Uncle Jim’s Gun

As the woodcock busted from the thick cover on a ridge next to the stream valley the little Winchester Model 42 .410 came to my shoulder, leveled on the bird, and I pulled the trigger. It fell to the ground as hoped. Another woodcock on the ground. What’s the big deal? Because it was killed with Uncle Jim’s gun.

Many of my generation grew up with a father, uncle, or grandfather who took us hunting. For me that was Uncle Jim. And like many lifelong hunters we still have a gun or guns handed down from that hunting mentor to remind us of those times. For me, that is Uncle Jim’s gun.

I got my first shotgun for Christmas when I was ten years old, a J.C. Higgins single barrel shotgun. After learning the safety rules and some practice shooting, my first hunting experience was with Uncle Jim. Technically he wasn’t my uncle, but great-uncle, on my mother’s side. Uncle Jim was in the Air Force in 1963 and they were home on leave from Germany that Christmas.

Two days after Christmas we went to another great-uncle’s farm to hunt. We woke up the first morning to about one foot of snow on the ground, unusual for Alabama. So all we had to do was hunt. The gun he carried that trip was this Winchester Model 42 .410. That is the gun I have. During that trip I saw him shoot rabbits and squirrels with it.

But that was only the beginning of our hunting history. When he retired a few years later they moved back to the area and he became my hunting mentor. Uncle Jim was a small game hunter. He not only enjoyed it, but also did it for the meat. He had other guns he used for quail and dove, a 20 and 12 gauge, but the Model 42 was his “go to” gun to put meat on the table. We spent many a morning hunting oak and hickory stands for squirrel and field edges for rabbit. That .410 was deadly in his hands.

Most of those hunts have faded from memory except one. We were squirrel hunting an oak bottom behind his house one winter morning. He had a little feist dog that hunted with us. We were approaching some undergrowth and Sarah starting yipping. Uncle Jim said, “I’ve never heard her do that. Go around the other side.” A few seconds later my young ears heard an unusual flapping sound, the bark of the little .410 and a thud as something hit the ground. Uncle Jim’s deep guttural laugh was followed by, “Come here boy.” There on the ground laid a turkey. He killed a turkey on the fly with a .410 shotgun!

After college I went into the Army, we didn’t get to hunt together much, an occasional dove shoot, and time passed. Then in 1985 we returned from Korea at Christmas and went to visit him. He had aged and was no longer able to hunt. I’m guessing the gun had similar meaning to him as it does to me. He called me down to the basement where he kept all of his hunting gear and said, “Don, I don’t hunt any more. I want you to have this gun.” He handed me the Model 42. By this time the bluing was worn and the stock showed its age.

When I got to Fort Bragg a friend recommended a local gunsmith who spent meticulous time restoring it as closely as he could to original condition. A couple of years later my mother called to tell me they had found Uncle Jim dead in his recliner looking out on that same oak bottom we hunted. I like to imagine he was thinking of our hunting there when he passed.

I’ve not shot the gun much since then; an occasional clay target and maybe take it out for squirrel once or twice a year. I had taken it on a grouse hunt to New Hampshire in hope to bag a grouse or woodcock with it. No such luck. Then on a recent woodcock hunt in North Carolina with my son the chance came up and I took it.

Every time I heft the little Model 42, feel its weight, and slide shells into the magazine I see Uncle Jim looking up into an oak tree on a cold November morning and here that deep laugh at a young boy stretching his hunting wings. Uncle Jim’s gun will be in my son’s hand some day and I hope he remembers that North Carolina woodcock. Hunting isn’t just about the kill, but also the lasting memories.

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