Mammy’s Little Pistol, or . . . . . Everybody Loves a Mystery
Written by: Jim Gardner
Now, I suppose a lot of you gun owners/shooters out there have an interesting firearm in your home inventory that can always be the root of interesting conversation. A gun that has an interesting known, unique history, or perhaps one that came to your hands with some legendary folklore handed down to you from previous generations, or maybe an interesting tale about how the firearm was acquired. Lots of guns – especially old ones – sometimes have a story attached. That kind of related information will oftentimes add considerable value to that firearm, either personal/family value, or perhaps general market, or collector value. It just depends on the information. Well, as you might guess, by now, I have such a gun, a little Iver Johnson .38 S&W breakover revolver that was handed down to me, for my generation’s safe keeping, with both a family story, and a bit of mystery, too.
“Mammy” was my paternal grandmother. From the earliest days that I can remember her, she lived in Alice, Texas, a small agriculture and oil industry town in the southern part of the state, about 60 or so miles from my home town of Beeville. I never knew my paternal grandfather- her husband. He had passed away before I was born. I’m not even sure if my mother ever had the chance to meet him. Mammy never remarried. She lived in town, across from the courthouse, alone, but apparently content to do so. She had her friends and local club and church activities, and her family, and she always enjoyed our weekend visits.
It was on one of those weekend visits, back when I was probably 9 or 10 years old that she first made some comment about the pistol in her bedside nightstand. Well, being a “cap”pistolero at the time, having had to shoot quite a few bad cowboys and rogue Indians back home, the conversation sparked my interest. I asked my dad if I could see it. My dad had already started me and my brother Johnny down the road to learning and understanding – and applying – gun safety rules. With a quick review of those basic rules, he let me handle the unloaded pistol.
Back then, the first thing that appealed to me about this gun was that the small grip frame fit my small hand. I just thought that was ‘cool.’
On every subsequent trip our family took to visit Mammy after that first time, I would always ask to see that gun. Years later, when I had become a teenager, and on one of those weekend trips to visit her, I learned from her, in casual conversation, something that still amazes me about her to this day. You see, Mammy was NOT a “gun person.” I believe my late grandfather had provided her with that gun, but – and this is the thing that amazes me – she admitted to me and my dad that not only had she never fired this pistol, she also never had any ammunition for it – EVER !! In all the years she had possessed this gun, my dad never found any evidence that there was ever a cartridge in the house for it. He could not recall, growing up there, any activity involving the active use (training, target shooting, small game hunting, etc.) of that little gun. My late grandfather, I believe, was a bird hunter. I also have in my gun safe, one of his old double barrel shotguns, but we don’t even know for sure that he even gave her that pistol, or if she came into possession of it after he passed away. That’s part of the history of the gun that we will never have the answer to — just how she got it.
Mammy told us that she figured that just having the gun in her nightstand, and “threatening” an intruder with it pointed at him, would scare him off, if such an intrusion were to occur. I couldn’t believe it!! Dad and I offered to buy her some ammo and take her out somewhere, where she could experience loading, unloading, and shooting it. She wanted nothing to do with that. Didn’t care. It served her purpose just being there in the nightstand – no bullets, just the gun.
Time went on, and Mammy passed away in the early 70’s. My dad inherited the little pistol. He had never fired it either, even after he came into possession of it. I decided to change that. I was into reloading ammo, by then, and it came to me one day, that I wanted to shoot that little gun, and more importantly, I wanted my dad to shoot it before his time ran out. I bought a set of RCBS dies for the .38 S&W, worked up a light target load, and produced a 50 – round box of cartridges to take down to mom and dad’s house for an upcoming visit.
We first took the gun to a local gunsmith, to give it a “physical”, and make sure it was mechanically/structurally sound. The gunsmith not only declared it safe to shoot, he actually shot it first in a test cell he had in his shop. Back at home – which, by the way, was in the country, on our family farm – my dad, brother Johnny, and I finally, after all those years, got to shoot this little gun, made by a company that probably was historically more noteworthy for making bicycles than guns. The little .38 shot reliably, and I guess accurate enough for its intended purpose – close quarters self-defense. The three of us didn’t really care that much about its precision accuracy. We just wanted to shoot it. We figured we were the first in our family to do so.
Now, THIS, as the late Paul Harvey used to say, is the “rest of the story”. Some years later, my dad passed the possession of this little pistol to me. One day I decided to give it a thorough cleaning. This would include taking the little Mother of Pearl grip panels off, to clean the frame underneath. After removing the panels, I discovered on the inside left panel, someone had written with a pencil, “J.L. Gardner, Ft. Townsend, OK, 11/27/ …1.” The year was badly smudged and unreadable, although after close examination, my wife and I felt the year might be “31” or “41.” I also don’t know the connection to Ft. Townsend, OK, although my dad’s family was known to have come to Texas from the Norman, OK area. We’ll never know how the town or that date fits the gun’s history for sure, and therein lies the mystery, that will never be solved—its relevancy. Was it a purchase date? A date it was presented to my grandmother, perhaps? It’s likely that my late grandfather wrote it, but it wasn’t my dad. My dad didn’t even know it was there, until I showed it to him.
I would give almost anything to know the relevancy of that date and location, but, well, that’s just never gonna happen. The gun will someday be passed down to another, later-generation family member, but with it will only come the story I’ve told here, and the everlasting mystery of that date and place found on the inside grip. JG
NRA Certified Firearms Instructor
Texas CHL Instructor
Texas Hunter Education Instructor
Retired Corporate Pilot and former US Air Force Captain
Grassburr Leather Works, Inc.