Thursday, November 22, 2012


    As November middles out, outdoor publications greet the impending firearms seasons with reports of the latest and greatest hunting implements, putting forth descriptions spiked with jargon that almost overshadows the reason why we take to the woods carrying these prizes. While hairpin trigger pulls, tight bolt cycles, and krypton gas-charged scopes characterize many hunters’ favorite guns, chances are they learned to hunt and shoot with firearms of a much more modest make. Perched alone in a tripod stand on the Muzzleloader opener, I sat thinking about my first guns, and how they shaped me as a hunter.

    I was fortunate enough to have a father that packed me along with him in the fall woods. Our destination was often a mountainous, hardwood ridge littered with Bushytails, or occasionally a wintry cornfield where our young setter would point out the avian inhabitants with ancestral proficiency. For these pursuits, I was entrusted with a smooth-shooting double barreled shotgun whose caliber I never thought to question. It was a true shotgun in that it had to be handled safely and fired safely, always with the safety sliding back into place following the charge, and it certainly did no injustice to the term “boom-stick.” However, it was lacking in what it propelled. A cap gun of sorts, the birds and squirrels that I did lead—maybe—fell to the administering swing of my father. Regardless, I never once shot a dog or a person, and the rush of the flush wasn't lost on me.

    Soon I acquired what Ralphie Parker reverently called “the greatest Christmas gift.” Then, we lived closer to the mountains than we had previously, and I was self-conscious enough to tote my Red Rider BB gun with some newly-granted freedom and explore the mixed-hardwood jungle along the dirt road on which we lived. A short, muddy maintenance road we dubbed the “pump-house road” for the jaded well house that marked the trail’s head was the primary venue for hunting safaris and target shooting. I remember being ordered not to come back without dinner, to which I made the sporting decision that I would take an opossum provided I was eluded by a squirrel—not knowing, of course, of their table-fare. Even so, at most, the BB gun killed a few unfortunate pine bark cells, but never before I had exhausted my efforts until nightfall, and always without endangering anything besides blue jays and gray squirrels.

    We moved again, this time to an undeveloped neighborhood in the Piedmont. It was then that my parents entrusted me with an air rifle. Unlike the Red Rider, my new Crosman was scoped—implying true lethality—and could handle pellets or BBs—an obvious contradiction to Ralphie’s declaration. The pneumatic’s 600 fps could hardly drop a mighty Bushytail. Nonetheless, I was trusted to pursue my hunting endeavors alone, venturing across numerous unclaimed lots, often coming home after dark after losing my silhouetted quarry among the darkening trunks. The Crosman’s chamber was opened by a hard-edged lever, and I can remember a determination, after missing almost a hundred shots, that drove me to rub raw my numb, cracking hands in hopes of finally reaching out to a squirrel scurrying along the branches.

    It wasn't until my tenth year that I was granted an arm of true firepower. The upland preserve season was growing cold and bare in Virginia and my father felt it fitting that I carry my own 20-gauge pump shotgun to shoot over our aging setter. We made two trips to a Southside preserve during that season, on which I harvested my first upland birds, and witnessed again the talent of our now-seasoned four-legged hunting companion. I handled and fired safely my new prize, always instinctively returning the safety to its “safe” position following the charge. It was cold, but, due to conditioning, I never succumbed to the biting metal of the action release against my numb fingers.

    These pensive memories of my early development flow through my mind on the cold muzzleloader opener, triggered by the jaunty squirrels and mockingbirds that slip below my stand unscathed. I sit on the opposite side of an expansive property from my father, with a 12-gauge lying idle on my lap, waiting patiently to check out with a Thanksgiving turkey. The safety is on; the muzzle, pointed to the left. My face is chapped by the November wind; my hands, numb. To think of my own favorite gun, well-balanced muzzleloaders and crystalline optics come to mind, but I find it hard to discount the ones that brought me to where I sit today, both as a hunter and a person.

*First published in The Rural Virginian.

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