In any western Canadian prairie town in 1965, it would have been as common to see two 14-year-old boys carrying single shot rimfire rifles en route to the Gopher patch as it would be to see the same boys these days carrying their skateboards to the skateboard park or some equally suitable urban terrain. The only difference is how people would view the boys with the rifles these days. Not all, but many adults would suspect the worst.
“Those boys are up to no good, why else would they be carrying firearms? My goodness, call the police.”
As I carefully consider how I might deliver the following thought in inoffensive terms, I am reminded of the sentiment Van Morrison conveyed when he penned the verse.
“It ain’t righteous indignation that makes me complain, just tell me why, oh why must I always explain?”
Well, I am not indignant and yes I do feel compelled to explain to those folks who, perhaps through no fault of their own, lack an appreciation of the recreational benefits of gopher shooting or else have a dim view of the activity itself not knowing it is based on sound agricultural practices and carries no nefarious motives. The situation is this – destructive gopher colony – reduced pasture output – injuries to cattle equals application of remedy – shoot gopher.
It is no more complex or intrinsically evil than that. It is more environmentally friendly and humane than chemical solutions plus it provides opportunity for the development of skills suitable to a broader range of firearm use not to mention the self-confidence and respect it engenders in the individual who pursues such a shooting discipline.
In the early 1930s, my grandfather, Carl Erickson of Shell Lake Saskatchewan (1903–2005), bought a Cooey .22 rimfire rifle to supplement his blacksmithing income by shooting and marketing muskrats. He paid $7 for the rifle and was pleased to tell me (years later) that he had recovered the cost in one week (about 30 rats).
By the time I started using it, it had lost its front site which grandpa replaced by filing down a five-cent piece and fitting it to the front dovetail.
Several years after that, when I became it’s proud owner, I skillfully rendered it a “Safari grade model” by taking my old jackknife and carving a freehand diamond pattern into the comb stock resplendent with the initials ‘DA’ in what I would have to characterize as ‘Epileptic Turkey Scratch’ font.
My earliest memories included the mysterious residence of that rifl e. Yes, that’s what it seemed like – the rifle had its own persona – you know, like Davy Crockett’s Hawkins rifl e named ‘Betsy’. It lived in a closet behind grandpa’s bed and I was never allowed to see it without permission.
Fortunately my grandfather encouraged my interest in the outdoors and because that rifle was as important a piece of equipment as a fishing rod or tackle box, permission was granted frequently.
A typical conversation would go something like this: “Grandpa, can we shoot later today?” “First I have to sharpen a plowshare for Harry Mashanis and weld up a sickle bar for Garnet Strait. You can crank the blower on the forge for me then we can go down to the garden and practice.”
Sure enough, later that day, grandpa would shut the fire down in the forge, lock the door to the shop, take me to the house where we would wash some of the coal dust and smoke from the shop off of our face and hands. Grandpa would tell me to get the rifle as he would reach up to the top shelf in the kitchen cupboard and bring down a yellow and red box of ‘Whizzbang’ .22 shells. Off we went to the north end of the garden on the outskirts of town. Grandpa would set up a paper target and we would go back 20 yards to the south where we had a bench set up. Grandpa would instruct me on safety protocol, trigger control, site picture, direction of muzzle, all of which served to heighten the anticipation of chambering one of those magnificent little golden missiles and firing the first shot.
Thanks to my grandfather’s interest in improving my skill level and his keen desire to promote character in his grandson, I became a competent rimfire shooter at an early age and was winning turkey shoots by the time I was 12. I am now a 62-year-old ‘firearms enthusiast’ who can maintain a respectable presence on most ranges.
As for the character aspect, I hope I haven’t failed my grandfather’s expectations too badly. I will leave others to opine on that.
I don’t care what sport or avenue of maturation you choose for the youths in your sphere of influence as long as you choose one that encompasses honesty, courtesy, respect, and social value. Any shooting discipline would be a good choice. The history is deep, the traditions are solid and the benefits are manifold.