Great Guns

I was ten years old when I got my first rifle, a Winchester Model 06 pump .22. Since then, I’ve owned countless pistols, shotguns, and other firearms. And whether used for hunting or gathering dust, each one tells a story.
The author, photographed on August 22, 2006, holding a Winchester Model 97 shotgun outside his home in north-central Texas.
Photography by Michael O'Brien

I AM NOT A MEMBER OF THE National Rifle Association, nor do I collect rare firearms, attend gun shows, or subscribe to gun magazines. I am not, in other words, a “gun nut” and, in fact, can sympathize to a degree with the views of those who detest all such weapons and want them regulated. You can’t have lived in a large American city for any length of time, as I have, without seeing that such people’s opinions may have a certain amount of validity.

But I grew up in a time and a region that almost automatically sparked interest in not only guns but also the hunting of birds and beasts, in which pursuits such weapons were and still are central components. Nor did a war experienced in the U.S. Marine Corps and a functional country life during most of the past forty-odd years do anything to hamper the affinity.

This piece of writing stems from a letter I wrote to my wife Jane’s and my two daughters, who both now live far from Texas but retain an appreciation of the rural surroundings in which they mainly grew up. And both, for whatever reasons, had expressed specific curiosity about the remembered assortment of firearms accumulated by their male parent during his sojourn in this vale of sorrows, which has now lasted 86 years. Neither daughter is a gun enthusiast; they just remembered these weapons, most of which have moved along elsewhere by now, and wanted to know the stories of those that had one.

So here are the stories, with a few extras and detours thrown in as what the Mexicans call pilón, “something extra.” They are not all “nice” tales in contemporary terms. Political incorrectness, as presently defined, may be perpetrated here and there, though I hope no parts will seem like the maunderings of a Deep South redneck. But if they do, the hell with it. I am too old to fret about such matters.


My earliest pistol was a rusted and cylinderless revolver I found in the area, near where I grew up in Fort Worth, that had been the spread-out site of World War I’s Camp Bowie. And I recall a battered nickel-plated .38 of a dubious cheap foreign brand, which had been confiscated from some miscreant in Cuero, when my very casual uncle Tommy Graves had been county judge there. He reconfiscated it and gave it to me when I was quite young, but my father got rid of it as soon as he found out I had it.


This was one of a couple of antiques in the collection, both deriving from that same ancestral town of Cuero. My grandfather, the first John A. Graves, was not at all interested in weapons, though two of his three sons were avid hunters, mainly of quail, doves, ducks, and such. And their brother, my father, had also hunted with enthusiasm when younger.

Grandpa’s main passions, as I remember and was told about them, were for horsemanship—at which he was very adept in a non-cowboy way, having grown up in Missouri—for the Episcopal Church, and for merchandising, in which he also excelled. But he was quite conscious too, like most white Southerners of his time, of his personal honor, which was considerable, because he tried to live up to the principles he espoused.

In accordance with a frequent post—Civil War Southern practice, rightly reprehensible by today’s standards, he would sometimes make a deal with the local sheriff to take a nonviolent black prisoner off of the county’s hands during what remained of the man’s sentence and put him to work at home or in the dry goods store, taking responsibility for his nourishment and shelter and continued local presence.

At one point not long after the turn of the twentieth century, when Grandpa was in his forties, he acquired such a servant and used him at home, chiefly in the yard, garden, and horse lot, which held a couple of high-bred geldings, one of which Grandpa would ride to town and back in the mornings (he always came home for the large midday meal, called dinner then) and the other for use in the afternoons, to and from his store. In summer he would be dressed in a white linen suit and Panama hat and in winter in black with a derby, thus emphasizing the non-cowboy motif. He continued that practice into my own lifetime, after he had sold the store but still went down to an office and back twice each day. But he did finally start using a Western saddle.

The black man’s former employer was a local gambler, who came to the house one day when Grandpa was not present and persuaded or ordered the man to return to the saloon where he plied his cards and dice. Learning what had happened, Grandpa drove his horse-drawn buggy to the saloon, and because when young he had promised his mother never to enter such an establishment, he called the gambler out onto the board sidewalk. Harsh words ensued, said gambler not being a mild fellow, and Grandpa ended by taking his horse whip from the buggy and using it until his foe was writhing prostrate on the planks. Then, with the black man aboard, he headed toward home. But the last thing he heard from the felled gambler was a squawked, “Damn you, I’m gonna kill you! You watch!”

Ever realistic, my grandsire went to a hardware store owned by a friend and purchased this pistol, a novelty and something of an anomaly in a time when most personal weaponry in Texas still consisted of large-bore single-action revolvers. He practiced firing it in the horse lot until he could hit more or less what he was aiming at and then carried it in a coat pocket for a couple of months or so until he learned that his gambler had left town for good without making any move

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