Sunday, September 22, 2013

Touching the past

About ten years ago I opened a Christmas gift from my parents that I thought was a picture frame. Actually it was a picture frame made of old gray barn wood with shotshell brass pressed into the four corners, holding a black and white photo of some bearded guy clutching a hammer gun and a dog in his lap, one of those theme photos that come with the frame.

And then came the head fake - it wasn't the frame that was the present, it was the picture. This stoic gentleman is my great, great grandfather, William Richard Coleman II, and for the curious we look nothing alike. I don't know much more about him other than he had seven children and died short of his 38th birthday, neither of which was abnormal for the times and both of which seem downright tragic today.  He lived in rural eastern North Carolina near the Virginia border, at least a good day's ride to Raleigh by horse. I have no idea what he chased with that gun and dog. Probably whatever could be cleaned and eaten.

Every time I looked at the picture over the years the one thing I agonized over was the fate of that gun. How cool it would have been if it survived the generations. Furniture and cufflinks are fine heirlooms, but guns are beyond sentimental to a sportsman. They're far more than a possession being passed down. In reality, I knew this particular gun was probably sold, and sold cheap, soon after his death to feed or clothe those seven kids.

My dad has been on a family genealogy kick during his retirement and he's filled in quite a few branches on the family tree. On 9/11 he and my mom were in the air over Utah when the shit hit the fan and, grounded in Salt Lake City, he spent the next three days making lemonade so to speak at the Family History Library, access point to the Mormon geneological database. Such is his commitment to getting it all on paper.

Back in the spring he was visiting a distant cousin just north of where he and mom live, taking pictures at family graveyards and filling in a few more blanks. In the course of the conversation the cousin reaches above a door and pulls down the gun, THE gun. Dad called that night to give me the news and the emotion was similar to finding a $20 bill in your pocket, x70.

Last month when I picked up the kids from their visit with Gran and Pop I made sure we scheduled a trip to see this piece of my past. The gun is in remarkably good condition considering its age and journey; a double barrel, black powder gun, lacking any distinguishing labels outside of a gold inlaid "Fine Steel Barrels" inscription on the rib.

Curious about the maker and any other relevant details, I contacted Gregg Elliott at Dogs and Doubles to see if we could put a name with the face. We hit a bit of a dead end. Gregg said it looks like a British or Belgian percussion gun, a workhorse in its day because of low cost and reliability. Thousands of these guns were made by craftsmen subcontracted by "makers", what today would be considered private labels, in Birmingham and Leige, the centers of this trade. Makes me smile to think that this gun could have come to life in anonymity overseas, between sips of scotch or ale, in someone's basement workshop.

Likely the only way I'll ever know more about this piece is through someone who owns an identical model and knows its story, so I'll toss it out there that if anyone reading this can add to Gregg's ID, by all means speak up.

The gun is at least 140 years old and likely saw its last load long before I was born. I was disappointed when I couldn't find a way to break open a breech and drop in a shell. Blackpowder spooks me. Blackpowder in 140 year old guns terrifies me. When Dad told me the gun was still in the family I imagined - queue the dream sequence - dropping a double on a covey rise while my companions marveled at the proficiency of both shooter and weapon.

Given the value I place on my eyes and the rest of my head this scene will remain in the fiction file, but I did make my intentions known regarding the future of this firearm. Hopefully it survives at least a few more generations in the family.


  1. Excellent story and really dig the site. Thanks for sharing. I look forward to following here in the future.


  2. That's a great story and find! I'm admittedly jealous of this!

  3. Mark, lovely story. I've got a 1908-vintage (and 1908 condition...) field-grade Elsie with a similar story and heritage. It's rough, but I think it's restorable and one day I hope to hunt with it on the same ground it spent the better part of a century roaming with its original owner.

    I've also got an inherited Baker hammergun I'd love to hunt with, but that one may be too much into wallhanger territory.

    As for the gun, you might ask Steve Bodio to take a stab at an ID. Terry Wieland would also probably be a good source.

    1. Both of those sound like cool pieces. Hunting on the same ground would be an added bonus.

      Thanks for the tips on Bodio and Wieland. Didn't realize Steve had a thing for older double guns and never thought of Terry but that's a great suggestion.