Sweet 16

I returned from my daily walk with the dogs Tuesday morning, taunting firewood load piled on the lawn in front of the backyard woodshed, and was greeted by a long, narrow, triangular package leaning upright against the iron vice attached to the carriage-shed work bench by the side door. I knew what it was: a one-piece Tico Tool 12- and 16-guage shotgun cleaning rod I had ordered online. Nice! The final piece of the puzzle with upland bird-hunting season opening Saturday. No. Check that. One chore lingers. I still must buy an online hunting license in the comforts of home, where now a man can even check in some kills, as demonstrated during the record September bear season.

In the meantime, I must admit how ecstatic I am to have my old French Jean Breuil side-by-side, stamped with St. Etienne proofs, back in action. Early last season, with the dogs making game during a balmy hunt, I was in a hurry to get through a familiar hedgerow and tripped over a buried barbed-wire fence I have negotiated hundreds of times without disaster. Not that time. No, likely leg-weary from a day of brush-busting, I caught my left toe on the hidden wire I knew was there and went down face first. I broke the fall with bent elbows to hold my weapon up and out of black marshy soil, but the awkward landing created enough of a jolt to break the stock, which was requiring constant tightening. I heard it snap and knew I would be forced to retire my favorite shotgun, with two new cases of 16-guage shells on a shelf at home. Not like I had no options, with a newer, 12-guage Browning Citori over-and-under that gets the job done just fine ready to go in the gun safe. I just prefer hunting with the lighter, more stylish side-by-side that has been very good to me despite imperfections.

To be honest, I had written that gun off, was ready to store it away, maybe someday hang it on the wall for posterity. That was before I mentioned it to South Deerfield friend Bud Driver, who wanted to see it during a visit. He inspected it, smiled and was certain he had just the man to fix it. “Let me take it with me,” he begged. “My man’ll take care of it, no problem.” He wasn’t lying. In less than a month, I was at the Westhampton gunsmith’s shop to retrieve it and hand over 60 bucks for his services, the best 60 bucks I ever spent.

The invisible interior issue causing the instability which had forced me for some time to tighten a screw just about every time out was a broken screw that the gunsmith discovered upon removing the stock. He tooled a new screw in his machine shop, cleaned the interior wood, applied epoxy, wrapped the interior stock tight with fiberglass tape and sent me home with a sporting gun that’s in better shape than when I found it leaning against a Kittery Trading Post rack some 20 years ago. I remember being surprised at the time to find such a nice European side-by-side, and even searched out a store clerk to investigate. His answer didn’t surprise me. It hadn’t been there long. He’d put it out about an hour earlier. Right place, right time.

The 82-year-old Westhampton gunsmith descends from and carries the surname of famous West Springfield Shays’ Rebellion supporters. He trained as a teen at Smith & Wesson and stayed many years before going out on his own. These days, he makes historic replica guns for re-enactors of colonial 17th- and 18th- century wars. Not only that but he’s a collector of weapons from that early period of American history and recently sold a 17th-century cutlass purchased many years ago from a West Deerfield family that had found it somewhere near its Lower Road home. Historic Deerfield bought the sword recently after bringing in experts to authenticate what historians believe may have been lost during the French and Indian retreat from Deerfield following the famous 1704 attack.

What really piqued my interest was Driver’s speculation that it could have been the weapon of famed Hatfield frontiersman and Indian fighter “Brave Benjamin” Waite, veteran of the Falls Fight and rescuer of faraway English captives held for ransom in Canada. Waite, my eighth-great-grandfather, died in the Meadow Fight, unwisely pursuing the raiders as they fled the 1704 attack through Old Deerfield’s North Meadows. Though it will never be proven that the sword was indeed Waite’s, it could have been, and even if it wasn’t, they had probably been in the same neighborhood a few times. I would expect that Historic Deerfield will soon send out a press release about its recent acquisition, which has been in its possession a month or two.

Back briefly to my Jean Breuil double-barrel. Driver called me promptly after delivering it for repair and was quite enthused. He said the gunsmith raved about the weapon, called it a work of art made before World War II, which I knew. Then, when I later met the man at his shop, he repeated his effusive praise and showed me all the important barrel marks that told him this and that about the quality of the steel and the fact that it had been “nitro tested,” whatever that means.

“If it was mine, I’d probably retire it and hang it on a wall somewhere,” he said. “It’s a beautiful shotgun made for hunting small game.”

I don’t know what the man who owned the gun before me hunted with it, but I can say he took care of it, with thin, well-done repairs to the stock spliced in where it meets the receiver. I’ve put a ding or two in the outer barrels myself, and can’t say the interior barrels were ever perfect since I’ve owned it. But I can say that, despite shooting 2½-inch shells, it brings down pheasants, grouse and woodcock, even when you think you’re squeezing off a hopeless long shot or one obscured by dense branches. It’s choked improved/modified, and that back trigger has surprised me many times, something I don’t expect to change anytime soon. It’ll be a great gun to train my grandsons on, a slender antique with style, a gun that’s been loved, cared for and used, and will likely be used for many more years to come.

It is by no means a museum piece, just a fine old field gun that comes up quick and fits like it was made for me.


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