The tradition of BB guns for Christmas
By JIM MATTHEWS
I don’t remember exactly how old I was when I got the BB gun for Christmas, but it started me along a path of that led to learned marksmanship, developing hunting skills, and a profound respect for firearms and their use. Like with the first pocket knife, the BB gun was a message of graduation from a childhood of toy guns to the youth of BB guns, that would eventually lead to a the entrance into the adult community with real shotguns and rifles and the responsibility that goes with that step.
BB guns filled those transition years between childhood and maturity. I’m not talking about the high-powered air rifles of today that can kill big game. I’m talking about weak-springed Daisy Red Ryders (or similar guns). BB guns that allowed you still to do stupid things and have accidents that did little more than raise a welt that you hoped your parents would mistake for a mosquito bite.
It was a time when you could still be kids and whack your best friend in the butt with a well-placed BB and then engage in a running battle in a vacant field near the house that always ended when we ran out of BBs. No shots above the waist so the small welts couldn’t be seen by mothers who didn’t approve. My neighbor’s dad finally gave up trying to stop us from having BB gun fights and insisted we wear shop goggles or safety glasses, which we did gleefully because they looked so cool.
When we tagged along with older brothers and parents when they were shooting shotguns or rifles, we had our BB guns. We never confused our BB guns with those awesomely more powerful firearms. I’ll never forget the day one of my older brother’s friends set up an old milk carton he’d filled with water and shot it at close range with his shotgun. It exploded spectacularly, showering us with spray. That was a lot different than watching a clay target break in the air. We had shot water bottles with BBs and the difference was pretty graphic. Anyone who suggests we might have shot each other with something other than BBs or somehow confused the two guns is ignorant about firearms and the intelligence of 11-year-old olds.
It was those battles shooting at each other -- and all those other times just hurling BBs at mail boxes, cans, or olives growing in a vacant orchard between our houses -- that we learned about marksmanship, trajectory, and how those little round BB’s lost their sting awfully fast. They would dimple a mail box at six feet, but you couldn’t even tell the box was hit if you were 100 feet away and lobbed a BB into the metal, hearing the tink, and knowing you connected.
I shot my BB gun so much that I could hit anything the size of a soda can out to about 75 feet and a mailbox from an honest 150 feet away. And I could do it nearly every shot. Fifty yards was about the maximum range of my BB gun, and to hit a mail box at that range I was holding so far over it, the target was well below my sight picture. I shot with both eyes open so could still see distant targets with my off eye. Starting with the sights dead-on the box, and then lifting the barrel straight up and triangulating the angle of the barrel above the mailbox was how I hit those distant targets. Later in life, I realized it was a lot like what the buffalo hunters had done with their big bore, blackpowder rifles off cross-sticks. In the right light, you could see the trajectory of those copper-plated BBs gleaming en route to making that satisfying musical contact with a mailbox. Frankly, the joy of hearing a projectile out of any gun whacking a solid object is immensely satisfying, regardless of the shooter’s age. Very few handgun or rifle outdoor ranges don’t have hanging steel plates and echo back heart-warming whomps at bullet impact. The BB guns gave us our first taste of that joy.
We also all became neighborhood hunters. Everyone in the neighborhood had gardens in those days, and we were even “hired” by one old man to thin the number of sparrows in his fruit trees during the summer so they didn’t peck holes in the ripening fruit. He paid us in BBs.
We had some strict ground rules from our parents about our neighborhood hunting and plinking: No windows. No cars. No strangers. No doves – by order of my buddies’ grandmother.
I remember the time my buddy actually shot a dove in mid-air flight, and we decided to eat the evidence. It was a spectacular shot -- killing a dove stone dead in mid-air with a single BB. Shots at doves in the air were the only kind we allowed ourselves. We knew we’d never hit one. But he did and we decided to not let the big bird go to waste -- or feed it to the cats who loved our steady supply of sparrows. The gory (it seemed to us then) job of removing the guts and feathers had us both near puking, and then we gathered enough dead olive tree branches to make a small fire out by the railroad tracks behind the houses. The dove was skewered on a green eucalyptus branch and we roasted it over the flames. I truly don’t remember if it was overcooked or undercooked, but I remember that we ate all the meat we could chew and suck off the bones enjoying our escapade immensely. We were old West beaver trappers living off the land. (It was a BB gun experience that must have resonated with me. I still try to shoot and eat doves every year, trying not to waste a single morsel.)
Those were glorious years for a lot of us in our pre-teen years. I was an avid reader, and just walking across a vacant, weedy field carrying my BB gun transported me to wild places around the world in my imagination. I was hunting Indian tigers with Jim Corbett or stalking mule deer in the Arizona desert with Jack O’Conner. Sitting by a gopher hole in the backyard, patiently waiting for him to push dirt and show his toothy smile so I could end his marauding, grass-destroying career seemed like being with John Taylor at an African water hole waiting for a rogue elephant.
I know things have changed from those years, but a BB gun is still a great Christmas gift for a kid moving between tricycles and puberty. It’s a tool of learning responsibility and trust, but still fun. And it beats the heck out of staring at a glowing screen all day long.
There are still two BB guns in my garage, both filled with BBs. The guns are both old, and the springs very weak. I have shot black widows and house flies with them, and every once in a while, an aluminum can gets torn to shreds (they are a lot more fragile than the soda cans of my youth) just for fun. I even tinked the neighbor’s mail box three houses down the other day when the neighborhood was quiet and empty. It only took six shots before I hit it, even after all these years. The old skills come back quickly, and they are not bad skills to know.
Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 909-887-3444.