Growing up with Guns

It was a cold and rainy day when 15 year old me decided to see if you could shoot a coffee can full of gasoline for explosive effect. Armed with my .45 caliber cap and ball rifle I took aim, put the bullet through the can pretty much dead center and…

Watched the gas pour out of the twin holes in the can. Undaunted I repeated the experiment several times before drawing the conclusion; TV SUCKS, No way could I blow up a car by shooting the gas tank!

Gunpowder and gasoline, no it’s not a country song (but that would be awesome) these explosive substances are a major portion of my childhood. For those of us who had our formative years in the politically incorrect and very fun 60’s and 70’s the rules were different. We rode our banana seat Schwinns without bike helmets; playgrounds had gravel around the swings and monkey bars; and we had metal cap guns and roll caps. We were flipping over our handlebars, scraping our knees and experienced the joy when you learned that that cap gun could make a huge POP when you brought the butt of the gun down on a full roll of caps – goodbye allowance. Yeah we made have made a few more trips to the emergency room, but that was part of growing up. My father always had firearms, shotguns when I was really young, that we kept locked up out of the hands of Steven (my younger brother) and I. Mom was an ER nurse and witnessed the effect of gun violence first hand on a regular basis. So we learned a lot about firearms both good and bad. We learned the basic rule of gun safety (never point the weapon at anything or anyone you do not want to destroy) the way most kids learned, lectures from every adult in the vicinity anytime I aimed a cap gun in my brother’s general direction. Usually I did not want to obliterate him. But those lessons did sink in, fortunately, since my Grandmother once picked up a box of toys at a garage sale (grandma was a world class garage saler – no price was ever low enough not to haggle) and presented me with a “toy gun” which happened to be a .22 cal revolver. Imagine a 9 year old running around the neighborhood with a revolver today. Just so you know, I got to keep it for about a day and a half before my father realized what I had by the sound of the cylinder locking up as the hammer cocked and confiscated it.

When I was eleven we moved to “the farm” 5 rural acres with a barn and half dozen out buildings/silos meant to house equipment for my dad’s construction business. 5 acres in the middle of nowhere (to us), away from our friends, but with a ton of space to run around largely unsupervised; Mom and Dad both worked, and mostly at opposite times, so even if someone was home, they might be asleep as my brother and I amused ourselves. We had barely unpacked before my Dad rolled up in his truck and presented my brother and I with Daisy BB guns. He handed me an 1894 “Spitting Image” styled after the classic Winchester repeaters, right down to a hammer that cocked with the lever and saddle ring. My brother received what was probably a model 90 sportster, picture the classic Daisy style we think of as the Red Ryder model thanks to A Christmas Story.

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Spittin Image Daisy Model 1894
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Classic Daisy Sportster

He handed them to us, and ran down the basic rules. Don’t shoot each other, no shooting the dog or any animals, no guns in the house, and no shooting any windows. That afternoon he taught us the basics of loading and sighting the weapons, how to carry them, and how to check our line of fire before we put our fingers anywhere near the trigger. We also learned quickly that my new rifle shot curve balls… errr BB’s It would shoot about two feet to the right at about a hundred feet, My dad looked at me, looked at the gun and said “well now we know how much we have to adjust”. LIFE LESSON LEARNED – MAKE IT WORK!!! Of course he gaged this by “accidently” popping out a pane of glass in one of the sheds; today I understand the concept of using a grid to sight a weapon and the multi-paned window set up a great grid, but back then it meant the no breaking windows thing was… well… out the window. LIFE LESSON LEARNED – TAKE THE EXTRA 10 MNUTES TO DO SOMETHING RIGHT IF YOU EXPECT KIDS TO FOLLOW THE RULES (that came in real handy when I was teaching) Of course, within a few weeks my brother and I had taken out every window we figured nobody would miss and lost our precious rifles for a month. But we were hooked, my brother would amass a few BB pistols and I begged for a bow and arrow set for Christmas, learning quickly that it was easy to lose an arrow in the snow. We had no idea that there was a master plan afoot.

 

After a couple years of not shooting the dogs, or each other, my father surprised us with a Christmas present we would never forget, black powder kit guns. Christmas generally meant Mom would buy the bulk of our gifts – mom was a great Santa; but Dad would always have one thing he gave us that he thought we needed. When I was thirteen that was a .45 caliber  “Kentucky style” cap and ball rifle. Today this would be an amazing gift, back then, not so much. Imagine the look of a child opening a box of unfinished pieces that had to be stained blued and assembled, no instant Christmas gratification here. Steven looked traumatized by the pieces of a flintlock pistol at the same time. A gift we could not play with right away… We would never say it then but definitely a WTF moment. Dad explained to mom that these guns were a way to spend time together, finishing the pieces and assembling them as a family project. Since these did not take “bullets” (cartridges) these were way safer than buying us a standard rifle. To his credit, Dad tried to involve us in assembly initially, but about the 10th time we asked why we had to wait for the bluing to set before we could put it all together, he decided to wait until Christmas break was over and we were back in school to complete the process; it was winter and in the construction business that means he had down time.

Those two guns began the start of a collection, more rifles, then civil war replica cap and ball revolvers. We started shooting on a regular basis in the yard. We also could fire the weapons with different charges (more powder) to acclimate to the recoil. It was not uncommon for my brother and I to be wearing holstered revolvers weekends or afternoons when we were shooting, something that the neighbors in the subdivision that had cropped up close to the farm would try and get used to. There was one time my mom got a call from one of our neighbors complaining about our dogs in her yard, Mom yelled to us from the window to go get them, forgetting to tell us to take off the gun belts before we left. I will note that we did not get a call like that again.

Okay so that gets us the gunpowder, we had black powder aplenty, but gasoline? I did mention that Dad was in the construction business, and we had fuel pumps, both gasoline and diesel; and I had the key. Part of my chores was fueling up the equipment and vehicles. Now it was great learning how to operate a bunch of heavy equipment, not as fun as having more combustibles my disposal. While it was rather depressing to find out that you could not shoot a can full of gasoline and make it explode, you could set a powder line ( like in the pirate movies) to a pool of gasoline, or a can of diesel fuel for some very fun results. Remember this was black powder, which has much more flair than smokeless powder. Before long the concrete pad of a torn down silo was covered in charred black lines. Aside from burning the hair off my knuckles and my mother almost having a heart attack when she realized my brother was making what was in effect a molotov cocktail to start a bonfire, my family made it through our childhood pretty much unscathed.

 

Now I admit, Susan and I never had kids, I can hear some of you breathing a sigh of relief at that. There are no semi-feral pyro gun nuts carrying on my name. But I look at what I learned, and not the hard way. I grew up around potentially deadly objects and substances with a healthy respect of them, but not terror.  I grew up doing things that today would have people say my parents were bad parents….they were not in any way. Yes, what I was doing was equal parts dumb and destructive at times, but it was always done with a respect for what I was using. I learned that like anything else, the good or bad of an object is usually not in the object but in the person employing it. Kids can learn how to effectively use a tool or weapon, when to use it, and how to make safety second nature, lessons they can carry forward. They can choose if they if and when they want to take the responsibility for a firearm with full knowledge later in their life. But more importantly, I learned independence and the importance of the individual when I was learning to shoot, and that carries into every element of my life, and that will come in really handy when the zombie apocalypse comes.