Like all grandfathers, I felt a bittersweet happiness and satisfaction that afternoon spent with my grandson, caught up in remembrances of times past and surges of nostalgia unexpectedly triggered by a sharing between generations of men, an old man and a young man…
MY GRANDSON ANDER pulled the trigger, the 85-year-old shotgun, went “bang,” the clay target exploded into a thousand pieces, and the fourth generation of my family entered the world of wing shooting — with the help of a family heirloom single-shot, break-action, exposed hammer shotgun.
Ander broke three more targets, four-for-four on his first day at our hillside pasture clays range, and I congratulated him on his innate skill at wing shooting (obviously inherited from his grandfather).
“That’s the best I’ve ever seen a first-timer shoot,” I said. “What’s your secret?”
“When I pull the trigger, I close my eyes,” he said.
“Hmmm,” I said. “We’ll work on that.”
Like all grandfathers, I felt a bittersweet happiness and satisfaction that afternoon spent with my grandson, caught up in remembrances of times past and surges of nostalgia unexpectedly triggered by a sharing between generations of men, an old man and a young man without much in common outside of family bonding and allegiance. Across the great divide of age and the ever-widening gap between rural and urban cultures, we found connection doing something real, something of value to us both on one of the few summer days that distance and time allow us to be together. There were moments I found it hard to speak past the lump in my throat brought on by alternating melancholy and joy, emotions all out of proportion to a simple hour of instruction in shotgun handling and clay target shooting.
I am one of the few grandfathers who has been granted this blessing of intergenerational connection through the outdoor sports. In an era when young people are ever more distanced from the outdoors because they live day-to-day in cityscapes far removed from the wilderness and wild places of rural America, there are not many of us Old Coots who have opportunity to give our grandchildren a glimpse of our (and their) heritage, to share an experience that embodies the rural culture and values that shaped us in our own youth.
I doubt our grandsons will be able to embrace sport hunting in the same way previous generations did. The urbanization of America will continue at exponential speed, and the once prevalent human connection with land and wildlife and the blood sports will fade and disappear. There will be no soil on our hands or in our hearts.
But I hope that for one more generation, my grandchildren’s, there will be some few who understand and appreciate the family tradition that was rooted in a time when farming the land and hunting the wild were both crucial to survival. Before farming was a mechanized industry. Before hunting was commercial recreation. When their peers ask, “Do you know that people used to hunt? Isn’t that weird?”, they will be able to answer, “Yes, everyone in my family used to hunt. It was an important part of their life. It was a good life.”
A symbol, a functioning and useful symbol, of that way of life is the shotgun my grandson used to shoot his first flying targets. A gun that passed through the hands of a dozen hunters in my family’s history over the past nine decades, it is an Eastern Arms Company Model 1929, an exposed-hammer, break-action, single-shot 12-gauge gun, probably manufactured in the early 1930s. The “hardware trade” brand name sold by Sears-Roebuck for 70 or 80 years, Eastern Arms guns were originally made by the Stevens Arms company, which was purchased by Savage Arms in 1920 but continued to manufacture firearms at its own facility in Massachusetts until 1960.
The gun was probably purchased 80-some years ago by a shirttail relative, probably for $10, and came to me, unwanted, about a dozen years ago upon the death of a maternal uncle. It hung on the wall of my clubhouse for a decade, never used, rusty decoration. It had a 30-inch, full-choke barrel, a birch stock cut down to 12-inch length of pull at some time, most likely to fit a boy who was excited to learn to shoot, and its stock had a wide and deep pistol grip, a recoil pad gone rock hard with age, a draw bolt permanently rusted in place, a stiff hammer, small trigger guard, a fish-bellied forend, and a receiver with pits and much-faded case-hardening colors. The stock dimensions were a horror: 2-inch drop at comb, 3 1/2-inch drop at heel. The bore, however, was spotless, and there were still traces of bluing on the barrel.
When my two older grandsons approached their teenage years, I wanted to rebuild this old single-shot into a starter gun that I could use to teach them the basics of wing shooting. The first efforts in restoration were successful, as I wrote in an essay titled “Eastern Arms Company Project Gun.”
With the assistance of woodworker Dave Meier and gunsmith Rick Dotzenrod of Canoe Creek Gunsmith Shop, the result was a serviceable “instruction gun”: barrel cut down to 28 inches and swaged to skeet choke, a roughly polished receiver and forend iron, nicely refinished stock and forearm, and a soft recoil pad and spacer to make the length of pull correct for a teenager.
I did not expect to re-blue the barrel or have the receiver’s case hardening redone. “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” my mother used to lecture me, and the Eastern Arms Model 29 was something of a sow’s ear.
The impending shooting day with Ander made me rethink the matter, however, and I had Rick Dotzenrod blue the barrel in preparation. Fancy gun for a fancy day. I created some light loads (7/8 ounce of shot, lightest recommended charge of powder), and with those Ander smashed clay targets without getting badly thumped by recoil.
I told Rick about the day of shooting with my grandson, and a week later he called me and offered to case-harden the receiver – gratis – in honor of the old family heirloom. Wow. His work is beautiful. The blue-gray swirls of case hardened color make the receiver look like a million bucks. The old adage is broken: A sow’s ear has, in point of fact, been made into a silk purse.
The Eastern Arms gun is still mostly intended for beginners’ shooting days on the range, but it is accompanying me on this October’s trip to the Nebraska Sandhills where I will use it to shoot (or at least shoot at) a sharptail grouse or two. The gun will not only pass the hunting tradition along in linear fashion to another generation of men in my family, it will also close the loop for me, taking me back to the days of my youth when a single-shot 12-gauge that kicked like a mule introduced me to the vocation – no, the religion – of bird hunting and set the course of my life.
That day of hunting in the Sandhills will be another moment of melancholy mixed with joy, bittersweet emotions. Good medicine for an Old Coot.
More stories about life in the North Country are published in collections of essays and novels, all available through Amazon.com at Jerry Johnson Author Page