Michael Pearce

August 11, 2013

Michael Pearce: Memories derived from heirloom can’t be replaced

I like new guns, but I positively love the older ones.

Michael Pearce

The Eagle's outdoor reporter highlights the latest hunting, fishing and wildlife news.

I like new guns, but I positively love the older ones.

Put me in an open-rack shop or collection and I’ll pass the shiny and unused to put my eyes and hands on a shotgun or rifle with some rust on the barrel and a stock that looks like it was a scratching post for a herd of tom cats.

To me every nick and blemish on old firearms denotes character, and I so often wonder what stories the guns could tell. The ones I most enjoy are owned by someone who can tell me the old gun’s story, and it seems like about every shooting family, mine included, has at least one such firearm, and someone glad to tell its history.

Years ago in the Smoky Hills, when asked about his favorite firearm, a octogenarian reached past his selection of Weatherby rifles and Benelli shotguns and pulled out an ancient single-shot .22 of unknown brand. As a boy, his father had traded something like three skunk pelts for the rifle at the general store in a long gone town. The rancher talked about his own childhood with the rifle, when he was lucky to have ten cartridges to shoot enough cottontails to feed the family through a Depression-era week.

I’ve been blessed to have held ancient 10 and 12 gauges someone’s ancestor used to shoot waterfowl for eastern markets, and some really cool, old .22s with exposed hammers and octagon barrels. Most carried a myriad of scars from their decades when a .22 was just as much another farm tool as a hammer or pliers. Unlike most old shotguns, a lot of the .22s from centuries past still function well.

Ours certainly does, but it’s only about 60 or 70 years old. Unfortunately I know little of its pre-me years.

It showed up in the back of my dad’s closet, next to his cherished Model 12, when I was a teen. He said his brother, Don, had bought it long ago and recently given it to him for some reason. Dad didn’t know how long his brother had owned the bolt-action, why or where he’d purchased it or how much it had been used. It had obviously seen very little care.

The gun is a Remington Junior Special, which seemed like an odd gun for Uncle Don to own. When he and dad were kids their family was so poor they barely had enough money for food, let alone ammo or a special youth rifle.

And that it’s called a “junior” rifle seems odd. Sure, the stock is a tad shorter than most, but the old Remington has a long barrel and forearm that’s about as thick and wieldly as a 4X4. Lightweight, it’s certainly not.

The most important parts of the gun’s history, to me, have come since I took possession minutes after I found it dad’s closet.

It was my first firearm of great accuracy. With broken open sights I paid to attach a four-power scope in about 1980. At our farm I sighted it in with mid-cost Winchester semi-hollow points and had shots about touching at 25 yards. I’d never dreamed of such a thing until then.

That same weekend it became the first rifle with which I shot a limit of five squirrels. I wish I knew how many limits I’ve taken from a single magazine that held just six rounds. It would be many.

It’s the gun with which both of our kids developed into fine rifle shots. For the ammo cost of about $1 an hour, they used to take turns dinging a metal gongs to 200 meters. Many times they settled sibling rivalries shooting 20 or so times at a clay target and its ever shrinking pieces until someone missed. Even pea-sized pieces of clay were in serious danger at 25 meters when the kids were competing.

Dozens of others have learned to appreciate and perfect shooting skills with the old rifle, ranging from kids from rough backgrounds in the local Big Brothers program to a trio of privileged New York young women. Visibly trembling at her first time to every touch a firearm, one looked up after her first emptied clip, smiled huge and said, “Oh my gosh, I had no idea shooting could be so much fun...all I’ve ever heard about is the danger.” Upon their return east, the women placed the well-punched bullseyes on display in their dorm rooms at Columbia.

The rifle’s currently on loan to a nine-year-old, who’s dinging quarter-sized spinning disks with enough regularity the rifle will have her ready for deer season next month.

Last weekend I shot the gun that’s far older than me for the first time in several years, still loving the trigger that’s as crisp as a snapped potato chip. The scope that’s never been adjusted in 33 years, and the rifle’s barrel that I don’t think has ever been cleaned still put shot after shot into fingernail-sized groups at about 25 yards with the same kind of Winchester ammo.

Just handling the old bolt-action flooded my mind with memories of my kids at the range and hopes that someday their children will do the same. Every time I pull the trigger I’m amazed at the gun’s tack-driving accuracy.

Seriously, what new gun could ever compete with all that?

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