Just after shooting light and in a howling wind, the young buck stepped out of the brush, jumped a cross-fence, and entered a copse of trees. If he continued his path, he would enter an opening 60 yards away. I made ready, and when he stopped for a moment in that clearing, I shot. He bucked and ran out of sight.
I began to shake after he disappeared, and in some ways the shaking has never stopped . . . even 30 years later. I didn’t know how to track, so I waited 30 minutes and then followed the trail in the direction he had gone. I walked right up to him 40 yards away. It took me 45 minutes to field dress him, and I ended up looking as though I had lost the fight, but by the time I was finished the hook had been set deep, and I knew that, like my dad, I would be a hunter for the rest of my life.
It shouldn’t have happened. There was no logical reason for that buck to be moving in that wind, and the lease proved to have precious few deer. In addition, I had not earned the right to take a deer on my very first deer hunt. I was 27 years old, with no experience and no knowledge of the hunt. I was ignorant of scent control and possessed marksmanship skills only sufficient to place five bullets into a six-inch pattern at 100 yards, even with a steady rest. The only thing I possessed that had experience was my rifle, my dad’s favorite.
I had no idea that it was noteworthy to be carrying a pre-64 Model 70 Winchester in .270, nor that it was stocked to Jack O’Connor’s specifications. Heck, I didn’t know who Jack O’Connor was. The rifle still wore Dad’s Weaver K-4 from the ’50s, and I had sighted the .270 in to be dead on at 100 yards. I thought it made sense at the time. I had not sought knowledge at the feet of a master, and had not yet discovered the wisdom contained in hunting literature—I was a greenhorn in the purest sense of the word. I just knew that my dad had loved guns and hunting, and now I wanted to know if I would love them, too.
My dad died young. He left behind a pretty widow and two small children. Pertinent to this story, he also left behind several guns and knives, and just as important, books about guns, and articles on rifles, cartridges, hunting, stockmaking, and engraving he had cut out and organized into files. Mom carefully preserved everything, in memory of him and in case his son should one day want to follow the hunter’s path.
Dad was a Renaissance man; a man of letters also skilled with his hands. He built or customized several rifles, made knives, designed and built a gun cabinet, and worked leather for both art and function. I did not know anything about Dad’s rifles, but once I realized I was a hunter, I committed myself to learn all I could about rifles, cartridges, and hunting.
My education continues to this day. I started with Dad’s files, and later came to know his rifles. It turns out Dad was a fan of Townsend Whelen and Jack O’Connor, two of the preeminent gun writers of his day. What amazed me as I began my education was that Dad was able to take what they wrote about rifles and build them.
Three cartridges both men praised effusively were the .270 Winchester, the .257 Roberts, and the .22 long rifle. Dad built or customized a rifle for each.
Dad was a Methodist preacher in a small Texas town in the 1950s. One of his parishioners, E.R. “Pete” Miller, owned a gunsmithing shop. Dad was already skilled in working wood and leather, and when Pete introduced him to hunting and shooting (it took—Dad and Pete were two of the founding members of the local gun club), it was only natural that Dad’s passion and skill for creating things with his hands would expand to rifles and knives. It didn’t hurt that one of his best friends had a well-equipped shop and was willing to help with the learning curve.
Dad’s first project was to build himself a hunting rifle. It needed to be versatile, as a preacher’s salary did not lend itself to rack upon rack of specialized rifles. According to Pete, Dad was not a big fan of recoil, so he chose the .270 Winchester over the .30-06. Both Townsend Whelen and Jack O’Connor had declared the .270 adequate for all North American game animals, scorching fast, accurate, and hard-hitting—perfect for the white-tailed deer my dad had the opportunity to hunt.
Jack O’Connor had also proclaimed the Winchester Model 70 to be the finest production rifle made. Dad decided to purchase a used one and restock it. He started with a dark walnut blank and fashioned the stock to the specifications set out by JOC, all the way down to the cheekpiece recommended for use with telescopic sights. He topped it with a Weaver K-4—slightly more magnification than JOC’s recommended K-2.5. The stock finish is oil-based, and even decades later the deep sheen reflects the hours spent applying layer after layer. At a distance, the stock appears to be perfect, but on close inspection one can discern that a gifted amateur shaped the wood.
Dad’s .270 has a 24-inch barrel, is wonderfully accurate, and has accounted for my best 200-yard group ever: three shots at just under an inch. I am not the rifle’s equal. We have taken over 30 animals together, from coyote to feral hog, and most of my decent Texas whitetails. I call it my magic wand.
Its only drawback is that I found it hard to take it out in inclement weather or in rough country. I worried more about it getting damaged or wet than I did about hunting. I now have other rifles I carry in bad weather, or on mountains, or through brush. Like the antique car kept in the garage and only driven on a beautiful day, Dad’s .270 only comes out when conditions are perfect.
Dad’s second project was to build a rifle from the ground up, and he decided on a rifle of challenging design. He chose as his cartridge the .257 Roberts, championed by Townsend Whelen as the perfect cartridge for the wilderness lover, and by Jack O’Connor as the perfect introductory big game cartridge.
According to Mom, Dad claimed that he built it “for her” (wink). He converted a Mauser small ring action, mated it to a Shilen barrel of only 20 inches, and shaped a Mannlicher stock to form the platform. Dad showed his love of wood in this rifle, combining a level of artistry with flawless function. His files contain pencil drawings he incorporated into the stock design.
Townsend Whelen famously wrote that “only accurate rifles are interesting”, and boy, did Dad build an interesting rifle in the Roberts—it shoots all bullet weights from 75 grains to 120 with excellent accuracy. JOC and Mr. Whelen were right about its effectiveness as well. It has proven itself on game animals exceeding 200 pounds, including heavy-boned feral hogs, mule deer, and my best whitetail.
The Roberts came to be mine years after Dad’s .270; Mom gave it to Pete, and it came to me only after Pete decided his hunting days were over. The Roberts quickly became one of my favorite rifles for almost any hunting situation. It is accurate, recoil is negligible, and it is effective—a wonderful combination.
Dad’s third project was to customize a rifle in a cartridge every gun writer says you must own—the .22 long rifle. One becomes an accurate rifle shot through practice, and JOC repeatedly wrote that regular practice with a .22 rifle would greatly enhance one’s ability with a hunting rifle. Dad evidently listened. He decided to focus on metalwork and engraving on this project.
Dad’s .22 began life as a Savage NRA Target bolt-action rifle with a bull barrel. Dad decided he wanted the barrel to be octagon, and then decided to taper the octagon. I had to let that sink in when a gunsmith first described the effort and precision involved. The tapering was done by hand, with a file.
I remember Pete shaking his head as he recalled his reaction to my dad’s plan—telling my dad that he was crazy to attempt it, “but he didn’t listen and it turned out all right”. It turned out a little better than all right. Dad also experimented with scrollwork on the barrel. I bet he used every metalworking tool in Pete’s shop. The result is more experimental than beautiful, but, man, is it cool.
Shooting the rifle extensively has revealed that Dad’s modifications did not detract from its match-grade accuracy. I shot a 2-inch group at 100 yards with open sights, and quickly decided that it merited a scope. It now wears the same Weaver K-4 that my dad had on the .270. It is great for plinking and practice, and is deadly on small game.
When I hold Dad’s rifles, I feel a torrent of feelings: wonder at his craftsmanship, a sense of failure at my lack of same, gratitude that I have them, pride that I have used and cared for them well, and a bit of wistfulness, wondering what additional projects he would have undertaken had he been given more time.
Dad didn’t teach me hunting skills, handloading, marksmanship, or the love of fine rifles and the history behind them. But Dad left me things that he had made, items of wood and steel and leather that he crafted with his own hands, plus books and articles to show me the way; to provide me the opportunity to follow the path he carefully laid before me, should I so choose. I chose to follow a similar path, to the best of my ability.
And that has made all the difference.