Friday, April 17, 2015


Unless you stumbled across this blog completely by chance, you know about Joseph Jacob Foss.  He lived one of the most complete lives of anyone I have ever known: a natural outdoorsman, talented aviator, successful politician, unrepentant spokesman for Second Amendment rights, devoted family man, and always an intensely passionate patriot.

Variously, Joe was the top-scoring Marine Corps fighter ace (“Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children” refuse to acknowledge that unassailable fact 70 years later), Governor of South Dakota; commander and brigadier general of his state’s Air National Guard; first commissioner of the American Football League; and president of the National Rifle Association.  Among his lesser accomplishments, he helped convince the AFL and NFL to cooperate in the first Super Bowl.

I got to know Joe in the 1980s through our mutual friend Doug Champlin who owned a world-class fighter aircraft museum here in Mesa, Arizona.  Later I worked with Joe when I was secretary of the American Fighter Aces Association, and in various NRA events. 

Joe and Didi practically adopted me over the decades, in much the way of other military aviation families: Bud and Ellie Anderson; Marion and Edna Carl; Bob and Betty Dose’; Jig and Ginger Ramage; Alex and Kay Vraciu.  Sharing those relationships was an unexpected blessing, a byproduct of research and writing.

Because of a major frabup in the the Marine Corps bureaucracy, Joe’s age made him ineligible for a regular commission, never mind that he was the service’s top gun and recipient of the Medal of Honor.  Consequently, when he left the corps in 1946 he helped establish the postwar South Dakota Air National Guard.  (He trained and led a 16-plane aerobatic team; today the limit is four gofigger.)

There’s always been heavy cross-pollination between Airplane People and Gun People.  Doug Champlin was a prime example—he had a custom rifle shop in Oklahoma before he began collecting historic aircraft.  As a ranking fighter ace and devoted hunter, Joe was a prime example of the melding of those two pursuits.  It’s also how I came to own his pistol.

As an Air Force general officer Joe was entitled to take his sidearm with him when he retired.  He kept the M1911A1 and put it away for decades but in 2000, he offered to sell me the last sidearm he carried on active duty.  How I acquired “Joe’s Pistol” is detailed in the accompanying NRA article from 2012.

When I brought Joe’s Pistol home I thoroughly cleaned it, took it to the police range to let some of the guys shoot it for bragging rights, then stashed it in my safe.  Fifteen years passed, hardly ever touching the Colt, as I had little intention of shooting so collectible a firearm again.

Then on Thursday, April 16, I realized that the next day was the 100th anniversary of Joe’s birth.  What better way to commemorate his centennial than to shoot Joe’s Pistol again?

Early this morning I met my shooting partner at my home range to shoot the historic .45 one last time.  My pal has known the Foss family nearly as long as I have, and besides, it’s more fun with a likeminded friend who shares the fusilogical pursuits. I decided to be cautious—we would only shoot a few five-round groups with factory ammunition, John M. Browning’s load, .45 caliber 230-grain hardball. 

Precision shooting with a “rack grade” G.I. pistol is an iffy proposition.  Joe’s Colt was wartime production, made in 1942 but nearly pristine.  The bore was extremely clean.  I don’t know how much Joe had shot it but obviously not much because the bluing was still apparent.

However, in 1911 (four years before Joe’s birth) the Army Ordnance Board decided to put nearly unusable sights on the big Colt.  The front is a mere nubbin--almost an afterthought--and the notch in the rear sight is pretty narrow.  On top of that, the trigger is, um, challenging.  I’d guess it lets off at seven or eight pounds, and though it breaks clean with no “creep,” that’s twice the figure of most 1911s today.

I plopped down in a sitting position and shot the first group at a home-made hollow bullseye at 10 yards.  Despite the heavy trigger, four rounds felt good.  Upon inspection, those four went into one inch extreme spread (that’s 0.55 inch net, deducting one bullet diameter.)  The flier opened the group to 2.25 inches (1.8 inches net.)  Not bad for 30 feet: most gunfights occur at 20 or less.  The only glitch: center of the group was 3.25 inches above my aim point.  As I learned, that’s not unusual.

Next I moved back to 20 or 25 yards, shooting at an old (old) U.S. Treasury 20-yard rapid fire bullseye.  Again firing five rounds from sitting, elbows braced on knees, I pressed off four good shots.  They printed exactly two inches extreme spread, or 1.55 inches deducting one diameter--extremely impressive accuracy.  The called flier went about four inches out toward seven o’clock.  Center of the four good shots was seven to eight inches high—consistent with the 10-yard results.  

My partner was more interested in practical than inherent accuracy, and shot two groups.  Firing one-handed at 10 yards, he put seven rounds into less than a pie plate, as fast as the heavy trigger permitted.  Standing back at 20-25, using both hands, he kept five high on the torso—all fight-stopping hits.

As of this evening, Joe’s Pistol is thoroughly cleaned, oiled, and comfy back in the safe.  It’s likely to remain there indefinitely, until the next custodian or an institution acquires it.  Meanwhile, somewhere far above the contrail level, I believe that my friend Joe enjoyed the small yet heartfelt tribute to the centennial of a proud American.