Strolling down Life's Avenue
by Robin Lacy
From the August 2009 Issue
My memories of double guns predate my actual ownership. The first time I saw a shotgun was during the Eisenhower administration.
I was very young, and it belonged to my father: a 20-gauge Fox Sterlingworth Supreme, his graduation present from Lewis & Clark High School of Spokane, Washington, class of ’36. The gun was old even then, but when he brought it out of its leg-of-mutton case, it shone like a new coin to me. With solemn ceremony, the barrels were seated and fixed to the locks, the worn forearm snapped in place. There were no words then to describe that moment, and many years later there seem even fewer. Between fathers and sons, definitive times are often hard to come by and harder still to relate, which is perhaps why they mean so much to us at the back end of our lives.
At that moment, the history of the Fox began to unfold in the stories of my father’s youth, stories with Western characters and big country, where the resolute could hunt until wearing themselves out and turning to dust, while the guns remained.
Of course I wanted to shoot the gun, but we didn’t live in a place where you could just step outside and fire off a few rounds. A plan was required. One Sunday afternoon we took a picnic lunch to a pretty farm pond owned by my mother’s relatives outside Ann Arbor, Michigan. I remember how hot the day was, and how plainly the pond
and hardwood-covered hillsides appeared beneath the sky.
My mother wore a sleeveless white blouse and Kate Hepburn pants, which made her seem rakish, if that’s a word one can use to describe one’s young mother. On her head rested the latest La Dolce Vita sunglasses.
The picnic seemed far too long and involved, but ultimately it came to a close, and my father
retrieved the gun from the trunk of his Morris Minor. As he put it together, he began a long lecture on safety and shooting properly. My mother sat on a blanket, smoking cigarettes and watching. No one had ever before fired a gun in her presence.
We gathered up tin cans, pie plates, Coke bottles, and any other potential flying objects we could find. In time, my father took his stance and called for a target. The first throw was low and unshootable, but the second sailed out properly, and after Dad fired, the tin can spun out through the brilliant summer light and came to earth a different object—turned inside out and wrenched with holes. We did this many times, running through a box of shells. Between shots, I scurried around gathering up smoking shell casings and tin.
My older brother took the first shot. My father paced off a distance, placed a can on a log, and returned to the firing line. Tommy was visibly concerned about the gun’s recoil, but was reassured: there was a recoil pad for just such things.
My brother lined up on the can, and after a seemingly interminable pause he fired. A great cloud of wood chips rose in the air, but the can didn’t move.
When my turn came, I remember how long the gun felt in my hands, and how, suddenly, I began to see myself as older. When I pulled the trigger, I found myself flat on my butt with the gun pointed up at a heartless blue sky. I heard my mother crying, “Tom, you’ve injured him. Tom! Tom?”
It took a moment to regain my breath, but when I looked downrange and saw the can blown into
the distant weeds, the question of the moment seemed answered. Retrieved, reviewed, holes counted, the can became a confirmation and a passage all in one.
Later, when no one was around, I took the can along with a broken skinning knife, an Atomic Bomb ring, a Roosevelt dime, some empty shells, and a fox skull, put them in a old .30-caliber ammo box, and buried them beneath a dying elm tree in the backyard, where I hoped aliens or God would unearth them in a distant millennium and remark that a useful person had been upon the earth at one time. It was private.
None of us knew then that a resonant chord had been struck, that a family was beginning to settle in its own way into oddly separate camps; that a sporting life had begun around a double gun and the life we had known would be changed forever.
Bird hunting became a weekend ritual to which fathers and sons escaped and which mothers waited out in silent suffrage. Southern Michigan was wonderful pheasant hunting during the 1960s, however housebroken and manicured the farmland appeared. Hunting in the shadows of new factories and the monolithic federal prison in Milan lent a backdrop that felt distinctly pedestrian then and now, though the shooting was excellent.
Among the men we hunted with were distinct groups defined by their guns. Doubles—Parker, L.C. Smith, Browning Superposed—were the choice of the gentrified men. Semiautomatics and pumps belonged to a group of wily, Snopesian characters formed out of the bottomlands of a William Faulkner novel. They talked about rapid fire and “bringing game to ground.” Of the two groups I favored the first, because they seemed to care more deeply about the hunt and one another and, of course, their guns. They were methodical in caring for their doubles and in handling them; and a lot of them were tremendous wing-shots who killed with a certain athleticism and extreme concentration. They didn’t need more than two shots on a rise of birds.
When I began to hunt, I was given a single-barrel Stevens 16 gauge, the “Youth Model.” It had a hammer, a boon to safety, except for the potential nosebleed from recoil. But I shot a lot of pheasants with it, and became deeply involved in the hunt and with the men I admired. I also began to save money toward a double of my own, finally settling on a used Ithaca 20 gauge. At $50, it felt like the last-nickel bargain for the ticket to my future adventures. It wasn’t a Parker, but in those half-light dawns and dusky evenings, you couldn’t tell the difference from across a cornfield.
If you find yourself asking, Why love a double-gun? The only realistic answer is, Why not? Even the cheapest knockabout double has the clean linear lines of a Holland and Holland or a Boss. Simplicity breeds elegance, and double guns are that and more. They reveal craft, when the margins of that today are difficult to find. In the field, they’re companionable tools that carry well and are simple extensions of our intent. They take me where I want to go and perform beautifully.
Hunting becomes with time—if you love hunting—less a way of gaining distance from our lives than it does immersion into life. Attempting to understand completely what is essentially a visceral experience seems to cheapen the act. To me, carrying a clunky automatic or pump just seems to cheapen it even more.
Evaluating double guns is subjective. I have owned and continue to own some wonderful American doubles, and each represents different things to me. Selecting the proper gauge for different game and situations is one thing, but handling is another. A well-fitted gun has a feel that language can never fully describe, but that won’t stop me from trying.
When a good double closes, you feel it in your wrists, a similar sensation one has closing a Wells Fargo safe, for example. The gun balances between your hands so naturally that you’re nearly unaware of its existence, and when it comes to point and settles there every time, you know you have what you need. Paying a fortune doesn’t ensure any of this. I have seen a Royal Grade Holland and Holland misfire, jam, and behave in all ways unlike the £35,000 daydream its owner had expected on delivery.
Ultimately, it is memory we are after or left with, and money has never made that any sweeter or more poignant. The owner of that game gun borrowed my backup Browning 20-gauge Sporter, and the day turned into one of the best grouse and woodcock hunts we ever had together. We ended that day with a brace of black ducks shot in the
fading light of day as they came whistling through the standing dead timber of a remote beaver pond. My Lab retrieved them. The man looked at me wryly and said, “What do you know about that?” He never mentioned the dream gun the entire day, and neither did I.
Years ago, I hunted driven game in Wales. My friend and host, a man who owns any number of high-grade doubles, took a plain 16-gauge L.C. Smith on the hunt instead of the Boss or Purdey
he could have taken. I took my 16-gauge Fox Sterlingworth. On the morning of our arrival in London, we stopped off at Holland and Holland to purchase shells and check on the progress of a double rifle my friend was having made. The store was quiet that early in the morning. I wandered around looking into the oak-and-glass gun cases, at the African game mounts displayed on the walls. This wasn’t a sporting goods store so much as an
attenuated look at weapons with historical implications. You knew, without asking, that no one working there knew anyone called Bubba.
On the estate, the shoot was nearly military in its execution and demeanor. Still groggy from our enormous breakfast, I began to imagine a handsome auburn-haired woman riding out of the December fog on a black steed to deliver me any number of witticisms and long smoky looks.
At one peg, I stood on the remains of a Roman road as the drive approached. The pheasants I killed from there were somehow more exotic, the woodcock curling out of a misty hedge more regal compared with the hundreds of ’cock I’ve shot in upper Michigan. I wasn’t in America anymore.
After the shoot, a moment came upon our departure from Heathrow. We were checking our guns in the room they have for that along with two gun representatives from Wilkes of London. They were on their way to deliver large-bore double rifles to clients in Los Angeles. I’ve no idea what one needs with a .600 bore in Southern California, but such is commerce, and such is the love for doubles.
One of the representatives seemed terribly hungover or put out or both; the other was vibrant and talkative. He asked where we had been shooting, and how we found the hunt and the country. And then he asked, almost shyly, what guns we were shooting. I told him. He said, “Ah, good guns. They never break and are handsome to boot!” On rough hunts in Scotland, he explained, he always shot a Ruger over-and-under, and laughed at his friends when their Purdeys misfired in the intemperate weather.
At the time, I felt that the shooting community was more homogenous and continual than any other blood sport—a proper English gunmaker with perhaps a half-million dollars worth of African game guns could hold in high esteem a good double whatever their origins. We weren’t Yankees in King Arthur’s court, but companions crossing paths on the same road.
Later, we boarded the plane taking us back to Chicago. We drank a bottle of Calvados smuggled on board, and I imagined the sweeping distances below us, and how far I’d come when attaching myself to something as elemental as hunting. I doubt anyone found my time capsule, but I was amused and heartened by my need to have offered one up.
To me, double guns are a sport and a pastime built into a beautiful package to which I attach myself when entering the great theater of autumn, whose days grow more precious because we are given so few.
Unfortunately, just before the August 2009 issue went to press, Robin Lacy passed away.