My father introduced me to shooting guns when I was six years old. We were on open farm ground in eastern Colorado, and he held my grandfather’s .22 caliber rifle as I pulled the trigger to shoot at an empty coffee can. We had only a handful of rounds that we had pilfered from my grandfather’s desk, and I remember hitting the can two or three times at a relatively short range. When my dad took his turn, the number of hits increased dramatically.
I had played with plastic guns and watched cowboys shoot at each other on television, so the experience with the rifle satisfied my boyish desire to use a real gun without exposing me to any of the dangers of doing so. I observed my father’s careful handling of the weapon, and we talked about safety issues that he would repeat often until I finished high school. I don’t know what happened to my grandfather’s .22, but my guess is that one of my cousins has it or that the auctioneer sold it with the dishes, furniture, and farm equipment after my grandfather’s death.
Although I did not inherit that rifle, I did receive from my grandfather a .410 break-action shotgun (pictured throughout this post), and my parents allowed me to use it on the farm as I grew up. The little shotgun, which weighs less than seven pounds, was perfect for a boy who wanted to hunt doves in milo patches, quails in hedgerows, and rats in plowed fields.
I was never a heartfelt hunter, though, and my game-stalking days ended abruptly when I killed a large owl that was perched atop a telephone pole. As I lifted the magnificent bird by one foot and its colorful wings spread and then drooped, it dawned on me that I had no intention of doing anything constructive with it. Both its life and its beauty were wasted. I left the owl’s carcass in the grass and walked away thoughtfully.
That night, I swore that thenceforth inanimate things would be the only objects of my sport, and now I shoot exclusively at clay pigeons, paper targets, tin cans, hedge apples, and an occasional plastic milk container filled with water. I hold fond memories, however, of those days when few people followed rules and few rules existed to follow. At the same time, I have great respect for the development of hunting safety and licensing codes as well as for the men and women who abide by them.
Not long ago, I dusted off my .410 shotgun and took it to a gathering of friends to show it to two fellows I knew to be interested in firearms. One of them is from Argentina, and in the conversation, I learned that he refinishes gunstocks and manufactures wooden displays for rifles, shotguns, pistols, swords, and knives. When he heard the personal history of my shotgun, he offered to recondition it for me, and knowing his perfectionist tendencies, I readily accepted. Unfortunately, I did not take photos of the weapon to show its state before the maestro worked his magic on it, so all of the images you see in this article are of the finished piece.
After removing the oxidation from the shotgun, the stamped manufacturer’s information became more visible, especially with the help of camera lenses and computer-zoom features. The model is Champion, the maker is Iver Johnson, and the place and year of manufacture are Fitchburg, Massachusetts, sometime between 1909 and 1919.
Although Iver Johnson’s products played an important role in the Second World War and weapons enthusiasts celebrated their quality for more than a century, events have mottled some of the company’s past. In 1901, Leon Czolgosz assassinated President William McKinley in Buffalo, New York, with an Iver Johnson .32 caliber revolver, and in 1968, Sirhan Sirhan used an Iver Johnson .22 caliber revolver to shoot and kill presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy.
Those blemishes, along with the ones that once darkened the surfaces and cavities of my .410-gauge shotgun, are history, and now I intend to use my newly refurbished Iver-Johnson treasure for shooting clay pigeons and as a decoration on the wall of my den. I am grateful to my Argentinean friend for breathing life into this wonderful piece and for reawakening in me such warm and vivid memories of my childhood.