East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

A rook gun and a Winchester

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The issue of the guns carried by Peter Fleming on his journey caused an amusing exchange on The Times when Fleming and Maillart came back from Asia. The object of the scandal was the following passage – printed in The Times on the 18th of November 1935 and later included in New from Tartary.

Our armament consisted of one .44 Winchester rifle, with 300 rounds of pre-War ammunition of a poorish vintage, which was not worth firing; and a second-hand .22 rook rifle, which surpassed itself by keeping us in meat throughout the three months during which there was anything to shoot.

44 winchester

a .44 Winchester

Some readers were shocked at the idea of a Westerner facing the dangers of the Silk Road with such inadequate armaments1.
Some promptly wrote to The Times expounding their opinions.
One letter in particular is worth reprinting, together with Peter Fleming’s response to it.

The Times, 20 November 1935, 15.

Sir – I always enjoy reading an article from the pen of Mr. Peter Fleming, but feel slightly annoyed at the inefficiency with which he obtains the rifles which he carries on his expeditions. Readers of his ‘Brazilian Adventure’ will remember that a rook-rifle stood between Mr. Fleming and an untimely death on that occasion. Does Mr. Fleming never learn from experience? A second-hand .22 rook-rifle has again ‘surpassed’ itself it appears. Readers of The Times rejoice, but why did Mr. Fleming when conducting an experiment in ‘travelling light’ bother to take a .44 Winchester (the kind of thing Allan Quartermain used to use) ‘with 300 rounds of pre-War ammunition of a poorish vintage not worth firing’?

I feel that The Times might present him with a nice .256 Mannlicher. If he felt that fortune would then be too heavily weighted in his favour, I can only suggest that he should acquire a bow and arrow, when he would be able to travel lighter still.

Yours faithfully.
The Bras, Berkhamsted, Herts. Nov. 18.

rook rifle

a 22 caliber rook rifle

The Times, 23 November 1935, 15.

Sir. – Mr. T. B. Money-Coutts’s suggestion that The Times should present me with a .256 Mannlicher is an admirable one. The rest of his letter is nonsense.

He charges me, in the first place, with inefficiency because I attempted a journey through Central Asia armed only with a rook-rifle and a useless .44 Winchester. The answer to this charge, and to the implication that I do this sort of thing as a stunt, is that these two weapons were the best I could get. Sporting rifles and ammunition are practically unprocurable in China. My own preparations were made in Peking in the brief intervals between journeys to Shanghai, Tokyo, and Inner Mongolia; time was short, and much of it was devoted to obtaining passports, getting inoculated against typhus, writing articles for The Times, and other sordid activities. In the end, having ransacked Peking without success, I wired to a resourceful friend in Shanghai, who got the rook-rifle from a lighthouse-keeper: even so, the train bringing it up to Peking was wrecked and it only arrived at the last moment. The .44 was kindly but rashly lent to me by Sir Erich Teichman and now awaits the imminent arrival of its owner in Kashgar. I took it with me largely for reasons of ‘face’; anything with a magazine commands great respect among people who are mostly matchlock owners. From his reference to Allan Quartermain, your correspondent seems to imagine that a .44 Winchester is an elephant gun, or something very like it. He should brush up his ballistics; my .44 weighed about 5 lb.

Mr. Money-Coutts writes from Berkhamsted and can perhaps be forgiven for his ignorance of the armaments market in North China. But when he complains that in Central Asia, as in Brazil, only a rook-rifle ‘stood between Mr. Fleming and an untimely death,’ he is being less venially fatuous. Mr. Money-Coutts evidently belongs to the ‘keep a bullet for the woman’ school, and has no doubt shot his way out of many a tight corner among the savage nomads of Hertfordshire. Further afield, however, such heroics are suicidal; the last foreigners to enter the Tsaidam – two Frenchmen – did not survive to earn Mr. Money-Coutts’s approval of their adherence to the traditions of melodrama.

As for the question: ‘Does Mr. Fleming never learn from experience?’ the answer is: ‘In this instance, yes.’ It was precisely my experience in Brazil that convinced me of the value of a rook-rifle in country where the game has little reason to dread the rare human beings that it sees, and is more puzzled than alarmed by the discreet report of a .22. The first shot from a big rifle or a shotgun is liable both to clear the ground of fauna for some distance and to attract the unwelcome curiosity of the local inhabitants; and shotgun ammunition is, of course, extremely heavy.

But, after all, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and I should like to know how Drake, after circumnavigating the globe, would have answered those critics who felt ‘slightly annoyed’ at his inefficiency in not providing himself with a larger and more commodious vessel than the Golden Hind.

It may reassure Mr. Money-Coutts to learn that Mlle Maillart started on the journey in possession of a large automatic pistol. This weapon was left behind in Lanchow: whether in a fit of intrepidity or of amnesia, I see no reason to disclose.
I beg to call your attention to the first sentence of this letter, and remain, dear Sir,

Yours expectantly,

The Garrick Club

P.S. – To forestall further accusations of inefficiency in not bringing a battery of rifles out from England, I should perhaps add that before starting on the Central Asian journey I had been travelling continuously for six months through the Caucasus, the Soviet Republics of Central Asia, the Maritime Province, Manchuria, and Mongolia. If I had set out from England with a rifle I should indeed have escaped the wrath of Mr. Money-Coutts; for I should still be filling up forms somewhere between Samarkand and Sinkiang.

  1. in case you are wondering, a “rook rifle” is a small-bore, single-shot gun used to hunt small game (rooks and rabbits mostly). It was popular in Britain in the last years of the 19th century and in the early 20th – and disappeared after the Second World War. 

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

One thought on “A rook gun and a Winchester

  1. Pingback: Rook Rifle - Frontier Partisans

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