Sep 10, 2016

ON GUNS

     I admit I do not hunt or shoot very much anymore. I had been a big hunter when I was younger, primarily for waterfowl. Today, I have only one hunting trip each fall to South Dakota for pheasants which includes a few rounds of trap, “to get the shooting eye back,” before we leave.

     Although my interest in hunting has waned over the years, my enthusiasm for guns and owning guns hasn’t. I still keep an active interest in guns. I have almost 20 guns in my gun safe. Although I’ve slowed down on hunting and shooting, I have no plans to get rid of any of them. I have actually increased my collection over the last few years.

     Guys talk and think about guns. My father was case in point. He had not hunted as a young man and I don’t think he ever touched a firearm until he went into the Marine Corps, shortly after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. After spending the next three and a half years in the South Pacific, he had little use for firearms after returning from that war. While he had no interest in guns or hunting, in general, and didn‘t talk about the war, he would wax elegantly about the M1 Grand, the BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) and the .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol he used during the war. I suppose, weapons which kept you alive amidst the worst fighting in the South Pacific would make a lifetime impression on you.

     In the military, guns or individual firearms are always referred to as weapons and never guns. From the moment you arrive in basic training you are assigned your first weapon. My first Army weapon was an M-16 rifle, made by General Motors. A number of people find it hard to believe GM made military weapons but the Department of Defense has a long standing policy of issuing contracts to traditional and nontraditional weapon makers such as GM. During World War II, Singer, Remington Rand and Union Switch & Signal manufactured the .45 caliber pistol.

      For most of the 20 years I served in the Army, I was a military police officer so I carried the M1911A1 .45 caliber semi-automatic. The pistol had first been accepted by the Army in 1911, which makes it understandable as to why the military called it Model 1911, and it remained with the Army most of the 20th century. My father and I both carried the .45 pistol, although our military service was over 30 years apart and in two different services.
     My first exposure to sporting guns came through my grandfather.

Sometime during World War II, grandpa bought a rifle and double barrel 12 gauge shotgun from a lady whose husband died and just wanted to get rid of his guns. I don’t believed my grandfather ever used the shotgun, since I don’t ever remember him talking about any other hunting except for deer.
     The rifle was a lever action Winchester Model 94. The Model 94 was considered for almost a century to be the quintessential Northwoods deer hunting rifle and the ultimate brush gun. The Model 94 normally was chambered for the legendary 30-30 but my grandfather’s Model 94 came in the 32 Winchester Special. Winchester stopped making the 94 in that caliber in 1939 but brought it back briefly in the mid-1960s.
     I remember asking grandpa to show me his guns when I was a kid and he would take me up to the attic and get them out. Both guns had black leather cases. To this day, I remember the smell of leather, gun oil and mothballs, with the heat of the attic in the summer. I was fascinated with those two guns and it was a real treat when grandpa would let me hold them and bring one to my shoulder to sight it as if I was going to shoot it. Years later, I did use grandpa’s rifle for a couple of seasons when I first started deer hunting. When he died, my grandmother gave me his rifle, complete with the leather case, which I plan to pass on to one of my grandchildren someday.
     Growing up in east central Wisconsin, most people were bird hunters, either for upland birds, small game or waterfowl, so for the most part my interest was in shotguns. In the 1950s and 60s, the two premier shotguns of the day were the Browning Auto-5 for semi-automatics or the Winchester Model 12 for pump shotguns. The Browning Auto-5 lasted until 1998 and had been in production for almost a hundred years. It was the ultimate in semi-automatic shotguns for most of that time and was the second best-selling semi-automatic of all time, eventually losing the top spot to the Remington 1100.

     I particularly wanted the Winchester Model 12. By the time I got into hunting the Model 12 was no longer made, having ceased production in 1963. In those days, I would have never known that because the Model 12s were all over. For a kid, they were expensive so they were outside of my budget. It is a testament to what a great gun they are that today, after almost half a century since they were last made, you can still buy used Model 12s and they work just as good as ever.

     The first gun I ever owned was a Winchester Model 37, single barrel, 20 gauge shotgun. I paid for it by cutting grass at five bucks per lawn. The shotgun cost $25 and it took me over a month to pay for it. In those days, a teenage kid could walk into a sport shop or hardware store, put his money on the counter and walk out with a gun. It was just assumed he wouldn’t be buying the gun if he didn’t have parental permission. It was a much simpler and different world then. It took another month to pay for a couple boxes of shells, a cleaning kit and a case.  With it, I killed my first rabbit, first pheasant and first duck.

     My father was not enthused about my wanting to hunt, but bought a 16 gauge, Savage single barrel shotgun so he could come along and supervise me. My dad was a very good shot with that little gun. He shot a number of geese with it. I had a boyhood buddy who hunted with me, but he didn’t have a shotgun. So, I let him use my 20 gauge and I used father’s 16 gauge. We shot a lot of ducks together. A few years later, when I first was married, I needed some money so I sold that 20 gauge and have regretted it ever since.

     When I was in high school, I got a real job at a mink ranch and decided to buy a new shotgun so I could have more than just one shot. I was now getting a regular paycheck and having money taken out for income tax and Social Security. Although I wanted the Winchester Model 12, it was still beyond my budget. I was only getting $1.50 per hour to do mink ranch chores, including shoveling a lot of mink crap. I found a pump 12 gauge for $77 in a hardware store. It was a 12 gauge Hawthorne Viking originally sold by Montgomery Ward. It cost me one week’s summer pay. I carried it around for a lot of years and still have it. Although I have other shotguns now, I find it hard to part with that old pump.

     Some years later my hunting buddy, who had once borrowed my 20 gauge single shot when we were kids, bought a Marlin bolt action 10 gauge goose gun.  It had a 36-inch barrel. Obviously, it was impractical for anything but waterfowl hunting, but since the only game we hunted together was waterfowl, it seemed to work out wonderfully. Not only was it a big gun, but it was heavy as well. I recall shooting a duck with it once and was surprised it didn’t have as bad a recoil as I thought it would have.

     What guy’s collection would be complete without having a .22? For over a century, it has been the answer for hunting small game and just plinking. I never had a .22 when I was a kid but I felt I needed to have one. So one year my wife bought me a .22 Marlin semi-automatic rifle for Christmas. I felt like a kid again getting a gun for Christmas. A couple days later I had to try it out. My neighbor and his three sons went with me to a local abandoned quarry everyone used for target shooting. We set out aluminum cans and used the hood of my car as a bench rest for target practice. It was plinking at its finest; an American tradition. Later, I bought a revolver as a companion to the rifle. The .22, whether in pistols or rifles, has a great legacy in plinking, target practice and small game hunting. Probably more .22s have been sold and used than any other caliber in the last hundred years, accounting for an enormous amount of rabbits and squirrels, not to mention cans.
     I wanted a big game rifle, so I bought a Savage 110 model in a 30.06 caliber. Back in the 1980s, the 110s were relatively inexpensive and included a scope. The 30.06 was my only choice since it has always enjoyed the reputation of being the most versatile caliber ever used on a variety of big game animals. Also, shells for it could be found throughout the world, no matter where you were. A couple years ago I wandered into a combination gas station, convenience store, liquor store and sport shop, in an obscure town in South Dakota. Small towns still have those kinds of stores.  They had a couple boxes of other rifle ammo but the rest of the shelf was stocked with 30.06.
     The Savage 110 is not a particularly good-looking rifle. It really is a Plain Jane. Although, now it is available with synthetic stocks, I have always been partial to wood stocks so mine has a very nondescript wood stock. Although not very flashy looking, it enjoys a reputation of being a very reliable and accurate rifle, regardless of its looks or its modest price tag. I have never cared how much a gun costs or how it looks. Accuracy and reliability have always been more important to me then looks.

     Returning to the states after my third tour to Germany and now stationed in Minnesota, I read an article about a little .357 magnum pump rifle, called the Timber Wolf. In the western frontier, after the Civil War, it was popular to chamber rifles with the same caliber as pistols. It saved on having to buy two different types of ammunition. I bought the pump rifle. It is a short, compact rifle complimenting the Taurus .357 revolver with a six inch barrel I already owned.

     I also picked up a Ruger Mini-14. Again I was intrigued by it. It has a reputation as a very accurate rifle and chambered for the .223 caliber, which was the civilian equivalent to the 5.56 mm I shot with M-16s all those years in the Army. Also, it was developed from the military M-14 the military used prior to changing to the M-16. Once replaced by the M-16, they were used as sniper rifles by the Army for a number of years. It seemed like a good endorsement to me.

     In a gun shop in Minneapolis, I found .45 semi-automatic pistol exactly like the ones I carried for years as a military police officer. I had to buy it. The military was doing away with the .45, replacing it with the 9 mm in the early 1990s, but in my last assignment I was a trainer, so I was never issued a 9 mm. It is just as well. I am not sure I would have liked it better than the .45. It is hard to beat tradition, not to mention its reputation as having worked flawlessly throughout every conflict our country was involved in during the 20th century. Plus, it was pistol I carried for almost 20 years. I had a sentimental, but practical, attachment to it.

     During this time I decided I needed a new shotgun. I had purchased a Remington 1100 semi-automatic from a rod and gun club on my second tour to Germany. The first and last time I used it was on a hunting trip following my last tour in Germany. I realized I just wasn’t a semi-automatic guy. I grew up on pump shotguns and loved them. I traded it off on a Remington 870. The 870 is a workhorse of a shotgun and a worthy modern day replacement for the old Winchester Model 12. I got the 12 gauge model chambered for 3.5-inch shells in case I got back into waterfowl hunting. A few years later, my wife gave me a 16 gauge 870 for Christmas. Once again I felt like a kid again, getting a gun for Christmas. There may be fancier, and certainly more expensive pump shotguns on the market, but the Remington 870 is truly a working man’s gun; rugged and dependable no matter what the weather or abuse it takes. It always works.

     I have one regret from those last couple of years before I retired from the military. I often stopped at a combination gas station, convenience store and sport shop on the Minnesota/Iowa border when visiting the Military Police units I advised. One day, when I dropped in, they had a M1 Grand for sale. It was in beautiful condition and they didn’t want a lot for it, but I didn’t have much money with me at the time. I would have liked to have bought it to show my father, who fought with it in the South Pacific. I should have put it on layaway or something, but I didn’t. When I went back, it was gone.

   I hadn’t hunted for about a dozen years when a couple of Army buddies invited me to go pheasant hunting in South Dakota. I took the 870 pump and, after spending two days walking though the fields and brush, I realized my 870, chambered for 3.5-inch shells, was a bit too big for that kind of hunting. I felt like I was carrying around a cannon.

     So, then the only reasonable thing to do is to buy a new gun. It was a great excuse, if we ever needed one. I bought an over and under, double barrel, 12 gauge made by Stoeger. It came with an interchangeable set of 20 gauge barrels. I fell in love with it immediately. I like the 20 gauge barrels for trapshooting and grouse hunting. It has been a great shooting gun and a whole lot more comfortable and easier to carry when walking all day chasing pheasants. It has dropped a number of pheasants for me in the last few years.

     I enjoy handling guns and even cleaning them. That has never changed. The smell of Hoppe’s #9 Bore Cleaning Solvent brings to mind the crunch of dry leaves underfoot, the rattling of corn stalks, the sight of fresh snow sparkling in the woods or decoys floating on slate gray waves.

     Although I might not hunt much anymore, the memories are always with me. I have been tempted to sell some of the guns, but then I remember where I got them, the places I have hunted and the people I was with. Then I forget all about selling them. So I keep the guns, regardless if I will use them or not. Those guns have been a part of my life and the times and memories associated with them will always be with me.