The end of the year often finds me reflecting on my life, asking myself what have I done, who I am and how I will move forward in the future. It seems that as you get older, you do this sort of thing much more often.
As I sit here, cup of coffee in my hand and a fire going in the pellet stove, I am staring at an old shotgun I pulled from the gun cabinet, wondering what kind of stories it could tell. Why, of all times, did I pick the middle of the night to do this?
It is hard to imagine what those stories could be. Perhaps stories of hunting grouse and rabbit in southern New Hampshire (before it became urban sprawl). Perhaps it is one of a little girl hunting with her father on a cold October morning, eager to bring home something for the pot. Maybe it is that old hunter’s stand-by—the story of how the sun got in your eyes just as the grouse or woodcock broke cover.
Alas, we will never know, because the people who could tell those stories are no longer here to share them. The gun? It has those stories forever locked away in the recesses of cold steel and wood.
As I gaze at this old shotgun, I realize it has probably been at least 80 years since a round has been put through it. It is a relic of times gone by, forgotten by all save a few; a gun that dates back to the days of black powder. One could never put modern smokeless ammunition through it.
VALUABLE LIFE LESSONS
With all of that said, this shotgun represents my life. With shotgun in hand, I reflect on the many people who have influenced me over the years, not the least of whom was the man who once used this shotgun.
Many people, from native elders to “old-time” farmers, have all taught me valuable lessons about hunting and fishing, surviving and above all, lessons about life. My grandfather, whose gun this once belonged to, influenced me without even knowing it. This is where it all started. While I never met this man, he is indirectly a big reason I became who I am today.
AS A KID, I REALIZED JUST HOW HEAVY THIS SHOTGUN WAS. AS AN ADULT, I STILL FIND IT VERY HEAVY WHEN COMPARED TO MODERN SIDE-BY-SIDES.
A few years ago, both of my parents passed away. They were both in their 90s and had lived rich, full lives—not rich in terms of wealth, because we never had much money, but rich in life lessons they freely passed on to my sisters and me.
After their passing, my sisters and I were left with the task of cleaning out their home of more 50 years. I walked to the hallway closet, and there it was—that old shotgun, just as I had left it more than 30 years ago. It was as if it were waiting for me.
This shotgun was given to my mother after my grandfather passed away more than 80 years ago. I remember this gun being in the house as I was growing up. I was a child, and it was my first contact with a firearm. I would spend hours breaking it down and cleaning it, even though we never fired it. I learned every inch of its laminated steel barrel and wooden stock, etched with the oil and dirt from the hands of the man who used it.
As I cleaned the shotgun, I often found myself daydreaming about being in the woods and fields, hunting with the man I had never met. I dreamed of grouse and rabbit hunting with my grandfather. I dreamed of cold and frosty mornings with grouse breaking cover; of the first shot missing and the other bringing the bird to the ground. Was the shotgun telling me these stories, or were they just thoughts stirred up in a child’s imagination?
When I was through cleaning and oiling the shotgun, I always put it back in the closet where it was kept, because it was never hung on the wall. It was never displayed, as it should have been—in honor of the man who used it.
As I grew older and went off to the Army, the gun was forgotten about by everyone but me. I always knew that the shotgun was there, although I never gave it much thought.
“How,” you might ask, “does this have anything to do with how you turned out?”
Well, it was my mother who first got me involved in the outdoors, and it was her father who taught her. My mother was born in 1920, so she was hunting, fishing and handling firearms long before it was fashionable for women to do so. It was during the Great Depression, so times were tough for my mother’s family. My grandfather hunted and fished to help put food on the table, and my mother often went with him while he did this. My grandfather’s respect for the outdoors was passed on to my mother, who, in turn, passed it on to me.
My mother often told me stories about hunting with her father and about living through the Great Depression. She told me about how she was taught to shoot and clean game and about how important it was to keep your gun clean and ready to go. Sometimes, she and my grandfather came home with no game, but she learned something each time they went out.
THIS SHOTGUN IS DEFINITELY NOT THE FANCIEST FIREARM I HAVE EVER SEEN, BUT “FANCY” IS NOT WHAT PUTS MEAT ON THE TABLE. THE PERSON USING IT DOES.
My grandfather taught her how to track animals, read animal sign and how to anticipate an animal’s behavior by the weather. He also taught her about respect—respect for the firearm, for the game being hunted and for herself. All those things she passed down to me I have passed on to my daughter and now, to my granddaughter.
The shotgun I now hold in my hand was the firearm that my grandfather used to feed his family, just as I do with my firearms today. Little did I know as a kid that this shotgun helped to define the life I now lead. It guided me to be a gun owner, hunter and an outdoor writer.
A PIECE OF HISTORY
I decided to do a little research on the shotgun to see exactly what I had. It was made by J. Manton & Co.
As a kid, I realized just how heavy this shotgun was. As an adult, I still find it very heavy when compared to modern side-by-sides. Weight-wise, it rivals my more than 30-year-old Mossberg 500 12-gauge pump, which, to be honest, is a beast.
The shotgun is a 12-gauge, double-barreled side-by-side. It has a walnut stock and Damascus steel barrels (marked as “Laminated Steel”), which measure 30 inches. It’s not true Damascus steel, but the laminating process that was used gives it a “Damascus steel” look, which led to the nickname.
The gun has double triggers, each one firing one of the two large external hammers. The breech brake release is located on the left side of the shotgun, instead of being located on the top between the triggers.
From my research, I found that this J. Manton & Co. shotgun was a “knock-off” of the quality shotguns manufactured by Manton in England. Made by many different companies in Belgium from the mid- to late-1800s to the early 1920s, these firearms were considered “low end” and were popular among farmers and rural hunters in the United States and elsewhere.
I researched the marking on the underside of the barrels the best I could and learned that this particular shotgun had, indeed, been manufactured in Belgium and had been exported to Birmingham, England, for export sale. (I guess saying you had a gun from England sounded better, although I doubt my grandfather really cared one way or another.) At that time, Belgium seemed to be the place to go to produce firearms at low cost, because even Browning started producing firearms there.
These shotguns were mass-produced for the export market, including the United States. The exact manufacture date is almost impossible to figure out. More than likely, this firearm was purchased prior to World War I, because during the war, exports from Europe were not readily available.
They were imported by H&D Folsom Co. between 1890 and 1910 and were sold at local hardware stores throughout the country, which is something we do not see today. Back then, a firearm was a tool, just like a shovel or an ax.
Now, we have to ask ourselves who decides whether a firearm is “low end” or not. Obviously, this shotgun has lasted more than 100 years, and it was used heavily early on in its life. We should all hope that items manufactured today will last that long.
This shotgun is definitely not the fanciest firearm I have ever seen, but “fancy” is not what puts meat on the table. The person using it does. The fanciest, most expensive shotgun in the world is worthless if the person using it cannot shoot. My grandfather’s shotgun was made to do a job, and it performed the task it was designed to do.
Most of the items in my parent’s home were sold per their instructions, but this piece of family history has a new home with me. This one item says a great deal about my family— and thus, about me.
It makes me feel good to realize that this apple has not fallen too far from the tree.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the January 2018 print issue of Gun World Magazine.