My inauguration to hunting and my first deer!
I worked the lever on the old rifle and ejected the warm case. Reaching behind me to unbuckle the safety harness, I let an involuntary "Thank You" escape into the cool woods. Carefully, I lowered the gun from my stand and climbed down the ladder.
It was a robust four point buck, about a year and a half old, lying on its side on the spot where my bullet had found it. I clutched the gun in my hand and went to get McBryde out of his blind to help me drag it back to camp.
I was 36 when my grandfather died and left me his Winchester 1886 lever action rifle, refurbished and restocked in tiger maple by his own hands. Grandpa was proud of the work he'd done on the gun. When I was a boy he loved to show it to me whenever I visited his house. As a kid who found the idea of hunting gruesome and rustic I had little desire to handle guns. Nonetheless I was impressed by the deep blue of the steel, the beautiful tiger maple stocks, and the way everything fit perfectly together. Even though I had never fired a centerfire rifle, I could tell by the way it felt that it was a quality piece. Grandpa would not have had anything else.
He was a machinist by trade with the mind of an engineer. The 1886 stands as enduring proof of his skills. It embodies all of the things about him I admired; the patience, the precision, the rustic durability of a life spent in the rural Midwest. When he left it to me I could not help but feel honored. And confused. What kind of gun was it? When was it made? What work had he done to it? Did he build it to hunt with or to put on the mantle? How old was that obsolete ammo and what should I do with all of those spent brass cases? How do I take care of it? Why on earth had he left it to me?
Of my parents' three boys I was the least likely to enjoy owning a firearm. I was not your typical gun nut. My older brother Daniel had been the athlete, my younger brother Tim scientifically inclined. As The Middle Child, I was the one with hair down to the middle of the back, the one who drove around the country in a bright blue VW microbus after college instead of looking for a job, the vegetarian. Without an aggressive bone in my body shooting for its own sake seemed to me an overly violent activity. Although I did not begrudge hunters I had no desire to become one.
After 10 years of vegetarianism I began eating meat again when my wife developed a pregnancy craving, "Give me meat! Red meat!" I began to appreciate the honesty and quality of venison; it had not been raised and mindlessly slaughtered in some far away stockyard only to be shot up with nebulous liquids so that it could sit for days on the supermarket shelf; it was harvested and processed by the hands of the people who gifted it to me. And man, it was good.
I began to see that many of the people who regularly ate meat had very little concept of what they were doing. Meat is life and death on a plate and most of us choose to subcontract the death part. Knowing this, my return to the carnivorous pleasures was generally guilt free, but not completely. The purist in me felt I could never fully enjoy a piece of meat until I had done some of the killing myself.
By the time Grandpa died my outlook on life, nature and politics had evolved beyond sex, drugs and rock 'n roll. Having made the decision to raise a family and start a business in northern Michigan I found many of my friends, acquaintances and employees were hunters. I empathized with the hard work and patience required to take a deer in its element. I could identify with the satisfaction of testing one's skills against the instincts of the deer in order to bypass the meat shelf at the supermarket.
When Grandpa left me the old Winchester I found myself in a position to take up hunting with a minimal investment. After doing some research on the gun it became clear that he had built it to shoot. The serial number on the lever action dated it to 1894. He had refurbished and re-blued it and had installed a new barrel. It came to me with 2 boxes of factory ammo and a box of empty brass for reloading (factory ammo for the gun was discontinued in 1954). Firing a couple of the precious factory rounds I was able to hit a 6" pie plate at 50 yards without a shooting rest. The old gun was still perfectly sighted-in from the last time Grandpa had fired it, ready for the field.
And that's when I really missed him. I had no idea how to hunt. He used to hunt in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and I wanted to know where. Did he hunt from a blind? Did he stalk? What tactics did he use? Were any of his hunting buddies still around? What stories would they tell? What a goldmine of resources I had missed out on while he was alive.
A couple years later my buddy McBryde invited me to his cabin on the Bark River for a week of U.P. deer hunting. I enthusiastically accepted. During my first season I learned about the movements and habits of deer. Although I saw no deer, McBryde got a nice buck on opening day. I helped him drag it back to camp and dress it out.
We inspected the contents of the stomach to see what the deer had been eating, running our hands through the gut pile to find the bullet. Had it expanded properly? What internal organs had it damaged? This was the part of deer hunting that had been the most foreboding to me, but surprisingly I found it fascinating. After the deer was dressed I returned to my stand, visualizing the moment when I would consciously aim my rifle at the vitals of a deer and pull the trigger.
Turns out I had plenty of time to visualize. I went up to the Bark for two seasons before I was ever offered a shot. This introduced me to one of the things about deer hunting that I have learned to cherish; it requires me to be still and quiet for long periods of time. Over the span of a week in a deer blind it's possible to do "What if?" analysis on all of the significant events of your life; the educational tracks you might have followed, the job opportunities, the mates you might have ended up with, the arguments you wish you had won . Once you've exhausted them all you are left with a quiet mind. Forget New Year's Eve; deer season is the time I take stock, making sense of the previous year and clearing my mind for the year to come.
On November 15th 2006, however, my reverie was interrupted before it could begin. Two days prior we had done a safety check on the treestand and were rewarded with fresh tracks and droppings. We quickly and quietly got out of the woods to avoid spooking any nearby deer or leaving too much scent.
On Opening Day, I performed the familiar sneaking ritual to the stand an hour before first light, careful not to break a single twig. Safely buckled in, I chambered a round into the old Winchester, cocked the hammer to the "safety" position, and waited for cool daylight.
As the squirrels were waking up (and had not yet ratted out my presence to the crows) it was deliciously quiet. Then I heard a muffled rustle directly in front of me, gentle, rhythmic and intentional. Behind a thin cover of maple and cedar saplings I made out the ghostly, gray-brown form of a young buck carefully, gracefully picking its way toward me. Instinctively I waited, dead still, until his head was behind a trunk. In one smooth motion that I'd been practicing for two years I raised my gun to my shoulder and cocked the hammer into the "fire" position.
Over the years I had assumed that this would be the "moment of truth" during which I would question my ability to pull the trigger. I assumed I would question the ethics of my actions, my shooting ability and whether or not I would be able to finish the gritty work of gutting the deer. Whether any of these thoughts were in my mind at the time I don't recall. All I remember is wanting more than anything for that deer to turn in front of me.
Given a clean shot I knew in my bones that the bullet would follow my will. I have rarely felt such certainty of outcome.
The deer turned to my left, offering a perfect broadside shot at 25 yards. I lined up the peep sight to the rear of the shoulder and squeezed the perfectly weighted trigger. The obsolete 33WCF bullet penetrated, expanded, burst the heart and stopped just before exiting the other side. The buck fell dead on the spot. It could not have been a quicker, cleaner kill.
I don't know what my Grandpa saw in me that made him think I was a hunter. Perhaps he simply noticed my love for mechanical things and figured I would appreciate the gun for its own sake. That's certainly true; I've tracked down dies, bullets and brass cases and I've learned to reload cartridges so there will always be ammunition for the old gun.
I now have a more modern, scoped rifle in my safe but I continue to use the 1886 in tight cover where the open sights are an asset. And when the time comes that I can no longer enjoy it I will be sure the gun is left in worthy (if unsuspecting) hands.
By Greg Carpenter
April 27, 2011