I posted a blog a while back in response to someone’s criticism of me for making my living, in part, by testing firearms. In retrospect, that was only a half-honest response, because in the same batch of emails was one from a person who expressed interest in reading some of my gun writing. At the time, I sort of dismissed the writer of that second email as just another loosely hinged right-wing extremist loony in a tinfoil hat, just like me, but then I got another request to read what I had to say about guns. So, with that in mind…
Astute and observant visitors to this web site will already have noticed that the “Short Stories” tab has been changed to the “Other Writings” tab. Since profiles of my erstwhile co-star Gerald McRaney or bullfighter Rob Smets, or—for that matter—a profile of a firearm, hardly qualify as short stories, I felt it better to expand the meaning and possibilities of the title.
I’ll start with something out of the ordinary.
In cattle country you learn that it is not unusual for a cowboy to drive—or ride a horse—many miles out of his way to talk to you face-to-face rather than use the telephone, so I wasn’t surprised to see a beat-up truck with an even more dilapidated stock trailer drive up the lane toward my house. It was late evening, all coral and turquoise, the last day of quail season. Normally, I would still have been out somewhere with my goofy Pudelpointer, but I had just had my shoulder rebuilt and couldn’t lift a shotgun, and my old dog was so arthritic that he was almost as useless as his owner, so I was at my desk, trying to make the best of a bad situation.
I didn’t recognize the truck or trailer. When they stopped in front of the house I could see two horses silhouetted, one still saddled, both drooping with exhaustion. When the driver got out all I could really identify was a mountain of man, but that only narrowed it down to half a dozen possibilities. He had a gun case in one hand.
What happened next is absolutely true, but I have changed all names, all identifying characteristics, numbers, provenances, everything that might give away the cowboy’s identity. This is at his request, and I don’t question his motives.
I shall call him Joe. I’ve known him for several years and I once almost bought a horse from him. He has a reputation in our neck of the woods as being one of the best all-round cowboys there is: good horseman, good cattleman, good ranch manager, good steward of the land he is responsible for, honest, and bull-tough. You wouldn’t want to be rude to his wife or daughter.
He limped into the house. Like all cowboys, he has had his share of wrecks, but he looked even more crippled up than usual. He refused anything to drink, and chatted with my wife for a moment, and when I commented on his looking especially tired and busted-up he grinned.
“Yeah, we were gathering out on _________’s place and I knew it wouldn’t take too long so I brought my shotgun along, got a last limit of quail. I’m getting a little old and fat to be hauling my carcass up and down these hills without a horse under me. But that’s what I wanted to see you about. __________ said I should show you this gun, said you know a lot about guns.”
“Joe, I don’t know a lot about anything and the older I get the less I know about everything, but I’m happy to do whatever I can for you.”
We went into my office and he laid the case across the arms of a chair and sat in another.
He said, “Let me tell you first how I got this. Back when I was riding for the…” he named a ranch about two hours away “…there was this old boy owned a small piece of land that bordered the ranch. He was a retired college professor, no cowboy or anything like that, so when some cows busted through the fence one Sunday, I went over and got them out of his tomatoes, fixed the fence and all, and this old boy and I got to talking. Make a long story short, we kind of got to be pretty good friends. I did a couple favors for him over the years, went along and held his hand once or twice when he had to get his grandson out of jail, a few other things. And that’s how I come to have this. See, the professor’s son died a while back and the only kin the old boy had was the grandson and he’s about as worthless as man can be and still be breathing. Drugs and stealing and all like that. Well, the professor come down with some lung trouble and he knew he was on his way out, so he called me last year, said the damned grandson was going to get everything, but the professor didn’t want him to have this shotgun. Wanted me to have it, on account of our being friends and all. Said it had been made special for his daddy a long time back and was pretty valuable. And now _________ says he thinks it’s valuable, told me to come see you, find out what it’s worth.”
I have been down this road many times. Everyone who has ever found an old firearm in Grandma’s attic is convinced he has a priceless treasure. It may happen, but not to me or anyone I know. The owner of the local tire shop in my town went to a garage sale where an elderly gent was selling two rifles and a shotgun. The tire dealer only wanted one of the rifles, but the old boy wouldn’t sell them separately; it was all or nothing. I happened to drop by to get my tires rotated a week or so later and it turned out the shotgun was a Parker VH, not in the best condition, but probably worth about twice what the tire dealer had paid for all three guns. That’s the closest I’ve ever personally come to treasure in the attic, and I had no reason to believe this would be any different.
But the human animal is by nature an optimist. PBS has done very well capitalizing on that fact with their Antiques Roadshow. Joe heaved himself up and unzipped the canvas case.
The value of a thing is dependent on many factors, but the quality of a thing is much easier to recognize and quantify. It has nothing to do with personal choices. You may not wish to hang a Rembrandt in your living room, but unless your IQ is smaller than your hat size you’ll recognize the quality of one regardless of whether it’s in pristine condition or in need of major restoration.
What I saw lying in that old-fashioned canvas slip-case was pure unadulterated quality. It was a sidelock over-and-under with double triggers, and I’m not a particular fan of over-and-unders, preferring side-by-sides, but it made no difference. The lines, the proportions, the elegance of the thing were overwhelming. The damn gun had charisma.
I moved the case to my desk and turned on the table lamp. Somehow, unlikely as it may seem, I had a pretty good idea what I was going to see. The top barrel was engraved, “Boss & Co., 13 Dover Street, Piccadilly, London, England.”
In case there is anyone unfamiliar with Boss shotguns, let me say that most of the truly knowledgeable and wealthy gun collectors I have ever met consider Boss to be the ne plus ultra of shotguns. Throughout its long career (dating back to 1773 or 1812, depending on how you look at it) the company has never built anything other than a ‘best’ gun, and never compromised their quality. Or their prices: the company itself proudly quotes no less a gun enthusiast than King George VI, who wasn’t exactly strapped for cash, but when asked if he had ever thought about ordering a Boss, he replied, “A Boss gun! A Boss gun! Bloody beautiful, but too bloody expensive!”
On my desk lay a gun too good for a king.
In four decades of mooning over high-end guns I couldn’t possibly afford, it was one of only two or three Boss shotguns I have ever laid eyes upon, and the first over-and-under. It was also the first time I have ever held one, and I began to appreciate the mystic that makes them so desired.
In addition to their reputation for the ultimate in quality and high price, Boss are famous for their over-and-under design, which is slimmer and shallower than any other. They achieve this by machining bites into the barrel face, allowing the bolts in the breech to enter the bites, eliminating any need for underlumps. The result is a low profile that allows the gun to be fitted with a straight grip and splinter fore-end that aligns the shooter’s hands as perfectly as a side-by-side. That design was created by John Robertson, who became a partner in Boss in 1891 and who eventually became sole owner. Robertson also created a unique ejector, and a single trigger design that became the subject of a lawsuit between Boss and Purdey.
This particular gun had twenty-eight inch barrels, delicate rose-and-scroll engraving, two Robertson patent numbers (for the fastening bolt and the ejector; if it had had a single trigger there would, presumably, have been a third Robertson patent number), multiple proofing numbers, and a gold oval with the initials of the man for whom it was originally made. The serial number placed the date of manufacture after World War One and before the Great Depression. (It actually placed the gun to a specific year, but I’m not eager to have Joe appear on my doorstep in a bad mood.) The gun showed the kind and degree of wear consistent with hard use and good care.
And that was it. I did some research for Joe, gave him what information I could, and then he drove off with his tired horses and his piece of perfection. I’ve asked him to consider adopting me, but I don’t think that plan is working so well.