Fads & Fashion

Oldies but goodies: Gene Hill in original paper and hardcover form (with leather, even!) and a Purdey hammer pigeon gun.

by Terry Wieland

It was never my privilege to know Gene Hill, but Michael McIntosh did, and I knew Michael, and so there is a certain connection.  Hill was a long-time columnist for Field & Stream, and these columns were collected into multiple anthologies both during his lifetime and after.

These bear names such as A Shotgunner’s Notebook, Sunlight & Shadows, and Passing a Good Time.  Browsing in the used-book section in an antique mall on the bad side of Boerne, Texas, a year ago—actually, I made that up:  Boerne has no “bad” side, but it sounded more dramatic—anyway, there I was, happily browsing away, and came upon some of Hill’s books.

Naturally, I bought them, and then a friend gave me some CDs of Hill reading his own work.  And guess what?  I discovered, somewhat to my surprise, that I now possess only two devices capable of playing a CD.  One is a radio in the kitchen that I bought 25 years ago; the other is in the car, an after-market purchase when I found that my spiffy new Santa Fe did not have a player because Hyundai, in its wisdom, deemed CDs to be obsolescent technology.

This reminded me that, at one time, I had some cassettes of authors reading their own works.  I forget who, now, but that alone tells you something.  And worse, 45 years ago, a friend gave me an LP which had Ernest Hemingway delivering his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for literature.  Not only do I no longer own a record player capable of reproducing Hemingway’s voice, I have no idea where to find one.

By contrast, here on my bookshelf, I have books by both Hill and Hemingway.  Yes, books—which are now dismissed as being as outdated as the crenellated turret but which have this habit of hanging around long after anyone has read them, always ready to be cracked open and read once again, if a curious youngster happens by.

Having lived through the age when everything was being released on LPs (billed as the latest technology, never to be displaced) to cassettes (the latest, etc.) to CDs (the latest latest…), we  now have Sirius Radio and the cloud.  And will they be displaced?  Or rendered inoperable by some technological glitch, such as an errant Russian missile on a radio tower?  Personally, I have no doubt of it, so when someone tells me my deathless prose has been preserved for all time on “the cloud,” I assume my best cynical smile.

And now, with that off my chest, I have learned (from books, please be assured) that Gene Hill owned and shot a lovely old James Woodward game gun which he had—horror of horrors!—fitted with interchangeable chokes.  Okay, it was his gun, and he could do what he liked with it.  And after all, other guys have done worse things, like having a Purdey’s 30-inch barrels cut down to 25 inches, and its chambers lengthened to 2¾”, and adding the ubiquitous choke tubes.

Shooting, like everything else, has its fads and fashions.  The fad for short barrels really began with Robert Churchill and his XXV a century ago, and persisted into the 1970s.  During that time, many old guns had their barrels chopped off to suit the fashon.  This was followed by a trend back toward long barrels, some as long as 34 inches for trap and sporting clays.

In England in 1998, my friend Steve Denny, who was then director of gunmaking for the reborn E.J. Churchill, told me it was almost impossible to sell a pair of original Churchill XXVs for decent money, and as for any gun that had been cut down, regardless of name, forget it.

I mention all this as a cautionary tale.  Over the course of a century, the shooting world has passed through some truly tasteless times.  Look at some of the refashioned single-shot varmint rifles from the 1930s into the ‘50s.  Ugh, with a capital “Ugh.”  Some of these were built on actions stolen from Stevens rifles, Winchester High Walls, and even Ballards—rifles which had once been magnificent examples of the gunmaker’s art, but were now deemed old-fashioned, archaic, not “with it.”

Much the same occurred with some shotguns, restocked with outlandish Monte Carlos and daringly swept pistol grips, in strange and exotic woods, and some with white plastic inlays or other outrages.  Looking at them today, they seem no more attractive than a once-lovely countess who has fallen on hard times and now runs a knocking shop on the bad side of Naples—and yes, Naples does have a bad side.

James J. Grant, a man who did his share of refashioning old actions into “modern” but ultimately unsaleable so-called custom rifles, wrote that he never did it with an all-original classic, like a Steven 44½ Schützen rifle, and was horrified when he walked into a gunsmith’s shop one day and found him cannibalizing actions off perfectly fine, all-original rifles.  Grant could not convince him to desist, and regretted that he did not have the cash to simply buy them all outright and preserve them for posterity.

The urge to modernize is one thing; the related urge to get rid of anything deemed to be old, and therefore by definition bad, is something else.

A lovely old all-original Boss game gun with its 30-inch barrels deserves to be preserved, just like Ernest Hemingway’s first editions.  The cut-down shotguns and the CDs with someone’s voice on them?  Who knows where they will end up?  More to the point, who cares?

Gray’s shooting editor, Terry Wieland, wrote this with his aging, cynical smile firmly affixed.  His LP collection occupies a shelf in the garage, beside his cassette collection, soon to be joined by the CDS.  The old shotguns?  On a rack beside the bookshelf, still ready for use.