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Confessions Of A Brass Buzzard
Confessions of a Brass Buzzard

Posted By: ML - Registered User

Posts: 351

Posted At: (10/9/02 4:16 pm)

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Confessions of a Brass Buzzard.

You’ve seen them at the shooting range. Those grizzled old guys that hover around your bench until you’re packing up, and then swoop down to pick up your discarded brass shell casings. What do these guys do when it’s dinner time--shadow a table at a restaurant and ask, "You going to finish that?" They’re pathetic. They’re disgusting.

And I’m one of them.

Let me tell you a story about the brass buzzard’s Eldorado, a tale so epic in its scope that it makes the legend of the Lost Dutchman mine look like pocket change abandoned at an inner-city bus stop.

Some Forum members may be blissfully ignorant of this sickness. Brass buzzards pick up spent brass--their own or anyone else’s--because they intend to reload it. Therein lies the first problem--many of them don’t reload, but they tell themselves that they intend to, and that’s the first step down the slippery slope of rationalization that leads, inexorably, straight to the heart of the pack-rat’s den. The cartridge case is the single most expensive component of a round of fixed ammunition, and by scrounging used cases--many of which can be reloaded many times over--the buzzard had substantially reduced the cost of assembling ammunition for future shooting.

Some shooters purchase new, virgin brass, sort it by manufacturer and lot, and meticulously keep track of how many times they reload it. The buzzard, on the other hand, is happy to catch as he can. This behavior has substantial drawbacks: the buzzard often doesn’t know how many times his brass has been fired, and consequently how much life it still has left. The buzzard’s brass is invariably commingled, mixing different brands together, and often that means small but important differences in shell-case capacity and weight. The buzzard’s brass has often sat out exposed to the elements, which may fatigue the brass further.

But buzzard brass has that one big advantage, an advantage Mark Twain once addressed when he said, "It wasn’t the best for the job, but it was the cheapest--a quality which overlooks many other faults." And Mama, ain’t nothing cheaper than free.

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To most people, the high desert of the Mojave, north of Los Angeles by about an hour and a half, is a threatening, desolate wasteland. For a select few, though, it is a place of wonder and beauty. It’s also a fascinating place for a variety of man-made reasons as well, home to Edwards Air Force Base (where man first flew faster than the speed of sound, and where the Space Shuttle still occasionally touches down) and the China Lake Naval Weapons Center (a true gun-nut’s dreamscape). I was dragged deep into the Mojave first by my father, who dreamed of finding gold there. Later, I explored the area from the saddle of a dirt bike, and it was from behind those handlebars that I glimpsed Eldorado.

It didn’t look like much at first--an old trailer in the middle of a treeless desert surrounded by abandoned cars and machinery of all sorts. If you haven’t grown up in the American West, it’s hard to imagine that outposts like this actually exist, and today they’re often meth labs. Recently, one old desert rat got sent to prison for attempting to blind pilots flying over his property with a giant (like eight feet in diameter) concave mirror he’d picked up at China Lake. Enterprising! He’d spent a little too much time alone out there, and was a might ticked at United Airlines interrupting his communications with the extraterrestrials. But this was before all that, so I rode up to check the place out.

A crusty denizen of the Mojave (complete with Smith and Wesson Model 19 on his hip) came out, and we had a little chat. He’d amassed quite a bit of interesting machinery in his little corner of paradise, all of it baking in the desert sun. For those Forum members who have never set foot in the Mojave, it’s a unique, very dry environment. The major airlines send their mothballed airliners out to the north end of Mojave airport for storage. Rubber doesn’t last long out in the baking sun, but the hot, dry environment means metal can sit out there for decades, and other than a little patina still look new.

Trailer Man had all sorts of cool stuff he’d scavenged from China Lake and Edwards. I was most interested in one 55-gallon drum full of pulled .30-caliber armor piercing bullets, and several other drums full of once-fired USGI .30-’06 Springfield brass. We parlayed for a little bit, and I bought a couple of quarts of the .30-caliber AP, and filled the pockets of my riding jacket with them. I was interested in the brass, but we were having trouble agreeing on a price.

That’s a bit of a misstatement. You see, I really didn’t have much money then, and he really wasn’t interested in money anyway, so we began to cast around for a trade. I noticed that he had an old Toyota Land Cruiser parked at the estate. I mentioned that I had one too--a 1971 FJ55, and that I had some parts--specifically, I had a lot of engine parts, since I’d yanked the old in-line six and replaced it with a 327 Chevrolet V-8, creating a Frankenstein I alternately called the Chevota or Toyolet depending upon my mood and how it was running. Trailer Man’s eyes lit up, and we struck a deal.

A couple of weeks later, I drove the Chevota out into the Big Dez, and swapped Trailer Man a rebuilt cylinder head complete with rocker gear and new valves for his .30-’06 brass--two and a half 55-gallon drums of it. We both laughed at each other as I drove off, thinking we’d each pulled off the deal of the century and scalded the other poor bastard.

My end of the deal revealed its first setback before I’d even reached the pavement. Those FJ55s are long-bed four-doors, and I’d laid the drums down sideways. The drums had their heads cut off so they were open like big trashcans, and we’d clamped lids to them. With its 327, the Chevota was a hoot to drive on the washboard desert roads, and I was clipping along right smart when I hit a sizable washout, and one of the drums spit its head off, spilling God knows how many thousands of cases into the truck. For the next ten years, brass would mysteriously show up, even though I went through every nook and cranny of that FJ55 cleaning it out.

Second, I discovered that an empty .30-’06 Springfield shell case is what a Black Widow spider considers the perfect one-room apartment, and the thousands of Black Widows living in my thousands of new shell cases weren’t enjoying this washboard desert ride one bit. Again, for the next ten years, countless generations of pissed-off Black Widows called that FJ55 home.

What to do with a quarter-million rounds of .30-’06 brass when you’re living in a 400-square-foot apartment in the middle of Los Angeles? To my buzzard pals, I was the richest man alive--of course, at that time in our lives a significant factor of our net worth included the contents of our refrigerators. But now that I had it, what was I actually going to do with this stuff, and where was I going to store it?

In these years, lots of little nibbling commitments gnawed away at my time. I had a couple of part-time jobs. I was trying to write. I was waist-deep in graduate school, trying to read Hemingway and Faulkner and Shakespeare every night. I was working as an assistant in the Survival classes where Ron taught at CSUN. But the brass kept calling me.

So I started working it. Hell’s bells, I didn’t even own a .30-’06 then, but there’s still a lot you can do with that parent brass. I’d neck it up and neck it down. I’d shorten it, and blow the shoulders out. I borrowed dies from everyone I knew. I gave myself a repetitive stress injury from swaging out primer pockets. I broke hundreds of decapping pins. I imported a whole new generation of Black Widow spiders inside my home. I managed to produce loads for the .35 Whelen, .308 Winchester, .300 Savage, 8mm Mauser, 7mm Mauser, 7mm-’08, .280 Remington, .270 Winchester, .25-’06 Remington, .257 Roberts, .243 Winchester--even the original .30-’06. I even cut down some to make brass for my .45 ACP!

Of course, all of it had the wrong headstamps, and after a while that became its own problem. And meanwhile Hemingway and Faulkner and Shakespeare beckoned, as did the Chevota, as did the job, as did Mr. Hood’s trips and life in general.

That brass became an albatross around my neck. I tried selling some of it, but none of the other buzzards had any cash either, and all they wanted to do was trade more junk. I ended up with 600 pounds of lead wheel weights--now I was going to add bullet casting to my list of things to do. I’d trade the stuff off by the three-pound-coffee-can-full, and still I hadn’t made an appreciable dent in my supply. I swear, the stuff was asexually reproducing in the drums at night, and that after a week I’d end up with more than I’d started with. Those drums were like Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart--I’d hear them beating at night driving me nuts.

Finally I said enough, and worked an epic three-part deal to be rid of it all. But let me tell you, a man is never really rid of that much brass. Now, twenty years and two moves later, I still turn the stuff up occasionally. The Chevota is long gone, and how that brass ever got into the bed of my pickup I’ll never know, but it’s turned up there. It turns up in the pockets of old hunting jackets, in the bottom of old backpacks, in shooting bags and toolboxes and my camp kitchen. Every time I see a Black Widow, I can’t help but think that it’s the great-great-great-great-grandkid of one of those old Mojave arachnids.

Some time ago, I drove back out to the Dez to see if the old fart was still out there. I’d pretty much shot up all that .30-caliber AP (even gave a double handful to Ron way back when), and I wanted to see if there was still any left. But the old coot and his trailer were gone, like a desert mirage, and the whole place is now Honda’s Super Secret High Desert Test Track, complete with chain-link fence and remote cameras and robot dogs.

So heed my tale well, oh loyal Forum readers. That brass is probably still out there, silently multiplying for the last 20 years. There’s probably a half-dozen drums of it now. If you see it, just keep on driving and don’t look back.

And if you see some broken-down old climber lurking outside of your favorite restaurant like some scrawny stray cat, well, try to avoid making eye contact, and just throw me your doggie bag. I thank you in advance.

Best regards,



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Re: Confessions of a Brass Buzzard

Posted By: yellercat - Registered User

Posts: 223

Posted At: (10/9/02 5:34 pm)

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scavanging brass at the range, one of lifes simple pleasures. thanks.

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i confess...

Posted By: mark48310 - Registered User

Posts: 23

Posted At: (10/10/02 7:41 am)

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i pick up brass where i can and have INTENDED to reload for years now...

but it gets worse...a couple years ago i got into blacksmithing and then knifemaking after getting Ron's video last i find myself off on weekly forays to the train tracks and recycle stations trying to score more garage is loaded up with probably on the order of 3-4 tons of steel, more steel than i'll ever use in a lifetime...

and yet, i was out at the RR tracks yesterday scrounging and will probably do so again today...

i find myself at the scrap steel yard BUYING the stuff too, anytime i find something "interesting" 20 cents a pound, who cares, right? well, do that 20 or 30 time and it adds up...i've spent hundreds of dollars on junk...literally - junk...

i used to find old a/c fans at the recycle station...would tear 'em apart for motors...intend to use the motors for grinding wheels, buffing wheels, etc. now i have more "grinding stations" in my shop than i have square feet of space...i dunno what i plan to grind with all those grinders...if worse comes to worst, maybe i can just grind down my pile of junk steel...

there has to be some use for big piles of dust...

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Re: Welcome back ML....

Posted By: wmerrin - Registered User

Posts: 574

Posted At: (10/9/02 6:27 pm)

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It's good to see you posting again... Great story.

You probably remember the private shooting range some guy ran on his property just off Hwy 14 a little northeast of I-5 about 25 years ago... in the Antelope Valley I think. I shot there a few times with a friend, and this guy had barrels of .38 spl and 5.56mm brass for something like a penny or two a round. How could you resist a deal like that? I actually reloaded some of the .38 spl, but the 5.56 is still in a box...



Wally Merrin

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Re: Welcome back ML....

Posted By: Bill Hay - Registered User

Posts: 2494

Posted At: (10/9/02 6:44 pm)

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Yeah, you wuz missed! How did your trip into those mountains go? Hope you had great time...

I got caught up in the scrounging brass affliction a while back... I actually started handloading, too! Luckily for me, I started going to Front Sight, and started buying hardball by the case load...

Ain't loaded a lick of .45 since...

I seem to recall a big crate of brass out in the garage... Sorted by caliber, and headstamp... Oughta get rid of it, I suppose. I need the room for all the knives that seem to be growing in number nowadays...

Great story, thanks for the telling...


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Re: Welcome back ML....

Posted By: CaliCollector - Registered User

Posts: 70

Posted At: (10/9/02 9:29 pm)

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i too am afflicted by the brass buzzards curse, drives my wife nuts!!!!! unknown case life, dirty brass, spiders, rocks, odd ball cases that always pop up when you KNOW that you only picked up 9mm, 38spl, .357, 45LC., 44mag, and 45ACP, how in the hell did i get a bunch of 32auto brass here?? ive got several 50 cal ammo cans full of misc. brass... most sorted out by caliber, and a couple cans that are still waiting to be sorted, one of these days ill set up my reloading press again, and start pumping out target ammo on that RCBS single stage... if i get back into it again, maybe ill hear the blue dillion call my name...Ray in California

"Beware the man with only one gun, chances are he KNOWS how to use it."

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Thanks, Donkey Salami

Posted By: ML - Registered User

Posts: 353

Posted At: (10/10/02 2:42 pm)

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Thank you all for the kind greetings. Indeed, I managed to avoid any untoward alpine mishaps, although I did get my heart rate up a couple of times. In the end, eating that Donkey Salami I bought at a French street market was probably as dangerous as anything I did in the mountains. But you only live once, eh?


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i was wondering who you were calling Donkey Salami, until i

Posted By: CaliCollector - Registered User

Posts: 86

Posted At: (10/10/02 10:36 pm)

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read your Ray in California

"Beware the man with only one gun, chances are he KNOWS how to use it."

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Posted By: creature of forest - Registered User

Posts: 40

Posted At: (10/13/02 12:23 pm)

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I used to save brass for the end of civilization as we now know it, but I eventually came to believe that with the cost of reloading supplies and the time involved, I would be better off just buying bulk ammo. Now, my excuse for brass scrounging is that I am trying to complete a collection of every caliber ever made.


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I feel like a kid at Christmas time...

Posted By: Eric Stoskopf - Cool Calm Calamity

Posts: 1718

Posted At: (10/13/02 5:23 pm)

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...everytime I spot a new post from ML.

Many thanks to ML for another wonderfully written story!


Woodsdrummer: my online wilderness journal

In the school of the woods there is no graduation day. Horace Kephart

"In the school of the woods there is no graduation day" Horace Kephart
<img src='<#EMO_DIR#>/biggrin.gif' class='bbc_emoticon' alt='Big Grin' /> I have been there too. I was going to sell all that brass (that I don't have a firearm to go) with on ebay. Then, when that didn't happen, I was going to sell it at the recycling place for pennies a pound and get rich. Then, when that didn't happen, I was going to melt it down and make knife guards and pommels out of it. Then, when that didn't happen... well, you get the picture.

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