Be ready, and if’n a bird flies in front of you, just poke yer barrel at it and pull the trigger. That gun probly feels pretty big, but don’t worry. She don’t kick. Much.
– Advice from a well-meaning teenage cousin to a ten-year-old boy on his first pheasant hunt
If I had a hammer
If you were a boy growing up in the rural Midwest in the 1950s you remember single-shot shotguns. That was the gun we all carried on our first hunts for pheasants, quail, grouse – whatever gamebird you dreamed about in your part of the country.
Made by Winchester, Harrington & Richardson, Stevens, Savage, Mossberg and several other firearms manufacturers for more than a century, break-action, exposed-hammer, single-shot shotguns were sold at local hardware stores in every small town. The receivers of many were stamped with the names of companies that were supposedly reputable “gunmakers” – Eastern Arms Company, Western Field, Springfield – which were really only gun distributors. Some even bore the name of the hardware store: Western Auto Store’s Revelation brand guns, for example.
The single-shot handed to me for that first euphoric pheasant hunt on which I was permitted to carry a gun was a 12 gauge with a 30-inch full-choke barrel. The buttstock was cut down to fit a boy, it had a drop at heel of about three inches, and a rock-hard red rubber recoil pad was crudely attached. The hammer spring was so stiff that I could barely cock it back with one thumb, and the trigger pull was about as hard as clipping barbed wire with a dull wire cutter. The gun weighed more than seven pounds, which was a load for a small boy to carry on a cold morning’s march through a muddy cornfield.
That break-action gun was functional, inexpensive, and ugly as sin, and with the possible exception of a best-quality Purdey sidelock gun I handled at a custom gunmaker’s shop forty years later, it was the most exquisite firearm I have ever held in my hands. There was no doubt in my mind as I headed out on that first hunt with a gun that I would wield it with a natural grace and talent, kill at least three rooster pheasants stone dead in the air, and win praise and fame across the county.
The men who took us hunting in our youth never expected, I believe, that we would shoot a bird on the wing. If we had a chance to take a sitting cottontail or a squirrel on a tree branch, we were encouraged to fire away – with supervision. But when a bird flushed, the chance for a shot was long past before we could cock that damnable hammer, shoulder the gun, and swing the heavy barrel in the general direction of departing tail feathers.
My bird hunter’s garb was a pair of hand-me-down blue jeans with rolled-up cuffs and patches on the knees, and an oversized, oil stained denim jacket with the elbows in rags. A mother or aunt who apparently believed I was going on an Arctic expedition made sure I dressed in long underwear, a flannel shirt, and a heavy wool sweater before they stuffed me into the denim outerwear. Clad in knobby wool socks, canvas shoes and five-buckle rubber boots, I waddled out the back door like a drunken penguin.
I thought this was about as close to heaven as I would get in mortal life.
The opening day hunting party included my older brother, our cousin, three or four grown men, and an ill-tempered cocker spaniel-mix bird dog. Pure black and deviously misnamed Fuzzy, he preferred to catch and kill possums but would flush a pheasant under duress. If a bird tumbled to earth I would race madly after it, and if I beat the dog to it he would snarl and nip me. If he won the retrieving race, he would rip the bird into two or more pieces in the ensuing struggle for possession. At the time, I thought this was standard behavior for a bird dog.
Everyone hunted with a 12 gauge back then because anything less would have been “not enough gun,” the mindset of the men who had come out of World War II with a healthy respect for heavy artillery. We were strictly cautioned to shoot only when it was “a sure thing,” not so much for safety’s sake as for conservation of ammunition. The price of 12 gauge shotshells had skyrocketed to almost eleven and one-half cents apiece, my father told me as he gravely handed me two shells to put in my pocket and my cousin was given a stern rebuke for firing five rounds the previous season – almost sixty cents worth – without hitting even a rabbit. Sport was one thing, but these were the days when hunting also had to be justified as a cheap way of putting meat on the table.
The hunt itself was a long plod in a light rain through recently harvested cornfields, the barren stalks still standing higher than my head in those years of small farms when the tractor-mounted two-row corn pickers had not yet been superseded by the monstrous combines that chop the stalks at ground level. Weeds were thick between rows; this was before farm operators became chemically addicted and the land was still a living thing, not today’s sterile and poisoned soil that functions only as a medium for growing the monoculture crop of corn or soybeans.
Despite my best efforts to keep pace with the men I was constantly falling behind and sometimes falling on my behind in the greasy, slippery mud. They would stop every so often and chide me to catch up. As I came straggling up at the end of one field, hot and sweaty and sulky, gun over my shoulder, I was kicking every clump and tangle in my path in a little fit of temper. One clump kicked back, and out of it came the Hindenburg dirigible, on fire, crowing and squawking, a huge rooster pheasant, flames shooting from his eyes and a trail of red smoke pouring from his tail.
My reaction was equal parts astonishment, terror, and panic. I finally regained enough composure to get the gun off my shoulder, cock the hammer, and fire a one-gun salute at the bird, now fifty yards distant and flying at Mach 1 speed. The shot did him no damage and probably caused him little fear or anxiety.
Shaking and humiliated, I opened the gun and examined the expended shotshell, warm and smoking and obviously defective. I looked up to see six faces staring at me with expressions ranging from distain to sympathy. “I think I knocked some feathers off him,” I said in the most nonchalant voice I could muster.
“It looked to me like you did,” my father agreed complicity. He took out his pipe and suggested that all the men have a smoke before continuing the morning’s hunt. After a couple puffs he cautioned me, “Be a little quicker next time, because you’ve got just one last shell.”
As the men smoked and talked my cousin sidled over with some consoling words. “Well, there was your first shot at a pheasant,” he said, “and they don’t get no easier than that, and you ain’t got nothin’ to show for it!”
He was not totally correct. True, I did not have a dead pheasant in hand, but I did have a bruised bicep muscle when the gun butt had kicked back when I pulled the trigger, a red spot on my cheek bone where the comb of the stock had hit me in the face, a bloody nose from the recoiled-powered punch delivered by the thumb of my grip hand, and most important a tale to tell all the boys in school of how I had come “this close” to bagging my first rooster.
I also had my first dose of that addictive drug known as bird hunting, and I knew wanted more of it, as often as possible, every chance I could get. I vowed that someday I would have a fine shotgun, and a peerless bird dog, and a waxed-canvas shooting vest, and yes by god a pair of leather boots and a pipe. Most of all, there would be wonderful stories to tell every year about this best-of-life adventure.
It did not work out exactly that way, but my ten-year-old’s plan to be a bird hunter came a lot closer to the mark than that first shot at a rooster pheasant. The excitement and anticipation of opening day returns each season, and the stories filed away in the vault of my memory will fill my daydreams until they haul me off to the bone yard.
That single-shot 12 gauge gun? It hangs on pegs over the door of my workshop where I can reach up and touch it as I begin each hunting trip. I’m not sure it brings me good luck, but it reminds me how lucky I have been for more than fifty years.