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.
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.