Ann Stebner Steele
On Ammo: A Short Meditation
I stand with my father in my parents’ shed, the smooth wooden handle of a thin-bladed boning knife warming to my palm. Before us swing the skinned, scrawny carcasses of two buck antelope. I meditate not on the purple and blue of naked, banded muscles nor on the visceral smell of meat, but on the damage inflicted by the bullet’s impact, the spectacle of pulverized tissue, blood-shot flesh, shattered bone.
My father bends to a front quarter, peers from beneath the brim of his baseball hat, pries at bone with the tip of his knife, brings to light the bullet. The smooth cap of the shell I loaded into my .270 Winchester two days ago has been transformed, flattened, spikes skewering out from the edges—a sharp, twisted star the size of a dime, accented with traces of the animal, waxy fat and tallow in the dimple that lodged against bone, a coarse white hair stuck to the hard surface. When my father drops the bullet into my palm, the metal prickles against my skin. I slip it into my pocket. I pluck another, smaller fragment from flesh, tuck it into the hip pocket of my jeans to click against the first—two pieces of a fractured whole. Later, I seal them into a sandwich bag, add them to the collection of casings enclosed in an attractive wooden box on my desk, latch them inside.
These once deadly projectiles, useless now to anyone but me, were spent the instant they reached terminal velocity and met the deep chest of a buck antelope of the Red Desert in Wyoming. You seldom find bullets unless you dig them out of a target, be it one that was always inanimate or one that was once animate but no longer is.
Though we often refer to bullets when we mean ammunition, bullets comprise just one part of the ammo package, which is also known as the cartridge. Cartridges, made to fit a particular firearm, consist of the bullet, primer, gunpowder, and the casing, which holds the package together. Though we call cartridges rounds, they are long and slender—the cartridge for a .270 is the length and width of my ring finger. When we shoot an animal, we aim for the vital organs, just behind the front shoulder of an elk or antelope, sometimes a moose, sometimes a deer. Cylindrical in shape, shell casings taper and narrow at the top, where the bullet is fastened like a cap. Thus, shell casings also have shoulders and a neck, though they lack the pliant flesh a bullet rends.
Bullets are projectiles, propelled out of the barrel of a firearm, down the bore, after a cartridge is loaded in to the firing chamber. When the trigger is pulled, the firing pin strikes the impact-sensitive charge of the primer, and the ensuing spark ignites the powder. Then the burning gases expand, sealing the cartridge against the walls of the chamber, forcing the bullet down the barrel, the only direction that can release the pressure. As long as the bullet is inside the bore (barrel), you have internal ballistics, but as soon as it explodes out into space and time, you have external ballistics. Contemplating these physics, I also consider the ways in which I internalize the external factors of my life and carry them around with me.
After a shot is fired, after the bullet has flown, as the pressure inside the chamber decreases, all that is left in the firing chamber of the rifle is the casing, an empty vessel shaped like a tiny bud vase. Generally, shooters do not care much about the cartridge casings, and they work the action of their firearm, jacking a fresh round into the chamber and sending the brass tubes spinning to earth. What matters is the bullet and where it came to rest, regardless of whether they are target shooting or actually hunting. A live round is an unspent cartridge, the whole package, ready to go, deadly. The casing is ejected (rejected) into the dirt, and left behind.
When I turned twelve in 1997, I could have applied for my first big game license, like my brother and most other Wyoming adolescents eager to enter the realm of shooters, which is the realm of adults. I had my Hunter’s Safety card, but I did not apply for tags through the lottery system. I rode along in the truck while my family hunted. These were days often filled with boredom for a child, but there were also moments of intense, hushed excitement as the adults conferred with one another, the murmured conversation ending as one climbed out of the truck, closing the door with a muted clunk. There was the bated breath as they took their rest over the hood, everything silent except the wind as they took aim. The second before the shooter pulled trigger seemed to freeze, made unbearable by anticipation of the shot. Sometimes, the antelope ran at the last minute before the bullet was released, the wind betraying our scent, the shooter waiting too long before deciding to squeeze the trigger. Other times, the roar of the rifle shattered the silence, and we all raised our heads to see.
I do not remember exactly how I felt when an animal dropped when I was a child. In fact, I do not have a distinct memory of seeing any particular shot, a specific death. I remember waiting in the truck while the shooter and one or two other adults approached the animal to make sure it was dead, and I remember walking up to the kill or riding in the truck the hundred or so yards cross country, and I have vague memories of watching as the animal was field dressed.
The meat was butchered, wrapped, frozen, eaten, but the casings and bullets, ejected, cast aside, remain where they were thrown or had fallen until I pick them up and place them in my wooden box. “Burning brass,” we say when we shoot, because casings are usually made of brass, which is ductile and resists corrosion. Casings can become physically deformed without fracturing and can lie in the dirt and hold their shape for years. I love to find them, glistening like gold in the sun or scuffed to the surface by my father’s boot or like miniature submarines submerged in rain puddled in the track of an elk’s hoof.
I do not know when I first started to notice the shell casings in the dirt in the desert. They were always there, somehow part of the place and yet separate, their smooth, elegant sides, the brass sometimes shiny and new, this year’s rejection, or tarnished and turning green, remnants of stories past.
The bullets get around. The lively part of the live round, they bring in the meat or at least the pockmarked target or torn beer can. They tell stories of success. Their journey marks them, the terminal ballistics of the bullet determining if it travels straight and stays in one piece or if it fractures, mushrooms, tumbles, or fragments. All of these are the ending of a story, the end of an arc of a predetermined trajectory. The casings hint at unfinished stories, the starting point. A shot was fired from the place where the casing rests, but to what end? Casings never reach terminal impact, but they get left behind, assumed dead just the same.
As a young woman, I myself sometimes felt like the shell casings left in the dirt, and I wondered about the stories we do not always tell. A cartridge with no bullet is called a blank, and that is how I felt sometimes as I heard friends and family regale each other with hunting stories. I was a vessel for four generations of long-shot stories, and I had nothing to project. A cartridge that is totally inert, lacking the powder or primer needed to propel the bullet anywhere, the kind that is used for military training drills, is called a dummy. Sometimes I felt like that, too. And thus I shouldered a rifle, trained my crosshairs on that buck antelope, and pulled the trigger, hoping I might then better understand the stories that fed me while leaving me hungry for more.
I recall vividly now each animal’s death, feel an ache of both pride and grief when I see an animal drop as my rifle reverberates, feel it still when I slide a fresh-spent cartridge into my ammo pouch beside its fresh and shining brethren, and feel it much later, when I take a package of antelope steak from the freezer. I lower my head, remember soft eyes glazing as final breath leaves behind a blank, dumb shell. Perhaps this would be easier if I left these fragments of memory behind with old casings, but I carry them forward, believe they have value.
When I finally did shoot my first animal, I used the Winchester .270. This model was developed in 1923 but did not become especially popular until after World War II— a late boomer, bloomer, like me. This was the rifle my maternal grandfather decided would be mine after he died. If you need a flat-shooting, mild-recoiling, super-accurate cartridge for hunting deer-size game at long range, you want a .270 Winchester. I love that rifle, but I also love the casings I find in the dirt that might have fit it, like I love the casings that could be a match for .30-06s my father, my mother, and my brother carry, as though I might connect the past to the present and fit them back together again.
My grandfather reloaded all of his own ammunition because he enjoyed the control it gave him. He kept the spent casings, measured the gunpowder, and reassembled the full cartridge. His basement office, dominated by a workbench and the acrid scent of gunpowder, resembled a miniature assembly line, reflected the production of military munitions and minutiae, which we use to project our might against a foe or to protect ourselves in a fight. Maybe my grandfather, my parents, and I are utilitarian because they taught me to approach hunting as practical and not just for show—my great grandfathers, my grandfathers, my mother, father, brother, aunt, uncles, cousin, and I shoulder the stocks of rifles to stock the freezer, stacks of meat wrapped in butcher’s paper rather than racks of ungulates in the den, the aim to dress the animal and the table. I was raised to process the animals as well as the tools used to kill them, to attempt to use every part.
And though the casings and bullets I collect are often useless-utilitarian—bent, smashed, and rusted fragments that can no longer be put to use, can no longer be refitted to a whole—I pluck them first from the sage and dirt, then from the hollow but beautiful wooden box on my desk. The brass is gritty with years of the desert, leaves fine tracings of earth on the soft felt lining of the box. I wrap a casing in my palm, feel the cool sides warming to my touch, bring it to my lips, the acrid tang of gunpowder haunting its hollow center, and I consider all of the pressure that built up behind it, all the possible echoes in its emptiness.
I am a fifth generation Wyomingite, and everyone in my family hunts big game. I married a wonderful man who grew up in a vegetarian household in northern California. His parents’ cabin was completely off the grid, and they grew a majority of their own food in prodigious gardens. Though our backgrounds seem so different, we actually share very similar land ethics that value living close to the land. Rob, who now eats meat, has become an accomplished hunter in his own right. When he bagged his first bull elk last fall, he made me earrings from the ivories by notching them and wrapping them in copper wire. They are my favorite souvenir because they speak to the life we have created together. Some people find it a little barbaric that I wear elk teeth as jewelry, but doing so reminds me to be grateful to the animals and landscapes that feed me, literally and spiritually.