by Terry Wieland
Guns and romance have a lot in common: What you think you want, and what you actually fall in love with, are quite often two different things.
Two years ago, I absently picked up a rifle off the rack at an auction. It was a curious-looking thing, but recognizable as a German Schützen rifle. These had never been high on my list, but since I’m a lover of single-shots from way back, I was interested enough to look at it.
Right off the bat, I could see it was built on a Martini (Peabody) style action and had set triggers. The bore was big — .44 or .45? — and dirty as an abandoned mine shaft. The massive, elaborate buttplate was hanging loose, the adjustment screw for the triggers was missing, as was the mid-barrel sight. (Most German Schützens have three sights — muzzle, tang, and mid-barrel.) Still, having two out of three was better than the majority of such rifles. The sights were made to be detachable, carried in a separate case, and many have become lost over the years.
Anyway, there I was, holding this rifle, and I noticed a lever behind the trigger guard. Hmmm. Wonder what this does? I thought, and turned it 90 degrees. The entire floorplate and trigger assembly jumped into my hand, leaving me at least one hand short to try to reassemble it.
In the end, I had to ask for help, and an attendant carried off the rifle and its bits to the gunsmith in the back room to reassemble. Maybe it was guilt, but when the rifle came up for auction later that day, and the bidding stalled at $900, I jumped in and, for a mere $950 plus tax plus buyer’s premium, I bought myself a ticket into the wonderful world of German Schützen rifles.
All I knew about it then — and I don’t know much more now, for sure — is that it was built on a Martini action, probably in the 1880s, and chambered for a black-powder cartridge resembling the .44 Sharps Bottleneck. The only name on the rifle is A. Gesinger, Bremen, who was probably the retailer, not the maker.
It took me about six months to get it all fitted back together, cleaned up and operational, with a period-authentic barrel sight, properly tuned triggers, a tightened-up buttstock and refastened buttplate.
Ammunition was another story, involving a chamber cast, slugging the bore, then fashioning (without tools) three rounds that I could fire to get cases to send to Redding to have custom dies made. Having no idea what the cartridge was originally, we made up a suitably Teutonic name for it: 11.15x51R Kurz. Brass I fashioned from a .43 Mauser, obtained from Bertram in Australia, and then proceeded to work up loads — gingerly, let me tell you — using bullets that Bob Hayley cast for me.
An odd thing about this rifle, given its age, is that it is very plain by German standards, with no engraving to speak of and no wood carving beyond a very nicely executed checkering pattern.
Most Schützen rifles from that era have extensive engraving of scenes from German mythology, sometimes gold and ivory inlays, and stock carving that would put a totem pole to shame. Not this old girl: Plain as a Quaker matron going to church, but beautifully made.
Another odd thing: She turned out to be as photogenic as Marlene Dietrich, and to exert the same sort of spell in person. For the past year or so, she has been my favorite rifle to stand beside my reading chair, to rest my eyes on when I look up.
What began as a chance encounter has become an enduring romance. Funny how things work out.
Terry Wieland has been Shooting Editor of Gray’s since 1993 and is the author of a dozen books on hunting, shooting, and history. His latest is Great Hunting Rifles — Victorian to the Present, published by Skyhorse in 1997. Last year, Skyhorse reprinted his acclaimed 1999 book on Robert Ruark, A View From A Tall Hill.