Lever Gun

Psychologists and physiologists claim that the human sense most closely associated with memory is our sense of smell. I’m not so sure. After a holiday-season mule deer hunt, I think the sense of hearing may have the stronger hold on our memories and emotions. I base that conclusion on a single clear, evocative rifle shot of the other day, the sharp crack of which is still ringing in my ears, delivering me back to 1980, when I was a 14-year-old know-it-all, convinced that the diminutive .25/20 was wholly inadequate as a deer cartridge.
My father held the opposite view. A child of the Depression–when he bagged everything with a pulse, from crows to coyotes to groundhogs to jackrabbits to deer–my father insisted the pint-sized .25/20 rimmed cartridge was plenty powerful for the whitetails we hunted on our Missouri farm. In fact, he made frequent mention that the reigning world-record whitetail, the legendary Jordan Buck, had been killed with a .25/20.
As if to prove the point, he made my first deer rifle his favorite gun, a vintage Winchester Model 92 lever-action, complete with saddle ring and stiff old leather saddle scabbard. My dad had obtained the rifle from a South Dakota Sioux during one summer on his grandfather’s ranch, and he had just about shot out the barrel in the intervening three decades.
So while my classmates hunted with blued .30/30s, long and lethal .30/06s, and even the stylish 6.5mm Swede, my first deer gun had slightly more downrange energy than a .22 Magnum. It had peep sights and a tube magazine, no sling swivels or stock checkering. Still, it was my favorite gun in the world for my first timeless deer seasons, during which I never touched the hair of a whitetail. Dad and I shot a lot, though, and the more time I spent behind its trigger, the more confidant I became in the lethality of that little Model 92. For a decade, the sharp crack, followed some time later by the downrange whump, became auditory shorthand for deer season.
I grew up and acquired different deer rifles. And then my dad died. My siblings and I divvied up his guns. The only one I really wanted was that old .25/20. Actually, two .25/20s.
My dad, recognizing the fragility of that old Winchester, bought a Marlin Model 94 Classic in .25/20 when I was in college. The replacement would let him shoot hotter handloads, he reasoned, and extend the lethal range of the .25/20. But I knew the real reason he bought the Marlin: it extended the life of his tired old Winchester.
The Marlin is a great shooter. With a Williams peep sight and side eject–as opposed to the top eject of the old Winchester–it is even drilled and tapped for a scope mount. But Dad was a peep-sight guy, and by extension and inheritance, so am I.
Every year since he died, I’ve taken one of Dad’s favorite guns on a hunt. This year, I had an antlerless mule deer tag, and with plenty of mule deer on my eastern Montana place, I resolved to kill one with the Marlin, to prove Dad’s point that the .25/20 is adequate for deer the size of mule deer. But I set some rules for myself. If I could, I’d go for a small-stature yearling, and I wouldn’t take a shot over 50 yards. I didn’t want to stretch the talents of the little cartridge.
The hunt was so perfect it seemed scripted. As the light failed, a doe and her twin fawns trotted toward me. The wind was right, and I settled in the sage, propped the lever gun on my knee, and waited. At 50 yards, the string of deer turned toward me. I bleated, and they stopped. I filled the peep sight’s aperture with young mule deer and pulled the trigger. The crack is what I remember, not the sonic violence of a high-powered rifle nor the tiny temporary zing of a .22, but a sharp, resolute bark. The sound of deer hunting with my dad. And in this season of thanks, an auditory reminder of gratitude for fathers who teach their children and for children who grow up to be hunters.

Each year OL’s Editor Andrew McKean hunts with one of his late fathers old rifles. This holiday season he took the .25/20 to the field to hunt mule deer and reminisce about days gone by.