Rifle Through History

July 16, 2006

One of the best items from my recent trip to the UA's Hall of Champions isn't even sports-related at first glance. The beat-up old gun sits behind glass with ragged characters carved in the handle and along the barrel.

The Kit Carson Rifle.

The card in the display case reads:

Originally owned by J.F. McKale, the rifle served as a trophy to mark the rivalry between UA and the University of New Mexico. Its use was discontinued in 1968.

Well, that last statement is clearly incorrect as there are game scores carved onto the gun up to 1977. So what's the true story behind this peculiar weapon?

The Arizona/New Mexico rivalry goes back a long way. In fact, the list of the UA's first collegiate football opponents looks like this: Tempe Normal in 1899, Pomona-Pitzer and St. Vincent's College (now Loyola Marymount) in 1905, and New Mexico in 1908.

The gun doesn't go back that far, but it has been around for a while. In March 1960, Guns magazine featured the Rifle as its "Gun of the Month." For you firearm aficionados it is described as a "Springfield 1866 Allin-altered breechloader .50-.70" that was changed from an "M1863 cap-lock musket." I think that means it puts holes in things.

The article continues:

According to [Arizona athletic director J.F. "Pop"] McKale's story, he was hunting in the Santa Catalinas near Tucson when he encountered an old Indian carrying the rifle, perhaps one issued to the United States Army serving in the area during the Indian uprisings.

Did the Army give it to him as a souvenir after killing all his people? Strange tale. McKale went on to say he impressed the Native American by using his modern gun to hit two quail with one shot so he was able to trade for the antique rifle, which he then offered as a trophy in 1938.

I did some digging through the Arizona Daily Star archives and the earliest mention of the Rifle I found was in the November 24, 1940 edition. The previous day New Mexico had beaten Arizona 13-12 because the Wildcats failed to convert both extra points (ah, UA football). In addition, the story read:

The New Mexicans unveiled all the hipper-dipper razzle-dazzle in the books, while the Cats literally looked on with their mouths agape.

(It was at this point I realized I am living 66 years too late. I would've been the most flapper-dapper ba-doopy-wing-wang writer in all the land.)

As far as the historic trophy, we're told:

Between halves [an official from each school] recounted over the public address system the history of "Kit Carson," the old Springfield rifle which was set up a couple years ago as a trophy between Arizona and New Mexico. The only time the Wildcats have seen it has been when the Lobos lugged it over here.

The story of the prized firearm had yet to pick up steam however, because even though a ceremony had been planned for after the game, no one seemed to care.

But when the final gun did pop, New Mexico was so overjoyed at the victory and Arizona so disheartened that old "Kit Carson" was completely forgotten. Erect but forlorn he stood at the end of the N.M.U. bench while the field and stadium emptied itself.

(A certain phrase in that last sentence sounds like me in high school, but you'll have to guess which one.)

So this game report confirms that the Kit Carson Rifle was first introduced for the 1938 Wildcat/Lobo battle. The write-up following that game on October 29 proclaimed:

Bronko Smilanich, Arizona's all-conference back picked up 105 yards from scrimmage, an average of six yards per thrust. But despite Smilanich's galloping the Cats took a 20 to 7 licking from the Lobos.

(How could anybody in the '30s be depressed with salacious football like that being played?)

The fourth time was the charm for the Arizona men as the UA finally took hold of the Rifle with a 31-6 win on October 18, 1941. The following morning's Daily Star announced, "Cats' Cannonading Aerials Blast Lobos", as well as, "Following the game Co-Captain Vince Borgen presented the 'Kit Karson' trophy, a Springfield rifle, to Stubby Ashcraft, Arizona guard." This may very well have been the greatest achievement ever by a man named Stubby.

Things got a lot better for the Wildcats as that was the start of The Other Streak, with Arizona going 12-0-1 vs. UNM from 1941 through 1956.

(About this time a cockroach the size of Bronko Smilanich ran across my sandal-clad foot. Gotta love the basement of the UA library.)

The Rifle went back and forth with New Mexico holding an 8-7 win advantage over the next 15 years. By November of 1977 the UA had plans to leave the Western Athletic Conference, so it wasn't known when the two schools would play again. The Lobos had possession of the Rifle and wanted to keep it. But even though the Wildcats completed only 2 passes the entire game and none in the second half (ah, UA football), Arizona prevailed 15-13 and brought Kit Carson back to Tucson.

Afterwards UA coach Tony Mason was quoted as saying, "I never really realized how much we wanted that rifle." It is clear that when it came to the Rifle, Mason just didn't get it, and for that he was fired. Well, that and the abhorrent cheating.

The storied trophy made one final appearance on September 15, 1990 during the Ronnie Veal/George Malauulu era. Unranked New Mexico held a 7-5 lead but Dick Tomey's halftime speech propelled #20 Arizona to the 25-10 win. Fullback Mike Steidnig said, "We had the fear and respect for New Mexico, but we also got the gun, and that's what we came here for." The UA won despite completing a mere 3 passes for 21 yards and this was also the first game of punter Josh Miller's Ring of Honor career (ah, UA football).

The two long-time rivals did meet on the football field one other time since then but it was decided before the 1997 Insight.com Bowl that the Rifle would not be in attendance. On December 27 of that year, the Albuquerque Journal wrote:

The tradition involving the Kit Carson Rifle trophy is over. The rifle, part of most New Mexico-Arizona football games for the last 70 years, won't be part of the Insight.com Bowl. The two schools announced last week it won't be awarded to the winner because it may have been used against Native Americans.
May have? The Journal said the years in McKale's story just don't add up so the only thing certain is that none of the Rifle's supposed origin is true. It wasn't owned by Kit Carson or Geronimo or any other historic figure. It could have just been used on rusty tin cans for all we know.

So why couldn't we bring it back? Yeah, it's a gun, but who knows what atrocities Paul Bunyan committed with the Axe now used by Minnesota and Wisconsin. And I'm sure he mistreated his big blue ox from time to time. Yeah, guns kill people, but so does tobacco and that hasn't stopped Indiana and Michigan State from using the Old Brass Spittoon. The Wildcats already fight for the oldest rivalry trophy in the Territorial Cup, but it's a shame we can't also use another relic approaching its 70th anniversary.

However, if the Kit Carson Rifle is going to stay retired, at least it was shelved while we had it. When you own a 43-18-3 all-time record against an opponent you should get to keep the trophy.

And what a hipper-dipper trophy it is.

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