Dale Jorgenson came across an 1898 Spanish American War-era rifle at a Kalispell pawnshop in 1964 when he was 11 years old. He bought it for $27.50 and shot his first deer with it in the Swan Range the following year.
Nearly three decades later, in 1993, his son Duff shot his first deer with the rifle, also in the Swan Range. Then this fall, Duff’s son Tyler harvested his first deer with the same rifle in the Swans, completing a generational trifecta.
“It’s something you don’t hear every day,” Duff, a Kalispell home inspector, said. “It’s a tradition, and we’re keeping the tradition alive. A lot of history. It’s pretty cool.”
The Krag-Jørgensen rifle, manufactured by Springfield Armory, was the first smokeless-powder repeating firearm to be adopted by the U.S. military in the late 19th century, according to the National Rifle Association, and served as the Army’s standard-issue rifle in the Spanish American War. It went through a series of models between 1892 and 1903, including the 1898 version owned by the Jorgenson family, until it was phased out when the Army adopted a Mauser-patterned Springfield rifle.
The bolt-action rifle chambers a .30-40 Krag cartridge, with a ballistic profile similar to a .30-06, which is a commonly used cartridge in big-game hunting. The Jorgensons’ gun has a lengthy 30-inch barrel and five-cartridge magazine.
The Jorgensons aren’t sure if their rifle was actually used in the Spanish American War. Nor do they know who used it or for what purposes in the post-war decades leading up to 1964, when Dale bought it.
“We have no clue what it shot before dad got it, and we might not want to know,” Duff said.
What the Jorgensons do know is that it’s been an excellent starter rifle for its 56 years in the family’s possession. Dale shot numerous deer and elk with it from ages 12 to 25, when he moved on to a Ruger with a scope. Duff shot four deer with it, and it remains to be seen how long Tyler will use it before switching to a scope.
Dale, who led trail crews for the U.S. Forest Service for three decades, believes that getting kids started with open sights establishes their shooting fundamentals better than with a scope.
“I think it really helps out your shooting ability,” he said. “They learn to zone in on that spot right behind the shoulder.”
When Dale purchased the rifle more than a half-century ago, “the bluing was gone except by the rear sight,” but its important quality was that “it shot like a charm,” with silky smooth action and deadeye accuracy. It hasn’t lost its charm all these years later.
“It’s a sweet old rifle,” Dale said. “It’s still just like it was when I got it.”
“If you miss,” Duff added, “it’s not the gun’s fault.”
With open sights, Duff likes to keep shooting distances in the 50-yard range, although Dale said he has taken animals from 100-plus yards away. Duff notes that modern technology allows hunters to shoot animals from 1,000 yards, and while he does use a scope nowadays, he likes to respect tradition as much as possible.
“We live to hunt,” he said. “That’s what we do. That’s how we feed our family.”
Dale said the 30-inch barrel — and rifle’s overall 49-inch length — has prompted jokes over the years about “knocking deer in the head with the barrel.” But Duff said its structure and build give it a “really well-balanced” shooting experience, although the size and metal butt plate make it hefty.
“It gets heavy real quick,” Duff said. “It’s fun to look at. It gets old to carry.”
The Jorgensons don’t claim any secret maintenance strategies, but they all practice meticulous gun-care habits that have been passed down through the generations just as the rifle has. Dale said his own father was “really particular about keeping your gun cleaned and oiled.” A periodic toothpick to the firing pin to “make sure nothing gets plugged up” doesn’t hurt either.
“As long as you clean and oil it, it will probably hold up forever,” Dale said.
Like his other firearms, Duff keeps the Krag-Jørgensen in a gun safe. The rifle is well built, and aside from a slight crack in the stock, it hardly shows its age, leading Duff to speculate that it sat largely untouched for many of the years before his dad bought it. He’s never even stained the wood.
“Everything is 100% original, which is pretty crazy for 122 years old,” Duff said.
Tyler, a seventh-grader at Helena Flats School, said he was “shaking” with excitement when he shot his first doe this fall, and his dad was shaking just as hard. Duff’s oldest son Tristen didn’t catch the hunting bug, and it remains to be seen whether his 9-year-old daughter Lacey will lug the Krag-Jørgensen into the Swan Range when she turns 12.
Further down the line, Dale hopes when that generation has kids of their own, the family tradition will endure, and the rifle will initiate another lucky 12-year-old into the hunting culture so revered by the Jorgensons.
“I’d love to see that,” Dale said. “That would kinda make a guy’s chest swell with pride.”
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