The Word Is Gun. Rhymes With Fun.

terry wieland
In his imagination, Wieland is using an old E.M. Reilly double (originally a .577 Snider, now a 20-bore) to ward off bandits in the Khyber Pass — something the gun itself may well have done for real.

by Terry Wieland

The term “playing with guns” has rather fallen into disrepute of late, with politically correct parents insisting they would never allow their children to do such a thing, forbidding the presence of water pistols, and suggesting that young Tommy might want to pick up a doll instead. Young Tommy is generally aghast at this suggestion (although few six-year-olds use the word “aghast”).

At various times, as I’ve felt some sneaking guilt at my lifelong fascination with anything that goes bang, I’ve tried to trace this failing back to its earliest roots. The farthest I can go — in fact, my earliest memory of any kind — is at the age of four when my family was struck by misfortune. My infant brother died in his crib, and as I was packed off with my sister to the home of some friends, to spend the day and night, I insisted on taking my trusty spacegun. Long before American Express, I would not leave home without it.

I mention this by way of establishing my credentials as a geriatric truant. A succession of ex-wives has accused me of never growing up; they all meant it as an insult, but I always took it as a compliment. Therein, perhaps, lies the root of the problem. I never saw Peter Pan as a morality play, but always as a worthy objective towards which to strive. Who, I ask you, in his right mind, would want to grow up?

But back to guns, and the fun to be had therewith. The aforementioned plastic space gun had a whirring internal thing, powered by a clockwork spring, and when you pulled the trigger, it whizzed around once and ended with a loud crack! 

At the age of four, this was sufficient, but it was soon followed by two water pistols (one in the form of a red plastic Luger, the other a blue plastic Colt Detective’s Special) and then a succession of cap guns named after cowboy heroes like Red Ryder and Hopalong Cassidy. 

By the time I was finally entrusted with a Daisy Red Ryder BB gun, at the age of nine, (old and battered, and formerly owned by my elder cousin, who had simultaneously discovered girls and golf) I was ready to actually propel missiles downrange, with the intention (but rarely the result) of dispatching a squirrel, sparrow, or — my ultimate BB-gun goal — a ruffed grouse.

As you can see, by the time my age was measured in double digits, I was a hardened gunman. My sister, mentioned above, had some dolls, but I never felt the slightest inclination to pick one up. Conversely, she never touched any of my guns — water, cap, BB, or otherwise — and as far as I know, has never picked up a gun in her life. Our DNA should be identical, and we certainly share some negative traits, but that difference in our preferences was marked.

I should add that imagination played a big part in my life with guns. Even at the age of four, I knew the Luger water pistol was unsuitable if I wanted to be Davy Crockett on the ramparts of the Alamo, but a broken hockey stick could quite readily be converted, in make-believe, into a Kentucky long rifle. Al Capone was heading into town? That child-sized baseball bat made an admirable submachine gun, while the full-sized bat could fill in for a fifty-cal if the locale changed to Normandy in ’44.

When I was 13, we’d moved to the country, where the neighboring farms were alive with woodchucks, and I was entrusted with a single-shot .22. I never looked back from there. Although the ammunition was real and the woodchucks occasionally very dead, imagination did not entirely depart the scene. 

At various times, sitting on a hillside glassing for “chucks,” I became Jack O’Connor hunting Stone’s sheep out of Telegraph Creek, or, later, Robert Ruark pursuing Cape buffalo in the Rift Valley. Later, when I made it to the Laurier Pass, and to the Rift Valley for real, it felt like I was coming home — which, in a way, I was.

Guns played a big part in it, but so did imagination. Some of my contemporaries imagined they would one day be hockey stars in the NHL (and at least two of them made it) while I was imagining I would hunt in Darkest Africa, and later did.

The kids who never did much of anything, who led lives of quiet desperation, and eventually faded from sight were those who never learned — or perhaps were never allowed — to imagine anything different.

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Our shooting editor still uses the term “playing with guns” when asked his occupation on official documents. It always raises a few eyebrows.