With Christmas just around the corner, a friend was gathering information for the right firearm to buy for his 10 year old son. We discussed the positive merits of the .22 rifle and light kicking youth model .20 gauge shotguns.
After walking away I began thinking of the first gun I could call my own. That opened the door for a flood of memories back to my youth. And to be honest, it was neither a .22 rifle or scattergun. It was a small airgun that would send BB’s or .177 lead pellets down its skinny barrel.
I was 10 years old before claiming my own spending money. I would scour side ditches and vacant lots for discarded soda bottles redeemed for a nickel. I also prodded mom and dad to do odd chores for the occasional quarter. After several months the funding was acquired to purchase my first Crosman Pumpmaster760 from Sears Roebuck.
The next year was spent prowling backyards, city creeks and railroad right-of-ways with that little gun fixed firmly to my right shoulder. The Pumpmaster was the least expensive of the high-performance air rifles and was a huge step over the basic BB gun.
I became obsessed with that gun. During the school year the door would barely slam shut before trading my school books for that trusted pellet rifle. My neighborhood friends also fell under the spell and before long several others had them.
Since kids are naturally inquisitive, we figured out that you could load multiple BBs in the chamber at once. This spelled hard times for the tadpoles that lived in a small neighborhood pond. I’ll never forget one friend straightening a coat hanger into a makeshift ramrod then shoving lightening bugs down the barrel. “It’s a glow-in-the-dark shotgun” he’d say before fingering the trigger sending the phosphorescent green color and bug parts into the sky.
The user manual warned you should never pump the gun more than 10 times or the air pressure could blow out the pneumatic seal. Seriously? To a 10-year old that’s like issuing an in-your-face, double-dog dare. At 30 pumps the gun would send a BB completely through a piece of quarter inch plywood. At 40 pumps you could punch a small hole in the neighbors metal trash can. We also learned a blown out seal could be partially revived with a good squirt of 3-in-One oil.
After a while we figured anyone could over pump the small gun and soon the glory faded. What really began to count was accuracy. Although the gun would shoot two types of ammo, without a doubt the proper fitting .177 pellets were the most accurate. We honed our skills at putting that little piece of lead exactly where we wanted. Squirrels, starlings, dragonflies and leaves floating down the creek all became targets of opportunity and sometimes shooting began a competition. To some degree I am not proud of my youthful carnage but I do believe it helped in acquiring proper marksmanship and safety.
One special day a group of friends gathered in front of my house. We knew of several dump sites and a local grainery where the rat populations were high. To us, this was like going to a far off destination on a much anticipated big game hunt. As we mounted our bikes, one hand on the handlebar and the other cradling our guns the neighbor lady came out. “You boys are going to get in big trouble with those guns,” she scowled. I’ll never forget how wrinkled her top lip was. “We are going to shoot rats,” I explained. Her whole demeanor changed. “Oh, well, you boys be careful then,” she said smiling, her top lip still wrinkled.
But that gun taught us more than rodent control. Little did we know it was teaching us about proper marksmanship. The Pumpmaster 760 came out of the box with basic iron sights. The vertical front post fit into a rectangular rear notch so that a tiny stripe of daylight showed along each side of the front post. These tiny gaps, called light bars, provided constant feedback while taking aim. You had to keep the exact gap on each side while maintaining a perfectly straight line across the top of the rear notches and the top of the front post.
We quickly found accuracy meant every element of the sights had to be in perfect relationship with each other. And that’s how we learned the basics of marksmanship. It was all about harmony with the gun, sights and positioning. Even though I rarely shoot iron sights anymore, instead opting for glass, magnification and reticles, that little Crosman taught me and many others a lot. Things we still use to this very day.
It was later that same evening when I called my friend who originally began the discussion about the perfect gun for his son. “Don’t rule out a pellet rifle,” I mentioned. “They are fairly inexpensive, cheap to shoot and offer no noise or recoil.” There was a slight pause on the other end. “You know that’s a great idea,” he replied. “It’s probably the best way to introduce a child to shooting and probably how most people get started,” he added.
I couldn’t help but smile.