by Duncan Hill of Hill Rod and Gun
Part two....continued from "True Confessions of a Trans-Atlantic Gunrunner"
Again, I must reluctantly credit sniffly old Doc and his tools othe hunt with my first excursion into that double gun thang, from which emerged an entertaining passion, and ultimately, my job. He bought a French 12 bore cheap (the only way Doc ever bought anything) and light too...a "six-pounder". He hit as well with this un-pump-like oddity as he did his Model 12, so I reckoned it safe to follow suit. At a local gun show, I dickered my way into the finest little thing Ive ever wielded afield, along with it"s leg omutton holster, for 400 bucks. What precipitated shortly thereafter pretty much sealed the deal for life and is recorded in the following account.
Helios and the Rocky Mountain Sharps:
Helios and the Rocky Mountain Sharps It was late eightyish, mid-November, and it proved to be quick and surreal. I started up a ridge a half hour before dark. Ragnar dropped me off at the mouth of the coulee, instructing me to bear right at the top and walk along until birds flushed. I harrumphed and proceeded. I expected nothing, save a pleasant, armed hike, devoid of quarry. Unbeknownst to me, what would transpire became indelibly etched upon my heart as the finest sporting endeavor of my life.
Cradled in the crook of my left arm lay five pounds of sleek side by side in which I had developed much confidence in the earlier months of our waning bird season. This little double was about to become permanently endeared to me. As a result of our combined performance on this shoot alone, I could no more part with it than I could with my eldest child. Memory forbids it.
Ragnar, the slight man with the monster head ( 8 1/2 cowboy hat), had sputtered on all week about the glut of sharptail at the base of the Rocky Mountain Front. We had shot pheasant for 3 days thirty miles to the east in the grain. He claimed that sharptails had consolidated into huge flocks in the scrub pines littering the small ridges just below the Rockies which jut jaggedly out of the high plains in west-central Montana. I didn't believe him and said so. I had always taken sharps in the ungrazed pasture country and untillable ground bordering grain at lower elevations. No sharptail Id ever met wandered up into mountain grouse habitat, I maintained. As a result of my freely expressed unbelief and his Norwegian obstinacy, I found myself taking a ridge during the final moments of a 4 day shoot for a see-I-told-ja-so, ya-shore.
I reached the top, entering it's crown of 8 to 12 foot scrub pines. They were as far apart as they were high. There was a skiff of snow on the rocky ground between them and greens, browns, and golds muted and blended in encroaching dusk. I walked in 20 yards and the first bird flushed. I couldn't shoot, bound up in startled immobilization. Gawking in disbelief, I saw them waddling ahead of me, bobbing gray blobs beneath the trees. I heard agitated clucking and saw that they were everywhere.
Another flushed 10 paces to my right. The predator kicked on and I mounted and shot, catching him between 2 pines. I broke and reloaded, flustered and jittery and all excited and 2 more got up as I did so. Rats! I walked toward the downed bird. Another pair burst up. The little double bucked at my shoulder and the close bird splayed in flight. I spun on the other as he ducked in the trees and vanished. I knelt to retrieve my birds and looking ahead, clearly saw oodles of grouse moving away beneath the pines. I reloaded quickly and took after them, locked-on and oblivious to all else. I was dumbfounded with delight at the sheer number of birds and how tightly they held in the trees. The ground was devoid of cover save for the pines and sharptails had never held like this before, so tight and so close, so late in the season. Overjoyed and impassioned, I rushed on. A single rose. I shot, missed and reloaded, taking a few more steps. Another flapped up. I got him and reloaded quickly. Still another burst up beneath a tree close at my left, darting straight out ahead. I shot him instinctively, rejoicing at the ease of brain-dead reflexive wingshooting, feeling more like a spectator than a participant. Before I could break and reload my right tube, a bird was before me aloft and I had him with my left, the only shot I took with it. I had my 5.
I unwound and slumped internally in stunned silence. I had killed a limit of grouse with 6 shots in 2 minutes. This was not normal. The last 3 birds lay ahead in a small clearing. I was in reverent awe of the moments I had just spent, aching for more action, yet reluctantly submitting to Montana game laws... I eased toward the birds, and in slo-mo, stashed them.
I stood in the pines on the ridge and listened. I heard wind swish needles. I heard clucking birds dispersing. Dusk hung. Suddenly and quite clearly, I knew 4 things: The shoot would never be repeated. Nor would I ever shoot that well that quickly again. The little gun was a keeper. And God was in the whole thing.
The gun is French,16 bore, weighing just 5 pounds. It has double triggers, a straight grip, and a splinter forend. It has barrels of about 27 inches, both of which are choked really full. It has extractors and what is known as a swamped field rib, down between the tubes. I presume it was manufactured between the wars. I fear it has short chambers, as it cracks like a bullwhip and smacks my shoulder savagely. The small bit of engraving is not that good, but the checkering is quite fine, though worn. I like it"s translucent horn buttplate and the wood is pleasingly figured. Best of all, it fits like a glove, though the stock is a bit short. It was exceptionally well built and I make this statement after having shot many rather hot hand loads through it, as well as several 1 1/4 inch magnums factory loads. Frankly, this lightweight gun was not intended to be used with such heavy loads (duh!). Also, if the chambers are short, as I surmise, even more pressure is built because the crimps are unable to fully expand. However, the gun is still completely tight.
This side by side is unusual in that it may be the only one of its kind in existence. It is stamped with serial number 1 on the barrels, receiver, forend, and trigger guard. Perhaps it's a prototype. I dont know who made this double. The name HELIOS is engraved just ahead of the top lever and I assume this to be a model name. If anyone reading this article owns a French Helios or has ever seen one, I would love to hear about it. Kindly contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org . I am currently struggling with having the Helios refinished, the chequering re-cut, chambers lengthened, and the right bore opened up a bit. I hesitate because part of me wishes to keep that gun just as it was on the evening of that shoot, which will forever be remembered as the best I ever had.
1999 Did it.....the modifications:
After a stint of shooting instruction and gunfitting with Jack Mitchell a couple years back, I lengthened the stock to 15 inches with a clays Decelerator, re-cut the chequering and refinished the wood, removed the swivel from the buttstock and replaced it with a gold oval, removed the swivel mount from the bottom rib, and Bill Heckman completely overhauled the bores: lengthened cones and chambers, opened chokes to true cylinder and skeet, and re-blacked the barrels....so much for sloppy sentimentality. Truly, however, after having hundreds of English game guns run through my hands, I have yet to handle a sweeter gun. I am strongly considering taking it to France, having it duplicated over there, and marketing a featherweight 16 bore over here. Any thoughts, suggestions, interest?
How best to serve all those sharptails?
- Supreme Sharptail a la Patrick Hemingway -
The sharptail grouse is dark-meated and should be enjoyed medium to rare. In my opinion, this is the finest eating gamebird on the continent if prepared properly, save, of course, for the mysteriously elusive Barn Dove, but that"s another story.
Coming soon: Part 3...Stumble-bumbling into Gunrunnery
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