LIKE THE CHARACTERS IN PROUST’S BOOK, however, the years had brought subtle changes to the 77, and to the kid they had the effect of a bad facelift. The distinctive flat bolt handle, which collectors would later use to define the earliest rifles, had passed into history. Also, the stock had bulked up, and the flats on either side of the barrel channel had widened into landing strips. Worst of all was the cautionary tale scrawled across the barrel. Though the kid didn’t know irony from an onion, he marveled that only in America, the land that idealized frontier resourcefulness, were shooters told (by the barrel, yet!) to read the instruction manual before using their rifles. Hell, the kid thought, that’s what fathers were for.
Commissioning a name-brand gunsmith to address these concerns was daunting, so the kid used his .280 as is until one day he spotted a small magazine ad for a pair of Michigan stock-makers, Lowell Manley and Ted Nicklas, who promised to “reveal the classic lines hidden within the utilitarian profile of factory stocks” and give hunters a “nicer, livelier rifle at a workable price.” They cited the Ruger 77 as a prime candidate for their conversion, and the kid couldn’t write his check fast enough. Only one who has known obsession can understand how he felt when his rifle came back transformed.
To the kid it was dang near perfect. He logged more woods time and took more deer with his reworked .280 than with any rifle before or since, but that didn’t stop it from eventually becoming grist for the trading mill. Years later, the kid, now with more money but arguably no more sense, ran across his castoff .280 at a gun show and wanted it back so badly that only the dealer’s stratospheric asking price managed to deter him.
The .280 had opened a new chapter in our kid’s mania, however—for rifles that were a cut above. The printed word again inspired, this time in Ernest Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa. Photos of the young writer cradling his Griffin & Howe Springfield burned into the kid’s psyche and seeded twin desires to go to Africa and to own one of these iconic rifles.
Eventually, the kid did both. Hemingway’s rifle, built to specs in 1930, cost $250 and change. When the kid did the math, he realized he had paid about the same thing in 2012 for his, built in the 1950s for someone else. A symphony of pre-war Model 70 steel and high French walnut, the kid’s rifle had the distinctive Griffin & Howe profile and finish that an aficionado could identify at 20 paces. Sighting options were a Lyman Challenger scope in a double-lever mount paired with the same firm’s Model 48 receiver sight. Hemingway’s rifle had been similarly set up, but he had famously discarded his scope (a Zeiss) early on, and stayed with iron sights the rest of his life. Long after his seminal safari, Hemingway reportedly refused the offer of a scoped rifle for a shot at a distant antelope, remarking that scopes were for “nuns and virgins,” and killed the antelope at a quarter mile with his iron-sighted Springfield.
The kid initially followed Hemingway’s example by removing the Challenger and truing the 48 to his hunting loads. Center-punching targets at the range was surprisingly easy, and he imagined bounding impala collapsing to the trim rifle’s bark. A few bead and aperture trials on dun whitetails skulking through dense Alabama thickets, however, forced him to re-think his sighting options, and the Challenger went back on. One cold January morning he was watching an open stretch of Black Belt bottomland when a doe stepped out of the tall grass. The kid stroked the rifle’s elegantly contoured and checkered trigger, and would later swear that this, the first venison to fall to the Griffin & Howe, was the sweetest he had ever tasted. His only misgiving was that he didn’t take the doe, which stood broadside in good light, with the 48 because that’s the way Hemingway would have done it.
TO HIS CREDIT, the kid managed not to trade away the G&H, but he also knew that his pursuit of fine rifles might not be over. As the old itch grew, he spent many Proustian hours scrolling through images of custom rifles. Without knowing what he was looking for, he knew it when he saw it. Staring back across the electron-miles was a sporter that, to the kid, was simply the best he had seen. That the rifle was a .458 didn’t bother him. His obsession had more than once led him to rifles with thumb-sized bores, which he had turned into passable if extravagant whitetail rifles through the magic of handloading. The sticking point was that this rifle was set up with a fixed express-style sight, doubtless regulated for full-patch loads. Launching 500-grain projectiles at Mach 2 from a rickety tree stand wasn’t an option, and covering the engraved and gold-inlaid receiver with scope bases to accommodate his reduced handloads would be blasphemy. Nor would wisdom lie in buying an expensive elephant rifle when the last elephant had left Alabama 10,000 years before and the family needed a new car now. The asking price was maddeningly low for the quality he saw, but the kid fought and eventually won his battle with the “buy it now” button, and filed the maker’s odd name away for the future.
Jules La Bantchni apparently didn’t make a truckload of rifles, because a couple of years passed before the kid encountered another. Priced not quite as low as the .458, this one was chambered in the more doable if not durable .284 Winchester cartridge, and the quality was still there. The rifle beckoned, and the kid, seeing gray hairs and wrinkles staring back at him from the mirror, knew this might be his last chance to own one of this guy’s rifles. While the gun was in transit, he searched for obsolete .284 Winchester ammunition and components, and set out to discover just who this guy with the alphabet soup name was.