Sunday, December 28, 2008

Gear that works: Wood-burning outdoor water heaters

Outdoor water heaters were issued to New Zealand troops during WWII, and became popularly known as "Benghazi Boilers". Variations on the theme are manufactured today by a variety of British, Australian, Scandinavian and New Zealand sources as "Kelly Kettles", "Thermettes", "Ghillie Kettles", "Volcano Stoves", "Storm Kettles" and etc. For some reason, they haven't caught on in our hemisphere. I have a half-gallon copper "Thermette" (I reviewed it in this blog some time ago), and it's a worthwhile piece of kit. But I understand that the newer versions are rather poorly made in China.

Well, if a "Thermette" was bitten by a radioactive spider and then mated with a genetically-modified "Storm Kettle", and the resultant offspring overdosed on steroids, you'd end up with these things.

A metal fabrication outfit in Christchurch, New Zealand makes them. I stumbled across a reference somewhere on the internet, tracked them down and talked them into airfreighting me a couple. (I don't think they have a website, but their phone number is 03-384-2184 and their email address is . The fellow I spoke to is Paul.) The stoves arrived well wrapped, but dented nevertheless. The airport bag smashers must have have had some aggression to work out. No real harm done, though. I hope that they'll have much more character before I'm done with them.

Shipping doubled the price, but they were still a bargain when compared to the quality and size of the aforementioned competition.

I bought ten-liter and thirty-liter (!) sizes. The ten-liter weighs 16 pounds and stands 23 inches tall. The thirty-liter weighs 29 pounds and is 32 inches tall. Both consist of three pieces, with a fire ring that goes underneath and a trivet that sits on top for cooking. The latter two pieces fit together and can be used without the boiler as hobo stoves. Everything is very solidly built of seam-welded stainless steel, and the boiler is powder-coated. The hole patterns punched in the trivets are works of art. I expect my kids will pass these on to their kids, blackened and more dented.

I tested them on a damp and windy 40 degree Fahrenheit afternoon - exactly the kind of hypothermic conditions when your morale would be well served by enough hot water for a bubble bath with a super model. I chopped a hole in the lake's ice and filled the boilers to the gills. (I've decided that a bucket and funnel are necessary accoutrements - not only did my hands get cold holding them underwater, but I was worried about dropping them. A cork would be a good idea as well, to keep bugs and debris out of the filler hole when water isn't actually being heated.)

All the squaw wood is long gone from around my place, so I picked up a variety of natural fuels from the ground, unfortunately not perfectly dry. Each stove was touched off with birch bark, then I started dropping pine cones, branches and horse poo (in the spirit of those Kiwi soldiers who used camel turds in North Africa) down the tubes like a mortarman when the enemy is in the wire. Both came to a boil at almost the same time, in about 17 minutes. They would have boiled faster if the fuel hadn't been damp, the water hadn't come from under ice, and the dog hadn't kept running off with the sticks and poo.

This sort of low-tech practicality and versatility gives me a stiffy. Water boiler, hobo stove, and water storage all in one. Most of the charm of an open fire with only a fraction of the mess, danger, inconvenience, inefficiency and illegality. No petroleum-based fuel to buy, store, carry, spill or smell. One moving part, the tap. While dinner cooks, there's simultaneously enough water heating for a family or even a boy scout troop. It's stingy with fuel. The only trace it leaves is a circle of ashes. Windy conditions that reduce the efficacy of most stoves actually make this one draft and burn better if the firebase intake hole is turned to windward. Kids enjoy feeding it, and they only sear their flesh once or twice before they learn not to put their hands over the chimney.

When comfort is more important than weight and bulk, or when the electricity goes out at your house, this is an outstanding piece of gear. It earns the prestigious and coveted Oblio13 Two Thumbs Up award.

Book Recommendation: Island of the Lost

By Joan Druett. 

In 1863, two ships wrecked on opposites sides of an island about 300 miles south of New Zealand. The interior terrain was so forbidding that neither group of survivors ever became aware of the other. One group of five had a strong captain who maintained control and morale, and a talented crew who cooperated. They all eventually made it home after almost two years. The other captain fell apart emotionally, and his crew went "Lord of the Flies" pretty quickly. Only three of nineteen survived. 

Fascinating subject, and one of those stranger-than-fiction true stories that reads like a novel. I like the author's style so much that I'm going to track down some of her other books.

The Law Enforcement Role of Santa Claus

There's an omnipotent being who watches everything you do and knows everything you think. He'll reward you if you're good, and punish you if you're bad. No, I'm not talking about a god, I'm talking about Santa. Same general concept, though: We use Him to make others behave. 

We heard six-year-old Rudy get out of bed at four a.m. on Christmas morning and pad to the top of the stairs. There was a long pause as he beheld all the presents under the tree. Then he shrieked "I TOLD YOU I WASN'T THAT BAD!!"

I'm going to step things up a notch this year. I'm going to tell him that Santa is old and burned out. He doesn't like kids anymore. He's not going to bother leaving coal and hickory switches for boys who sass their mother and neglect their chores. He's going to have them killed. By elves who look like Chucky.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Shotguns for Home Defense

If you want a defensive weapon to keep in your home, you'd be hard pressed to do better than a 12 gauge shotgun. A psychological stop is as good (maybe better) than a physiological stop, and thanks to Hollywood shotguns have a huge intimidation factor. The sight of that big bore will probably discourage most intruders, if the universally recognizable sound of a shell being chambered hasn't already. How badly does the average burglar want your TV? If you're unlucky enough to be facing an irrational and/or chemically-fueled intruder, an ounce of buckshot is devastating. And shotguns are, for now at least, legal in more places and more politically acceptable than either handguns or "assault" rifles, especially if they're stocked with walnut rather than black plastic. It's a shame, but in our time and place, it's wise to consider things from a potential jury's viewpoint.
Police trade-in shotguns tend to be a good deal. Most show wear on the outside from years of bouncing around in patrol cars, but much less on the inside. They simply aren't fired much. I've lucked into a couple Remington 870 pump-actions. Remington's police shotguns are of higher quality than their civilian counterparts, with no plastic or MIM parts, stronger springs, better finish, and more comprehensive quality control. There are other brands and action types that would be equally serviceable as long as they are totally reliable. Look for an 18- or 20-inch smoothbore barrel (shorter might be better, but thanks to Bill Clinton they aren't legal without a huge tax and an even larger hassle).
Don't get too hung up on accessories. Simple is good. The best thing you can put on any firearm is wear. I had an instructor once say "Bond with your weapon until it wags it's barrel when it sees you coming." Most shooters are over-equipped and under-trained, even though "software" is far more important than "hardware". A shell holder on the butt or the side of the receiver is handy. A simple two-point sling can't hurt. I wish I could find a durable fore-end light at a sane price, but so far no luck. I lost my faith in extended magazines when one from Choate came apart at the threads and all my ammo squirted downrange, followed by the spring. Besides, the clamp that secures them has a tendency to change the point of impact. Avoid the pistol-grip-only shotguns that are unfortunately in vogue. They're difficult to aim, difficult to control, and painful to shoot.

People will tell you that it's more awkward to move around in confined quarters with a long arm than with a pistol. That's somewhat true, although the technique is much easier to learn than is proficiency with a pistol. So either master proper house-clearing skills, or don't do it. As a general rule, it's a bad idea to go looking for in intruder in your home anyway. Need proof? Have your kid hide and go look for him. Even though you know your house intimately, who sees who first? Better to take up a position covering the door that's important, and wait. That gives you all the advantages.

People will also tell you to use birdshot to prevent overpenetration. While it's true that birdshot doesn't penetrate walls well, it unfortunately doesn't penetrate bad guys well, either. # 4 plated buckshot seems like a good compromise, with 27 pellets per 2 3/4" shell, each with the approximate authority of a .22. The pattern spreads about an inch for every yard of range. (By the way, it's essential that you pattern your particular gun with the ammo you're going to use in it). I shot a deer with that load, at about 15 yards, and I now have enormous respect for what it can do. Buckshot has a limited effective range, but it'll enable you to control your environment better than anything else at indoor or across-the-street distances, and that's all you need. Besides, you're not gonna convince the aforementioned jury that somebody a hundred yards away was a threat anyway.

Shotguns have relatively low magazine capacities. But we're not talking about human-wave banzai charges here. If you can't solve your home-defense problem with a few rounds of 12 gauge buckshot, you're probably not gonna solve it with a boatload.

As with any firearm, GET PROFESSIONAL TRAINING. Not from your "uncle who was in the Army", or your "friend who knows all about guns". Take at least a weekend course from a reputable instructor so you'll have a solid foundation upon which to build. Otherwise all your practice will be only reinforcing bad habits. You should learn to load and unload (it's not as straightforward as you probably think), to shoot under stress, from several positions, in dim light, while moving, at multiple targets, at moving targets, and how to keep someone from taking your weapon away from you. You should also learn what to do after a shooting incident. Imagine yourself standing there in shock, looking at the mess you just made, with your ears ringing and a smoking gun in your hands. If that's the moment Barney Fife shows up, things can go from bad to worse. Last but not least, because of the unfortunate nature of our legal system, the marital advice my dad gave me applies here: "Never miss an opportunity to keep your mouth shut." No matter how justified you were, politely decline to explain yourself to the police or anyone else until you've consulted a defense attorney.

Keep it simple.
Become proficient in the
basics. No need to waste
your time with the fancy
stuff unless you have orders to Iraq.

Practice regularly. Shooting
skills are perishable.

A pump-action can be kept "cocked-and-locked", with an empty chamber and a loaded magazine. It's reasonably safe that way even if it gets into the wrong hands, but still ready for action quickly.

When you cock your shotgun, don't be tentative or gentle. Treat it like your girlfriend, not your wife.

Get in the habit of topping off the magazine before you run dry. "Shoot one, load one, shoot two, load two". And a mnemonic device for loading technique is "thumb on brass".

If you want your home defense shotgun to do double-duty during deer season, modern Foster and Brenneke slugs are pretty accurate out of even a smoothbore barrel. Don't waste your money on saboted slugs unless you have a rifled barrel.

  • All guns are always loaded. Even if they are not, treat them as if they are.
  • Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy. (For those who insist that this particular gun is unloaded, see Rule 1.)
  • Keep your finger off the trigger till your sights are on the target. This is the Golden Rule. Its violation is directly responsible for most inadvertent discharges. Keep your booger-hook off the bang-button.
  • Identify your target, and what is behind it. A tiny lawyer is attached to every projectile that you launch.
  • Saturday, December 20, 2008

    I am not making this up:

    A man called into our local radio station to talk about his experiences during the last winter storm. He described running out of firewood and being unable to keep his house warm. The DJ asked why he didn't go to a shelter or a friend's house. The caller said that he couldn't because there were trees down all over the roads.

    I waited for the DJ to ask him why he didn't use the trees for firewood, or why he didn't just get out of his car and walk. But apparently neither of those thoughts occurred to her, either.  

    We have a water-comes-out-of-the-tap culture, and we've become helpless and dependent.

    Monday, December 8, 2008

    Rendering bear fat

    Drove down to a friend's cabin in the Catskills. I shot a doe and a coyote, he shot a bear. We rendered the fat in the fireplace and used it in an old Betty lamp.

    If you get the urge to try this, I'm told that pork fat works just as well, and it'd be a lot easier to come by. Cut it into small chunks, and heat it slowly in an uncovered pot (you want all the water to evaporate). Skim off the "floaters", then ladle the oil off the solids that settle to the bottom. You may want to render it more than once. Old timers used bear oil for cooking, lubricating and as a lotion.