A Few Words in Favor of Ugly Guns

When hunting in rough winter. Brian Grossenbacher

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THERE IS NOTHING wrong with owning an ugly gun. Some people take pride in it, even. I did, for a while. The 870 Super Magnum I often use for turkeys suffered Phantom of the Opera–level disfigurement after a bottle of caustic dog medicine overturned on top of my gun cabinet, ruining the camo finish of the receiver. Then I replaced the stock and fore-end, leaving me with a black Monte Carlo stock, a fore-end to match, and distorted camo on the receiver.

Even for a turkey gun, my mismatched 870 was ugly. For a while I loved it, both in spite of and because of its looks. It didn’t hurt that I was carrying that gun on the day I struck a big tom in the timber at 70 yards. The bird came in and stood in strut on a fallen log as if it were a giant ruffed grouse, and I shot it five minutes after it first gobbled on one of my favorite hunts ever.

The buzz from that day eventually wore off, and when I came back to earth, I saw my ugly gun as if for the first time. I immediately sent it off to be re-dipped. Now it looks like a normal camo turkey gun.

Better off Ugly

The benefit of an ugly gun is that you don’t have to care what happens to it. Generally speaking, I like nice guns. Hunting matters enough to me that I feel like dressing up for it a little, which usually means carrying a gun with a walnut stock and blued steel barrel. There are times, though, when ugly is what you want. When hunting in steel-framed pit blinds, or from boats, or on rocks, or anything else that can eat a wooden stock, it’s nice to have a gun that can’t get any worse-looking if something happens to it.

I used to shoot a Benelli Nova, and in those years, I often hunted a spot that required hauling all my gear down a steep, rip-rapped bank. If I dropped the Nova on the rocks, it would clatter and get a few more dings in the plastic armor on the receiver. Unconcerned by having made a very ugly gun a bit uglier, I’d go on with my hunt.

On the other hand, a few years ago, I asked a gunmaker to send me its bottom-of-the-line O/U to test on a Mearns quail hunt in southern Arizona. Assuming it would make me happy, they upgraded me to the $6,000 high-end model, which was gorgeous. When I fell, which was often in the loose soil of the steep draws, I would try to get my body between the gun and the ground. As I climbed up one tallish bluff, using both hands while the gun balanced broken-open on my shoulder, I was honestly more worried about what would happen to the gun than what would happen to me if I slipped. This is not what you want in a gun for rough country. If I were a Mearns or Chukar hunter, and always sliding downhill, I would want something that could wear a little road rash.

A Matter of Taste

Some people should only be allowed to shoot ugly guns. My dad, for instance, took perverse pleasure in owning nice things and taking terrible care of them. His (now extensively refurbished) Beretta O/U is by far the best gun I own. I remember him using it to push the top strands of a fence down so he could cross it, gouging the AAA walnut and causing me to yell, “Careful! That’s an heirloom!”

Of course, beauty and ugliness lie in the eye of the beholder. The worst-looking gun I own is a semiauto I was given to use for some TV work. It’s reliable, it shoots where I look, and I keep it for travel, as a loaner, and for days I need a gun to beat up. Its burnt-bronze Cerakote finish on the receiver and barrel is so hideous that, to me, the thing doesn’t even look like a real gun. Yet when I took it to a Texas duck lodge, one of the other hunters tried to buy it from me every day I was there, and handed me his card when he left in case I changed my mind. I didn’t, because while aesthetics matter to all of us in greater and lesser degrees, any gun that lets us get outside and go hunting is a thing of beauty.

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