For Edichka, who asked

Jack Lewis shoots his Grandpa's Rifle across a Ural Motorcycle at Boomershot in IdahoWhat is it that I like about guns? Nothing specific. Good gear is good gear.

It’s no more about the guns than dancing is about shoes, or dutiful service is about collecting ribbons on your blouse.

My dad inherited three rifles and four shotguns from his father. Grandpa was a longtime hunter and fisherman in California, Idaho and Oregon. Charles was a marvelous and reliable shot who hunted deer from horseback and neck-shot every deer he killed. One autumn day in his early 60s, his horse shifted underneath him as he fired, and he missed. Just by a little, and his chosen buck died a little slower than the one he hung in the barn the year before.

That’s the day Grandpa quit hunting deer. If he couldn’t meet his own exacting standards, he would not participate.

He held onto his rifle, though — not because he needed it, or could justify it on social value grounds, or any bullshit like that. It was just his deer rifle: carefully sourced, faithfully oiled, and still as effective as the day he ordered it special from old Hollis at the hardware store in LaGrande, Oregon.

My dad inherited most of Grandpa’s ranch armory, and added to it along the way. He also started mine: a lever action .30-30, a .22LR bolt action Winchester Model 1902, a Colt Woodsman. I hunted with my dad when I was a kid, and on my own later. Usually, I used Grandpa’s old deer rifle. Dad had spec’d his own ideal rifle by then, a long-action Remington 700BDL in .300 Winchester that he called his “Bacon Bringer Homer.” The day came when I got to add Grandpa’s rifle to my own collection, where it remains today.

It was a good thing, too. Dad hit a rough financial patch in the 90s and sold most of his guns, including the Model 50 shotguns with which he and his dad had shot ducks; the same guns I learned to shoot birds with. There’s a faded snapshot of Dad and me, standing over more than 20 birds (ducks, pheasants, sage hens, five geese and one unlucky chukar) in an Othello field, brandishing a pair of shotguns much older than me. Those shotguns are gone now, sold into other families to become parts of other people’s stories.

The rifle, though… I still have that. In his 30s, Charles apparently decided that one thing he could still do — even married and as a father, a businessman, a responsible rancher – was to hunt and hunt well. He couldn’t ride motorcycles anymore, or gig as a jazz drummer; those things got in the way of raising his family. Anyway, the tiny woman with the big feet who would someday become my Grandma was a Christian missionary who didn’t tolerate such nonsense. Charles couldn’t keep flying biplanes made from cardboard and wire for the Postal Service, either. He had a responsibility to live, and to prosper, and to keep his family.

He could express masculine excellence through hunting and shooting. You may roll your eyes at this; surely your version of masculine excellence differs from Grandpa’s. Maybe yours is somehow superior, but without a lot of cash on hand, Grandpa’s family ate high on the food chain. He had a good, field-dusted Stetson, reliable pack horses, and a little Willys pickup with compound low – the first four wheel-drive truck ever seen in McCall, Idaho that wasn’t painted in Forest Service mint green.

And That Rifle. Searching the serial number registry, I learned that Grandpa’s gun was built at Winchester’s New Haven works in 1948 as a field grade Model 70. It’s chambered in .30-06, the most powerful round that was generally available at the time. It is, in fact, a “weapon of war” in that the ’06 chambering was developed for killing America’s enemies with overwhelming force. Grandpa favored 180-grain Winchester X Silvertips for big game hunting. I still buy those today.

Those cartridges are so much more powerful than what our President now calls “weapons of war that don’t belong on America’s streets” that it can be used to kill any large game animal found in North America, including grizzly bears, with a single, well-placed shot. The “assault rifles” so widely feared today, on the other hand, are barely potent enough to be legal for hunting mule deer in most states.

Grandpa’s beat up old rifle with its plain walnut stock, in fact, is functionally identical to Carlos “White Feather” Hathcock’s Model 70, the rifle which killed more Viet Cong than any other individual small arm in that grim and sweaty conflict. So that’s what I have, waiting in my gun safe: a terrifying weapon of war. If you wanted to climb a water tower and create a vortex of mayhem and human suffering, I’d have to recommend my old deer gun over any high-speed ninja long-mag Armalite clone currently offered at Discount Gun Supply.

When I was still a kid, Dad unbolted the original Lyman Alaskan post-and-crosshair scope (inferior to Hathcock’s optical), and had a gunsmith install a Leupold Gold Ring Vari-X 3-9.5X scope. The “Leup” came with a lifetime guarantee. It’s been on there about 40 years now, still clear as an airport beacon on a starlit night and a far better optic than Hathcock ran on his best day. That doesn’t make me a better shot than the most feared sniper our Marine Corps ever produced, but it does help me find some of the potential in Grandpa’s rifle… as much as I’m good for, anyway.

A couple of years back, we schlepped that rifle out to Boomershoot, a long range shooting event in Idaho, where it acquitted itself better than some of the expensive new gear displayed along the firing line. To wit, Grandpa’s old deerslayer reliably rang the gong at 760 yards. I’d known for a long time that it would shoot nickel groups (i.e. punch three holes close enough together to cover with a nickel) at 150 yards, but I hadn’t known it would do that.

See “terrifying weapon of war,” above.

Some people write computer code. I don’t understand how anyone could sit all day and contemplate thousands of lines of inhuman gibberish, but they seem to think it’s cool. I’ve nothing against this. My spouse does it, and does it very well; I don’t have to get it to tolerate it. I can enjoy her pleasure in a thing which escapes me.

Some people build dollhouse furniture with tiny, meticulous joints. Some paint, practice yoga, lift weights, garden, or ride long distances (this, I’m given to understand, is “not about the bike”). Few of these arts are practiced primarily for professional reward. They are undertaken in search of a sense of mastery, to feel a human connection to the universal energy. To make a spot. Right. THERE – if you can. Hold it, feel it, release it.


I’m not a soldier anymore, nor will I be again. I don’t shoot much, and almost never hunt – but every year I think about it, and maybe this fall I’ll bring home some meat that didn’t die in a slaughterhouse.

It’s not about killing. It’s not about dominance. It’s not even about the gun.

It’s about looking into my gun safe and seeing my father, and my father’s father, and so on back across the lifetimes of straitly pursued, occasionally touched, brightly numinous mastery.

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  1. Paula Milburn says

    Brilliant read as normal… and I got thru it without needing Kleenex for once!! LOL 😉

  2. john lowry says

    That puts a fine point on it. For me there is nothing like a fine gun that will reliably shoot a really long way, these shots are not for everyone and so they are for me.

  3. Rich Kirkpatrick says

    Sir, We’ve never met, although you are acquainted with my son, “the fishmonger”. He inherited my fathers firearms and I hope his children will inherit mine. A tradition some may not agree with ,but one immensely important to my family. Thanx for helping others understand.

  4. Rob Fulwell says

    Very nice writing. I’m once again very impressed.

    Small note — software programs (the source code files, as composed by the engineer) are written for humans, not machines. The machine consumes ones and zeros and cares not for the provenance of such. People write the source code such that people (perhaps the composer) can later consume it when changes are made.

  5. Michael Scott says

    Another story from the heart, well done. I have some guns from both my grandfathers as well as some pictures of them using them. As you said: good gear is good gear, I have sought the old war horse Mausers, Swedes, 1895 Chileno, GEW98. Most are battered with cosmoline soaked clubs for stocks. But they shoot better than me. I will pass my Mausers on to the next generation and hopefully keep the tradition alive. See you by the campfire.

  6. Bob J Taylor says

    Small point, I know, but Chuck Mawhinney surpassed Hatchcock in that conflict
    Oregon boy too.

  7. Wayne Elston says

    Yet another finely written piece Jack. Having just carried home the guns from my Fathers estate, I can truly understand many of the feelings you espouse here, as these are things I was thinking of as I traveled with those guns, bringing them to my home. Where, as you I have not hunted much of late. But I have and I could again. And the feeling that those guns are now with me is a damn good thing. You keep on being you Jack.

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