I re-encountered my father’s 16 gauge Ithaca Featherlight shotgun when moving things out of the attic. It is entirely original with 28” plain barrel. It is very lightly used, having been stored indoors in a rubberized cloth gun bag for over fifty years. I took it out of the bag and was pleased to find it to be in great shape – practically indistinguishable from new. The action is pristine so far as I could tell. I also found three boxes of 55 year old shells and the cleaning kit for the gun. The shells visually appear to be in as good condition as when they were boxed: one box Super-X 1 1/8, 7 ½, and two boxes of Peters plastic 3 ¼, 1 1/8, one box 6 and one 7 ½. But the old shells contain lead shot and hence are not usable.
This reunion has caused me to reminisce about my early experiences with the Featherlight, and made me want to know more about this specific model. The serial number indicates our Featherlight was manufactured in 1949. It was taken in trade by my father around 1955 when I was a youngster, as partial payment for a product he was selling. Its new cost in 1949 was not quite $90. Its used value today is several hundred dollars. A new one goes for $900 today, with a few small improvements. It is one of the two items I inherited from my dad. The other is a wheeled, mechanic’s tool chest and some old tools.
Shortly after my father brought the gun home, I got to see it in use. He took me out one fall day along a farm road. We walked along the roadside until a pheasant flushed nearby and then, blam, just as quickly fell back to the ground. We ate it that night, with both father and mother pitching in to clean and dress the fowl. I was impressed with my father’s instinctual farm-bred prowess in the upland game scene. Perhaps a stint in the Army had honed his skills also.
I had been trained as an early bird during these years. Due to water rationing, one of my chores was to get up at 5AM and turn the water on the vegetable garden (I was a prototype for an automatic sprinkler system). One winter I had a paper route that required me to get up before 5AM to deliver papers. So when my father suggested we try our luck at water fowl, the hour of departure and weather conditions posed no problem for me.
We lived by a lake whose north end was a swamp. We went out there early one morning and we squatted in the freezing cold for an hour waiting for ducks. Dad got off some shots, but I cannot recall if kills resulted. He explained to me about shooting and demonstrated use of the gun. I found unsettling the uncertainty regarding whether you had hit a target or not, since the birds would be visible only briefly and then disappear behind some tall cottonwoods. Without a trained water dog, finding what you shot would be more of a challenge than hitting the target in the first place. And further, I learned something about myself. I was not as keen as my father for shooting birds. Had I been born in his generation and come of age on a dust bowl farm in Kansas, I would probably have been a skilled hunter. There is a time and a place for everything.
Nevertheless, having a gun has a certain cool factor for a young male, so two or three times subsequently, I would get up before dawn, walk to the swampy place, load the gun, and squat waiting for ducks (and perhaps for that missing urge to kill them). But I never took a shot. I convinced myself that my potential targets were way out of my skill range, which was no exaggeration, for my skill was approximately zero. And I also was correct in my concern that shooting the gun would likely do more harm than good. Yet in spite of my reservations, the freedom of being outside on my own with a loaded gun appealed to another side of me, the side that desired to commune with my hunter-gatherer ancestors on their terms.
Between our house and the lake ran the tracks of the Union Pacific. It was the last year of the steam locos. On the cold mornings, one could hear them starting up in the main yard a mile away. I have always liked trains and their sounds, and the apex of my romantic attachment must certainly have been walking along the road by the tracks with the shotgun under my arm just at dawn, waving at the engineer of a passing steam loco, glorious sounds filling my world, sparks flashing from the firebox. I truly have one foot firmly in my father’s era.
My last time handling the loaded gun had come at age 14 or so, when my father and uncle took it and me out for some target practice. I didn’t so much like the kick after a few rounds, but I kept a positive POV. Then when taking the gun for my next turn, I accidentally fired it somehow while pointed in the general direction of my uncle. A disaster of unthinkable proportions was averted because the barrel was pointed at the ground. My father and uncle laughed it off for my sake, but I sensed it brought a quicker end to the outing than had been planned.
A while after, we moved to the City of Angels, and the gun became an indoor gun, having no purpose in the city other than home defense. As far as I know, my father never had it out of the case after we became citified. It has resided in my attic for the 30+ years since my father’s passing; I have never personally felt the need for more than a baseball bat for home defense. (It’s an Eaton 35 oz. aluminum model.)
I doubt if I will ever fire the gun again, although the thought of getting some experience with clay targets has crossed my mind. I like having the gun (as memorabilia) and learning about its design. I know it will be the last shotgun I will ever own.