Muzzleloader challenge is barrel of fun, with right precautions

Bill Burton

December 11, 1990|By Bill Burton

WEST FRIENDSHIP -- "Hit or miss? When the smoke clears, you'll know."

So said Phil Waggenbrener, whose nostrils were hardened by the acrid smell of smoke -- and not that from a nearby campfire where in a big black pot hanging from a tripod colonial-dressed Art Corbin and Wanda Barth were whipping up a pioneer stew, corn bread and coffee.

A dozen students with their smokepoles talked of their hopes when the Maryland muzzleloader season opens Dec. 22, with nearly as many instructors making final preparations for a day reminiscent of when Meshack Browning roamed the forests of Garrett County.

Welcome to a DNR Muzzleloader Course at Howard County Fairgrounds, an occasion in which safety is the prime consideration. Accidents can happen in muzzleloader shooting, a sport in which the shooter mixes his own ammo in the barrel of a primitive weapon, or one of the later replicas.

Too much powder, a surprise spark or an improperly seated ball can mean premature firing, or a burst barrel. You just don't jam a factory cartridge into the breech and fire away.

Waggenbrener, dressed in old fashioned Scottish attire of the Hume tartan, is the Howard County team leader for DNR's gun safety courses. Black powder courses are not a substitute for the mandatory hunter safety course required of all new hunters. They instead are designed to teach the intricacies of safe loading and shooting of primitive weapons.

Along the tree edge 50 yards from the firing line were a dozen large targets with small bull's eyes -- and an additional one for a different purpose -- to pattern a shotgun. Mine.

There comes a time for most hunters when it matters not whether one hits or misses, even whether one gets a shot. I have long passed that threshold, so what better time to try something different? Something more challenging.

And what can be more challenging than brewing the right charge in the barrel of a new Thompson Center New Englander muzzleloader with interchanging barrels -- a 12-gauge for small game; .50-caliber for deer?

Add the disadvantage of firing only once. There is only one shot in my New Englander, and no time to reload. By the time one goes through the step-by-step loading procedure the target can be in the next county.

Even after shooting, one can't be certain he scores until the smoke clears, Waggenbrener reminded us. The moniker "smokepole" tells the story. Even an owl can't see through the smokescreen, especially on a damp day.

If it's too damp, the gun might not fire. Dampness can sabotage powder and percussion caps, it's even worse with flintlocks.

But it sounds like fun, this going back to yesteryear -- and it also gives one the opportunity to get more venison in the late two-week muzzleloader shoot that is expected to reward hunters with about 5,000 deer.

Stan Rae was my tutor for the first shotgun effort -- and shotgunning is relatively new in the revival of muzzleloading. First, an ounce in volume of powder went into the barrel, which was then tapped vigorously to ensure the powder settled evenly.

Seated atop it with the ramrod was a fiber wad, then an ounce in volume of No. 7 1/2 pellets (I'll need much bigger ones of steel for geese), then another wad, a percussion cap snapped on the nipple, then the firing. Rae and I agreed the pattern was as good as that of a modern shotgun.

Gil Gilbert, an American Indian dressed in buckskins, took over sighting in the new rifle after basically the same loading procedure. The greased patched ball struck the bull's eye at 10 o'clock.

A few observers rushed over. "Great shot," they said. "If we adjust the sight just a bit, it'll be dead center."

"No way," I responded. "I'll settle for that; had it been a deer it would be venison. Let's leave well enough alone." So now I'm ready for the muzzleloader season, but first will come a try for a goose. Friday, I'll have a report.

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