This story is about appreciation for a specific kind of shotgun that is operated by manual labor of pulling a sliding forearm to eject the spent shell and pushing to chamber a fresh round. These are called “pumps” for obvious reasons. My particular models are Remington 870s; a design introduced in 1950. Frightening to some, thrilling to others, the company has produced over 10 million of these popular firearms mostly for hunting but also for law enforcement, self defense, bear defense, and even military use. We will get to the guns shortly but here I start with a short music story that sets the stage for the class conundrum of these shotguns;
I have played at the 5-string banjo, for 47 years now and though sub-pro, I am adept. My local band went for brunch the morning after a previous night’s gig and since the instruments were in the trunk, we decided to busk on the street for a bit. We sounded good enough that passersby dropped coins and bills into the open fiddle case. Then, a tired-looking, roughly-dressed person with a beaten guitar on his back stopped to listen. Between songs and without malice he said “You guys is pretty good, but I’m lookin’ at about $12,000 worth of instruments in your hands . . . do you really need to be buskin’ here where I am tryin’ to make a livin’?” Well, he was right and it was a lightly shameful moment. We kept playing but we closed the tip case. Point taken.
On guns — I think back to my grad school days working part time for a famous hunting club– a hoary old club from the 1930’s on the edge of Utah’s Bear River Wildlife Refuge. I was guiding their members on weekends and non-class days during the week and the membership was all rich, largely conservative, and mostly Californian. I remember guiding the owner and namesake of a national insurance company whose ancestors were immortalized for their grandiose signing of the US Declaration of Independence; and a principle namesake of “a little outdoor products company” like the Coleman cooler I was sitting on when he introduced himself. Then there were the really rich hunters from Silicon Valley and the dot.com era! I was a college kid and slightly awed by the displays of wealth in the limo and helicopter arrivals, tricked out hunting vehicles and the guns . . . the gold encrusted SXS and OUs in their own leather cases. We had to double wrap the cases in sealed plastic bags before transporting them to the blinds. We splashed across the marsh in custom-built long-tail mud boats (like something out of the Po delta) and everything got sprayed, rained or snowed upon.
This rich delta marsh welcomes sparkling fresh water of drinking quality flowing off the mountain snowpack all around (were it not for the Mormon influence, Coors could have located there) only to mix with the stagnant brines (2 x seawater salinity) of the Great Salt Lake. I had a great dog but she still shook occasionally. This, along with the splashing boat, and the salt crystals forming on the blind vegetation, made a hunting environment where I would NOT want an expensive gun. My only scatter-gun was a durable 870 and though I pre-oiled it, I never got out of there without rust spots forming on the barrel before the hunt was over. Well, actually, I did succeed in preventing that with a liberal coating of chain grease from my motorcycle but that was just too damned messy.
The guides’ first duty upon returning to the club house was to clean the client’s firearms in the special gun cleaning room, a wood-paneled alcove with padded benches smelling of oil-soaked wood and Hoppes #9 solvent. Fortunately, there were other minions to pluck, draw, package and hang the ducks. Sitting around that small cleaning room while oiling and wiping those $20,000 guns was also a chance for the guides to recount the funny stuff that had happened during the morning. It was there that I learned a few of the clients were exceptional shots; deeply experienced, shooting-school trained. Probably 20% of them. The others? Occasional hunters and opportunists who did not effectively wield their weapons. Indeed, gun safety for the health of dog and guide was always a concern. They were more in it for the association with other wealthy people, all male exclusivity, and maybe they sucked at golf.
In hindsight, we were playing a servile role as the clients were returning from their showers wearing their starched shirts and soft leather shoes. We were the working “other”. They were starting in with clinking glasses of Scotch and bourbon as the smells of a gourmet lunch in preparation were wafting in. Guides were expected to clean, gas, lube and prep boats for the next morning then clear out by 1:30 PM to leave the clients some private time to do whatever they chose.
The marsh was always left to settle for the evening as public shooting grounds in the surrounding region spooked birds into the 5,000 acre club holdings where we would shoot the next morning. The afternoon and evenings were also the time for members to drink, gamble (guides heard about this the next day), talk politics, and in an earlier era, there were “professional” women of the night delivered to the remote club house. Those days had passed before I started though. Given that this era pre-dated Viagra and the typical hunter age ranged from 65 to 90, that womanizing phase probably petered out of its own accord if you know what I mean.
In the blind I got to watch closely how much better a $20,000 gun in the hands of a well-heeled gunner could kill birds than my Remington 870 that cost me $175 new back in 1980. The shot some hunters were using seemed to love those expensive barrels and didn’t want to leave the Perazzi, LC Smith or Holland and Holland tubes. Sometimes it was as if they shot and nothing came out . . . no birds fell. Were they shooting blanks? A gun like that should slay birds with aplomb. It should even kill birds that didn’t have a plomb! I generally offered to “back them up” or if requested, to help them complete their limits. Once I was sent afield with a walkie talkie to give a blow by blow detail of the birds I shot back to my client who was prone in a 40-foot motorhome with his nurse in attendance. Hunting by proxy! Some wanted to shoot my limit too. That was fine with me, I was in it for the money as surely as the earlier club hookers! It was understood that guides never mentioned any of this to the other hunters and even in the cleaning room it was spoken of in undertones. If you wanted a decent tip, no balls were cut off, ever. My pride wouldn’t let me fluff and bolster by lying or gushing over the prowess of a poor shooter’s non-performance. However, I was perfectly capable of recounting the flocks of a thousand Dunlins that settled in the decoys, the Tundra Swans that strafed us to heart failure, a particularly nice retrieve, how quickly our limits were achieved, or what good eating those Pintails would be. Not virtuous, just pig-headed and disdainful of overt deception.
So, not to wallow in the false modesty of me being the “noble everyman” because today, I too could afford a $5,000 shotgun, but my early imprinting against braggadocio and unthinking materialism lingers. The contrast between the guide’s guns and the client’s guns were somewhat symbolic of a class division that spilled over into personal, not financial, worth. As a stipend-bound student, I was in the lower class. Maybe I reacted a little too severely for my own good but thereafter, I vowed to select my arms based on function and not appearance.
Furthermore, nowadays, it would feel like trading in a beloved 870 life partner that I KNOW kills ducks and geese for the show, status, and appearances of a nicer looking partner of questionable behavior. In my childhood, when guns were kept on open display, gun art may have worked all year and elicited stories the same way a mounted fish or art print does. With today’s requirement to keep firearms hidden in a locked safe, the artistry becomes a liability if it is exposed to damage and depreciation through use. Furthermore, I am not a gun fondler; guns are just a tool to me. Not a symbol, a defense security, not a deliberate reflection of who I want to be, nor are they an investment since I use them or give them away. They are merely expensive shovels to be used to unearth the more important treasures of the hunt.
Sure, I might be able to re-learn a new shotgun and my average bag may go up (or down!) 20% but limits are not hard to come by in Alberta and we laugh at misses as heartily as the clean kills. Change in muscle memory is also hard. For example, I inherited a beautiful Browning Citori Lightning from my dad. Couldn’t hit shit with it. Gave it to my brother. I went to Argentina on a high-volume dove missing expedition with a gas-powered Bennelli whose stock did not fit me well. How I missed the familiarity of my 870s!
So I am getting older (64) and less adroit at snap-shooting. The heavy 870 with recoil pad, vent rib, shoulder strap and 3” chambers isn’t the best gun for a 5-mile grouse march through dense cover. I always seemed a little tired and late on the surprise flushes, thereby giving up that first critical ½ second. Then, just in my hour of need, a neighbor down the street, a retired professor, walked up to our backyard fire circle and offered “Lee, you want some guns? I’ll never use them again.” Uhhh . . . yeah! A beater .22, a neat .35 caliber Remington pump rifle but the gem was a 1957-era. Model 870 chambered in 16 gauge. No recoil pad, no vent rib, 2 ¾ inch chambers and pristine having only been fired a dozen times. It is the identical layout, shouldering and minituraized dimensionality as the 12-gauge but lighter, faster, choked modified, has a slightly higher timbre of clatter upon shucking, and produces less recoil.
I actually have a higher pheasant, snipe, teal, Hun ratio with that gun than the 12-gauge. It kills 12 lb Canadas just fine but I try to show a little restraint on distance, thus, I shoot one pellet size smaller on each load and I think I swing it better and get more head and neck shots with my leads. A few years back my friends, not understanding my dogged 870 loyalty, pitched in and bought me a gas-operated Winchester 12-gauge that I occasionally use on goose-only, two + box days where I don’t have to carry it extensively. I also keep an old A-5 Browning 12-gauge Mag that my duck hunting brother shoots well when he visits.
In a slightly hypocritical turn, I did go to Cuba and hired guides to put us on snipe. Everything is relative and here, I was the wealthy upper class hunter. At least I was keenly aware of it, compensated them fairly, shared meals, helped with menial tasks to the extent I was not supplanting their jobs and emphasized curiosity, sharing and dignity. I still shot the 870 though.
I probably do what some of you would call “gun abuse” in that I almost never clean my dry firearms. I take the non-corrosive cartridge advertisements at their word and if the weapons gets salty or muddy, I will wipe them down. Otherwise, they just go back in the vault with no apparent ill effects. Every few years I oil them but Alberta is dry county and up here, congealed oil probably causes more cold weather problems than rust. That has been my 30-year mantra and I am sticking with it. Now if that was a $5,000 shotgun, I would have had some worries about its value, finish, functionality, re-sale, appearance and equipment abuse from my hunting buddies. The 870 is the right gun for me and if I wear it out or shoot it into inoperability, then I will get the non-functional parts replaced. This F-150 of shotguns, but it is durable, functional, easily repaired, and comfy as an old pair of slippers.