by Terry Wieland
Among literary critics, there are usually two candidates for the title of greatest short story ever written. One is Ernest Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” and the other is Jack London’s “To Build a Fire.”
Both have been described as “perfect” by men of letters more learned than myself, so I’m not about to argue. Every time I read “Macomber,” however, and think to myself “It gets no better…” I’m reminded of London’s masterpiece. And, a masterpiece it is.
No story better illustrates the vital importance of fire in the wilderness, and one of its real strong points is the pains to which London goes to show exactly how a campfire is built under the most adverse conditions.
And then, there are the myriad short stories and allegedly nonfiction articles that appeared over the years in magazines like Field & Stream purporting to show how a hunter, lost in the woods, facing a freezing night and, for some reason, without matches, can build a fire using a rifle cartridge. The description usually goes something like this:
“He pulled a .30/30 shell out of his pocket, pried the slug out with his teeth, then poured the gunpowder into a mound. He piled some dry leaves around it, chambered the empty shell, held the muzzle to the pile, and pulled the trigger. Flash from the primer ignited the powder, the leaves caught fire, and he began feeding tiny twigs into the flames. He was saved.”
Well, not likely. It’s a great device, in theory, but not so great in fact. First of all, have you ever tried prying a bullet out of a brass case? It’s difficult enough with the proper tools, never mind doing it with your teeth. But that’s just the beginning.
About 40 years ago, when I was in the throes of writing a series of short stories, many of which took place outdoors, I wanted to use this device. To get the description exactly right, I assembled the wherewithal to make an attempt. No, I did not try to pull a bullet with my teeth. Leaving that detail for another time, I poured some smokeless powder onto a dry leaf, banked some leaves up around it, and pulled the trigger. The blast of air that accompanies the flash scattered powder and leaves, and the flame ignited nothing. For the better part of an hour I kept trying, with more powder and more leaves. Nothing. Zip. Hapana.
Two problems: One, the blast of air. (Nothing you can do about that.) And two, smokeless powder is damned hard to ignite unless it’s packed in an enclosed space.
Re-reading Alan Le May’s The Searchers for the umpteenth time, I came across his use of this device. As he described it, it took two cartridges to accomplish the task — one to provide the “pinch of powder” to mix with the tinder, the other to shoot into it to set it alight “with a gun flash.”
Le May, who is otherwise impeccable in his Texas history, frontier lore, and the characteristics of the Comanches, misses this one by a wide mark. Since this is 1868, we’re dealing with black powder, but exactly what cartridges would they have been using? And anyway, even without the powder, the case still has a primer and you don’t want to shoot a bullet into the tinder, you just want the muzzle flash. So one cartridge should do it. Altogether, it makes no sense. Le May obviously never actually tried it; I suspect he’d read some of the same outdoor magazines I had and took them at their word. Inadvisable, for a writer.
One should never say never, and with a little practice and some trial and error, one might devise a method that would work. For example, leaving some powder in the case, blocking the mouth with an oily rag, and shooting it out might yield you a smouldering piece of cloth that could be nursed into a blaze.
The point is, though, that it would take some practice, and is not something one could cobble up on a late November afternoon with rain coming down and darkness coming on.
Fire and the wheel are still considered mankind’s pivotal achievements on the ascent from eating raw meat in a cave to driving a GTO along Route 66, and knowing how to create the former, especially in trying circumstances, can still get you out of a heap of trouble. It’s a skill well worth acquiring.
As a long-time winter backpacking and camping enthusiast (or, as some would have it, lunatic) Gray’s shooting editor values fire above almost everything. How else is one to make coffee?