Vintage Gems

Store-Brand Santa

The Model 50’s original Weaver K4 was replaced in the mid-1980s with a 1-5X Bausch & Lomb variable.

Okay. It’s December. Nobody escapes the Ghost of Christmas Past, so we’ll just surrender here and be done with it. It’s exactly the right time for us geezers to recall the gift gun that helped steer us onto the path of shooting and hunting.

I could wish mine had been a bit sexier — say a Winchester Model 64 .30-30, or Model 42 .410 pump. As it was, it was an item described as a “store brand.” Meaning a gun made by an established gunmaker bearing the stamp of a major hardware/appliance chain. Long before economy-grade WalMart “package guns,” outfits like Sears Roebuck, Montgomery Ward and Western Auto Supply once offered rifles and shotguns by makers such as Winchester, Marlin, Savage and Stevens. Naturally, these appliance giants often had their own sporting brand moniker — even though any gun guy worth his salt could match the model to its point of origin.

But regardless of brand cachet, my particular gun — the one with my name on it — was far and away the greatest Christmas present I ever got. It was a humpbacked, hand-me-down Stevens Model 520 20-gauge pump, marketed under the Sears “Ranger” brand as the Model 30. The Ranger logo, incidentally, was a small stamped illustration of a mounted cowboy on the receiver — scarcely a thrilling example of the engraver’s art, but still mighty cool I thought.

You could have the J.C. Higgins Model 50 in any caliber you wanted — provided it was
.270 or .30-06! Come to think of it, that’s no handicap at all.

I’d used it on quail and dove the previous season, so getting it wasn’t exactly a heart-stopping surprise. The stock had been seriously cut down to accommodate generations of younger shooters. I still have a soft spot for the old gun because with it, I actually hit my first honest-to-God mourning dove while it was actually airborne. The .410 single shot I’d been using previously just didn’t cut it for me. I’d been using it to “Daisy pick” dove off while they were on the ground or roosting on dead branches — something only the most junior members of our party were allowed to do. But the Ranger 20 was ideal — despite the fact it was a full choke which, as I was cautioned by my elders, was “tighter than Dick’s hatband” (whatever this meant).

It originally belonged to my Uncle Mick, who’d gotten it somewhere in the mid-1930s. It must’ve been after 1935, because according to what I’ve been able to find out, that’s when the safety was moved from inside the triggerguard to behind it (good move). At any rate, Dad bought it from Mick for the then-princely sum of 30 bucks. From there it ended up under the old tree for my 12th Christmas. Many years later it changed hands again — first to my kids, then to my sister’s kids, who’ve also since outgrown it. Now it waits patiently in my brother-in-law’s gun safe for a grandkid or two.

Memories are made of these: A battered 66-year old owner’s manual and a 21-year-old
100-yard group, courtesy J.C. Higgins and Remington 130-gr. Bronze Points.

insider book

Another Sleeper

Much earlier, a couple years after I was born in fact, my Dad bought himself a Christmas present. A deer rifle — specifically a Sears Roebuck “J.C. Higgins” Model 50, a terrific no-frills sporter, built on an M98-pattern Belgian FN action with a 22″ chrome-lined barrel by High Standard.

Dad later told me he’d originally had his heart set on a Winchester Model 70, which cost nearly 50 bucks more at the time — a difference representing very tall dollars indeed for an ex-WWII Marine starting a new family. So the Model 50 it was, and Dad never regretted it. The rifle was never available in anything but .30-06 and .270 Winchester that I know of. Which was just fine, since I can’t remember any of Dad’s buddies or my uncles using anything else. Dad’s was a .270 and I shot my first deer with it — with him watching.

Years later I decided to dress it up for him a bit and replaced the original Weaver K4 with a Bausch & Lomb 1-5X variable ’cause Dad was having trouble with the fine crosshair on the old Weaver and needed the B&L’s Duplex reticle (kinda like me now). About a year after he passed away — and now with kids of my own — I took the rifle out to the range and managed to shoot a 3-shot half-inch 100-yard group with it using 130-gr. Remington Bronze Points. That’s the kind of thing I do with a deer-caliber sporter like … well, just about never.

At any rate, Sears’ J.C. Higgins line of sporting goods eventually gave way to the Ted Williams line. Any baseball fan worthy of the name can tell you who Ted was, but relatively few know much about J.C. Higgins — a previously obscure Sears employee back in the day. Why his elevation to brand-name immortality? Some company marketing whiz thought the guy’s name sounded “outdoorsy” as hell, so there you go.

Running into old “store brand” guns can yield many pleasant surprises. Not the least of which is a wonderfully gratifying sense of reverse snobbery. GUNS contributor Jeff John once lucked into a Western Auto Supply “Revelation” brand .30-30 levergun (which was, of course, a Marlin 336 in drag). So far, he’s refused obscene amounts of cash for it. Seems there’s a lot of folks out there wanting a vintage Marlin in everything-but-the-name, without the relatively recent crossbolt button safety.

Stevens by way of Sears — Payton’s passed-down Ranger Model 30.

After nearly 85 years of service, the old Ranger isn’t quite as pretty as
this period advertisement might indicate!

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GUNS December 2018 Cover

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