The tree that marched with military history.
Although walnut was replaced in combat by plastic, the rifles of West Point casts still sport the wood.

Walnut's association with firearms goes back to the 17th century, when French musketeers selected a European species of it for the stocks on their muzzleloaders. Light, yet strong, the wood was easily worked and finished. But most important of all, walnut withstood the shock of recoil and remained stable under the worst of conditions, explains Bob Chenoweth in Black Walnut (Sagamore Publish Co., Champaign, Illinois, 1995. Call 800/327-5557).

From that time on walnut formed the stocks on military weapons. Black walnut (Juglans nigra) was on the black-powder firearms carried by patriots in the American Revolution and by North and South in the Civil War. As the sturdy grip on Springfield rifles, the wood survived World War I. GIs carried walnut-stocked M-1s through World War II and Korea, adding to the wood's battlefield heritage.

Later, in Vietnam's early stages, M-14s and M-16s still sported walnut. Then along came the M16-A1, and with it a composition stock of hard plastic. Perhaps walnut was too scarce, too expensive, or maybe not tough enough for the modern military. Whatever the reason, walnut's encounters with conflict were over.

Today, a vestige of this history remains. The 3,000 cadets of the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, proudly parade with their M-14s -- still stocked with black walnut.

Although walnut was replaced in combat by plastic, the rifles of West Point cadets still sport the wood.

Illustration: Jim Stevenson