|July - August 1999
Volume 31, Number
Ron Spomer's 6mm Remington Model 70 Winchester coy
first deer rifle wasn't homely; it was on the far side
of ugly. The rifle wasn't mine. It was a Type 99 Arisaka
I'd borrowed from my uncle. He'd liberated it from the
Pacific Islands during World War II, along with a large
supply of Japanese ammunition. The military-issue 7.7mm
rounds were loaded with full-jacketed bullets. I filed
the nose of the bullets to expose the lead core,
hopefully giving them at least some chance of expanding.
The Arisaka was as strong as a bank vault but not
nearly as lovely. A massive knob at the rear of the bolt
served as the safety. Engaging this mechanism required
pushing the knob in hard and rotating it. The bolt
handle projected straight to the side, and the action
cocked stiffly on closing. The rifle had a long, 26-inch
barrel with a military stock and hand guard that went
nearly to the muzzle. The scarred wood - of
indeterminate origin - wore a nondescript brown finish.
beauty and two beasts. Walnut-stocked Sako, left, is
undeniably more attractive than the
stainless-synthetic and full-camo Remington M700s.
With all its drawbacks, the Arisaka had one important
redeeming feature - it was free, making it dear to my
14-year-old heart. In addition to loaning me the rifle,
my Uncle Clair ("Big Clair" to other family
members; I was known as "Little Clair") taught
me to hunt mule deer.
camped overnight on a small hill in Utah's desert country. A
half hour before sunrise, he directed me to a spot 50 yards
below the crest. "Get comfortable, then stay put,"
he said. "You'll be overlooking two heavily used deer
trails. Be ready, and when you get a good shot, take it. Aim
just behind the shoulder. Be sure to s-q-u-e-e-z-e the
trigger." Clair left me lying belly-down in a sagebrush
clearing. I had the rifle, a canteen of water and a Hershey
bar to nibble on. The Arisaka had a wire monopod folded up
against the stock. I pulled the monopod down, giving me a
semisolid rest. Then I settled in to wait.
Twenty minutes later, I spotted five deer on the nearest
trail. They were moving slowly in my direction. Pulse
pounding, I palmed the safety off and got ready to shoot.
When the animals were directly below me, I nestled the
barleycorn front sight behind the shoulder of the biggest
deer. I took a breath, let it half-way out and eased back
At the shot, four deer pogo-sticked frantically down the
trail. The fifth took a half-dozen halting paces, then
slumped to the ground. By the time I ran to it, the big doe
I fell instantly in love with the homely rifle - but was to
learn how fleeting adolescent love could be. The following
weekend Uncle Clair again took me afield to fill my second
I spotted several deer in the next two days, but none
within shooting range. With time running out, my uncle
stationed me below the end of a long ridge line. "Stay
here," he said. "I'll work back and drive the
ridge top. If I kick out any deer, they'll be running
targets. Pick one - and be sure to lead it when you
After an interminable wait, I heard my uncle whistling in
the distance. As the whistling grew louder, my heart sank.
It was late afternoon, and I had to be back at school the
following day. My hunt was nearly over.
Three deer burst from the tree line, headed straight toward
me. The mid-dle one was a forkhorn buck. The animals swerved
as I threw the Arisaka up. I fired the first shot as the
buck bounced past 80 yards away. It was a clean miss.
During the next 60 seconds, events blurred together. I
remember working the bolt, aiming and firing - and when the
magazine ran dry, frantically stuffing it with fresh rounds.
I also remember Big Clair's rollicking laughter as dust
puffed above, below, then behind the fleeing buck. An early
shot had found its mark, slowing the deer's flight. The
animal was about to crest a low hillside 250 yards away when
a second lucky bullet broke its back. The little buck was
Clair walked to me, wiping tears of mirth from his eyes.
Fighting for breath, he pointed to the ground. Greatly
embarrassed, I counted 18 fired cases at my feet. I'd killed
my second deer in as many weeks, but my infatuation with the
Arisaka had begun a downhill slide.
Whether it's guns or girls, you always remember your first
love. I recall that ungainly rifle with certain fondness. In
the space of a week, it had brought me both exultation and
humility. It showed me the wisdom of using a solid rest and
the folly of shooting wildly at running game. Equally
important, it had made me a hunter - a successful one, at
that. However briefly, I found the Arisaka beautiful.
With time and experience, beauty standards change. One
advantage of adulthood was a gradually growing bank account.
I became more discriminating when buying guns. Who doesn't
covet high-grade rifles with gorgeously grained, oiled
walnut stocks? I bought as many as I could afford - then
kept an anxious eye open for anything that could gouge, dent
or scar the rifles when I carried them afield. Even careful
vigilance wasn't enough to spare rifles toted in saddle
scabbards or packed up rocky mountain slopes.
I still own fancy firearms and show them proudly to
appreciative visitors, but my tastes have slowly changed.
While I prize my handful of handsome rifles, they don't see
much use in the deer woods anymore. These faithful
companions are basically retired.
When hunting season rolls around these days, I'll open the
gun safe and select one of the several synthetic-stocked
rifles stored inside. Most feature stainless steel barrels
and black nylon slings. These are highly practical firearms
but homely to a fault. If he were still alive, my father
would shudder at their sight.
Stainless steel, fiberglass-handled rifles are becoming
increasingly popular. Practical-minded hunters are learning
to appreciate their rugged durability. The stocks don't
swell or warp, and rust-resistant stainless requires only
minor maintenance. Many sportsmen no longer even realize
these guns are ugly!
Fiberglass stocks made their appearance a few decades ago,
primarily to fill the needs of weight-conscious riflemen.
Chet Fish and other custom gunmakers used these unlovely
stocks to turn out flyweight rifles. These rifles horrified
traditionalists but delighted shooters who wanted a bare
minimum of heft.
The practical, plain-Jane stocks eventually caught the
attention of major manufacturers. Light weight wasn't the
only attraction. The new stocks were waterproof and
extremely stable. Fiberglass was hard to work with, but
other synthetics were tough and easily molded. Too,
riflemakers didn't have to find increasingly scarce and
costly supplies of stock-grade walnut. Handsomely grained
wood was no longer a factor. All synthetic stocks
were identically ugly - beauty was strictly in the eye of
When synthetic-stocked factory rifles first appeared on
dealers' shelves, my hunting friends were horrified. The new
black-handled firearms were aesthetic failures entirely
lacking in grace or charm.
"I wouldn't be caught dead showing up in deer camp
with one of those things," Lee Peterson said several
years ago. His favorite deer rifle had long been a
custom-stocked Savage Model 99 with gorgeously burled
Other friends and relatives shared this opinion. Synthetic
stocks were an abomination, and the rifles that wore them,
I, too, was a fan of honest walnut, but was less horrified
by the development. After all, I was no stranger to ugly
rifles. After mourning too many dents and scratches
inflicted on costly firearms, I saw value in the homely
tools. The new rifles thrived on abuse. All rifles require
some maintenance, but today's stainless steel,
synthetic-stocked firearms shrug off rain and snow. If
oxidation occurs, a few swipes of an emery cloth quickly
erases the evidence. I vividly recall my first November hunt
in Alaska. Exposed to driving sleet and snow, my blued steel
Mauser quickly rusted in spite of lavish oiling. When I
returned home, the entire rifle had to be refinished and
reblued. Stainless rifles might not be gorgeous, but I find
them better looking all the time.
All my serious hunting rifles now sport synthetic stocks,
and most have stainless steel hardware. These firearms
aren't stylish. They're durable, work-a-day guns that get
the job done. To paraphrase Forest Gump, "handsome is
as handsome does." Looking good isn't everything. After
all, the ugly rifles in my safe all have great