Issue 69, Spring 1977
Owning the proper gun is very important to someone like me who does not need one and who is usually inclined to repress his more suggestive wants. (By “suggestive” I refer obliquely to what sorry lacks and faults of which such wants might be seen as evidence. This is not to say I haven’t lacks or faults. Of course I do, though I conceal them well. They are of incidental origin and have become ineradicable whorls in the thumbprint of my character.)
So, the importance of the proper gun. Let me say again I have no need in the practical sense for any gun. Were this not the case, any gun would do. A rifle of some kind would probably be appropriate. A rifle takes little time to master, has functional range and accuracy, and is, in the minds of most, a forgivable possession. But I am indifferent to rifles generally, and, although peering among the trees for the hushed shapes of animals appeals to me in some basic way, I am not a hunter. Moreover, I would not collect guns. A collector’s passion focuses not so much on the object as on the continual acquisition of it. At no time could my job require the use of a gun, nor is there anything in my house that would tempt a thief, other than the gun itself. In short, then, I want one gun not for what a gun is able to do, but for its gunness, because it is a, gun.
It is a Smith and Wesson Model K Masterpiece .22 Magnum six-shot revolver with 8.5-inch barrel, blued frame, fluted cylinder, case-hardened competition hammer and trigger, oiled and checked walnut handle-grips with silver S & W monogram, steel blade front sight and U-notched rear sight, adjustable for elevation and windage, and coupling dowel extractor pin. Its total length is 13.75 inches; its weight is 41 ounces, unloaded. (Also, I have a dark, tooled leather holster and cartridge belt.) It is, as they say informally, a Smith. I’ve named him Mr. S.
For me, Mr. S is very much the proper gun. He has a no-nonsense, yet princely look to him. His color, a result of bluing, is an iridescent indigo. Ordinarily, he is cold to my fingers. He shimmers under the light, and in a complicated way he smells of certain oils, gun-powder, and of high-grade steel. He does not pack inordinate fire-power, “magnum” notwithstanding, since he is a small-bore weapon, but it pleases me to mention he can put a sizable hole in something.
I do not, however, allow him to put holes in things very often. Anyway, I haven’t in a long while, though I live in mountain country where the reports of gun-fire are sounds as natural as the twittering of bird-song, and where a gun is exercised as regularly as a city dog. So, for example, if I were to step from my house buckled into my gun for a jaunt into the woods behind my house or into the fields below it, anyone chancing on me would think nothing of it. In fact, he might well be in the company of his own gun—of which I would think nothing in turn. But, whatever the local attitude toward fire-arms, I find shooting only faintly enjoyable.
Do not imagine, by the way, that my woods and fields are aswarm with armed men. I very rarely meet anyone walking about on the land, and only once did I encounter a man when my gun was along. I was poised in my driveway blasting away from thirty yards at a row of bottles I’d placed in a bank of snow, when behind me I seemed to sense someone watching. Turning my head, I recognized the rural delivery mailman, standing many yards away at the juncture of my driveway and the snow-packed dirt road. Or rather I recognized his white truck, against which he leaned with his arms folded. His stance did not change as I rounded to face him. He wore a red knit cap. How long had he been watching, I wondered. I’d been shooting raptly for some twenty minutes, and I’d got to listening to the flat, hard bark of each charge, gone into the air almost before I saw the bottle crumple, as though the wind had blown it into pieces. All my thoughts had been on Mr. S, on his breath-taking precision and elegance. With an eye to the mailman, I cleared the cylinder of the empty cases, and fitted my gun into the holster, which, at the time, I wore over my shoulder. The mailman straightened then, gave me an expressionless nod, pulled open the truck’s door, and climbed in. Like a person clearing his throat, the engine caught, then blared, releasing a milky plume of exhaust. He drove off.
At once it occurred to me (and at once I scolded myself for permitting it—after all was this not my land?) that the man’s look and manner had seemed somehow disapproving, or, in any case, over-attentive. I told myself such an idea was based on pretty loose reckoning—since I could not see his face at all really—and also probably on some deep fault of mine. Besides, even allowing the possibility of his disapproval, I could not assume he’d disapproved of Mr. S. If anything, it would have been the bottles, broken glass and all that. Had the mailman not left so quickly, I could have explained to him that in May, when the snow has disappeared and the ground is dry, I’ll come with a bucket to collect the pieces—though actually I’d given no thought to doing that. Bottles in fact are the key to the small pleasure I derive from shooting. Struck squarely, a bottle is finished. I think of this as satisfying to my gun. The many shots necessary to destroy a tin can are frustrating to my gun, even though one hit leaves holes front and back through which you could pass a carrot. So, Mr. S performs only when I’ve accumulated enough jam jars or wine bottles (at least a dozen) to make an outing worthwhile. True, sometimes I may carry my gun into the woods or fields, but then he lets off no more than a round or two.
Our activities to the side, I’ll confess now bluntly that I have not until recently come to grips with every feature of his gunness. For example, the chore of cleaning him was often gratifying, but altogether dull. I was careful to disguise this feeling while I was busy with his brushes, oils, rags, and patches. I hummed a tune and kept a glass of wine at hand to lighten my mood. More significant, however, was my unsettling awe of him, of his severe efficiency which argued against the grace I would have had him display.
Always with him it was the same: my breath half-drawn, I squeezed the trigger, never sure when the cocked hammer would leap, and then, BANG—a nudge of my palm, a twist of smoke—his work was done. I was left with nothing. Of course, preliminarily, I had tucked in each cartridge . . . leveled his steady muzzle at the target . . . but afterwards there lingered no subtle taste of our rapport. Where was the tense communion of purpose as between the archer and his bow? Do other gunmen wonder too?
Last was the matter of killing. For what is a gun designed if not to kill? Even if it were fair to say that my own gun is designed more specifically for target-work, how could I reconcile myself to its genealogy? While the rifle, except in war, has always been mainly a hunter’s weapon, the handgun, since its invention nearly 500 years ago, has been a mankiller. Never was it intended for anything else. Still and all, my gun and I have reached an understanding of a kind.