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Bottom Scratchers

Discussion in 'History of Scuba Diving: Tales from the Abyss' started by Sam Miller III, Nov 25, 2018.

  1. Sam Miller III

    Sam Miller III Scuba Legend Scuba Legend

    # of Dives: 5,000 - ∞
    Location: CALIFORNIA: Where recreational diving began!

    A ScubaBoard Staff Message...

    In a different thread on another topic, the talk turned to a fascinating discussion about free diving/scuba diving history & scuba diving legend, Sam Miller chimed in with some fabulous historical tidbits about spear guns.

    I moved Sam's posts to a dedicated thread in our diving history forum because they are too valuable to be lost & buried in a thread on a different topic.

    Thank you, Sam for this dive down memory lane!


    Part #1


    My all time favorite spear gun is a "Bottom Scratcher." It was designed/developed in 1939 by Wally Potts and perfected by the Bottom Scratcher spear fishing club of San Diego, California. It is the first rubber powered spear gun produced in the US and is the original California long gun, constructed of by the joining of a simple tube SS handle containing a one piece trigger to a 1&1/4 inch dowel barrel, and a long balance bar that was either made of wood or SS.

    In the very early days of spear fishing around 1950 Wally sold a Bottom Scratcher gun to Paul Hoss a member of the Dolphins spear fishing club which had recently won the world's very first "International spear fishing meet" in Laguna Beach in the Summer of 1950. When he sold it to Paul who lived in a suburb of LA, called Compton, Jack Prodanovich is reported to have said to Wally that "Selling a gun up north was like selling guns to the Yankees." And he was correct. Paul disassembled the gun did some modifications that improved the trigger pull and began producing a very close copy affectionately became known as the "Hoss gun" or the "Hoss-Bottom Scratcher gun" by the "Yankees" of Los Angeles and Orange County. The Hoss copy was cosmetically and functionally identical in every respect except for the Sturgil muzzle which was the muzzle of choice for all guns used by serious Yankee spear fishermen. The guns which were made by Wally and Paul were all custom made therefore no two were exactly identical. It was reported substantially less than 50 were made in a 30 plus year period by Wally and some where between 20 and 30 by Paul in about a 10 year period. Needless to say they were difficult to obtain and are now scarce and highly prised by those who own them, or collectors of diving memorabilia.

    Known through out the spear fishing fraternity as the "California long gun" and on occasion the "Long Tom," they were made for long shots at big fish in then the clear unpolluted waters of SoCal.

    I was fortunate to have ended up with two. My own personal custom gun I purchased from Paul Hoss and a friend's who after being chased out of the water by a shark decided that spear fishing was not for him, so he sold it to me a half what a bare unrigged new one costs

    My guns measure 7 foot 9 inches plus the point which can have many configurations and lengths adding as much as a foot if the Prodanovich point impact aka power head was used. It has a sling pull of 4 foot 8 inches and the 5/16 diameter SS arrow rides on the first rails to be installed on a spear gun. It has a balance bar that extends approximately 15 inches behind the trigger mechanism.

    It was made during the era of the kettle cured rubber. I can't recall when surgical rubber for spear gun slings became popular but I think in the mid 1950s. The gun originally used three slings of 28 or less inches of kettle cured rubber , which I replaced with an equal amount of surgical tubing for power when it became popular and readily available. I do vividly recall the first time I test fired it at Ship Rock off Catalina using the then new surgical slings...the arabelete type slide ring exploded totally disintegrated ! The arrow went flying in to the blue water never to be seen again by man--or at least me...so I had a slide ring custom made from aerospace material. A number of years later Joe La Monica who developed the Voit/ Mares/JBL gun "copied" my slide ring and began producing a very strong SS slide ring which I modified and converted to use on some of my guns.

    My first and my favorite gun has a custom (aka home made) "San Diego" style "dump pack" which I constructed from a piece of SS sheet, a SS Piano hinge, several lengths of WW 11 webbing and a SS rod as the release pin. The dump pack contained 200 feet of yellow 1/8 Polypropylene line fan folded into small bunches secured by two pieces of a bicycle inner tube (they won't rot) terminating with a small WW11 water purification bag modified into an automatic Co2 inflation float. It has a 15 inch SS balance bar

    Gun number two is equipped with a huge six inch "Riffes Reel," produced and marketed about 40 years ago by a now defunct San Diego company by the name of Aquacraft. The reel holds about a jillione miles of hard lay tuna trolling nylon line. I can not recall how much it holds and I have never been reeled there fore cannot accurately state with any reasonable amount of certainty the amount of line on the Riffe's reel but it is a lot! It originally came equipped with a 15 inch balance bar, which the former owner trimmed to eight inches. I found this too short and extended it to it's original length of 15 inches by the addition of a piece of 1 &1/4 wood dowel.

    Do I still use the guns? Heck no! They are just too rare and too valuable , since only less than ten are known to have survived the passage of time , and especially when a Bottom Scratcher/Hoss gun sold on E bay several years ago for $2500.00 plus dollars.

    But-- I still have wonderful memories of the Bottom Scratcher and years gone by.
  2. Sam Miller III

    Sam Miller III Scuba Legend Scuba Legend

    # of Dives: 5,000 - ∞
    Location: CALIFORNIA: Where recreational diving began!
    part ## 2

    La Jolla Cove-- Where it all began

    There are a number of vintage books devoted to spear fishing, the most desirable and rarest is of course Gilpatrics "Complete Goggler," published in 1938.

    Equally rare, perhaps even rarer are vintage magazine articles. The 1949 National Geographic magazine artcle "Goggle fishing in California Waters," Vol ZCV #5,May 1949, is considered by most serious magliophile/bibliophile as the fountainhead of magazine articles devoted to spear fishing. And it all took place in LA Jolla Cove

    Universally known as the "Bottom Scratcher issue," Pages 615 to 632 is jammed packed with the photography of Lamar Boren, who later gained fame as the photographer of the Sea Hunt series, there are 7 B&W photographs, 12 "natural color" photographs (in 1949 color photography was in it's infancy) and with a text written by professional National Geographic staff member. This issue should be on every collector/historian bucket list.

    There is a historical significance of articles and books of this era that provide a glimpse in to a the genesis of the sport and should be cherished as great historical documents...The crude early Churchill fins; the homemade equipment; the masks, the jab sticks (pole spears) the lack of thermal protection...All these items were in the process of future development.

    So by visiting and hopefully diving La Jolla Cove you would be diving "where it all began" in California by the Bottom Scratchers spear fishing club - One of the most historical diving locations in the world.

    LA Jolla Cove was also the location of the famous GWS attack during the summer of 1959 when skin diver Robert Pammerdin lost his life-

    Only a few remain who were participants of that bygone era and they are rapidly dwindling in numbers, soon they all will be gone...

  3. Sam Miller III

    Sam Miller III Scuba Legend Scuba Legend

    # of Dives: 5,000 - ∞
    Location: CALIFORNIA: Where recreational diving began!
    Obituary the last Bottom Scratcher
    Jim Stewart
    Pioneer and Early Dive Expert

    James Stewart was born in 1927 and his diving career began before there was scuba. In 1941 at the age of 14 in La Jolla Cove in San Diego,

    California James first borrowed a friend's mask and put his head under water and started free diving. This is when free diving and spear fishing soon replaced swimming and surfing. He quickly became a very accomplished free diving spear fisherman as a junior in high school. The following year became a life guard.

    James was drafted in the final year of World War II and went into the Army Air Corps in Nome, Alaska. Upon returning home he was invited to join the Bottom Scratchers, the nation's first dive club in 1951. This exclusive club was by invitation only and only had seventeen members. James was

    the youngest. Initiation requirements included including collecting three abalones in 30 feet of water in one breath, bringing in a six foot shark by the tail, and catching a ten pound lobster. Scuba was not allowed.

    California James first borrowed a friend's mask and put his head under water and started free diving. This is when free diving and spear fishing soon replaced swimming and surfing. He quickly became a very accomplished free diving spear fisherman as a junior in high school. The following year became a life guard.

    His scuba diving career began in 1951. The equipment was a converted oxygen regulator from an Army Air Corps bomber. This was only two years
    after the first Cousteau/Gagnan Aqua-Lungs arrived in the U.S. Since there were not scuba diver training programs, Stewart learned like everyone else then ... through trial-and-error, sharing knowledge between divers and pure luck. This background made him extremely conscious of the need for polished diver training programs and diver safety programs. He became a pioneer and expert in this field.

    His academic background is as a Marine Biologist, receiving his Bachelors Degree in Botany from Pomona College in 1953 and his Teaching Credential from San Diego State University in 1958. He studied marine botany at the graduate level, both at USC and the University of Hawaii.

    In 1952 Stewart began his long and productive association with Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Connie Limbaugh and Dr. Andy Rechnitzer developed the diving program at Scripps. Limbaugh recruited Stewart as a volunteer in the Scripps program. He helped in research and diver training. The Scripps diver training program was just to train scientific divers with scuba. But it paved the way for many sport and scientific diver training programs throughout the world.

    Los Angeles County sent Bev Morgan, Al Tillman and Ramsey Parks through the Scripps scuba diver training program. They in turn, with a lot of help from Limbaugh, Rechnitzer and Stewart, set up the first sport diver training program in 1953: the Los Angeles County Underwater Instructors Association. Stewart has been Technical Advisor to the Los Angeles County Program and NAUI from the start.

    In 1955 Stewart was hired part time by Scripps to work on a kelp study, sponsored by Kelco. The company harvests help and processes it into over 200 commercial products.

    Jim Stewart traveled to Enewitok and Bikini in 1955 with a Scripps research team. This was the site of atomic and hydrogen bomb tests. Stewart conducted studies on the affects of the nuclear blasts and fallout on marine life. He joined the Scripps staff full time in 1957.

    Also in the 1950s, Stewart and Dr. Andy Rechnitzer recorded the sounds of humpback whales in the Channel Islands off Southern California. This was during the first diving research cruise, using the 100-foot vessel Orca.

    As part of his responsibilities, Stewart was to collect fish species for research and the Scripps Aquarium. He developed a technique of using hypodermic needles to remove gas from the swim bladders of deep diving fish. This allowed them to adjust the surface pressure and remained alive.

    In 1959 Stewart, Limbaugh and Dr. Wheeler North discovered the amazing underwater sandfalls at Cabo San Lucas. They worked together to film and produced the film, Rivers of Sand, which won many awards at film festivals throughout the world.

    Tragically, in 1960 Conrad Limbaugh was killed in a cave diving accident in France. Jim Stewart was named to succeed his close friend as Diving Officer at Scripps.

    Stewart was instrumental in further developing the formal training program at Scripps and established diving standards. This was formalized in the original University Guide For Diving Safety written by Jim Stewart. Published in 1960, this created a means for establishing reciprocal diving programs throughout the University of California system. This first university diving safety manual included rules on training, dive procedures, maintenance and record keeping. Many universities and colleges across the country have adopted this manual.

    As Diving Officer at Scripps, Stewart heads the nation's oldest and largest non-governmental research diving program. He has also managed the Scripps Research Diving Program, which has become the model for safe and effective conduct of international research diving programs. He has supervised a yearly average of 130 faculty, staff and students who have amassed more than 100,000 dives.

    Stewart has shared his diving knowledge, training methods and safety procedures with sport diver training organizations. And he has lectured throughout the world on diver training, scientific diving and diving operations.

    As part of his responsibilities as Diving Officer, Stewart has been diving in most parts of the world in support of research projects at Scripps. This has included the South Pacific, under the ice in Antarctic, all along the eastern Pacific Coastline clear up to Alaska, the Caribbean, Europe, the Indian Ocean and several other locations.

    In 1961, while doing diving research off Canton Island, Stewart was attacked by a gray reef shark. He was hit twice on the right elbow. It was

    jim_stewart_shark_bite-jpg.413432.jpg a very bad bite, cutting the joint capsule and two arteries. Because of his considerable diving experience and the rather brave help of his friend Ron Church, Stewart was able to get away from the shark. Stewart had to be flown clear back to Hawaii, the closest hospital to handle such emergencies. He lived to joke about it, probably because he was destined for greater contributions to diving.

    In 1962 Jim Stewart was part of the safety team on the Hannes Keller 1,000-foot Dive off Catalina. When an accident forced Keller and his dive partner, Peter Small, back into the diving bell, Dick Anderson and Jim
    Whittaker were able to clear a fin out of the hatch and seal it for decompression. Anderson signaled Whittaker to surface and have the bell raised. But the bell would not rise. Anderson surfaced to discover Whittaker was not there. Jim Stewart and Dave Wells immediately dove to correct the problem, which was in the counterweight winch system. They were able to clear it, but were sucked up in the turbulent water that pulled Wells' watch right off his wrist. The bell surfaced, Keller recovered, Small died and Whittaker was never found.

    Jim Stewart was a Saturation Diver on the Westinghouse Project 600. This operation was a record saturation dive with the Cachalot Diving Bell System to 600 feet in the Gulf of Mexico. The Saturation Divers breathed a 95-5 helium-oxygen mixed-gas. The project was a success, including the 62-hour decompression.

    He was part of a research dive team in 1967 that discovered the Japanese ships at Truk Lagoon. Their research ship had anchored there to ride out a typhoon. Thousands of sport divers have since made dives on this massive underwater grave site and seen the spectacular marine life through crystal-clear water.

    He is Technical Consultant for the Division of Polar Programs for the National Science foundation. In 1969 he made his first of hundreds of dives under the Antarctic ice. The water temperature is a constant 28.5 degrees F.

    Over his many years at Scripps, Stewart has been a key part of countless diving operations: both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans; the Gulf of Mexico; surveying effects of nuclear blasts at Enewitok; diving under the Arctic and Antarctic ice; Safety Diver for the Hannes Keller 1,000-foot Dive; the Mediterranean Sea; and other areas.

    In addition, Stewart has worked well with the scientific field, conducting dives in submersibles, and in studying submarine canyons and deep water fishes.

    Stewart is on the NAUI Advisory Board, the San Diego County Coroner's Scuba Committee and many other groups.

    He serves as a Diving Consultant to the U.S. Coast Guard, NASA, FBI, U.S. Army Special Forces, National Park Service and many universities.


    The Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Marine Technicians Handbook, Procedures for Shipboard Diving: The University Guide for Diving Safety for the International Legends of Diving. Project to preserve this original document for dive training, in cooperation with James R. Stewart, revised in 1971 by the author. Read the original dive manual here.

    Jim and I were very close friends for about 60 or more years. I dove with Jim on numerus occasions and was a contributor to the hand book--- So darn many memories in the last three posts . I hope you find then=m interesting and educational

    Sam Miller, 111

    Sam Miller, 111
  4. NYCNaiad

    NYCNaiad Dive babble all day long Staff Member

    # of Dives: 200 - 499
    Location: NYC
    @Sam Miller III I know far too little about scuba & freediving history so I loved reading about your spear guns. That's amazing they've survived the passage of time!

    I haven't yet been diving in California, but when I do I definitely want to check out La Jolla Cove. (And I checked out the National Geographic article you mentioned. From the pieces I saw online, it's amazing. The photos are fantastic as well as shown here on Spearboard.)

    Your friend, Jim Stewart had an amazing history. And the original dive manual was so interesting! It's amazing how many things are the same & how many are different today.

    Thank you for all these wonderful memories! I really enjoyed hearing them.
    Compressor and Akimbo like this.
  5. Akimbo

    Akimbo Lift to Freedom Volunteer Staff Member ScubaBoard Supporter

    I had several opportunities to shoot borrowed Bottom Scratcher guns made by Jack Prodanovich in the 1980s. It was easily the best pipe gun I had seen before the current generation of guns with innovations like:
    • Enclosed tracks and shaft guides
    • Sharkfin tabs (versus notches in the shaft)
    • Dyneema wishbones
    • Open muzzles
    • Latex bands optimized for spearguns
    For all practical purposes, it took about 40 years for commercially available "pipe guns" (versus wood or pneumatic) to see significant improvements over the very limited-production handmade Bottom Scratcher guns. Dano (@MAKO Spearguns) might be able to provide some additional insights.

    Thanks Sam, I appreciate the view into history.
    Compressor likes this.
  6. MAKO Spearguns

    MAKO Spearguns ScubaBoard Business Sponsor ScubaBoard Business Sponsor

    Not sure I can add much, other than to thank Sam for taking the time to share history with us.

    With respect to pipe guns, they have improved and will continue to do so. I am actually working on a new gun which will incorporate several upgrades including an improved mechanism and other features.
    Akimbo likes this.
  7. Compressor

    Compressor ScubaBoard Supporter Staff Member ScubaBoard Supporter

    # of Dives: 1,000 - 2,499
    Location: NYS
    Fascinating history in threads above. Thanks to all that contributed.
    Just love reading about this stuff.
  8. Sam Miller III

    Sam Miller III Scuba Legend Scuba Legend

    # of Dives: 5,000 - ∞
    Location: CALIFORNIA: Where recreational diving began!

    I often post and then walk away...I returned to this post via @Compressor who read it and gave me a an At a Boy- so I returned

    I am delighted that you liked my post and dive history-- all too soon those who were participants will be gone and dive history will revert to I think, I was told, I suppose...

    In your post you mentioned spear board and indicated their was published pictures accompanying the article
    I would suggest that you might want to return to Spearboard. and read the entire thread--I am listed as Baja Ha ha Lots of history in that thread.

    You also might enjoy a post I made today on Hunters of the deep -1954 movie -- As a part of my reply I listed the first four female instructors in the world -- All certified in the 1950s via the very difficult and demanding LA Co UW instructors program

    Stay warm in NYC...Sunny and warm in CenCal BUT high surf !

    Sam, Miller, 111
    Compressor and Dark Wolf like this.

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