Years later, I realized the long-recoil action of a Browning Auto 5 makes it feel like it’s bouncing on your shoulder when you shoot it. I didn’t notice at the time. I thought that’s what guns felt like, because the Auto 5 was the only gun I owned. It had been my dad’s gun, a Belgian-made Light 12 with blond wood and a vented adjustable Polychoke on the barrel. It was actually his second Auto-5. He dropped the first one over the side of boat and replaced it with this one. It survived him—not an easy feat for a gun—and when I started hunting in my early 20s, he passed the well-worn Browning on to me.

I shot a lot of firsts with it: first rabbit, first snipe, first rail, first quail, first mallard, first dove, first deer, and first woodcock, and probably others I’ve forgotten. The Polychoke fascinated me. It worked like a hose nozzle to open or tighten patterns spreads, and on every hunt I would stress over exactly what gradation of choke I needed. Given how badly I shot in those days, it hardly mattered. The vented Polychoke also made the gun loud. I carry a faint buzzing in one ear with me wherever I go, courtesy of the five boxes of shells I put through the gun on my first dove hunt.

The gun shot high, too, fine for upland bird hunting but not good for a slug gun. I had to hold about a foot low to put Foster slugs where I wanted them to go. Perched in a homemade tree stand on the creek bottom as a blocker during my first deer season, I put the bead somewhere on the leg of a whitetail buck pushed to me by the drivers and shot it through both lungs. The deer plunged over the steep bank.

“I got one!” I yelled, and started babbling about how the deer had fallen into the creek.

“Shut up,” someone yelled back. “There are more coming.” After the drive we fished the buck out of the water, and 40 years later that eight-point basket rack hangs on the wall just behind me as I write this.

I carried that gun long enough to tell you from experience that the designation “Light 12” means nothing. It weighed over 8 pounds, and while I could carry it with no problem, my beloved first gun started to lose its luster after I picked up a 20 gauge o/u for birds. The dings, scratches and rust spots on it started bothering me. The 2 ¾-inch chamber seemed limiting when it came to ducks, and my newfound obsession with turkeys. The Polychoke that used to fascinate me looked ungainly and bulbous compared to the new guns with their scarcely visible screw-in chokes.

A hunting partner offered to buy it. Money was scarce—what with me trying to write, my wife in graduate school, and a toddler in the house. I had just discovered trap and Skeet, which I loved and couldn’t afford. I parted with the Auto 5 and spent the money on a few cases of target loads. I still wasn’t a good shot after I burned through all those shells, but I was on my way to getting better, and I never stopped until I’d shot my way into my dream job.

“My First Gun” is a new essay series on F& You can find the complete collection here. If you would like to submit an entry, send it to