Ralph Gardner Jr: Shooting Practice

Jun 8, 2019

Ralph Gardner at the antique firearms event in Kinderhook, NY

I recently inherited a gun. Actually, a .22 rifle. I know what you’re thinking. I was thinking the same thing: Get rid of it. Sell it. Donate it. This will not end well.

I’ve never owned a gun. But this specimen has been in my family since – frankly I don’t know when. I seem to recall mention of associations to World War II. There’s a photograph from the Forties of my grandparents walking along our road, my grandfather toting the weapon, as if the occasion might arise to shoot dinner.

But it’s even clear from that sepia-toned image that the rifle was a prop. My grandparents were city folk. It was simply that they associated the country and nature with the rugged outdoors and the need eventually, perhaps, to defend hearth and home from a ravenous bear, or more likely a rabid raccoon.

And I’ve inherited that conceit, though I consider the greatest threat to my wellbeing not bears but woodchucks. The damage they do to our lawn borders on the existential. However, I’m not naive enough to believe I could ever nail one.

They’re wily creatures. As soon as they hear our back door open they’re heading for their holes. Holes leading to their underground McMansions.

Someone told me they’d once shot a woodchuck through their screen door to get a jump on the critter. I’m not prepared to undergo the expense and inconvenience of replacing ours.

However, shooting vermin through a door is just the thing I could see myself doing, the projectile undoubtedly missing the intended target and ricocheting and hitting me in the face.

So when I ran into my neighbor Ed Simonsen recently and he warned me not to be concerned if I heard gunshots through the woods a few days hence – it was simply friends and family gathering to shoot antique firearms – I informed him about my recent acquisition.

I’m not sure my .22 would qualify as an antique. But I thought someone who knew something about guns might condescend to check it out and tell me whether it was so old and rusted that pulling the trigger could result in an ambulance ride.

My father had removed it to the city back in the Eighties, thinking little of me and my friends who gathered at the house on weekends post-college and even less of our judgment. The rifle had sat in the back of his closet, with a small arsenal of bullets that I also recently acquired, gathering dust for the past forty years.

Ed graciously invited me to join the event and bring my gun.

But before doing so I visited a local gun shop in the hope of purchasing a carrying case for the weapon. The one that came with it was torn and so fragile it crumpled in your hands.

I’m not sure of the etiquette surrounding rifles. But I suspected no one would appreciate encountering me in a public place with the thing slung over my shoulder. Then again, perhaps I underestimate the comfort of our citizenry with all things ballistic.

The people at the gun shop couldn’t have been more pleasant or encouraging – even though I was slightly intimated by all the military-looking hardware for sale. And I departed with a handsome new tan carrying case that set me back only twenty-five bucks.

It almost felt as if this was some sort of introductory offer, the first step to getting me hooked on guns and accumulating an arsenal of my own.

I had no doubt that my .22 would be in good hands with Ed, an esteemed local activist and environmentalist. When I’d run into him he’d suggested that his son Chris, who’s been hunting all his life, could take a look at my gun, judge its worthiness and perhaps even clean it and give me a shooting lesson.

I was also encouraged to encounter Ed’s other son Peter at the antique firearms event. Turns out he’s the police chief for the town of North Castle in Westchester County. So I suspected he was heavily into firearms safety. Not to mention that, as a police officer, I know you have to requalify to shoot a weapon a couple of times a year. Peter told me it was three times a year in his town.

Also, the hardest beverage chilling in the cooler that calm morning was Hires Root Beer.

Compared to the other weapons being discharged – such as fifty caliber flintlocks; a replica 18th century European-style rifle with brass furnishings crafted by Tom Curran, another participant, as well as a gunsmith and the former mayor of Chatham, NY; and a replica 1860 Colt revolver – my .22 was hardly more impressive than a BB gun.

However, the gentlemen checked it out, shot it, and judged it functional, its telescopic sight accurate, even though it could use a cleaning.

I even pulled the trigger a few times myself, reliving my glory days at Lone Pine Camp in the Adirondacks where I attained the distinction of Marksman First Class and still have the fabric shoulder patch to prove it.

Frankly, more fun was taking my turn shooting the antique weapons. They were so noisy and explosive they felt like shooting a small cannon. The six-shooters were fun, too, though so powerful that I don’t how anybody back in the day could have controlled them enough to hit anything intentionally.

Then we all retired to the Simonsen’s porch for burgers, hot dogs and stories about neighbors long gone, some of the stories involving firearms.

With a thunderstorm approaching I gathered my rifle, stowed it in its handsome new carrying case, and made my way across fields and through the woods back to my house, indulging myself that I was participating in a flinty way of life that the early settlers that roamed these same woods would have recognized and appreciated, while remaining intensely wary of my aim.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

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