Long overlooked as too rare, too expensive, and too fancy to shoot and have fun with, I love to share the story and my appreciation for one of America’s best guns of all time…the Winchester Model 52 rifle.
Ed. Note: From time to time we get inquiries requesting outdoors and shooting stories from Tom Cappell. Cappell is a veteran shooter, hunter and free-lancewriter from Missouri whose views on the outdoors and the outdoors industry are thought-provoking and always responsible. His columns have previously appeared on Press Pros, sponsored by Olde English Outfitters, in Tipp City.
By Tom Cappell
In the back of my gun safe, and I mean far back, sits a lady that my boys Casey and Carey have for years laughed about and called, “The Queen”.
The lady reference, of course, is a mild euphemism for a firearm that sits there out of harm’s way…because my late uncle, Melvin Tanner, once told me it was too expensive to shoot.
“Just a high-falootin’ .22 is all it is,” Uncle Mel would gouge. “Remingtons will work just as good as that Winchester…and you’ll have money left over for bullets.”
The ‘lady’ in the back of my safe is a pretty clean ol’ Winchester Model 52 Sporter, the cream of the crop of American .22s back in its day. Debuting prior to the great depression, it was hand-built, heavy, accurate, and dressed out to command top dollar at the height of its popularity. It was considered the the pinnacle in accuracy among American-made rimfire guns.
It was also, in its day, a helluva’ lot of money to spend on a gun to shoot squirrels and varmints with. Hence, Winchester’s Model 52 acquired the moniker “rich man’s .22”.
Now that same Uncle Mel is the one who turned me on to shooting as a teenager, a story I’ve shared in previous columns. Summer visits to his farm outside Amlin were always a highlight of my vacation from school. And the part I liked best was time spent together learning to handle and responsibly shoot the varied assortment of guns in Uncle Mel’s closet.
Most were pretty pedestrian in class, and an old Remington bolt action was the weapon I cut my teeth on, shooting at tin cans and bullfrogs in the creek behind his barn.
Of course, as I grew older and went to work I continued my interest in shooting, and, developed taste for better and more unique examples of what was available. I grew to understand that all of them did essentially the same thing; but there were some you were just more proud to own. Braggin’ rights – showin’ off – Uncle Mel claimed.
“You Cappells are a proud people,” he’d laugh. “That’s why you have more bills than you have money.”
There weren’t any guns bought at my house for a long time. After I got married my earnings as a civil engineer were pretty much dedicated to the adult responsibilities of being a family man. But just because you’re on a diet doesn’t keep you from looking at menus, and that’s how I came to discover the Winchester 52 Sporter.
On a trip to Columbia, Missouri one day in 1980, I happened to stop by a pawn shot I liked to frequent whenever I visited friends at the University of Missouri. A couple were classmates, engineers, who had chosen to stay at school and teach rather than work in the field. We often hunted together in the fall, and the subject when we got together was never roads and bridges…but guns and ammo.
It was during one of these sessions that we walked into Parson’s Pawn Shop to see if anything new and different had come in since my last visit. Parson’s was a good place to pick up deals on ‘essential’ guns, .22s and shotguns traded for cash by people who no longer hunted, or just wanted to convert a hand-me-down into something they could spend.
“Just got one of these,” the clerk said, reaching for a beautiful bolt action rifle on the back shelf. “Don’t get many 52s in here. This one is a nice one.”
I have to admit…I had no idea what he was talking about.
“Can you tell me more about it?” I asked, feigning more knowledge than I had.
“A Winchester Model 52? It’s the best .22 made in the America,” he stated proudly, while concealing the price tag from my sight. “Or it’s supposed to be. Most people who want a good Winchester bolt buy the Model 75. Shoot just as good. Just doesn’t have the fancy stuff on it.”
I asked to look at it and I was hooked. Beautiful figured walnut and engraving jumped out at me immediately. The steel was beautifully blued with not a mark or blemish. Unlike Uncle Mel’s old Remington, this gun had a peep sight on the back and a bead on the front. The proprietor also assured me that you could install a telescopic sight (scope) on it if you wanted.
But it was the trigger that intrigued me the most. Closing the bolt on an empty round, I’d never felt anything as smooth and clean as the release of that trigger. Later I learned that Model 52s were known for having the best factory produced trigger you could buy – copied from the more famous Model 70 high-powered rifles, also made by Winchester.
“How much?” I asked hesitantly.
“We’ve got this one for $375, but I think we’d come down $25 if you want it,” he smiled.
Gulp! Yeah, I wanted it, but $350 for a .22 rifle might as well be three million.
“Can I make payments on it?” I asked, still trying to figure how I would get $300.
“Sure,” he offered. “For how long?”
“As long as it takes me to raise $300 this summer,” I promised.
At the time I was 28 years old, had a baby on the way, and was making $12,000 a year. What was I thinking, considering paying so much for a .22 rifle? My head spun the entire drive back home that evening.
But my plan was simple. For several years I had worked summers on the weekends painting houses with a friend in the community; and that’s exactly how I planned to raise an additional $300. The friend was a hunter, he understood when I told him of my need, and assured me there would be plenty of opportunity.
Little by little, and week by week, I paid $50 on that gun. The drive to Columbia being prohibitive sometimes, I simply put an envelope in the mail and sent the payment. I marked it off – $250, $150, $100, $50 – and when I finally had the last $50 in mid-September I took it in person to the shop to pick up my gun.
The transaction completed, I proudly cased it and slid it into the back seat for the trip home…along with some ammo specifically designed for accuracy and consistency.
“It’s shoots better with better ammo, and .22s can be picky,” said the clerk in the pawn shop.
There wasn’t just a show-and-tell when I got back home, there was an unveiling as friends and a couple of neighbors stopped by to see what all the wait and anticipation had been about. There was more talk about Tom’s .22 than the there was about the new baby that my wife Joy was having in a month.
Targets were set up, and we all took turns testing it for accuracy and consistency. They marveled at the difference in a 52 trigger, compared to the one on a gun from the barn used to shoot rats and raccoons. Frankly, the gun shot better than we did. And looks? Everyone held it at arm’s length and admired the custom walnut, checkering, and rich blue steel.
“It’s too pretty to hunt with,” said my brother Mike. “What are you going to do with it?”
“Just own it,” I told him, proudly. “And for the rest of my life. I’ll shoot it on Sundays when I want to feel like the rest of the Cappells,” laughing at what Uncle Mel had told me about too much family pride.
I confess that the gun has never seen the woods. It’s never been used for hunting, or even to shoot stray cats around the out buildings. For a long time it stood cased in the corner of a well-concealed closet. Later, when I had more money, I bought a gun safe and it moved to the back corner, behind the shotguns and a more pedestrian Remington and a lever action Marlin. Eventually I purchased a good quality scope, put it on the 52, and marveled again at how it became an even better shooting gun!
Once in a great while the boys would ask about it as they grew older and more gun active. We spent a lot of time together growing up, shooting tin cans and bullfrogs in the creek. They, too, would marvel at how nice it was to shoot – at how much better shooters they were when they used it over the Remington and Marlin.
“Dad, you’ve had that ‘safe queen’ forever,” they’d say. “Why don’t you shoot it if it’s that good?”
“I know,” I would say then, and still say when the subject is raised.
“But it took a lot of sacrifice to get that 52, and a lot of patience,” I’d tell them. Kinda’ like raising three kids and two boys that ask too many questions.
But oh-so-worth having, just the same. I’m proud of it – just like a Cappell, I guess.
Our comprehensive selection includes over 1500 guns, a full line archery “Pro Shop”, shooting & hunting clothing, boots, ammunition, reloading equipment, gun cases, holsters and a multitude of other shooting & hunting accessories.
Olde English Outfitters meets the needs of serious sportsmen and casual enthusiast alike. This is truly a store for all your shooting and hunting needs.
Open this year’s hunting season with a trip to Olde English, proud to sponsor outdoors columnist Jim Morris on Press Pros Magazine.com!