Amid the tangle of rifles and shotguns stacked in the old oak gun cabinet, the hooded front sight on the old long-barreled Winchester stood out and brought a smile to my face and a lump in my throat.
The old rifle displayed all the characteristics that new-age hunters seem to despise. A long barrel, iron sights, blued, machined steel, a walnut stock, a scope with no external dials and a diminutive 40mm objective lens, and chambered for a caliber that burns a lot of powder.
It was conceived by Winchester in 1958, perhaps coincidently the year I was born, during the period when Winchester introduced a series of belted magnum cartridges based on a shortened version of the original .375 Holland and Holland cartridge.
The rifle in the gun cabinet was built in 1962, a year after Harry Swank took the world record Dall sheep with its twin, a Winchester Model 70, chambered for the .264 Winchester Magnum. The record stands today.
I wish I had asked Dad if he knew about the Swank sheep and if it influenced his decision to buy the rifle at a time when he was dirt poor, had three kids to raise along with cows, pigs and chickens on a hardscrabble farm. Although I doubt he would have conceived of hunting in Alaska, much less living there.
The older one gets, the more one wishes to have asked more questions. I remember the rifle always being a part of the scene while growing up and hunting with Dad.
A few Sundays each summer, Dad and his buddy Eddie would go out and shoot the gophers that plagued the local pasture lands. Most of the time, they used .22 rimfire rifles or heavy barreled varmint rifles chambered for hot .22 and 6mm centerfires. In the pastures that allowed safe shooting at a distance, they would kill the varmints out at four or five hundred yards.
Once or twice on these gopher safaris, Dad and Eddie would pull their .264s out and make a spectacular shot, always beyond 400 yards. As I grew older and had more exposure to the shooting they did, I realized why they were always great game shots.
One winter day, I couldn’t have been more than 6 years old, Dad took me for a drive on a cold, bright Sunday afternoon. His .264 lay on the seat between us. We would stop periodically, and Dad would look out across the wind-blown prairie to the fence lines drifted in with snow.
Putting his binoculars down and opening the truck door, Dad said, “plug your ears.” He laid a jacket across the hood and rested the rifle on the jacket. A moment later the muzzle blast rocked the truck and he said, “stay put, I’ll be right back.” A few minutes later, he returned holding the red fox that had fatally decided to take a nap along that fence line.
It would be a few years before I could read well, and begin to study the gun and hunting world in earnest. When I did, I figured for sure I would have a Model 70 Winchester in .264.
Winchester had dubbed the rifle the “Westerner” when they marketed it to hunters who roamed the wide-open spaces of the American West.
It could be argued that the .264 Winchester Magnum was the finest long-range medium-sized big game cartridge ever developed. That is ballistically, if you go by what the cartridge can be loaded to, and not the ridiculously false figures used to describe its ballistics today.
But, it’s funny how the gun world suffers as much from hype and pretense in advertisements and scribes with nothing better to do.
Among the things that caused the .264 to all but disappear was the profession by gun writers that the gun would “burn up a barrel” before you even got used to the rifle. Not true.
Like any large case, small-bore cartridge, barrel throat erosion is accelerated. But proper care and cleaning and not shooting the rifle like a machine gun will see a bore that stays accurate well beyond 1,500 rounds. One should be so lucky to burn out a barrel anyway. Means you shot a lot, so what.
The point being, check around before taking what one reads to heart. I finally bought my first pre-64 Winchester Model 70 in .264 in the mid-1970s. Dad and I hunted Alaska together with our .264s and never used more than one shot for almost all of Alaska’s big game.
By the mid-1980s I had become at least competent at stocking and checkering, and Dad asked me to build him a stock to replace the one he had put on his .264 in the 1960s.
It took me about a year to build the stock, and it convinced me that I didn’t have the talent to viably pursue a career as a stock maker. Dad had never been very sentimental about firearms. Our family never had a lot of money and certainly not enough to afford to buy and keep all the guns we wanted to try.
Guns came and went, and over the years, Dad’s inventory turned over a lot. Except that damned old .264. When I would go south to hunt with him, I would always look over his gun cabinet, every time, it would be different, but the .264 was always there.
It had been several years since I had been back to hunt with Dad before he passed. I didn’t know what guns he had. Except for a couple he had told me he had purchased recently — I loved that at age 84, he was still trying new guns.
It was with a fair amount of trepidation that I went over to see the guns that Eddie, his life-long partner, had taken into safekeeping when Dad passed. The gun I wanted to see most was that old .264, and when I saw it among all the others, it was like having a member of the family still there with us.
Guns have, since the days of matchlock firearms, been treasured heirlooms passed on for generations. They are one of the few things that can be used practically as long as the family tree grows. I doubt that I’ll ever hunt Dall sheep again, but I’ll probably hunt deer, and when I do, I’ll have the old gun, and it’ll be the best way I have to honor the life I owe to my Dad.