I remember as a kid, reading all my favorite writers in the gun and hunting magazines and thinking that it must be the best job on earth. Traveling the world, hunting exotic critters, being the first to shoot all the new guns, living like a rock star: It’s gotta be a life of glamour and adventure, right? Yeah, right.
Anytime somebody starts spouting off about how we writers get special treatment, “just like royalty,” I tell them these stories.
The Glamour of Testing New Guns
We were deep into the Big Bend area of Texas, south of Marfa, in some wild and wonderful country. Our camp was an old abandoned ranch so far off the road it was the place they meant when they first said, “You can’t get there from here.”
We slept in the horse barn and ate greasy, delicious Tex-Mex food in the dilapidated kitchen in the main house. At night we used chunks of firewood for stools as we stared at the campfire, sipped amber liquids and watched the “camp” javelinas that were always around. It was a good camp, in good country, steep, wild and rugged, as good country usually is, and I was pretty excited to be hunting with what I thought was going to be a game-changing new rifle.
I can say with all honesty that it sure changed my game.
The next morning, we were trying to zero the gun the guy from the gun company had brought for me to hunt with and it was not going well. That new “cutting edge” rifle only fired about every other time I pulled the trigger, but it didn’t matter. The closest we could predict where the bullets were going to strike was a vague “someplace in Texas.” I am not even sure that was the truth. All I can say for sure with any honesty is that they damn sure were not hitting the target with any regularity.
Don’t you just hate it when a song sticks in your mind? Like, “When The Caissons Go Rolling Along”? It’s catchy, right? I’ll bet you are singing it in your head right now. All I could hear was the third verse: “Was it high, was it low, where the hell did that one go?” Every time I fired another shot, the refrain started rolling around in my head, over and over until I could scream. (Actually, I did scream; quite a bit as it turns out.)
The only way I was going to be able to hunt with this thing was if we put a bayonet on the front and I got in real close, which probably wasn’t going to work with all that screaming.
The single-shot, break-action, switch-barrel design was rather unique in the way it locked up, especially for this company as it hadn’t made a centerfire rifle before. The executives at this gun company decided the best way to create a competitive new gun was to hire an engineer with zero gun experience. Something about bringing new thinking and new ideas to the table. “Thinking outside the box,” one of them called it, with the smugness only a witless middle manager can pull off. Somebody should have slammed the lid on their box.
The guy they hired was clueless, so he based the design on an old, obscure, blackpowder cartridge rifle that never really worked either. He said he found it on the Internet and thought it looked “cool.”
Then, to prove his worth, he added his own ideas about gun design, garnered no doubt from years of engineering computer keyboards, or ladies’ orthopedic underwear. I never was clear on which.
There was no cell service out that far and town was about 30 miles away. Half the road was so bad it took two hours to drive each way. With no other options, we drove to town, called the main office and asked that project engineer to overnight another rifle.
The conversation went something like this (at least this is what I heard):
“This hunt is trashed; the gun you sent doesn’t work.”
“Oh dear, I was afraid this would happen.”
“What are you talking about? You told me the gun shot fine.”
“Well, that’s what Rodney told me.”
“Who the hell is Rodney?”
“You know Rodney. He’s that homeless guy who stands on the corner and yells at the cars all day. I hired him to shoot the rifles.”
“So I don’t have to. I told them when they hired me that guns frighten me, but nobody listened. Besides, he needed the work. Hey, what’s all the screaming in the background? Sounds like somebody is in a lot of pain.”
We drove back out to town the next morning and waited until the FedEx driver found the place on the map and brought the gun, which took a lot longer than I would have expected. I thought he was a little rude, too. So what if the screaming hurt his ears? We had already lost two days of a five-day hunt. He should have expected it.
I hoped that gun might shoot a little better, except the scope was broken. Easy, right? Just switch the scope with the one on the other gun. Except, of course, the “engineer” who installed it at the gun factory had stripped all the Allen head screws. (Which might’ve been a clue as to why the scope was broken.)
That’s when the guide said he had tools and I cringed.
The thing you have to understand about most guides is that their job is guiding hunters, not gun repair. There are exceptions but, generally speaking, as a species they typically are not all that nuanced in the delicate art of gun repair. In fact, the best description I have heard is that if you give a guide two ball bearings and lock him in a room, when you come back he will have broken one and lost the other.
This guy’s gunsmithing tools consisted of a half-charged cordless drill with a dull bit, a claw hammer and two bent screwdrivers. The work bench was a tree stump half buried in javelina droppings. But that “mother of invention” thing took charge and a couple of hours later we were back at the shooting range.
That’s when we realized we had probably already explored the outer limits of the potential of this gun’s design. This rifle was shooting all over the target, but as the engineer later pointed out, at least it was hitting the target, which, he was quick to mention, was “an improvement.” This gun fired most of the time, about 70 percent, which, he again pointed out, statistically is “most,” and as he said, it would often hit someplace on the large target, so it truly was forward movement in terms of accuracy.
But you couldn’t open the damn thing after you shot it. After a while, I figured out that if you re-cocked the external hammer and pulled the trigger, dropping the hammer on the empty case, and if you did it two or three times, something inside would reset with an audible click and then you could open the gun to reload.
The aoudad was a very good one and he was feeding along a ridge about 250 yards from me. I had taken awhile to get there in the rough country, running and climbing, so I took a moment to get my breathing under control. Then, from a solid sitting position, I took careful aim at his shoulder and fired.
Once I got the gun open and reloaded, I again aimed at his shoulder and squeezed the trigger. He started shaking his head and staggering around like a boxer that just got his bell rung. So I did it again … and again.
In total, I fired four well aimed shots at that big boy. The sequence was aim, shoot, re-cock and pull the trigger, re-cock and pull the trigger, re-cock and pull the trigger and again if needed until I heard the click. Then, open, reload and repeat. All the while muttering words that would have gotten my butt smacked with a wooden spoon had my mother been there.
I have no idea where the first shot went. The next one went through his horns and knocked him silly, which is why he hung around and let me keep shooting. One hit his back leg and one went right in the boiler room just behind his shoulder, exactly where it (and all the others) was aimed.
The guide later remarked that he had never seen anybody shoot so fast with a single-shot rifle. I didn’t bother pointing out I could be a lot faster with a gun that opened on the first try.
The next year I was on a whitetail hunt with the “improved” version of this same rifle. We arrived too late to check the zero, but were assured the guns had all been carefully zeroed by the same engineer. Mindful of the fiasco in Texas, he assured us that Rodney had retired and that they were perfect this time.
Early the next morning I found a huge buck about 200 yards out in a cut field, eating spilled corn and unaware I occupied the same planet. I shot three times at him and he did not even pick up his head.
It’s not that I mind missing all that much. You get used to it. But when you can’t even get the deer to acknowledge you are shooting at him it’s kind of embarrassing.
When I had cooled off enough to function, I checked the zero. It was more than 2 feet high at 200 yards.
At least this gun opened after you shot it. I guess that was the “improved” part.
It’s a Royal Something All Right
We were a big group of writers hunting in the eastern plains of Colorado and hosted by a (different) company introducing a new rifle. (This time the rifle was pretty good.)
I was a late addition after somebody bailed, so my tag was for a different county. The first morning, the outfitter stuck me on a little hill under a bridge on Interstate 70 and drove off with the rest of the party.
Hours later, I heard a horn blowing and tires squealing. A little doe dove off the bridge into the shallow pool of water behind me and ran off up the riverbed.
That was the only deer I saw in two days of sitting there.
On the third morning the outfitter announced he had found a “local” to guide me. I tried to make conversation while riding in his truck, but all I could figure out was that he had never hunted, he didn’t really like hunting and his hobby was smoking weed.
The first time out of the truck he wanted to hunt with the wind at our backs, which led to a heated argument during which he kept saying, “You Easterners always think you know everything, but you have to understand our deer are different out here.” (I have heard that one all the way from Alberta to Texas. Besides, if he never hunted, how did he know that?)
No matter; you can’t fight stupid when it’s on a roll. So, as we walked across the prairie with a stiff wind at our backs, a buck boiled out of a coolie 200 yards in front of us and slowly started trotting away. I sat down and prepared to shoot if he gave me a chance. Suddenly, my scope turned blurry and looked suspiciously like hemp. The “guide” was right in front of the gun and charging after the confused deer, waving his arms and yelling at him to stop.
We were looking for the buck half a mile away when a ranch truck towing a large horse trailer came flying across the prairie, kicking up dust as the trailer flipped back and forth like the tail of a hooked fish, the horses inside bouncing from side to side.
“Wow, that’s dude’s in a hurry. I wonder if he found your deer.”
I dove for cover as the truck tried to run us down. He drove past, made a half circle, skidding sideways until I thought the truck and trailer were both going to tip over, and then he lined up for another attempt. I am not sure what changed his mind, but the truck skidded to a stop and out jumped a very large and very angry cowboy. It took a while for him to calm down enough to talk about anything other than “beating our asses.” Once he did, we realized we were trespassing. The ranch we were supposed to be hunting on was 10 miles away.
Meanwhile all the other guys were bringing in huge deer every night, which was causing the outfitter’s head to swell to enormous proportions. By the last day I was the only guy without a deer and somehow it was my fault.
The outfitter was one of those “I am smarter than everybody” guys and he made it a big point at dinner to summon me to approach.
“Because you can’t seem to shoot a deer,” he said, loudly, so everybody in the room could hear, “I am going to personally guide you tomorrow.”
There was a dramatic pause while he held out his ring for me to kiss.
“But, you need to know that I am the best there is at this. When we find a deer, you just get ready to shoot. I don’t want you to lift your binoculars. You don’t even look at the deer, I’ll judge him. When you hear me say shoot, you do not hesitate, you do not question, you just shoot. Got it?”
I guess he took my stunned silence as an affirmative answer, because early the next morning he was looking at a buck standing in the tall grass of a CRP field. He didn’t look like much to me, but after watching him for some time with his high-dollar, “mine is much better than yours” European binocular, the outfitter ordered, “Shoot that SOB!”
So I did.
We had a very hard time finding the deer in the high grass and frustrations were starting to poke at the cracks when the outfitter said, “Here he is.”
I looked over in time to see the blood drain from his face and I remember thinking, “Well this could go two ways. Either that’s the best buck of the week, or ‘the greatest hunter alive’ really blew the call.”
I am sure you know which one it was.
The deer turned out to be a mule deer-whitetail hybrid. But when the DNA was mixing, rather than form perfect helixes it got twisted and tangled. He was a pathetic runt of a deer weighing only about 80 pounds. His tiny antlers were distorted and grotesquely twisted until they looked like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. Malformed and misshapen, they were covered with dried and desiccated velvet, as if he never got the memo on how it’s supposed to work.
The buck looked like he was built by a committee using spare parts. Nothing about him looked even remotely right. He looked like he had been smashed and then glued back together by a couple of drunk frat boys. He was as far from a trophy deer as I have ever shot and I take solace in the thought that it was probably a mercy killing.
Whether it was a mistake or deliberate has always haunted me.