hunting maxim
The author follows this hunting maxim: You shouldn't kill a beautiful bird with an ugly gun. Phil Bourjaily

The other day I tagged along at a hunter safety class, and when we got to the part about crossing fences the instructor said: “I unload my gun and set it on the ground. My guns are tools and I don’t mind if my dog steps on it.”

That’s a valid way to look at guns, and I have waterfowling friends who are that way. To them, a gun is no different than a decoy or a mud motor. It’s a tool of the hunt. I get that, and I own a couple of basic black plastic-stoked, matte-finished guns that are purely practical tools: a Beretta 3901 and a Remington V3. The 3901 is for walk-in duck hunts and playing in the mud. The V3 I keep for guests, so I have a gun they can abuse without upsetting me. But, I shoot those guns only when it’s necessary. I’d much rather take a gun with a wood stock and blued steel into the field.

Whenever someone shows me a gun and says, “This is a (fill-in-the-blank species) killing machine,” I wince inside. Our advantages over the animals we hunt are already huge without our needing to arm ourselves with killing machines.

Nor do most of us need to game to survive. Sure, ducks and geese make up most of the red meat we eat at my home, and I love eating pheasants and quail, but “need” isn’t a part of it. Sport hunting is a harvest ritual. To me, a traditional gun, one that is pleasing to look at, with a walnut stock and pleasing lines and maybe a bit of engraving, is the appropriate tool (there’s that word again) for a what is essentially a ceremonial pursuit.

I feel that way about upland bird hunting especially and believe in the maxim, You shouldn’t shoot a beautiful bird with an ugly gun. I know it doesn’t matter to the birds what you kill them with, but it matters to me. It seems appropriate. And, since I hunt alone much of the time, I am not shooting whatever I shoot to please anyone but myself, nor to impress anyone at all.

It’s true that if you take guns hunting you will ding them up. That’s one of the reasons I prefer to buy used guns. They come pre-dinged, so I don’t have to worry about putting the first scratch in a pristine stock. I have broken exactly one gunstock in nearly 40 years of hunting. Years ago, I took a hard fall on the ice and cracked the stock of a Ruger Red Label all the way through. On the other hand, wood can be tough. I fell on a Beretta Silver Pigeon III hard enough to break my arm last fall, and the gunstock, evidently, is stouter than I am. And, our fathers and grandfathers killed tons of game with wood stocked guns with shiny barrels. It’s not the handicap we now think it is.

All this said, don’t get me wrong: If it came to a choice between owning nice looking guns and going hunting with plastic-stocked tools, going hunting would win every time. Fortunately, I don’t have to choose.