21 September 2007

Shotguns: Functional and Symbolic Objects in American Culture

I grew up in a culture where shotguns were important tools. Since deer season was only a week or two long, a deer rifle might get out of the house for a only few days each year. Shotguns, on the other hand, saw long and hard use on cottontails, black & gray squirrels, snowshoe "rabbits" (actually hares), grouse, turkey, pheasant, and the occasional duck. Hell, Uncle Charlie even used his beat up Model 12 (loaded with slugs) to trim oak limbs that grew too close to the eaves.

Still, a good shotgun cost a lot of money and so also had symbolic status--as what James Deetz (Small Things Forgotten, 1977) distinguished as socio-technic (i.e. a social function) and ideo-technic (i.e. ideological) contexts. To own a good shotgun did not mean you were a wealthy man. It meant you were a serious hunter and outdoorsman. The tool you chose said something about your values regarding technology and class, too. Also, since shotguns outlive their owners, they become a sort of fetish that connects us with memory.

The pump action shotgun was a uniquely American tool of the Industrial Age. Unlike Europeans, who had long favored elegant side-by-side ("double barreled") shotguns, Americans preferred something with an active operating mechanism that could quickly fire five or six shots. American inventiveness personified itself in the brothers Browning -- John M. and Matthew S. -- who designed a whole slough of ingeniousness rifles, shotguns, and pistlos operated by various sorts of lever, pump, and automatic actions.

My great-grandfather, a first generation American named John Eugene Munday, carried a Winchester Model 97 12-gauge pump-action shotgun. I don't know when exactly he bought it, but he was using its predecessor -- a Model 93 -- at the time Gramps was a young lad starting to pay attention to such things, c. 1910. According to Winchester's serial number records, his M 97 was made in 1914. It was a popular model of the time, with more than a million sold from when it was first manufactured in 1897 to its discontinuation in 1957.

John Munday made about a dollar a day as a roustabout, pumper, and driller in the Bradford Oil Field. He probably paid several week's wages for the M 97. But the gun was made expressly for the new smokeless powder, and it was a fast shooter that held one shell in the chamber and another five rounds in the magazine. At a time when all the clearcut Pennsylvania forests were full of brush, brambles, and birds (grouse), this was the shotgun to have. According to Gramps, his old man was a mean drunk, a bare-fisted competition boxer, and one overall sonofabitch. But he was also one hell of a wingshot, and that was his only trait I ever heard Gramps praise. Here's the M 97, which might or not be the one owned by old John. I bought it from a neighbor of Uncle Charlie's, who had supposedly bought it from John after his drunkard's life caught up with him and he became too ill to hunt:

Gramps would not shoot the M 97 and had a hearty disdain for it, having had an early misfortune with it (or perhaps the similar M 93) when the exposed hammer ripped into his thumb as he shucked back the action. You can't be sloppy with your grip when shooting one of these things, and the M 97 wasn't known as a "thumb buster" for nothing:

Gramps bitterly recalled this story to me many times, and it always provided a segue into the story of a shotgun he loved like a good dog, his two boys Gene Jr. & Jim, and his wife Beryl. He bought the little Model 12, 25 inch barrel, 20 gauge in 1926, the same year Dad was born. The M 12 is known as a reliable, well made, and very expensive shotgun. For a man who never bought a new car in his life, this was a special purchase:

It's nickel steel barrel was supposed to be stronger and lighter than conventional steels, and corrosion resistant too. I don't know if the gun didn't hold its bluing very well, or if Gramps wore it off from a lot of carrying. Probably the latter. At any rate, though I knew I was greatly reducing its collector's value, I had the barrel and receiver reblued when I was in high school. I wanted to use the shotgun, and there was already some light pitting on the receiver from Gramps' hands. For me, at least at that time, the gun would only have value if I could hunt with it:

I didn't need the M 12. In my first year of legal hunting, I used a "family gun"--a Model 37 single shot, 20 gauge, that then passed to my younger cousins. The summer I was to turn 13, Dad brought me to Ted Lundine's sport shop to choose a new shotgun as a birthday present. I owe this to Gramps, who was always quick to help Dad realize his fatherly obligations, especially when it came to encouraging my love of all things outdoors.

At Lundine's, Dad and Mr. L encouraged me to look at the Ithaca Model 37 pump action shotguns. This was the gun that -- thanks to cheaper production methods -- had largely taken over the Winchester M 12's market share. I wanted nothing to do with what I perceived to be a cheap, mass-produced rattletrap that cost about $100.

I had been ruined by a chance meeting with an old high school chum of Dad, a man who had become a regional salesman for the Browning Arms Company. Some combination of this man's ethos, and the many Hook & Bullet magazine articles and library books about firearms I had read convinced me that an automatic shotgun was the way to go. An automatic shotgun was to late twentieth century American industry and culture what the pumpgun had been to an earlier age. Unlike a manually operated pump action shotgun, an "automatic" uses the kinetic energy of recoil or a gas-operated piston to eject the spent shell and chamber a new round. After cursorily examining heavy, awkward feeling Remington Model 1100s and Winchester Model 1400s, my eyes fell upon a Browning A5 in "Light 20."

Per Mr. Lundine's instructions, I held the shotgun, looked at a stuffed grouse across the room, closed my eyes, and then mounted the shotgun as if I were to shoot the bird. Upon opening my eyes, the barrel pointed precisely at the target. The price tag read $187.50, but Mr. Lundine said "This kid has an eye for fine shotguns. I'll knock five bucks off the price and throw in a couple of boxes of shells."

Dad's attitude showed a confused mix of consternation that I had chosen an expensive gun and pride that I had an eye for quality. At any rate, he agreed to put the first $100 down, and I agreed to pay Mr. Lundine $5 a week from my paper-route and odd-job money until the additional $82.50 was paid off.

Every Saturday, I went to the family oil lease with Gramps to help pump the wells and tend the garden. On the way home, we would stop at Lundine's, I would hand over my five dollars, Mr. Lundine would write the payment on our duplicate receipts, and I would point the Browning at the stuffed grouse.

By October and the start of small game season, the A5 was mine:

I shot a lot of cottontails and gray squirrels that year, and missed more than a few grouse. The next summer, Gramps had me shooting cans that he pitched into the air to simulate live birds. This helped greately, though not until I took up skeet shooting at the age of eighteen or so did I become a proficient wingshot. While working at a particularly good co-op job one summer from Drexel University, I plunked down $1,000 to a widow for her husband's three fancy over-and-under (double barreled) skeet guns--Winchester Model 101s in 20 gauge, 28 gauge, and .410 bore. I developed a special fondness for the 28 gauge, and it was the only one I kept when I gave up competition shooting 25 years ago:

Still, when it comes to shooting birds, there is nothing like the little Browning. RTD will attest to that, seen here posing with a freshly plucked blue grouse:

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