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Life Lessons

Life Lessons
A Skinny Teen’s Dragoon Partnership.

I remember it clearly even today some 35 years later. I pedaled my bike madly through town headed toward the elderly Otasco hardware store, 50 bucks in ones actively smoldering in the pocket of my shorts. The money represented the spoils of an entire torrid Mississippi summer spent sweating behind a lawn mower.

I walked into the store trying with a modest modicum of success to control my rampaging heartbeat. Mom and Dad didn’t know I was there. I hoped they would approve but that wasn’t honestly my premiere motivation this day.

It was arrayed in pieces, and packaged in a Styrofoam box with cutouts sealed in plastic wrap. It cost $45. It was the only one of several variations on the shelf within my price range. On the way home I remember trying not to stare at it while I rode, somewhat akin to texting among Neanderthals I suppose. When I got to the house I ran back to my room, tore open the plastic, laying the parts out in an orderly fashion across my bed. At 13, I had just purchased my first handgun.

Despite liberal machine marks and coarse manufacture, this inexpensive pistol has yielded countless hours of real-world service on walks through swampy places in my youth. It has served ably as companion, mentor, protector and cheerleader through dozens of adventures.

Each chamber loads separately and the final rounds are seated using the case-hardened rammer.
This old pistol has launched quite a few projectiles Samuel Colt never could have imagined.

A Closet Workshop

The gun in question — and in my mind it was a sinister machine indeed — was an Italian-made replica of a Colt Dragoon .44 cap-and-ball revolver in kit form. The stocks were unfinished blocks. The brass frame was an ugly rough casting with lots of nasty flash. The steel was finished and blued but sported liberal machine marks. I hadn’t a clue how to load it.

I finished everything by hand. There were no instructions. It took countless hours in the utility closet serving as my workspace, manning my Dad’s hand files and scraps of sandpaper. I finished the stocks with some tung oil and a rag. The final result would not have passed muster for the most irresponsible tribal Pakistani gun-bodging hack. But for me, it was the bee’s knees.

I was now packing heat.

I carried it in a World War II-era GI-issue shoulder holster originally dimensioned for a 1911. It didn’t fit worth a dang but it rode fairly comfortably and, in my mind at least, made me look cooler than John Wayne headlining at a cowboy convention. I did eventually learn how to load it. At the time, the Internet was little more than a gleam in Al Gore’s eye, so I started at the local library.

It turned out my parents didn’t mind. Dad was a hunter and had little use for handguns, but I was a good kid who studiously avoided trouble and they trusted me right up until I gave them reason not to. I have tried to apply the same principles to my own parenting efforts.

I learned so much from that gun. I never left a loaded cylinder under the hammer. I blew milk jugs up like hand grenades, and came to respect the power of even a modest firearm. As a result, to this day, when I’m moving, talking and carrying a gun, the muzzle hovers around with a mind of its own — always pointing in a safe direction. It no longer requires conscious thought.

Caps are loaded one at a time from the right. Fired percussion caps will frequently lodge in the action, but put enough horsepower behind the hammer and the action will typically still work fine. Left: The brass components were finished by hand with files, sandpaper and steel wool. The resulting finish is an accurate reflection of the gun’s age and mileage.

Life Lessons

I got skimpy with my lube one time and chain-fired five cylinders at once. That taught me to invest whatever it took to do it right when it was really important. As a result, out of a sea of guns in the personal collection today, what I carry to defend my family is expensive and loaded with the best ammunition money can buy.

I shot quite a lot of stuff out of that pistol that Samuel Colt never envisioned. Lead balls were spendy; so, improvised cardboard shot cups charged with BBs kept me company in swampy places. I killed a poisonous snake or three, and came to appreciate the utility of a good handgun. Without a gun I would have to run when I tripped over a water moccasin in the woods. With iron filling my hand the playing field was level, even for a skinny awkward teenager. I think there is a message buried there somewhere, something timeless and philosophical perhaps.

When you thumb the hammer back slowly there are four distinct clicks. The inimitable sound resulting when this is done quickly made Clint Eastwood what he is today.

Now this is hard to believe. I carried that gun to high school football games charged with loads of toilet paper. I sat in the student section and fired it into the air when the team scored. As the cliché goes: the crowd went wild. There is an innate and unfathomable sorrow associated with the death of innocence. Once lost, it can never again be regained. We live in such different times nowadays.

While certainly not used for its intended purpose, this improvised carry rig was surprisingly
comfortable and effective. The broad shoulder strap made for comfortable carry yet still allowed
for a draw sufficiently quick to end the careers of any number of poisonous snakes back in the day.

Young Will, just before he got his trusty Dragoon. Hunting and shooting
were an integral part of Will’s life lessons.

Another Planet

I have grownup kids myself now and they have their own guns spawned from the toil of their hands. My boys and I have run a fair number of balls through my old Navy off the back porch of my rural home. The black-powder smoke sometimes gets thick enough to elicit an objection from my long-suffering bride as she cooks dinner inside. It still shoots straight, takes forever to load and even longer to clean, yet carries with it a general ambience hearkening to an entirely different epoch. The world has changed so much since I rode my bike to Otasco that day so many years ago, it might as well have been on a different planet.
Today I still have that gun. When all the others are gone that will be the one they pry from my cold, dead … well, you know the rest. That pistol is as much a part of my life as my birth certificate. It refined and defined me. God and my parents made me human. That gun helped make me a man.
By Will Dabbs, MD
Photos By Sarah Dabbs

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