Throughout a man’s life, he passes through physical and spiritual trials that forge him into what he becomes. Some are easy and quickly forgotten. Some of them leave marks. We press on, holding fast to the things we believe in; and hoping to finish with enough of us left to recognize.
Some of us go through a pile of guns over a lifetime. If we’re lucky, we eventually we find one that just speaks to us. In my case it was a .54 caliber Santa Fe Hawken. If kindred spirits live in walnut and steel, this old rifle is surely inhabited by mine.
I found it languishing in a pawn shop; I was an easy mark. I am weak for rust-browned, 1800’s caplock firearms. I honestly couldn’t tell you who made it. Nearly all maker’s marks were filed away by a previous owner, to make it more authentic. He succeeded wonderfully, though I don’t think he was a serious shooter. The rifle’s proofmarks are all but illegible but they suggest Italian bloodlines; Pedersoli and Uberti have made excellent rifles of this type.
Santa Fe has been contrary to work with. The rear sight, for instance, was added as an afterthought and over a filler for the original dovetail. It flopped around like a loose tooth, rendering accuracy all but unobtainable. I’ll eventually replace them with something far more precise.
In the beginning, this rifle wouldn’t shoot. The muzzle was a mess and like my own ‘muzzle’ at times, negated whatever other good qualities it possessed. I eventually cut it back an inch and a half, to expose some good rifling. The effort was successful but left some character marks. Accuracy has been restored and the gun is now holding three inches for three shots at 100 yards.
The bore itself is an oddball, running .530″ at the lands and .555″ in the grooves. It was rough as a cob and the Destroyer of Patches. Copious shooting and swabbing with 0000 steel wool, have smoothed it until uniform resistance is felt when ramming a ball down. It’ll work with either .520 or .530 ball, the former being easier loading and the latter being more accurate. No conventional .54 conical will fit it.
The lockwork is perfect. The set trigger breaks at about 1 ¾ pounds and the hammer precisely centers the nipple when it falls. The drum angles into the chamber and this is by far the most reliable standard caplock I’ve ever used. I have fired it in misting rain, snow and on hot days so humid that the smoke wouldn’t clear for the next shot. It simply does not misfire, even with the Triple Seven it prefers.
The stock fits like it was built for me alone. When I shoulder it the cheek piece melts into my face and directs recoil away from it; the sights fall directly under my eye. The tackwork is asymmetrical and a testament to Indians who inhabited the land before me. My connection with them begins with my father, my mother and continues with my wonderful wife; all of us carry the blood and spirit of the Original Americans. When I carry Santa Fe up into the hardwood ridges, they all come along. Generations of hunters, warriors, patriots and pioneers live on in this old rifle.
The tackwork also has personal significance. As my hand closes on the grip I feel five; one for each son and a daughter. The Cross reminds me that I am imperfect, in need of God’s forgiveness and mercy- made possible only through our Lord’s sacrifice. Should I pass from this life in the solitude of those hardwoods, that Cross under my fingertips will provide solace in what lies beyond.
There’s a notch in the stock under the Cross. I didn’t put it there but to me, its meaning is clear. It signifies crucibles of smoke and fire and desperate but necessary actions; hazards undertaken by few. so many might live out their lives in comfort and peace. That Notch is a tribute to brave men and women who took up the gun in defense of self, others or freedom.
And speaking of trials…it took months of sorting out the bore, crown, sights, patch thickness, ball sizes and powder charges to get old Santa Fe to make a holes where it looks, at one hundred paces. I despise inaccuracy and I hated it with a passion in this gun. I threatened to sell it, trade it or wrap it around a tree.
I could never bring myself to do any of them. I’d cast it off to a far corner and try my damndest ignore it. But the glow of the tacks would catch my eye, like the fire in my wood stove on this cold winter night. This ritual repeated itself until I found cures for its ills. I’ve grown even fonder of the rifle and its place here is secure. When I put it down for the last time, I won’t need another one.
The old rifle has a questionable pedigree and many imperfections- just like generations of Americans who founded this country, tamed its wilderness and defeated its enemies. Perhaps that’s why I love early American firearms. They reek of courage, rugged individualism, risks taken for great causes- and the FREEDOM of the high country during a time when the only restraints on a man were those imposed by God and Nature.
May God bless this Nation and rekindle that fire in every American heart.