Linking the mystery of a family heirloom shotgun to the historic practice of sink box hunting
I was warmed by the glowing embers of the fireplace, entangled in a web of old family black-and-white photographs. The Parker, distinguished and well-mannered, quietly rested above the mantle. A silent siren song, my mind wondered more about that gun than about the photos. Resting in the rocking chair, I pondered its place in history. To whom did it belong over the course of its lifespan? What adventures rested in the feel of the exposed hammers? Whose hands had slipped over the grip, finger ready on the trigger, hands shaking with anticipation?
I eased out of the rocker, slipped the mounted Parker from its position of importance, and clasped the fine wood in my palms. A sense of wonder engulfed my imagination. Treating the shotgun with reverence, I gently placed it onto the long kitchen table. A moment of silence seemed appropriate. History stared back, whispering to unravel a quiet mystery. What I would come to learn was far beyond my expectations. My journey to understand the history of this heirloom taught me about a type of concealment so well-formed that it would eventually become outlawed in America.
Connecting with Historic Methods of Duck Hunting
Lust is a powerful draw. Some know of it as a sin. Others replace it with the word desire, a need or want of something. The exposed hammers and double triggers of the Parker were a draw into a new past—a past that was foreign and peculiar to me. In breaking down the double barrels, a discovery of various numbers revealed that the Parker was from 1891. One hundred and thirty years of history lay at my fingertips. For some perspective, the Ottoman Empire still existed. Composer Cole Porter and crime boss Frank Costello were born. Yale football outscored the competition 488-0! How times have changed.
In researching more of the Parker, I came across a 1965 article from Sports Illustrated titled “A Sink Box Shoot.” Author Duncan Barnes wrote, “Of all the forms of concealment devised by wild fowlers, none is quite so effective—or nearly so uncomfortable—as the sink box.”
Various monikers were given to these deadly creations: floating water graves, the coffin box, battery box, or—as Duncan wrote in his piece—“engines of destruction.” Whatever the name, waterfowl were at the center of a massacre. I held the Damascus barrels and pondered what lay at the end of this 10 gauge shotgun all those years ago. I had visions of waterfowl darting against slate winter skies and hunters shooting at will.
The Effectiveness of the Water Coffin
In American Game Bird Shooting (1882), author John Mortimer Murphy writes, “…at Have De Grace, [Maryland hunters] pay a license of twenty dollars a year for the privilege of using sink-boxes on the river during legalized days, which are Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays after the first of November until the season closes in March.”
The sink box was a coffin-like box meant to conceal a hunter just below the level of the water. Larger boxes were ten feet long by six feet wide. Depending on the size, the hunter would stand or lay down in the center of the box.
Decoys—some made of cast iron weighing upwards of 50 pounds—submerged the framework of the sink box, concealing the hunter. Hundreds of floating decoys (a common decoy was the Canvasback) were dispersed around the framework. A typical setup of decoys would take the hunter well over an hour to set up. A coffee can was often needed for bailing water out of the box as it overflowed the barely-submerged edges.
The advantage of sink box hunting resided with visibility. Laying nearly flush with the water, the hunter’s head was down on the level of the decoys, just barely above the surface.
Sink boxes were not designated solely for the waters along the eastern shore, either. Hunters found value in hiding below the water’s surface in many areas of the country. In other areas, these “engines of destruction” were converted to sandboxes. Buried along the water’s edge, ensconced with kelp, seaweed and mud, these boxes were used to blast away at ducks and geese resting and feeding along the shoreline.
They were so effective that states soon began to restrict or even prohibit their use. By 1839, New York prohibited the use of sink boxes. From 1852 to 1897, other states such as Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, and New Jersey banned their use as well. Eventually they were outlawed in all of the United States under federal law.
The 1891 Parker and its Place in History
Had this old Parker once come to life in the confines of a sink box? Had a hunter peered over the surface of the water in anticipation of approaching ducks?
My hips aching, I found rest once again in the comfort of the chair. Shadows danced from the light of the fire. Quietly I watched the shadows dance hither and fro, morphing into the passage of Gadwalls, Pintails, and Mallards…these “duck shadows” working their way over the Damascus steel and exposed hammers.
A family heirloom, passed down with mystery and quiet wonder of the adventures of decades and centuries past. Lost in time, handed down from generation to generation, the Parker now resides in a farmhouse in a patch of vast rolling hills amongst the Great Plains.
Erin Woodward is a novice bird hunter. He was born and raised in Kansas where he currently resides with his wife and three children. Erin can be found during the fall and winter months venturing across the Great Plains in search of wild game. Spring and Summer are reserved for fly fishing for trout, and making the best homemade ice cream with his family. A member of Back Country Hunters and Anglers, he holds the value of public land access in great esteem for all hunters and adventure seekers alike. His hunting adventures are documented @pursuit_nature