“Do you deer hunt, John?” my 30-something neighbor yelled across the road separating our town houses. I suppose, seeing someone sitting in a garage, cleaning a rifle in late November, indicates that person must be a hunter. He probably couldn’t see that next to the ipad streaming disassembly instructions, I had an AR-15 in about 50 parts spread over the Hoppes-infused newspapers on the table. “Nah, Mike,” I called over even though he had crossed the street and was just a few paces away, “I don’t hunt anymore.” He stopped about six feet short of the table. “What the….” he began, almost hesitatingly. He had recognized the “black gun” on the table. I guess it was time to tell a story…
DO YOU GO HUNTING?
I used to hunt. My family was a “gun family.” We all shot. Dad took us out “target shooting” quite regularly. We all went through Hunter’s Safety, long after Dad had taught us the correct way to handle, clean, and care for our weapons. If it wasn’t hunting season, I was in our garage shooting targets, Mountain Dew cans, model tanks, or most anything else I could draw down on with my Crossman pump pellet gun.
When each kid in the family (including my sister, Celine), hit their twelfth birthday, Dad gave them their own weapon or was assigned one to care for as their own (before he died this past January at the age of 93, Dad took me to the “gun closet” to make sure I knew which kid got which weapon after he was gone. Until then, he wanted to keep one revolver and one shotgun for himself!).
As each September rolled around, the weekends turned into squirrel hunting time for our family. Dad wouldn’t let us use shotguns (not “sporting,” in his opinion) when we hunted squirrels; just .22-caliber rifles.
For me, each venture into the woods was a pseudo-combat experience. Whereas my older brothers carried a handful of rounds in their coat pockets, I wore my Dad’s M1936 pistol belt and carried my extra ammo in a first aid kid hung on the front. I wore an HBT cap and tiger striped camouflage shirt I bought at La Crosse’ “Great Surplus” store. And while my brother Joe might call over to me to help him with a treed squirrel, my requests would take the form of “Head around the right flank…I have a squirrel pinned in this oak tree!”
Yes, Dad and my brothers got tired of my military fascination. In fact, by about the time I reached 13, they wouldn’t go hunting with me anymore. Instead, I would tag along with my cousin, Jed, when his Dad took him hunting.
I had already received my “first weapon” when I began hunting with Jed. The year before, Dad had bought a reproduction M1863 Remington “Zouave” muzzleloading rifle for me. Hurling a nearly one-once lead ball, the weapon was designed for killing Southern soldiers during the American Civil War. It was not intended for suppressing Minnesota gray or red squirrels.
So, on the first hunt with Jed, I took my “Zouave” rifle. As his Dad, Leo, drove down a gravel road toward Freeburg, Minnesota, he briefed us, “There’s a big hickory tree just off the road. We will stop there first.” The promise of engaging graybacks in combat surged through my mind’s eye.
The dust rolled past the old blue Impala after Leo pulled to the side of the road. Before it cleared, I was already out of the car and biting the tail of a paper cartridge in preparation for loading the Zouave as Jed slipped his Dad’s boyhood rifle, a Stevens “Favorite” .22, from the case. He was already advancing on the hickory tree as I replaced the ramrod in the channel and prepared to prime my rifle.
“Crack!” I heard the single-shot Stevens initiate the action. Fumbling to place a percussion cap on the Zouave’s nipple, I started to jog to where Jed was reloading. “Get him,” I called?
“Nah,” Jed replied, trembling with excitement as he tried to slip another round in the split-style breech. “He’s right above me,” he said, pointing upward with his nose. “Not to worry!” I boasted, “Reinforcements are coming up on your right flank!”
I got into position, spotted the furry grayback, and threw the Zouave to my shoulder. Pulling the hammer to the full-cock position, I sited down the barrel and brought the beady-eye rebel into the “V” just as Dad had taught me. Deep breath in, half out. Squeeeeze.
WHOOSH-BAM! Smoke covered Jed and me as that one-once ball flew at the intended target. We heard a lot fall from the tree while the smoke cleared—a mix of hickory nuts, branches, and, well…bits of squirrel.
It seems, in my enthusiasm to “play army” with a real weapon, I didn’t really consider the consequences of hitting a 14-once squirrel with a 1-once lead ball.
We were 13 years old. We laughed and hooted as we recognized clumps of fur in the debris. In reality, my knees were shaking (it wasn’t until many years later during a defensive shooting class that I learned the shaking knees are a result of adrenaline), and I was sad. I had killed an animal—not to eat, but because I could. To top it off, I knew Dad would be disappointed in me. He had told me not to take “the musket” hunting. But, I was living in a Civil War haze back in those days. Everything I did had to have some sort of Civil War connection—even squirrel hunting.
The rest of the day was pretty normal—we continued hunting, but I didn’t draw down on another “rebel squirrel.” Instead, I just walked the woods with Jed while we took random shots at “imaginary” targets. We ended the day shooting at pop cans. It was the last time I hunted.
BLAZE ORANGE OR BLACK RIFLES?
So, getting back to my neighbor’s question, “Do you hunt, John?” I explained to him that I don’t hunt, but spend a lot of time at the range. “What are you practicing for then?” (he grew up in St. Paul so doesn’t really have much of a feel for private ownership of weapons). “I just like to shoot,” I tried to clarified. “It’s sort of a Zen thing for me,” I continued, groping for terms I thought might connect with him.
He was interested, but clearly apprehensive around weapons—especially “black” ones that looked like what he saw on the news, in movies, and countless video games. After I reassembled the weapon, I pulled the receiver open, stuck in my finger, looked him in the eye and said, “The weapon is CLEAR.” I followed with, “Would you like to handle the weapon?”
He did. He was interested but clearly didn’t know what to do. I told him, “What I just did was opening the bolt and demonstrating to you that there is no round in the chamber. That means, it is safe to hand the rifle to you. When I hand you the rifle, you repeat the process to me. Stick your finger in the chamber to guarantee there is no round in it, look me in the eye and confirm, ‘The weapon IS clear’.” I continued the impromptu lesson, “Then you are free to inspect, shoulder, aim, and examine it, knowing that it is safe.”
I had him hooked. He assumed stances like those he had seen on television as he asked questions about “kick,” “range,” and “magazine capacity.”
As we talked, I realized he didn’t grow up in a “gun family,” and probably, a lot of people haven’t. But, after a few moments of safe handling instruction, he opened up to handling a weapon and asking good questions about it. In that one brief encounter, I think I converted an “anti-gun” guy into a “Hmmn, there is more to guns then killing animals or people.”
But I still don’t hunt.
Preserve the memories,
Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine