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We moved to western Illinois the summer I was 13. I had already been given opportunities to fish in places and for fish that many outdoorsmen dream of. But I had never hunted with anything more potent than a Benjamin pellet gun. Dad introduced me to his .22 and bought me my first compound bow before the leaves began to turn that fall. I was excited with each new tool put in my hands and to learn a lesson in its use. But in the back of my mind, the question of when I might get my first gun loomed. I did not want to ask out loud for fear that the voiced wish would chase the possibility away. When Dad took me to Merkel’s and began looking over the used gun rack, handing me a few to shoulder, the only logical conclusion was that we were shopping for my first gun. But it was still too wonderful to believe, even as Dad narrowed in on a 20-gauge Winchester 1300 and put the money down. The gun was a little long for me, but he said I’d figure it out.

Illinois was, and is, a shotgun-slug-only state when it comes to modern firearms and whitetails. Dad, Grandpa, and I discovered that the screw-in Improved Cylinder choke and the unusually small bead on the Winchester enabled me to group Foster slugs very tight inside 70 yards. The 8-point buck I caught sneaking through cover at the north end of the farm was only 40 yards away. Dad and Grandpa saw me coming across the fields and could tell by the way I walked, and the way I carried my gun, that my news was the good kind.

My son is 12. He shot my Winchester 1300 for the first time earlier this fall. It is a little long for him, but he’ll figure it out in time. I do most of my hunting with a rifle in my hands these days. But talking about the 20 gauge with my son reminded me of what a splendid thing a smooth pumping shotgun is. There’s a lot to be said for a gun you can use to kill squirrels, doves, quail, pheasants, turkeys, rabbits, and deer. I am grateful to whoever traded the gun in to Merkel’s, grateful for all the hours I’ve sat in a stand with a slug in the chamber, grateful for all the walks down turnrows with 7 1/2s rattling in my pocket, and grateful that I never talked myself into trading the gun in for another. There are finer, fancier guns in every shop. But this one’s mine. Mine because Dad gave it to me, mine because of all the hunts, and it’s mine to pass on to someone else who will value all the things it will allow them to do. —Joshua Mayfield

“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