Writing Another Chapter for The Rifle

“Easy, easy....”, I thought while watching the animal dig for some morsel buried under the forest duff. When his head came back up, there would be a steady pull on the trigger and with a tiny bit of luck, I would score.

The prey didn't cooperate. Instead, he sauntered along, head down, a few more feet to resume his search. I watched intently as he moved about, unconcerned and unaware of the danger lying just a few yards and one bullet away. He continued the stop-move-stop pattern until my arms ached from holding the rifle and I was cross-eyed from staring. I could have thrown a hasty shot a several times, but I wanted to be sure of a good hit. Today, there could be no misses or cripples, only a sudden crack and the fall of the game. I would slowly stand and walk over to the fallen animal and feel ethical and honorable instead of ashamed.

Something stirred his interested and he stopped, head held high and watching. I could feel the crisp serrations of the trigger on my finger as the pressure grew. Within seconds the sear would break, the bullet would fly true and the contest would end with success. However, the squirrel scampered away when it heard the external hammer of my rifle being manually lowered.

I had not fired because the animal meandered too far, putting it past the self-imposed range I had already determined for this gun after the previous morning on the shooting range. Though it is tough to pass on a shot, this defeat was not particularly tormenting because the hunt today was not about the animal or the scenery or bringing home a full game bag. It was about the gun.

In my hands was an undistinguished pump-action .22 caliber rifle. It looked like most other guns of a similar advanced age, the steel faded to a rich brown patina with silver-worn spots on the sharp corners. Though past the century mark, the rifle was still mechanically sound. It was a plain, utilitarian firearm from a simple time when dinner might have depended on bagging a mess of rabbit or guarding the hen house from marauding raccoons. I thought the gun beautiful because it had belonged to my great-grandfather.

After many years my grandfather had finally deemed it time to pass the rifle along. The day the rifle came to my house it was give a cursory wipe with an oily rag and a few speculative throws to the shoulder, then put in the rear of the gun safe.

It remained there for nearly a year until the annual pre-hunt cleaning of the gun locker. When I removed the old rifle from the safe, checked the chamber then took it in my hands and sat down at the desk, just looking and thinking. My great-grandfather had died years before I was born and to me he was mostly faded pictures and rare stories from my grandfather. However, it struck me that I held something that he and many other Wheat men had carried for practical and pleasurable matters in the hills of southern Kentucky and later Indiana.

Thus came the idea that I must carry on the family hunting tradition of the rifle. First was the problem of cleaning a firearm that had seen store-bought gun solvent only a few times in its life. The bore was rough and the range time verified that accuracy was not great, but getting close to game would not prove a huge problem. The difficulty would be making a good clean shot to fulfill the legacy of this rifle.

The rifle and I hunted in southern Indiana, chasing the few squirrels that weren't napping on that unseasonably warm day. After passing up the shot earlier in the morning, I trudged back to the car in the afternoon heat bothered about my empty game pocket because this day was destined to become memorialized in print and bagging a squirrel would be the easy end to the story.

Arriving at the car hot, sour and empty-handed, it was apparent that I had already forgotten the real point of this adventure. On a perfect fall day, I had been afield with my ancestors, using the same piece of steel and walnut they had carried in their own hands many years ago. This is a nourishing thought even for the unromantic soul.

There are plenty of squirrels and I will take one with the rifle yet this season, perhaps by the time you read these words. However, I have now realized that one animal does not close a chapter or story. The gun will be carefully maintained and fired occasionally, then handed down to the next generation to write their own stories.

I just hope they have better luck.

Photo: Library of Congress