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First Gun

A boy's first gun should be special... (Photo by Chad Love)

I’d like to say that it was a fine gun, but it wasn’t. I’d like to say that by the time it reached me it had accumulated a long history of bird hunting memories, but it hadn’t. There had never been a classic sporting bird-hunting tradition in my family. Just the dirt-poor migrant worker’s tradition of potting whatever small-game they could in order to eat, and the gun reflected the harsh reality of that tradition beautifully.

It was a starkly plain break-barrel single-shot exposed-hammer .410 made by the Bridge Gun Company. No graceful lines, just purely functional American Gothic in firearms form. There wasn’t even a real Bridge Gun Company. It was just one of the many cheaply-made “hardware store” brands produced and sold by Crescent Arms in the late 19th and on through the early years of the 20th centuries, and true-to-form this gun’s countenance spoke not of gentrified easy living, but hardscrabble desperation; of spending precious pennies on a few loose shells so maybe – if you were lucky – you could eat rabbit one night instead of cornpone and beans.

My great-grandmother purchased the gun, almost certainly second-hand, in California’s Imperial Valley sometime in the early 1930s, soon after making the trek from Oklahoma, along with all those other Okies, exodusters, tin-can tourists and Hooverville residents fleeing drought and depression. My people.

Years later, my great-grandmother told my father she bought the gun because on the way to California – on that endless, hot, dusty, heartbreak-littered 66 highway – she kept seeing jackrabbits off in the distance, just out of rock-chunking range, dancing away in the heat waves as the hunger knots in her stomach tightened. And she swore, standing lean and gaunt and bitter on the side of that road, that if they ever made it California, she wasn’t going hungry again.

She was a woman true to her word, and for the next 40 years or so that old .410 supplied various members of my clan with meat. I do not recall how or when it made its way to Oklahoma, but sometime in the late 1960s it was given to my father. And in 1980, my father pulled it out of the closet for me.

I remember thinking it was about the coolest damn thing I’d ever seen. Plain stock (probably birch, if I recall) with no checkering, and the finish and blueing were long-gone, replaced by the patina of time and hard use. But it locked up tight and when you pulled the hammer back, it clicked into position with a sound of finality.  I’d never shot a real gun before and I’d never been hunting with anything other than a BB gun. Then, as now, there’s wasn’t much leisure time for the lower working class, so when I roamed the woods it was usually alone while my dad was off under the hood of a truck or later, in the oilfield.

But I had a gun now, and with it the whispering promise of future days afield and who knows, maybe even a dog when I got a little older. I was voraciously consuming the “Big Three” hunting mags by this age and I dreamed more than anything of quail hunting behind dogs, a tradition of which my family was completely bereft.

But forces beyond my nine-year-old comprehension were at work, and as it turns out, I went hunting with that .410 exactly once, on a clear, cold December Saturday with my father as we stomped around the scrub oak along the back fence of our place, hoping to kick up the covey I knew hung out back there. I remember the rise, the whirring egg-beater sound of their wings. I remember lifting the gun to my shoulder, poking the barrel in the general vicinity of the main body of the covey and yanking back on the trigger, and then wondering why nothing was happening, why it wasn’t shooting even as I heard my father’s gun go off. I had, of course, forgotten to pull the hammer back. I wanted to cry, but didn’t. There would be other times, other opportunities.

It was the last time I would ever shoulder that gun. It would be my only contribution to its story. A few months later, my parents divorced and my father packed his things, fled to New Mexico. The gun went with him. It would, he said, be waiting for me when I was old enough to keep it on my own.

He stored the gun at my grandparent’s house in Albuquerque. Not long after, one of my cousins snuck into their house and stole it, pawned it for drug money. It was never recovered.

I have my own guns now, and with each year they’re slowly etching their own stories so that hopefully, when I give them to my sons, I will be giving something of myself as well. But I often think about that gun, that first and only hunt with my father, the quail I missed. I think about all the people in my family who must have used that gun before me. And I think about a hungry woman on the side of a two-lane highway, looking at jackrabbits dancing in the heat.

I hope that someone like me wandered into whatever dirty little pawn shop my gun ended up in and saw it sitting in the rack. And I hope they recognized that it had a story, even if they couldn’t possibly know what that story was.

Chad Love writes for Quail Forever (Pheasants Forever’s quail conservation division) from Woodward, Oklahoma. He is a lifelong quail hunter and “bird dog guy” who also writes for Field & Stream, including the magazine’s “Man’s Best Friend” gundog blog.

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3 Responses to “First Gun”

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  1. Cody Leonard says:

    Great article man. Guns become part of your family. My Dad has a decent collection that will be mine someday, because I am sure that my sister will not want them. My uncle has supplied me with all my guns so far. All family heirlooms. Feels great to hunt with them, nothing fancy, but they all work.

  2. Bruce says:

    Excellent article, thanks for sharing it.

  3. Andy says:

    That is a great article. My heart really goes out to your grandmother and the other dust bowl settlers that lived through the worst hard time. They took a risk by homesteading. They worked hard. They followed the advice that neighbors, extension and market prices gave them. A perfect storm of weather and economics blew away all their hopes and dreams. In any other place and time their work ethic and fortitude would pay large dividends. My first gun was a hand-me-down Stevens 20 gauge pump. I can’t tell you how many times it jammed on follow up shots at deer and pheasants. In time I just considered it a single shot, and it made me a better hunter. Adversity forges character and resourcefulness, I am sure it was the same for “your people” that lived through the dust bowl.

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