29 for protection against bears. When asked how well the Magnum shot, the fisherman replied he did not know because he’d never actually fired the gun.
          Not to burst anyone’s bubble, but it really does not matter how purely “American” your family tree is, your highest score playing Call of Duty, or how many asinine Quentin Tarantino movies you’ve watched…you were not born with some innate ability to handle a pistol like the Sundance Kid.
As a pistolero, I consider myself no more than slightly above average although I started shooting a single-action Colt .22 revolver in my early teens, was later trained on and qualified expert with both military and police sidearms over the years, and still get in routine range practice to this day. In my youth I hunted raccoon with a .22 revolver and I’ve harvested a great many more mountain grouse on the ground with a .22 pistol than I have on the wing with a shotgun. Living where we do, I can do a little plinking whenever I get the urge to. My wife doesn’t do quite as much shooting as I do, but she also practices regularly and has ten years worth of law enforcement training, practice and qualification with handguns.

Elmer and Clint: I bought my .44 Magnum because I watched the guy on the right. I kept it because I learned a great deal from the writings of the guy on the left.


Having seen too many Clint Eastwood movies, I had to purchase a 6-1/2-inch Model 29 on my 21st birthday. I have no idea how many thousands of rounds I’ve put through it in the three decades since, but feeding that .44 was the reason I bought my first reloading kit and I took a whitetail and a mule deer with it while hunting weapons restricted areas back when I still had two fully functional eyes and 20/15 vision in the important one. Nowadays, since I just carry it for protection rather than hunting, I wear a handier 4-inch Model 629, but the principles remain the same.  
From a sheer usability standpoint, one of the first things I did was to install a soft black rubber Hogue Monogrip on my Model 29 to replace the original S&W Goncalo Alves checkered walnut target-style grips. I’m an average guy, not quite 5’10” anymore, and apparently my hands and fingers must be kinda short and stubby compared to Dirty Harry’s, because my hands never did fit around those wood grips very well. When firing pull-patch Magnum loads, in fact, the recoil usually required me to readjust my own grip on said walnut grips after just about every shot. The Hogue grips on the old Model 29 and the black synthetic S&W grips that came on my 629 fit our hands much better, offer more positive control, and seem to help a great deal with at least perceived recoil. I was pleased to later learn that Major John Hatcher had similar problems with the S&W wood grips way back in 1956, so at least I know it’s not just me. a
The point of certain military and police training is to become so familiar with particular tasks that muscle memory and “instinct” take over in a crisis when the brain might temporarily draw a blank or you’re distracted by shit filling your britches. The nice thing about revolvers especially is that you can teach yourself much of what you need to know through dry-fire drills (with Snap-Caps) before honing your technique with live fire. Dry firing (a whole lot of it, anyway) also helps wear in and smooth out the double action on a new revolver. No, I don’t stand in front of the mirror practicing my John Wayne quick draw. I do still occasionally practice, sometimes at home with dry-firing and sometimes at the range with live fire, a smooth draw and transition into a firing stance followed by an accurate double-tap. If you practice smooth, fast will come on its own. 
Thankfully I’ve never had to actually butt heads with a bear, but I have had a few surprise encounters, mostly with black bears, at close quarters out in the woods. None of these encounters required any shooting. The one grizzly bluff charge I witnessed fairly close up was delivered so half-heartedly I knew it was a bluff charge. More often than not, you really can’t tell if it’s a bluff or not until they’re still coming at you full bore inside of twenty yards. When it comes to black bears, every single one of them I’ve personally bumped into immediately swapped ends and headed for the nearest horizon as fast as they could go as soon as they figured out what I was. A couple have risen up on their hind legs initially, but that was just o get a better look at what I was; afterward figuring it out, they also took off running. I’m glad I never had to shoot but nonetheless was quite pleased to note that in each and every encounter my revolver just seemed to appear in my hands, aimed and ready, before I gave the action any deliberate conscious thought. That’s what muscle memory is for.
          Even if you personally happen to be some kind of uberpistolero whose gun play makes Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name in A Fistful of Dollars look like a lame sloth on Quaaludes, not all handguns are created equal and when it comes to grizzlies heeding Robert Ruark’s advice to Use Enough Gun is critical.

 Use as much gun as you can effectively manage.

          I carry a compact .45 ACP for social occasions and wouldn’t want anything but an automatic against two-legged threats. I honestly never understood why American law enforcement agencies clung to the revolver as long as they did. As nice as it might be to have a semi-auto, common defensive handgun calibers like the 9x19mm Parabellum, .40 S&W, .45 ACP and even the much-touted 10mm aren’t really enough gun against a big bruin in a situation in which you are quite literally betting your life.
          There’s an incredible true instance (Bella Twin of Slave Lake, Alberta in 1953) of a Canadian woman killing an extremely large grizzly bear with a .22 Long Rifle. While this proves that it can be done, it’s not something any sane person would set out to do deliberately and/or on a regular basis.
          No matter how big your bore, however, bullet selection is still extremely important. The most commonly available defensive pistol loads are some form of hollowpoint bullet. A hollowpoint is designed to expand quickly upon contact with the target, transferring its energy into the target itself and creating a larger wound cavity. In the grand scheme of things, and especially against two-legged predators, this is greatly desirable, but it is not necessarily universally so. Against a big bear’s thick skull, tough hide, large and dense bones, and multiple stout layers of ropy muscle and watery fat, you need enough penetration for the bullet to reach something vital.
          Case in point, the first time I hunted deer with a .44 Mag, I connected on a rather long (75-80 yards) shot on a forkhorn mulie standing broadside. I was later to find out that the 240-grain JHP did indeed expand well and transfer energy rapidly. Unfortunately, my shot was a bit too far forward on the body and hit the shoulder itself instead of landing right behind it. The JHP hit the shoulder blade and essentially exploded that entire front quarter, leaving the leg literally hanging by a thread. Not a single bullet fragment, however, even came close to penetrating the rib cage beneath and nothing touched the vitals. The result was a long, slow three quarter mile (away from the truck) stern chase across the section before the deer ducked down into an arroyo and I was able to get close enough to administer the coupe de grace.
          I also remember when the Remington Yellow Jacket truncated cone hollowpoint ammo for the .22 Long Rifle came out. When we used those bullets raccoon hunting, where the shot was directed right between the eyes, on more than one occasion this caused the coon to drop from the tree but then hit the ground fighting mad and tangling with the dogs. Later examination revealed that sometimes the hollowpoint would mushroom flat against the exterior of the coon skull inside the hide but not penetrate it. Once upon a time we also needed to put down an injured feeder pig weighing perhaps 125-150 pounds. At a range of only about three or four feet, I drilled him neatly between the eyes with an 85-grain .32 S&W Long jacketed hollowpoint. He just ran off squealing and was later dispatched with a .22 Long Rifle behind the ear.
For handguns, the heaviest available jacketed soft point (JSP) is greatly superior to the jacketed hollow point in this respect, but a heavy hardcast flat-nosed semi wadcutter is even better. Hardcast refers to a bullet constructed with a much harder heat-treated lead alloy which will not easily fragment and/or lose its penetrative power even if it hits solid bone. Expansion isn’t near as important as penetration with a handgun slug that cuts a wound channel damn near a half an inch in diameter the whole way. As Elmer Keith once put it, “A large entrance hole is just as important as a large exit hole; both let blood out of an animal and cold air in.
Avoid cowboy action shooting loads like the plague as bear medicine. Even though some are advertised as “hardcast”, this sport calls for low recoil which comes hand in hand with low velocity as well as lead projectiles soft enough to flatten and fall safely to the dirt after they hit steel targets.
I personally consider the .44 Magnum a good choice since it is about as powerful a package as the average Joe (or Joan) can master. Although it never really caught on as a popular cartridge, the .41 Magnum also comes very close to .44 Mag performance. It’s personally all the smaller I would go and I still know three guys right around my area who carry N-frame Smith & Wesson revolvers in this caliber. What may have been in 1971 Dirty Harry’s “most powerful handgun in the world” has long since been eclipsed in that title by the likes of the .454 Casull, .460 S&W, .475 Linebaugh, .500, etc. Any of these cannonesque calibers would certainly fill the bill when it comes to bear defense if you can handle the weapon effectively and, I might add, if it’s not so big and heavy and cumbersome that you tend not to carry it and thus wind up at the moment of truth armed only with a pocket knife and a nearby rock.
          Beyond a certain point, bigger does not always necessarily equate to better. My wife and I once watched a guy at the range playing with his brand-new X-Frame .500 Smith & Wesson Magnum. It had a 10-1/2-inch barrel, a variable power Burris 2-7x32mm scope mounted atop it, and sling swivels fore and aft for a leather cobra strap. IMHO, when a handgun is too big to be carried in a holster and has to be slung over the shoulder like a rifle, it’s not really a handgun anymore. One really would be better off just toting a decent rifle-caliber carbine at that point.
        


 Is it still a handgun when it requires a sling rather than a holster, and will you always have the big cumbersome thing on your person?

 

          I forget where I originally read the phrase, perhaps it was Jack O'Connor, but the words themselves stuck with me. “A handgun without a holster is like a rifle without a sling.” A handgun’s whole reason for being is portability; it is carried in a holster on your person, secure, out of the way, and hands free until it is actually needed and used. That’s why I went to the 4-inch 629 from the 6-3/8-inch Model 29. It’s small and handy and easy to pack, yet I can still get it into action at a moment’s notice. You can also use a pistol in conjunction with a flashlight or headlamp as well.
          Back to the handgun itself, more than a few people really like the good old .357 Magnum but, even hot-loaded with the heaviest 180-grain bullets, the .357 remains essentially just a fast-stepping .38 Special.
Case in point was “Old Number One”, the first sow grizzly bear to be radio-collared in Yellowstone National Park. When she finally died of old age, the US Fish & Wildlife Service did a necropsy on her. When they did, they were surprised to find six .38-caliber bullets which were well healed over and seemed to have been embedded in her skull for many years with no apparent ill effects. It could not determined if the slugs had been launched at .38 Special or .357 Magnum velocities, but either way they failed to get the job done.
A 1983 US Forest Service study verbosely entitled Safety in BearCountry: Protective Measures and Bullet Performance at Short Range tested a variety of rifles, shotguns and handguns for penetration at the range of 15 yards to determine their effectiveness against bears in short-range self defense encounters. Granted there are plenty of considerably improved projectiles available these days, but these particular showed that the .44 Magnum with the Winchester 240-grain JSP at 1,383 feet per second penetrated 14-1/2 inches (I was surprised to see that even the relatively slow 230-grain FMJ .45 ACP managed 14.2 inches) while the CCI .357 magnum 158-grain JSP at 1,226 fps only penetrated 9-1/2 inches. To be fair I have to note that the testers fired only this one .357 load (and out of a 4-inch barrel at that) but a quick peek at HSM’s Bear Loads still shows the 180-grain .357 Mag delivering 576 foot-pounds of energy while the 305-grain .44 Mag delivers 1,075. The old USFS study’s handgun summary also noted, “The .357 S&W Magnum was the best of the other handgun cartridges, but it was much less effective in all categories than the .44 Remington Magnum.”
Taking into account we’re talking about big ass Alaskan browns and 1983-vintage 240-grain factory loads, the authors also cautioned, “The superiority of the .44 Remington Magum makes it the cartridge choice for a backup [original emphasis] weapon. A revolver using this cartridge should not be considered a primary weapon for protection against bears.”
          For a long time, you had to reload your own ammo to get a good heavy hardcast Keith-style bear load. Eventually, thankfully, the commercial ammunition manufacturers started providing genuine bear loads ready to carry in the woods right out of the box. For the .44 Mag examples include the Federal 300-grain Castcore LFP, the Buffalo Bore 305-grain Heavies, Garrett Cartridge Company’s 310-grain Hammerheads, or the HSM “Bear Loads”. If you’re shooting a Ruger Blackhawk or Redhawk, Buffalo Bore and Garrett have even heavier and more potent +P and +P+ loads up to 340-grains. The wife and I have both gone to the HSM-brand “Bear Loads” made right here in Montana. In our neck of the woods, a box of 50 of these can be had for not much more than what you’d pay for a box of 20 Federals or Buffalo Bores. The HSM .44 Magnum Bear Load launches a flat-nosed 305-grain hardcast SWC at around 1,260 feet per second.



 Leave the hollowpoints at home in bear country; you need penetration rather than rapid expansion.


        
           There are now some ammunition companies making hardcast "bear loads" for the common defensive handgun calibers but I personally wouldn't want to try to stop a grizzly with a sore tooth with a 9mm Parabellum, or even a 10mm for that matter. For non-hunting purposes I also prefer the semi-auto pistol, but most of its advantages over the revolver...larger ammo capacity, faster firing, and rapid reloads...are more important in a gun fight with two-legged predators rather than when it comes to stopping a big bruin.
          In defense against a bear attack, if you don’t settle things with the first couple of shots the party’s probably over anyway. It can very often be extremely hard to tell an actual grizzly attack from one of their frequent bluff charges, so a defensive shooting could occur at distances of fifty feet or even less, with the bear itself covering better than forty feet per second in a flat-out run. That gives you only a second and some small change in which to stop the charge, a purpose most likely better served by getting in one or two well-delivered hits with large, heavy slugs with deep penetration rather than a half a dozen small pills pumped quickly into center mass.
As noted earlier, grizzly bears have a considerable amount of hide, muscle, meat and fat to go through in addition to heavy and dense bone structure. They also have very low heart rates and can continue to wreck havoc for a good ten seconds even if hit right through that particular vital organ. If all that’s available is a head shot, although the brain is directly between the eyes sockets, it is not directly behind them, and is located at the very rear of the skull. The brain is about 3 inches behind the front of the skull plate, which, during a charge, is angled at about 30-degrees, increasing the effective thickness (just as with sloped armor plate on tanks) as well as the chances of deflection. Especially in the old days of blackpowder rifles with their low velocities and soft lead projectiles, a bullet could quite literally bounce right off a bear skull.
          Having recently reread some of Elmer Keith’s books for the umpteenth time, I’ll leave you with his advice in his own words:


“When a grizzly is coming your way, however, a shot to the shoulder on the downhill side of the bear will practically always roll him over and give you time for another hit. It will stop a turn a big bear quicker than a center chest shot as a rule.”
          “In a charge the head is carried low enough to almost cover the base of the neck and upper chest…Bear move fast and a frontal head shot on a fast moving bear is very apt to strike the teeth or the top of the skull, when it may deflect upward. If the bear is still, and the head held low, a shot between the eyes with a powerful rifle will range back into the brain. If the head is carried level with the hunter, the bullet should be aimed into the orifice of the nose. A bullet entering here will drive back through the thin nasal membranes of the skull proper over the brain and penetrate it easily. A sixgun bullet or even a .22 L.R. High Speed solid bullet will usually penetrate to the brain on a big bear when thus directed as there is relatively little to penetrate but nasal membranes and the brain itself has a thin bone covering at the back of the nasal passage.”
          “The brain of a bear…lies in the extreme rear end of the skull and unless the head is low, so the bullet will penetrate the heavy frontal bone squarely, or the head is held high enough for the bullet to go back through the nasal passages to the brain, it may and often does deflect the slug.”
          Lastly, bear in mind (pun intended) once again that the handgun is still essentially the weapon of last resort and even the most powerful Magnum pistol delivers considerably less stopping power than a 12-gauge shotgun, which, in turn, delivers only a fraction of the power of a good centerfire rifle caliber.
Even if I had a Jesse Ventura Predator backpack Mini-Gun, we would still religiously follow the Bear Aware precautions to avoid a confrontation in the first place. I have no desire to ever have to kill a grizzly in self defense but neither do I believe an animal’s life is worth more than a person’s if and when it comes down to a difference of opinion as to who’s actually at the top of the food chain.
And after forty odd years of Federal protection, too many griz have come to think that they are indeed at the top and have, in large part, completely lost their fear of man. Everyone from Teddy Roosevelt through Jack O'Connor to some Montana old-timers I've met all commented on how shy and well-behaved grizzlies in the Lower 48 were back in the days when they got hunted regularly.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

BEAR MEDICINE I: PEPPER SPRAY, OR, 97% MY ASS!





When it comes to protecting myself against bears, I personally prefer firearms. I’m not against pepper spray, mind you, which has indeed proven effective on a great many occasions. For people completely unfamiliar with firearms, pepper spray is a sound and effective choice. It certainly offers a great deal more safety and security recreating in grizzly country than waltzing around completely unarmed.
          I do believe, however, that all of the supposedly empirical “proof” of its effectiveness has been grossly distorted and highly over-rated to the point that it gives people a very dangerously false sense of security.
            Just the other day, I ran across a gun article which said, “Alternatively, 97% of bears are stopped with a 9oz. can of bear spray. Yep I said it, bear spray. Comparing the percentages, a firearm should actually be carried as a second line of defense should the bear spray prove ineffective…I am a believer in math, so ‘I know’ that statistically the odds or survival will favor me should I choose the Bear Spray.”
Similarly, the United States Fish & Wildlife Service…you know, the people who spend American taxpayer dollars to help fund African and Asian elephant habitats at zoos in Europe…puts out a “Fact Sheet” entitled Bear Spray vs. Bullets. It makes such claims as, “…persons encountering grizzlies and defending themselves with firearms suffer injury about 50% of the time.” And, “…a person’s chance of incurring serious injury from a charging grizzly doubles when bullets are fired versus when bear spray is used.”
          Well, the advocates cannot possibly be wrong, since they have math to prove it, right? As the old saying goes, “Statistics don’t lie.” That rather depends on the statistics and how they were garnered. There’s another old adage, generally attributed to Mark Twain, “Figures don’t lie, but liars figure.” Yet another old saying, again apropos, notes, “Torture numbers and they will confess to anything.”
          Although the advocates always say studies (plural) or even numerous studies prove the effectiveness of bear spray, when you seek out this plethora of studies (plural) they pretty much boil down into a single study (singular) that has appeared in a couple of different forms. The 2012 study was researched primarily by BYU professor Tom Smith and author Stephen Herrero and published in the Journal of Wildlife Management under the title of “Efficacy of Bear Deterrent Spray in Alaska.”
          Mankind has been taking out bears with “modern” firearms (loosely defined as ones using self-contained cartridge ammunition) for about a hundred and fifty years, but pepper spray is a comparatively new invention. In wide-spread use for only a couple of decades, it is naturally more difficult to find and compile incidents in which bear spray has been used.
The authors found 72 cases to include in the study. It is interesting to note that out of these 72 cases, 30% involved government personnel engaged in “bear management activities”, only 25 of the bears were considered aggressive, and just 10 cases involved actual bear charges and/or attacks. The majority dealt with curious or non-aggressive bears. On the other hand, 100% of the 197 bear vs. gun incidents chosen for the study involved aggressive bears and bear attacks.
          There seemed to be the scent of cherries being picked in the air when I considered the researchers found fewer than 200 incidents of bear attacks involving guns in Alaska over a 126 year period, especially when you take into account that when it comes to true “bush” Alaskans many minor children and even some household pets are routinely armed with large caliber firearms. Kodiak Island all by its lonesome averages about a dozen Defense of Life/Property incidents (these are common enough in Alaska that they even have their own acronym…DLPs) involving bears and guns every year.
A little digging found a 1999 study conducted by the Alaska Department of Fish & Game (Miller & Tutterrow) entitled Characteristics of Nonsport Mortalities to Brown and Black Bears and Human Injuries From Bears in Alaska. This study documented 2,289 cases within the State of Alaska of people using firearms to defend themselves and/or their property against bears during the period from 1970 to 1996. In this study, fewer than 2% of the incidents involved injuries to humans. One summary noted, “Most of the people shooting brown or black bears in DLP circumstances indicated that no human injury occurred (98.5% for brown bears and 99.2% for black bears).”
Percentage-wise, that comes to only 1.15% of those who used firearms against bears being injured. That’s a helluva long way from the Federale’s “Fact Sheet” claim that you stand a 50-50 chance of injury or death by shooting a bear in self-defense.
It is also interesting to note that the Alaskan state researchers uncovered well over two thousand documented cases over a period of just 26 years; that averages out to 88 attacks per year. Apply that average over a 126-year period and you could potentially have as many as 11,088 bear attacks to study. Examining 72 of those cases amounts to a statistical sampling of 0.65% which, no matter how I try to stretch it, seems to fall a tad bit short of proving anything with 97% certainty.
It was, however, personal experience that led to my own loss of faith in pepper spray. In the US Forest Circus, Department of Aggravation, we used to be required to take a yearly 4-hour block of instruction on the use of pepper spray in order to be “qualified” to carry it for protection in bear country. I recall most clearly the training session taught by a lady biologist. Pepper spray was much more effective than a firearm, she began, because an ex-boyfriend had taken her out shooting once and she wasn’t able to hit anything, thus proving that guns are ineffective. Since this was undoubtedly true from her personal perspective, I was willing to let that slide.
Other information during the training also made me go hhhmmmm. While the instructor claimed that pepper spray was indeed “proven” effective against bears, she admitted that it might not necessarily work against large felines or canines, and legally could not be used as protection against two-legged varmints.
          When we went outside for the practical demonstration of pepper spray, the class became truly enlightening. The instructor unlimbered the canister of pepper spray which she personally carried on duty in the woods and let fly. Only a small bit of liquid substance oozed rather sluggishly out of the nozzle and dribbled down her fingers. She washed her hands thoroughly, broke out a brand new can of pepper spray still in the plastic wrapper, and took another poke at it. This can sprayed for somewhere close to a good three quarters of a second before it also just up and quit entirely. But the THIRD can, also brand-new in the wrap, worked as advertised, “proving” its superiority over a firearm by streaming out in a fan-shaped pattern.
          I, of course, had a huge problem with the whole one-in-three success rate. That did not inspire much confidence. I sure as hell wouldn’t advocate carrying a revolver if I could only count on two out of the six cartridges actually going off when I dropped the hammer.
There was no wind that particular day, either. Knowing my luck, I always kind of figured that if I ever had to use pepper spray it would be at the exact moment I was facing into a 40 mph headwind. Dispersion and blow-back due to wind is certainly possible, although IIRC it was only listed as a factor in 7% of the cases studied. Consider also that while you may be able to defend yourself against a bear with spray, you may very well be SOL when it comes to protecting a partner or friend standing only five or ten yards away.
Lastly, I personally used pepper spray in an attempt to run a problem black bear out of a campground. I can’t recall the brand name, but the stuff I used was the USFS approved, recommended and issued capsaicin-based spray. On my first attempt, I sprayed the bear in the face out the truck window at a distance of 20-25 feet. This failed to impress the bear in question, a 2 or 3 year-old blackie that probably wouldn’t have weighed more than 150 pounds soaking wet. After being sprayed in the face, he snorted, shook his head vigorously, and ambled away in a leisurely fashion further into the campground. I headed him off at the pass and gave him another dose of pepper spray at similar range. This time he made a couple of sneezing noises, rubbed at his face and eyes irritatedly with a paw, then looked straight at me and growled. With a final snort he continued on his way, back into the campground, in no big hurry. A third application was mostly scattered by the wind, but the bear finally felt harassed enough to stroll unhurriedly off into the woods for the moment. He was back raiding the campground within the hour.
          Between all these incidents, I eventually became completely underwhelmed by the effectiveness of pepper spray. If I were an academic, I could cherry pick my own personal “statistics” and author a study substantiating that pepper spray has a 66% failure-to-fire rate and has been proven in the field to be 100% ineffective against black bears.
          I am making no such ludicrous claims. Even I readily admit that such a small sampling is essentially worthless for the purposes of statistical proof. It would be as ridiculous as, say, specifically singling out a mere 0.65% of bear attacks spread out over a century and a quarter.
          I’m not saying, nor do I believe, that pepper spray is worthless or ineffective. It is a viable and valuable option that can greatly increase your personal safety in case of a bear attack. It can work quite effectively and has most certainly been used successfully on a great many occasions over the past couple of decades. It has saved lives, both human and ursine. Especially for people who don’t know anything about guns, it is an obvious choice. Pepper spray certainly beats the hell out of walking around the woods completely defenseless.
          I am saying that, mainly for political reasons, the powers-that-be have intentionally over-stated the true effectiveness of pepper spray while deliberately denigrating the use of firearms. It is not omnipotent and infallible; simply buying a can does not instantly render you 97% invulnerable in bear country. It’s more a last line of defense for when all else goes wrong and the bear shit hits the fan and you have no other options. Ironically, I can say exactly the same thing when it comes to the big-bore handguns I prefer.
          If you chose to carry pepper spray, I would offer a few words of advice. Not all pepper sprays are equal; you don’t want the personal defense or law enforcement sprays designed for use against people. What you need should contain capsicum and be clearly labeled, “For deterring attacks by bears.” Minimum size of the canister should be 7.9 ounces and it should have a minimum spray distance of 25 feet and a spray duration of at least 6 seconds. A larger size is obviously valuable in case more than one application is required to deter a bear.
          As with even the most powerful weapon available, pepper spray is worthless if, at the moment of truth, it is buried in your pack and inaccessible. Even worse is to carry it attached to the exterior of the pack, where it’s both difficult to reach quickly as well as susceptible to getting snagged in the brush where it could accidentally triggered, depleting your defenses while potentially giving you a nice incapacitating dose to boot.
Carry pepper spray on your person and easily accessible at all times; the good brands come with a holster that can be attached to a belt. Practice drawing the can from its holster and removing the plastic safety clip until you can do so smoothly and easily with no fumbling around. Pay close attention to the expiration date and test fire the canister at least once at the beginning of each season. Since I spend a great deal of time in the mountains every year, doing activities that involve my gear getting occasionally jostled, bumped or dropped, if I relied entirely upon pepper spray, I would simply purchase a brand new canister at least every other year regardless of the expiration date. Even though pepper spray is not our primary means of defense, we still carry it, and replace it with a new can every third year.
Lastly, in an attack you need to concentrate the spray cloud directly in the bear’s face or just in front of it. There is somewhat of a “recoil” type of effect when holding down the button on the spray can that can tend to lift your hand a bit and thus disperse the spray pattern upwards. Be sure to keep the cloud down and concentrated where it will do the most good.
          Although my wife and I both carry .44 Magnum revolvers and pepper spray in the woods, neither one is our primary defense against bear attacks. Our primary defense is avoiding bear attacks in the first place by maintaining good situational awareness and practicing all of the “Bear Aware” methods of avoiding a confrontation altogether.
          Of course, sometimes shit happens no matter what precautions you take. I’ve cleaned up some unbelievable messes people have left in the woods. You and your party may be scrupulously following all of the best practices only to discover that the previous campers dumped fifty pounds of garbage a stone’s throw away from your present campsite. Or it could just be one of those times when Murphy’s Law decides to kick in.
          While we do carry pepper spray as a non-lethal alternative if the situation allows, for us it is Plan B. Plan A remains the revolver because I know it will go “bang” each and every time I pull the trigger, the ammunition won’t “go bad” over time, it can be used with equal effectiveness against multiple threats and species, and not even the stiffest of headwinds will blow a 300-grain bullet back in my face.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

OF RIFLES AND RIFLEMEN: THE MIGHTY FINNS



In the 1939-1940 Winter War, the Finns made good use of skis for mobility, white snow smocks for camouflage, and a tradition of marksmanship skills to savage the Russian bear.


Western academics being, in general, rather favorable towards Communism, most Americans have only heard about a single threat to humanity when the world stood on the brink of World War Two; Adolph Hitler and his Nazi Party. At the time, however, the Soviet Union was ruled by an equally power-mad, paranoid and blood-thirsty dictator by the name of Joseph Stalin. The body count is so high that no one really knows, but it has been estimated that Stalin’s state-sponsored famines, purges, secret police and gulags killed at least twice as many Russian citizens as the Nazis did during the course of the Second World War.
          On August 23, 1939 the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-aggression Pact. Although the Soviets did not publicly acknowledge it until the late 1980’s, secret codicils within the non-aggression pact divided the smaller nations of Eastern Europe up like so many poker chips into “Spheres of Influence” that “belonged” to either the Nazis or the Soviets.
          On September 1st, 1939, Nazi Germany launched a swift invasion of Poland with its new style of Blitzkrieg warfare that proved highly successful. Sixteen days later all hope of continued resistance was crushed when the Soviet Union rolled across the eastern borders of Poland with 33 more divisions. As per yet another secret protocol of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Poland was divided along pre-determined boundaries between Germany and Russia. 

The 1939 Nazi-Soviet Non-aggression Pact included secret codicils in which Hitler and Stalin divided up the nations of Eastern Europe and the Baltic like so many poker chips.


          Stalin wasted no time in bringing the rest of his “sphere” under Soviet control. The Baltic countries of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were diplomatically blackmailed into signing “defense pacts” with the Soviet Union. Immediately afterwards, Soviet troops quickly occupied all three countries to “defend” them, and their people, land and resources were absorbed into the Soviet Union.
          Only Finland refused to give in to Soviet demands. This, in itself, took considerable balls. At the time, Finland encompassed 149,000 square miles and had a population of less than four million people, smaller than the city of Leningrad by itself, while the Soviet Union stretched across two continents and occupied 8,649,500 square miles, almost of sixth of the Earth’s land mass, and had a population of 180,000,000. A military contest between the two nations was likened to David and Goliath.

          The Soviets were more than happy to resort to military force when diplomatic arm-twisting failed. In an almost ludicrously transparent false flag operation, Red Army artillery bombarded the Russian border village of Mainila. The Soviets claimed tiny Finland had attacked them and they were forced, in self defense, to immediately launched massive well-prepared invasions at numerous points along the 800 mile long Finnish border. By the end of the 100-day war, the Russian colossus would commit four times the men, guns, tanks and planes that the combined Western Allies mustered for the D-Day invasion of Normandy in 1944. In total, 58 Soviet divisions were committed. Against them, the Finns could muster only ten divisions ill-equipped with modern or heavy weapons.
          In the initial attacks, the Red Army would use more than 2,500 tanks, the most numerous models being the T-26 light infantry tank and the BT fast tanks, but also including behemoths like the multiple-turret T-28 medium and a few of the new heavily armored KV-1 heavy tanks. The Finns possessed only a handful of old WWI-vintage French Renaults and a few recently acquired British Vickers 6-ton light tanks whose weapons had not even been installed at the start of the war. Although the Finnish Defense Forces had adopted the modern Swedish Bofors 37-mm anti-tank gun, less than 50 were in service at the beginning of the war. Lacking any other means, Finnish soldiers had to learn on-the-job to attack Soviet armor in close-range infantry assaults using demolition charges and the ultimate poor man’s anti-tank weapon, the Molotov cocktail.
          In the air, the Red Air Force brought in more than 3,800 aircraft, including some of its best and most modern types such as the Tupolev SB, Ilyushin DB-3, and the stubby but fast and well-armed Polikarpov I-16. Opposing them, the tiny Finnish Air Force could muster a grand total of 114 aircraft of all types, many of which were old and out-dated aircraft, fabric-covered biplanes from the 1920’s like the Bristol Bulldog, Blackburn Ripon, and Fokker C.V. While the Finns had begun to acquire some modern anti-aircraft guns such as the Swedish Bofors 40-mm and Czech Skoda 75-mm guns and their ack-ack gunners would prove to be quite accurate, there were always too few guns available to properly defend even the larger cities let alone the field armies.
          Artillery has traditionally been a Russian military strong suite and the Winter War was no exception. The guns included modern 120-mm heavy mortars and their excellent 76.2-mm field guns and went all the way up to the colossal B-4 203-mm super heavy howitzer capable of hurling a 220-pound shell to a range of ten miles. A Soviet infantry regiment boasted three times the number of supporting artillery pieces as a Finnish regiment and in general enjoyed unlimited ammunition supply. What artillery the Finns could muster was often quite old--fully a third of their entire artillery park consisted of old Tsarist Russian Model 1902 76-mm field guns—and calls for fire were limited by a lack of radio communication gear below the regimental level. Even for the weapons on hand the Finns had only a 21-day supply of artillery shells stockpiled.
          The naval equation was, of course, just as lopsided. The Soviet Baltic Fleet boasted two battleships, a heavy cruiser, nearly 20 destroyers, fifty motor torpedo boats, and 52 submarines, plus assorted smaller ancillary craft. The Finnish Navy had two fairly modern coastal defense ships, five submarines, four gunboats, seven motor torpedo boats, one minelayer and six minesweepers. The Finns also possessed some fortified coastal artillery batteries but only a few had modern fortifications, guns and fire control gear while the vast majority were old-fashioned left-overs from the Tsarist Russian period.
          Red Army troops involved in the Winter War ran the gamut from crack modern mechanized divisions to hastily recalled conscript reservists who had not fired a rifle in three years. Many were ill-prepared and equipped for Arctic winter conditions. The greatest handicap, however, was in leadership. Always paranoid about any potential rivals for his position, one of Joseph Stalin's many purges decimated the highest ranks of the Red Army in 1937. Falling beneath the axe were three of five marshals, 13 of 15 army commanders, 50 of 57 corps commanders, and 154 of 186 divisional commanders. Soviet Army units at the time also had attached "coequal" political commissar officers who could contradict, over-rule or, in extreme cases, even execute military commanders in the field. 
          The entire watching world expected a rapid, smashing victory like the Blitzkrieg of Poland. Thus everyone, including many Finns, were stunned when, after the first month of heavy combat, the ill-equipped and grossly out-numbered Finnish Defense Forces had essentially fought the gigantic Russian bear to a standstill. Although the Western democracies expressed great admiration and support for the tiny Finnish David attempting to slay the gigantic Russian Goliath, said support consisted almost entirely of politicians spouting words in lieu of weapons, ammunition, or men.
A Finnish word helps to explain their stubborn resistance in the face of overwhelming odds; sisu. The word sisu does not translate directly into English, but can be summed up variously as courage, bravery, or guts. With a nod to John Wayne, I liked to translate it as “True Grit.” As but one example, when the avalanche of Soviet troops first poured towards the thin outpost line of Finnish border troops during the opening of the offensive, some nameless Finnish soldier, with a combination of military gallows humor and a good dose of sisu made a comment that would become something of a catch-phrase about the Winter War. “So many Russians. Where will we bury them all?”

The Finns were also, as a people, completely united together against this Russian aggression of their homeland. Even the fairly large number of Finnish Communist Party members quickly and eagerly answered their nation’s call to colors. The Soviets almost immediately installed and boasted about a Quisling-like puppet government which served only to enrage and further unite Finns of all political stripes. With such a small population to draw from, some 130,000 Finnish women became “Lottas.” The Lotta Sv√§rd was a volunteer auxiliary organization whose members filled important jobs vacated by men called up for military service, served in hospitals, manned the air raid warning system, and performed other military support tasks to free up men for the fighting front.
Across large portions of Finland, the land itself aided the defense; vast expanses of thick conifer forest, muskeg, and an endless maze of rivers and streams connecting nearly 200,000 lakes restricted Soviet motorized and armored forces to the handful of existing and easily ambushed roads. Nearly a third of the terrain lies north of the Arctic Circle so the bitter cold and snowfall also aided the Finns. With a largely rural population and a scant road network, most Finns learned how to cross-country ski at an early age. When the snows came, the Finnish ski troops enjoyed a great advantage in mobility and speed while the Soviet infantry was left to wallow slowly through the deep powder on foot. Under ideal snow conditions, specialty ski troops such as reconnaissance detachments and jaeger light infantry units could cover as much as 60 kilometers in a day. Orienteering, locating a fixed marker via compass and map, had been a popular pre-war sport in Finland, and this skill also proved of great military value. Many Finnish soldiers fought on intimately familiar ground they had literally grown up on.
          In his excellent history of the Winter War, A Frozen Hell, author William R. Trotter points out, “The forest itself dictated a heavy emphasis on individual initiative and small-unit operations, quasi-guerilla style. Marksmanship, mental agility, woodcraft, orienteering, camouflage, and physical conditioning were stressed, and parade-ground niceties were given short shrift.”[i]
          The Finnish military was armed primarily with the same Mosin-Nagant 7.62x54R bolt-action rifles as their Soviet opponents, having captured vast stocks of them when they declared their independence during the chaos of the Russian Revolution. The design of the weapon itself dated back to 1891. The basic rifle was over 48 inches long, with a barrel length just under 29 inches, and an empty weight of about 9 pounds. The bolt action featured a straight bolt handle and the five-shot integral box magazine had a steel well that protruded beneath the stock.
The standard captured Russian weapons were, of course, not good enough for the Finns with their passion for shooting and accuracy. They quickly set about on a program to improve their Mosin-Nagants, culminating with the M39, which soldiered on in Finnish military service for training and reserve use into the 1970s.  Both Finland and the Czech Republic still issue Army sniper rifles built around M91 Mosin Nagant actions.

With little industry to equip an army, the Finns instead made improvements and upgrades to their existing stock of captured Russian Mosin-Nagant M/91 rifles, and the Finnish models are still regarded as the best of the breed.


At the time of the Winter War, the Finns had improved their stocks of basic '91 Mosin-Nagant rifles into the M1927 and the M1928/30 Mosin-Nagant, the latter still respected as the very best of the entire M-N line. The Finns insisted on new and improved sights including an adjustable flat-topped front blade sight which was, on the M1929/30, protected by two heavy metal “ears”, which led to the Finns nicknaming the weapon the “Pystykorva" after a breed of dog with similar erect ears.

Finnish Mosins were also re-barreled with much better grades of steel, some of the barrels being made in Germany until Finland could produce her own. On the m/28 rifles, the heavy, stiff Mosin trigger pieces were polished and fitted with an additional spring to create a crisp take up in the trigger slack. The m/28-30 went a step further and also re-shaped the trigger to create a better pull. An aluminum sleeve around the barrel where it fit into the nosecap of the forestock essentially “floated” the barrel for superior accuracy.
The 7.62x54R round had a rimmed cartridge case like the British .303, so reloading was best accomplished with a 5-shot stripper clip since loading single cartridges without paying close attention could lead to overlapping rims causing jams during feeding. The Finns produced new magazines with “dimples” pressed into the metal, a simple modification that largely prevented interlocking cartridge rims; these magazines were factory marked “HV”, an abbreviation for a Finnish word which essentially translates as “Jam Free.”
During WWII, Finnish 7.62x54R ammunition was manufactured mostly by Sako and the VPT State Cartridge Factory, now better known as Lapua. They used high quality materials and produced the ammunition to tight specifications and it had a fine reputation for accuracy. The refurbished Finnish Mosin-Nagants had to meet an accuracy test-fire standard of no more than 1.3-inch groups at 100 meters before they were approved for service.
The John Moses Browning of Finland, Aimo Johannes Lahti, was a self-taught mechanical genius who was instrumental in up-grading existing military weapons and designing new ones. In total, he designed some fifty weapons ranging from pistols to anti-aircraft guns. These included the M/26 Lahti-Saloranta light machine gun, intended to be the Finnish Browning Automatic Rifle, and the L-35 9-mm automatic pistol, which remained the standard Finnish sidearm until the 1980’s, and the intriguing L-39 20-mm anti-tank rifle. His greatest masterpiece, however, is generally considered to be the famous Model 31 Suomi 9mm submachine gun. This weapon so impressed the Soviets during the Winter War that parts of its design, especially the 71-round drum magazine, were widely copied in creating the Russian PPsH-41 “burp gun.” Finland’s stocks of various old Russian and German-made Maxim water-cooled medium machine guns were being up-graded to Lahti’s Model 32-33 standard, considered the best of the Maxim line. Improvements included metallic-link ammunition belts, a cyclic firing rate boosted to 850 rounds per minute, and a large lid on the barrel’s water cooling jacket so Finnish gunners could simply stuff handfuls of readily available snow into the gun to keep it cool.
 Finnish weapons were all noted for their accuracy, and the average Finnish soldier knew well how to take advantage of that virtue. Hunting and shooting competitions were both popular with the largely rural population. Both the Finnish regular Army as well as the Civil Guard also put great emphasis upon individual marksmanship. In particular, the Finnish Civil Guard or Suojeluskunta (Sk), similar only in certain aspects to the American National Guard concept, devoted a great deal of time and effort to shooting. They built literally hundreds of rifle ranges in small towns around the country, held frequent shooting competitions, and tried to make shooting the national sport. During the 1930’s their focus on sport shooting, i.e. firing the smallest groups at known distances, shifted to emphasize more military-oriented events, which stressed, in addition to accuracy, speed of fire and rapid reloading while shooting at unknown distances. In this Combat Range training, conventional paper bullseyes were replaced with mechanically-controlled man-shaped silhouette targets which dropped when hit. Some ranges grew large enough to support company-sized live-fire exercises, and one range could accommodate regimental-sized live-fires.

 Finland hosted the 1937 World Shooting Championships in Helsinki, with the Finnish rifle team and individual shooters winning the gold.

Beginning in 1897, the International Shooting Sport Federation’s (ISSF) World Shooting Championships were held either annually or bi-annually, except when interrupted by the two World Wars. From 1911 to 1962, the championships included the 300-meter Army Rifle Event, in which all shooters were required to compete with the military-issue rifle of the host nation. At the 1935 Championships in Rome, Italy, the Finnish team came in first place as the medal count winner.
The World Shooting Championships were hosted by Finland in Helsinki in 1937. Finnish President P. E. Svinhufvud, himself an avid shooting competitor, personally led the opening ceremonies for the event on July 30th. Using Civil Guard M/28-30 Mosin-Nagants, the Finnish rifle team walked away with the gold championship cup, led by individual gold medal winner Olavi Elo, who set a new world record in the International Army Matches. Shooting was also the national sport in Switzerland but two years later at the 1939 Swiss Shooting Festival (Schutzenfest) in Lucerne, although the Swiss Service Rifle Team edged out the Finnish team for first place, the Finns captured the Free Rifle event, and the Estonian team captured the medal count.
          Individual Finnish soldiers and snipers accomplished some impressive feats with their upgraded Mosin-Nagants, most with just the standard open sights. One amazing Finn stands out in particular as one of the greatest snipers of the Second World War. Corporal Simo Haya, using an M/28 Mosin with standard open sights, was credited with over 500 confirmed sniping kills before he was seriously wounded and sent to hospital. He also accounted for around 200 more Russians with a Suomi submachine gun in close range actions.

A Finnish sniper, well camouflaged and protected from the cold, waits patiently for a Russian target.

        It was not just snipers who played a part in the Winter War, but the widespread marksmanship skill of the ordinary infantry riflemen counted for a great deal as well. Especially towards the latter part of the war when Finnish artillery and mortar ammunition was nearly depleted, Soviet infantry assaults were repelled time and again with “nothing more” than accurate small arms fire from rifles and machine guns.
In a battle on frozen Lake Tolvajarvi, three platoons of Finnish infantry under the command of Lieutenant Eero Kivela ambushed an entire Russian battalion by themselves. The Finns had only their rifles; their few Maxim machine guns had been left behind with another platoon in defensive positions. The Russians soldiers were strung out across the pure white expanse of the frozen lake, without any snow camouflage, their brown uniforms making them easily identifiable targets. At first light, Kivela’s men opened fire from their concealed positions. Caught in the open, the Soviets were mown down by the intense, accurate rifle fire. When they managed to retreat to the cover of the woods, they left behind at least 200 dead on the ice.
          Near the town of Jehkila, a lone Finnish automatic rifle team, well camouflaged, held up the advance of an entire Soviet regiment for almost an hour by mowing down every Red Army soldier or squad that attempted to push forward. In the Joutsijarvi sector in late December, a Soviet company commander with the 122nd Division recounted how his battalion made three separate frontal attacks across a frozen lake in attempt to take a Finnish village. Each time, the Finnish defenders chopped them to pieces with a deadly hail of small arms fire. At the end of the second assault, the officer had only 38 men left standing from his entire company. After the third and final assault, in excess of two-thirds of the entire battalion lay dead on the ice.

     In the fighting on the Kollaa Front, the Soviets attempted a new tactic. Individual soldiers would advance behind an armored shield mounted on skis, pushing it ahead of them as they crawled forward. An admiring Finnish soldier described how a sniper in his unit dealt with one machine gun-armed shield by shooting through the narrow firing slit. “There was an opening in the shield about one half inch high and two and one half inches wide for aiming. I could hardly see it, but obviously the man with the [sniper rifle] saw it better. We heard a shot and the Russian’s helmet rolled on the ground.”


 The Soviet introduction of ski-mounted armored shields for riflemen and machine gunners did not prove successful against Finnish sharpshooters.

          Other Finnish sharpshooters adopted the tactic of crawling silently ahead of their main line of resistance and into No-Man’s Land to take out the men behind the armored shields from the flanks, with shots to exposed legs and buttocks. In the brutal combat defending the Mannerheim Line in the Summa area in mid-February, the Soviets sent forward a large number of these armored sleds. A lone Finnish lieutenant by the name of Kussala, equipped with a scoped sniper rifle, slithered alone out into no-man’s-land and began hunting these sleds. In one morning’s work, he took out fifteen such sleds by picking off the men behind them before he had to retire to Finnish lines when he ran short of ammunition, having to find shelter in an abandoned trench when a Soviet tank crew spotted him and tried to run him over. The next day, Kussala took a volunteer group of infantrymen with him on another such foray into No-Man’s Land. They returned in possession of thirty Russian armored sleds which they put to use bolstering the artillery-battered Finnish fighting positions.
          In the far north, two hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle, the Port of Petsamo was Finland’s only harbor on the Arctic Sea and the area contained the most productive nickel mines and largest smelter in Europe. Nickel being a vital component in the alloys used to manufacture aircraft motors and submarine Diesel engines, this made the area an important strategic target coveted by Allies and Axis alike. Petsamo was not strongly garrisoned due to its sheer isolation from any other population centers; 250 miles of the newly constructed Arctic Highway was the only tenuous land connection to Roveneimi, the nearest city of any size and the railroad system.
          Thus, Petsamo was rather weakly defended by only a single company of Covering Troops supported by one artillery battery of four ancient 1887-vintage field guns, the 76mm ammunition for which was so old that nearly half the rounds fired proved to be duds. The Soviets attacked from land and sea, pouring in two full infantry divisions supported by combat aircraft from Murmansk and heavy naval gunfire from the fleet. The tiny Finnish garrison was, of course, quickly overwhelmed.
As December temperatures quickly plunged to thirty below zero, the Soviets attempted to advance southwards on the new Arctic Highway, and the Finnish defenders fell back ahead of them with endless delaying tactics and a “scorched earth” policy that left nothing of value to the invaders. This was especially bitter for the Finns, who had painstakingly attempted to build up their Arctic infrastructure over the previous two decades.
The Finnish Army could spare no formations of regular troops from the desperate struggles on the Karelian Isthmus and Lake Ladoga area, so the defenders were mostly Civil Guardsmen and recalled reservists, and their numbers never exceeded much more than battalion strength. But these men were also largely hearty outdoorsmen…farmers, loggers, miners, trappers, fishermen, and hunters…who were intimately familiar with and well acclimatized to the harsh landscape that they called home. The Lapland Fells, a vast stretch of barren, wind-swept treeless tundra, seemed to offer very little in the way of concealment, cover or natural defensive terrain. The Finns were aided by the cloak of darkness offered by the long Arctic nights, their greatly superior mobility on skis, and their sharpshooting.
As Trotter put it, “Only rarely did the Soviet invaders see an opponent; if they did, it was an instant’s hallucination, a flickering blur of motion as a snow-suited guerilla flashed across the grayed-out horizon. But there were sniping parties that contested every kilometer of their advance, composed of Lapland natives who had tracked bear and wolves over this same ground and who could drill a man through the head at 1,000 meter with their first shot.”[i]

 "The Finns were excellent shots."

  While perhaps a bit over-stated, the Finnish riflemen really did take an incredible toll and exhibit superb shooting. During the Second World War, as supporting arms rather than small arms took over the lion’s share of destruction upon the enemy, the usual ratio of casualties ran to 4 wounded for every man killed. In his official after-action reports, Soviet commander General Valerian Forlov said, “The fighters were well prepared, and in some battles we lost more killed than wounded. To correlate the losses, there were 60 killed and 40 wounded per 100 [casualties]. The Finns were excellent shots.”
          In addition to sniping and delaying tactics, small Finnish units, usually of about platoon strength, began to probe and strike deep behind enemy lines, attacking isolated Red Army outposts, ambushing convoys on the Arctic Highway, and blowing up supply dumps and bridges. By the time the war ended, the Soviet 14th Army’s push southwards from Petsamo had essentially ground to a standstill. The constant raids had forced the greatly superior attacking force to go on the defensive, building a chain of fortified positions every 5-6 miles along the highway and patrolling between these strongpoints with tanks just to keep the only trafficable road open. 
      In heavily forested central Finland near the town of Suomussalmi, the Soviet 9th Army attacked westward with the intention of cutting the entire country off at its narrow “waist” and some of the most famous and punishing battles of the Winter War were fought there. Surrounded by dense forest and inhospitable Finnish terrain, the first two Soviet divisions to attack, the 163rd and 44th Rifle Divisions supported by a tank brigade, were restricted to the only two trafficable routes; the Juntusranta and Raate Roads. The two Russian columns combined had a strength of nearly 50,000 men while at their peak the Finnish defenders numbered only 11,500.

          In a series of raids and battles large and small that lasted a full month, the vastly outnumbered Finnish defenders first halted, then segmented and eventually decimated the 163rd and 44th Divisions, whose vehicles, artillery and armor kept them road-bound in two long, thin columns stretching for miles. With what came to be called motti tactics, the Finns began to fragment the Soviet column and then isolate and destroy each pocket. Roughly translated, mottis are Finnish “cords” of wood, stacked in separate piles through the woods, waiting to be cut up into stove lengths. Although the Russians outnumbered the Finns by a factor of four-to-one and possessed an overwhelming superiority in tanks, artillery and aircraft, the Finns were able to use their skis for greatly superior tactical mobility and were able to support their units via hastily constructed “winter roads”, often utilizing frozen lakes and water courses to travel on through the deep woods. Small, fast formations of white-clad Finnish ski troops conducted endless hit-and-run attacks and harassed the flanks of the stretched out 20-mile-long Red Army road-bound column.
          These shock attacks from out of the snowy nights were often conducted by men armed with Suomi submachine guns and grenades, but sharpshooters often accompanied them with the express purpose of targeting Soviet officers. Likewise, during the day, Finnish snipers waited patiently for hours in the cold to get a shot at a Russian officer. Recalling the effectiveness of the Finnish snipers, one Soviet officer wrote, “They were able to get their man at distances of 800 to 1,000 yards. They fired but rarely, and never missed.”
These constant attacks led Russian Commander Vinogradov to believe he faced much larger Finnish forces than actually existed. His 44th Division was forced to forgot about relieving the 163rd a mere six air miles away and had to concentrate…futilely, as it turned out…on just saving itself. Desperate to stay alive in nighttime temperatures that could reach as low as -40 degrees Fahrenheit, the Russian soldiers huddled around large open bonfires, making easy targets for Finnish rifles reaching out from the edge of the dark forest. Counter-attacks to break through the Finnish roadblocks to regroup the isolated units were bloodily repulsed. In the cold, the radiators of the Russian motor vehicles froze solid and motor oil congealed, disabling their tanks, trucks, and armored cars, and even weapons lubricants thickened to make guns sluggish or inoperable.

Two entire Soviet divisions, the 163rd and 44th, were decimated in the month-long "Motti" battles in the Suomussalmi area.


Beyond their mobility, the Finns issued almost all their troops with white winter camouflage smocks and appropriate warm winter clothing, especially boots. As temperatures fell to -30 and -40 degrees, the Finns brought up and erected their 20-man tents, heated by small wood-burning stoves, hidden in the forests. Their soldiers were able to snatch periods of sleep in relative comfort on browse beds of pine boughs while the Russians were literally freezing to death, sometimes within a half a mile of the snug Finns. When temperatures were at their lowest, Finnish troops were rotated to warming tents every few hours.
          In contrast, the Russian soldier endured incredible hardship just trying to survive the weather, let alone the Finns: “…the Russians huddled around open campfires or dug holes in the snow for shelter. At best, they had an improvised lean-to, a shallow hole covered with branches, or a branch ‘hut’ fashioned at the roadside or in a ditch. The fortunate ones had a fire in a half barrel. Many literally froze to death in their sleep. ..Finnish estimates put Russian losses from the cold as high as their battle casualties.”[i]
          The Finns also equipped their units with their own small, efficient multi-purpose gas stoves that gave off virtually no smoke so that the troops could not only heat bivouac shelters, but provide their own warm meals and hot tea whenever possible, especially before going into action or on long flanking movements. In the Arctic, a hot, nutritious meal is about far more than comfort or morale; it can quite literally be the different between life and death in the cold. A large amount of calories, and especially proteins, carbohydrates and fats, are needed for the human body to simply maintain its core body temperature in the Arctic. Even under ideal conditions, Soviet field rations, which relied upon black bread as the main staple, were often found lacking.
At the same time, Finnish ski troops also deliberately targeted and destroyed as many Russian field kitchens as they could. The large box-shaped bakeries, stove pipes, smoke and steam made these field kitchens readily identifiable targets for Finnish raids, snipers and mortars. When a particular motti contained too many tanks or too much firepower to be subdued by force, the Finns simply surrounded it, destroyed the field kitchens, and let the cold and hunger whittle down the Soviet numbers and resolve.
          The battles raged from December 7th, 1939 until January 8th, 1940. In the end, only stragglers of the two decimated Soviet divisions limped back across the border after having sustained as many as 27,500 men killed or missing. The Finns captured alive only 2,100 half-frozen and half-starved survivors wandering the woods. On the Raate Road, where the 44th Division met its demise, the Finns captured intact vast (for them) stocks of weapons intact, many of which were quickly re-issued to Finnish units. The booty included 43 tanks, 71 artillery pieces, 29 anti-tank guns, some 300 motorized vehicles, 1,170 horses, thousands of rifles and hundreds of machine guns along with large quantities of ammunition, medical supplies and, perhaps most important to the Finns, modern wireless communications gear. Finnish casualties totaled 1,750, including roughly a thousand wounded and 750 killed or missing.
 Alas, as Stalin himself supposedly once said, “Quantity is a kind of quality.” Such was his dictatorial power that he had to answer to no one and he could simply send in more and more Red Army units until, almost literally, there were more Soviet bodies than Finnish bullets to stop them.

Despite victories elsewhere, the war was decided primarily on the strategic Karelian Isthmus which was defended by the fortifications and barriers of the Mannerheim Line. The Soviets pummeled the Finnish defenses with as many as a quarter million artillery shells per day, around the clock, for ten days; hundreds of planes swarmed overhead dropping tons of bombs. After each bombardment thousands of Russian infantrymen supported by hundreds of tanks hurled themselves against the defenders. The Soviets suffered staggering casualties in these terrible frontal assaults. Some Finnish machine gunners were quite literally driven insane from slaughtering hundreds of men day after day.
Each assault, however, killed more and more of the already depleted and shell-shocked Finnish defenders, and no reserves were available. The Soviets, on the other hand, could simply throw fresh units into the attack the following day. One by one, the bunkers and forts were pummeled to ruin by endless artillery fire. Finnish ammunition stocks, especially artillery shells, were rapidly dwindling away. Eventually, after months of brutal fighting and tremendous bloodshed, the sheer weight of numbers ground down the fierce Finns.
On March 12, 1940, through a convoluted series of diplomatic negotiations, the Finns were bitterly forced to sue for peace and surrender large tracts of their territory to the Russians, so that more than 400,000 Finns lost their homes, farms and businesses and became refugees.
          The Soviets officially admitted to having taken nearly 50,000 casualties killed and almost 160,000 wounded as well as the material loss of 1,600 tanks and 872 aircraft. The propaganda of Stalin and Molotov taken into account, actual losses were undoubtedly even greater. Finnish and Western sources estimated the Russian dead to number anywhere from a quarter of a million to 400,000. In 1970, Nikita Khrushchev admitted to the figure of roughly one million total Russian casualties, which would equate to a Russian-to-Finn casualty rate on the order of 40:1.
According to Trotter’s account, “One Soviet general, looking at a map of the territory Russia had acquired on the Karelian Isthmus, is said to have remarked: ‘We have won just about enough ground to bury our dead.’”



[i] Allen F. Chew, Beating the Russians in Snow: The Finns and the Russians, 1940, (Military Review, June, 1980), 42.


 



[i] Ibid, 173.





[i] William R. Trotter. A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish War of 1939-40, (Chapel Hill, Algonquin Books, 1991), 42.