Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Lessons learned with a gun: Growing up in a family of hunters

I learned my first lesson with a gun before I ever owned my first one. I grew up on a tobacco and cotton farm in central North Carolina at the head of Drowning Creek, near the little town of Candor. The woods began just outside our back door.
I tagged along behind my dad and older brother George when they went hunting from the time I was knee high to a tadpole, long before I was old enough to be trusted with my own gun.
One day I was tagging along with my dad, older brother and a few others during rabbit season when rain forced us to take shelter for a while under the roof of one of my dad's tobacco barns.
I was no more than 7 or 8 at most. As we stood under the shelter waiting for the rain to stop, I was standing next to one of my dad's friends, who was showing off his brand-new Browning 12 gauge semi-auto shotgun. She was a beauty and I was all eyes.
The man saw my look of wonder and asked me, “Son, would you like to shoot it?” I imagine he expected me to say no, but I didn't. “Sure,” I said, hardly believing he was serious.
Maybe he was serious and maybe he wasn't, but when I agreed, he showed me how to hold it, pointed up to a clump of mistletoe in the top of a tree and said “Shoot that.” Then he flipped the safety off.
I raised up the shotgun to aim and found my arms were too short to put the butt to my shoulder. So I just tucked the butt under my armpit, sighted and pulled the trigger. “Boom!”
Next thing I know, the shotgun butt is on the ground and I'm holding the barrel in both hands.
My dad's friend gingerly took the still loaded-and-ready-to-fire-again shotgun from my hands and flipped the safety back on. Then everybody had a good laugh, including me. He didn't ask me if I wanted to shoot it again, but I would have. I didn't have enough sense to know that 12 gauge auto was more gun than my little jaybird behind could handle.
No. 1 Lesson Learned With A Gun: Don't shoot more gun than you can handle. (Or as Clint Eastwood said in one of his Dirty Harry movies, “A man's got to know his limitations.”)
No. 2 Lesson Learned With A Gun
Maybe my foolish bravado with a borrowed 12 gauge Browning auto convinced my dad I was finally ready for my first gun. For whatever reason, I started the next hunting season with my very first firearm, a .410 bolt-action, single-shot shotgun.
Whatever happened to that beautiful little gun I haven't a clue. My dad's gone now, and all the firearms he left included an old double-barrel 12 gauge Stevens and a Winchester .22 semi-auto rifle that I've got and a 20 gauge Winchester semi-auto that my older brother has.
But I learned from that .410 that if you aim true and don't shoot too quick, you can hit what you're shooting at. It took a pretty good while, but I finally learned how to hit a rabbit on the run.
It's one of those skills you have to learn by trial and error, mostly error. My dad told me how to do it, but saying it and doing it are two different things. I missed a lot before I finally figured out how to lead a running rabbit, not too little, not too much, but just enough. Easy to say, much harder to do.
I also learned that two .410 shotguns loads will pretty much ruin a rabbit. My younger brother James was born five years after me, but he got his first shotgun, also a .410, a couple of years earlier than I did. (He was always daddy's favorite, the baby of us five kids. Just one of those facts of life you learn to live with in a large family. And as it turned out, James was more like daddy than either my older brother George or me in more ways than one.)
Anyway, on opening day of James' first rabbit season with a gun, we both spotted the same cottontail at the same time.
Boom-da-Boom!” He claimed he shot first and I claimed I did. But we both hit that poor rabbit. When we skinned that poor critter, he had so much lead in him that he fell apart. We cleaned him anyway and ate him along with the other rabbits killed that day.
But we had to chew even more gingerly than usual or we'd bite down on one of those several lead shots still hidden in the meat of our double-dead rabbit.
But I just couldn't let my little brother beat me to the shot and he felt exactly the same way.
No. 2 Lesson Learned With A Gun: Two loads of .410 shot is one too many for one rabbit. (Or, if you shoot in haste, be prepared to eat the consequences.)
No. 3 Lesson Learned With A Gun
My next gun was a 16 gauge Remington pump. I could never get off but one shot with the .410 when bird hunting and at least for me, one shot at a rising covey of quail always resulted in one miss.
So daddy took pity on his poor-shooting middle son and got me the pump.
I had already learned the hard way that shooting an automatic shotgun from the left side meant getting a face full of burnt and still-burning powder. A pump is the answer for the problem with powder burns for a lefty.
Now if I could only learn how to hit a quail. At least for me, it is much harder than a rabbit on the run. And rabbits don't explode from under your feet with an always surprisingly loud thunderous beating of little wings. No matter how many times I'd heard it, it always scared me half to death.
Even with a bird dog frozen on point and hunters walking slowly abreast in a line to flush the birds, I was never ready and always surprised when the covey burst into the air with that familiar fluttering roar.
Shotgun up to shoulder, flick off safety, pick out one bird and draw a bead, “Boom!” Miss. Jack another shell in the chamber, “Boom!” Another miss. Jack another shell. “Boom!”
First bird I ever hit was the third shot and I never got much better though I hunted for 30 years.
My older brother George was a bit better at hitting quail than me, but not a whole lot. But if Mr. Bob White wanted to die that day, all he had to do was get up in front of my dad or my little brother.
They both shared the same dead-eye-Dick shooting skills with a shotgun and the same deep love of the outdoors. George and I both loved to hunt and fish. But James really lived to hunt and fish, just as my daddy did as long as he was able.
And almost from the beginning of James' bird hunting, he and daddy would almost always get a bird on the first shot and often would bring down a second on the same covey rise. Seldom did either ever fire a third shot, while George and me were emptying our guns with no results most of the time.
No. 3 Lesson Learned With A Gun: Some shooters have got it, some don't. Do what you're good at and don't waste a lot of time worrying about what you can't do. But don't quit trying.
No. 4 Lesson Learned With A Gun
I never did get very good with a shotgun, though I kept trying to hunt with one for 30 years or more. But I took to a rifle better and fairly quickly got to where I figured I could hit anything I could see. At least with a rifle, I could shoot better than my little brother.
My first rifle was a Winchester .22 bolt-action single-shot. A box of 50 Long Rifle .22 shells was less than 50 cents way back then, so having enough shells was not a problem.
But with a single-shot rifle I learned to hit what I shot at the first time, because there seldom ever was enough time to reload and get a second shot.
So I learned to “still hunt” for squirrels. Pick a good spot at the trunk of a tree with a good view of trees where squirrels are likely to hang out. Sit down and shut up. Don't move. Don't even blink. Wait.
Then wait a while longer. Don't twitch. Don't fidget. Don't move nothing but your eyeballs.
After slightly longer than forever, the birds will start chirping again. After another forever, the squirrels will come out again. But don't shoot at the first one you see. Wait for a good shot. It's probably the only shot you're going to get, maybe for all day.
And while you're sitting there seemingly doing nothing, waiting on a squirrel, you learn that God really does know what He's doing in this big old world. You can think deep thoughts, even for a kid.
Many long years before I ever became a Christian, I learned to “Be still and know that I am God.”
And if you sit there long enough, and are patient enough to wait for a good shot, you might just also learn the value and the rewards of patience, which is worth infinitely more than a squirrel stew.
But while you're thinking deep thoughts, don't forget to keep your eye on the ball. Daydreaming when the SHTF can get you in a whole lot of trouble, the least of which is no squirrel for supper.
No. 4 Lesson Learned With A Gun: Be ready for whatever comes at you. Far better to surprise what you're shooting at, than to be surprised when you're shot at. Squirrels, rabbits and quail don't shoot back. But as I learned in later lessons with a gun, bad guys do shoot back, and will shoot first, if you're not ready. So hit what you aim at the first time. You might not get a second shot. That lesson learned in the woods with a gun paid off for many a good ol' country boy in the Vietnam War, including this one.


ASM826 said...

Put a lot of yourself into this post, just wanted to let you know someone read it all the way through and enjoyed it. Some good memories and good lessons.

Alex Galletti said...

Experience is often the best teacher, as they say. When it comes to a gun, you need to get a hands-on feel to understand the weight of such a tool. For one, I'm glad that you know your way on how to handle them, so cheers!