Sager: Is your gun a work of art, a tool or both?

The author prepares to sight-in a Sako .338 while his son Eric, will spot the shots. This gun proved to be accurate as well as a bit classy.

I freely admit to my addiction to most things related to firearms. One of my special weaknesses involves admiring “classic” rifles and shotguns. I might define these as high quality, attractive guns with real wood (usually walnut) stocks, with a suitable (usually oil) finish carefully applied. Meticulous fitting of all the deep-blued metal parts to the wood is of course a must.

Unfortunately, my checking account can’t stand too much of this perfection so, like most of my acquaintances, I’ve spent many happy hours searching gun racks for products by Remington, Ruger, Sako and others that catch my eye and more or less fit my need for some aesthetic beauty and quality.

Physical appearance is one thing, but just like people, the most attractive ones may not be the ones you really want to associate with. A quick trip to the range will disclose any mechanical issues and give an indication of accuracy potential. An often used quote is, “Only accurate rifles are interesting.” I completely agree with Townsend Whelen, who wrote that back in the 1950s. An accurate rifle that’s also an attractive example of the gun maker’s art makes not only a good hunting tool, but provides some pride of ownership as well.

Since I really don’t want to come off as some kind of grumpy old gun snob, I should note that I’ve recently worked with quite a few “black” rifles and shotguns, including weapons with synthetic stocks of all kinds. A lot of these guns shot very well, including two bolt action Savage models in .243 and .270 caliber. There were several semi-autos, such as an AR-10 and an AR-15. I can appreciate the acceptable accuracy and practicality of these guns, but I can’t help but think of them in the same way I appreciate a well-balanced hammer for driving nails or a powerful drill or Sawzall. Some of the current crop of ARs have ventilated hand guards, expandable butt stocks, and all kinds of metal edges. This gives the guns all the warmth and comfort of a cactus to hang onto.

Another, less drastic recent trend has been to introduce “entry level” rifles at moderate prices such as models made by Savage (Axis), Mossberg (Patriot), Ruger (American), Thompson Center (Compass) and Remington (783.) All are available for $350 or less; some even include a scope. This isn’t a bad thing, with most of these guns capable of delivering a reasonably accurate shot to the target for a reasonable price. However, like a display of tools at a hardware store, most of these guns show little individuality or character.

Whenever the subject of a “utility” gun is mentioned, I think of the farmers, ranchers and other independent types who seem to have at least one gun that is truly regarded as a tool. Whether it’s a constant companion in a pickup truck or tractor, or a varmint dispatcher kept behind the kitchen door, it’s always available. These guns are typically not pampered and admired for their beauty, but valued for their rugged construction and reliability.

On a deer hunt years ago, three of us had been in camp for several days when we were invited to dinner by the nice folks on a neighboring farm. After a few days of camp food, we were pleased to accept. While walking through a deep layer of wet November leaves between the barn and the farmhouse, my foot struck something hard. Pulling the object out of the leaves, I found myself holding an old single shot .22 rifle. Thinking I had found a slightly rusty piece of history, I checked to see that it was unloaded, then walked to the house, showing our host what I had found.

Rather than being surprised or upset, our friend said something like, “So that’s where we left that.” It seems they had butchered a pig several days before and in all the activities of processing the animal, the gun was dropped and apparently forgotten — a tool indeed.

Many times over the years, while examining good quality rifles and shotguns, I’ve heard comments to the effect, “That gun is too pretty to take into the woods.” Luckily, I’ve never found a gun (that I could afford) that I wouldn’t use as a hunting “tool.” I’m reminded of an especially attractive, shiny new Remington shotgun that I took on its maiden voyage into thorn bush thickets after rabbits and grouse. The gun was admired by my friends, who questioned the wisdom of dragging it through the brush. When I shot a rabbit, some good-natured kidding started about the luck of the pretty new gun. While cleaning the rabbit, my friend’s beagle came over to inspect the bunny and sniff the new gun, which was propped temporarily against a sapling. When the dog lifted his leg and christened the shiny stock with a canine shower, there was an audible gasp from the dog owner and an apology. After a moment, I saw the humor involved and I assured him it was okay. It was all part of owning a hunting gun.

To put all of this into perspective, I recently read an article that reported a custom gun from the famous John Rigby & Co. of London now costs around 30,000 English pounds — that’s about 38,000 U.S. dollars. With that many digits in the price tag, we’ll never know if I would take such a “pretty gun” for a walk through the thorn bush.

(Roger Sager, an Era outdoor columnist, can be reached at rogerjsager@gmail.com.)

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