Feb 1, 2023
Winchester Model 21 - The Gun that Shaped My Life
By Jimbo Meador
As a youngster, I was privileged to be able to haunt the woods and swamps of Spring Hill, Alabama during winter months and reap the harvest of the waters of Mobile Bay during the summer months. It was the late ‘40s, and Spring Hill was in the country on the outskirts of the city of Mobile.
I started hunting at an early age with a slingshot. Old Benny Jones, who worked for us, made it for me out of a fork from a tree branch, inner tube rubber from an old tire, and an old shoe tongue. I learned to hunt squirrels, rabbits, and birds with that slingshot. I graduated to a BB gun, and eventually to an air rifle. When I proved I was capable to handle a “real” firearm safely, my father got me a 22 caliber Winchester bolt action rifle: while it was deadly for sitting targets, I longed for the day I could get a shotgun and master my ability to shoot game that’s on the move or in flight.
When that day arrived, it was an old Harrington & Richardson single shot 410 shotgun. It was hammer operated and it was difficult for a six year old to cock the hammer back! To help me use it safely, my father gave Benny Jones the job of cocking it for me. In fact, Benny would carry it for me, cock it and hand it to me when I was ready to shoot something: I imagined myself being on an African Safari with Benny as my gun bearer. We became fairly efficient in the art of exchange for bringing down small game and birds, but the time required for the handoffs hindered quick shots at birds in flight and game on the move. Eventually, I was able to cock the hammer back on my own, using both thumbs while holding the gun between my knees.
We always had bird dogs for hunting bobwhite quail. My father would start hunting quail from our house in Spring Hill and I would walk along with him. When I finally reached the point that I could cock the hammer back on my 410 shotgun on my own, I started slipping off with one of his bird dogs and shooting at quail on the covey rise.
While there were always doves to shoot on an organized dove hunt, my job had always been limited to retrieving doves that my father shot. One day hunting, though, my father handed me his Winchester Model 21 shotgun and surprised me by saying, “Here. See if you can hit a dove in flight.” I killed the first dove I shot at, and the next. I was hitting doves right and left. Amazed, he both asked and exclaimed, “Where did you learn to shoot like that?”
I responded by admitting that I’d killed some with my old 410, but nothing like with what I’d been achieving on this hunt. “I think it’s the gun!”
That turned out to be the smartest thing I ever said because on the next dove hunt my father said, "I’m gonna let you hunt on a stand by yourself,” and he handed me that Winchester Model 21. I was one of the top shooters that day and my life changed forever: the Winchester Model 21 became mine that day.
My father and my big brother started taking me quail hunting and on dove shoots, and that Model 21 became part of me. It seemed like where I looked, it shot, and most of the time it was right on. If I was in the woods or in the fields, she was with me. I did everything but sleep with her, and when I was camping, I did sleep with her!
The closest I came to losing her was when I was fourteen years old, I went to jail with my cherished Model 21 shotgun.
I had discovered a bunch of teal ducks in the marsh down by the swamp in Spring Hill. I was shooting them and I did not have over the limit, so I had no reason to be alarmed when the game warden approached me. He informed me that I was under arrest.
“What for?” I asked. “It’s duck season, and I’m not over the limit.” He responded, “You are hunting in the city limits.”
I replied, “I am hunting in Spring Hill Alabama and there ain’t nothing city about Spring Hill.
That’s when he said, “They moved the city limits. You are shooting in the city limits, which is against the law.”
It gets even worse. He said he was holding me until the City of Mobile police could come pick me up. I had to hand over my Model 21.
When we got to jail, they told me I could make a call. I was afraid to call my father.
I knew that my older brother Billy was friends with most of the police in Mobile, so I called him. He said I was in deep trouble, but he would see what he could do. Well, they locked me in a cell where I sat for hours until my brother arrived. He said, “Boy you are in deep trouble, and I don’t know if I can help you. You are going to be in here for a while, so I brought you something to eat,” and he handed me a hot dog through the bars. He leaned over closer and whispered, “Look in there before you eat that hot dog”. I opened it up and there was a hacksaw blade in the bun. Well, it must have been amusing to my brother and the police because they could not stop laughing at my expense. It was all worth the joke when they returned my gun and released me.
I’ll always remember that day. You can move the city limits, but it was still country to me, and it was still country to all the wildlife that lived there.
I found that I could break my gun down into three pieces. The barrels, the stock, and the forearm. They fit nicely into an old guitar case. I could shoulder my “possibles” bag, grab my guitar case, walk about 100 yards down Old Shell Road (the main road through Spring Hill) to slip into the woods and disappear into the world I shared with only moonshiners and their whisky stills. We wanted to practice the art of becoming invisible.
For a short time, my relationship with the old Model 21 changed when I started thinking about that third shot for doves and quail. I dreamed of shooting triples instead of doubles. A friend who owned a 16 gauge Winchester Model 12 pump gun and he let me shoot it one day on a dove hunt. When I managed to score a triple on doves, I had to have it: we made a deal, and I bought it for $75.00. The 16-gauge Model 12 became my dove, snipe and bobwhite quail gun.
I soon became obsessed with duck hunting, and decided I needed a 12-gauge full choke to shoot those long shots at ducks. When noticed the local sporting goods store that I frequented on a regular basis had a 12-gauge Winchester Model 12 with a full choke 30-inch barrel in stock, I started dreaming that I could reach out and touch those late season blind shy ducks that were reluctant to pitch right into my decoys. I knew the owner of the store. He told me he knew how badly I wanted that shotgun and if I wanted it, I had better get it because Winchester had discontinued the Model 12. He also warned me that it might be hard to get parts. I bought it and put my beloved Winchester Model 21 in the gun cabinet for a rest. The next duck season I hunted every day of the entire duck season. I did not miss a single day and continued to shoot the Model 12 pump guns.
Years later things changed when duck hunting had tapered off and I was focused on quail hunting and Tom McGuane, an avid bird hunter, moved to Battle Wharf, Alabama for the winter months with his beautiful English pointer. At the time, I was managing Bon Secour Fisheries during the height of the shrimping industry: we had over one hundred shrimp boats working out of the fisheries.
Many of the people who owned the shrimp boats that worked out of Bon Secour Fisheries were also farmers and friends who allowed me to hunt quail on their property, so I had access to some of the finest quail hunting in south Alabama, and Tom and I utilized the resource.
Tom introduced me to Guy de la Valdene, another avid bird hunter who owned beautiful Dogwood Farms over in north Florida. Guy gave me a beautiful English Setter named Becky, and those three - Tom, Guy, and Becky, changed the course of my life. Tom and Guy both shot quail with side by-side shotguns.
The old Winchester Model 21 had rested long enough. She came out of the gun cabinet and back into the field, ready and eager! I will never forget the first covey rise. She came to my shoulder like she belonged there. Two shots, two quail folded. The next covey was a repeat of the first, as if somebody else was shooting her. I flashed back to memories of all the times I walked behind my father quail hunting, always shooting the same gun. He was a wonderful shot, and at that moment, I felt like he had stepped in for a few more. I apologized to the old gun for leaving her neglected and confined to the gun cabinet, and I have been shooting her ever since. I have become a deep admirer of fine side by side shotguns.
The Winchester Model 21 was announced in January 1931, the same year a man named John Olin became head of the Winchester division of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. They strove to position that model as superior to just about any shotgun in the world. An ingenious marketing campaign was used involving a Model 21 and several other double barreled shotguns from various highly regarded brands. The shotguns were purchased by Winchester and subjected to “a test of destruction” involved Winchester engineers firing “violent proof” (featuring 50% more powder charge) shells through each of the shotguns until they broke or were no longer workable. None of the competing brands were able to fire more than 305 of these “violent proof” shells, while the Model 21 fired 2,000 shells with no signs of damage or wear.
I have been shooting my Model 21 for more than 65 years. I just sent it up to Dan Morgan at Fine Firearms Restoration in Vermont because the safety was stiff. He said that the safety was scratchy because it had been used so much, but he fixed it. He disassembled the whole gun and cleaned it, then shot a couple of boxes of shells through it with no problem. All of this is testament to the brilliant marketing strategy of Winchester Arms’ John Olin, when the Model 21 was put through the test of destruction.
Upon reflection, I am so fortunate to have grown up in a world that no longer exists. I’m so fortunate that my father was a hunter, fisherman and outdoorsman, and that he was a generous man who gave me his favorite shotgun to encourage me to continue my thrust for hunting and shooting. I was blessed to have an older brother Billy who was like a second father and mentor who led me down so many roads in the outdoor world. My hopes have been to pass on as much to my children and grandchildren as possible the invaluable experiences and skills they can rely on in their ever-changing world. One in which recollections of mine and my father’s old Winchester Model 21 can bring memories, stories and joy to others who care to reflect on simpler times.
About the Author
A naturalist, sailor, storyteller, and sportsman, Jimbo espouses a mix of Eastern philosophy, Southern chivalry, and bayou wisdom. He believes firmly in the restorative and healing properties of water. Not just for the body, but for the mind and the soul. He only wears sandals. "Free the feet, free the soul." Most of all, he reveres nature and the magical ecosystem of Mobile Bay and the Tensaw River Delta in lower Alabama.
When teenage Jimbo Meador went to work on the Mobile, Alabama docks, his mentor was an old Swedish sailor who had arrived on the Gulf Coast aboard a wind-powered commercial vessel. The Swede passed along a sailor's knowledge from a bygone era, when self-sufficiency and resourcefulness were survival tools. Today Jimbo calls his native Alabama home, where he serves as a living bridge to a different era.