By Steve Wilson
We like to describe our guns as tools, implements to complete a job. This is true at face value. However for many of us, shooting runs in the family whether it be competition, hunting or the military. We’ve inherited a gun or two that may have been just another mundane tool to an ancestor, but has become a tangible (and audible) link to our ancestors for us. Most of us can’t help but attach a little emotion to these guns.
After 27 long years, I’ve finally gotten that gun, and it’s a little emotional.
One evening in 1911, some young guys are gathering behind a local blacksmith shop in Iredell County, North Carolina. The week is over and they have earned their wages at the nearby sawmill. Now they go behind the blacksmith’s and maybe they’ll double those wages, or maybe lose them all.
They are there to play poker. And drink. Tempers flare and two young men have harsh words with one another. One of the men, 21-year-old Jule, picks up a pipe and saunters towards the other, damning his eyes.
In response, 23-year-old JR picks up a wagon tongue and strikes Jule such a forceful blow that he falls over dead. JR flees into the woods and manages to elude the other young men in hot pursuit. JR is on the run. All the papers in North Carolina reprint the horrible incident, from Charlotte to Wilmington…JR is said to be a bad character.
Eventually, after several months on the run, JR surrenders himself to his local sheriff and a trial commences. JR must serve nine months of hard labor on the county chain gang. He escapes after five months, but local authorities consider his debt paid and no attempts are made to re-capture him.
Twenty years later, JR has managed to turn his life around and make something of himself in Winston-Salem. He’s gotten a job with a pretty successful company, RJ Reynolds, and is a big man there. In a twist of fate, he’s the head of RJ Reynolds’ company police force. He’s been entrusted with all the powers of a police officer while on company property. JR ain’t a watchman, he’s a policeman, and what good is a policeman without a good gun? JR equips himself with a Colt Police Positive in .38 Special. Winston-Salem ain’t Mayberry after all.
The Depression is on and folks are desperate. One thing that’s always been almost as good as currency in hard tims is cigarettes. Cartons of them.
One night, JR is walking the lonely halls and warehouses of the plant. The regular night shift man had taken ill. He spots a man in the warehouse…he’s pushing boxes of smokes out a window to another man waiting outside. JR hollers at them, the man turns and charges at JR. JR does his job while the accomplice flees into the night. In the aftermath, JR finds a scummy scatter-gun leaning against the exterior wall of the warehouse.
JR had some kids. They had their own kids and one of his granddaughters had me. We share the same birthday, JR and I. Both born on Halloween, exactly 100 years apart. I never knew him, but obviously there was quite a bit of family lore about him, going from fugitive felon to decent, respectable folk. All that I have described is true, and I have the newspaper articles to prove it.
When I was five, my dad took me shooting. Never mind the good ol’ .22 bolt-action or target pistol, we have a perfectly good .38 on hand, by golly. I still remember holding that revolver in front of me, with my dad’s hands over mine. I even remember closing my eyes as we pulled the trigger and hearing the satisfying report. Somehow I ended up with a few powder marks on my fingers. It was awesome.
My folks split up and the revolver wasn’t really seen anymore. It was technically my mom’s (JR’s granddaughter) and she isn’t what you’d call a “gun person.” In fact she gave it to a relative for safe keeping. I guess I understood, it was her revolver after all and I wasn’t even 18, not that it really mattered to me. Parents get all stuck on that number. I filled the void by building up my own collection, especially as I hit the magic numbers of 18 and 21. I bought my first handgun before I bought my first legal drink.
God, how I wanted that .38 though. It would haunt my dreams. But I knew my mama and I knew that this would take time. I began a years-long campaign. We had a few conversations and we each let the other know exactly how we felt about that revolver. It was always said that I would one day inherit it, just not now. I could visit the relative and shoot JR’s revolver anytime I wanted. That was little comfort though, he lived three hours away.
How could she do this? She didn’t shoot, she didn’t like guns. If she wanted someone to hold onto it, why not me, her oldest son? Why some cousin? The rest of the family will think I’m some sort of mental deviant! It is my birthright! I know I’m probably sounding like a millennial here, but the years ticked by into adulthood. I kept playing it cool. So after our initial stern (not quite heated) yet civil conversations about it, I decided passive finesse was the way to go.
Every birthday, every Christmas season, she would ask what I wanted and I would casually reply that I’d love to have a Colt Police Positive chambered in .38 Special. No more and no less than that was my reply. She’d grin and shrug it off, and I’d get a book or DVD box set of everything Fess Parker was ever in.
I got engaged to a drug counselor that I’d met (through friends, not drugs) in college. One March weekend, on my weekly Sunday phone call with mama, she told me how she had nothing that belonged to her great-grandfather. It was kind of a random discovery, I thought. She informed me that I did though. I had an Indian head penny from 1836 that her great-grandfather had found under the floorboards of an old house. Let’s make a deal? As a unique, early wedding present, a trade was proposed. The Colt for the penny. Deal.
A phone call was made to the cousin, and at the family Easter get-together, the handoff would be made. After the trade I raced upstairs to my old bedroom and opened the cigar box and pulled out an old box of lead-nosed Winchester .38 Special cartridges. The price was still marked on the box. Whenever it was bought, those fifty cartridges cost $4.85.
There were eighteen rounds left. Finally, with a reverence normally reserved for museum artifacts before restoration (I have a history degree), I pulled out a faded leather holster (the same holster JR wore on the job), unsnapped the flap and pulled out that sweet, beautiful revolver. Man, I thought, why hadn’t I bought some scented candles, perhaps played some smooth jazz? I’d never felt this way about any other gun.
It had been re-blued some time in the 1990’s. You could still read every letter, every number on that piece, but there was one strange mark on the frame. Some sort of vertical, squiggly line. Then I made a gruesome discovery — that strange mark was half of a Colt horse…the one place the re-blue job had fouled up! Oh well, I thought, it’d be nice if the little horse were still fully visible, but I don’t care, I’d never sell it anyway.
This is a heritage, not collectable gun after all. The name Colt was stamped on the barrel in case a skeptical friend questioned the provenance. I looked up the serial number on the cylinder arm and frame (they matched, of course) and got in touch with Colt. The revolver was made in 1922, about two years before JR was hired by RJ Reynolds.
I finally had it! After my fiancé and I returned to our home in eastern North Carolina, I gave it a thorough cleaning (the “safe-keeping” cousin was derelict in this duty), and I headed out to the homemade range my buddies and I had built on an old farm just outside of town.
With 50 rounds of Remington and a bag of Shoot-N-See, I readied myself. After around 20 years, I was finally going to shoot this revolver again. Trembling with anticipation, it was hard to aim, I couldn’t keep the barrel still I was so excited. I cocked the hammer, pulled the trigger and the old girl sang. Not as thunderously as when I was a child, but that’s to be expected. I continued in double action and she sang, sang, sang, sang and sang one more time. And she kept singing through the whole box.
That ninety-four-year-old revolver purchased by my great grandfather, exactly one hundred years my senior, which had killed a man in the line of duty (a macabre appeal, I know), was the gun I had most wanted my entire life. I’m not a man who assigns personalities to my tools or vehicles. Nearly all the other guns that I own, I purchased or built myself and maybe one day, they will be held in high regard by my descendants and obtain heirloom status. That is great but maybe they won’t, I don’t care. For as long as I’m alive though, none of them are as precious or dear to me as that Colt Police Positive.
Cool story. There’s just something about vintage revolvers that’s appealing.
Right you are. My every day carry is a Colt Detective Special and I have two Police Positives all in .38. They are just plain beautiful and I love the feel of the trigger inSingle Action.
Great story. I enjoyed reading it.
What a story!
I think I’m going to drop that $300 to have my wife’s grandfather’s ’09 Pocket Positive .32-20 re-nickeled.
Before you have it refinished, I suggest you make sure it isn’t worth more in its present condition.
Excellent write up!
Sooooomewhat ruined by the spurious adwords links…. yuck.
Better than auto play video ads.
There is great reverence to having artifacts of a long gone relative, especially weapons. My grandfather had a few guns, among them an Arisaka from WW-II, a Winchester 290 and an 8 shot H&R (least I Think it was an H&R) but the one I miss the most was his Hawes .357 Magnum. It is likely the gun that gave me my love of revolvers and the .357 Magnum caliber. I think an uncle of mine got it, and it likely fell victim to the drug trade or other aspects of hard life in southern Missouri. What I’d give for that wheel gun.
Thanks for reminding us just how much “family guns” mean.
Family, heritage, guns. What’s not to like? A much better fate than befell my grandfather’s gun collection.
OK, I’ll bite. What happened?
Nice job. I can’t tell you what happened to my dad’s guns. Nothing great-but it should have gone to one of his kids and not a step-son.
Nice gun and great backstory. I resent the millennial comment though.
I still have the first hand gun I ever shot. It is a 1943 issue 1911, issued to my Father on his arrival in England in 1943. It went ashore in the 2nd Wave on Omaha Beach, fought across Europe, issued the coup de gras to a few deer and hogs and taught me to shoot using Kentucky Windage because the sights were and are stuck for my Dad’s left eye dominant right handed shooting.
It is also not for sale.
Great write-up! My wife’s father has a great firearm collection. She told me that one day he’ll leave them on to me. I said great, and that I’ll hold them and leave them to our children.
Maybe just I’m overly cynical; whenever I think of passing down one of my heirloom guns, I envision a 20-something future descendant of mine bringing it into a pawnshop and selling it because to them it’s just an old gun (or worse, they feel guns are “icky” or dangerous). And instead of putting the money towards something to pass down as an heirloom of their own…. they blow it on a car, college tuition, debt payment, engagement ring, drugs, etc.
Whenever I’m watching one those pawnshop TV shows and someone sells a sweet gun, watch, or piece of jewelry that belonged to a great-great-grandparent because they have feel no connection and/or just want the money to burn, it makes me want to bury my old Winchester Model 1906 and M1 Garand in a cosmoline-filled PVC tube…. probably along with my name, Army decorations, laminated photos, and whatever else would be of interest to a future archaeologist.
Even with ancestry-tracking websites, a disheartening number of millenials (along with a lot of my fellow Gen X’ers) are losing touch with their family history. I can’t help but figure eventually I’ll have some knucklehead grandkid who’ll sell or give away their tangible heritage because they just don’t care.
I’m a millennial, you could send them to me.
I’ll leave a bunch of clues, e.g. “National Treasure”, so that only someone who really wants them can find them. You’ll need to be a true POTG, and know more about my family than what can be found on Ancestry.com.
My Grandfathers Colt Woodsman is my lust and desire. Maybe someday.
He used to haul hay between Ukiah and the central valley in CA, low gears comming down the hills, in the 50s, and he would pop ground squirrels off the stumps from the side of the roads with it while driving. Bet you cant do that anymore.
A great story, well told.
If you aren’t writing for money, you should be — regularly.
Thanks for stirring some memories.
It’s not as nice as a Colt – but I have my Great-Great-Grandfathers British Bulldog (Belgian copy) that he carried as an Adams County, Colorado deputy. I’ve been told I can fire a few rounds of .450 Adams through it. I may give that a try some day.
I also have his leather blackjack, an illegal weapon under Colorado statute.
Let’s hope that 27 years isn’t really your “whole life”.
Sometimes you just have to replace those pieces with others that you know your ancestors used. I obtained Swiss rifles (1878 Vetterli, 1896 and 1911 Schmidt-Rubin) that I know my grandfather, great GF, and GGGF used in the Swiss army… and a Garand + 1911 US Army .45, that would have been used by my Uncle (KIA 1944).
Almost as good as inheriting actual pieces.