FIRST SHOT OUT OF THE BOX


I have a nostalgia gene, and one day it kicked in, compelling me against all reason to buy this little eye-catcher at Auction Arms:

A Stevens "Favorite," Model 1894, in caliber .32 Rimfire. I have absolutely no need for this rifle, but it's cute, cute, cute.  When it came, it was in better shape than I'd expected, but that seems to be the rule among guns sold on auction sites: sellers tend to under-rate them in the ad descriptions.  Or maybe I'm just good at judging from pictures...whatever the reason, I'm pleased with it.

It's a take-down model, which my .22 Favorite (a current production Model 30G) isn't, and probably was made before 1915, based on the markings.  It is certainly pre-1920: guns made after that year are marked by Savage Arms, with the Savage logo in a circle on the receiver. Savage bought out the J. Stevens Arms & Tool Company in 1920, and this one says "J. Stevens Arms & Tool Co." It has a two-digit serial number, and could easily have been made before 1900.  

A .32 rimfire...the ammunition is obsolete, but amazingly, it's available in limited amounts, albeit at a ruinous price. I actually have a few rounds of copper cased .32 Rimfire that are almost certainly older than the rifle, and may very well not go off; and of course they're loaded with black powder. I didn't want to shoot them up, anyway.

So I gritted my teeth and bought five boxes of new production cartridges, which are made on contract for Navy Arms by CBC in Brazil (CBC ammunition is also sold here under the "Magtech" label.) I bought two boxes from Old Western Scrounger, a subsidiary of Navy Arms specializing in obsolete and goofball calibers used in old guns, to serve the niche market of people like me, who insist on shooting weapons everyone else has forgotten ever existed.  At $40 per box of 50 (not including shipping) they're probably doing quite well, thank you very much.  I then found out that Southern Ohio Gun sold the same ammunition for "only" $25 a box, and bought three more boxes from them.

This stuff is so pricey because it hasn't been made for decades. When the US entered World War II in 1941,  ammunition production for the civilian market came to an abrupt halt as factories shifted their output to meet the war's demands.  A lot of old calibers, including all the rimfire rounds larger than .22, went out of manufacture. When the war ended the demand wasn't great enough for the companies to resume making them. The .32 Long Rimfire was one of these: it had had a small following before the war anyway, and I'm sure the companies were happy to sell off their existing stocks and be done with it forever.  The last American-made .32 Long Rimfire was shot up long, long ago, and nobody's ever going to make it again here.

I have toyed with the idea of having it converted to shoot .32 S&W Long or .32 Long Colt.  It won't chamber the S&W round (it will accept the Colt) but the chamber can be opened up a few thousandths easily, and converting the breechblock to centerfire isn't an onerous task. However, the rifle has some collector's value, and conversion would diminish that.  Another reason to hesitate is because the Favorite isn't a strong action, and while it would be safe for the relatively weak factory ammo and my handloads, I'd hate to think that in the future some idiot who'd ended up with it who'd try to hot-rod it.  Not because he'd hurt himself, but because he'd destroy the gun. 

I've already spent more on ammunition than the conversion would have cost, but at $0.75-1.00 a round it isn't going to be shot very much, and 250 rounds will last me a good long time.   Furthermore, Dixie Gun Works has reloadable .32 Rimfire "everlasting" cases to use with an acorn blank as a primer. So I can feed it in a pinch.  A #1 buckshot ought to work, and I've got plenty of those.

It has a most interesting front sight: it folds down, and when it's down there is a low brass blade sight visible; when you flip it up there is a thin ring that acts as a hood for a post-and-bead front sight that's much higher. The BP Gurus at Track of the Wolf tell me this is a "Beach's Patent Front Sight," which seems to have been a special-order item from the Savage factory..

The Favorite is regarded by many authorities as the best "boy's rifle" ever made, and it wasn't cheap. My 1927 Sears catalog lists the Model 1915 version with a sale price of $8.98! If you multiply that figure by 40, it's close to what I paid.

The Favorite rifles were made in .22, .25, and .32 Rimfire.  The .22 caliber guns go for fairly high prices today, presumably because ammunition is cheap: you can easily spend $400 and up for a decent one.  Beater .22's run a few dollars less, but not much.  The .25's are almost as pricey, but I don't know why: maybe they weren't made in large numbers.  The .25 Rimfire isn't made at all anymore, anywhere.  The .32 Favorites sell for less than the .22's because of the ammunition issue.

I wanted a .32, specifically. I've always felt that .32 caliber pistol rounds would be more or less perfect small game calibers.  Most of them are exceedingly accurate, and even with moderate velocities they have a good deal more killing power than a .22 LR does, thank to the much heavier bullet.  The bullet in the .32 RF is pretty much exactly like the one used in the S&W round, a lead RN weighing 90 grains.  (Now, this notion of mine of course runs directly counter to the idolatry of velocity in modern shooters. This particular fallacy has given us such over-rated rounds as the .22 Magnum and—ugh—the two hot-rod .17 caliber rimfires.  I've owned .22 Magnums from time to time and don't have much use for them, as they're far too destructive for small game hunting and too expensive for plinking. I wouldn't have a .17 Anything as a gift, honestly: I just don't know what .17's are for, other than to sell new rifles. I admit that useless and pointless as they may be, they're a brilliant marketing gimmick.)

Even though buying a used gun is test of patience, I am nothing if not patient. Eventually I found a good one for $300.  It had no cracks in the stock, it was all original, it had a good butt plate (most of them are damaged) and a decent bore.  Almost all the old favorites were used with black powder ammunition, so bore condition tends to be less than perfect, but mine has a very nice bore, indeed, with good rifling and minimal wear. The action is tight, and although the external finish is worn to "patina," the lock-up is tight and solid, with no slack in the action lever, and a definitive half-cock notch.  Trigger pull is clean and crisp, the barrel is long enough that even my aging eyes can see the front sight properly.

Under normal circumstances I'd have taken this rifle to the range and shot it a bit, but I hated to burn up a box just punching paper.  Two boxes arrived a couple of days before I left for Amherst, so I put the little gun in my vintage canvas break-down case and took it along.  I reasoned that if I did shoot at a squirrel, well, he'd be a pretty small target.  If the gun was really off, I'd miss him, and then it would be time to burn up half a C-note or so getting the sights on target.

Walking through the woods showed me just why the Favorite was such a popular design.  It's beautifully balanced, a gun that is intended to be carried at the trail all day without fatigue.  I can support it just in front of the action with one finger and it sits perfectly level.  The receiver is dainty enough that my hand wraps it securely, and it points like a magic wand.  A lot of older guns have the detestable "crescent" buttplate, but the Favorite came with a nice, flat, hard-rubber one. The stock is proportioned just right for my short arms.  When it comes up to my shoulder the sights are aligned every time. In a word, it's "elegant," a piece of craftsmanship that epitomizes a day now long gone, when even inexpensive boys' rifles were made with pride.  The new Stevens Model 30G is a nice gun, but when you lay it alongside this little gem you can see what we've lost in the transition to CNC machining and investment casting.  This rifle could not be made today and sold for anything approaching a reasonable price.

Off into the woods I went on a beautiful Fall afternoon in the nicest part of rural central Virginia I know.  A squirrel jumped up and ran up a tree 25 yards in front of me, so I dropped to the ground to wait him out.  It didn't take long: he was a naive youngster who came out about 5 minutes later and started creeping along a branch, then foolishly stopped to get a good look at me. Up came the rifle and POP!  The bullet hit him with  a soft but clearly audible "Thwup!" and he fell out of the tree, stone dead, first shot out of the box.  He got hung up for a few moments by his hind foot, but as I approached he fell into Huff Creek and I picked him up.  The typical cocky young male, too dumb to know anything about people.

The bullet struck him just aft of midships at the waterline on his starboard side; crossed the body and exited via his port hind leg, passing in among the muscle and bone, doing a fair amount of damage but probably less than a .22 HP would have.  A bit of gut was hanging out the entry wound: that relatively large bullet passing through the abdominal cavity built up some pressure and blew a loop of gut out the hole.

God-damn it, if Hillary Clinton gets elected, how am I ever going to get all these great guns into Canada?


ADDENDUM, 26 MARCH 2013

A rifle like this one should have a tang sight, but finding one for an original Stevens Favorite is a bit of a chore. There are Marble's reproductions that fit the Model 30G current production gun (see "Return Of A Favorite") but these don't work with the old guns. Luckily I was able to track one down through Scott Marston at Classic Firearms and Parts, LLC, in Chichester, NH. His service was prompt and the sight as described: price was no higher than the Marble's repro, and they also had the original mounting screws!