A TOAST TO HAROLD

by: Rich Gardner


     Nestled in my garage like a twenty-pound canary in a robinís nest is a yellow í63 Lincoln sedan. People assume I like Lincolns in general. Truth is, my interest begins and ends with the slab-sided Continentals of Ď61 through Ď64.

     In my hermetically-sealed vault are half the vintage Mossberg .22s ever made, or at least it seems so. Thereís also a pile of M4 scopes. Most of my target models have modern optics because I need more than 4-power in a half-inch tube if I want to hit anything smaller than a bowling ball. Otherwise Iíd have half the worldís supply of M4ís.

     Like many Mossberg enthusiasts, I donít know any better. Dad had a 46M; off-limits to us kids. He ignored my purchase of the Sheridan Blue Streak in 1968 . Squirrels were dropping nut-shells on the roof of his í56 Roadmaster and nesting in the barn. It was like gays in the military: Dad didnít ask and I didnít tell. Kids should learn to hunt squirrels with a Sheridan. When you miss, you have to pump, load and run, keeping track of the high-flying little varmint all the while. Second shots are hard-earned. When I screwed up the courage to slip the Mossberg out the back door, it seemed like an unfair advantage.

     A few years ago my friends started pushing me to join them at the range. ďWhat you need is a nice used 10/22, or one of those new .17s.Ē No thanks. Wanting a 46M but not finding one, I bought a 151M. If the allure of mid-life shooting faded, I could always hang it on the wall and daydream about the forbidden things I did as a teenager 

     One gun show led to another and before long I had a dozen Mossberg .22s from various periods, including my own 46M. I joined the NMCA and bought the Havlinís history book. Gunbroker.com found its way onto my Favorites list and the collection grew. Soon I had a Palomino; Targo; Chuckster; (a)-to-(d) 44USís; 144ísÖ you name it. Is there a Mossberg 12-step program?

     Early in 2006 the range hosted a rimfire competition. With no intention of competing, I loaded up the í48 Mossberg models, a price list and set up a little historical display. My friend Hal came to check it out. Attendance was low and the other guys urged us to compete. I handed Hal the 44US(c). He tied for first in the opening round, against some high-dollar .17s, in the hands of experienced shooters. I was just out of contention with the 42M(c). (We were shooting $9/brick Remington ammo.) Late in the day, one of the serious shooters loaded some Aguila match shells and ran 25 rounds through the 44US in a nickel-sized hole. I donít remember seeing him shoot his 50ís-vintage Marlin after that.

     Halís results with the 44US werenít a fluke. I gave him a 44US(d) for Christmas two years ago. Competing against the .17 crowd that day, I wished Iíd brought another 44US or a 144, so the 42M could have stayed in the historic display. Mossbergís 1948 sporting models are great shooters but when the dial calipers come out and your entire group costs less than a nickel, you start wishing for match ammo and a target rifle.

     During the 20ís and 30ís Mossberg was primarily known for its youth rifles. With the release of the Master Action and Mannlicher models of 1939, the company was ready for a run at the adult market. The war intruded but as one door closed, another opened. Mossberg was ideally positioned to build high-quality military trainers in large numbers. I wonít try to recap their other contributions to the war effort. The Havlin's have done an admirable job of that. Suffice it to say that Mossberg embraced the war-time needs of the military, including armament research and development in far-flung areas.

     When the war ended, Mossberg returned to the civilian market and the Master Action. Over the war-years thousands of GIs learned to shoot with Mossberg military trainers; marketing that money couldnít buy. Target-shooting soared in popularity, as did the sales of rifles of all kinds. Mossberg gradually upgraded the sporting models while development of the 44US breezed through (a), (b), (c) and (d) versions in four short years. Having exhausted the potential of the 44US, they unveiled the Model 144 in 1949.

     My favorite Mossberg's were created on Haroldís watch. His father, Oscar, may have a hundred innovations to his credit and Carl Benson may have carried the company through the turbulent 50ís and 60ís but from 1939 to 1949, great things happened. I assume much of the credit belongs to Harold. The post-war years were a special time, as the company brought its war-time experience to the civilian market. Clean examples from this period function as well as their modern counterparts. Plum barrels spit out lead in tight little groups. Bolts machined during the Truman administration index shells into firing position with military precision. If some proud owner stamped his initials on the receiver or scribed his name under the butt plate, so much the better. Itís not often you get to experience something the way a proud owner did, three generations ago.

     Robert McNamara first saw the mock-up of what would become the í61 Lincoln in the Thunderbird design studio. He told them to stretch it into a 4-door and hand it over to Elwood Engel and the Lincoln team. Thus, the slab-side Continental was born. My í63 has power steering, power brakes, seat belts, power seats, a tinted windshield and air conditioning. On its 40th birthday I drove it to Maine and back. Itís pretty sophisticated, as old cars go. Compared to a post-war Mossberg rimfire, itís a relic: A rotary-dial phone in the BlackBerry era.

     Harold Mossberg stepped aside in favor of Carl Benson around 1948, which explains my focus on the models in production that year. I suspect Carl was more popular with the marketing department than Harold had been. Sleek stocks and T-handle bolts must have been a welcome change from Haroldís solid pre-war designs. Carl would go on to pioneer hundreds of new ideas, not the least of which was the use of common components to create new models at minimal expense.

     For serious target shooters Mossberg offered the 144, which saw only one major upgrade in 30+ years, (unlike its predecessor, which was revised annually.) The longer, heavier, 144LSB remains popular today; more than two decades after it went out of production. Adjusted for inflation, it may not have been any more expensive than the post-war 44US. It was the sporting rifles that went down in price, relatively speaking. 

     No doubt the post-war years saw a steady increase in automation, reducing man-hours and keeping Mossberg in its traditional position as the low-price leader. Well into the 50ís they offered a single-shot .22 for less than $18, while the 144LS listed at nearly three-times that price. This price-spread reflected the new approach to manufacturing.

     1963 Lincoln ads featured, ďSixteen Intolerant Men,Ē each of whom tested your car before it left the factory. I have no idea how many men tested the Ford Falcon. Fewer, I suspect. The implication was that attention-to-detail costs money, or, more accurately, there was a widening gulf between hand-built and mass-produced. Here, at long last, is my point.

     Manufacturing techniques and technology advanced rapidly as a result of World War II. Prior to that there probably wasnít much difference in the labor costs separating Mossbergís high and low-end models. The Mís were elaborate and the target model barrels got extra attention but for all I know they were turned on the same lathes as the lowly 42C. Through the end of the 40ís the level of craftsmanship across the entire product line seems pretty uniform. The same seems true for automobiles as well.

     By the 60ís, expanded product lines created a wide range of sticker prices. The Ford Falcon was a very good car and a $25 Mossberg rifle worked just like it was supposed to. Craftsmanship was still available at more-or-less the same price it always demanded, as good-quality products arrived at bargain prices. Ironically, luxury cars like the Continental were often garaged with loving care, while the Falcon sat out in the rain. I havenít seen many Mossberg's that were only driven to the range on Sundays; especially the target models.

     Even if no one agrees, I think 1948 was a pivotal year for Mossberg. My chart is limited to the models in production that year, while attempting to show their evolution. Some would disappear within a year. Others stayed in the lineup alongside some very different-looking models for as much as a decade.  Looking at the photo, itís pretty easy to pick out the 152 as the new kid. If this piece sparks some interest Iíll fast-forward a few years.

     This oneís for you, Harold. Your rifles remain a unique blend of form, function and price. Theyíre as much fun to look at as they are to shoot. Thanks for the childhood memories. Iíll try to wear some of them out and file a follow-up report in another 60 years.