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Hunting South Dakota Roosters with Vintage Side-by-Sides

“Dad gum my hand is cold!” I thought. I had removed the glove from my right hand because of the double triggers on the old Westley Richards, and stuffed it in my shooting vest. I was blowing hot air into my cupped hand when it happened. The old rooster exploded at the nose of Roger’s large pointer and all thoughts of a frozen hand vanished. My right thumb cocked both hammers with a single sweep and the old muzzleloader found its way to my cheek like it was born there. I thought, “Wait….wait.…too close to the dog.” The magnificent bird yelled a loud cackle as he quickly gained altitude. Then white smoke exploded from the right barrel followed with a deep throated BOooom! The rooster, flying left to right, collided with a string of lead 6’s and he fell from the sky like a large rock. “Well, that ain’t something you see every day!!” yelled Roger. My friend wasn’t talking about my shooting skills or lack of…….he was thrilled with witnessing an 1855 Westley Richards 14 bore Muzzleloader, historically known as a ‘Detonator,’ come back to life on his farm in Mitchell, South Dakota! My son Matt yelled, “Nice bird Dad,” as my 7-year-old Grandson Sam stared at me with bright blue eyes and a toothy grin! Sam trotted over and picked up the great rooster. “Grandpa, look at him……he’s beautiful!” I replied, “Yes he is son, and he’ll eat good”. We walked to the end of the harvested corn field when Roger spotted a rooster run into a patch of native grass about the size of a basketball court. I said, “Hold up! Let me reload!” With the right barrel ready again, we waded in. Almost immediately the rooster flushed in front of Matt who quickly killed the bird with his Benelli auto 12 bore. Oddly, the bird fell on top of a round bale of hay. I said, “Great shot Son!” as Matt walked to retrieve his bird. I walked in the opposite direction towards the end of the grass cover thinking, “Who knows…….maybe that bird has a brother with him.” Unbelievably, another rooster exploded at my feet with a loud cackle!! It was another left to right…….the old gun found my shoulder and I cleanly killed the bird at 25 yards. White smoke and its fine aroma filled the air like fog…….and we all smiled.

The author with his good friend, Roger.

Isn’t it funny, that on a cold day in South Dakota, how a Benelli automatic in 12 gauge with #5’s can serve it’s hunter, while 30 feet away, another bird is cleanly killed with a double gun built and used before our Civil War broke out! Amazing!! The older I get the more quality outshine quantity. One pheasant or one Greenhead shot using one of my vintage doubles is worth a limit killed with a modern auto. Now I’m not demonizing modern guns. All I’m saying is this…...wing shooting with old doubles pleases oneself and increases the quality of the hunt, which outshines the quantity of game taken. With that said - what about modern side-by-sides and Over/Unders?? I love them! I own them! My Browning Citori O/U was made in the mid 1980’s and it’s taken a lot of pheasants, ducks and dove. Today my oldest son Matt owns it. I have shot a boat load of quail with a CZ Ringneck 28 gauge! My youngest son Steve uses it today. So, modern guns are great and I enjoy shooting them. But…when you see the look on your Grandson’s face when he sees you kill a pheasant with a vintage gun made 20 years after the Alamo……well……that’s special.

Matt and Sam Railey.

Is hunting with vintage double for everyone? What defines a vintage double? What about damasus barrels verses steel tubes? Let me ask you this; what kind of shells do we shoot in an old double? All very interesting questions which we can discuss at later dates. Is hunting with old guns for everyone? No. My own sons shake their heads sometimes. But they are also paying the old guns closer attention. You see, there is something that touches the heart when you swing a side-by-side. It could be that knowing you are handling a gun like our forefathers did. It may be the balance of the swing..….I don’t know. But I do know that cradling a side-by-side, whether vintage or modern, puts more meaning and quality into a hunt for me. Most of my friends shoot O/U’s. Almost all of your good clay shooters shoot O/U’s! One day I was shooting clays with my friend Dr. Chuck Robbins in Montgomery. I was carrying a Browning BSS (side-by-side) in 20 gauge made in 1973. To me, this is modern! A well-known shooter padded up to us and asked, “Is that a BSS with 28 inch barrels?”

I answered, “It is”. He asked, “Can I look at it?” The gentleman petted the Browning like good dog and said, “I love this gun……points good!” You see……deep inside most of us have a tender spot for the historical side-by-side.

Sam's First Pheasant.

Now, if you decide to give one a try….where do you start? There are many makers of modern side-by-sides. Modern makers are found in the pages of this fine magazine. Then, there is the vintage gun made after WW2 like a Browning, Winchester, or Charles Daly. And of course the old classics like the English Westley Richards , Greener, and William Moore & Grey. There is the American made Parker, Fox, LC Smith, Ithaca, and Stevens. Then you travel across the pond you will find German makers and more! Most folks starting out want steel barrels and that’s fine. You may hear nightmares about damascus steel barrels, but I’m not the least afraid of them. Old Elmer Keith couldn’t blow one up until he dropped a 20 gauge shell ahead of a 12 gauge shell….then she blew! But you can do that with a steel barrel. The key is this - have the gun inspected by a professional. Keep your pressure lower in old guns by reloading or buying shells from the good folks at RST Classic Shotshell Co. Now, if you buy a newer gun like the Browning or so many more, then you can use modern shells. There is A LOT to discuss when it comes to vintage guns. But, let me warn you…….it’s a fever and it’s contagious! I became addicted to vintage guns by the great Ross Seyfried. Ross is one of America’s greatest gun writers, as well as a friend. Collecting and hunting with old doubles is a small but growing group of men, women, and young folks! Warning...once you shoulder and shoot the old guns…….it’s over…..you’re hooked.

The Raileys

I had arrived in South Dakota one day ahead of my son Matt and grandson Sam. The morning was cold and windy. I pulled on my Red Wings and stepped into the icy morning. I drove to an old abandoned home on Roger’s large farm, which had belonged to his Grandparent’s. There are many old out-buildings grown up in weeds and native grass. Perfect!! There is a long wind break of trees to the north and west. Perfect!! I eased out of my truck……and gently closed the door. Quietly I opened the rear door and pulled the 1880 Richard Ellis 12 gauge out of its leather case. I attached the beautiful 30 inch Damascus barrels, and snapped the fore end on. The right barrel is .027 or improved modified, and the left barrel is .030, or full. The old gun retains 80% of its case coloring and has a 14 ¼ length of pull. The drop at heel was 3 inches, so I added a Beretta gel pad to the comb to better fit me. I then dropped two brown paper Cheddite shells into the chambers and closed the action. The shells were loaded with 3 drams of black powder and lead #6’s. “Let’s go kill a Rooster,” I said to myself as I padded to the wind break and started my hunt. I walked quietly……easing down the edge of the wind break. I had covered all of 30 yards when all heck broke loose! A rooster flushed at my feet with a Tarzan yell, while another flushed behind me, and four hens flushed out of the trees ahead of me!! My chewing gum fell out of my mouth. I tripped over the tall grass. After regaining my footing, I swung on the first rooster…..Booom! He’s still flying……Booom with the left barrel……He’s still flying……Faster! “Well, that didn’t work out too good.” I continued to talk to myself, “Dang ole fool –what’s wrong with you, dang it!” I dropped two more paper shells in and walked a quarter mile to the west where a combined corn field bordered a large native grass area. Roger had taught me the year before to walk the grass parallel to the corn. You see, the birds feed on left-over corn, then run to the grass for cover. I hadn’t walked 50 yards when he launched! A big old rooster flushed at my feet and flew straight away from me. The Richard Ellis covered the bird with its Ivory front bead. The right barrel boomed its white smoke, and that rooster just simply stopped flying. “Alright!! ‘Bout time!!” Like a kid I sat down with opened gun and examined the most beautiful bird I had ever seen. I sat there holding that bird and smelled the empty paper shell that held the aroma of burnt paper and powder. The next hour I killed two more birds with the old Ellis. I started the one mile walk back to the truck and noticed ice forming on my barrels. A hot meal at the old farm sure sounds good about now! The next day I picked up Matt and Sam from the airport and we spent two great days hunting in God’s country! The three of us hunted hard. Roger later joined us with his big pointer, Jack. I didn’t get my limit every day, but Matt did. Even Sam shot two with my Father’s .410 single shot. We had great fellowship with our friends in South Dakota. We saw beautiful birds in a beautiful land. South Dakota in December reminds me of Alaska……it’s no land for the timid. But make no mistake……it’s a beautiful land…..a classic land! The last day I hunted with an 1870’s Lancaster custom gun. The old gun has Lancaster barrels and hammers, and Scott locks. It has the strong Jones under lever and unchoked 30-inch Damascus barrels. I dropped two black powder shells loaded with 6’s into the chamber with a plunk, and closed the vault-like action. Matt and Roger had hunted a large field, and Sam and I investigated another abandoned farm close by. Out of nowhere a rooster flew over the old barn and landed in a native grass patch a football field away. Sam and I waded into the grass. Man, it was cold! Snow was blowing sideways, and by the truck’s thermometer earlier, it was 24 degrees. But we were dressed for it. I said “Sam, you OK cowboy?” “Yes sir,” he said with a huge grin. We walked further and like a firecracker he roared at our feet flying right to left. “Shoot him Grandpa!!!” Sam yelled. The old under lever gun, made when Custer roamed this very land, covered the bird, and I squeezed off the right barrel. I saw the bird fall below the white smoke. “We got him Grandpa,” Sam said yelled as he ran toward where the bird had fallen. The grass was tall and we couldn’t find the rooster. Soon Roger, Matt, and ole Jack showed up. The big pointer nosed into the grass and immediately pounced on the bird! Sam picked up the rooster and held him in the crook of his arm. The boy reached up with his free arm and grabbed my hand. We walked toward the truck…me and Sam…..hand in hand. I looked down at those bright blue eyes, he looked at me….” Grandpa….I love you. “Looking at those innocent blue eyes I replied, “Son, I love you too.” I then looked across the brown fields waving in the driven snow and looked to the heavens…..and I thanked the Lord.

1855 Westley Richards 14 bore muzzle loader.