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The Lesson of the Shattered Nipple

muzzleloader gun for Christmas
The author killed his first deer with the .50-caliber muzzleloader he was given for Christmas when he was 9. Will Brantley

The box under the tree was wrapped in colorful paper and shaped in such a long and slender way that inside, there could’ve only been a boat paddle or a rifle. It was 1991, I was 9 years old, and one heft of the box told me it was too heavy to be a paddle. But instead of the .22 I was expecting, I unwrapped a sidelock .50-caliber muzzleloader. “I wanted to get you something you could deer hunt with,” Dad said. “And I thought you might learn something with a gun like this, too.”  

Dad was a hunter and had a cabinet full of guns, including .22s and 20-gauges that he was already letting me use in the squirrel woods. But I’d never been deer hunting and moreover, had never so much as touched Dad’s muzzleloader, a .50-caliber Thompson-Center Hawken replica. I remember when inline guns, sabots, and pelletized powder took over muzzleloader seasons, but this was before that. In those days, black-powder hunters used percussion guns with open sights, loose black powder, and patched round balls. It was a specialized, 50-yard sport, and Dad particularly enjoyed the process of it all.  

“Every deer I’ve ever hit with a black powder fell dead on the spot,” he said. “A .50-caliber rifle is a lot of gun, but we’ll start with light charges so it won’t kick the shit out of you.”

The gun broke on the first shot. We measured out a 60-grain powder charge, loaded a round ball, and I fired it at a board that we’d leaned against a tree maybe 15 yards away. I missed it clean, shaking like I was. Dad pulled the gun’s hammer back to half-cock, to flick away the spent cap. That’s when we noticed the problem. In all the black-powder shooting Dad had done previously, and in the thousands of rounds of it that I’ve done since, I’ve never seen anything like it. The nipple, on which the percussion cap is placed to ignite the powder charge in the breech below, broke as if it were a shattered piece of glass. It was maybe a $3 part that could be replaced in 20 seconds, but it was absolutely required for the gun to work. And on Christmas morning, we had no replacement.  

Despite the man-size gift, I was crying a child’s tears. Dad hustled inside, grabbed his “possibles” bag from the hunting closet, and removed the nipple from his own Hawken with a special wrench. “See, it’s an easy thing to fix,” he said, confident he’d found the solution to save his boy’s Christmas. But the threads on the two guns were different. We had to clean my new muzzleloader, rendered to the usefulness of a heavy, sinking boat paddle, and put it in the cabinet on Christmas morning after just one shot.

A small box with a dozen replacement nipples—some for my gun, some for Dad’s Hawken—soon arrived in the mail. I killed my first deer with that muzzleloader the next fall, and I hunted with it for the next decade before finally retiring it in favor of a scoped inline. It’s always been kept clean, and it still shoots straight. Right now, it’s in the safe at Dad’s house, sitting next to his old Hawken.

Dad hoped I’d learn from that muzzleloader, and I guess I have. These days I’m not a guy who overpacks ahead of a hunt. But I do keep an extra rifle and ammo in the truck. Another duck call in my blind bag. An extra release aid in my bowhunting pack. Two knives. Two flashlights. A copy of my license. I back up the stuff I must have to finish a hunt. Sometimes, on Christmas morning, your nipple will shatter, and without a replacement handy, you’re up Shit Creek. But at least you’ll have a paddle. —Will Brantley

The Pistol from Santa

The S&W 22A was a cheap rimfire pistol with an alloy frame that looked to be coated with gray paint. It had oversize, even bulbous, plastic grips, and the full-length rail made it tough to grab the slide and pull it back. It also had a nice, steady heft to it and a surprisingly sweet trigger. Best of all, though, I could afford it—and it would be a complete surprise. I owned no handguns and wasn’t particularly interested in them, which I knew was a source of frustration to both of my boys.

At 14 and 10 years old, our sons no longer believed in Santa Claus, but we still divided gifts between the wrapped presents we gave to one another and the unwrapped gifts “from Santa” that Pam and I would put under the tree after the boys went to sleep. I stuck a red bow on the blue plastic box with “S&W” embossed on the side and wrote a note from Santa Claus that read something like: Gordon and John, Merry Christmas, Enjoy this pistol and shoot it safely! -Santa.

The boys were always up before we were on Christmas morning. I heard them going out to get their stockings, and I heard them exclaim in disbelief when they realized what was in the box. As Santa gifts went, the pistol was the all-time showstopper.

The only way to make the gift better was to shoot it, and that meant a trip to the Pit after breakfast popovers. A lot of towns have a nearby place like the the Pit, which was exactly that—a steep hillside excavation at the local WMA open 24/7 as an unsupervised range. You never knew what you’d find there: appliances, computer monitors, signs, pumpkins, and sometimes weird stuff, like mannequins…whatever people felt like dragging downrange to shoot. To an adult, it was unsavory and squalid. To a kid, it was wondrous, a dump where you could not just find bullet riddled trash-treasures, you could put more holes in them.

There were always people at the Pit, any day of the year. There were a few there that day, looking like—how to put this—the kind of people who would shoot appliances on Christmas Day. That group now included the Bourjailys. We rolled up in a minivan, took our place on the line, and shot up all the .22 ammo I had bought for the day. My wife, not a gun person, gamely took a few shots, and I made a point of gathering up our targets and trash when the range went cold, and we left.

“Everything about that trip to the Pit seemed wrong in the very best way,” said Gordon, my older son, much later. “I had never seen Mom fire a gun. We were dressed for church and we were shooting. The contrast between the Apollonian order of Christmas and the Dionysian excess of the Pit was mind-blowing.” (He talks that way. He was an English major.)

“There shouldn’t have just been a pistol under the Christmas tree,” says John. “It seemed like a mistake, but it was too big to be a mistake and there it was.”

Despite its impact that day, the pistol lost its magic over the years. When the kids were home, we’d take it to the gun club, where it misfired and stovepiped way too much. The awkward rail/slide arrangement made it a chore to clear. Last year I asked the boys’ permission to trade it in for its successor—the much better S&W Victory. “That piece of junk?” said Gordon. “Get rid of it.” Now when they visit, we shoot the Victory. The 22A is gone, except in all of our holiday memories, where we will keep it forever. —Phil Bourjaily

Boots Like the Old Timers at Deer Camp Wore

The author recalls the Christmas gift that helped him fit in at deer camp.
The author recalls the Christmas gift that helped him fit in at deer camp. Pixabay

Deer camp is a special place. It’s always been one of my favorites—and the atmosphere the night before opening day is filled with grand speculation and gear preparations. When I was young, the old timers in our camp would spend that night by the fireplace, telling tales, oiling rifles, and dressing boots. The smell of wood smoke and gun oil mixed with boot dressing will always be of the first things I remember when I think of deer camp. But until I was about 14 years old, my only participation in this poignant pre-hunt event was listening. I didn’t have my own rifle or any tales to tale— and my boots were rubber.

I had rubber boots was because money was always tight, and my feet grew every year. Mom and Dad would pick me up a new pair of cheap rubber boots at the general store each fall. My feet got cold when I hunted, and instead of dressing boots at night I treated blisters. However, before my fifteenth Christmas, I put a pair leather boots out of the Gander Mountain catalog on my wish list, knowing good and well it was a lot of money to spend on a pair of hunting boots…for a kid. But I included a note with my list that said, “I think my feet have stopped growing, these boots should last a long time.”

By then my sister and I knew who Santa Claus was, and we got our gifts after the extended family had left our house on Christmas Eve. The first package I opened was the one sized just right for what I wanted most—and there were my Gander Mountain exclusive, all-leather, hunting boots. They came with the smell of new leather and the hopes of hundreds of miles of hard terrain to cover. I put them on and wore them until I went to bed. In fact, I wore them as we visited family on Christmas Day.

Eleven months later, while all the hunters were sitting by the fireplace, telling lies, oiling guns, and dressing boots, I was there too. I didn’t say much—didn’t have to. Those high-dollar leather hunting boots said that I belonged right there, right then, and forever more. For those raised to hunt with their feet instead of feet-per-second, on Christmas morning a pair of good hunting boots is better than any gun. They’ll help you leave your footprints through the wilderness. —Richard Mann

The “Super” Surprise

browning superposed 20 gauge shotgun
The author unwrapped this Browning Superposed 20 gauge over the holidays. Phil Bourjaily

I never got a gun for Christmas when I was young, in large part because I wasn’t interested in guns. I’ve heard about other people getting guns under the tree, both as kids and adults, and it always sounded magical. It finally happened to me. It was worth the wait.

The last few New Year’s Days, my wife and I have gone over to have dinner with a couple who were friends of my parents from the time I was 10 years old. Rudy and my dad hunted together. Dad gave Rudy his first gun dog. My father is gone, and my mother no longer lives in town, so now Rudy and Gloria come to our house for Thanksgiving, and my wife and I go there on New Year’s Day. It’s a nice tradition.

They set an incredible table. Rudy is Italian and cares deeply about food and drink. Gloria is a terrific cook.

So, we finish dinner and we can hardly move. We drink some Strega. Rudy says, “Did you ever see A Christmas Story, where the dad tells Ralphie to look behind the desk?”

I nod. Everyone has seen A Christmas Story and knows that Ralphie finds the BB gun behind the desk.

“Look behind that chair,” Rudy told me. The chair is a big easy chair in the corner of the dining room.

I’m thinking, Is Rudy giving me his BB gun? I know he has his old Red Ryder from when he was a boy. He refinished the wood and has it hanging over his bar downstairs.

There’s a gun-shaped thing in a cheap vinyl case with a bow on it behind the chair. I pull the gun out, and see that it’s a 1958 20-gauge Browning Superposed skeet gun, just like the one my mom used to own.

Rudy knew I always wanted a gun like Mom’s, which she sold back before I cared about guns. He had owned this one since 1970 and never fired it. He said, “I’m 83, I’ve got no kids, I’ve got all these guns and nothing to do with them. I want this to go to someone who feels the same way about shotguns that I do.”

My wife, who isn’t even a gun person, had tears streaming down her cheeks. I was overwhelmed and pretty close to sniffling myself.

It’s one of those gifts you can’t possibly repay, so I only hope I can pay it forward some day, because I can imagine the only thing better than getting such a heartfelt gift is giving one. Meanwhile, I’ll have my new Christmas gun out next week for the last few days of the season, and if I put anything’s eye out, it will be on purpose. —P.B.

Onkel Adolph’s Gift

Boy opening a bow on Christmas
A vintage snapshot of the author unwrapping his bow on Christmas morning. Gerry Bethge

Adolph sat dead in his living room lounger in the summer of 1974. He was the first dead body that I had ever seen in my life. I was toast. He wasn’t my blood grandfather, which is why, I guess, he always insisted that I refer to him as “Onkel” instead of “Opa” when my Oma Helen married him but I was pretty much fine with addressing him as such.

In every regard he was my first hunting mentor, though—not that we ever referred to guys who told deer-hunting stories back then in such a sanctimonious way. Hell, he never regaled me with tales of big deer—didn’t have any of those in southern New England back then—but by telling me about his own deer hunts in vivid detail.

“When do you think is the best time to hunt deer?” I once asked.

“Well, it’s in a blizzard,” Onkel Adolph responded, as if I should have known that fact. “They can’t see you, they can’t smell you, and you can sneak right up on them because they can’t hear you either. One day on top of the hill right behind the house, I walked up on eight of them just laying under some hemlocks in the snow. I shot a buck from the group.”

That little tip remains one of the best pieces of deer-hunting advice that I’ve ever gotten, and I still follow to this day.

“Did I ever tell you about when I shot two bucks with one shot?” he said another time. “They were standing right behind each other. I really didn’t want to, but it happened.”

Although he’d never let me shoot his guns—it seemed as if he had dozens—he took painstaking effort to teach me about them all in the finite detail that an aircraft engineer naturally would have. “What do you think wouId make a good deer gun?” I asked. “I think I really want to get a bow and arrow, instead.”

Ach, du spinnst! [Oh, you’re nuts!],” he said in German. “You can’t kill a deer with a bow and arrow.”

Perhaps he was right. No one that I knew bowhunted back then—and it certainly did seem to be a lofty goal. Time to rethink?


In summer, when I heard a shot from his house, I’d grab my bike and race down the road to his house to see what he’d taken. Mostly it was woodchucks that were invading the raspberry patch or garden. My lord, he was continuously at war with those woodchucks, but we’d eat every one that he shot. Things were odd with his last woodchuck hunt, though.

I zoomed to his house to find him sitting on the bench out front clutching his chest. Onkel Adolph had heart issues for years, but this seemed different. “I saw him run,” he said. “I hit the hole with vinegar.” (He always smashed a giant bottle of leftover apple cider vinegar directly into the chuck’s hole to evict it from its lair.) “He came out, but I missed. Scheissdreck!” In hindsight, I guess, it was my first view of a true Hunter’s Heart.

Just two weeks later, my Oma found him in his living room lounger. The garden was picked clean by mid-August with no vegetables to put up in jars in the basement for winter.


That December was the first time Dad took me deer hunting. Though, it wasn’t so much a hunt as it was a wintry walk in the woods with guns. He doled out Onkel Adolph’s shotguns to my brother, Ken, and I, and we went looking for non-existent tracks. Even in retrospect, there’s no way to create drama from a terrible day in the deer woods, nor the sadness of the holiday season without a loved one.

Oma joined us that year for the first time in 10 years, and we were joyous that she did. Somehow, inexplicably, the youngest—me—got to open his gift first. My tearing and pulling and yanking on a long box revealed, perhaps, the greatest Christmas gift that I’d ever seen: a Fred Bear 55-pound Grizzly Recurve bow and a dozen Easton XX75 aluminum arrows tipped off with Herter’s broadheads.

“Hey Ger,” Dad whispered to me. “This isn’t from your mom nor I. Onkel Adolph wanted you to prove him wrong.” —Gerry Bethge