For an inanimate object, a gun can be one hell of a storehouse of memories.
A gun with proper care can last several lifetimes and during those years as it is passed between family members or friends and is touched or used by various people it becomes woven into the fabric of our lives. This is the one reason I encourage every “gun person” I know to jot down their recollections so they may be passed on to other hunters that may follow them, that may one day use that gun for their own pleasure.
I guess this is the reason I like old guns so much; I can’t help it, but every time I pick up a well-worn and hard-used rifle or shotgun I get the feeling that someone is looking over my shoulder, trying to tell me about the times that they and this piece of wood and steel spent together. I bought some junky old rifles and shotguns because of this; seeing more than the dollar value in their worn stocks and faded bluing.
There is a pitted, scratched, dented, and loose double-barrel Colt 12 bore in my safe and I see it riding on the wagon seat through a sea of tall-grass prairie. Its worn walnut stock is bloodied from the prairie chickens that blotted out the sun when they rose. Its graceful and blueless hammers worn blisters on a father’s thumbs as he used it to feed and protect his children. The wrist of the stock is wrapped with leather now. It is brittle with age and the head of a hand-made nail shows in the center of the old repair.
Next to it is the 1893 Marlin, built in a time when farm kids couldn’t name the president but knew the names of Marlin, Winchester and Remington. It was a time when guns and hunting were an accepted, normal part of the world. It came in a trade from up north. Did someone once see a bull moose in Maine or a heavy Adirondack buck over its graceful octagon barrel? Did it wear a leather scabbard as it rode secure between a lathered horse and its owner’s leg? Did it cross the Ausable and hear the howl of wolves?
There are two single-shot shotguns, still tight at the breech but that’s the best part of them. Their stocks are cracked and gouged, their bluing gone gray, there are dents and dings in the brown barrels, and the beads are missing. They are 16 gauges; the Cherokee with its 30-inch tube and the Champion with its 28, both choked full. I touch them and can hear the hounds pushing the deer through the myrtle and honeysuckle and see the squirrels on limbs draped with Spanish moss. The hammer spur on the Ivor Johnson is broken off short and I can see a 10-year-old headed to the woodshed for that. I see paper shells and gun oil and the smell of the swamp at sunrise.
There is the 1897 16 gauge, unfinished with bare wood and metal. The grooves in the forend are worn slick from three brothers and thousands of pumps as New River ducks smacked the ice and the flushing grouse of Buck Mountain ended in clouds of feathers. It brings memories of sweet yellow hickory leaves and countless Appalachian Mountain sunrises and sunsets. The wrist of the stock is soaked black with gun oil and a faded canvas coat cushioned the receiver on the shoulder.
The Springfield ’06, still green and brown, brought back from war and shifted from man killer to deer killer when the radio was the newest technology and electric lines were looked upon in awe. Still glass-slick and fine-sighted, the bolt knob is polished with palm sweat and the wood will still turn back the snow. It made a trip to Alaska and back and still has Teton dirt under the butt plate.
Then there are my family guns: my father traded his 1911 war pistol for a Remington .22. The barrel was shot smooth as I was taught the sight picture and to love the fall.
The Stevens .410 was bought at Matthews Hardware in Galax, Virginia for $25 and included a brown paper bag with ten red Winchester shells in it. It was carried by the proudest 10-year old in the world and it taught my sons to hunt as it taught me.
There is the beat-up, cut-down, five-times refinished Remington .308 that killed three first deer and hundreds more. There is the Stevens double-barrel 20 that dropped the only bird old Roy ever retrieved. The Arisaka was picked up in Saipan and reminded a mountain boy how good home really was. The crown jewel was the homemade 20-gauge percussion gun with a hardware store lock, gas-pipe barrel and hand-carved poplar stock dad and his brothers made and used in the ’20s to shoot muskrats.
Write down your memories of your guns. They are Americana at its finest, the tools that separate us from the rest of the entire human world. Somewhere along the line someone will thank you for it. Now, thank you and God bless you, Sgt. Alex D., who today is headed to Afghanistan with his Special Forces team. We love you and pray for you and your brothers; whatever it takes, come home to us. Buck Mountain, and a few good guns, are waiting for you.
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