As the woodcock erupted from the ridge next to the stream valley, the Winchester Model 42 .410 came to my shoulder, leveled on the bird, and I pulled the trigger. What’s the big deal about harvesting a woodcock with a .410, you ask? Because it was killed with my uncle Jim’s gun.
I got my first shotgun for Christmas when I was 10, a J.C. Higgins single barrel. After learning the safety rules and some practice shooting, my first hunting experience was with Uncle Jim, a great-uncle from my mother’s family. Uncle Jim was in the Air Force at the time but was home on leave from Germany that Christmas. On that first hunt together, he carried the Model 42.
A few years later, after retiring, they moved back to the area and Uncle Jim became my hunting mentor. An avid small game hunter, he had other guns he used for quail and dove, a 20 and 12 gauge, respectively, but the Model 42 was his go-to gun to put meat on the table. We spent many a morning hunting oak and hickory stands for squirrels and field edges for rabbits. That .410 was deadly in his hands.
Most of those hunts have faded from memory with the exception of one. We were squirrel hunting an oak bottom behind his house one winter morning with a feist, Sarah, that hunted with us. As we approached some undergrowth, Sarah starting yipping.
Uncle Jim said, “I’ve never heard her do that. Go around the other side.”
A few seconds later my young ears heard an unusual flapping sound, the bark of the little .410, and a thud as something hit the ground. Uncle Jim’s deep, guttural laugh was followed by, “Come here boy.” There on the ground lay a turkey. He had killed a turkey on the fly with a .410 shotgun!
I went into the Army after college. We didn’t get to hunt together much, just an occasional dove shoot as the years passed. In 1985 I returned home for Christmas and went to visit him. He had aged and was no longer able to hunt.
I’m guessing the gun had similar meaning to him as it does to me. He called me down to the basement where he kept all of his hunting gear and said, “Don, I don’t hunt any more. I want you to have this gun.”
He handed me the Model 42; the bluing was worn and the stock showed its age. When I got back to Fort Bragg, a friend recommended a local gunsmith. He meticulously restored it to as close to the original condition as possible.
A couple of years later my mother called to tell me they found Uncle Jim dead in his recliner looking out on that same oak bottom we had hunted. I like to imagine he was thinking of our hunting there when he passed.
I’ve not shot the gun much since then; an occasional clay target and maybe a squirrel or two a year. I took it on a grouse hunt to New Hampshire in the hopes of bagging a grouse or woodcock with it, but no such luck. Then, on a recent woodcock hunt in North Carolina with my son, the chance came up and I took it.
Every time I heft the little Model 42 and slide shells into the magazine, I see Uncle Jim looking up into an oak tree on a cold November morning and hear that deep laugh at a young boy stretching his hunting wings. Uncle Jim’s gun will be in my son’s hand some day, and I hope he remembers that North Carolina woodcock hunt.
Hunting isn’t just about the harvest, but all those lasting memories.