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Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Marlin 778. Remembering my first shotgun.

Since starting this blog, and returning to the fields and streams and rivers, I’ve caught myself reminiscing about some of the hardware I used to own when I was a kid.
One of the first stories I wrote here was about my first fishing rod. I also wrote about my first tackle box and the mysteries it held.
I’ve also been thinking a lot about my first, and only, shotgun. I got it for my sixteenth birthday. It was a Marlin model 778, thirty inch, vent ribbed, full choke, skeet sights, chambered for up to three inch magnum shells. This is not my actual gun, but this is exactly what it looked like.

Like I said, I got it for my sixteenth birthday. It was probably the best birthday present I ever got. It was the one time I can remember my mother and stepfather actually throwing a birthday party for me, and it was the one present I ever got that really was something I wanted. My birthday was always close to the start of school and so I mainly got school clothes for birthday gifts. But this one time, they really got it right.
I loved that gun. I assembled it and disassembled it about a hundred times the first few days after I got it. I oiled it and polished the walnut stock and fore-end until it looked like a piece of furniture.
The first time I fired it was with my friend Mark at his house in Smyrna, Delaware. We walked out to the soy fields behind his house and put about a half a box of Remington #8’s through it. I loved how it fired. I loved how smooth and sweet the pump action was. It wasn’t clunky or loose or excessively noisy. A thirty inch barrel with a full choke keeps a very tight pattern for a very long distance. It took some getting used to when switching from geese to rabbit or squirrel. I could knock down a Canadian goose from a pretty good distance. But that barrel didn’t leave much for the freezer when I was hunting smaller animals, so I had to learn how to aim it so that only part of the pattern would hit my prey.
I got good at it though, and over the years during high school, Mark and I were like Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, traipsing through the woods near and around his house, or the hunting area near the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, or down at Phillips Nursery. The Phillips’ let people hunt their nursery in the winter because it kept the critters from destroying the valuable shrubbery and trees they were growing for the upcoming spring. You could always count on coming home with a rabbit or two after a Saturday at Phillips’ nursery.
I got my first, and only deer with that gun. A beautiful eight point buck. He walked through the soy fields I was hunting in downstate Delaware and he stepped on the only stalk left in the field after the combine had come through. I heard the crunch from my tree stand and turned to watch him approaching. He was careless and randy, because the rut was in full force and I was perched just above his favorite scrape. He was walking straight at me, about fifty yards out and I waited for him to turn enough for me to take out a leg with a shoulder shot and make sure I didn’t leave him wounded and running.
The old boy never did turn, he got to within about forty yards and stopped. He nibbled something on the ground, looked around –probably for a doe to pursue- and stayed still. I figured the longer he stood there the better chance he’d eventually see me up in the tree so I aimed carefully and took my shot. I was using Brenneke rifled slugs (in Delaware, you can only hunt deer with shotgun or primitive weapon. No High Powered rifles) and the combination of the long barrel and the precision of those slugs, made it an easy kill. I hit him right in the chest, over his heart. He reared straight up, fell back about five feet, took one deep breath, kicked out his hind legs and expired. I doubt he ever felt anything, and I’m glad.
I pumped the second shot into the chamber so fast that I doubt a semi-auto could have been quicker. I stood there in my stand, watching him for a good fifteen seconds, hoping that he didn’t move. He never did.
I scurried down the tree and called out to my hunting partner Hank. Hank emerged from the woods a few minutes later as I fell to work, dressing my buck.
I was nineteen when I shot that deer. A few years later, I was in my mid-twenties, hunting had become more and more infrequent since I had started a business and the lady where we deer hunted had sold her farm. I sold that shotgun to a friend of mine who owned a pawn shop in Elsmere. I intended on buying something more fancy one day, but one day turned into about 25 years of not hunting or fishing or enjoying the places I used to love. I sure do miss that gun.
I don’t know who owns it now, if it’s still shooting straight, and taking game. I don’t know if it filled any more freezers after it filled mine. I don’t know if there are any more notches on the stock.
But I know there is one.
A few days after I took that buck, I got out my pocketknife and carved a precise, small little notch in the stock, just below the point where it attaches to the receiver. I had every intention of carving many more notches into that stock, representing many more deer, but I never did.
Marlin was never a high-end gun manufacturer, but they built very good guns for a very good price.
If you had covered over the stampings and told me it was a Winchester or a Remington or even an Ithaca, I would have known no different. Through the years, I found myself wanting to buy more exotic, pricier, trendy guns. Being Italian I wanted –and still want- a nice Beretta or a Benelli. Maybe a Browning Citori or a nice Remington 1100.

But if I could only buy one gun right now, I’d find that old Marlin 778 from my sixteenth birthday. I’d give the owner whatever he wanted for it, because to me it is priceless. It was my companion, along with my dog Jesse and my best friend Mark, on weekends and early autumn afternoons. It stood by me in the rain and the cold. It was next to me in the goose pit in Middletown when I took my only Canadian geese. It was a symbol of my manhood. It wasn’t a composite stock, or a carbon barrel. It was made of wood and steel, the way guns used to be made. It has a visible notch in the stock for the deer I took in 1981, and invisible notches for all the memories I made with it, with a friend, and a dog, that I loved dearly.

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