The Centerfire Mystique

My first rifle. A Savage 111F chambered in 30-06.

     I grew up hunting with a shotgun. Before I owned a .22 I started out chasing squirrels with an old Mossberg bolt action 20 gauge. After a few years I convinced my dad that I needed a shotgun of my own. We settled on a used 12 gauge Remington 870. That gun accompanied me on virtually all of my small game hunting excursions for the first half of my teenage years. At that point I acquired a Mossberg 500 20 gauge which I felt was a more appropriate gun for most of my small game hunting. I had a great spot to hunt growing up due to the diverse cover. I could go from thick brush where grouse were prevalent to small, soggy creek bottoms where I could jump rabbits with a fair degree of reliability. If I got sick of those challenges I knew I could head for the open hardwoods and be all but guaranteed of bringing home at least a pair of squirrels. It was a lot of fun casually walking through the trees and among the brush flushing game, my pockets full of low brass number 6s. But tucked away in my mind and drowned out by a din of youthful exuberance was a notion that would from time to time come to the forefront. It most frequently happened when I saw deer in the open woods as I came out of a thicket. Sometimes I would shoulder my gun and line up the bead with the deer and hold it on target, waiting for a good shot opportunity. Then I would imagine shooting.

    This scenario was exceptionally realistic because where I grew up we couldn’t hunt with rifles. Ever since I was a little kid my only first hand experience with a deer gun was a shotgun. Dad would take his bolt action smooth bore out of the closet a few weeks before deer season to shoot a few groups and apply some oil just like most other hunters did with there rifles.
     After watching the deer for a moment I would lower the gun. As I turned to continue on my way I always had the same thought. I wish I could hunt with a rifle.
     For several years I had been in the habit of going to Dick’s sporting goods and making a point of looking over the counter at the boxes of centerfire rifle ammunition stacked neatly and business-like, organized first by caliber and then grouped by make and load. The fact that rifle ammunition was kept behind the counter was not lost on me. If you wanted to grab a box of shotgun ammunition you were free to do so. Boxes of shotshells were routinely found in the aisles before and during hunting season and on end caps year round, as was rimfire ammunition. But you had to ask for rifle ammo. This only leavened my already sparked sense that there was something special about rifles. Some cartridges I recognized immediately. A stack of .308 sat prominently on the top shelf, clad in the green and yellow of a Remington box. As I scanned the smorgasbord of numbers and graphics I spotted a box of .30-30 Winchesters decked in gray with a smattering of red. Further down the shelf I could see such awe-inspiring offerings as 7mm magnum and .45-70. Some were only vaguely familiar, faint memories of cartridges I had learned of earlier but didn’t have a context within which to remember.
     I looked above the ammunition shelves to the rows of guns. There were dozens of bolt actions, lever actions and semi-autos. Standing directly in front of me in all it’s rugged, elegant glory was a Remington 700 with black forend cap and hooded front site. I immediately jumped to thoughts of stalking through the snow covered northern forests, peering through the pine and spruce bows looking for any sign of deer and bear, my index finger resting alongside the trigger guard of a rifle like that.
     When I was old enough to get a big game license I took the Remington out behind the house and set up a target at a mere 30 yards. I slipped a slug into the chamber and looked down the ribbed barrel that seemed to go on forever and found the shiny silver bead at the end. I held it over the target, took three deep breaths and only exhaled half of the last. I slowly squeezed the trigger. It was like opening a rusty gate. It shot a reasonably good group with regular foster slugs but it hit about five inches low. At 45 yards you had to hold so high the target was completely covered by the muzzle.
      I got through several seasons with that setup and even managed to shoot my first deer with it. But walking into the woods with a 28 inch bird barrel to go deer hunting never felt right. Like using a mini van to haul lumber to a construction site, it just wasn’t the right tool for the job. I started looking for a slug barrel one summer and settled on a 20 inch smoothbore with rife sights. A rifled barrel would have been nice but my financial state was more conducive to smooth with a fixed choke. It went a long way to dress up the Remington for deer season and it made shooting a whole lot easier, but it was no remedy for the simple fact that a shotgun is a shotgun.
     Around this time I developed a serious interest in outdoor magazines and literature. I remember reading articles by Jim Carmichael and Jim Zumbo as well as earlier works by Theodore Roosevelt and his contemporaries. The former exhorted the virtues of cartridges like the .280 Remington and .300 magnum while the later wrote of hunting the Rockies with .25-35 and .38-55. And everybody at least mentioned the .30-30 and .30-06. I devoured stories of elk hunts in Montana and white tails in the Adirondacks. I clearly remember Hemingway writing about hunting cape buffalo with an ’03 Springfield loaded with 220 grain round noses. Shotguns were rarely mentioned for big game. Some of the southern writers told of deer hunts with buckshot but even the validation of experts and literati did little to quell the disappointment I felt each fall when I fondled the plastic hulls the size of nickel rolls when I went deer hunting.
     I’ll never forget the excitement I felt as I drove from work one July afternoon to the gun shop to pick up my new hardware. I was heading into my senior year of college and shortly after spring semester let out I got bit by the gun buying bug. It occurred to me that with being three quarters of the way through school I was rapidly approaching the abyss of full blown adulthood and all the financial woes that came with it. So if I was going to get my hands on a centerfire I had better do it while I still had disposable income, modest though it was. I had considered a Remington 700 ADL very seriously but in the end settled on a Savage 111 due to the multitude of accuracy claims I had heard and the agreeable price tag. Caliber selection was pretty simple. I couldn’t argue with the 90 plus years of consistent reliability offered by the 30-06.
     My foot fell heavy on the gas pedal as the rusty minivan bounced along the road. My clothes were spattered and splotched with paint. A significant part of the funding for this purchase came from my summer job painting at an apartment complex. I had filled out the paper work and paid for the gun in full, all I had to do was sign a form or two and put the gun in the car. It felt almost odd to be finally on the verge of owning a rifle. After all the years of daydreaming and contemplating the moment was finally at hand.
     The shop proprietor opened the cardboard box and allowed me to exam my new bundle of joy. I picked it up, inhaling the fresh smell of metal and oil as I turned to gun over in my hands. It was perfect. I thought about buying ammunition right there but opted to wait. I had been so focused on the gun I hadn’t given any thought to what kind of ammo I should consider. I couldn’t help but think that I needed to get the gun home first before I would truly own it. When I walked in the door I got the gun unpacked, shouldered it a few times as I looked through the sights. Then I opened the door to my father’s gun cabinet and placed it in the second to last available slot, next to my Remington. The assortment standing behind the glass looked much better for the new addition.
     Since that day I have put several hundred rounds through my Savage and have taken it on countless deer hunts. Every time I take it afield, be it for casual target shooting or hunting I still feel a small part of the excitement of my youth as I looked at the catalogs and gun shop racks filled with walnut and blued steel. Childhood fantasies and ambitions have a tendency to take on a lackluster hue as time continues and age advances. But when I squeeze the trigger and hear the sharp crack of the bullet as it leaves the muzzle and watch a puff of dust burst from the ground 200 yards away I am reminded of what I found so alluring and awe-inspiring about real rifles in the first place.

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