My Grandfathers’ Guns

One I keep because I want to, the other because I have to. Feel free to skip this post. It’s more for me than anyone else.

I have my late grandfather’s shotgun, and have had it for several years. I’m the only one in the family with any big shooting pretensions, which is why I also have my other grandfathers’ pistol. I am the Family Repositor of Shooting Heirlooms, and I don’t mind. One I keep without thought, the other I think about. I cannot part with either, but for different reasons.

The pistol came to me after the death of my grandmother, and from the reports of its discovery all involved were surprised, as grandma had just kept the thing in a drawer for more than three decades. ?What to do with the pistol? GruntDoc shoots, give it to him. I’m glad to keep it, and have fired it, but being a weird caliber (38, not special, the old 38, lead bullets in a short revolver cylinder), it’s not fired often. Nice to have, though; it ties me to the stories of my maternal grandfather the Continental bus driver; long routes, picking up fares on the side of the road, men on their own in the ships of their day, etc. It’s a pretty gun but not terribly useful; for family reasons I’ll keep it until it’s my heir’s problem. And I never think about it.

My paternal grandfather (step-grandfather, really, but functionally my grandfather, and role model, long story) I knew during my life: a slightly built but sturdy man, one who worked every day because that’s what Men Do. He was not an elaborative fellow, and never one to brag or conflate so far as I know; his role seemed to me to be provider and pair for my grandmother. He had a good sense of humor and I will always remember his and hers bowling trophies they won in League Competition in Wink, TX, because that’s where the bowling alley was. They lived modestly, which is more their upbringing than financial status. That’s just who they were, as a couple. He loved my grandmother, completely, and she him. A good match.

When I was a teen I asked about his WWII service, and his only answer was that he was proud to have been ‘just a cook’ in Patton’s Army. He wasn’t elaborative, which was a little disappointing. Only later would I understand his reticence to remember. I wonder if he was ‘just a cook’ now, as time fills in gaps.

He took me ‘hunting’ once, which was some experience: he, quite the bird hunter (he went on frequent trips across many states to hunt pheasant every year for decades, it seems), me aged about 11 and weighing nearly 100 pounds wet, and my younger brother by a year and a half. I seem to recall waiting for dove to come to our tank, where we’d set up, but they were disinterested in displaying themselves for us.

So, out of boredom and I believe now a sincere desire to teach me something useful, an empty box of 12 gauge shells (roughly a box 4″x4″x3″) was set up, filled with sand and stood up about 30 feet distant. I was instructed on sight alignment with his Winchester 11-48, a 12 gauge shotgun, which I could just barely hold up at arms length while sitting Indian-style, in order to brace against the weight. (I’m told this method of sitting is now taught to kids as ‘cris-cross-apple-sauce’, and I wonder which is a more demeaning term and to whom).

There I am, cross-legged with a very big shotgun, and the sights occasionally wobble across the target box. I jerk the trigger (not a nice squeeze) and the next thing I know two things happen: I’m flat on my back in the dirt, and he’s laughing! For the record, my first kill is a box, and I was very proud of it. Unfortunately, we never went hunting again (I had the ‘teenager disease’, and he was not getting younger).

Many years later, Grandma died; we made a sort of pilgrimage with my newborn daughter to see her just before, but the latest and last stroke had ended her consciousness. Grandpa was appropriately sad, but eventually recovered; every morning found him at the Dairy Queen, having coffee with “The Smart Club”, a group of like-minded retirees. I suppose these were the first to hear about his prostate cancer.

Mortality from prostate cancer is low, as I was educated in med school, and his first round through the system went well. The mestatic recurrence, despite all medical therapy had to offer, was much more painful and less predictable. Pain was the determining factor in his death. Two weeks before he died he told me, in a phone conversation, that he could live with the cancer but feared the return of the pain. As I was a half a continent away I did what supportive relatives do, reassurance.

Reassurance wasn’t enough. He put a shotgun in his mouth and ended his life on his own terms. The shotgun I shot the box with. The shotgun I have now.

I’ll keep it, as a reminder of a good man, and try to stop thinking about it. And I’ll never let it go.


  1. Wow, that’s a powerful story. I can’t even begin to imagine how you must feel about that shotgun, but I’m glad to hear you are going to keep it.

    My cousin (who was as close to a brother as I had) ended his life in a similar manner at age 27 when his brain cancer progressed despite all efforts.

  2. This is incredibly moving; thank you for posting it. I have a work colleague whose sister killed herself because of chronic pain issues. Now the colleague is on permanent disability with her own chronic pain issues, and I wonder what will happen.

  3. I’ve recently started researching my paternal grandfather (the biological one, my step-grandfather is my grandfather in all other senses of the word, but I’m designated Family Historian so I’m curious). Some of the small bits of information I have gathered indicate he served in WWII and was actually at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7th, so I’ve begun the process to request his war records. Since I’m not a next of kin, I have to use Standard Form 180: Request Pertaining to Military Records ( and I will only get records available under the Freedom of Information Act. My aunt, however, as she is next of kin, has promised me that when she gets back from Italy next month, she will file the eVets request accessible at

    Just FYI, if you ever want to fill in more gaps.

  4. Aerospace Genius says:

    Thank you for the magnificent tribute to a Good Man. I always wondered how he kept his positive outlook while living through decades of bleakness and decline. I still don’t know where his inner strength came from, but it was wonderful to see.

    I’m the exact opposite of a pack rat, so my collection of keepsakes is quite small but very meaningful.

  5. I have my grandpa’s gun, given him by Jack London, for whom he was foreman on his ranch. He died not at his own hand, but pathetically debilitated from a stroke, having been a meticulously proper and erect man, an immigrant with a love of the English language which he spoke in a lightly accented florid manner, perfectly grammatical. As I watched him go, and my dad under similar circumstances, and now my mom with Alzheimer’s, I hope I have the bravery (and timing!) to chose my own place and time. Movingly rendered. Thanks.

  6. Beary Potter says:

    Fascinating and thought provoking memories. I’m glad to know you have the “bus driver’s” pistol. I guess I knew, but had forgotten … the possible demise of it was discussed with me for several years before mother’s passing. She wanted it safe and appreciated. Thank you for being its guardian.

  7. Thanks, GD.

  8. Whoa. My sympathies. I didn’t see that coming. I don’t blame him either. It was a more dignified end in his mind I’m sure, as it was for my mother who left us via a suicidal choice after years of health misery. That generation…a different mindset. I’m interested in the timeline/treament/reoccurance of the cancer. If you should ever decide to post about it.


  9. I haven’t cried over a blog post in a long,long time.

    I’m crying over this one. I didn’t see that coming, either.

    Such a powerful story.

    I’m so sorry for the loss of your grandfather. No one should ever be in that much pain. Ever.

  10. Yep, definitely a great post. I’m glad you keep the gun, and it has pleasant memories as well as the memories of his pain…

  11. A beautiful and moving narrative!

  12. Great post, GD. What a monstrous pain it must have been. Your good grandpa didn’t deserve that in his old age. Thanks for sharing this personal story with us.

  13. Thank you for sharing this, GD.

  14. Moved me, and I am crusty. My son died in a like manner. Bless you, Doc.

    That narrative helped.


  15. What a powerful and moving story.


  17. Great information. Thanks for the post. That was a spectacular article, need more great work like this out there.

  18. inspirational. maybe you should keep the gun in something you couldn’t see. seeing that everyday might remind you of him all the time… :(

  19. Dentists Boca Raton says:

    That story brings back a lot of memories too…my uncle committed suicide in a similar manner…he was only 17 then. My mother, her sister, kept the weapon as a reminder of my uncle and to keep on living despite the turn of events.

  20. My Grandfather taught me how to shoot a rifle on the farm at the age of 8 years old. This is one of the things I am mighty thankful for. In addition to teaching me how to fire a gun, he taught me most of the other things that I young boy needs to learn from his adult guardian. Thinks like being kind, and working hard, and taking care of one’s family. When he passed away, he handed me down one of his more modest shotguns. Over the years, it has become an irreplaceable prize and valued memorial to him that is extremely dear to my family. Its probably worth less than a hundred bucks to anyone to us. But for our family, I hope it can be handed down for generations, along with the stories of what I learned as a young man, from my grandfather.

  21. I just spent several minutes reading the things said in the above comments. Becasue of a small family problem I did not get to know my grandfather until later in my life. When he left this life he did not leave me with a gun but he did leave me with a lot of other important things to live with. Hard work is a good thing, tell the truth, do the best job you can all the time, respect all people and trust very few are but a few. The realy good news is I am know a grandfather, I wounder what is being said or written about me.

  22. Dave Hardy says:

    The .38 is probably a .38 S&W, an older and not particularly potent cartridge, but one popular in its day. Spray it liberally with WD-40 to keep the rust away. I’ve got an 11-48 in the gun safe. Do the same for it.

    Having had cancer (surgery got it all) and its pains, I have some sympathy for his choice.

    The past generations of our family were rather short-lived. Three of my grandparents were dead a decade before I was born. Cancer, MI and post-birth infection.

  23. I have guns that belonged to my father, my grandmother and my grandfather. The one pistol my grandma shot at an intruder is in my uncle’s collection. It was a .22 mag revolver that she carried on her paper route in her 60s and 70’s.

    Thanks for the sharing such poignant recollection.