April 13, 2016
I was beginning to sound like Ralphie from A Christmas Story: "I want a Model 94 carbine lever-action .30-30 with the saddle ring and the flip-up rear sight." But I was in my thirties, and the object of my desire was in my dad's gun safe.
The rifle had belonged to my late grandfather, who had served as sheriff of Lancaster County, Nebraska, from 1951 to 1979. It wasn't the only gun of his in the safe, nor the most valuable, either sentimentally or monetarily, and as long as I played my cards right and used the proper verbiage — "borrow" instead of "give" — I figured I had a puncher's chance at convincing my old man, an attorney, that I had a strong case for premature inheritance.
Though its legacy was law enforcement, the quick-handling lever action was ideally suited for stalking whitetails in the dense timber ridges surrounding my home in western Montana. My dad finally acquiesced and surprised me with the gun at a Thanksgiving gathering. My buck was already in the freezer that year, but I finally had the 94 in my hands and was holding not just a new deer rifle and a family heirloom but a piece of history.
Made In 1919
I knew the rifle was old, but a check of the serial number revealed that it was made in 1919. The rifle, and several others just like it, had been part of the arsenal of the Lancaster County jail. In 1955, my grandfather, Merle, formed the Lancaster County Sheriff's Posse with 20 original members who were sworn in as special deputies and subject to call to assist the sheriff whenever necessary.
Posse members were assigned to work with regular deputies, and their training consisted of traffic control, firearms, protection of crime scenes, and riot control. The carbine of choice for the mounted posse was the venerable Winchester Model 94.
I can't imagine there were many riots to quell in Lincoln in those days, but Nebraska football fans are a passionate lot, and it would be several years before coach Bob Devaney would take the reins and elevate the program to national prominence.
I can imagine a few civil uprisings brought on by losing records that required granddad's attention, but likely the 94's most important work in the line of duty involved the apprehension of two of the country's most notorious mass murderers.
Between December 1957 and January 1958, Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, his girlfriend, killed 10 people in Nebraska and one in Wyoming, and my grandfather investigated the murders. A manhunt involving the National Guard ensued, and Starkweather and Fugate were apprehended in Douglas, Wyoming, following the roadside murder of a traveling shoe salesman and a high-speed chase.
A Rifle Rides Shotgun
The couple was to be extradited to Lincoln to stand trial, and my grandfather and grandmother were among those that made the 900-mile round trip to make the transfer. Upon my grand-parents' arrival at the jail in Wyoming, Starkweather asked, "How's Denny?" My father, Dennis, and Starkweather grew up in the same neighborhood and attended junior high school together.
The 94 likely rode shotgun next to my grandfather on what certainly was a tense trip back to Nebraska with the prisoners.
My grandmother was tasked with the care of Fugate, who maintained her innocence and claimed she had been an unwilling accomplice to the murder spree. (My grandmother never bought her story.) Starkweather died in the Nebraska electric chair on June 25, 1959. Fugate was sentenced to life imprisonment and paroled in 1976 after serving 17 years of her sentence.
My grandfather passed away in 1982, and my dad inherited his collection, including the 94 carbine. I've been toting my granddad's guns since I was old enough to tag along. His single-shot .410 was the first firearm I was permitted to carry afield, and I learned the merits of gun safety with that little shotgun. I taught plenty of pigeons, a few quail, and one pheasant rooster lessons along the way. I still hunt with his Remington Sportsman 58, a predecessor to the 1100, and I've killed several turkeys and countless pheasants with it.
The summer following my dad's Thanksgiving generosity, my wife and I accepted an offer to relocate to the Midwest for work. I figured I just might get a chance to shoot one of those massive Midwestern whitetails I'd always read about'¦and maybe I'd get to do it with the 94.
Much to my chagrin, I learned that hunting with centerfire rifles is taboo in Illinois, so once again, the Winchester retired to the basement to wait.
For a Labor Day holiday, my wife and I made the trip to her family's cabin in the north woods of Wisconsin. While we were away, a deluge bombarded central Illinois, and we returned home to find the basement submerged under several inches of water.
I had stored all of my hunting and fishing gear downstairs, and in assessing the damage, I hesitantly unzipped the soaked gun case for the 94. The barrel and action were already encased in a layer of rust, and the stock was severely discolored from water damage.
I had written off the gun as a total loss, but a friend told me about Doug Turnbull at Turnbull Restoration and Manufacturing. He assured me that if anyone could restore the gun to its original condition, it was Doug and his staff. I sent them the gun to see if they could work some magic.
I had arranged to have the 94 shipped to a local FFL and finally got word it had arrived. With much anticipation, the store owner opened the case and handed the rifle over to me.
It has long been thought that restoration of an old gun is a cardinal sin — an act that diminishes value and kills historical significance. In many cases this has been true. Ham-handed gun cranks applying a modern hot salt bath bluing job to the steel or poorly refinishing the stock with non-period finishes truly do diminish a gun's historical appeal and value. But when done correctly, by gun artisans set on honoring the gun maker's craft, it simply preserves and enhances the firearm.
The Statue of Liberty, the Washington Monument'¦even Ann-Margret are all examples of enhancement through quality restoration.
When I opened the box, instead of rusted steel and water-stained wood, the rifle gleamed with like-new perfection. Not refinished or glitzed up, it simply looked like it was fresh from the factory a hundred years before.
Turnbull had polished all the metal to remove any traces of rust or pitting. To make it look original, all of the factory stampings were reapplied by period-correct roll stamping before charcoal bluing back to the original look.
The wood was as close to original as possible as well. Numerous coats of hand-rubbed finish were applied, making it look and smell new.
I did not even recognize the rifle until I saw the familiar saddle ring and flip-up rear sight. And beneath that rear sight'¦a new addition was engraved on the barrel: the single word, "Sawyer," the name of my newborn son.
Obviously, someone let this bit of news slip to Turnbull, and I knew instantly that this gun was never meant to be mine. I had borrowed it from my father and was now borrowing it from my son until he becomes old enough to stalk whitetails along timbered ridges.
I hope he takes better care of it than I did.