Three Guns


You are granted a year’s leave of absence from work and family responsibilities, handed an itinerary of a few dozen hunts across the North American continent, provided with all the necessary equipment, and are sent forth on this dream of an adventure with one stipulation: you are limited to three guns. Which three would you choose?

Three Guns

We used to play a game called Three Guns: “If you could have only three guns, what would they be?”

For the four of us – Fred, Phil, Dave, and I – the Three Guns game became a standard topic of conversation while we drank coffee during the pre-dawn hours in a duck blind, shared a bag of cookies and water bottle on the late-morning break of a deer hunt, or split a six-pack of beer while cleaning pheasants in the evening in someone’s garage. It never ended, because there are no definitive answers, only subjective opinions, and everyone’s arguments changed from week to week.

The game was based, I think, on an article we had read in some outdoor magazine that proposed the possibility – or perhaps the impossibility – of doing all types of hunting in North America with just three guns, if these three firearms were chosen wisely. Not that any of us would ever venture to Alaska’s Kodiak Island to hunt a 1,200-pound brown bear, be invited to a Georgia plantation to shoot quail over a brace of blueblood setters, or expend a thousand rounds of ammunition at prairie dogs in South Dakota, but you get the idea.

Give it some thought yourself. You are granted a year’s leave of absence from work and family responsibilities, handed an itinerary of a few dozen hunts across the North American continent, provided with all the necessary equipment, and are sent forth on this dream of an adventure with one stipulation: you are limited to three guns. Which three would you choose?

Even after our motley crew had hashed and trashed the subject a dozen times, someone would unscrew the cap of a bottle of Jack Daniels, pass it around, and say out of the blue, “So, Fred, let me get this straight; you think a .220 Swift is enough gun for brown bear?” And the wheels would spin and the sparks would fly.

I regarded myself as the ultimate Three Guns player because these were the days when I actually owned only three guns, and each had been acquired pretty much according to the premise of the game. Through 10 years of trial-and-error field experience I had chosen three best suited to my hunting: a double-barrel 12 gauge shotgun, a semi-automatic .22 rimfire rifle, and a bolt-action .30-06 rifle. All were plain but sturdy guns that also fit the household budget.

If I were sent off on that mythical “hunt everything in North America” adventure with these three guns, I felt I could handle all game in all situations. The shotgun would not be the best for taking a couple hundred white-winged doves in Mexico, and the .30-06 would beat me black-and-blue on a three-day prairie dog shoot, but they would serve.

On the other end of the scale, the old double gun could shoot magnum shotshell loads at geese in Montana, slugs at whitetails in Ohio, and light loads at quail in the South, not only efficiently but also with a modicum of class. With the .30-06 in hand I would fear no bear, and would be able to make that long cross-canyon shot at a six-point bull elk.

The .22 rimfire rifle was another matter. None of the other three desperadoes even owned one. Phil put it on par with a slingshot and wondered why I would be so stupid as to add it to my Three Guns list. He had a fascination with firepower. A .22 rifle was beneath his consideration. “What are you going to use to hunt squirrels in Tennessee?” I asked. “Your single-shot .22-250?” He said that was exactly what he had in mind.

Phil was a poor Three Guns player, in my opinion. He kept pushing and altering the rules of the game, probably because he was a lawyer and couldn’t help looking for loopholes and hedges. Also, he had at least two dozen guns in his cabinet and was an advocate of the theory that there is a best gun for each type of hunting. The consummate hunter, he believed, would no more shoot a mule deer with a .30-06 than a tennis player would use a frying pan for a racquet; only a .257 Weatherby would do.

He could possibly have scaled back to play a credible game of Nine Guns, but Three Guns was not his cup of tea. He worshipped both muzzle velocity and bullet energy, so his list started with a .300 Winchester magnum rifle, a 12 gauge pump shotgun with 3-inch chamber and 30-inch barrel, and his beloved .22-250. Don’t think it ended there; he was never able to pare the list down to fewer than 10 or 12 guns.

Fred, on the other end of the spectrum, was an incredible rifle shooter who abhorred recoil. He did his deer hunting with a .220 Swift and had an array of other .22 caliber centerfires he used for varmint hunting. He insisted that his .220 Swift was all he would need for bear (black or brown), plus moose, elk, caribou, jaguar or any of the other large game animals on the continent. We asked about buffalo. He demurred.

He did not do much bird hunting and regarded shotguns as tools and machines, not craftsmen’s artistic creations. He chose a 12 gauge semi-auto for his Three Guns list, over the collective groans of the rest of us. “You know,” I pointed out, “that a lot of the flossy plantations in the South won’t let you on the grounds with anything but a double gun.” “Yeah?” he said. “Well, if you showed up with an $80,000 matched pair of Holland & Holland custom-built game guns, they still wouldn’t let you on the grounds.” Which may have been true, but was beside the point.

Dave always compiled the strangest Three Guns list because he was a muzzle-loader fanatic who believed the sporting firearms industry had gone to hell in a hand basket when they started manufacturing breech-loaders. Repeating rifles and shotguns, he told us, made a travesty of the hunt.

A good shooter, he may well have been able to take every species of North American game animal with an 18th century fowling piece, a .50 caliber Hawken rifle, and a .36 caliber Kentucky long rifle, but I for one would have wanted a back-up gunner if I were beside him when he plunked a 174-grain lead roundball into the ribs of a grizzly at 20 yards range in a Canadian Rockies aspen thicket. He did insist on adding a tomahawk as an accessory to his Three Guns list to handle that eventuality. Whatever.

The four of us never came within a mile of reaching agreement on Three Guns, of course, which may have been the point of the game. I wish a magical genie had emerged from the Jack Daniels bottle one night and granted us that year-long, 40-hunt adventure so that our Three Guns lists would have been put to the practical test and given one of us supreme bragging rights. It could have gotten ugly really fast though, with Phil refusing to go because he could not whittle his list down to only three guns, Dave killing a grizzly with a tomahawk and insisting that his Hawken rifle get credit, Fred shooting a moose with a .220 Swift and disappearing on the tundra with an Indian tracker, and me being refused admittance to a Southern quail hunt plantation because of my dress, manners and demeanor.

I’ve still got my Three Guns in the safe, so if I win the Powerball lottery this year I’m ready to give it a try. Maybe I’ll take four, though. Five with the 28 gauge double. And I should probably pack the varmint rifle…


More stories about hunting are published in my collection of essays, Crazy Old Coot, and my novel, Hunting Birds. Both are available in Kindle and paperback editions

About Jerry Johnson

Curmudgeon. Bird hunter and dog trainer. Retired journalist and college public relations director. Former teacher, coach, mentor. Novelist and short story writer. Husband, father, grandfather.
This entry was posted in Friendship, Hunting, Hunting Rifles, Shotguns and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Three Guns

  1. uplandish says:

    It might be on the same level as picking fly poop out of the pepper… But what are the three perfect loads?

  2. Nope, ain’t goin’ there. 🙂

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