By Joe Schwenke
“I could never take this gun out hunting; it’s just too pretty.”
I fail to hold back the chuckle of laughter this line causes in me every time I hear it. Usually, the firearm in question is a fine-quality shotgun built to handle well and function reliably for many years. Often we are standing on or near a skeet field or clays course.
I have noticed, through many years of frequenting various gun clubs, a pattern every year as summer wanes into fall. The pretty guns begin to disappear, and camo pumps and plastic autos take their place. Thoughts of grouse, ducks, geese and rabbits prompt hunters to tune-up their skill with their hunting guns.
Is being decorated with a little scrolling enough to disqualify that well-balanced over-under or side-by-side from seeing use in the field? Is disposability valued higher than quality?
When winter is at its worst, I have time to flip back through the pages of my library of upland and waterfowl books. Among the pictures and chapters of the older authors, there is a lack of new gun stories.
There is a first gun for learning. A second gun comes along during the teen years, usually a gift or loaner from family or mentors of the young hunter. Eventually, the hunter buys the one that will last through his lifetime, barring calamity or loss. This trend stops, it seems, before Gene Hill and his contemporaries who have cost me many fortunes looking for a gun for every occasion.
A few years ago, I was compelled, by my own restlessness, to look for and acquire a lifetime gun. A lifetime gun is just as it sounds: able to withstand a life’s worth of use at the range and in the field while still being ready to render good service to the next in line.
The search for the ideal lifetime gun became more serious as I realized the price of a high-quality side-by-side. A cabinet of unused guns became the means of raising the asking price of what eventually came to be known as Myrtle, (yes, she has a name).
A 20-gauge side-by-side with a single, selectable trigger, magnum chambers, ejectors, fixed chokes and engraving all over would become mine. It is stamped GEBR. MERKEL SUHL and decorated with flighted mallards on the left and flushing pheasants on the right.
I’ll admit, she’s a pretty gun. Yet, under the engravers etchings lies other beauty. The action is still snug enough to say I haven’t worn it in yet after thousands of rounds. The chokes are bored to exact measurements and pattern evenly. Point of impacts are the same for both barrels and in perfect relation with the rib.
Nothing has been left to be desired in balance and handling. I have no doubt that whichever master gunmaker attended to Myrtle’s manufacture, his intention was for her to be fired and fired often.
What Myrtle lacks is only one thing: the beauty of memory. The effects of time and use have only begun to work, and over the years ahead, I expect to see certain things manifested.
The circular stamping marks in the breach from every shell’s ignition began to appear at the first round of skeet a few summers ago. The effect grows with every dusty shell from my gear bag and gritty game load from the dark corners of my hunting vest. The checkering will be worn down by thorns, balsam blowdowns and, eventually, a small groove will appear where my wedding ring rubs the forend during the shot.
Sweaty hands, mink-oiled gloves and countless trips in and out of cases and truck vaults will diminish the deep bluing’s shine. The dense walnut stock will be dinged, dented and scratched in rabbit thickets. July’s heat, September’s dew, October’s dripping frost and December’s snow will all leave their marks.
As sure as the work of an engraver’s chisel, honest use and diligent maintenance will turn what is new into the grey and worn antique resembling a grandfather’s Fox, Superposed or Remington.
I, of course, will perhaps by then resemble a grandfather.
But enough! No more telling of the distant future. I am not yet too old, Myrtle is still simply a pretty gun and September 15 has come and gone. The engravings of memory await us, and I’ll be afield with my dog in front of me, my sons near me and Myrtle over my shoulder.