I was sitting in my car the other day, doing that daily ritual that is my morning commute when all I could really think about was goose hunting. The birds are finished moulting and there is a soothing regularity to seeing them fly through the countryside of south-Central Ontario. Every morning I am treated to the spectacle of big flocks dropping into the recently-harvested grain fields that line the county roads and highways that lead me to my ‘real job’.
And every morning, I just sit there in the car trying to remain focused on the road. But, like any hunter that can relate to my sickness, I’m mentally transported to the goose blind, where I’m crouched motionless, thumb on the safety of my 870, waiting for the birds to put their feet and flaps down.
My 870. The first and, to date, only shotgun I’ve ever owned.
My relationship with it is longer than my relationship with my wife, my children, and several dozen of people that I call ‘friends’. It is older than this forum where I pour out my drivel by more than fifteen years. It has been with me for almost all of the most treasured moments in my hunting career. My first duck, my first goose, my first Eastern turkey, and the only Merriam’s I’ve hunted. On chilly December afternoons, grouse and rabbits have found their way into the stew pot via the muzzle of that old gun. I’ve thrown a slug barrel on it and punched paper, but have not had call to fire it at a whitetail…yet.
It came to me at Christmas in 1993, almost a full year before I could legally hunt with it, and I remember the long box with a bow sitting next to my stocking that December morning, and I can feel to this day the trembling excitement that my hands had when I unboxed it. It was “my first gun” and in truth my first real hunting possession of any kind. But it is not just familiarity and tradition that make me pull that scattergun out of the cabinet every year, although those are part of the appeal. It is also just a reliable, bomb-proof, smooth-cycling gun that does everything that I’ve ever asked it to do.
It has been dropped…hard. It has been disassembled and reassembled in the front seat of a truck. It has been soaked so thoroughly that water ran in a stream out of the barrel. I once forgot about it in a damp gun sock for three days; it wiped down clean and it shot flawlessly the very next day. Target loads, small-game shells, duck loads and big goose pellets have all flown down the barrel and it has thrown empty hulls every time. I have jammed various choke tubes down the muzzle, both in a sanitary setting and in the field, with no incident. I have been soft to it and I’ve been rough with it and it never once complained.
In 2013, on the last hunt of the goose season, I ejected my final unspent shells of the fall from it and the action would not close. The ejector pin had snapped after countless thousands of shells had been cycled through it, and part of me felt the twinge of panic that a parent feels when their child gets sick. I took the old girl the local gun shop and for a pittance they had it back in my hands promptly. A few short months later, it barked early one spring morning in the mountains near Cranbrook, British Columbia and flopped the bird that completed my Canadian Wild Turkey Slam.
Reliability aside, there is also a visceral, Zen-like pleasure in the fluid back-and-forth of the pump action. A calming, balanced rhythm that has become the metronome to my waterfowling and skeet shooting.
Now I have fired other guns. I own and/or have fired the gamut of other weapons that autoload, or bolt. I have long coveted my father’s break-action Ruger Red Label Over-Under 20 gauge, and to shoulder and fire that shiny toy is an act of pure euphoria. The ‘throw’ of a lever action on my cousin’s 30-30 was fun and is very nearly as calming as the slide action. I own a pump-action rifle as well, a classic Remington Model 14, and it is so smooth that the recoil from one fired .30 Remington round completes two-thirds of the cycling for me. But when I think about shooting my mind always comes back to the cadenced, metallic “chick-chick” of the 870 moving empties out the breech.
I could give you technical reasons why the pump gun is a wise choice. The in-line motion of the action helping to maintain a level sight-plane for second and third shots. Improved safety over the risk of inadvertently firing a second shot with an autoloader. The precision to fire planned shots rather than simply putting up a rapid-fire ‘wall-of-lead-or-steel’ but these are mostly anecdotal and in years of looking for it, I’ve never found a definitive technical reason that would give a pump shotgun the edge other than reliability and ease of use.
And for some people, those two reasons are reason enough.
For me though it is something less tangible, and if we were going to break me down psychologically then I’m certain the comfort, tradition, ease of use, reliability, versatility, and control of the pump shotgun would trump all the new-wave, fancy, high-technology, ultra-magnum, occasionally high-maintenance autoloaders out there. Do not take it personally and just shoot whatever it is you like to shoot.
I will just occupy my corner of the blind and saw away at the slide action as the ducks and geese lock onto the decoys and begin to float in, sometimes knocking down a bird here and there and grinning like a dummy.