column By: Terry Wieland | September, 20
We called it hunting but, since most of the time we came back empty-handed, his delightful wife, who had a healthy sense of both humor and proportion, referred to it laughingly as “walking with weapons.” The term appealed to us in an odd kind of way, so we started calling it the same thing. After all, that’s exactly what we were doing, and rather than being a somewhat questionable activity for a pair of (supposedly) grown men, it was one with an honorable history stretching back to long before there even was history.
Once early man had fashioned a club, and later a spear, and learned how to use it, one imagines he was never seen without it. A club sitting back in the cave is not much use, now is it? And you just never know.
Try to imagine a frontiersman like Daniel Boone without his Kentucky long rifle, or a mountain man without his Hawken. In his finest J.M. Pyne story, “The Madman of Gaylord’s Corner,” Lucian Cary describes Pyne leaving his farmhouse in Vermont; he automatically picks up his .25-caliber single shot and takes it with him, not because he expects trouble, but because you simply don’t go out without a rifle. What are your hands for, if not to carry your rifle?
This is not, I contend, a matter of teaching, or even one of careful reasoning, but simply tribal masculine instinct. As a small child, I carried a broken hockey stick that I pretended was a rifle; grew into a Daisy Red Ryder BB gun which, between the ages of eight and 12, I was rarely seen without; and finally a Cooey single-shot .22. Left to my own devices, I still carry a rifle when I’m outside, and I’d bet that those who routinely carry a walking stick or umbrella would rather it was a rifle, if they were brutally honest.
Without getting into the murky waters of personal totems and such, I think one of the reasons men in later age think back fondly to the rifles they carried as a kid – Philip B. Sharpe often recalled a Stevens Favorite, and wished he still had it – is not so much that they killed a lot of game, or knocked over a lot of tin cans or were known throughout the county as a deadly shot, but simply because the rifle gave them a certain standing with other boys. It defined who they were.
Such a walking-around rifle needs two qualities: One, it must be comfortable to carry to the point where you feel naked without it, and two, it must be of a caliber that is good for a wide range of purposes.
Taking the second point first, a lot of calibers are ruled out. It doesn’t have to be good for everything, just for a lot of things. A .22 rimfire can do the job, but so can a .25-20 or .32-20, or even a .30-30.
I think I could happily get by with a .38-40 or something like a .357 Magnum, if I found the right rifle. Ammunition’s not too heavy or bulky. The thing to remember is that you’re not going hunting, you’re not a sniper and you don’t expect to be set upon by bandits. If you were doing or expecting any of those things, you’d carry something else.
Now to the rifle. Jim Corbett, the hunter of man-eating tigers in India, always carried a .275 Rigby bolt action. It had a longish barrel and no riflescope, so it balanced and carried well. He even carried that rifle when he was on the track of a known man-eater. That’s stretching its capabilities for the average guy, but it emphasizes the “all-around” nature of what we’re looking for.
There are a couple of bolt actions around here that I would cheerfully use, including a Mannlicher-Schönauer or two and a Lee-Enfield jungle carbine, but those are pushing into the area of hunting rifles; a tad heavy, a tad too powerful. The same is true of a Savage 99 in .250-3000 – rather loud for our purposes.
Personally, I would look no further than a single shot, and here the average American is blessed not only with an embarrassment of riches, and need not be rich to partake. They are not exactly going begging at this moment in time, but prices are definitely down substantially from what they were a decade ago when the bloom was on the Cowboy-Action rose and everyone had to have an “Old West” single shot.
Winchesters, both High and Low Wall, Stevens 44s and 44½s, the long gone (and long lamented) Ruger No. 3 – there are lots around, and many are not expensive. Even Hopkins & Allen, not renowned for quality rifles generally, made a couple of Schützen models that would do quite nicely.
My own preference is the Winchester Low Wall because the rifles tend to be lighter and trimmer than the more powerful High Walls. I have one I picked up a year ago, in .25-20 Single Shot, that carries like a dream. It has a 27-inch barrel, and at some time in its past the stock was customized by what I can only assume was a talented leather worker. In place of checkering, he decorated the grip and forend with a kind of stippling that looks and feels exactly like tooled leather. The rifle has grown on me steadily since I first picked it up in the auction showroom – with considerable misgivings, since it was described as “amateur wood carving” – and found that it was unique and strangely charming.
When I showed the rifle to Lee Shaver, my single-shot guru, his immediate comment, hefting it in his hands, was that it would make “a great woods rifle, just for walking around.” My thoughts exactly.
This brings me to a third quality necessary in such a rifle, and that is that it must “speak” to you. This is pretty nebulous, I admit, and will be different with everyone. A rifle that leaps into my hands and says “take me, I’m yours” might not do the same for someone else, and a rifle you absolutely adore may leave me cold. This is fortunate, actually, because otherwise we’d all be fighting over the same few rifles.
Notice there are no modern rifles on my list. This is not because they’re not good and well made, but because rifles today tend to be too specialized. They’re like a hunting dog that will point only bobwhite quail, and then only between the hours of one and three on sunny days on a south-facing hillside. A generalist rifle may not do any one thing superlatively well, but it will do a multitude of things well enough. It will also be so much fun to shoot that you will get a lot of practice, become deadly with it and let pinpoint shooting make up for any other shortcomings.
Will you shoot a lot of game? Knock over a lot of tin cans? Become renowned as the deadliest shot in the county? Maybe. Will you get in touch with the small boy that once was you, wandering the fields with a rifle just to see what you can see? Definitely.