Category Archives: reflections

Old Gun, New Gun.

I’ve expressed my fondness for various styles of guns in this forum on more than one occasion, and I’m usually for older, more proven models than new, fancy, cutting-edge models, but that’s not what this is about.

This is about a foible of human nature.  This is about an affinity for ‘things’ and the very human practice of ascribing them emotional value that sometimes exceeds their worthiness. About infusing metal and wood and polymers and glass with memories, hopes, and aspirations.  For some people the object is a talisman or a token, some bauble that becomes a representation of deeper meaning in their lives.  Photos, trinkets, keepsakes, and antiques, they all fall under this umbrella.

For me this is perfectly distilled in two deer guns.  One with a pedigree forged in years and primacy of place in a young boy’s hunting initiation, the other with no outwardly special graces but still imbued with deeply personal significance.

My father bought the old gun from a work acquaintance, back when those kinds of transactions between hunters were less meticulously controlled.  I do not know (mostly because I never asked) if it was Dad’s intention that this gun was intended to be for one of his sons, but I can suspect that he had it at least in the back of his mind.  It is a beautifully-crafted Remington Model 14, and it is at least 80 years old by now, and possibly even closer to a century has passed since it left Ilion, New York.  Chambered in .30 Remington (a shell that isn’t even manufactured anymore) it is smooth to the shoulder, extremely ‘pointable’, and about as nice a brush gun as you could hope to have.  I remember being put through my paces with it one Thanksgiving at the farm, just weeks before I would take up arms in my first deer hunt.  I was taken through the proper loading, unloading, safety and aiming rituals of the gun. Convinced I was safe, Dad then took me into the hardwoods and had me shoot at a knot on a split piece of hardwood at fifty paces; I missed the knot, but I was in the neighbourhood and Dad said it was close enough to kill a deer if I was lucky enough to have the bead on a deer’s front shoulder.  I just recall that the bullet split the wood as smoothly as any maul would have.

Next we stood perpendicular to the big hill behind the farm and dad affixed a cardboard target inside an old tire.  He kicked the tire down the hill and I tried to hit the bouncing, wobbling target.  This time I was more steady and poured a couple of shots into the kill zone.  With that I was deemed ‘ready’.  A few weeks later I swung the bead onto the form of a running deer and through the rear peep sight I calmly squeezed the trigger, knocking down a fawn.  I don’t even recall feeling the gun’s recoil in that moment, but the sounds and smells and feelings of that morning are seared into my mind.

A couple of other deer have fallen to that gun in the intervening years, and I’ve done some missing with it too, but every time I took it to the range it told me that operator error, and not some malfunction in the weapon, was the real culprit in my poor shooting.  It was always the first thing I reached for in November and the action has become so well worn that it almost falls open when released.  The recoil does a large part of the work in pumping the gun after it is shot and the patina it has from my hands is unmistakable.  It glows after a dose of oil and the stock and fore-end have a warm chestnut brown sheen that reminds me of bread toasted over a mid-day bonfire and a chill November breeze across my face.

That gun and I…we have history together.

But there’s another gun, and it lacks the heritage and character of the Model 14.  It is non-descript and in many ways indistinguishable from the thousands of other cookie-cutter rifles on the market.  It’s existence in my gun cabinet comes from a casual observation I made in 2012.  My younger brother and I were discussing rifles, and platforms, and calibers when I mentioned that I was thinking about buying a .308WIN in a bolt action with a drop-out clip.  It was not a burning desire, not an immediate need, and certainly nothing more than a passing thought at the time.  I owned (in fact had won) a perfectly serviceable .243WIN in a raffle, but it had two strikes against it.  First I was considering starting to moose hunt, and I thought .243 would be a bit light in caliber, and secondly, it was a top-load, top-eject model and it was fairly annoying to load and unload.  So like I said, I mused about buying a .308.

The local gun shop was offering good prices on the Savage Axis in that caliber with a standard scope package and I was tempted on several occasions to splurge on it, but we had just bought a new home and there just wasn’t room in the budget for a rifle/scope combo.  So in my mind it was just an idle daydream.

At the same time, my mother was dying.  She had cancer that everyone was certain was going to be terminal at some time in the not-so-distant future, and we had all more or less made peace with that sobering and not particularly pleasant fact.

In early 2013, Mom’s health continued to decline to lower ebbs and repeated treatments were really only staving off what was clearly an inevitability.  It was a stressful and truly shitty situation, most of all for Mom who had lost a lot of her energy and vibrancy in putting up the good fight for many years against the disease. She still made all the appearances and efforts she could, and one evening in early March, I arrived home to find Mom, Dad, and my younger brother over visiting my wife and (then) very young sons…the youngest wasn’t even a year old yet.

After some pleasantries, my brother disappeared out the front door for few minutes and came back in carrying a large box that on sight, I knew held a gun.  He had been on a bit of a gun-buying spree at the time so I presumed that he was showing me his latest purchase, which was a Savage Axis with a scope in .308WIN.  I was about to jibe him for buying ‘my gun’ when I was left speechless and a bit stunned when Mom just smiled at me and said two words.

“It’s yours.”

I probably stood there with a goofy grin, and with nothing to say for a few seconds before I started laughing and saying “thank you” a dozen times. There weren’t any tears that I could recall, and it all unfolded that my brother had mentioned that I was thinking of a new gun, and that she had leapt at the opportunity to get it for me.  I also distinctly remember mom saying something about probably not having many more opportunities to get me something to hunt with.  It stung me to hear her open admission of her own mortality, but it also was just like her.

She adored that ‘her boys’ (by which she always meant my Dad, my brother, and I) hunted together and shared a passion for the outdoors, and whenever she could she tried to stress the importance of having us get together and go out into the fields and woods. That gift was just one more of those gestures. I thanked her and my brother and my dad some more and then we eventually just settled in for a nice visit.

She was gone from cancer not even 90 days after that gun took up residence in my house, and she never had the chance to see a picture of me standing next to a deer, cradling her gift. In fact, to date no one has because I haven’t harvested a deer in the three deer seasons since she gifted me that rifle.  But now, in a way to honour her gift, and also as a way to get off the ‘zero’ that the .308WIN is carrying, I reach for it first on almost every hunt.  It is light, with a synthetic stock of Mossy Oak camo. The Bushnell scope, and the new caps I put on it last year are primed and ready. The clip slides smoothly and snugly into place, and the trigger is crisp.  It is nice-looking, nice shooting unit, and some day it is going to do its job and put venison in the freezer.

So even though it is the ‘new gun’ it’s just as saturated with emotion and expectation as the Model 14, which is the crafty, aged veteran of the deer woods, not only in my hands but from whatever hunts and experiences the previous owner(s) had taken it on.

It’s so hard to pick a favourite in this circumstance, so I guess I’ll do what I do every year.

I’m packing up both.

Two Guns

Why I Shoot a Pump Shotgun (and Why You Should Too)

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.

Stop Telling Me Why You Hunt, or, What’s Your Real Motivation?

As is often the case, social media has been a wellspring of inspiration for content on this site, and in this case I was moved to start thinking about motivation. More specifically, I started thinking about what really motivates hunters.  You see, for the last few days I have been seeing all sorts of pictures, and memes, and slogans, and catchphrases from dozens of people about “Why I Hunt”, and two things are baffling about this to me.

First, all of them seem to, at least in part, ascribe the sole motivation of going hunting to items that in my mind are simply component parts of the whole.

Second, since when was an explanation necessary?

To the second point first.  You see it isn’t that I don’t care why you hunt, it’s more that I don’t consider it to be any of my business.  So long as you are doing it within the confines of the law and your outward representation of the hunting tradition isn’t negatively influencing non-hunters and/or baiting anti-hunters, then my stance is that you have no call to justify yourself to me. In fact, unless you are trying to simply get attention for the generally commonplace fact that you went hunting or you are trying to soft-serve the anti-hunting community with more palatable explanations for why hunting is important, I can see no real reason why you need to crow about it.

I appreciate now if anyone wants to point out the irony of my blog/social media presence as being hypocritical to what I just wrote, but read on and you’ll see what I’m driving at.

I, of course, have my own thoughts and standards about what some might call ‘acceptable practices’ or ‘ethical hunting’ and I may not even personally like how, where, or what you use to do it.  But what I think about you doesn’t matter, and I frankly don’t really have to justify my actions or impress anyone else.  Because despite the mass-social-media, let-me-take-a-selfie, bigger-is-better, and gosh-I-hope-the guys-at-Realtree/Mossy Oak/Remington/Under Armor-see-my-feed-and-offer-me-a-sponsorship mentality that seems to be at the corporate root of all things in the modern hunting world, how I choose to commune with nature and find my happy place does not concern you at all, and so long as you’re okay and your actions don’t jeopardize my ability to independently pursue game in the outdoors, then I have no real right or desire to lecture you about what you are doing. I truly could not care less, in the best, most benignly friendly sense of that statement.

Let’s discuss it over a beer some time.

But to the first, and to my mind more troubling point, is my confusion with the willingly or ignorantly delusional stuff I see used to justify or purify the hunting experience.  I see things like (and I’m paraphrasing) “Frosty fall sunrises are why I hunt” or “Seeing game in its natural environment is why I hunt” or “Spring sunsets are why I hunt”, or “Supporting conservation is why I hunt” or my personal favourite “Being outside in nature is why I hunt” and, frankly, you can do all of those things without actually hunting.  In fact, if they are the prime motivator to what you deem to be the hunting tradition, then you can be a hiker, or a birdwatcher, or a nature photographer and (provided that the memes that you have been posting are true) I can assure you that you will get precisely the same level of fulfillment from any of the above activities, and you won’t get any blood on your hands at all, I swear.

Now, all of those experiential and conservation-themed items above are vastly important and I love all of them probably a little too much myself, but they are not the primary reason that I’m out there.  They are a happy benefit to being out there and they are to be cherished and shared in my mind, but if you are hunting…truly hunting… then you are out there to find and to kill game.

Let that sink in.  Not because I’ve just turned you on to a fact you did not already know and have been perhaps in denial about, but rather let it sink in because if you are saying that sunsets, and sunrises, and pretty birds, and peaceful reflection, or money in the conservationists coffers are the things that get you out to hunt, then you can either leave the rifle at home next time and have a less burdensome walk, or you can start to speak in actual truthful terms and not clichés.  When someone says “I hunt for the meat” or “I hunt to challenge myself against wildlife” then they have my undivided attention.  Even people who say “I hunt for a trophy” or “I hunt to make myself feel important” get a bit of my time because although I can’t say I share their motivation, I can be relatively certain that they are telling the truth and to do those things in the above paragraph you actually have to, you know, hunt.

If you’re proud of being a hunter and want to tell the world about it, knock yourself out; I do it all the time and very much to the displeasure of my friends, coworkers, and loved ones.  But paint the whole picture.

Tell that story about the time you sat for eleven hours in a treestand during a snow storm and saw screw-all.  Tell that story about the time you got lost and tasted those first sickening pangs of fear and confusion.  Tell the story about the time you made a snap shot and then had to track a gut-shot deer for hours before giving up and losing sleep fretting that it probably died in agony because you made a mistake. Explain the inner workings of what it takes to gut a moose or skin a squirrel.  Be not profane, but tell the tales about the shitty side of things and make it real, because it is never always a steady stream of magenta sunsets, meditation to a birdsong soundtrack, and one-shot kills.

And if you think it is or that it will be, I’m sorry, but I’ve got news for you.

Slowing the Game Down

There is an expression in baseball circles that a key to success is being able to ‘slow down the game’. I won’t belabor the theory but it essentially points to techniques that bring a level of calm to a sometimes frantic sport.

In that respect, I see parallels between baseball and deer hunting, and since I am abjectly terrible at actually killing deer I had a lot of time to think about this over the past few weeks.

For the uneducated spectator, baseball can seem to be the height of tedium.  My lovely wife cannot stomach more than an inning on television and past attempts to get her to live baseball games have proven a mistake.  She is not alone, and a four-hour-plus day at the ballpark does not hold much appeal to all but the most fanatical of baseball fans.  So it goes with some types of hunting, but I find it most crystallized in a deer hunt, particularly when ‘on stand’.  I have had many people over the course of my still young lifetime ask me one pointed question over and over again.

“What do you do out there?  You mean you just sit? That sounds boring.” And to make a not-so-popular admission, it sometimes is cripplingly monotonous.

Of course, being on stand does not necessarily define deer hunting, or the men and women that do it.  In some regions a drive or push hunt is the norm, occasionally accompanied by the sweet music of hounds working a scent trail.  In other places, spot and stalk is the modus operandi.  Rattling, calling, and decoying play an increasing part as well.  Still, I would argue that if an informal survey were conducted, nothing defines or still serves as the default approach to deer hunting more than being 25 feet up a tree, or crouched in a ground blind, or leaned up against a stump or rock waiting for a deer to pass by.

Settling in for an afternoon sit.
Settling in for an afternoon sit.

Those are long hours, and depending on where you are in the world, they are sometimes frosty, wearying shifts.  I have on more than one occasion done all-day sits that lasted from dawn to dusk, and guys in camp just shook their heads at me. Non-hunters consider it insanity and to put a fine point on it, I don’t really like it either.  But I have to do it.  I do not move quietly through the woods, I do not have a preternatural ‘eye’ for deer and deer sign, and I do not have countless hours at my disposal to scout and pattern deer.

A hope, a comfortable cushion, and a likely spot are all that I really have in my arsenal.

I’ve seen many enriching things, though, so all is not lost. I’ve seen late autumn sunrises and sunsets that provoke a deep visceral response and could move you to tears.  I’ve walked out of a sit into the approaching nightfall while the big heavy flakes of a snowstorm fell fast on a driving wind, sparkling like stars in the beam of my headlamp.  I’ve seen a small group of ruffed grouse parade past me at twenty steps, oblivious to the fact that on another day with another weapon in hand I may have turned a few of them into table fare.  I had a pine marten climb the tree behind me and sit perched six feet over my head for a full ten minutes; he muttered and purred to himself the whole time while I slowly tried to get my camera out of my backpack for a snapshot. I’ve heard hundreds and hundreds of mallards chattering and trading over my head before settling into a shallow lake a short distance away, their wings whistling in a way that was harmony and cacophony all at once.  Songbirds have mistaken my rifle barrel for a twig and perched there for a time. A chickadee landed on my forearm once and a vole climbed across my boot top another time. I once watched a tree sway in a fierce wind and topple with a crash so exhilarating and violent that I felt the ground move from a hundred feet away while my hands trembled from the shock of it.  I’ve been privy to these moments and plenty more.

Infrequently, I see a deer.

A deer eventually crossed 400yds from me.
A deer eventually crossed 400yds from me.

There has been research conducted that found that people would rather experience an electrical shock than be left for long hours with only their thoughts.  I do not understand that rationale one bit.

On a deer stand I’ve considered whether proposing to my girlfriend was a good idea.  I thought about if I wanted to have a family. I’ve considered what kind of dad I’d be and more recently what kind of dad I am. I have had epiphanies about world affairs that I’ve long since forgotten, I’ve solved complex problems at my job, and I’ve thought a lot about the place hunting has both historically and in the modern sense.  I’ve written and rewritten dozens of posts for this site in my mind, and I’ve been inspired by the wilderness to write contributions to other sites. I’ve listened to voices in my head that echo the deer hunters that came before me, and I’ve remembered and forgotten more than clumsy clichés on a laptop can do justice.  I’ve napped with an autumn sun on my face and I’ve shivered through sleety afternoons where a warm fire and a deep whiskey were vastly preferable alternatives.

Perhaps if I had paid more attention, I’d have shot more, but it did not seem pertinent then and I don’t really care at this point either.  The game has always been slowed down for me when it comes to our deer hunts, so I guess, at least in the baseball definition, I’ve been successful to a degree.

Which is good because it feels like success to me.