Shooting Dad’s Old Winchester Model 37
by Mike Rogers
Mike Rogers reflects on family, heritage and firearms in this piece titled “Shooting Dad’s Old Model 37”.
“Go on boy! Shoot that thing … it won’t bite you.”
My grandfather spoke those words in the dialect of the Southern Appalachians as we were out behind his barn in the rural hills in northeast Tennessee. Not the rolling slow drawl of the genteel Deep South, but the more foreign sounding accent that reaches all the way back to the Scottish Highlands and the Gaelic tongue. I was taking precarious aim with his old shotgun perched across a hay bale. It was something like 1977 and I was about to have my first encounter with gunpowder. I reached up with both hands, gripped around the worn blued receiver and pulled the shrouded hammer back until I heard the satisfying “click.” I then put the bead on the empty steel soda can that had been set on the fencepost as an impromptu target. I was trembling with anticipation, wondering if it would kick and praying that I wouldn’t miss when it did. I suddenly regretted my fascination with this old gun that I thought was standard equipment on my grandfather’s truck. I vividly remember looking up at it as we bumped and clattered down those macadam roads, at the blued receiver, worn shiny on the bottom by someone’s hand.
I had asked to shoot the gun a week before and when my grandfather (or Papaw as I would have called him) said, “Yes,” I was as excited as only a five year old can muster. We had been working out in the barn, well, my Dad and Papaw had been working … I was mostly getting in the way. They were taking a break when my Papaw pulled the gun from the rack in the rear window of his truck and suggested we give it a go. I was always eager to try these things; I was the youngest of the male cousins and was always trying to keep up. My oldest cousin had just killed a deer and I was afraid I was falling behind in the race to manhood. I had only recently managed bluegill fishing, and was ready to take the next sporting step into guns.
I carefully sighted down the barrel through my thick glasses as the can and the bead went in and out of focus. I tugged at the trigger and “BOOM” roared the gun. The can went flying one way, I went flying another, and my glasses sailed in a third direction when the stock slid under my arm and my right hand smashed into my face. I was frightened. I was exhilarated, and a lifelong obsession with everything that goes “bang” was born.
The gun was nothing particularly special. It was a Winchester Model 37 in 20 gauge, and while it resides in my collection today, I still know very little about it. The gun was first produced in 1936 and Winchester made just over a million of them before discontinuing them in 1963. Frustratingly, Winchester made them without serial numbers and there are precious few clues as to where in the run it was made—this one most likely came out of New Haven before World War II. It was the first break open shotgun made with a steel frame (as opposed to heavier, weaker, ductile iron) and it gives the gun a trim receiver in the smaller gauges and an airy feel that’s hard to describe.
Back then all guns were made of blued steel and walnut and made to last generations. The gun was called the “Steelbilt” in the marketing literature and it’s even included in the rollmark on the barrel. It has an elegance that only old guns have despite the wear. When you open the action, the ejector still gives you a positive “click” and there’s no play in the breech despite three or four generations of use. It’s an artifact of a long gone era—back before modern CNC and soulless injection molded plastic became the norm. Modern single-shot shotguns seem geared for economy and are clunky to a fault. This thing is the gun of a master.
As an elementary school kid I remember that it rode in that gun rack in the back window. It was a farm gun in a farm truck driven in a town that had no shortage of either. My Papaw’s arthritis worsened until the 1980s when he could no longer drive. The truck and gun both vanished from my life after that. I was busy becoming a teenager and learning rifle shooting after reading a lot of Jack O’Connor in ragged, worn copies of Outdoor Life down at the barbershop. I didn’t know it then, but I’d one day pursue the same white sheep and caribou in the mountains he wrote about.
I had also given up on shotguns a few years prior when I learned that I could hit squirrels with my .22 rifle a whole lot farther away and I destroyed less meat in the process. Upland game birds were rare enough that they didn’t merit much attention. By this time deer and turkey hadn’t made the comeback they have today and while my father was never a deer hunter, he did occasionally ramble through the woods hunting quail. It was on one of these forays that my neighbor, “Smiley” Davenport, flushed and shot a ruffed grouse. It was the first one I had ever seen and I thought it was magical.
That Model 37 didn’t reappear in my life until the mid 1990s, when my Papaw died. As was the way in those hills, the guns went to the male heir—my dad. He had inherited the family guns and while Dad was fond of the Winchester Model 12, he kept the 20-gauge single behind the back door. Woodpeckers every spring decided to bang on the gutter of his house, and being completely unsentimental about it (and indifferent to local ordinances) he shot them. I was familiar with all his guns and it was just one among the scenery of my youth.
I went north as we entered the 21st century and began my adventures in Alaska. I was more enthralled with the big stuff, bears and moose, and didn’t focus on owning a shotgun or hunting the state’s upland game. It wasn’t until after that Model 37 entered my life for the third time that I even began to appreciate that little gun. The gun had resided at my dad’s house since my Papaw died. On a visit home in 2009, kind of out of the blue, Dad started talking about having me take the guns to Alaska. I made some excuse about it at the time—baggage fees, inhospitable climate, and critters too big and dangerous for that bevy of old guns to handle. I don’t know if he knew it or not, but at the time he harbored the tumor that would take him from us in 2010.
After the whirlwind of hospitals, chemotherapy, hospice, and hopelessness that culminated in a funeral; the guns as tradition went in those hills … went to the male heir, me. I packed them away as carefully as I could in a gun case that would come back home with me to Alaska, just like my dad had wanted the year prior. By then I had settled in the Interior, the big empty place between the Alaska Range and the Brooks Range. Well, empty except for Fairbanks, moose, and a bunch of grouse. By the time I had arrived in the Interior I had also arrived at “middle youth” with a son of my own.
While I still like to hunt big game, I’ve also found a spot for the small game species. I’d frequently take my son and we’d head out with a couple of .22s and chase snowshoe hares, ptarmigan and grouse. The first such hunt with the shotgun came just a few years ago. As we prepared for a quick evening hunt after work one fall day my son peered into the gun safe. My usual small game weapon of choice has been the .22 rifle, since I learned the joys of head shooting squirrels out of the oaks—clean, quiet and efficient up to 50 yards and maybe a bit beyond with the right shot. It’s a proven performer. But on that day I was feeling slightly melancholy as I peered into the overstuffed safe.
“Why don’t you take Papaw’s gun?” queried my son.
“I don’t know … might.” I replied.
Feelings of grief began to swell up from somewhere deep inside. Looking at the pieces that I remembered from childhood when I first began to hunt and shoot as a kid, about my son’s age, brought back a flood of memories—my father’s Winchester Model 12, a Marlin saddle gun, and finally that old Model 37 in 20 gauge. I had associated so many of these things for so long with my childhood home and my father and grandfather that it seemed wrong to find them here. They seemed out of place—they belonged in Tennessee, in the ‘70s, before life got complicated and Dad and Papaw were still working in the barn.
With a feeling of melancholy I reached past the .22s and rested my hand on the Model 37. I even found an old box of #6s that probably dated from the Carter era, and we headed out to a spot we thought promising. We took the jeep to a long abandoned mining trail and after a few miles we arrived at an old burn that was just beginning to come back to life. We began to walk and our Labrador was busy jumping into bushes on the side of the trail, as is the habit of a young dog.
With a flurry of beating wings the ruffed grouse erupted from the brush and fought for altitude. I swung the light, trim gun and in one smooth motion shouldered, cocked and fired. The beating wings suddenly stopped and the grouse plunged into the brush trailing feathers just like that one Smiley killed decades ago. A few moments later the dog appeared, prancing like a pony with his tail wagging double time; a ruffed grouse in his mouth. I still thought it was magical.
Since then, that old Model 37, with its airy feel and trim receiver has become my favorite gun for rambling walks for grouse. Maybe not every time, but when the weather is nice on the glorious fall days with no threat of rain, that gun finds its way with me in the woods. A pair of broke-in boots and a pocket full of gentle shooting low brass #6s completes the equipment. I must admit, when I hunt big game it is for filling the freezer, a search mission to bring down the meat I’ll eat for the next year. But when I hunt grouse, it’s for therapy. Long walks with my son talking about life as he quickly exhausts the teen years, occasionally a grouse breaks the conversation and we take turns shooting that old gun.
Many times, it’s just me talking to my middle-aged dog, alone with the thoughts that middle-aged men think. Not yet old, but no longer young; it is a time when I’m beginning to feel some of the miles I’ve put on. Those long walks in the woods do much, not only for my body, but also my mind—unwrapping and unwinding the knots that responsibility bring. It seems (at least among the upland fraternity) that blue skies and yellow aspens and a smiling, crashing dog do a lot for the soul. I wonder if the men before me, the guys whose hands wore the blue from that receiver, ever did the same.
Perhaps not, maybe it was just a piece of hardware that rambled in the farm truck and later killed woodpeckers beating on the gutter. I hate to think so. While neither my father or grandfather were as ardent a hunter as I am—I like to think that carrying that old gun, looking for birds, is a link to my past. I try to take it easy on that old gun, but I want to do my part and rub some of the bluing that’s still on the receiver, so when it goes into my son’s hand he’ll feel the same connection.
It will be his one day, as is the tradition in those hills.
Michael Rogers is an Alaskan hunter, a lover of old shotguns, yellow Labradors, and an unrepentant grouse junkie. October finds him roaming the Interior looking for birds and breaking in his 85-year-old Model 37.
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