Guns Over the Mantle, Disappearing with Time

Some guns clearly are old, something possibly handed down through the family and revered although unintentionally forgotten about until someone asks. Others are showpieces, perhaps picked up at a yard sale or antique store to lend some kind of realism.

Guns over the mantle pretty much are a rare addition to homes today. Heck, mantles are rare in homes today. Fireplaces seem to be cozy cabin fixtures now, too, thanks to central heat units and enclosed wood-burning stoves. The modern hunter often has an HVAC unit at the camp or trailer, visits lodges with comfy rooms and returns home to the no-gun-no-mantle den with the neutral paint scheme that will help when it’s time to sell.

Years ago a rifle over a fireplace mantel was common, an easy location for the homeowner to grab it should trouble arise or for a hunt. Muzzleloaders, like this replica Cabela’s model, were common in 1800s in flintlock and then caplock. Using an old rifle or, if you’re lucky, having a place over a mantel for one, is something to cherish.

I get it. Times change, demographics change. Change is inevitable. It is. You can’t argue that and it’s unrealistic to believe it won’t. And I don’t want to be the dinosaur bemoaning the loss of the olden times, yelling at clouds and ranting at kids on my lawn.

But I miss the guns over the mantle, and the mantle, and the fireplace. When I see an old wood-sided house in a pasture surrounded by weeds, porch sagging, tin roof rusted, stone or brick chimney leaning and maybe partially toppled, I wonder if inside there’s a mantle that will be ignored.

My father secured a rough slab of wood from somewhere to secure above our fireplace in the house I grew up in. I don’t remember what it looked like originally; I didn’t see it then. But when it was hung he’d stained and lacquered it. The top wasn’t perfectly flat so the candlesticks leaned just a smidge. We hung our Christmas stockings, literally, on the mantle with care and hoped St. Nick would find the cookies.

Sometime in the late ‘70s, I think, my mother gave my father a muzzleloader kit. He was surprised and enjoyed assembling it, staining the wood, learning about it. He shot and hunted with it a few times. These were the days before easy-clean smokeless powders and you hoped, I guess, a lead ball or slug would have some accuracy at 75 or 100 yards. It’s a 54-caliber Hawken, brass fittings, flintlock, set trigger, and to my knowledge hasn’t been fired in 30 years.

Muzzleloading wasn’t for him and he hung the muzzleloader over our mantle. After my mother died that gun took on a little more sentiment for me. A few years ago I got it from him and, hopefully, after years of saying this, will hunt with it this season. Doe, buck, old, young … I don’t care, honestly. I’m not looking for some kind of RackMonster WallHanging “trophy buck” that someone else believes I and everyone should be pursuing. I’d just like to hunt with it and enjoy the connection to the past.

And so whenever I go to a hunting lodge or someone’s home, I glance around to see if there’s a gun over the mantle. Usually at the lodges there is one, a muzzleloader, hanging in a rack. I don’t take down the rifle or handle it, unless the owner does that and presents it to me. Being that presumptuous is uncouth.

You usually can tell a little about it without asking. Sometimes the wood is too clean and shiny, with no stain of age at the grip and along the forearm. The brass fittings may be free of fingerprints. This could be, of course, because they give it a good cleaning before hanging. But often, even with such a task, you can see the patina of age in an old firearm. That darkened area around the grip. Scuffs and dings. A smooth hammer.

The stories often are fabulous.

“My great-grandfather’s rifle he brought over the mountain from the east, passed down through the family.” … “My grandfather got this sometime back in the olden days and killed deer, and every male child in our family has killed a deer with it. “ … “This was in our family but lost for years until someone found it in an attic after Aunt Sue died.”

Sometimes they stand, admiring the rifle, with no intention of removing it. Dust shows it hasn’t been touched in years, perhaps out of respect or forgetfulness. After a while, some things in our lives just become another “thing” on the wall. And, other times, they will take down the rifle, hold it admiringly, proudly, feeing a connection to their past, before returning it to the perch.

Guns over the mantle are disappearing. I miss them, and appreciate them much more when I see them.