By Michael White
On an unseasonably crisp Southern California morning I cycled a cartridge into a World War I era Lee-Enfield Mark III* and squeezed the trigger. The rifle cracked, the brass buttplate punched hard into my shoulder and, for the first time in more than half a century, the 97-year-old battle rifle sent a bullet spinning downrange. The 1917 Mark III* had been my father’s before it was mine. After his death it went into the closet, locked away, until that morning a few weeks ago . . .
Firing it with my son Caleb was a celebration of two things. One was my return to recreational shooting after a decades-long absence. The other was the memory of the shooting excursions that bound me to my father, a man I still regard as the best I’ve ever known.
Recreational shooting was easy in the corner of Western Kentucky where I grew up. An outing required little planning – just pick up a rifle and walk into the woods or, if you wanted more seclusion, drive a few miles deeper into the country.
Things are quite different for my children and me today. We live in Southern California, where work brought me 25 years ago. You can still buy, own and shoot guns there, but it is becoming more difficult. And there is a real chance it may become virtually impossible within a few years.
In that respect, I couldn’t have picked a worse time to get back into the sport of shooting. Yet, in another sense, the timing couldn’t be better. By teaching my children, I’m not simply renewing a family tradition, but encouraging a new generation to use firearms responsibly and preserve the right to keep them.
I’m not exactly sure why dad, a paratrooper during World War II, bought a British rifle. He had great praise for the M1 Garand and even more affection for the 1903 Springfield. But he had trained with Australian soldiers during the war and my guess is he that felt a pang of nostalgia when he saw the rifle with its iconic blunt snout and shiny buttplate in the sports department of the local Sears & Robuck.
We took the rifle and a box of cartridges to a spot on the bank of the Barren River where my father set up some cardboard targets and began firing. I was about 9 years old at the time, far too small for a Lee-Enfield, but I didn’t mind. I was happy enough just to be there.
On Christmas Day that same year, I found single-shot .22 with my name on it next to our tree. The next day we were in the woods where I learned the fundamentals of safety and of shooting posture. Then I aimed at the trunk of a large oak and fired my first shot with a real rifle.
I later graduated to a Stevens 87D semi-automatic. In retrospect, I had extraordinary freedom to use it. To my father the rules of gun care and safety bordered on the sacred and I obeyed them religiously. Because of that, I earned his trust and the rifle was mine to use just about anytime I wanted. But the best days were when we were together, walking through the woods, shooting our .22s.
The truth is, we talked more than we shot. Maybe because we were alone, or perhaps because we were carrying firearms, he often talked about the war. I later discovered that he told me things he apparently never spoke of to anyone else — not my mother, not his brothers. He described both the exhilaration and fear of parachuting behind Japanese lines into New Guinea’s Markham Valley in 1943. He also told me how alone he felt after his platoon was decimated and his best friend killed in the battle to recapture Corregidor.
I never had a chance to fire the Enfield. By the time I grew large enough to shoulder the rifle, dad was working Saturdays to earn overtime pay. When I was 15 he was diagnosed with cancer. He survived his first battle with the disease but lost the second one a few years later. I kept the rifle, but never bothered to use it.
Why? Well, I ask myself that, too. One reason is that shooting is an expensive hobby and money was short as I worked my way through college, married and began raising a family. But the deeper reason was that my father wasn’t around to share the experience with me.
My mind changed three years ago when I was asked to chaperone a Boy Scout outing to help my youngest son earn his rifle merit badge. The lone instructor needed help and I found myself in the role my father had once played with me, coaching my son and his friends in rifle fundamentals. Afterwards, I realized how much I had loved shooting, and regretted the fact that I hadn’t passed that love on to my children. I took one of my old .22s from the closet, cleaned it and fixed what needed to be fixed. A couple of weeks later, we were on the firing line at Burro Canyon Shooting Park in the San Gabriel Mountains. Later, I bought a GLOCK 19 and we frequented indoor ranges closer to home.
The Enfield came out later. Frankly, I was worried about shooting a high-powered rifle that had been dormant for 52 years, but I felt an obligation. So I gave it a thorough cleaning and inspection. The action was still smooth and tight. The chamber was clean and the lands sharp and free of pitting. The wood was sound, but grimy, so I lightly scrubbed it with 000 steel wool and gave it a new coat of tung oil. Then, in early May, my son Caleb and I headed for Angeles Shooting Ranges north of Los Angeles. I set up a target 25 yards away and placed the forestock on a bench rest, forced my nervousness aside and fired. The 150-grain bullet pierced the left side of the inch-square bullseye. The sight alignment wasn’t bad for a rifle that had been idle for so long. Then Caleb fired, looked over at me, and grinned.
Just this morning I fired the Enfield again, this time into a hillside in Utah where I’m visiting my daughters. Like my sons, they wanted to shoot their grandfather’s rifle and they did well. Sara, shooting offhand at about 25 yards, put her first shot through the center of the bullseye. Laura’s shots danced around the target just a few inches away.
Some will say that what I’m doing is wrong, that I should teach my children to fear guns. To those folks, I would say that resurrecting the Enfield was a wise decision. The rifle hasn’t merely given me something to do with my children, it has connected them to the grandfather they never knew. When they fire it, they feel the same wood that he felt; they squeeze the same trigger that he squeezed; they smell the same scent of oil, steel and spent powder that he smelled. In this way, the rifle gives them a tangible link to a man they had only known before through photographs and stories.
So we’ll continuing shooting the rifle, though sparingly because of its age. Someday, one of my children will own it and, if wood and steel endure, they will shoot it with their children. And my father’s rifle will link yet another generation to a heritage that otherwise might have been lost.