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Discovering why men collect guns

Ursula Carlson
Special to the Nevada Appeal

An interest in guns or rifles does not run in my family, or in most typical Latvian families. In fact, it took me a while to remember the word for “bullet” in Latvian because the only time I have ever heard it used was in describing the “flying bullets” of war. The gun, as such, has no romantic appeal in Latvian culture. So, how to explain my own metamorphosis from “gun-shy” to its opposite?

Since working with my writer friend Hunt Janin on a book, “Historic Trails and Travels in New Mexico,” I have developed an interest in guns, rifles in particular. I would, for instance, be doing research on Mangas Coloradas, a famous Apache, and discover that he was severely wounded by a carbine ball. Immediately, I’d e-mail Hunt and ask him to explain what that was. By the time we did research on the ground in New Mexico, I had purchased my first gun: a tiny pistol charm that I hung around my neck on a chain (but not in public view). Guns, after all, are not to be flaunted or taken lightly.

Much as I’m interested in understanding how a gun or rifle works, what makes one kind of rifle “better” for a certain task than another, it’s the vocabulary of guns that interests me most. That, combined with a typical literature professor’s view that all guns are sexual symbols, gave rise to the idea that maybe I could discover what men feel (not think) about them.

Hunt’s own interest in purchasing a classic rifle for his grandson dovetailed with my curiosity, and so this past November I attended the Reno Gun Show for the purpose of buying an 1894 Winchester rifle. I had also arranged to meet the gun collector and writer Stephen Bly who was selling the rifle and who had agreed to talk to me.

In answer to my question, “What is it about the rifle that draws you to it, that you can’t resist?” I imagined that he might say the smooth walnut wood, or the engravings on the “blue” steel, the beautiful curve of the buttplate, but Mr. Bly answered, “The sound of the ‘click’ when the action is closed.”

We talked at length and I came away from the experience realizing that men who collect guns think of them as art, as antiques, as objects of history. It’s the precision of the mechanism that is attractive, and I found myself thinking of these men in a different way than before. Believe it or not, these gun collectors hold a rifle tenderly.

In showing me how to work the action, Bly cautioned me not to pull the trigger too many times on an empty rifle because it isn’t “good” for it. These men are perfectionists in the way they talk about cleaning a rifle, threading cleaning rod with a patch. They make a point of using the word “lightly” when speaking of oiling the rifle internally and externally. They worry about rust collecting in a gun case.

I do think that on a subliminal level, anything that shoots, that discharges its power, which is “hot” in nature, is a sexual object, one that in American culture men identify with. Think of this word: Firearm. The implication is that “fire” grows naturally out of the living arm itself. That it’s not a tool, not an extension of the arm, but the actual superman-like physical superiority itself.

Latvians, needless to say, do not have an equivalent word for firearm, and the word for rooster has no associations with it other than chickens.

– Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., teaches writing and literature at Western Nevada College.