Interview with "Doc" White, Part One:
If there is a "living legend" in the muzzleloading community, Dr. Gary "Doc" White stands tall as one who qualifies. A very intelligent, hard-working man, with a beautifully open and inquisitive mind, "Doc" White's tremendous accomplishments and vast experiences in all areas of muzzleloading dwarf those of any other single man in the world today.
Doc White, beloved by all who know him, generously offered his candid commentary in this interview, conducted over a period of several months. Doc White is a rare gem, and his thoughts and approaches have affected and directed the world of muzzleloading second to no one. I'm personally both impressed at his diverse achievements, and astounded at his seemingly endless body of knowledge. It is an honor to be able to bring a small portion of Doc White's wisdom to these pages, and I am humbled by his generosity in doing so.
RW: For starters, Mr. White, I'd like to thank you for taking the time to consent to this interview. A little bird, species unknown, suggested to me that you spent a great deal of time devising and constructing radio-controlled aircraft at one time. I'll confess to a brief, yet enthusiastic dabble into small servomotors myself. Remarkable for only the high ratio of spectacular crashes, perhaps only one fractured "Glow Plug" remains as testimony to my misadventures. Doc, how is it that you could migrate from a passion for small aircraft design to a passion for muzzleloading rifle and pistol development?
DOC: The guns came first. My mother says I was making guns out of soap when I was two years old. That is a bit of a fabrication, perhaps, but not all that far from the truth. I was making matchstick guns at age ten, and made my first revolving pistol (it fired) at age 12. Cannons were easy same age, wooden, fired with match shavings. I made black powder at home, at high school and at BYU in the chemicals lab.
I made my first real gun, a 12 gauge shotgun, at age 16 and hand carved the stock. I had to make the lock from scratch; the barrel was an old Marlin full choke tube. It shot so tight I couldn't hit anything with it.
Airplanes have been a constant interest, flew real planes in the 1970s, then RC for a few years in the 1980s when I realized that you could cut any dido you wanted in RC and walk away from every crash. I crashed 27 RC planes, finally discovered that all aircraft crash while guns last thousands of years. I chose guns. Also had to give up my pilot's license because my ears and balance went bad. Especially when caught in a spin.
RW: Some artists seek to find immortality through their work; I'd actually prefer to find it by not dying! I suppose everyone has a personal project that, once complete, gives a sense of personal satisfaction. It may not be the best product, or the largest one. In my case, it was the first book that I wrote and published back in 1983-1985. Appertaining to your many firearm endeavors, is there one design that will always hold a special place in your heart?
DOC: I suppose that I will be remembered best for the Super -91 and the clones it engendered, like the current M98 and T-bolt. Oddly, it was originally a bolt gun, but I took off the bolt when introduced in 1991, and only added it back later for the T-bolt.
I also really enjoy working on the custom built copies that I make of fancy carved, inlaid, flintlock long arms: Penna rifles, Jaegers, Hawkens, Lemans, Fuzils, and like historical arms of repute. I am still doing about one a month. I build them for myself, never take orders, but can't keep them either. They sell quite well when I'm finally tired of them.
I was at my best when I developed the semi-production technique for production of the Hawken and Leman rifles (that I designed) for Green River Rifle Works (which I owned) in the 1970s that almost all custom shops use now. Industrial techniques and quality control are still a major interest. However, the one thing that I take greatest pride and delight in is my God given ability to design a functionally elegant forearm; my eye somehow has the golden mean built right in.
I also enjoy writing, but have had no great success at it. I wrote a column for Muzzle Blasts for 8 years back in the 1970s, and have produced one book, which nobody can read because it's "too damn technical and you need a PhD to understand it."
RW: What was the motivation for the design of your Super 91? Was there something other muzzleloaders just didn't do well, or well enough, to suit you?
DOC: I started designing the 91 in the late 60s when, as a joke, I built a bolt-action muzzleloader to spoof the traditionalists at Green River Rifle Works. I used the Springfield as a guide with its pull-cock action and with a Model 70-like stock and lines. We all laughed and went our way.
The rifle sat rusting for years until Tony Knight was bold enough to come out with the Knight M85. I got it out, spent several years messing with it, deleted the bolt and kept the pull-cock for simplicity, and brought it out in 1990 as the M90. I made 60 guns by hand and sold them all.
Then in 1991 I introduced the M91. I initially made 2500 of them and here we are, 50,000 or so guns later.
The M01 was re-designed into the M98 in 1997-1998, primarily for ease of production. I visualized the White Muzzleloading System, integrating bullet and barrel in the same time frame.
It all started with a beat up double rifle by Hayton (English) that I acquired during the Vietnamese war years. It needed re-barreling. I had known of Sir John Whitworth for some time, had desperately wanted a Whitworth rifle but couldn't afford an original. So I determined to kill two birds with one stone and re-barreled the Hayton double with Douglas .458 caliber, 1-20 twist barrels.
To my great delight, it shot wonderfully well with the bullet from an old Lyman 475 grain mold that the 1950 Lyman catalogue described as originating for use in the 45-110 cartridges. This is the same bullet Lyman now sells as the (you guessed it) Whitworth. The bullet cast at .458, I sized it down to .451 to match my .458 barrels land-to-land diameter. This is exactly what a certain White shootist is doing now to shoot those groups with all the bullets touching in his M98. Want to guess where he got the idea?
Later it was easy to combine the early bolt action concept sans bolt and the fast twist barrel into the pull-cock Super 91. By then it seemed a natural thing to do, as the intervening 20 years had matured my vision of what could be a superior muzzleloading product. It was simple to machine (CNC was finally a reality), easy to assemble (teach anyone in 15 minutes how to built a rifle every 15 minutes), elegantly functional to look at and handle, easy for even a beginner to load, shoot and hunt with, and provided superior down range ballistics without punishing recoil.
RW: What are the most important things to understand about the performance dynamics of pure lead projectiles on game animals for the muzzleloading enthusiast?
DOC: We moderns operate in the same envelope as the BP cartridge hunters of yesteryear, 1000-2200 FPS. Charges and bullet weights are very similar. They found then, at a time when there was nothing else to shoot or hunt with other than the black powder loads with lead bullets then extant, that pure lead or nearly pure lead produced excellent results in game animals. Jackets, whether paper or copper or cupric nickel, came about only when the performance envelope of lead alloys was exceeded by smokeless powder. Nothing has changed. Lead is still the best missile in the BP envelope. It expands better without a jacket than it does with one, in this envelope. A jacket is just not needed and is superfluous.
Second, regarding the flight properties of lead bullets at BP velocities, the nose shape of the bullet is of relatively little consequence, long-range BP cartridge shooters have noted for years that a sharp, spitzer pointed bullet is not much better than a blunt one. This is, of course, contrary to the conventional wisdom that pointed always flies better. Well, it does, it is just not very important within 200 yards at BP velocities, even at the upper end. Ballistic coefficient is important, it is the factor that determines how efficient the flight is. At BP velocities, it takes a relatively long, relatively heavy bullet to produce a relatively flat trajectory, although shorter less efficient bullets have a very modest advantage at the closer ranges. The Express Train bullets of yesteryear took advantage of that short-range capability, the lighter faster bullet being meant for closer range shots. This is very confusing to modern smokeless shooters who have been trained, or brainwashed, to think the other way around.
On the contrary, a big flat nose in a soft lead bullet at BP velocities is claimed by some to be as efficient as a hollow point. Elmer Keith's classic pistol bullet design was supposed to take advantage of that fact. I have noticed that the bullets with bigger meplats expand better than more pointed ones, granted the same softness of lead. However, I also believe, and believe I can show, that a deep hollow point, in the nature of .100 wide and at least .400 deep, can be explosive in bigger game animals. Modern jacketed hollow points are wide and shallow, rather than narrow and deep, simply because of the constraints of swaging technology.
I believe that the best of both BP worlds would be a bullet with a .30 BC, deep hollow point as described, fired at near 1500 fps velocities. I only specify that velocity because that's about as fast as you can get a long pure lead conical bullet with .30 BC to go using BP subs.
An example is the 450 cal bullet I used on a mule deer hunt in the Paunsaguant of Utah 10 years ago. It weighed 435 grains, had a BC of .29, I shot it with 110 grains of Pyrodex P. It killed a 300 plus lb. mule buck, an old fellow with gray muzzle and heavy three point horns. It killed the deer in the air as he bounded from slope to slope past me, the hit was mid chest, blew all the way through with a big hole on the other side, and killed him with the hit itself. He piled up like a head shot goose. It's obvious to me that my choice is a long heavy bullet with hollow point, explosive on the hit, plenty of weight left to plow on through the animal. Its the best combo for lighter big game, though a big heavy wide meplat lead bullet is still best for the really big stuff.
The problem is making it, as the technology of production is slow and expensive, at least so far. By the way, this is the same concept that Gould, editor of the rag that became Sports Afield, advocated in the 1880's when he was writing exclusively about BP cartridges. His 300-grain HP lead bullet for the 45-70 is a classic; Lyman produced molds for it clear into the 1950's. I still have a 1950's Lyman catalogue giving him credit for developing it and calling it by his name.
To summarize: lead is the best, jackets are a nuisance, a big meplat helps in the game and doesn't hurt much in the air, and a deep hollow point is nice for light stuff.
RW: Can the "White Shooting System" be described in a few words?
DOC: From Chapter Four of my book, "The White muzzleloading system is defined by its shallow groove, fast twist rifling, loaded with design integrated, slip fit, lubricated, multi-channel lured lead bullets or lubricated sabots, fired with low-residue black powder substitutes over one piece nipple-breechplugs. The White muzzleloading system works. Each component, whether rifle, bullet, or accessory, will work by itself or with other competing components not especially designed to match. However, if White designed products are used with design-integrated components and accessories, performance will not be just enhanced but will be boosted to levels far beyond ordinary expectations. The design-integrated performance curve is not linear, but is geometric, rising rapidly to a pinnacle of performance rarely appreciated."
The key words are, of course, system and design-integrated with a substantial contribution from functional elegance.
RW: Your comments about velocities and ballistic coefficients seem to reflect your preference towards the use of pure lead conicals versus saboted projectiles. Is this the case?
DOC: In general, yes, but with the caveat that I get to pick the combination I want or feel I need for the specific game I plan to encounter. I like long, lubricated, lead slip-fit lead bullets because they load fast and are effective ballistic missiles. I can compensate for a bad initial shot easier using them than I can with a slower loading sabot. I like sabots because I can effectively shoot a smaller, lighter bullet on smaller, less risky game, or on game that needs a faster expanding bullet than is generally available in slip-fit.
By the way, I am planning on changing the "harder to load" sabot paradigm in the future, having designed a slip-fit sabot which will hold a bullet in place without the bullet falling out of the sabot. It will be made of far harder plastic than is now used by anyone, will tolerate higher velocities because of its hardness, will slip-fit just as easily as a PowerPunch, will expand into the rifling in the same fashion and be self cleaning at the same time. It is in the patent process at present so can't say much more. It should be a hell of a sabot/bullet combo with smokeless.
RW: When you speak of the "blackpowder muzzleloading envelope," is that static or dynamic? After all, your barrels are certainly a big jump up in tolerances, strength, and quality from the old cast-iron barrels of one hundred and fifty years ago, Triple 7 is a lot different from traditional black powder, the pellets are not powder at all, and plastic sabot technology was not in common use even twenty-five years ago.
DOC: The envelope is of course dynamic, which is the major complaint of the traditionalist. They want it to be static and never changing. I like traditional guns too, just love flintlocks, but fully realize that the ones I make are a far cry different than the one Melchoir Fordney made in the 1780's. Machine pre-carved stocks to reduce production time, Dremel tools instead of chisels for inletting, Bridgeport mills for octagoning barrels rather than hand forging and draw filing, cheap rolled steel GBQ quality, Stainless touch-holes, investment cast accoutrements, screw machine made parts, all done to a standard that was unheard of just 20 years ago, let alone 200.
I don't think we have even scratched the surface yet. The market is going to be every bit as dynamic as archery, which is in such a constant state of flux that it's damn difficult to keep up. Wait till someone invents an accurate smoothbore projectile. We use them in cannon, why not muzzleloaders, or modern rifles? When is a muzzle loading cartridge going to be marketed? Buy a box for your rifle just like buying a box for your .270, and every bit as accurate and efficient. Shippable in interstate commerce just like cartridges are now. Fly on an airplane with them too. When will a standard primer be adopted by the industry? One that really works: keeps out the moisture and totally prevents blowback? It has to happen, simply because the market will demand it. Don't know when, or by whom, but it will happen.
RW: Well, Doc, I don't have a PhD, but I have read your book. I interpret the "White Muzzleloading System" as a philosophy for design and development, not as a specific method of shooting, nor as a specific rifle or action. I read it as a flexible platform for continued development, not as an explanation of what has already become reality. How badly wrong am I?
DOC: Since the paradigm is dynamic, you are on the money. The System leaves room for all the coming developments, and facilitates them, if anything. The System is meant to be accurate, powerful and fast. It is also meant to be inclusive; nothing good can be excluded, simply because the best of muzzleloading will always be accurate, powerful and fast.
RW: When it comes to terms that some may find a bit flowery, or certainly not in the common vernacular like "function elegance," some may find that hard to quantify. Is it fair to say that functional elegance is your vision of what a pretty product looks like, with its operation method to be self-evident to the casual observer?
DOC: "Pretty" is that woman named Kidman. "Functional elegance" is Nicole Kidman played opposite Cary Grant. Several things: functional elegance implies simplicity of function, function so self evident to the examining eye and hands that a formal explanation of function is not necessary and is superfluous. The design should explain itself to even the dullest user. Elegance is in the eye of the beholder, it is said, but is also in his hands. Elegance is ergonomics simplified to the lowest common denominator: the fewest parts that do the finest job, that best fit for the most hands, that pleases the most eyes, that stimulates accolade from the greatest number, perhaps that bring the most dollars out of the most pockets BUT also that cost the least, that create the greatest efficiency, that improves the perceived quality of experience of the user and the pocketbook of BOTH the user and the maker. The user incurs relatively less expense, the maker relatively more profit.
RW: I feel that there is certain poetry to a fine firearm, an amalgam of the way it looks, fits, and works. Would this fall under your concept of function elegance as well?
DOC: If Poetry defines an amalgam of function and elegance, then you are right. For example, I believe that the classic Jaeger rifle of the Germanic countries in the 1750 era typifies functional elegance. I also believe that the classic Farquarson single shot, including the Ruger #1, does the same. I also think of the German WWII MP-40 8mm light machine gun in the same light. Probably the most functionally elegant arm of all is the Colt 1860 Army. What a wonderful, beautiful piece of tool-craft.
RW: There has often been a collision between the visions of the inventor, sometimes frustrating so, and the harsh realities of mass production and viable cost per unit. In such cases, compromises must be made for the artist to see his vision become reality-or they may not become reality at all. Have you experienced this? How have you been able to satisfy your standards and the bottom line simultaneously?
DOC: Functional elegance explains it all. If the design is functionally elegant, it will be the simplest, cheapest to produce, finest looking and most profitable item available. Remember that three demands have to be fulfilled for anything to be a great success. It must be comparative less expensive to make, costing less then an item of comparable quality made by the competition. It must be absolutely more efficient: more efficient than even the most expensive or even the cheapest piece of junk of the same category. It must increase profitability, even though less expensive to make, it must look good enough that it will sell easily for more, because of perceived value. Functional elegance is what renders perceived value bon-a-fide and fattens profits.
Yes, I have experienced it. It took me back to the drawing board. I satisfy my standards by redesigning until it satisfies all three requirements.
RW: I know that far from being "just" an inventor, you take great delight in shooting, hunting, and the outdoors. Somehow, your travels have taken you to living in Alaska, and now back to Utah, along with your bride of many years, Carole. All this, and managing a medical career as well! How is it that all this came to pass?
DOC: I left Utah originally in 1956 after 2 years at BYU for an LDS Church mission in Brazil. Came back in 1959, graduated from BYU with way too many credits to get any honors, then left Utah again in 1960 for Wash. DC and George Washington Medical School. I spent 4 years there. I met Carole there for the second time, as I had met her briefly at BYU in 1959. We got married in my second year, 1961. Left DC in 1964 for residency at LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City then was drafted into the Viet Nam conflict in 1966. Spent my war years in Alaska (what a blessing!) 1966-68, and then came to Roosevelt where I have stayed since.
Most of my hunting has been done from the Roosevelt base. I really haven't been able to go near as much as I want, lack of time (I used to work 100 hrs a week all the time- I'm semi-retired now, only work 40 hrs a week) and lack of money. I have kept myself broke hunting and sponsoring hunts and gun companies and such foolish things. It's been fun and frustrating. I make the mistake of trying to teach new and better doctrine. That gets expensive. I have gradually cut back my practice while fostering medical matters in Roosevelt. When I arrived there were 3 of us in town and we did everything, now there are 23 and I am doing only GI. Our facility is very advanced, technologically speaking, I take credit for a lot of that, at least the attitude that stays on the cutting edge and that fosters effective QC. (Nobody else wants to give me the credit but I'll take it anyway) Nearly 40% of our patients come from Vernal, 30 miles to the East, and from other further flung towns in the Utah Basin. (The Basin is 150 X 90 miles and contains about 60,000 people.)
Vernal has a facility about our size with 19-20 Docs and even more people. We've been able to very effectively compete even with larger communities because of our technological excellence. I been on the Board of Directors of the hospital twice, have been chief of staff at least 4 times and am constantly involved in hospital business. QC is my special passion.
My only real asset, besides a reasonably good mind, some intellectual; curiosity and an "Idealist Healer/Rational Inventor" personality, is that my mother gave me her family trait of only needing 5-6 hours of sleep a night. That has given me at least 2 hours a day more time than most men get, for a total of 48910 hours, or 6114 eight hour work days more in my 67 years of life.
RW: I've always used fouling shots in centerfire rifles over the years, prior to hunting. In fact, I'm always shooting my first shot with a fouled bore, except shotguns. Doc, you seem to be the only one in muzzleloading land that clearly recommends a squib load or fouling shot with his rifles. To me, it seems self-evident. What gives?
DOC: If you want consistent shots, you need consistent barrel conditions. The closest you can come without shooting a full load is fouling the bore with a squib. The only reason to foul the bore with a squib is that loading a full load with a bullet in a wet or oily bore is a good way to guarantee that you get to clean the oily mess out. The squib burns out the oil from the last cleaning and comes as close as you can get to conditioning the bore for the next all-important shot. It would be next best to shoot a full load and I do that sometimes, especially if the game is far off, but in large part it's impractical.
The commonest complaint I get about muzzleloaders in general is the screwed up first shot on a hunt, gun won't go off or some such. I think that is one of the reasons 209's are so popular. The amount of flame from the 209 overcomes the poorly prepared bore conditions and lights off the charge, not so very consistently, but at least it lights it off. The hunter gets a satisfying bang even if he misses.
RW: There seems to be a great deal of misinformation regarding pure lead projectiles spread about in the various topical magazines. One of the notions is that "pure lead over-expands." Another is that saboted lead projectiles are inferior to jacketed lead bullets past 2000 fps. Having studied some of your private notes detailing your hunts, and knowing that you shoot an average of three times a week, I suspect you have some clear views on the limitations of pure lead when propelled by blackpowder or substitutes-either in conical or sabot protected form.
It seems to me that pure lead was suddenly underrated with the advent of smokeless powder, with little basis in performance on game. In fact, the more I see, within 200 yards or so-pure lead projectiles actually kill quicker and cleaner than their jacketed counterparts. That seems to hold true, even when comparing a 340 grain to 435 grain saboted projectile of .45 caliber, compared to the common .30 caliber smokeless cartridge jacketed bullet loads of 140 to 180 grains in weight. What does your experience and testing say to this?
DOC: A jacket only interferes with the bullet in the normal muzzleloading envelope- 1000-2200 fps range. They are there only to withstand the stress of 1700 fps plus velocities in modern smokeless arms--the jacket against the bore.
In a sabot, the jacket has no function except to allow the maker to use the same machinery to make a muzzleloading bullet that he does for a cartridge bullet. Since the majority of writers are whores, they naturally mirror this need. "Over-expansion" only means it blows a bigger hole. With enough weight behind it, the bullet still penetrates all the way through and out. The confusion reigns because those who write that way are looking at lightweight bullets, again a la smokeless, rather than the large caliber heavyweights of the traditional muzzleloader. Once again, the best low velocity bullet is a large caliber pure lead one with enough body weight to penetrate through despite substantial nose expansion.
RW: On "sealed actions," I like to draw the distinction between a weatherproof action and an internally sealed action. For example, the popular Encore is weatherproof-but the White 98 always has been. In documented cases, the Encore has accumulated enough fouling in the firing pin area, that the firing pin can no longer reach the primer. This, as in the case of as few as 50 shots, requiring a takedown and cleaning of the action with "GunScrubber," or similarly aggressive product. Perhaps only the Savage ML10-II comes close to completely internally sealed action at the moment. Are you looking at so-called sealed actions in the same way?
DOC: Sealed means both weatherproof and gas proof, in the same sense that a modern cartridge is sealed. Weatherproof only means the system will withstand moisture for a substantial amount of time even though it may leak gas. 209 ignited guns are generally more weatherproof because the 209 is heavily varnished and resists water quite well- made that way originally to stand up for years in paper shotshells. The Encore leaks water like a sieve- throw one in a creek sometime and see how much water gets into the action. Once the water leaks past the 209 into the touchhole and thence into the powder, it becomes much less weatherproof. Normally that takes a good while, so the Encore is (relatively) weatherproof.
RW: Do you believe that more attention needs to be paid in primer strength matching the propellant and load for consistency, rather than the current "one 209 fits all" embodiments?
DOC: I don't think we have even touched the subject, yet shooters have been trying to match primers with target loads for years. I have .308 brass made with small rifle primer pockets for target use, and it has given very consistent velocities. It needs a lot more study. In a preliminary sense, I think 209's as currently used are too potent--they push bullets out of place before internal barrel expansion can occur.
RW: With all the discussion of the effectiveness of pure lead, is there a velocity range or certain application area where jacketed bullets, such as the John Nosler partition design, takes precedence over lead in saboted configuration as a "better choice"?
DOC: In relative terms, I am sure there is, but I don't know where it is. I do know that up to 2200 fps, lead is best and jackets are superfluous, past that there is no data. Muzzleloaders don't shoot faster than those (yet) modern rifles do and modern rifles don't use sabots or tolerate pure lead. I have a .458 Mag on an Enfield action that I occasionally use for ML experimentation. Someday with time enough I will stoke it with smokeless and .45/40-350 Powerstars and compare with .40 caliber jacketed bullets. Takes years to accumulate data in game animals, so will have to use ballistic medium.
Doc White's company is White Muzzleloading, and can be found at www.whitemuzzleloading.com. Send your thanks to Doc, and don't forget to explore Doc White's many unique "Doc-accurized" rifles--hand tuned in a way only the touch of the good Doctor can possibly provide.
Parts 2, 3, 4 and 5 of Randy Wakeman's series of interviews with "Doc" White can be found on the Muzzleloader Information Page.
Copyright 2004 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.