First, Best Guns


We’ve talked in the past about how the gift of a “first gun” to a child can be a life-changing experience. That gift, with the right training to go with it, can instill a lifetime of responsibility, concern for wildlife, target shooting, collecting, reloading and teaching others the many joys of gun ownership.

When I was about five, we lived in Navy housing in Bainbridge, Maryland, and my dad was a dirt-poor enlisted sailor, with a wife, one kid (me) and another on the way. I remember we went to a “fire” sale at an old hardware store. Remember fire sales? I spotted a BB gun with a plastic buttstock bent into a gentle “C” by the heat. The price was $1.50 and may as well have been $100. We had no money and I remember my mom nodding “no” after I asked my dad and stood waiting for the family talk — and ultimate decision. It was a black day for that little kid.

We left, and once in the car there was a quick exchange between my parents in the front seat and my dad dashed back into the store. When he returned, he had the BB gun in his hand, and I remember watching the white price tag flicking in the wind as he ran back to the car through the snow. Once home there was much discussion about gun safety, never handling the gun unless my dad was there and yes, we would shoot it soon. A few days later, my dad bundled me up in a snowsuit and we went to a nearby woodlot. There, he stuck a rusty coffee can into a snow bank about ten feet away, the bottom toward us, but angled a bit. After going over the sights once again, he cocked it (it was too hard for me to do), helped me shoulder that funny, bent stock and then talked me through that first-ever shot.

“Ting …” the BB hit straight and true, leaving a tiny shiny dot on the can bottom. My dad took the little rifle out of my hands and stuck his hand out. “Great shot, my son!” As I shook it I realized something big had happened but I wasn’t quite sure what. But something had indeed changed, nonetheless, both in the eyes of my father and in my own five-year old life. About six years later, a .22 appeared at Christmas, courtesy of my grandparents. After carrying it unloaded for weeks, shooting it under my dad’s supervision at targets and some small game, I was anxious to carry it loaded and be a “real” hunter.

After arriving at our hunting area, my dad told me to load up. I did, thinking we were going to plink a bit prior to hunting the rabbits that were so plentiful in 1960s Australia where he was stationed at the time. After loading, I waited but watched my dad turn and start to walk down a trail. I didn’t know what to do as I had never been allowed to walk with a loaded rifle. He stopped, turning toward me, “Well, sling it and let’s go. Remember to be safe.” Then he turned and continued walking.

My head swam as I slung that rifle and took the first step after my dad. That step was my first step toward manhood and after that, I knew I wasn’t a kid anymore. My dad trusted me with a loaded rifle behind him as we walked down that trail, and that trust was something I could never possibly violate. As the years passed, that trust in me extended to other important areas too, and I felt the same about doing my best never to let him down and mostly kept my part of the bargain. And you don’t get that with a skateboard or a video game.

We’re talking about this now because I was visiting with some gun-owning friends not long ago. The subject of “first guns” came up, and I noticed something. All of these 50-plus year old gents lit-up like kids. Suddenly, stories of Daisy BB guns, single shot .22s and first hunts with fathers filled the air. The smiles were genuine, and we were all anxious to tell our own stories. And, maybe not surprisingly, the stories were almost all the same. A father or trusted close friend of the family mentoring a young fellow about shooting, a “first” rifle or shotgun and that first step toward manhood. The experience left a lifetime impression on all of us — and you too, I’ll bet — and frankly, I think we’re all better for the experience.

When my father came here to visit our property in Missouri for the first time some time ago, I shot that .22 rifle with him, on our own land. It’s the very rifle he trusted me to carry behind him 45 years ago. And it’s still my first, best gun.