My dad was a rifleman. He grew up on a farm where a rifle was kept handy for hunting and taking care of the coyotes that came around to grab a quick meal when mountain desert fare was sparse. As a teenager, his father would head off to surrounding towns to do odd jobs to earn money during the colder months of the year. One winter his father was away when a massive snow storm left the family stranded without much food in the cupboards. With the sudden responsibility of being the man of the house, my dad spent days lying in the snow waiting for a pheasant to happen by. When the bird was finally harvested with his trusty rifle, he was too sick from the long hours of lying motionless in the bitter cold to consume anything more than the broth made from it.
Like his siblings, Dad left the farm as soon as he was grown. But unlike the others, he was drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War. His years of tinkering with old cars and farm equipment paid off as he was assigned to be a mechanic rather than being sent to the front lines. Nevertheless, he received his standard infantry rifle training right alongside his fellow soldiers.
Once he was discharged he became a civil service employee in the U.S. Air Force, married my mom and started a family. They chose to live in the suburbs so that Dad could commute to the Air Force base and Mom, a city girl, could be close to her parents. But one glorious weekend a month the family would hop in the old station wagon and take the three-hour drive to the family farm. Mom, my sisters and I would spend time visiting with Grandma and driving her to town for supplies, while Dad would work on whatever part of the farm was in most desperate need of attention. He was often out mending the chicken coop, shingling the house, or fixing the tractor.
As a child, visiting the farm was the highlight of the month. We not only had time with a grandmother who doted on us, we were free to explore and embark upon grand adventures. We joined Indiana Jones as the heavy wooden doors of the two outside cellars were heaved open and daylight burst upon the creaky wooden stairs leading down into the depths of darkness. Snakes who thought their burrows were concealed by the shadows were greatly surprised—as were we when we encountered them. Down we descended into the tombs of ancient kings where the walls were lined with wooden planks holding dusty bottles of peaches and green beans meant to sustain the pharaoh in his afterlife. The sibling who could reach through the poison-tipped arrows to push the button that would open the secret door was the hero. It was a title well worth the effort, even if it meant pulling out a cactus spine from your finger.
Of all the fun adventures we had, one of the highlights of the weekend would be when Dad drove us over to the hills to go shooting. There was a specific spot where we would set up that, from the looks of it, had long since been employed for this very purpose. Rusty cans and broken bottles littered the ground a ways off while spent brass and shells were scattered under our feet. This was serious business. My days often progressed as a blurring of actual events and fanciful imaginations, but when it was time to shoot, I knew Dad expected me to be in the present moment. Besides, I wanted to be. I loved that time with my dad as he would give each of his girls a chance to load the rifle. Then he’d wrap his arms around us to help us steady it as we took aim at a soup can and fired. Hitting a can made me feel like a true marksman, but missing the target and hitting a dirt clod was just as delightful. It was focused family time in an activity we all enjoyed.
Years later, I met my fiancée who was a handgunner. Well that’s what he was enjoying the most when we first met. He too grew up with a family of hunters and sports shooters who preferred rifles and shotguns. But a buddy from work invited him to go to the range to try his double-action revolver. A few pulls of the trigger and he was hooked. I hadn’t ever shot anything but a rifle before I started dating him. Admittedly, a number of our early dates were to the local gun range where we were able to pay a range fee, buy a couple of boxes of ammo and then try out as many handguns in that caliber as they had in the rental case before either our one hour time limit, or the ammunition, ran out.
Our early years of marriage were spent in a small college town in northern Utah. Life would have been financially easier had we followed the pattern most of our married friends did, having my husband attend school while I worked full time. But my husband isn’t that kind of guy. He wanted me to follow my career dreams and we both knew that meant a Bachelor’s degree for me as well. So, we both attended school full time while working part time. At one point, he was working three part-time jobs while I had two. We hardly saw each other, but we were happy.
Our initial college jobs consisted of anything we could find, including working at the local manufacturing plant assembling exercise equipment. But as we kept our ears to the ground, better options came along. My husband landed his dream job when he got a sales position at the new sporting goods store behind the gun counter. I’m certain he was dreaming of shooting the guns which lined the walls and glass cases. Although he had been able to find a .22 LR pistol on sale while we were dating, we didn’t have the money for him to start his intended collection. Fortunately his job allowed him to learn more about a variety of models while leafing through the various gun magazines and catalogs at the store. This, along with advice from his more experienced coworkers, helped him decide on the next gun he really wanted: a stainless steel Ruger GP100 chambered in .357 Mag. with a 4” barrel and adjustable sights.
He saved the money our parents sent for his birthday and Christmas over the next few years so that when a used GP100 in surprisingly good condition showed up as a trade-in at the store, he was ready to make the most of his employee discount and buy it. I don’t think he could have been happier with it. He cleaned it, polished it, and replaced the damaged rubber grip.
That weekend I drove out to the local shooting range with my husband and his best friend. I tried shooting the new revolver with full power .357 Mag. ammunition once, then sat and waited for the boys to enjoy having their hands slapped by the recoil. My guy was so proud of his new acquisition. The next time we drove home he showed it to his own dad and brothers who were, for the most part, nonplused. His brothers didn’t see much use for a handgun in their preferred pursuits of hunting, so they didn’t have much interest in shooting it. But when he showed it to my dad, it was met with a smile and shared admiration. My dad liked the balance and the rubber grip with wood inserts was a good fit in his hand. The two of them took the new double-action to the range. Like his daughter, Dad didn’t care for the .357 much, but he sure had fun shooting it with .38 special. ammunition. Back at home it was carefully cleaned, polished, and put into its case to be locked up as the prized possession it was.
Sometime later, it was late November and we were discussing what to give our families for Christmas. We had already made the decision for my husband to take extra classes the following semester so that he could graduate ahead of schedule. He would be done sooner but the trade off was that he would need to stop working to focus on the additional course load. This meant we would be living off of my two part-time jobs. We were already getting by on two meals of instant ramen noodles a day, keeping the heat at a minimum in our drafty apartment, and literally recording every penny we spent in an attempt to stretch our meager earnings a bit further. It was decided. Christmas would need to consist of cards I made for our loved ones.
We had a plan, so I couldn’t believe my ears when my husband suggested a special gift. He wanted to give my dad the Ruger revolver he had saved up to purchase. I appreciated the offer more than I could express but assured him that neither my dad, nor myself, would ever expect him to give away something so prized and hard earned.
Christmas day that year was wonderful. It was so good to be home and enjoying time with my family. Gifts had been exchanged and much of the day was over. I was sitting in the living room with my parents when my husband came in holding his handgun case with a bow on it. He handed it to my dad who smiled and asked what it was. “Just open it,” came the reply. He did. His smile fell as a look of confusion crossed his face. “What’s this?” he inquired a second time. “It’s yours,” my husband beamed. “No, you can’t give me this,” Dad said. “It’s yours, Dad.” My dad fell quiet. A twitch of his lips betrayed his emotions as he picked up the revolver and I knew he was deeply touched. He had never owned a handgun and he would have never purchased something like it for himself. But my sweet husband had seen how much my dad admired the gun when he had shot it a couple months before.
My husband didn’t buy my dad’s affections. They already got along well enough. And honestly, I know my dad well enough to realize it wasn’t about the actual gift. In fact, I don't think he ever even shot the revolver again before he passed on. But as I look back on this memory, I really believe this was the Christmas the two men I love became good friends instead of just in-laws. And that is the Christmas story of my dad’s first, and only, handgun.
Do you have a firearm that has become a special piece of your family’s history? We’d love to hear the story! Email us at [email protected]