A senseless, needless, and meaningful firearms purchase

Column by Hal Walter

Musketry – July 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

ONE OF THE FUN THINGS about living in Central Colorado is that neighbors sometimes appear at your house to show you the interesting toys they’ve found to amuse themselves.

Recently, when a neighbor told me he wanted to show me his “spud gun,” I thought he said “stun gun.” So I was surprised when he pulled a four-foot-long piece of PVC pipe out of his truck, stuffed a red potato down one end, sprayed some Aquanet into the other, and then, pointing the spud gun in a safe direction, turned a small knob on the hairspray end.

The resulting “thuwwwunkkk” of the potato exiting the pipe was impressive, and the spud was hurled towards the heavens. It arced over my acreage, and splattered on the dirt road that runs alongside my property.

So much for ending world hunger.

“Jeeez,” I said. “Let me try that.”

We loaded another red potato into the spudzooka. This time I noticed the potato fit a bit more snugly. I squirted a little more hairspray into the chamber than he had before, pointed the pipe in the same direction and turned the knob which sparks the hairspray.


The second potato was last seen cresting the ridge to the south of my ranch. Assuming it failed to achieve orbit, it probably landed somewhere up in the ponderosas on the adjoining property. I just stood there, laughing in amazement. My neighbor had built — with about $20 worth of odd materials from Wally World and no gunpowder whatsoever — something better than anything the Kosovars have to defend themselves from the Serbs.

While the spudzooka was an amusement, I also had — for no apparent good reason — recently been contemplating the addition of a weapon at the Walter Ranch. The object of my desire was a Ruger No. 1 single-shot rifle, a weapon never seen in an action movie, never concealed under a trenchcoat, and never considered an assault rifle by anyone under any circumstance. I have actually lusted for one of these rifles for a number of years.

The falling-block action is similar to that which was employed in rifles popular in the mid- to late-1800s for hunting buffalo. To operate, you simply pull a lever under the rifle to expose the rear end of the barrel, slip a cartridge into the chamber, and close the lever. Now you’re ready to fire one shot.

Though very simple in design, the cost of a Ruger No. 1 is a great deal more than that of a spud gun, and even considerably more than most of the aforementioned death machines so commonly featured in high-body-count Hollywood motion pictures. Ron, a gunsmith and gunshop owner I know, was able to find a really good deal on one of these rifles, chambered for .243, a relatively light round known for its long-range accuracy.

Since I had recently been paid for a tiresome technical-writing job, I felt like I needed to reward myself in some nonsensical manner. Even writers — who allegedly think harder than most people — can sometimes fall into this trap. Edward Abbey, for instance, kept a few guns around, apparently for no other purpose than the occasional blasting of a television set.

BUT WHY DID I need this gun? I already own a perfectly fine hunting rifle which I shoot about once a year. Is it just something about the romanticism of living in the rural West, with its wide-open spaces, that inspires gun lust? I was confused and I wanted answers.

Right away I discounted the all-too-familiar penis-extension argument that is the mantra of anti-gun types. Instead, as I sometimes do when faced with such monumental and philosophical questions, I consulted with friends’ wives. That way I can tap the common sense of the smarter gender without the dangerous sexual politics associated with discussing these matters with, say, my own wife.

The answers ran the gamut.

At one end of the feminine continuum, Shannon likened my purchase to that of a woman buying expensive jewelry. Some women buy jewelry for no rational reason, keep it in a case and trot it out on special occasions.

On the other end of the continuum, Lauren waxed eloquently on the flat trajectory and high velocity of the .243. I found myself going with Lauren’s intuition, and called Ron to order the rifle.

On the way to pick up my Ruger No. 1, I continued the mental gymnastics over the purchase, even though it was all over except for two checks — one conducted over the phone by the FBI, and the one I would write to Ron.

I wanted Ron’s take on this mind game and began to rehearse the question over and over in my mind: “Ron, you are older and wiser, and have certainly bought and sold many firearms in your time. Can you just tell me why I’m doing this?”

The new rifle lay on the desk while Ron called the FBI to make sure that I’m not a felon or domestic abuser. After about a 30-second chat, he hung up and I began writing the check. As I was doing this, Ron answered my question.

“You know, Hal, it’s not based on need.”

I drove home somewhat at peace with myself, with the boxed rifle behind the seat of my truck. I stopped at the hardware store to buy ammo.

ONCE HOME, I placed the Ruger on the kitchen counter and admired its stylishness while eating my dinner. They sure did pick a beautiful piece of walnut for the stock.

“Oh hell,” I finally said to myself. “I guess I’m going to have to shoot the damn thing.”

I went to the closet and found some fluorescent-orange peel-and-stick targets, pulled one off its backing, and then stuck the target to the closet molding while I rooted around for my earmuffs. When I had at last located the ear protection, I looked up and found that my target had disappeared. I looked all around but it was nowhere to be found.

Finally, anxious to get this over with, I peeled another target and went outside where I have a wooden box filled with sand for shooting purposes. I stuck the target to the box, backed off to the picnic table and sat down. I pulled the lever, slipped a cartridge into the chamber, and calmly drilled the target with the first shot from the fresh-out-of-the-box rifle.

One shot was enough to convince me that all was good. Truly this was more accurate than a spud gun. More fun, too. No stinky, sticky hairspray. Flat trajectory, high velocity. Now I could put the rifle in its case and stash it away where it belongs.

I decided to take my dogs for a walk up the road, and gladly I did not see a soul. For when I returned, I looked in the mirror and found the missing target I’d stuck to the closet molding. It was firmly pasted to the side of my noggin, perhaps a comical message that in matters like purchasing a firearm one can sometimes use his head too much.

Hal Walter practices his essay-writing and target-shooting at his home in the Wet Mountains, near the defunct mining camp of Ilse.