Like most hunters, I grew up shooting hand-me-down rifles. Some of these guns had been handed down so many times that it was no longer clear where they originally came from. My first .22 was a Remington bolt-action that my dad bought from a guy who’d picked it up at a sale when a nearby summer camp discontinued its marksmanship program. From there, the rifle served a stint as my older brother Matt’s first .22, and then it took a turn as my older brother Danny’s first .22. By the time it came to me when I was 10 years old, my dad had realized that I had a dominant left eye. He made me learn how to shoot the right-handed rifle using left-handed form. He explained that the 30-06 he intended to give me was right-handed, too, so I might as well get used to it.
Thus began years of shooting rifles that weren’t necessarily suited for me. I hunted with that same old 30-06 for the next decade. When I finally did upgrade, it was because my dad passed away and willed to me yet another right-handed bolt-action 30-06. This one had a thin, whippy barrel that tended to overheat after just a couple rounds. But if my previous experiences with firearms had taught me one thing, it’s that shooters can’t always be choosers. Put another way, I always just figured that rifles find you—you don’t find rifles. You get what you get.
This philosophy stayed with me even more tenaciously than hand-me-down guns. Even when I finally purchased a rifle on my own, I still let fate guide my decisions. I went to the local gun dealer and perused the racks of used rifles, paying more attention to the price tags than the makes and models. In the end, I walked out with the rifle that most closely matched the amount of money that was in my pocket. I didn’t ask a single question, or even explain to the dealer what I might be looking for. Only later did I realize that some previous owner had allowed the rifling to become pitted. It was hardly usable.
Of course I would hear guys talk about custom rifles, but this subject seemed about as applicable to my life as the subject of pedicures. It just seemed like something that had to do with other people, people I didn’t know. I may have gone on thinking like this forever if I hadn’t one day found myself talking with a custom riflemaker from South Carolina. He was asking what I’d like in a gun, and I started explaining the perfect rifle in the same dreamy and unrealistic way that you’d describe the perfect day’s weather. That is, it was something that I’d like to see, even though it was probably impossible. It would be coated with a substance that could handle the most brutal weather, I said, even a little saltwater exposure now and then; it would have a nice, heavy barrel, but not too heavy; it wouldn’t have any shiny parts that threw glare; it would be chambered in an all-purpose caliber that could shoot flat, something that would be appropriate for everything from antelope up to elk; it would be ugly, but the kind of ugly that’s actually beautiful; it’d have a light trigger pull and for God’s sake, it would be left-handed.
Oh, and one last thing: It would shoot like a laser.
I more or less forgot about this conversation, until one day David sent me a breakdown of how his company, Carolina Custom Rifles, could build me a rifle that would fit my exact specifications. We talked it through, and in a moment of feverish optimism, I placed my order for a 7 mm Rem. Mag. with a fluted barrel, a synthetic stock and a Teflon coating.
When the gun was ready a few months later, I drove several hundred miles to pick it up. I fretted and worried the whole way there. It reminded me of how I felt when my wife was pregnant, how I selfishly wanted my boy to turn into a good, respectable kid for the simple reason that it would reflect well on me. If this gun didn’t turn out, I worried, I wouldn’t have anyone to blame but myself. After all, I’d explained specifically what I wanted. In a way, I actually started to miss those days when I could blame my firearm problems on whoever it was that decided to buy the thing in the first place.
The similarities to parenting did not end when I saw the gun. I plucked that thing off the rack with all the pride of a new father—ignoring the fact that someone else had actually done all the work. Then I promptly took it to the range and had the bizarre experience of firing a rifle that was meant to be fired by me. It felt somehow familiar. The stock fit my shoulder and arm. The trigger fit my finger. And, for crying out loud, the bolt was on the left side of gun. I sat down and shot a tighter box of rounds than I’d ever shot in my life. I’m sure the mechanics and specifications of the rifle had a lot to with that. But so did the fact that I, for once, had a keen sense of ownership over my hunting rifle. It was like the difference between trying to cook in someone else’s kitchen and cooking in your own. I knew right where everything was.
Since then, I’ve taken that rifle on a bunch of successful hunts, for black bears and deer and even mountain goats. Things have gone extremely smoothly. You pull the trigger, it goes bang, the critter falls. Along the way, the rifle has absorbed a few nicks and dings and scratches. But instead of looking at these imperfections and wondering about some bygone person’s carelessness, I look at them and remember my own slips and falls. It’s almost like the rifle is a diary that’s never been written on or even read by anyone but me. We’re engaged in a private relationship, which is refreshing. Right now I can’t say how long I’ll keep this thing. I’ll at least hunt with it for the next decade, until my baby boy grows old enough to chase big game. It’s already obvious that he’s right handed. I can’t wait to hand him this lefty’s hand-me-down and tell him to get used to it.
What is your favorite hunting rifle and why? Tell us your story in the comments.