Shotgun Wedding(s)

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I remember so vividly the day I went to buy my first shotgun.

My boyfriend Hank and I drove a couple miles down the main drag of our dilapidated 1960s-era suburb to our local hook-n-bullet store, an utterly charmless building with windows boarded over and painted, and not so much as a sprig of greenery anywhere in the parking lot. It was ugly even compared with already-low neighborhood standards.

 We walked to the shotgun counter and announced our mission: I had decided to start hunting, I had completed my hunter education course, and now I needed a shotgun. I admitted that I had exactly zero experience with shotguns, but held back on the fact that guns still scared the crap out of me.

The guy behind the counter had about as much charm as the building. At first I took his expressionless demeanor as a sign that he wasn’t excited about dealing with me. After a while, watching him interact with his co-workers, I concluded he probably just had Asperger’s syndrome.

I’d gone into the store with some idea of what I wanted based on some friends’ recommendations: a 20 gauge so it wouldn’t be too heavy, an autoloader so I’d have three quick shots. But I was open to anything and everything, and I started trying on guns like shoes. I sensed that the perfect gun for me should somehow feel right. I should fall in love with it.

I narrowed my choices down to three guns that ranged in price from $600 to $1,000 and, not surprisingly, settled on the $1,000 gun, a Beretta Urika 391. It felt good when I shouldered it, even as awkward as it was, and I knew it was an investment that would, properly cared for, last a lifetime.

It felt like a marriage, solemn and full of portent. And as it turned out, it didn’t last much longer than my first marriage.

* * *

My gunsmith extols the virtues of shotgunners who stick to one gun: Fear the man with one gun. Why? Because constantly switching back and forth between different guns with different dimensions and fits confuses your brain.

And I know he’s right. While I have won several shotguns at California Waterfowl fund-raising dinners, I stick to using just one, whether I’m hunting ruffed grouse in Minnesota’s Northwoods or ducks in the Sacramento Valley.

The problem is that I just keep changing my mind about what that one gun should be.

I defended my marriage to the 20 gauge for four seasons, arguing in boats and blinds and refuge sweatlines that my gun could reach just as far – it just required more accuracy because I wasn’t flinging so much shot into the air. How noble I was to demand more precision from myself!

But doubt crept in a little further every time I watched someone with a 12 gauge drop way more ducks than I was getting, and one day, doubt got the best of me.

I was hunting ducks in a flooded rice field with my friends Hellen and Penny on a cloudy January morning, and Penny was aflutter about the Christmas gift she’d gotten from her husband.

She’d been marginally successful at best with her 20 gauge, and at the end of yet another meager hunt one day, she pouted, stomped childishly and said, “I’m sick of this – I want a 12 gauge!” Santa Claus obliged her, and she’d been more successful ever since.

That’s when it occurred to me: Who was I kidding with all this talk about the noble 20 gauge? I wanted more shot in the air. I wanted more ducks.

Fortuitously, I won a 12 gauge at one of those Cal Waterfowl dinners – a Beretta 3901, which is just a synthetic version of the old 390. I named it Sarah Connor, practiced with it all summer, and proceeded to have the best duck season of my life.

I even made some spectacular shots without fully mounting the gun, both at the skeet range and in the field. What could explain those quail going down before the gun touched my shoulder? Only one thing: I’d found my true love.

For more than a year after that, the 20 gauge languished in our gun safe. Last fall, I admitted to a defeat of sentimentality – I was never going to use that gun again, so I sold it. So much for that marriage.

* * *

Meanwhile, Hank, who’d also been shooting a 20 gauge over-and-under, was undergoing an epiphany of his own. While he wasn’t ready to sell his gorgeous Franchi Veloce, he got to thinking it’d be nice to have a 12 gauge out in the marsh. Seeing how well our friend Charlie did with a Benelli Nova, Hank decided to get a Super Nova.

A pump!

In some circles, shooting a pump is like an admission of poverty or low breeding. But Charlie had been making a compelling case for the pump shotgun as he stacked up big straps of ducks every hunt day.

For starters, he said, having to work that pump between shots slowed him down and prevented him from firing second and third shots too quickly, giving him time to adjust when the first shot hadn’t hit the mark.

Then there was durability: You can pretty much drop a pump in the water, shake it off and keep shooting. Compare that with my autoloader, which nearly stopped working after I hunted repeatedly in excessive rain. Turns out it’s just not good to have water in that spring casing in the stock. (But really, how would you get water in your gun while hunting ducks?)

And the cleaning! I can spend half an hour or more cleaning my autoloader, carefully scrubbing all those grimy moving parts. The pump, on the other hand, seemed little more complicated than the double gun, at a fraction of the cost.

So why had I chosen an auto-loader? Was bang-bang-bang worth the worry about rust in vulnerable – yet inaccessible – crevices? How long was this gun going to last me with all the long, wet days I was spending in the marsh?

Oh, no. I’m not … I couldn’t be … I’d be crazy to …

Switch again? Get my second divorce in just six seasons of hunting? What, was I trying to be the Liz Taylor of shotgunners?

Stay the course, Holly. Stay the course. Become one with your gun. Remember your vows.

But … what if it was the wrong gun?

Holly A. Heyser is a hunter, forager, writer, food photographer and college journalism lecturer. She writes a blog about hunting at shoots food photos for boyfriend Hank Shaw, who writes a blog about wild food at

Last modified on Wednesday, 01 February 2012 08:29
Holly A. Heyser

Holly A. Heyser is a hunter, forager, writer, food photographer and college journalism lecturer. She writes a blog about hunting at shoots food photos for boyfriend Hank Shaw, who writes a blog about wild food at