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Life of One Pennsylvania Deer Rifle
By Rob Gratson

We have all heard the words Its a Family Heirloom or That thing has more sentimental value Well, after 37 years, I never knew just how strong, true and important these things could be.

This is the story about one of those things. It all starts with my grandfathers return home from the Army in 1952. Upon his arrival, he didnt waste any time getting back into the woods of Southwestern PA. As the story goes, and has been told many times throughout the years, he immediately went to the local hardware store to buy his first brand new deer rifle.

I can still hear his words describing that day and how he walked into the store and there it was. The most beautiful Winchester Model 70 that he ever saw. The gun turned out to be a Winchester Featherweight in the famous .30-06 caliber.

Pap and this gun went on to be almost family, or married, as Gram would say. You could almost sense a little jealousy in her tone. There was a very special bond between Pap and this gun. Was it because it was his first brand new rifle? Or the simple feel of a well-made piece of machinery? I will never know for sure, but as I listened to the stories that were to come every December while I was growing up, one quickly realized just how important and special the bond between the two really was. The gun did seem to be a lucky charm to a man who lived to deer hunt. Every year he owned that gun, he was blessed to put meat on the table. But once you heard these stories, you wondered how the gun even worked. I still wonder!

The gun had gone for a swim in the Youghiogheny River while Pap chased a wounded deer into it. Pap and the gun once fell from high in a tree. It lived through a car wreck and was actually used as a cane on more than one occasion over the years (of course unloaded, I am assuming). These were just a few of the stories that gave the gun a sense of immortality.

Pap continued to use this gun and build new stories with it throughout my young hunter years in the early 80s. And to be honest, to me it was still nothing more than metal and wood. How could such a manmade thing be such a powerful tool in someones life?

That question was answered on December 25th, 2005.

I did the normal family routine of making it a priority to visit Pap at his house around 2pm every Christmas, after my kids settled in and were beginning to drive us nuts. Anyone with kids knows what I mean. Stumbling over toys, slipping on wrapping paper, and hearing Daddy, can you put this together? more times than can be counted.

As the family readied dinner, Pap and I sat in the living room talking about hunts from the past and, of course, that old .30-06. He explained how his health was fading and how our days together in the woods were quickly coming to a close. Then out of the blue, he told me that out of all the grandchildren and nephews, I was the one who had the love or the drive to deer hunt or become a deer hunter like him.

This was turning into a conversation that I didnt want to have. The thought of him not being there beside me or with me while hunting the game lands here in Fayette County was a real tear jerker, but one that I knew deep down inside was sure to be a reality someday soon. I would have to accept it no matter what. After the talk, we sat down, ate dinner, and later that evening said our goodbyes and I returned home.

I arrived home around 7PM and at 9:15PM, I was greeted at the door by Pap. I was on my way out to feed the dogs. For some reason, he was standing on my porch with his Winchester Model 70. I was a tad confused and asked what the heck he was doing. He said he had never bought me a Christmas present that would come from him and him only. Then he said he forgot that on July 10th, 1952, he did buy me a gift. He reached out his arm, holding the gun out to me and saying, Merry Christmas.

I dropped to my knees in tears. I knew what this gun meant to him and this was the first time I realized what true sentimental value was. He said he knew I would eventually put her to use and there was nobody who deserved it more than me.

I took the gun from his hands with such a gentle touch, almost like it was an empty eggshell, as he chuckled while shoving it to my chest. Dont baby it, boy, he said. This thing has seen Hell

Well, the gun held a special spot in my cabinet for the next few months and then on December 8th 2006, tragedy struck. I was awakened in the middle of the night to the smell of smoke. I got out of bed to investigate and was confronted face to face with my worst fear as I stepped into the hallway. My house was on fire and quickly filling with smoke. I scrambled back to the bedroom screaming for everyone to wake up and get out the back door. The house was burning. I ran back out to the living room with a shirt over my face to retrieve the car keys. As I turned around from grabbing the keys, the walls started coming down. I ran to the gun cabinet to grab what I could, assuming everyone was out. I grabbed the Model 70 and ran back to the bedroom only to find everyone was still in there. The back door had jammed from the house, twisting. I managed to get the kids, my wife, and myself out the window but the model 70 remained inside the house, on the bed. There was no time to grab it from the bed. The fire moved too quickly. The house burnt to the ground.

The next day, I was confronted with going back and trying to recover whatever I could. Even the family pets never made it out. As I cleared rubble from where the bedroom was, I found the Model 70. The wood was very charred on one side and covered with crud. The other side was visible but looked pretty bad. The rest of the gun was there, but it didnt look too good. I figured it to be a complete and total loss. I took it to Paps house and simply dropped it on a tub of oil until I could clean it up.

Over the next month, while setting up my new residence, and to get my mind off of things, I would go over and scrub it as much as possible hoping to salvage what I could from it. But as I cleaned it and removed the dirt and debris, the metal parts looked to be fine. The action worked smooth as butter. I decided to remove the wood that was left and take it to a gunsmith to see what he could do. Two weeks later I got a call from the gunsmith. He said the gun was fine and passed all the tests and said to stop by so that we could go over my options.

After arriving at his shop, I was amazed. He had completely redone the metal parts with a beautiful deep black high gloss bluing that looked like something off of a fancy European rifle. But there was no stock. Over the next week, both he and I searched for an original replacement stock but could not locate one anywhere. So I decided to go for a nice aftermarket stock. After all, I guess an old house needs a new siding and parts at some point in its life, why not now.

After the stock came in and he set everything up, I was as anxious as a kid to visit the shop. Upon arrival, I saw it immediately. It was beautiful with its new wood, mounts and scope. I couldnt wait to get back to Paps house and show it off.

Pap must have seen me pull into the drive and was already out on the porch waiting. I had it in a gun sock and was carrying it down through the yard. Meanwhile, the whole time, all Pap kept asking was Hows it look, Does it look bad? Little did he know that I had the whole thing redone! He was under the impression that I was only having it cleaned.

When I stepped onto the porch, I told him to sit down. I handed him the sock and as he pulled the sock away, I saw his eyes light up with excitement. My baby, she has a new look and facelift, he said. He was now in tears and couldnt believe it, either. We both thought that this gun was a total loss and would never be used again. I said to him, Do you remember when you said she has been through Hell? Well, she has and she is back!

I now know the feeling and relationship between man and his objects. And what they mean. This gun will hold a very special place in my heart and family for many years to come. I cant wait to start building countless, crazy memories with it in 2007, just as my grandfather did in 1952, and I hope to someday pass this family heirloom and stories from my great grandfather and grandfather down to my grandson. Who knows what the next 50 years will bring, but I would be willing to be, this Model 70 will still be making stories in the woods of southwestern PA.

Obsessed Huntress
5,583 Posts
That was a good, good, heart felt story. I have to wipe the tears now. Thanks for sharing it. I understand exactly how you feel about the gun and it being an heirloom. I have a few myself, for my grandson. My favorite girl and sweetheart, a Browning .243, and my first crossbow and lucky cap. I only hope he values these items as much as I do.

Senior Member
327 Posts
Great story :mad:. MAke sure you can pass the heirloom on and keep the tradition going.
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