"You still shooting your 16th birthday present?" My buddy and fellow hunter, Wade, was leaning across the backseat of his truck, reaching for the latest addition to his already vast collection of firearms as the words rolled out of his mouth.
"Yep," I said. "Wouldn't have it any other way."
Every kid turning 16 wants and dreams about that new vehicle and the opportunities a set of wheels will open up. In the end, if we look back, it is a life-changing moment in our lives. I was a strange kid, though, because I didn't want my own vehicle; I wanted my own deer rifle.
Thankfully, my parents listened to me, and a rifle found its way into my life on that day in late March, several years ago. The opportunities that rifle gave me and the lessons I learned while carrying it far outweigh anything I could have attained had my 16th birthday present had wheels instead of a trigger.
It was a Winchester, Model 94, Trapper. It sported a 16-inch barrel, saddler ring, and a cheap side-mounted scope. The scope came a few seasons after that March day, and my buddy Wade always poked fun at my need for optics on such a short-barreled gun. We ribbed each other on many things, and our choice of firearms and our abilities to shoot them was always at the top of the list.
John M. Browning sold his Model 94 patent, No. 524702 of August 1894, to Winchester, and a legendary rifle was born in November of that year. Winchester set the introduction in motion with a statement that was both straightforward and prophetic: "We believe that no repeating rifle system ever made will appeal to the eye and understanding of the rifleman." With well over 5 million sold, that statement has proven correct.
Every October myself, and several friends have gotten together to shoot our deer rifles. Checking accuracy and trading stories of past hunts has made for a much anticipated get together each year. It's been a tradition since high school, and I dare to guess the number of different makes and models that have echoed across the oak ridges here on the family farm. One gun, though, has seen nearly every one of those gatherings. The little Winchester Model 94 Trapper has yet to miss the date.
This past October found Wade reaching across that backseat for a fancy, scoped bolt action whose cost was well above the old farm truck he had limped over to the house. It nearly made me panic when he leaned it against the rusted truck bed (unloaded, of course) like an old shovel. "I bought it to hunt with," he said. "It'll see worse."
A few other friends showed up, and we were sending rounds down range before long. We started out shooting at 100 yards and in the matter of two trigger pulls, I was satisfied the Model 94 Trapper was good to go. I had zeroed it in several years before, and through careful use and consistent ammo use, I was always able to confirm its accuracy with two or three rounds. Everyone took their turn, and in a couple of hours, everyone was satisfied and ready for the fast-approaching November morning. Wade bragged about the new rifle's ability to punch holes that were stacked on top of one another and how it had outdone a certain short-barreled birthday present. I must admit it was a beautiful gun. It shot well, but for lack of better phrase, it wasn't proven.
As a teenager, I was blessed with the opportunities to hunt whenever I wanted. I had access to land and had parents who forever encouraged me to get into the woods. I was never one to play sports or get caught up in any social activities as a kid. The back forty, as they say, was where I wanted to be. On that small chunk of timber, I learned my place in this world.
The little Trapper that I had been given was in my hands for many of those lessons. It was with the Trapper that I learned that you always hunt the wind, not the deer. It was with the Trapper I learned there is more to this amazing thing called hunting than just what lies beyond the sights of a rifle. It was with the Trapper in hand that I knelt next to an old roman nosed doe I had just shot and wished to God I could breathe life back into her. Not because I was ashamed of what I had done, but because of the gifts she and so many others like her had given me. It was the day I told myself I would study Wildlife Conservation, so maybe, in a more direct way, I could give back to the animals that had fallen to my rifle. A few may not understand how a rifle can bring forth so much emotion, but I believe many will.
November 14th came with near perfect conditions for an opening day of deer season. There was a light wind out of the north, and the temperatures had gotten down to just below freezing. The frost was heavy enough to bring about a soft crunch with each step, and every breath sent forth a steaming cloud. The day was waking up in the perfect mood.
Just as the sun was rising, two does stepped out into a small opening amongst the sumac and cedars that were beginning to take over the old field I was hunting. At 75 yards, I knew I could easily tag one of the deer. I had two doe tags in my vest, but for some reason, I had no interest in notching either one of them just yet. The day was too perfect for interrupting with the obnoxious crack of the rifle. The two does fed off onto the oak flat to the south of my stand.
The temperature was slowly rising, and by 8:00, the frost was gone and the wind was slowly starting to shift to the northwest. I was gazing into the shadows just below my stand when I felt the buzz of my cell phone. It's strange to think how tethered we are these days to our devices. Twenty years ago, I would have sworn I'd never carry a phone into the woods. /our-obsession/blogs/hunting/can-your-phone-make-you-a-better-hunter Strangely enough, for many of us, it has become as important as the binoculars around your neck or the sling on your rifle. You don't have to have it, but it does come in handy at times.
I pulled the phone from my vest pocket and opened it up to a text message from Wade. It was short and to the point. "Missed a brute. Headed to the range to check my rifle." I decided there was no need to reply even though I wanted to rub a little salt in his sliced ego. I closed the phone and slid it back into my vest pocket. Unproven, I thought to myself, unproven.
The sun was nearing the noon mark, and I had yet to see another deer since the two doe earlier that morning. My stomach was beginning to tell me it needed more than the coffee and jerky I had been feeding it all morning. I was about to start listening to its requests when I heard the slightest ruffle of leaves just to the right of my stand. Glancing over, I saw movement amongst a cluster of wild plum trees. The deer responsible for the rustle stepped out from behind the plum trees and stood alert just long enough for me to realize I was looking at a very respectable buck. His body language told me he knew something wasn't right and was about to move on. The buck took a few steps, and as he passed behind a large post oak, I shouldered the little Trapper. The distance was right at 100 yards, and I was confident the gun could perform. As the buck cleared the post oak, I sent forth a shrill whistle, and the deer immediately stopped.
The rifle spoke, and the buck sprinted into the cedar and sumac thicket the two does had come out of earlier. The crash of the buck hitting the ground was easily heard, but as I had always been taught, I gave him some time. After 15 minutes and with calm nerves, I descended from my stand and eased across the opening to the cedar thicket. The frothy red blood from the well-placed shot left no doubt the buck was not far. I stooped to get under a leaning elm tree, and as I stood straight, I saw him 30 yards away. The shot had indeed been good.
Kneeling next to the deer, I couldn't help but think back to all the hours I had spent with the little rifle in my hands. The memory of things I'd seen, the life lessons I had learned, and the people I had spent time with in the woods. It was a reunion of times and people from the past, and it was all tied back to that 16th birthday gift of a rifle.
As I began digging for my knife, I remembered Wade's text. A smile came across my face as I thought now would be a good time to respond. It was a simple text accompanied by a photo. "Just shot a brute; headed to the house to hang up my 16th birthday present."