The Big Bang
Richard O. Fanjoy
It was a late December afternoon and the sun was going fast as we crept through the old growth forest, the dry snow squeaking underfoot. Fresh deer tracks were everywhere, but the only sign of life was a crow calling in the distance. I could occasionally see my hunting partner, Don, off to my right about thirty yards, his focus intent on the woods ahead. We had agreed that I would follow the deer tracks and he would stay off to one side to spot any deer that might pause to watch the back trail. I was not very confident our strategy would pay off, but the alternative of sitting in the cold by a tree, did not seem to have much merit. In any case, either method beat the heck out of spending the weekend in the house.
Regular deer season had been over for a couple of weeks and when Don called to ask if I was interested in heading south for a special season hunt, recently announced by the Department of Natural Resources, and the opportunity to escape the early stages of cabin fever with a little walk in the woods seemed like a great idea. I had not hunted with Don before, but his knowledge of deer hunting, in general, appeared acceptable. You can also tell a lot about a prospective hunting partner by the care with which he handles firearms. After only a half hour of covertly watching which way my companion’s muzzle was pointed, I was satisfied that I could relax and enjoy the hunt.
Dressed in heavy clothes for the subzero weather, I was already sweating from the hike in and wondering whether or not I should take off a couple of layers. If we were to get lost in these woods, however, extra layers would be welcome. It was overcast and the light was going fast. The occasionally flurries drifting through the pines reminded me of the snowstorm that was supposed to come in overnight. Don had a crude map of this area of state land, but it was not very detailed and my attention was divided half between following the deer tracks and half on the location of my truck about a mile behind us. I shifted my .348 Winchester from the sling position down to port arms and checked for the umpteenth time to make sure I had chambered a round and the safety was on. The choice of the big gun was determined after checking the weather forecast and the fact that the scope on my .270 Remington had fogged up the last couple of times out in cold weather. The .348 had open sights, but there was not much chance the shooting distance would be very far, so it seemed the right gun for the outing. The snap of a branch off to the left reminded me Don was still moving and as I looked, he was shaking his head in embarrassment at the sound. It did not seem to be a big deal since the loss of daylight would end our stalk in a few minutes and I did not hold out much hope for last minute luck. I fumbled with my heavy gloves to grab the sling and swung the rifle back up on my shoulder as I ducked under some low branches and continued up the trail. I was reminded that the old gun had been around a long time, but could not remember the last time I had used it. It had been buried in my hall closet for some time.
The Winchester had been in my possession for many years. I first saw it when I was about 14 and my father had opened a steamer trunk left in his care by a military buddy from the Korean War. A good friend, Barney, had left the trunk in my dad’s care and headed off to explore the world. My dad had not heard from him for several years. Dad had unsuccessfully tried to contact him and was now going through the trunk to see if there was anything important inside before finally turning the contents over to Goodwill. My dad carefully stacked old clothes and shoes off to one side for disposal. At the bottom of the trunk he found a couple of photo albums and a handsomely hand tooled leather gun case. Inside, wrapped in oilcloth, was the most beautiful gun I had ever seen. My dad said Barney had talked of using the gun to hunt bear in Alaska. It was a lever action .348 and I was reminded of the rifles used in all the western action films I had ever seen. After putting the gun and other apparently important items back in the trunk, my dad closed it up, stored it in the basement and I forgot about the gun. As the years went by, no word was heard of Barney’s whereabouts.
When I turned 21, as a last fling before joining the military, my best friend Crawford and I decided to go on a deer-hunting trip in the Pacific coast mountains of Southern California. Neither of us had done much more than hunt rabbits with .22s, but it seemed like a great idea. He would borrow his dad’s old .303 Enfield and as I considered where I might borrow a gun, I remembered the .348. My dad agreed that I could use the gun and we were set. We spent the week before departure getting Crawford’s old Willys Jeep in shape for the trip. Crawford had a large footlocker that we filled with canned goods from our respective houses and a few pots and pans. I went to the local store to buy a hunting license and some cartridges for the .348 and found that none were available. After trying three sporting goods stores with no luck, one of the clerks suggested I visit a gun show that was being held in a neighboring town that weekend. I did so and found a booth that sold a wide variety of shells, including ones for a .348. I did not know the .348 was an uncommon caliber and was accordingly shocked at the price for a box of 24 cartridges…nearly $40! However, the limit on deer was only one a year, and at one shot per deer, I figured a box would last me a good long time. Now we had everything we needed for the hunting adventure of a lifetime.
The old Willys huffed and puffed up into the Cleveland National Forest about 40 miles from where we lived. Our plan was fairly simple. We would go high up into the mountains on the main highway, find a dirt road off to one side, follow it a couple of miles, and set up camp. And that’s what we did. After about four miles, the primitive dirt road we turned off on ended at a roughed out parking area already occupied by six cars. Nearby, several tents could be seen and a number of men in hunting clothes lounged around campfires, cooking their midday meals. We had hoped for a little more isolation, but if all these professional-looking hunters were here, the place should be perfect. We spotted a small clearing about fifty yards west of the parking lot and began to set up camp. As we finished putting up our tent, I watched three men who had been setting by a fire in the next camp as we arrived. They were loading their gear on an apparently matched set of ATVs and getting ready to head into the woods. Actually, what caught my attention were their shiny new Fifth Wheel trailer and camp accommodations that looked like something out of the LLBean catalogue. Everything they had looked fairly pricey. I was wondering how they got the big comfortable trailer up the dirt trail. I reflected on our flimsy canvas tent, trunk of canned food and street clothes. Maybe we could learn something from these guys about how to get our deer.
About an hour later, we heard a couple of loud gunshots a short distance off to the south …and then there were several more. When the shots continued for another five or ten minutes, we concluded that a deer was not being shot to pieces, but that an informal firing range was in operation. Since neither of us had shot our guns before, we figured it best to go do a little target practice before heading into the woods. We took our guns and a box of bullets from the back seat of the jeep and headed towards the booming of the guns. As we walked down the trail to the makeshift firing range, the loud reports made me wish I had brought some kind of earplugs. We soon arrived near the firing line and saw seven or eight men shooting, from a standing position, towards an embankment about 100 yards away that was littered with paper targets of various sizes and a few cans and bottles. Although the continuous gunfire seemed sufficient to drive all wildlife from the forest, the report of one gun in particular seemed much louder. When I remarked on that, a man standing nearby said with no small amount of reverence that the gun in question was a seven millimeter magnum. I gathered that having such a manly firearm was a big deal. I was just glad I did not have to shoot a gun that loud and was well satisfied with my ancient lever action. What I needed was the kind of gun that made the ricocheting noise I had heard in all the old western movies. Now that was a cool sound to have working for you and one that would certainly impress the other shooters!
Crawford and I found places on the firing line and loaded our rifles. I had practiced loading in camp so as not to embarrass myself while in view of seasoned hunters. The heavy report of guns on the line continued and I could see a few hunters were skilled at hitting the distant bottles and cans. The strike of bullets on the paper targets could not be seen from our position, but every now and then I could see an eruption in the dirt that indicated paper targets were also getting some attention. I put half the box of shells in my pants pocket, but quickly decided the weight was too much and put them back in the box. The .348 rounds were unlike any bullets I had seen before and considerably larger than Crawford’s .303 rounds. The lower two thirds of the cartridge were half again larger than most rifle bullets. The top half of the lead slug ended in a blunt silver tip that would surely do in the largest, meanest werewolf. The dealer who sold me the cartridges told me that .348s only came in 240 grain slugs which were designed to stop bear or moose dead in their tracks. I just hoped a well-placed shot would not completely disassemble the smallish deer that I had seen in this area. I managed to load five rounds though the side port in the Winchester and lever a round into the chamber. Working the lever action put the external hammer at full cock and I lifted the rifle to sight on a distant can. I heard the loud bang somewhere off to my right that was probably Crawford’s Enfield getting into action. I wondered if there would be much kick with my shot. The rifle had a two-inch rubber pad on the end of the stock and I found myself wondering why a pad that big was needed. I had a momentary image of the kick from the gun sending my 135-pound frame flying, to the entertainment of the others on the firing line. My concentration, however, returned to the Winchester and the target. I remembered shooting instructions I had read in a hunting magazine that focused on breath control. As I drew in and held a short breath, I began to squeeze the trigger. It seemed like the rifle fired almost immediately. I do not recall any kick, but the most vivid memory was of a shock wave that went out ahead of me in the dust for about thirty feet. That and a ringing in my ears that blocked out all other noises. I may have hit the target, the dirt bank, or the next county, but I could not tell you for sure. Pine needles were raining down from all nearby trees. As my ears stopped ringing, I noticed all the shooters on the line were looking around, obviously trying to figure out which gun had just fired. I found myself looking around too and tried to locate the magnum shooter we had observed earlier. Soon, the shooting started again and I could sort of hear once again, I levered another round in and lined up another shot. When the gun went off this time, I was even more aware of the shock wave, the ringing in my ears, and even the apparent strike of the bullet a few feet from a can at the bottom of the target wall. Unfortunately, I was aiming at a bottle about 20 feet higher. Men on both sides set their guns down. One walked over and asked what I was shooting. I told him I had a .348. He said he had heard of the caliber and wondered why I would want to take a gun that big deer hunting. He wandered away muttering and shaking his head. At that point, I felt like I had just demonstrated that I was a new guy hunter and wondered if everyone there was thinking the same thing. In any case, I did not think my ears could take anymore ringing so I unloaded the gun and set down by a nearby a tree to watch Crawford finish his practice. When he was done, we headed back down the trail. On the way, he remarked on the huge bangs from my end of the line and wanted to know if it was the seven-millimeter magnum. I told him “probably”, not realizing he was referring to my own shots.
We had lunch. It was not much and with the dry air and high temperature, we were not very hungry. To add to the discomfort, the pine needle carpet in the camp area did little to keep down the dust that continually floated in from arriving and departing cars of hunters. I was terminally thirsty and glad we had remembered to bring a five-gallon water jug and canteens. It was so hot that the flies had quit flying. We had come to hunt, however, so we slung canteens, gathered up our rifles and headed down the dusty trail to the north that appeared to be the direction to the hunting grounds. I could still hear banging from the firing range and wondered how far we would need to go to get out of range of the sound of gunfire that was probably scaring off any nearby deer. We wandered a mile or so up the road and soon put on our hunting faces as we crept along with what must surely be great stealth. In reality, the jungle grapevine had already announced the arrival of nimrods and that all local animals should take up a key vantage point to observe the entertainment. We soon left the road and approached a small knoll covered by huge closely spaced boulders. After climbing up to check the view, we found that we could cover the area quickly if we jumped from boulder to boulder. I was feeling particularly agile until I followed Crawford in a jump across an eight-foot gap. As I made the leap, I noticed a huge timber rattler stretched out on the cool earth below. The next three jumps were made after carefully checking what lay below.
After crossing the boulder field, we continued north for about another hour. On the way, we found a shady area where we stopped for a drink and a moment's rest. I mentioned the snake in the boulder field to Crawford but I do not think he believed my story. In any case I was not eager to go back to camp with a second tour of the boulder field. We soon topped a small hill and were treated to a great view of an open meadow about three hundred yards across to the next group of woods. As we scanned the view for any sign of deer standing idly by, waiting to be shot, I noticed a distant hunter on the far side of the meadow. About that time, he seemed to raise his rifle, point it our way and then a puff of smoke appeared. The gun’s report arrived about the same time as the shot hit the trees ten feet above our heads. We both hit the ground and rolled down the backside of the crest. About the time we stopped to catch our breath, there was another report and another shot hit the trees at the top of the hill. We both yelled loudly for the hunter to stop shooting, but shortly thereafter, there was a third shot. At that, we looked at each other, got to our knees and both fired a shot up over the rise in the general direction of the incoming shots. We lay on the ground for several minutes trying to decide what to do next and hoping we had gotten the attention of our apparent assailant. We could not imagine how we were mistaken for deer, so the hunter was either blind or intent on causing us some harm. There were no more shots. After a few minutes, we cautiously got to our feet, but there was no sign of the hunter. We had had enough for the first day of hunting and headed down the backside of the hill to make a roundabout approach to camp.
We finally arrived back at our camp about an hour before dusk. We could see two of the well-equipped hunters reclining in chairs near a campfire. We decided to ask about their success and maybe get some pointers on where we might spot some deer. The two hunters appeared to be middle-aged and well relaxed in comfortable chairs by the fire. They were sharing a bottle of whiskey and offered it to us. We said no thanks, but maybe later. After some small talk, I noticed the third man in their party had not appeared and asked where he was. One of the men said he was still way out in the woods. He related a story about how the third guy, who also was the owner of the trailer, ATVs, and most of their gear, had wandered into a swarm of bees and had been stung so badly that his eyes had swollen shut. They said after that he had become irrational and would not let them help him. They had returned to camp a couple of hours earlier and went down to the highway to call an ambulance. Neither man seemed overly concerned about the third hunter or returning to the woods. We excused ourselves and went back to camp to cook dinner. About two hours after dark, the arrival of an ambulance and a park ranger’s pickup truck was announced by flashing lights and a rolling cloud of fresh dust. The rescue team asked for directions from the injured hunter’s companions who then returned to the fire as the rescue unit headed out. It was some time later that the rescuers returned and placed the injured man in the ambulance. As the ambulance headed back down the dirt road, we marveled at the lack of concern from the hunting companions.
The next morning, after a short and unsuccessful hunt, we decided we had had enough of the dusty woods and our first deer hunting adventure. The campsite of the injured hunter was empty and it appeared that the man’s blue-collar hunting companions had taken his expensive equipment back down the mountain. We never did hear the final outcome of the events from other hunters in the area, but the story of the trio’s incident was commonly known. As we drove down to the highway, we decided to go down the west side of the mountains to a nearby beach. Let me tell you, the cold clean Pacific Ocean never felt so good. We spent the night camping at a nearby state park and then headed home. The .348 was cleaned and returned to my dad’s closet. Many years later, when he had finally given up on ever hearing from Barney, my dad asked if I wanted the gun permanently. I was glad to take it off his hands to add to the other guns that I owned. From that point on, it received a good cleaning every fall but was rarely taken from its case.
I was remembering the gun’s unremarkable history and the hot weather hunt so many years ago as I crept through the woods. The rifle’s darkly blued action and rough wood stock made me feel like a grizzled old mountain man from the 1800s. Just then, I heard a low whistle from Don and a rustle in the heavy brush to my front. Don looked like he was moving around to get a clear view of something. At about the same time I caught a glimpse of brown bounding through the woods about eighty yards ahead that was clearly a medium sized deer. I tried to get a good sight picture, but the brown kept disappearing and reappearing behind the heavy growth. If I did not take a shot soon, however, the deer would be out of range. I thought I had a sufficiently clear path to shoot and I began my trigger squeeze. The huge concussion from the big gun disrupted the silence like a low altitude sonic boom. Clumps of snow rained down from every tree in sight. I could no longer see the deer and wondered if my aim was true. It was fairly certain that I was on target and feeling pretty good about the shot. Don hollered over, “did you get him?” About that time, about sixty feet ahead, a small barren sapling, about fifteen feet tall, slowly began to fall and hit the snow with a muffled thump. It was quiet for a minute, and then Don’s loud voice drifted my way with, “Well, that one will be easy to clean”. We walked over to examine the sapling that had been cleanly snapped off by the round and then continued to where the deer had been. There was no evidence that the deer had been hit and that the tree had been the only recipient of the powerful silvertip slug. It was almost dark, the cold was setting in, and the season had come to an end. As we made our way back up the snowy path to the car, I reminded myself that I really needed to get the big gun out of the case more often! And I wondered if Barney ever really went hunting for bear.
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