Muzzleloader memories

Larry Woody

Clarence Dies hunts deer with an old-fashioned flintlock.

Muzzleloader deer season opened today, and for many of us its about more than just bagging a buck.

It's about a link to the past, a connection to our hunting heritage. It's about bringing home venison the way our frontier forefathers did.

Well, sort of.

Today's muzzleloader rifles are vastly superior to the old-fashioned smoke-poles -- although the latter were deadly in the hands of pioneer marksmen. Their lives often depended on hitting what they shot at.

When I started muzzleloader-hunting decades ago, I carried a hammer-lock rifle with iron sights. I used a wooden ramrod to seat lead punkin balls on greased patches, fired by heavy-grain black powder.

Today I use an in-line rifle that shoots plastic-jacketed Sabots propelled by clean-burning Pyrodex pellets. I also rely on a scope. Iron sights tend to blur more than they did a half-century ago when I killed my first deer.

Lebanon hunting buddy Clarence Dies is more of a traditionalist. He hunts with a pioneer-era flintlock like the ones carried by Daniel and Davy.

Clarence doesn't stop there: he dresses in home-made buckskins and wears a beaver-skin hat. (Beaver fur is waterproof, unlike the raccoon hats of popular myth.)

He wears leather moccasins, and over his shoulder is slung a powder horn and a "possibles" pouch carrying spare flints, greased patches and other gear used by 18th century long hunters.

Clarence's one modern concession is donning mandatory blaze orange before he enters the woods.

On the frontier, mis-fires were not uncommon, because a drop of rain or dew can foul the powder charge in the flintlock pan. It happened to Clarence a few years ago: we were trudging across a field around mid-morning, dragging a 6-pointer I had killed at dawn, when a spike buck stepped out of a thicket.

Clarence raised his flintlock and pulled the trigger:

"Click!" Mis-fire.

I had re-loaded after downing my deer, and told Clarence to take my gun. It would be an easy shot with the scope.

Instead, he hurried to re-charge his flintlock. Before he could finish, the buck bounded away.

The point of the story is that Clarence could have killed the deer with my modern muzzleloader. But his quest wasn't to simply kill a deer -- he wanted to do it the pioneer way.

Although my modern muzzleloader fudges on tradition, it's at least similar to the one carried by my great-grandfather, James Van Winkle, on the frontier. I have his powder gourd, which contains some of the black powder commonly used generations ago.

I hand-load my muzzleloader, just like the old-fashioned ones, and when I fire it, I duck below the cloud of powder smoke to see if my deer is down. I get only one shot and have to make it count. There's a challenge -- and a satisfaction -- to that.

It's not exactly how Daniel and Davy and my great-grandfather did it, but it's close.

That's why I muzzleloader hunt.

Larry Woody is The Democrat's outdoors writer. Email him at

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