Those of us of a certain age are generally convinced of the imminent decline and fall of western civilization. When we embark on a subject that includes “classic guns” in the title, it can be comfortably assumed we’re referring to guns of a certain age—perhaps Alexander Henrys, Holland & Holland doubles, 19th-century Winchesters, single-action Colt M1873s or 1896 Mauser pistols. Nothing that intrudes much into the 20th century need apply here, but honesty requires us to note that ever since people wrote their fears of the future in cunieform on clay tablets, the presiding generation has bemoaned the failings of the generation coming on. Egyptians filled papyri with laments about their children, and Romans wrung their hands over the follies of their youth. So it behooves us to judge today and tomorrow with some delicacy, keeping in mind that each generation somehow has managed to stagger through its own segment of history generally feeling neither worse nor better about it than the preceding generation did about their own.
Those of us of a certain age often do lean toward older guns made—or at least finished—by skilled artificers. We usually haven’t arrived there without passing through other phases involving newer, supposedly more practical arms, especially if we’ve been hunters. Beginning in the 1950s, the siren song of high velocity called out to many of us, leading us into modernity and flat trajectories and heated arguments about the virtues of velocity versus bullet weight. I lived through all of that, happily replacing my .22LR with a Model 722 Remington in .222, which I then had rechambered to .222 Magnum by Griffin & Howe in New York. I exchanged my Model 94 .30-30 Winchester for a .243 Sako Forester. My first centerfire handgun was a Model 39 Smith & Wesson double-action semiauto that was cutting edge at the time, and I had a lovely .338 Winchester Magnum custom made for some future Alaskan adventure. But I also must admit I’d been shooting a paper-cartridge 1861 Sharps and a very early Navy Arms replica of an 1851 Colt. Plus, I hunted jackrabbits with an 1873 Winchester in .38-40 and an 1888 Commission Rifle cavalry carbine in the original 7.92J chambering. But once the velocity bug bit, I was infected and didn’t look back for years.
Growing up in southern Arizona’s Sonoran Desert had its effect. In the 1950s the desert was a shooter’s paradise. Most of it was owned by either the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service or the state of Arizona. Human inhabitants were limited to a handful of ranchers who generally owned only a few acres around their houses and leased the rest of their grazing land from one government entity or the other. Hunters and plinkers could come and go as they pleased. The desert was strewn with old, abandoned cars. The dry air preserved them, and we regarded them as admirable targets. Bonnie and Clyde’s Ford was not shot up nearly as badly as many of these old derelicts. We were equal-opportunity car shooters. We found that .32 ACPs, despite their poor reputation, would penetrate car bodies easily, as would 9 millimeters, but .38 Specials often would not. We shot the old cars with everything from .22LRs to .55 Boyes and 20mm Solothurn antitank rifles, to say nothing of the odd M2 fully-automatic carbine.
In those days we could go out into the desert and plink or hunt or whatever and not worry about other people. The desert was vast, and almost no one was in it. Much of Jack O’Connor’s early writing focused on the desert. In the years before I was born, he lived in Tucson and ranged the desert in search of jackrabbits and mule deer and whitetails. I devoured his desert hunting stories and worked hard—as had he—to hone my skills on running jacks. O’Connor wrote that if you could hit a sprinting jackrabbit, you certainly could hit a much bigger deer. I took to carrying—as had he—a Model 99 .250 Savage with a Weaver K-4 scope, and I found—as had he—that such a combination served admirably in the desert. For whitetails high in the mountains, I toted a .270 Model 70 Winchester, also with a K-4 scope. Growing up in southern Arizona, it was easy to see why O’Connor chose those rifles and those calibers for his desert and mountain hunting. The .250 Savage and the .270 Winchester are perfect for those habitats. Hunting was hard there, as was the country. The shots were long, and deer were never numerous. (They still aren’t.)
Now it’s a different story nearly everywhere. Since I was born in 1943, the population of the U.S. has more than doubled. Closely supervised ranges provide the only places where many of us can go to shoot without mounting a major expedition. Plinking grounds are hard to find, and hunting is changing as our increasing population puts more hunters onto the same number of square miles of public land. At the same time deer populations have exploded over much of the U.S. More deer browse the forest edges and suburbs today than have ever existed before. In many states hunters aren’t allowed to shoot a buck until they have taken one or even several does. Black-powder and archery seasons make it possible for hunters to take a half-dozen deer or more a year. Hunters mostly don’t still hunt any more. They sit in tree stands carefully located with the use of critter cameras and feeding stations and let the deer come to them. In the mountain west and southern bean fields, many deer hunters scorn anything less than a .300 Winchester or a 7mm Remington Magnum and dream, not of stealthily approaching their prey, but rather of making shots at ranges of 500 yards or more.
For me at least, all these factors have led to changes in my shooting interests. A lifetime of shooting, hunting, reloading and reading on guns has created firm opinions. I’ve become a gun and cartridge snob, and, as with all other forms of discrimination, reason has no part in my choices. I’ll get into those more in the future, but I should warn you now, good reader, that nothing you can say will change my mind. So don’t waste your key strokes trying to talk sense into my head. It won’t work.
As I’ve aged, I’ve found that in addition to becoming a cartridge curmudgeon, I can no longer scramble up 2,000 feet before dawn to a 5,000-foot ridge overlooking brushy drainages into which desert whitetails will climb to lie up during the day. My desert hunting has to be slow and to a considerable extent restricted to lower altitudes. This means scrubbier, brushier country and shorter shots than the old cross-canyon reaches, and that opens up new choices of rifles and cartridges, even handguns. At the same time that hunting and plinking have changed, so have the younger set’s tastes in guns and calibers. Any gun store owner will tell you that few young people today come in to look for a Colt Officers Model Target .38 Special or a pre-1964 Model 70. They’re interested in “black rifles”—the AR clones—generally in .223 or 5.56x45mm. In handguns, they’re looking for black, polymer-framed pistols holding many rounds in double-stacked magazines. Such rifles and handguns outsell “conventional” hunting rifles and revolvers many times over. Younger buyers are fascinated with “sniper” rifles and scopes of ever-larger magnification and objective and tube diameters as they contemplate shooting whatever at hitherto unthinkable ranges. They may or may not be interested in hunting.
Unlike some, I don’t regard these newer guns with disdain nor do I think their buyers are the harbingers of doom. I like progress if it really is progress and not just change for its own sake. These guns are the latest in the long evolution of more effective and efficient firearms. After all, it’s been more than 100 years since semiauto arms were first offered to the public, and in that time millions upon millions have been sold. What part these modern arms will play in the realms of hunting and self-defense remains to be seen. However, we can rest assured they are here to stay. I have to say, though, that they don’t attract me. Not at all. I’m simply not interested in them. I’ve tried them in many guises. I admire their suitability for their purposes, but they don’t make my heart go pitter-patter. No, it’s single shots that make my heart soar, and some time I’ll tell you how my first real gun—a Mossberg Model 152 semiauto .22LR given to me on my eighth Christmas—led to my passion for single shots.
In the meantime, let us leave it that we don’t hate AR clones or other modern guns nor do we consider that they will lead to the fall of the world as we know it. On the other hand, we can be confident that we are really right in our choice of the fine, the old, the well-made. Let us just say—as does one of Joseph Conrad’s characters as he sits with his friends before the fire—“Ah, youth. Pass the bottle, will you,” and talk into the night of Triple-Locks and decrepit 1886 Winchesters lovingly restored to perfection by Doug Turnbull and bergstutzens Heym and rook & rabbit rifles and Alex Henrys and single-action revolvers and, of course, classic double rifles.