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I saw his horns before I ever noticed there was a deer attached to them. A nice seven-point buck following a doe through the Apalachicola River swamp, about 100 yards in front of me and closing. The prospect of some sweet deer-on-deer action made him oblivious to me frozen in mid-stride behind a small gum tree. When both deer disappeared behind some brush, I used the opportunity to raise my 33-year-old .243 semi-auto. They reappeared a second later, this time in my scope.
I was already tasting grilled tenderloin as I raised the rifle, squeezed the trigger and . . . nothing.
“WTF?” I thought (without abbreviating.) I knelt down, grabbed the charging handle and gently slid it to the rear.
Big mistake. The extractor didn’t grab the chambered round, but it did attempt to load the next one in the magazine. With my gloved hands, I fumbled around until I was able to get the magazine out and shake out the errant cartridge. But I wasn’t sure that the round in the chamber was new, or if it was a spent round from the hog I shot the previous evening.
Shaking from cold, anger and frustration, I pulled out my folding knife and used it to remove the chambered round, which turned out to be fine. So, I slid it back into the chamber, quietly let the charging handle move forward and replaced the magazine.
By this time, the deer had closed the distance to about 75 yards and still had no idea that I was there. I stood back up, found the deer in my sights again, squeezed the trigger again and . . . nothing.
By now, my exasperation had turned to full-blown panic as I wondered what I had done recently to deserve God’s wrath. Kneeling back down, the adrenaline finally reached my brain and it occurred to me that the rifle wasn’t cocked. So, I removed the magazine again, pulled the charging handle back as far as it would go and eased it forward, adding a strong push at the end just for good measure.
I stood up slowly and watched as the deer moved within 50 yards. The buck paused with only his head and neck sticking out from behind a hickory tree. I put the crosshairs on the widest part, just above the shoulders. And then it dawned on me that I had only one shot (my magazine was still on the ground.) So rather than take a chance, I waited for what seemed like an eternity until he stepped forward.
I pulled the trigger a third time, feeling a wave of relief with the boom of the rifle. The buck fell right where he was shot.
* * *
On the boat ride back to the landing, my mind returned to that Christmas in 1978 when I opened the box that held my brand-new rifle. I thought about all the people who told me that it was too small a caliber to be an effective deer rifle. And I thought about the many, many times it proved them wrong over the years.
This old gun has been my faithful companion for three quarters of my life. It seems wrong to simply toss it out like yesterday’s newspaper, so I’m going to keep it . . . until the moment I can afford a new one.
Then it’s toast.