Thursday, 9 August 2012

Beginings: guns and shooting

My taste in rifles and shotguns was largely formed from reading Stephen Bodio's book Good Guns Again: A Celebration of Fine Sporting Arms. Surprisingly, it is currently not in print (Steve we need an updated edition) though used copies are available.   I did not grow up in a family of hunters and we never had a gun in the house when I was growing up so I learned most of what I know from books.

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My grandfather in Louisiana had a side-by-side shotgun for shooting quail, armadillos and stray cats. He also had owned a Smith and Wesson revolver for protection.  When we would visit, the guns were stashed away, still in view, but up on a high shelf. My grandfather was not a particularly friendly man but he did once let me shoot his revolver, I don't know what caliber it was. I must have been about five or six. We went out behind the house where there was a huge pecan tree stump. He propped up a Coke bottle at the base of the stump.  I was supposed to shoot at the bottle from about 10 feet away. I could barely hold the heavy revolver so he stood behind me and helped me hold it. Pulling the trigger was no easy matter and in the process of doing so I lifted and when the gun went off, surprising the hell out of me, the shot passed over the top of the stump, across the fence and into the pecan grove behind.  Some of Lucille Watson's cattle were out in shaded pasture below the trees.  My grandfather grabbed the revolver from my hand and spewed profanities and then told me what would happen to him (and me) if I'd shot one of Lucille's steers.  That was the end of my training in the use of firearms until I went off to boy scout camp.

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This business of taste in firearms is rather subtle and turns on some mighty fine points that are only learned by spending a lot of time looking at and handling a lot of old guns and rifles.  There used to be some excellent gun stores where large selections of used firearms were out on the racks for customers to handle. Among others I'm thinking of Green Top in Richmond VA and Creekside Gun Shop in Bloomfield NY. Creekside is gone now but the son of the owner is Doug Turnbull does some amazing restoration work. Today, most Cabela's stores have fine gun rooms and there is a similar gun room in the Denver Bass Pro Shop too. These places tend to function more as mini-museums with families of gawkers scurrying around trying to find the highest price tags but not paying much attention to the actual firearms they are attached to.  I don't have much patience for these mega-stores or the knock-off goods they sell but they do offer the serious student of fine firearms a chance to study them up close.  The staff can usually recognize a serious aficionado and will allow you to handle the guns you might be interested.  Don't bother to ask to handle the $100,000 items in glass cases - at least I don't.

1903 Mannlicher Schoenauer chambered for the 6.5x54 MS cartridge.
Of course, the internet is an amazing resource and a snapshot of the sites like Gun Broker, Guns International and Guns America will essentially show you everything that is available worldwide at that time. Looking at those internet sites it may seem like there is an unlimited supply of fine old firearms.  That illusion disappears once you start to look for something particular, say a 1903 Mannlicher Schoenauer in 6.5x54 with an elegant peep sight integrated into the top tang.   In the larger scheme of things, there were only a relatively small number of fine firearms ever made and each one is unique in its own way. If they didn't start that way, they become so through the passage of ownership with dings, nicks and scratches, pluming of blue and deepening of patina, and from updates and repairs and the general passing of time.

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