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    First Impressions

    The typical bird hunter owns several shotguns over their lifetime. From finely crafted, rarely fired masterpieces to purpose-built reliable workhorses, every gun shares a history with its owner. Regardless of how many guns a hunter accumulates over their lifetime, though, the bond between a bird hunter and their first shotgun is unique.

    Mine was a Christmas gift from my parents when I was 11 years old. The brightly colored, Santa Claus-themed paper (undoubtedly my mother’s choice) used to wrap the gun symbolized the paradoxical world of an 11-year-old boy poised for a headfirst plunge into adulthood. The single shot H&R 20-gauge may have been considered a youth gun, but I felt like an adult holding it in my hands that Christmas morning.

    I explored every feature of the gun in detail, handling it like one of the fragile ceramic figurines my mother kept on the mantel.

    Upon reaching the gun’s exposed hammer, my fingers came to a puzzled stop. Sensing my confusion, my father explained the operation of the gun’s simplistic design. The hammer served as the gun’s safety; if it wasn’t cocked, the gun would not fire. Once cocked, however, the only way to return it to the safe position without firing the gun was by squeezing the trigger while easing the hammer back into position with your thumb. Lose your grip on the hammer, and the gun discharged.

    The only thing standing between me and my first hunt was my ability to master this somewhat tricky maneuver, so I practiced – and practiced – until the proper amount of tension was hard-coded into my thumb’s muscle memory.

    Despite all my preparation, when I took to the field for the first time (on a preserve hunt arranged by my father), anxiety bordering on full-blown panic consumed me. All that remained of the confident dexterity in my shooting hand was a trembling trigger finger and a thumb unsure of where it should rest. Thankfully, the smooth coolness of the metal chamber against my cheek, the warmth of the wood forestock in my palm and the knurled texture of the hammer beneath my thumb provided comforting reassurance, and by the time the first rooster flushed, I had fully recovered. I raised the gun tight to my shoulder, led the bird slightly, squeezed the trigger and watched as the bird dropped to the ground.

    As is often the case with youth guns, I outgrew it after only two seasons. With money saved from my first part-time job, I purchased a new 12-gauge, pump-action shotgun. In the excitement of acquiring the new gun, I unceremoniously dumped the youth gun that meant so much to me just two years earlier into a dark corner of the basement, buried beneath piles of junk.

    I came across it several years later and was overtaken by an urge to feel the gun in my hands once again. The zipper of the case was encrusted with rust and lime and wouldn’t budge, so I had to cut it open with a hunting knife. I took hold of the wooden stock to pull it from the remnants of the case, and for a moment I was once again tearing through Christmas wrapping paper and cardboard. But the gun that emerged bore little resemblance to the shiny, new gun I remembered. Rust now covered the entire barrel, chamber and even the grooves within the knurled hammer. I tried to pull the hammer back to see if I could still manage the safety maneuver, but a horrible metallic, grinding noise made me stop short.

    Ashamed that I could let such an important piece of my past fall into such a state, I spent hours cleaning and oiling the gun until the hammer functioned properly again. Delighted at the feel of the restored gun in my hands, I briefly considered hunting with it again. Instead I gave it to a local gun shop where it could be recycled as a Christmas or birthday gift for another new hunter.

    These days, during the opening minutes of opening days, my thumb still occasionally searches for the place on my latest semi-automatic where a hammer should be.

    Wolfe Publishing Group