My Father, and His Hawken Rifle, Were Legendary Thanksgiving Turkey Shooters

"With his powderhorn hanging from his shoulder and the Hawken in the crook of his arm, he crossed the Skunk River to the shooting ground"

We may earn revenue from the products available on this page and participate in affiliate programs. Learn More

This story, originally titled “Old Haw,” ran in the April 1953 issue of Outdoor Life.

AS I WHILE AWAY my time in the sunset of life, here in the beautiful Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas, I often sit in the shade of a grand old oak outside my cabin door. Here I doze and think of the past and the wonderful times I’ve had with my dog and gun. It’s been a long life, almost seventy years of it, and a happy one. 

Sometimes, as I daydream, I see in my mind a long, dusty road, and on it a farm wagon drawn by oxen. Two teenage Iowa farm lads are perched on its seat, and each is trying to hurry the oxen, for they are anxious to get to town and the day is drawing to a close. 

I first saw the picture of that dusty road countless years ago as I listened to my dad tell the story of the boys. He was one of them; if I ever heard the name of the other I’ve long since forgotten it.

The lads had been sent to the gristmill with a load of corn to be ground into meal. They had instructions to stay all night and return early next day, for the trip to town was all of seven miles, a good afternoon’s journey for plodding oxen. 

Upon reaching the mill they unyoked the oxen, fed them, and started at once for the little village. Its name was Newton, and it promised the boys some distraction, for they knew little of anything but hard work and hard times. The year was 1867 and the Civil War was not long over. 

In the village the boys separated. Father, who was fifteen, wandered along until he came to a blacksmith shop that bore a sign, “Si Miller, Gunsmith.” The hour was late and the shop closed, so the boy peered through its window. There was an assortment of firearms in racks along the wall, and soon his eyes fell on a beautiful long-barreled Kentucky rifle.

He had longed for a rifle like it a few years earlier, when he’d kept his mother, younger brother, and three sisters from starving by trapping rabbits and quail, while his father and two older brothers were in the army. The lad had seen plenty of wild turkey and deer but had no luck trapping them. 

Avid for a closer look at the Kentucky, he decided to return to the shop early next morning while the miller was grinding his corn. When he looked through the window again, next day, the smith was boring out a musket barrel, converting it for shot. Many soldiers carried their muskets home from from the war, had the rifling bored out of them, and so acquired a cheap scattergun. 

The smith finally noticed the boy, smiled, and beckoned him in. “Well, sonny,” he said, “what can I do for you?” 

The lad spoke up and said he’d like to look at the long-barreled rifle in the rack behind the bench. 

“Gladly, son, gladly,” said the smith, placing the rifle in the boy’s hands. Then he added: “She’s a genuine full stocked Hawken, son, caliber about .40. She was a flintlock once—made in St. Louis and carried in the fur trade by mountain men. I swapped for her. Changed her to percussion ignition, rerifled her, rebuilt her stock. Touch her hair trigger and she’ll drive a tack as far as you can see it. I’ll sell her, lock, stock, and 36-inch barrel, with a pound of Fg powder and bullet molds, for only $7.” 

The boy looked glum. “Mister,” he said, “that’s more money than I’ve ever had in all my life. For my summer’s work I have here only a silver dollar.” 

“Son, you got a rifle?” 

“No sir.” 

“Well, I’ll be durned,” said the smith. “With all this game hereabouts and you have nary a shootin’ iron?” 

“That’s right, sir,” the boy admitted. “During the war I kept Mother and the kids in meat with my trappin’ while Pap and my brothers were fighting the Cause.” 

“Well, son,” said the smith, “you look like a good lad and I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll set that Hawken away for you and you pay for it a little at a time. Whenever you git four bits, just hand ’em to old Si.” 

So the deal was made. The boy handed over his silver dollar and then started for the gristmill. 

Soon the two lads were on their way home, their feet propped high on the dashboard, and they took turns prodding the oxen with a long gad. My grandpa was a tight-fisted farmer who didn’t believe in wasting money on firearms, so Father was worried about what would happen to him for spending his hard-earned cash. 

The other boy spoke up: “Look at what I swapped for while I was in town. Gave my old key-wind watch for it, even up.” He reached into his shirt and drew out a beautiful .31 caliber Colt’s cap-and-ball revolver. “Hain’t she a dandy?” he said. “Bet I can bark a squirrel every shot with her.” He started to roll the cylinder by cocking the hammer and letting it fall. Suddenly there was a crashing explosion. The lad yelled, dropped the pistol, and grabbed at his hand. Blood was flowing from a neat hole through the palm. 

Father tried to calm him. But he let out another yell and jerked open his barn-door britches. The ball had passed through the boy’s hand and into his leg! 

Dad told me it was quite a predicament for a boy to be in. He turned the oxen around and headed back for town and a doctor. Late that night two mighty sick boys arrived at the farm, one wounded, the other heartsick. 

Dad said he never heard the end of that episode, particularly his deal with the gunsmith and his father would have given him a good larruping except that his mother interfered. A year later he got proud possession of the Hawken rifle. His pap relented some when wild turkey and occasional venison found its way to the family table.

MY FATHER formed a strong friendship for old Miller, the blacksmith, and finally bound himself over to him as an apprentice. He worked seven long years learning the trade. 

Meantime he began to acquire a reputation as one of the best rifle shots in Jasper County. Finally he set up his own smithy in a little settlement named Metz, got married, and started to raise a family.

He got to be a great hand at the turkey shoots. Along in mid-November each year riflemen would come in from all parts of Jasper County to take part in the annual shoot, and all hoped they’d be good enough with their long rifles to take home a tom gobbler for Thanksgiving dinner. Father told me a lot of stories about the shoots, and the one I like best happened about 1885. 

On the appointed day, Father was all set to go. He’d spent considerable time, the evening before, casting lead bullets, cutting square patches of linen cloth, and cleaning out the pockets of his old buckskin coat. In those pockets he stowed his bullets and percussion caps. I remember how careful he was in choosing his bullets. 

Before leaving for the shoot he worked on the barrel of the old Hawken until the last patch came out clean. Then, with his powderhorn hanging from his shoulder and the Hawken in the crook of his arm, he crossed the Skunk River to the shooting ground. 

It was crowded with roughly dressed men, some of them farmers, many of them brawny laborers who were engaged in building the Chicago, Rock Island, & Pacific Railroad. There was considerable rough talk and horseplay, and the jug was much in evidence. The promoter of the shoot had set out refreshments consisting of crackers, cheese, and cold meat. There was a barrel of hard cider and a gourd dipper ready for all, but most of the backwoodsmen preferred the little brown jug. 

The shooting range was an open space about 150 yards long with a patch of timber for a backstop. In those days you shot directly at the turkey you wanted to take home, at ten cents a shot. Rather, you shot at its head, for it was placed in a box with only its head showing, and the boxes were lined up at a range of about sixty yards. The first man to draw blood on a head won the turkey. 

FATHER SAID a turkey head made a mighty small target for open iron sights. It was especially difficult when the bird was gobbling, for the gobble kept the head in motion and made it hard to hit. 

When Father walked into the crowd a lot of good-natured chaff was passed his way. 

“You-all look who be comin’! No one but Haw Ramsay!” (His given name was Watson, but the nickname Haw had stuck by this time.)

“How many of them-air turks you goin’ to tote home?” 

“Come on, Haw, an’ wet your whistle. The jug brings them birds in real close to your sights.” 

And so it went, for those were the days when men worked hard, fought hard, and drank hard. Father found himself a seat on a tree stump and enjoyed the banter, chuckling occasionally when a tipsy man rammed a bullet into his rifle without remembering to put in the powder. When the gun didn’t go off, the shooter’s temper did. 

Soon a fine big tom was placed in a box and Dad paid his dime for a shot at it. Calmly he placed a bullet in the palm of his hand, pulled the stopper from the powderhorn with his teeth, and poured just enough powder over the ball to cover it. Then he picked the ball out, cupped his hand, and poured the charge into the barrel muzzle. Next he placed a patch across the muzzle, put the bullet on it, and rammed the charge down the barrel. Finally he set the hair trigger, cocked the hammer, and placed a copper ignition cap on the nipple. 

There was a sudden hush among the spectators, then one spoke out: “Look, old Haw’s goin’ to fire. Bet he don’t draw blood nor feather.”

To this Father paid no mind. He threw the gun to his shoulder, drew a bead on the small head, and paused until the bird had finished its gobble. The instant the head was still, he touched the hair trigger. There was a whiplike crack and that turkey’s gobble was stilled forever. 

“Old Haw has drawed first blood!”

“Aw, Haw ain’t so good. My old Betsy can outshoot him anytime. Bet a dollar he can’t do it agin.” 

Dad approached the speaker and told him to put up or shut up. The bet was made and he prepared for the next shot. It was as accurate as the first. He was the possessor of two fine birds and a silver dollar.

Now the promoter came up and told Father he’d have to bar him from further shooting. “You’re too durn good,” he said. “I could lose a lot of money on them birds the way you’re scoring.” 

Then one of the railroad laborers, who had fired twice without success, said, “Haw, how about me using your gun? Mine needs freshin’ out an’ don’t shoot true like yours.” 

“Sure, my friend,” said Father, “if you’ll let me load up for you.” 

“Well, now, that’s good of you,” replied the laborer. “Powder and ball costs, now-days. Load ’er up!”

Outdoor Life April 1953 cover
The April 1953 cover, created by Jack Hogg, featured a figure and fish carved from basswood, a rod made from real split bamboo, and miniature replica flies. The leader was a hair from his wife's head. Outdoor Life

FATHER TOOK a bullet out of his coat pocket, held it up, and carefully examined its trueness. Then he loaded the gun. The laborer drew a steady bead and touched her off. No score—a very bad miss. The ball didn’t as much as kick up dirt. 

“Load ‘er again,” said the laborer. “This time I’m goin’ to take that turk’s head off.” 

But he didn’t; his second shot was as bad as the first.

Now another man spoke up: “Load her for me, Haw. I kin beat him—he’s got too much redeye in his belly.” 

But when he took his turn he got the same result—no score. He became ugly about it, and said the Hawken couldn’t hit a barn door. 

“No?” said Father. “You take that coonskin hat off your head and hang it behind yon oak tree. I got a dollar says I can put a hole through it.” 

“Done!” said the fellow. “Thar ain’t a gun made that’ll throw a ball through that tree.” 

Dad loaded up. Then, with a quick motion, he picked up an ax and drove its bit deep into the oak. He stepped back, took aim, and fired. There was a clang as the bullet hit the ax blade, ricocheted off it, and went through the old cap. It made a hole big enough to thrust a hand through. 

The crowd really roared when the owner of the ruined headpiece paid off his bet. So Father shouldered his birds; with $2 in his pocket he felt he had done a good day’s work, and he left for home. 

Years later, in telling me about the incident, he held up his right hand and asked me if I saw anything wrong with it. Indeed I did; the thumb and knuckles were out of shape, and the hand looked like it had been badly broken. “What happened to it?” I asked. 

“An aftermath of the turkey shoot,” he said, and explained. 

It seemed that he was forging horse shoes in the shop the following week when the door was darkened by a huge, rawboned man who asked: “Be you Haw Ramsay?” Father said he was and the man went on: “Saw you at that turk shoot an’ figured you was a purty good man. Now, I’m the best man in Polk County, so I come over here to Jasper to fight you and see if you’re as good as me.” 

Father reached behind him to undo the knot on his leather apron, and as it fell to the floor he smashed the man right in his leering mouth. The blow knocked him clean through the doorway but he was back on his feet when Father reached him. They clinched and rolled down the hill into the village street. There they broke apart and put on a furious battle, with nothing barred, including eye gouging, butting, and kneeing. 

DAD TOLD ME he’d had some training in sparring and it came in mighty handy. At last he saw a good opening and put his right fist hard on the bully’s jaw, and the Polk County man went down for good. The village loafers put him on the next train out of town. 

A few days later, Father was at the forge, trying to work with his broken hand, when he looked up to see some one standing in the doorway. It was the bully. Dad’s heart sank, for he was in no shape to fight the man again. Nevertheless, he rolled up his sleeves and prepared to defend himself. 

But the big man held up his hand and said, “Peace, friend. I jist come back to shake hands with you, for you whupped me fair and square, and you’re the best man in Jasper County. Shake, Haw Ramsay.” 

They shook hands heartily and the big man strode away, never to be seen again in Metz. 

“But, Dad,” I asked, “how come those riflemen missed at the shoot when they were using your Hawken?”

Father chuckled. “Perhaps,” he said, “you remember how careful I was, molding those bullets the night before the shoot. Well, son, I was casting ‘split’ bullets. I put a little piece of paper between the molds, with just enough lead around the edges to hold the halves together so’s it looked like a regular bullet. Then I put the split bullets in a separate pocket of my coat. 

“When I loaded for the men I put a split bullet in the barrel in such a way that the rifling threw the halves apart when the gun was fired. No telling what direction they’d take. 

“You see, I never relished the idea of being beaten with my own gun, so I was always prepared.” 

I went to other turkey shoots with Father, and on many a hunt. He used to say a man needn’t worry about his son’s future if the boy loved a gun, a fishing rod, and the outdoors. Old Haw has been gone for twenty-odd years, and I’ve missed the old fellow. I hope he’s had many a good turkey shoot in the happy hunting grounds.

The author’s two replica plains rifles. Outdoor Life

The Hawken

What became of the muzzle-loading rifle that figures so prominently in Orie C. Ramsay’s story, “Old Haw”? Curious about its fate, the editors put the question to Mr. Ramsay. 

“Father left his Hawken rifle with a family for safekeeping when he moved our family to Kansas in 1886,” he writes. “Some durn-fool children got hold of it, dismantled it, and dropped it down a well. 

“I’ve consoled myself since by building two replicas of plains rifles; both with curly-maple stocks; here’s a picture of them. I made every part myself-lock, stock, and barrel-in spare time, and it took me a total of 22 months. And I had modern power tools -lathe and drill press, for example—that the pioneer gunmakers like Hawken never heard of. 

“Both rifles are about .31 caliber. I rifled them myself and they are ex tremely accurate at 100 yards as they have to be for squirrel hunting here abouts. You’ll notice that one has a full stock (wood out to the barrel muzzle), the other a half stock. Both kinds were used in the old days. 

“Mountain men preferred the full stock and a long barrel; buffalo hunters on the plains liked the half stock and a shorter barrel, because the rifle could be loaded more easily on horseback. 

“The scope, a modern improvement that Dad never dreamed of, is a Weaver 4X. The lower rifle has a peep sight, but at 69 I feel I need the scope. At that I can outshoot anyone here in the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas—my muzzle-loaders against their modern guns.”

This text has been minimally edited to meet contemporary standards.