I have been around guns all my life. When I was a child, we had three shotguns and a rifle in the house, and my father and I would take them with us in the summertime when we lived and worked on the farm. During the wee hours of mornings before our workdays started, I would set out in the pickup to hunt rabbits that would feed along the sides of the gravel roads. In those days, ammunition was inexpensive, so although we were not wealthy, my parents never criticized my consumption of ammo.
I used all four weapons when I hunted, but the .22 Remington bolt-action rifle was the most economical to shoot, so that was the one I took most often. In the fall, however, when I tramped across pastures and along hedgerows in search of quail and pheasant, I would favor the .12 gauge double-barreled shotgun that is pictured here. The old W. H. Hamilton Twist Belgium was imported into the U.S. around 1904. I liked the idea of being able to shoot with either the full-choke barrel or the modified one.
I have marvelous memories of traipsing around the countryside with the .12 gauge. The shotgun, at 8+ pounds with a 28-inch barrel, was heavy but reliable, and after walking for an hour or so, I would begin to angle back toward the truck. Those outings were great, because in addition to giving me the opportunity to see the countryside, I was alone and could dream of the world-altering things that surely I would accomplish as an adult. Sometimes my mind still does those things, and the reality sinks in that my impact will probably be no greater in the future than it has been in the past. I know that whatever small thing I am to give back in this life must be accomplished soon and with humility, because only that quality gives existence its finishing touches.
Once I shot a large rabbit that was on the dam of a small pond on the opposite side of a barbed-wire fence near the road. Dad stopped the truck, and I quietly worked the weapon around inside the cab and pointed it out the window. The rabbit took a couple of hops, and I shot it just as it turned to run and then jumped out of the truck to fetch the carcass.
I pushed the barbed wires downward to straddle and cross the dilapidated fence, but when I reached the dead animal and picked it up by its hind feet, I realized that it was so old that its meat would be too tough to eat. I knew immediately that no matter what I did at that point my memory of the occasion would be dissatisfying. I laid the carcass in the grass and returned to the truck.
The experience brought me to a new awareness. The rabbit would have died soon anyway, so the harm seems minimal. A predator probably would have ended its life in cold-blooded fashion before it reached its natural end. But maybe not. Perhaps it would have lived its time and keeled over one morning by the pond and expired.
None of this makes the gun a bad thing. It remains an inanimate object that requires human hand, eye, and decision to do its work, dirty or otherwise. My double-barreled shotgun is dear to me, and I hope that my family will appreciate it as much as I do, for they are the ones who will end up with it. It brings back warm memories of my bespectacled grandfather sitting at his desk in his eastern-Colorado home or ducking his 6’3” frame as he descended the stairs at my childhood home in eastern Kansas. Every winter when he visited, he would give my sister and me a silver dollar each, and we looked forward with great anticipation to his arrival and to receiving the gift.
After inspecting the piece, a friend of mine who refurbishes weapons informed me that the shotgun’s inner mechanism is severely corroded, making shooting it dangerous. He observed that some of the metal parts disintegrated when he disassembled them and added that modern ammunition would likely cause the old W. H. Hamilton firearm to explode in the shooter’s face. As a result, I asked him to trim the firing pins to make discharging the weapon impossible. Of the firearms that I possess at this juncture, two of them are unsafe to fire, but they will forever remain in my collection, because they represent history on both sides of my family that I value far more than the items themselves.
Many things that we inherit in life carry stories of lasting value. A woman who receives a set of heirloom dishes from her mother may, when she uses them, find herself reminiscing good times as a child or reliving dinnertime moments that are vivid if you have the china but obscure if you don’t.
Guns are like that. They give boys some of the manly qualities that made their fathers men, and they give girls images of men who may shoot at things from time to time, but for whom in moments of anger the guns’ whereabouts do not come to mind. Family weapons are not really about shooting or hunting. Rather, they are symbols of dinner-table plenty and social leveling that did not exist before their creation.
Guns have made our world different and better. They are providers of sustenance as well as heroes that serve as the last bastion of defense between simple folk and the bullies of the world. Whether those toughs manifest themselves as extortionists, robbers, politicians, or despots, the weapons’ roles remain the same—to make the perpetrators aware that their oppressive actions may result in the payment of high personal prices.
Now retired from its nobler duties, my .12 gauge shotgun has become a decoration that stimulates memories and nothing more. But that hardly diminishes its value to me. On the contrary, its refurbishment has given me a heightened sense of family, roots, and maturation. Guns played a significant role in my personal rite of passage, and this old .12 gauge shotgun will forever hold a special place in my heart.