My usual attempts at quail hunting amount to chasing a covey of scaled quail I happen upon while deer hunting. Throughout most of the season I keep a shotgun handy in my vehicle in case I see a mob of the tasty, fat birds while driving on the ranch I lease for hunting. This past season I wasn’t toting the latest, super-sleek scattergun, hot off the SHOT Show floor, to do it: I was shooting a WinchesterModel 1897, an old gun of re-blued steel and wooden stock, darkened in a way that can only come with the passing of time. The M97 is a classic, but this one is even more special—it’s a gun with a story, courtesy of my friend Steve Forest, from whom I bought it.
I’ve always thought Winchester’s Model 1897 in the Trench Gun configuration is one mean-looking shotgun, with its external hammer and heat-shield-covered 20-inch barrel, and I fully intended to transform the 30-inch specimen into the fabled trench sweeper that so terrified the Germans in World War I that they filed a diplomatic protest against the guns use in battle.
Then, in passing conversation, Steve told me about this 97’s history, and changed my mind.
The shotgun was once owned by his step-grandfather of Cherokee Indian lineage, J.L. “Jimmy” Garrett, who guided hunters on Texas hill country ranches along the Guadalupe River many decades ago. The part that got my attention was that Garrett was Clark Gable’s personal hunting guide. Gable, the “King of Hollywood,” was a frequent guest on the ranches and used the shotgun on several occasions while bird hunting. Steve went on to explain that when the weather was foul, Gable would use Garrett’s Model 97 instead of his personal, more expensive over/under shotguns.
“There was also some guy named Gary Cooper who would hunt with him, is he some kind of actor?”
“Yeah Steve, you’ve never seen High Noon?!”
Here’s a good place to point out that my amigo lives on a big, remote ranch in far west Texas and covers the vast, rough country in his R44 helicopter. He spends his time ranching cattle and wildlife and hunting predators from the air. He doesn’t have time to preoccupy himself with much movie watching or cinema trivia!
Legend has it that other Hollywood stars of the era would travel with Gable to the ranches, and many of them also used the Winchester. Steve recalled that an actress was said to accompany him as well, he remembers her name started with “L.” One has to assume it must have been the lovely Carole Lombard, Gable’s third wife, who was said to be the love of his life, and did in fact hunt with him. She was killed in 1942 in a plane crash in Nevada while returning from a war bond tour. After her tragic death, Gable temporarily walked away from his acting career and joined the Army Air Corps as an Aerial Gunner, where he rose to the rank of major and participated in several combat missions during World War II and filmed combat footage. It is said that Adolf Hitler was a fan of Gable’s acting and offered a $5,000 reward for his capture.
Unfortunately, all this information surrounding the old shotgun was only verbally passed down from Steve’s grandmother to him and she has been gone a long time. We have no photographs, or if any ever existed they have been dispersed with the passing of years.
Cynics may scoff at this vaguely documented history of the Winchester. To them I say that Steve’s word is as good as a factory certified letter, and that’s good enough for me. I have a classic, old shotgun from a good friend and an interesting story to go along with it!