Monday, March 29, 2010

In praise of cheap, ugly guns

Regular reader(s) might recall a rather dyspeptic blog post written some time ago, in which I said many mean things about golf and a few mean things about flyfishing literature. That particular rant was instigated by my having just read two wildly different (in terms of my enjoyment) books on flyfishing.

One, Howell Raines Flyfishing Through The Mid-Life Crisis, made me retch uncontrollably every third page or so. The other, James Babb's River Music, was an absolutely wondrous read. I included the mean things about golf not because I had (nor will I ever) just read anything on golf, but because I thought (and will continue to think until I'm dead and can no longer do so) golf was an utterly useless activity enjoyed primarily by dickheads and therefore eminently worthy of said criticism.

But I digress. The reason I bring it up now is that in that blog post I recalled my own brief and unwilling adolescent dalliance with the sport and how the experience ultimately left me with a loathing for golf and a Remingtom 870, the very cheap, old and worn-out (not really) Remington 870 Express you see in the picture above.

As a degenerate and unrepentant shotgun slut, I've bought, sold and traded any number of shotguns since trading my hated golf clubs for that 870 way back when, but that cheap, ugly, completely ordinary and utilitarian 870, along with a few others, has managed to stay with me all these years.

That gun and I had many adventures in high school and beyond. During college when I was only slightly poorer than I am now it was my main waterfowl and dog training gun. I had convinced the manager of the local Whataburger in Norman to let me place a pigeon trap on the roof of the restaurant, and after class I would load up the dog, run by the Whataburger, climb up on the roof, retrieve whatever pigeons I had managed to trap, climb back down, explain to the cop who was invariably driving by at the time what I was doing, wait while he ran my driver's license to make sure I wasn't some kind of wanted Whataburger bandit, then drive down the South Canadian river to shoot live fliers for the dog.

It was during one of these sessions that the end of the barrel exploded, peeling back like a banana and scaring the living shit out of me. The pigeon kept flying. Apparently I had unwittingly plugged the barrel with dirt. It was an effective lesson that has never needed repeating.

I replaced the factory barrel with an older full-choke Wingmaster barrel I conned out of my father and kept right on killing things with it: dove, turkeys, many, many ducks, a few geese and even my little brother's first deer, which he shot with a slug.

And while I've gone on to other shotguns for the majority of my shooting, the old 870 is still my primary bad weather, sit-in-the-mud gun, mainly because that old full-choke barrel inexplicably patterns wonderfully with the cheap Winchester Xpress steel loads. But this year I realized it was really looking bad. The plain birch stock was chipped and worn, the finish and pressed checkering pretty much gone. So I decided to rebuild it into something new: It would be my dedicated turkey gun.

So I put it on the bench and took it apart. I made plans to send the barrel off to be cut back to 24 inches, threaded for tubes and have the forcing cone lengthened. I decided on a new synthetic camo stock and forend and I'd primer and rattle-can the receiver. It'd be a lean, mean (and cheap) turkey-killing machine.

But then a funny thing happened: I looked at it sitting there in pieces, and started having doubts, like I was somehow betraying the old beater. I mean, it's essentially worthless. It's not graceful or lively or pretty like some of my other shotguns. It's certainly not pleasing to the eye. I couldn't get a hundred bucks for it in a pawn shop, and it's one of literally ten million 870s out there, but the stories etched into that ugly old birch stock and that scratched up receiver are my stories.

So here I sit, mulling over nostalgia versus practicality...


  1. By all means make it a turkey gun (tubes would make it a solid loaner duck gun too) but for god's sake don't paint it. The least she deserves is a bottle of cold blue...

  2. My comments here are probably meaningless, as the most memories I have in a single gun are four seasons of waterfowling.

    But, I think I understand your angst, contemplating abandoning the imperfect-yet-comfortable familiar. Is it wrong that I want to compare it to sending a wife in for a few surgeries to make her more perfect for your needs?

  3. I'll bet it'll shoot turkeys just fine without beign "dedicated". Leave it alone. It has character. Not much of that around these days.

  4. My first shotgun was an 870 that I picked up at a pawn shop for about $300. That may sound like a lot for a pawn shop 870, but it was left-handed (we get along well together) and as far as I could tell, fired only a couple of times.

    Over the years I've shot quail, chukar, pheasant, woodcock, ducks, dove, snipe and turkey with it. In fact, I've never shot a turkey with anything else. It's still my primary dove and duck gun too.

    Not tryin' to tell ya how to spend your money, but if it were me I'd let someone refinish that old birch stock. It'll cost about what a synthetic camo replacement and the chop job on the barrel would, and it ain't the camo stock that kills gobblers. Dance with the partner that brought you.

  5. It all comes back to scratches, and all the memories those little indentations hold. I was going to tart up a knife i've had for about 30 years. I'm glad i didn't.


  6. I don't know, if I shot it well I'd be reluctant to change much. Maybe get another barrel if I could find one cheap and stick sights on it for turkeys. Add a sling. That self-adhesive camo wrap works pretty well, too.

  7. OK, OK, you all convinced me. No rattle-can paint job, no 24-inch barrel, no overt ugliness (the things ugly enough as it is...) The old birch stock may have to go depending on how bad one crack is, and I may cut the barrel back to 26 inches from its current 30 (I prefer a slightly shorter barrel) but I guess other than that I'll just leave it alone...

  8. I'm with anonymous on this one - it doesn't need any fancying up to kill turkeys. Just drape some 3-D camo over it, and call it a day.

    I nearly cried when I gave up my Mossberg 500, and it was to a dear cousin! Nah, keep the gun as-is, and instill in your child an appreciation of fine things, and what "fine" really means.

  9. That's as it it should be Chad. A little chop and channel, and leave it at that. I'm one of those fellows that has never met a firearm I didn't love, and for better or worse, I keep 'em all.

    Best Regards,
    The Rasch Outdoor Chronicles
    Reviewing the Nikon Monarch 8X42