A Story Written in Wood and Steel

My Dickinson was a great choice, and I can’t imagine parting with the gun because it was my first. But it wasn’t long before other scatter blasters caught my eye. Gradually, I was seduced by the temptations rooted in the upland pursuit to invest in specialized gear.

I have a traditionalist’s eye and appreciate the clean lines of a side by side, English stock, double-trigger shotgun. And while I couldn’t be persuaded by arguments for choosing an over/under or a semi-auto to improve my ratio of shots taken to birds bagged, the idea of improving my shooting with a gun matching my dimensions and aesthetic tastes to offer Lincoln more feathery rewards for his hard work appealed to me.

But when I thought about the prospect of a new, custom-fit side by side, I imagined the offerings of English gun makers that cost as much as modest starter homes. Could I actually buy a gun like that? I didn’t think so. But then I turned 50 this past spring and have a spouse I really don’t deserve who, unprompted, suggested a present like that for my birthday, and I couldn’t have agreed more.

I’d heard about Upland Gun Company (UGCo), a new outfit that recently began importing impressive Italian guns from a boutique gunmaker, RFM Armi, which historically sent very few guns to the United States. So, I visited the company’s website and went down a rabbit hole that is uplandguncompany.com, where customers can configure and submit their dream gun and receive a follow-up quote.

Having handled RFM’s Venus side by side that was owned by a good friend and dog training buddy, I knew it was the model I wanted. Encouraged by my wife, I customized it to the hilt. I added ejectors and upgraded the engraving and wood. I’d noticed on upland social media sites that other sportsmen opted to have their dogs hand-engraved on their guns, and since I’d been recruited by Lincoln, I selected that customization too even though it might cost a fortune.

After submitting my dream gun, I was surprised by how quickly I received a quote. I also realized I could make more upgrades, and hand-engraving Lincoln didn’t push the gun far outside my budget. The customer service experience was fantastic, and by the time I landed on the final draft configuration, I had in-depth conversations with UGCo Founders Dan LaFond and Jerry Havel of Pineridge Grouse camp fame, as well as Nick Larson, of the “Birdshot podcast,” who joined UGCo last year as general manager.

Next, I had to be measured for the gun. This is a rare practice in the United States, where “one size fits most” is the off-the-shelf ethos. I discovered there aren’t many competent U.S. gun fitters stateside, as noted by LaFond, Havel and Larson, who were quick to emphasize the importance of an optimal fitting. They keep a small list of recommended gun fitters, and I was fortunate enough to find one of the best.

When he’s not across the pond or organizing international upland hunting experiences, Chris Batha is in South Carolina, not too far from our home in Virginia. I jumped at the opportunity to schedule a day-long fitting with him. My wife Heather and I booked a nearby resort across the Savannah River in Georgia. The long weekend in Savannah turned out to be one of the most enjoyable, spontaneous trips of our lives.

The resort was near my fitting at the Forest City Gun Club. On the day I met with Batha, Heather and Lincoln explored the Savannah Riverwalk. My fitter made sure he nailed my dimensions. The morning included an opening round of clays so he could observe my shooting with the standard-dimension Dickinson. It also involved a coaching session and ended with a barbecue lunch close to the club.

The afternoon involved shooting a few rounds at a pattern board with a try-gun, which has adjustable dimensions for the comb, length of pull, and other variables. Then rinse and repeat, until Batha dialed in the configuration that worked best for my physique and mount.

We concluded with some cold ones at the club bar where I was regaled by the British-accented storytelling prowess of one of the world’s best wing-shooting instructors. Drinks at the Artillery bar, a feather and fin-themed dinner at Husk and brunch at 700 Drayton were all great calls. My wife and I bookended the fitting with an idyllic weekend touring some of Savannah’s premier dining and drinking establishments.

With my dimensions and order finalized, the most difficult chapter of my custom-gun journey began in the months-long waiting period that involved manufacturing and shipping to get the bespoke beauty in hand. Despite supply chain disruptions and shifting customs regulations throughout the pandemic, not to mention a surging demand for the outfit’s guns, UGCo and RFM Armi somehow managed to keep to their general guidance of a six-month timeframe. I eased my anticipation with photos of grade-four wood blanks that I chose my stock from and occasional photos of the gun’s components as they evolved during the handcrafted manufacturing process.

This story’s final chapter began, and my extended birthday celebration continued, with the notice in late September that my gun was on its way.

The good news came just a week before my bird season with Lincoln began with our weeklong trip to Maine to hunt ruffed grouse. It’s hard to describe the satisfaction I experienced when the masterpiece was finally in my hand. The first shot exploded out of its barrels and screamed hot on the tail of ruffed grouse. I fired the third round of shells and made contact to begin a week to remember in the North Maine Woods.

I’d like to believe my ratio of shots taken to birds bagged improved this season because my shooting instincts improved dramatically since I first started hunting woodcock—the King of the Game Birds. But I have no doubt the lion’s share of credit goes to a generous and loving spouse, an experienced and competent gun fitter, a group of talented Italian gun makers and an upstart importing team that is taking the American upland community by storm.

Thanks to each of them, the story of this great passion I’ve enjoyed during my middle years and life with Lincoln is written into this gun’s wood and steel. I thank each of them, and my gratitude will grow as our story continues to unfold. Wild bird hunting can often be enjoyed as an armed walk in the woods with friends and dogs. But the walk is better when a beloved canine companion is rewarded for skill and hard work with a mouthful of feathers—and a human handler is privileged enough to carry an elegant, well-crafted, aesthetically pleasing instrument that is a true work of art.

Robb Moore is a ninth-generation Virginian and a skipped-generation bird hunter who lives in Richmond. He’s written articles for Project Upland (projectupland.com) and its biannual sister publication, Hunting Dog Confidential (huntingdogconfidential.com). In addition to his day-job as a higher-education administrator at his alma mater, the University of Richmond, Moore also helps as an amateur bird dog trainer at Orapax Hunting Preserve (orapax.com) and blogs about his and Lincoln’s journey at amanandhisbirddog.com/blog.

Story by Robb Moore

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