By R. Bruce Moon
As the morning began to brighten, I watched the buzzards settle on the hog. I had shot the 180-pound boar two evenings before, taken the backstraps, then dragged the carcass to a clearing 200 yards from the tripod in the hope that a coyote would come to feed while I was on-stand.
Suddenly, a coyote raced in from downwind, scattering the buzzards. He stopped on the ranch road five yards past the hog and turned to make sure he had no other competitors. I had gone to the rifle while he was running, and I shot immediately when he turned broadside. The bullet flipped him and he was dead before he hit the ground.
It was not a varmint round, though it sure did the job: a 180-grain bullet from a .30-06, the same load that had cleanly dropped the hog in its tracks earlier. I had just experienced the perfect varmint weekend — two animals, two species, two shots, with Pete’s favorite load in Pete’s favorite rifle.
Out of habit, I reached for my cell phone to call Pete — the old man had been amazed I could call him from a hunting lease, and always laughed when he heard me open the conversation with “Hey old man, I just wanted to call and let you know your rifle still works.” Then we would talk of every detail — the rifle, the load, the animal, and the shot — and for a little while, Pete would be young again.
I stared at my phone blankly, feeling my eyes grow hot. Pete had died the previous year, fittingly, on July 4. He was 94; toil and trouble and wounds and time had finally worn him down. Thankfully, I still have his rifles, and they will outlast me.
E.R. “Pete” Miller came of age during the Depression, and left home to make his way as a man — at age 13. I never heard a good explanation of how he came to be called Pete. To say he had a hard life would be an understatement, and that was before his country called him to war. During WWII he was a combat engineer, hit the beach at Utah, and was in the thick of the Battle of the Bulge. He came home with multiple wounds and multiple medals, ignored both, and went back to work.
He did not have much formal education and did not accumulate great wealth, but he worked hard and with skill, always paid his debts, and never backed up from anyone or anything, ever. He was the toughest man I have ever known, but he was a good man, and could even be kind — in a rough sort of way.
Over the decades, Pete operated several businesses in the small Texas town he called home, including a gunsmith shop for a while. He and my dad became close friends. My dad built three rifles in Pete’s shop, and when Dad died young, Pete kept them for us until I was old enough to care for them.
I knew him as Uncle Pete as a kid, and was half-scared of him. As I grew older we became friends, and as I became interested in guns and hunting, we grew closer still — even though I now lived hours away. I always made sure to visit him when I was in town, staying longer once Auntie Mac died and he lived alone. He had a tremendous amount of knowledge and many stories, and was willing to share both with someone truly willing to listen.
He quit hunting when his wife became bedridden, but when she died he never picked it back up — partly due to age, and partly because she was his favorite hunting partner. The gunshop and most of his rifles were long gone, but through the passing years, Pete still kept his favorite rifles close to him.
He called me one day — a rare occurrence that usually meant something was wrong.
“Come get these guns,” he said.
He had decided that he wanted to sell them to someone who would keep them and hunt with them, not just resell them or hang them on a wall.
I said “Yes, sir,” and headed down as soon as I could get away. I took cash with me — Pete didn’t like checks. Even though I didn’t need any more rifles, I wanted them because Pete had built them, and because Pete had chosen me to care for them.
We didn’t negotiate; Pete named his price and I paid it. When he saw me pull out the money and start counting it out on the spot, he laughed and said I was “all growed up.” I told him they would always be “his” rifles to me, and from then on whenever an animal was taken with one of them I would call, then send him a letter and include a photo of the rifle and animal.
I have all those letters back now.
The first rifle is a one-of-a-kind, built around a cartridge Pete developed to match the .243 Winchester. Before the .243 went to market, its ballistic qualities were widely known in the industry: .244-caliber, 100-grain bullet at 2,960 fps. Pete liked the sound of that and decided not to wait, developing his own version in a rifle for his wife.
He heavily modified 7.7 Jap — and later, 6.5×55 — cases, reaming the chamber and turning the long, light “buggy-whip” barrel himself, mating it to a Mauser action and stocking it to his wife’s liking. Thankfully, he still had the cases he machined by hand when the gun came to be mine. It is not a beautiful rifle, but it works like a charm. The rifle is quite accurate and deadly on deer.
The second rifle was Pete’s showpiece when he had the gunshop: an example of what he could do if you wanted him to and were willing to spend the money. The cartridge is a double wildcat: a .257 Roberts necked up to 6.5mm and blown out to Ackley Improved, mirroring the ballistics of the more recent 6.5×284.
The rifle has a long, heavy barrel with a recessed crown for maximum accuracy. The action is a match-grade Japanese Arisaka action converted to sporter configuration, and the stock is of the beanfield rifle design — heavy, square forend, full-pistol grip, and a rollover cheekpiece. It is a functional work of art, wonderfully accurate, and effective on deer and pigs.
The last one was Pete’s favorite hunting rifle, and spoke volumes about Pete. He might have built fancy rifles for others, but though he demanded functional excellence, he couldn’t care less about frills. The rifle is a post-64 Model 70 Winchester with a 22-inch barrel, chambered in .30-06. It has the factory stock, but bedded to Pete’s satisfaction and with the cheekpiece sanded down. The action is silky smooth and the trigger expertly lightened.
When Pete handed it to me, he cackled and said, “It don’t look like much. All it does is kill whatever you point it at.”
He teased me, saying that once I started hunting with it, I would never hunt with anything else.
I told him I doubted that, but time has proven us both correct. I still hunt with other rifles, but his is the easiest to pull out of the safe for a quick run to the lease. It has proven to be a handloader’s dream, shooting all bullet weights from 125 to 180 grains with excellent accuracy.
I have taken just about everything you can shoot here in Texas with it, from a fox to a 250-pound mule deer, and everything in between. Pete was right: If you point it correctly, whatever is at the other end goes down. Two widely disparate shots with the same results are a testament to his craftsmanship.
I was fortunate to have Pete as a friend. He taught me a tremendous amount about rifles and hunting, and also about life and not quitting no matter how tough things get. I am honored to have Pete’s rifles, and when the time comes, will have the responsibility of finding them a good home. I owe him that, and much, much more.
Note: This article originally appeared in the Summer 2014 edition of Dallas Safari Club’s Game Trails, and is reprinted here with slight changes by permission.