Heroes and Legends
At 8:30 AM on a sunny November morning the day after Veteran’s Day, the parking lot at Jarret Rifle Company was filling up fast with an assortment of pickup trucks, jeeps and SUVs, many of them sporting license tags, or decals identifying the drivers as U.S. military veterans or active-duty soldiers.
All are here to participate in the first of two hunts put on by Cowden Plantation (owned by the Jarrett family) and the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) designed to encourage veterans to remain active in hunting and the outdoors. There’s a good-natured argument among the staff and volunteers about when the annual hunts first got started, but SCDNR Capt. Ben Thomas was there at the beginning and believes this year will be the 15th season.
“We’ve been doing this for at least 15 seasons,” said Thomas, “and the participation has been terrific since the very beginning. Cowden is a world-class deer hunting facility, so this is a great opportunity for these participants, which we are really grateful to Cowden and the Jarretts for providing.”
In the early 2000’s Capt. Thomas was a rookie SCDNR Conservation Officer assigned to Aiken County, where three generations of the Jarrett family have been farming the fertile land along the Savannah River in Jackson, S.C. Working in the area brought him into contact with Cowden Plantation manager Jay Jarrett, and the two became fast friends – bonding over shared values and a love of the outdoors inherent in their career choices. Together, the two friends came up with the idea of a volunteer-driven hunt for veterans and active-duty military. The idea was a hit from the very beginning.
Spc. Thomas Caughman grew up in Lexington, S.C. served in the National Guard and volunteered to deploy with a unit from the Upstate as a part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. His reasoning, according to his Mom, was that being single, it would be better for him to go than someone with a family. Small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades claimed his life during an attack on June 9, 2004.
Even 17 years later, the emotion in his mother’s voice is evident when she talks about the young man’s sacrifice, and his enduring love of the outdoors, hunting and fishing before lunch is served. It gives her a measure of comfort, she said, to be with the groups of men and women who also wore the uniform.
“Thomas loved his country and he believed in what he was doing,” she said.
Kenny Jarrett wouldn’t describe himself as a hero, far from it, but he’s a certified legend, thanks to the rifles that bear his name. You’d never know it from the unassuming group of industrial buildings tucked off a secondary road outside the sleepy village of Jackson, S.C., but there likely isn’t a deer hunter in South Carolina, or for that matter a serious big-game hunter or competitive marksman in the United States, that doesn’t know the story of the farmer-turned rifle-maker and his obsessive quest to build the most accurate rifles on the planet. Jarrett rifles sell for $10,000 or more, with used examples routinely fetching more than they originally cost. Jarrett production staff will tell you – flatly and matter-of-factly – that the rifles they turn out are the best in the world, bar none. And like the old saying goes, it ain’t bragging if you can back it up.
One of the highlights of the day for participants in the Caughman Memorial hunt is the chance to spend the morning touring the Jarret plant and seeing first-hand what goes into building one of those world-class rifles. Once everyone is checked in, the hunters split into two groups – taking turns touring the factory or the adjacent museum, which houses an amazing collection of historical artifacts and taxidermy from animals taken on safaris and hunts around the world by Kenny Jarrett and others.
But first, Capt. Thomas’ Dad, also named Ben and affectionately known as “Granddaddy” by the other volunteers, welcomes the participants.
“Yesterday was National Veterans Day – today is Cowden’s Veterans Day,” said Thomas, before leading the group in a prayer that included thanks to the veterans assembled for “keeping us safe and allowing us to enjoy all the things that we enjoy living in the United States of America.”
It won’t be the last time that themes of patriotism and respect for service to country will be brought up over the course of the day. It’s something the Jarrett family and their “extended family” of volunteers and employees take very seriously. Their entire goal is to provide the veterans participating in this hunt with a world-class hunt, access to which might otherwise cost thousands of dollars, as well as a day to remember filled with fellowship, good food and good times.
After the welcome, the group splits in two, with half headed to tour the museum and half being led on a walk-through of the renowned Jarrett rifle factory by Mike Pitts, one of the company’s top machinists. Standing in front of a lathe and a shelf filled with rifle barrels, Pitts details the way that Jarrett barrels hand bored to exacting tolerances that considerably exceed those of the major gun manufacturers.
You’ve heard the term “a game of inches?” Well at Jarrett, success (or failure) is measured in 10,000s of an inch. Each rifle barrel begins as a 30-inch blank of premium steel that gets bored and cut to those exacting specifications and hand lapped so that the outside dimensions are matched precisely to the inside bore. The goal is for there to be less than 1/10th of 1/10,000 of an inch of deviation from one end of the bore to the other.
“There’s no such thing as drilling a ‘perfectly’ straight hole through 30 inches of solid steel,” says Pitts. But at Jarrett, they come about as close as is humanly possible.
Every custom-built Jarrett rifle hunting rifle – such as their legendary “Beanfield and “Windwalker” models – must shoot three consecutive ½ in MOA groups before leaving the factory.
About “one in one-hundred” don’t make the cut, said Pitts. Those are destroyed, and work on that order – which can take up-to six months – starts over from scratch. It’s that level of care and dedication to the craft of hand-building each rifle that has made Jarrett into one of the most desirable brands in the world for serious shooters.
After the plant and museum tours, and some time spent on the rifle range making sure every participant’s rifle is zeroed in, the group gathers at the Cowden lodge building for a delicious country-cooking lunch with all the fixings. Seconds are encouraged, but one trip through the buffet line yields a plate so laden with a delicious portion of grilled pork tenderloin, old-school macaroni and cheese and other sides, and finished off with a generous scoop of banana pudding, that a second trip through just isn’t in the cards.
Thomas Caughman’s mother joins the hunters for lunch, and when she speaks to the group briefly, it’s evident how much it means to her for her son to be honored in this way, but also how much she enjoys being with men and women who have also worn the uniforms of the U.S. military. The well-known Lexington, S.C. family’s connection with SCDNR is also a strong link in this chain of fellowship. Thomas was an avid hunter and angler, and was involved with SCDNR’s Take One/Make one program from a young age as both a participant and volunteer. When he was killed, the family requested that donations be made to the TOMO program in lieu of flowers. Renaming the annual Cowden hunt to honor him just seemed like the most natural thing in the world, said Capt. Ben Thomas, and the Jarrett family embraced the idea immediately.
After lunch, raffle tickets handed out during the registration come out, with a drawing for other hunts, fishing trips and gear donated by sponsors. In this raffle, no one leaves empty-handed. Then it’s time for safety meetings and drawing stands.
Old traditions; New memories
By mid-afternoon, everyone is headed out to their assigned spots. It’s a stunning late-fall afternoon, though the Savannah River basin mosquito population is taking full advantage of the beautiful weather too. Who knew you’d need a Thermacell in mid-November? But that’s deer hunting in South Carolina.
As the shadows begin to deepen and dusk approaches, the sound of rifle shots ring out periodically across Cowden’s 10,000 acres. After standers are picked up, the successful hunters make their way to the skinning shed, where staff record the kills and prepare the harvested deer for the trip home or to a processor.
Everyone is excited – comparing notes and telling the story of what they shot and when — but one in particular stands out. For 20-year Army veteran Shea Chamberlin, the nice-sized doe he shot was his first. Following tradition, Chamberlin ended up with some blood from the harvested animal on his face, making the moment even more memorable.
“I was so excited (when the deer came out),” said Chamberlin, adding that his wife’s Tito (uncle in Phillipino), Anthony Prolia, was responsible for getting him into deer hunting. A neighbor of his, hunt volunteer Scott Winkler is who told him about the Cowden hunt.
For many of the other hunters, the route to Cowden was a little more high-tech—many participants said they came across the hunt application for the first time on the SCDNR website. That’s how Navy/Air Force veteran Robert Jonas found it. He’s been out of the military for two years. This was his first year at the Cowden hunt, where he harvested a doe.
“It was just a great day,” said Jonas, “I’d love to do it again.”
After a quick selfie at the skinning shed, each participant’s harvested deer is dressed and quartered for transport back home by Cowden staff and volunteers. Then it’s back to the lodge for a warming cup of homemade chicken noodle soup and fellowship before these men and women – ordinary folks who chose sacrifice and service to others as part of their career paths – head back home, each with a unique set of outdoor memories that will last a lifetime.
Applications for the Thomas Caughman Memorial hunts at Cowden Plantation are generally available in October each year on the SCDNR website, and any active-duty or veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces can apply. Hunt organizers try to provide the opportunity to as many first-time applicants as possible. Previous participants are welcome to apply, but newcomers get first crack at the available slots when possible.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed on South Carolina Wild are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect official policies, positions, or endorsements of activity or products by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.