I witnessed the end of an era. The last time we shot and shot well was just down the street from the house where I grew up. My dad’s rangy setter, Belle, was on birds before our guns were loaded. Me with my Fox single-shot .410 and dad with his old L.C. Smith 20 gauge side-by-side–we walked in on that covey while the engine of dad’s pickup still popped and crackled as it cooled in the autumn air. To this day, I still remember the feel of the wool collar of my over-sized jacket scratching my neck as I pulled it up against the wind.
Belle’s flag waved melodically in the gentle breeze. Dad told me to walk straight in and he would swing around and catch the birds escaping to the right. My heart skips a beat to this day as I think about the anticipation of the explosion at my feet.
But that was a long time ago–close to 20 years. We had neared our limit that day when the landowner came out and asked how we were doing.
“Well,” dad said. “Unusually well.” A catch in his voice was barely noticeable. It was as if he knew that day would not last. By that time, I only knew a little. I knew how dad had often rushed home after high school, stuffing his bird dog Jim and the old beat up pump shotgun his mother bought him into the trunk of his car before heading off to his various honey holes around north Alabama. I knew he’d stood in flooded cornfields in the predawn light, where ducks flew so low and in such great numbers you could literally poke them with a gun barrel.
That day, he gave the landowner half of our birds and the man told us good luck and drove away. I can still see his truck trailed by the dust of Alabama’s notoriously red clay.
We’d asked permission the year before and he’d told us to come by anytime. Said we were welcome to his birds as long as we only took what we needed and left the others to reclaim what was rightfully theirs.
He was a farmer by trade. A man among the men of that era who looked you in the eye, knew the code of a firm handshake and rested on his laurels after a long day as he gathered his family around the table for the evening meal. The end of an era.
But let me tell you what hasn’t ended. In fact, it has experienced a resurgence if anything. That is, the allure and use of vintage guns.
That old single-shot Fox was given to me by my dad’s dad, my grandfather, before I was even born. He only assumed I’d be born with something between my legs and that gun still belongs to me in more ways than I can describe here, a meaning beyond words. Even though I’ve outgrown it, that shotgun will remain in the gun cabinet until one day (I hope) my children will regard it as the treasure it is–something from a different era.
Dad’s L.C. now has a partner. A few years ago, he coupled the 20 with a matching 12, from the same owner in fact. I know dad had wanted both guns back then, but never could afford it. The years have paid off. It’s a gun thing.
The brass of an empty hull is faded to rust in the filtered light of early November. Eventually, it will turn to dust, joining Belle and the birds she loved, that we loved; a time some of the fortunate few of my generation will include as a small chapter in the book of their life.
And as it has for eons, history will repeat itself. Classic guns–the look, the feel, the perception of class–call to us once again from the neighboring fields and woodlines. We may travel a little farther and spend a little more time and money, but aren’t you worth it? There’s no pretension, just the solemn whistle of a lonely bird looking for the bevy it once belonged to.
Images by Hunter Worth