column By: Terry Wieland | January, 20
When I first met Clare Irwin, I had no idea the lasting influence he would have on my life. He was a small-town bank manager who was also a life-long deer hunter. He inherited hunting from his father and passed it along to his son – learning from one, teaching the other – and through a combination of circumstances, ended up teaching me, too.
Clare was a devotee of the Winchester 94, and was rather a connoisseur of rifles. All the evidence we needed was the fact that his 94 had a Lyman tang sight. This showed great sophistication. Clare had been hunting so long, and taken so many whitetails during the milk-and-honey years between the big fire of 1917 and the whitetail drought of the 1960s, that no one questioned his credentials as a hunter. Also, the fact that both his rifle and its “exotic” tang sight had barely a trace of bluing left was proof that they had spent many long days (and more than a few nights) in the woods.
This was in the mid-60s, and of all the deer rifles I ran into back then, I remember only one with a scope on it. This was a Remington Model 742 belonging to a railroad station master who was rather a prominent citizen. The rifle had barely a scratch, and its proud owner was fond of telling everyone where he bought it, how much he paid and how the scope made all the difference. He’d never sighted it in because, he said, the scope had been put on for him by the guy at the store, and “he knew what he was doing.” This worthy praise was generally regarded, privately at least, with something approaching scorn.
Aside from his 94, Clare Irwin’s only other gun was a pump shotgun, and all I remember for sure was that it was a 16 gauge. Given his regard for Winchesters, however, I expect it was a Model 12. Like its stablemate, its stock was rubbed smooth and the bluing was gone just about everywhere. Like the 94, there was nary a speck of rust nor any pitting to suggest that rust had ever afflicted it in the slightest. Both were exceedingly well looked after and exhibited a self-confident slickness.
Guns you find in hunting camps have personality. Some are leaned carefully in corners where they can’t come to grief while others are strewn just anywhere. It’s the same with bird dogs. Some are left outside to look for shelter where they can find it; others are welcome on the couch and dine on stew. Clare’s guns were respected members of the family and we all knew it.
Unless you count the odd duck coming through on its way south, we had only two kinds of edible game up where we hunted, white-tailed deer and ruffed grouse. Grouse season opened in September and stretched clear to New Year’s, while deer season opened the first Monday in November and ran for just two weeks. The grouse season seemed generous but it was pointless to hunt them until at least mid-October. As long as the leaves remained on the trees, a hunter could walk the woods and could flush the birds and revel in the whirr-rr-rr of their wings, but you’d rarely see them and almost never get a shot.
By the time deer season came around, however, the trees were bare, the air was chilly and conditions were ideal. The only problem was, were you there for the serious, once-a-year opportunity to hunt deer or to squander your time chasing grouse?
Clare’s solution showed both experience and an analytical mind. Since a hunter was far more likely to encounter a deer in the cold around dawn, he always went out in the morning carrying his rifle. By afternoon, though, the sun was high, the morning chill was gone and the grouse were moving around. After lunch, he’d fill his pumpgun’s magazine with slugs then pop a shotshell into the chamber. As he wandered the woods, if he flushed a grouse he was prepared. If he chanced on a deer, he would simply work the slide to eject the shotshell, chamber a slug and have a shot. Since deer in those situations almost always burst from cover, the noise of the slide didn’t matter.
In central Europe, this existential question of big game versus wing shooting was pondered seriously as the Germanic peoples are wont to do, and the solution was the many variations of multi-barreled guns typified by the drilling with its three barrels (two smoothbore, one rifled). An Austrian hunter might climb an alp with a shotshell in one barrel, buckshot in the other and use the rifled barrel for longer range. He was then ready for anything from a capercaillie (the giant grouse of the north, usually shot sitting) to a tiny roebuck, to a giant red stag.
In theory, at least, such an arrangement would have suited us quite well, but drillings were thin on the ground in southern Ontario, and anyway, anyone showing up at deer camp with one would have been regarded as eccentric, subversive or – worst of all – effete.
Not everyone tackled the question with the determination of the Germans, but every country had its own approach. In England, Holland & Holland adopted Col. George Vincent Fosbery’s design for a double shotgun with rifling near the muzzle. This became the famous Paradox gun. It was most popular in the colonies. Other gunmakers followed with their own variations on this theme sporting names like “Colindian” (Charles Lancaster) and “Shikari” (W.J. Jeffery).
In the southern U.S. during the reign of the side-by-side, it was common for hunters to go out with one type of shell in one barrel, and a different one in the other, prepared for anything from quail and cottontails to deer or a black bear.
Of course, all of this occurred during a period in which going out for a mixed bag was the expected thing. To a great degree, that has been left behind in the ever-increasing specialization of our age. Except where decreed by law, I haven’t seen a shotgun in the woods during deer season in many years, and the guns in use in the “shotguns only” states are every bit as specialized as a deer rifle.
One time, I was hunting quail in Georgia when a cottontail bounded down a ditch and I automatically whacked it. My companions looked at me like I’d lost my mind, and the hunt master – this was on a private plantation – not only claimed the rabbit as a perk of his job, but admonished us all against shooting “ground game.” It was, he said, “not done.”
There seems to be a general feeling that if a hunter does not go out with single-minded determination to get just one kind of game – a “big buck,” a brace of quail or a limit of cock pheasants – he is somehow not really a serious hunter. Personally, I doubt that a more serious hunter than Clare Irwin ever lived. He may not have hunted Africa or shot driven grouse in Scotland, but he hunted deer and moose and ruffed grouse every year of his adult life. He never talked about how much it meant to him, but his actions said everything that needed to be said. Clare was my hero when I was 15, and I guess he still is – in the important ways.