A shorter version of this essay appeared in The American Rifleman

I've had it so long I can't remember where or when I bought it, but it must have been no later than 1965. I was probably thirteen or fourteen: it would have shortly after my parents bought a house in rural New York as my father's weekend refuge from his medical practice.  I'd been interested in hunting long before then, but opportunities were non-existent in my working-class Bronx neighborhood.

When I suddenly had acres of woodland in which to roam and shoot, I was confronted with a delightful dilemma: I needed a gun to hunt with!  What was it to be?  A worn-out farmer's shotgun had been in the house, and I immediately commenced a nagging campaign to convince my father to buy me a .22 rifle, but I wanted—no, I needed—something more versatile. That's how I ended up with a Savage 24-S combination gun.

The 24-S was a short-lived variant of the famous Savage 24 series. It was made for a few years in the early to mid 1960's. Its side-mounted opening latch and stock made of genuine construction-scrap-grade wood made it cheaper than the "deluxe" Model 24's with chromed receivers, decent wood, and tang-mounted opening levers. But the low price had considerable appeal, because I had to pay for it myself out of my allowance and earnings: my father had sprung for the .22 rifle but that was as far as he would go.

In those days, long before the never-sufficiently-to-be-cursed Gun Control Act of 1968, the world was very different from the one we live in today.  A 14-year-old boy could quite legally buy a rifle or shotgun even in New York City, with no license, no hassles, and no paperwork. Sporting and military surplus guns were sold in large retail department stores such as Macy's and Sears. The original, nay, the real Abercrombie & Fitch, was Manhattan's Holy of Holies. In A&F's fifth-floor Gun Room an awed kid could see and even touch elegant double rifles and "best" grade shotguns.  The term "gun nut" wasn't a pejorative used by the newspapers, but rather a term of sardonic affection shooters applied to themselves. 

I had spent months poring over catalogs and magazines, and sweating through the state-mandated Hunter Safety course to get my small-game license in 1962 (I had two more years to wait before I was old enough to get a big-game license).  I put as much effort and time into those first few seasons as today I would expend on an African safari, and looking back on it, in 1962 I was probably more excited by the prospect of small game season in Dutchess County than I would be today for a trip to Namibia. I had an adrenalin rush every time I contemplated my first hunting season.

Over the period of preparation and planning, I can to realize there was no question in my mind: the Model 24-S was the gun I needed. I had to have one.  It took me a long time to accumulate the needed funds, but eventually the Great Day came. Since I was far too young to drive, I rode a bus to Ed Agramonte's gun shop in south Yonkers, plunked down the money I'd saved, and walked out with the box under my arm, my mind whirring with plans to teach myself how to hunt.

And that's exactly what I had to do: teach myself. I didn't know a single adult male who hunted, not even my Scoutmaster. The New York State Hunter Safety course I'd taken was very rudimentary, centered around safety, and contained nothing that could be considered practical instruction. As the product of a totally urban environment, I knew nothing whatever about hunting except what I'd read in old copies of Field & Stream or Outdoor Life. Nor did my father, bless his completely-citified heart. He was utterly ignorant of (and hadn't a lick of interest in) hunting. Moreover he was heartily sick and tired of hearing me talk about it at dinner.  His only comment when I bought the gun was, "Don't shoot yourself with it!" 

Perhaps thanks to the New York Hunter Safety course, I didn't shoot myself, but for a while I didn't shoot much of anything else, either, at least not with the rifle barrel on my Savage.  However, determination and good instruction books can teach a boy anything he really wants to know; so as time went by, my 24-S and I developed a deep understanding of each others' foibles and shortcomings. 

After teaching myself to shoot it, I had to learn how to use it. By consulting the limited supply of how-to-hunt books available through the New York Public Library, and by trial and error—mostly error—I figured out how not to alarm grey squirrels by my presence; and how to hit them in the trees with either the .22 caliber or the 20-gauge barrels. Lo, once I had figured that out, I started accounting for squirrels with regularity, every season.  My father refused to touch "chicken of the tree," and shook his head in wonder when I ate it, but it was the first wild game I ever hunted or ate, and I've had a fondness for squirrel hunting and squirrel pot pies ever since.

Nowadays squirrels are vastly under-rated as a game animal. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries calls squirrels "...the most under-utilized game species" in the Commonwealth. While hunter numbers have declined generally, the numbers of squirrel hunters have been declining even faster, because kids today have the chance to start with deer and turkeys.

This was not always so: in the years before the amazing rebound of the whitetailed deer from near-extinction, the ubiquitous and abundant squirrel was the traditional first quarry for boys learning how to hunt. Squirrels are challenging prey, demanding a fair level of skill in woodcraft and stalking ability; learning to hunt them is essentially practical training in hunting any eastern woodlands animal.

Quite aside from that, they have a historic significance in American history. If it weren't for squirrels, the Appalachian uplands would never have been settled. Not only did nut-burying squirrels plant the great primeval hardwood forests of North America, they were fantastically abundant in Colonial days, and a far more reliable source of meat than deer. The legendary long-barreled and small-caliber "Kentucky Rifle" of the 18th Century was designed for frontiersmen whose families subsisted mostly on squirrel meat, especially in winter. The legend of Davy Crockett has it that his first successful hunt was for squirrels, using dried peas for bullets! I started as a squirrel hunter, and very likely when the time comes for me to stop hunting altogether, squirrels will be the last game animal I'll hunt.


After high school, I didn't use the 24-S much.  College, the military, and my first few jobs kept me busy. When opportunity presented itself, I hunted; but years as an academic nomad, moving from one university to another climbing the ladder to tenure meant I hunted only sporadically for nearly two decades. In those years I bought other guns, but the 24-S was always on the rack, silently waiting. I used it when I didn't feel like taking "something better" into the field, and at one point, even contemplated the possibility of selling it. Eventually I ended up in southwestern Virginia, where there are vast tracts of National Forest and the squirrel is the most popular small game animal, by far. Seniority and tenure allowed me to find more time in my life to hunt, and my little 24-S went with me most of the time in squirrel season.

Over the years it had gone through some changes. I have short arms, so I cut and re-shaped the stock, eliminating the pistol grip. I shortened the barrels to 20" because Savage had brought out a "Camper" model whose looks I liked, but couldn't afford. After moving to Blacksburg and finding myself using it more often, I had it worked over by a local gunsmith who trued up the barrels, re-crowned them, and installed choke tubes.  The rifle barrel had always been surprisingly accurate, but that treatment really made it something special.  In this variant of the Model 24, the upper and lower barrels are soldered together full-length, and when they were cut back and re-crowned, I ended up with a barrel-set that was stiff, heavy, and exceptionally stable.

Without actually intending to do so, these changes eventually transformed the little gun into a highly specialized squirrel-killing machine. With the 4X scope it wears I can easily hit a squirrel in the eye at 25-30 yards; it's capable of shooting 0.5 MOA groups all day long with good ammunition.  With an extra-full choke tube the 20-gauge barrel patterns #6 shot perfectly, and can knock a squirrel out of the tallest oak in Giles County.  Up here west of the Blue Ridge Mountains the squirrel season begins long before the leaves are off the trees: I can choose rifle or shotgun as the situation demands.  In sum, it is The Perfect Squirrel Gun.

After 15 small game seasons I now hardly hunt them with anything else, and long ago lost count of how many "tree chickens" have fallen before it. It has earned a fearsome reputation among the squirrels of southwestern Virginia: I'm told they call it "The Lightning Death" and tell stories about it over their campfires at night. Mama squirrels tell their children, "If you don't eat all your dinner and go to bed on time, The Lightning Death is gonna get you!"

After nearly 40 years of use, it's the one gun I will never be without.  I have many more guns, all of them more elegant and most far more expensive than this one, but none I value more than my battered, homely, straight-shooting, wonderful little Savage.  That's the one they will have to pry from my "...cold, dead hands" before I'd give it up.