One waterfowl hunter's misfortune fulfills a boy's desire.
When I grew up in rural Canada in the late 1960s, every young boy I knew was a hunter. You couldn't help but become one because every adult male in the family pursued deer, moose or grouse. Even the local priest was a deer hunter. So it should come as no surprise that I, too, became a hunter.
Most of my hunting was for small game at first, but what I really wanted was to try duck hunting. Don't ask me why, but even today, waterfowling is my favorite sport.
All of the men in my family were hardcore deer hunters and crack shots with a rifle. Each autumn, they stalked whitetails along hardwood ridges and through cedar swamps dusted with snow. However, I wanted to be hunkered down in a cattail marsh with a couple dozen blocks fanned out in front of me.
My duck hunting ambitions had little hope because while I lived in perfect white-tailed deer country, the duck hunting opportunities were next to nil. To make things even more difficult, my gun choices amounted to a Cooey .22 rimfire single shot, and Dad's ancient Marlin lever-action in .32/40. That's all we had.
Surprise in a Box
Each fall, as duck season drew close, I would stand in front of the gun rack at the local hardware store to look at the choices. No one I knew had a double, pump or a semi-auto in 12-gauge. It was pointless to look because I could never come up with enough cash. Eventually, I bought a single-shot Stevens 16-gauge, and even killed a duck or two along the rocky streams that flowed through the forests. Not the stuff of Chesapeake Bay or Tabusintac Bay, but enough to get a taste. Those black ducks were sure good eating.
Now just as I thought it was hopeless, my dad's older brother showed up one Sunday. He and Dad hunted deer out of an old camp each fall. They tramped over hill and forest after mossy-horned bucks. My Uncle and I hunted together a good bit, too, and I often talked about how I wanted to own a real duck gun. He agreed that a 12-bore repeater would probably be the best medicine for ducks.
My uncle got out of his station wagon, shook hands with Dad and then turned to me.
"I have something for you to see," he said.
What could it be? For a moment, I thought he might have a book on waterfowling or a fishing rod for me. He opened the tailgate door and pulled out a long cardboard box.
"Can you do anything with this?"
I looked inside. The box contained crumpled newspaper and a couple small boxes with the tops taped shut. But what caught my eye was the shiny gun barrel and wooden stock peeking out of the newspaper.
I glanced at my uncle in disbelief. He told me the story: An acquaintance of his was duck hunting just around freezeup the previous November. A storm had blown in and he paddled out to pick up his decoys. As he turned his canoe, a wave came over the side and almost flipped him over. Before he could grab it, his duck gun went over the side. Gone. Fighting wind and waves, he barely made it to shore without capsizing. Shaking with cold, he got into his car and cranked up the heater as he drove home. The next summer, he returned with a buddy and a diving mask. It took a whole afternoon, but they found the shotgun barrel down in the muck in 9 feet of water.
The hunter disassembled the shotgun -- every screw, spring and tiny part. He soaked the gun's metal pieces in WD-40, and then spent hours removing rust and corrosion. The stock and forearm had to be stripped. He bought solvent and emery paper. He fashioned a wire brush to fit a drill and tried to clean the barrel, but eventually, he took it to a machine shop to get it bored out. The modified choke was opened to something between cylinder choke and improved/modified.
Finally, all of the parts were clean and ready to be reassembled. But putting the shotgun back together proved to be no small chore. After a few days of frustration, he gave up. By chance, he saw my uncle, who asked how the refit was going. The disgusted hunter told my uncle that if he knew of some fool with time on his hands, he could have the shotgun for free.
After hearing the gun's story, I didn't know whether to thank my uncle or question his sanity. A look from Dad quickly made that decision, so I politely thanked my uncle for the pump.
"What make is it?"
"I have no idea, but the former owner said it was a 12-gauge, 3-inch magnum," my uncle replied.
That was good, I guess.
After supper, I really studied the gun. It was a sorry sight. Everything -- and I mean everything -- was apart. I had never seen anything like it before. How was I ever going to get the thing assembled? And would it be safe to fire?
"Some gift!" I thought.
For a week, I asked my hunting pals for any information about assembling a pump gun. No one had ever shot one, let alone taken one apart. The local town didn't have a gun store, so it seemed I was on my own. I told Dad I figured it was beyond me.
"Don't give up," my father said. "Your uncle had faith in your gunsmith abilities, or he never would have given the gun to you."
I wasn't so sure.
I spread all of the parts on a white sheet and went to work. Some pieces quickly fit, while others made no sense whatsoever. I worked from largest to smallest, which proved smart because my early success kept me going as my later failures mounted. The bolt assembly foiled my every attempt and the ejection mechanism was a nightmare, too.
Finally, I asked Dad if he would take a look at it.
My dad had little formal schooling, but was blessed with natural mechanical aptitude. After supper one Saturday evening, he and I spread all of the parts out and went to work. Slowly, the gun took shape. We kept at it into the night. I don't recall how many times we took that darn gun apart and put it back together, but each time, we had fewer parts. Finally, at around 2 a.m., the parts box was empty and a 12-gauge Mossberg pump lay there on the sheet.
"Now what?" I asked Dad.
"Now, son, we fire it."
At noon the following Monday, I walked to our town's hardware store with three $1 bills in my pocket. I bought a couple light field loads, some 1¼-ounce, No. 5 loads and three SSG buckshot. I contemplated the 3-inch, No. 2 goose loads, but decided instead to buy 2¾-inch magnum, No. 4 shot. All of the shells were Imperial brand.
The rest of the school day dragged. Finally, I was on the bus home. Dad was climbing off the tractor when I arrived. He had built a shooting range for us. Out behind the woodshed, he had a placed a workbench with a tire sitting on it. I looked puzzled, until he explained. We would load the pump, tie it to the tire and, with a string attached to the trigger, trip her from the safety of the woodshed.
I chambered a 1¹â'„â‚'-ounce load of No. 7½ shot. We stepped behind the woodshed. Dad plugged his ears and I tripped her.
"Well, at least it shoots," I said.
We went over and untied the pump. I cycled the action and everything worked fine. We looked the gun over. No split barrel, and the action seemed OK. Heck, the whole gun seemed to have held together.
"Shall we go up in power?" I asked.
"Better to find out now than out in the field," Dad said.
I stuffed a 1¼-ounce No. 5 into the magazine. We stepped back to our safe position and jerked the string.
We carefully checked for any loose screws or signs of stress. Nothing. Next, the pump digested another birdshot and then an SSG load.
"I am going for broke and putting in a short magnum," I told Dad.
We made sure the ropes were good and tight.
This time, the report sounded different. But when we examined the gun, all seemed in order.
Working up my courage, I shouldered the gun and touched off an SSG. Other than knocking me off of my feet and bruising my shoulder, everything went fine.
Wow, I had a duck gun. A real duck gun!
I called my uncle after supper to tell him the news. I asked if he thought the owner would want it back, but he laughed and said, "No."
I went to bed that night the happiest boy in Canada.
Ugly But Deadly
For years, I shot that old pump gun. It knocked down ducks, geese, grouse and pretty much everything I ever pointed it at. The pump went through snow and rain with no complaint. I often meant to blue the metal and stain the wood, but never got around to it. I never loaded a single 3-inch magnum into the chamber, content with a 1½-ounce, No. 2 load for geese. Ah, the good old days of Imperial shells and lead pellets.
My pump never won any beauty contests, nor was it mistaken for someone else's gun. I would only smile when fellow hunters commented on its condition. Most people thought it was a joke when I got it out of the case. But the choke -- or lack of one -- made it deadly over decoys.
One of my favorite memories of that old pump is a miserable goose hunt in a freezing rainstorm. The blinds were filling with ice pellets and our camouflage crackled with frozen sleet. When the large Canada geese came into range, we fumbled out of our blinds half-frozen and tried to get on target. For some reason, I connected often that day. My hunting buddy tried to keep his new shotgun under cover while I had left mine lying beside me, open to the weather. I was able to get up and on target faster. The pump gun looked like a Popsicle by the end of the hunt. My friend and I finally decided to call it quits when the ice pellets changed to wet, heavy snowflakes.
After we loaded our gear in the truck, we tried to thaw out with the heater on high, teeth chattering. As he tried to wipe the moisture off of his new autoloader, my friend looked at the old, dirty pump I had rolled up in a blanket behind the seat.
"That is a real duck gun you have there," he said. "Never jammed once and hit most everything you fired at, too."
It's funny how one hunter's mishap brought me the best duck gun ever.
Cary Rideout of Carlow, New Brunswick, has hunted ducks and geese for decades.