His forefathers would enjoy this shot of history

Bill Burton

December 14, 1990|By Bill Burton

MASSEY -- Our pioneering forefathers were remarkable indeed. I ponder this as I sit in a field blind on the farm of Henry Dierker, who is perched at the far end of our Canada goose rig.

My fowling piece is a 12-gauge Thompson Center New Englander muzzleloading shotgun, a new replica of the smokepole carried more than a hundred years ago by John Clark as he and his wife Mary Barfield Clark crossed the plains of Iowa in a covered wagon with a cow and chickens trailing behind.

Clark probably wanted to pot a few prairie chickens as they journeyed westward. The domestic hens couldn't be spared; they were needed for eggs. One got fresh food with a scattergun loaded with anything from gritty sand to chopped tiny squares of lead strips.

There was no spare cash for store-bought round pellets, nor was there a rifle in the horse-drawn prairie schooner. Today we say the Winchester carbine was the gun that won the West, but in truth few could afford it. The gun that really won the West was the muzzleloading shotgun the settlers carried from back East.

The Clarks were to homestead in Iowa, and eventually rear a girl who became a country schoolteacher, my grandmother Clara Mahala Clark who later married a prospector Joel William Burton.

I think of the Clarks passing through the desolate Midwest flatlands as I sit in the blind with Centreville guide Jack Moore on my left and Gene Mueller of Charles County on my immediate right waiting for the morning flight.

Great grandfather's smokepole was undoubtedly old and undependable. Mine is modern, and supposedly dependable -- though I fret about the several puzzling misfires while practicing for this big day, my first for geese with front-end loader.

John Clark used anything at hand for wad and shot, carrying all his muzzleloader paraphernalia in his pocket. I have a fancy possibles pouch loaded with factory everything -- shot, wads, powder, percussion caps and other gadgets to make shooting more simple and easy for modern blackpowder buffs.

Yet, with all the new goodies, pitfalls remain, especially for those on the go with limited time for the meticulous cleaning routine after each shot. My misfires the other day, for example. I thought I did everything right, but the gun didn't fire.

John Clark had to figure out such things himself. I simply called blackpowder buff Phil Wagonbrenner at 461-3007. Wagonbrenner is DNR's Howard County gun safety program leader.

I learned I had used too much solvent when cleaning the barrel between shots. The solvent, mixed with all the black gooey gunk from the burnt powder, plugged the tiny hole in the nipple that channels the spark from the percussion cap to the main charge. I'd have to clean more carefully.

How did John Clark clean his gun thoroughly after a day's shooting? I half-filled the bathtub with hot sudsy water, immersed the barrel, reamed it out with wire brush and patches, then rinsed and oiled it.

You can't do that in a covered wagon. However, my procedure wasn't perfect. More intent on drying and oiling the barrel, I didn't drain the black, sooty water promptly. That caused the drained tub to accumulate a black, sticky -- and almost impossible to remove -- ring unappreciated by the family.

Then there was the problem of the choice of wad for the required steel shot in my gun. Did I need a cup type to buffer steel to protect the barrel, or plain wads and let the steel ring against the barrel's steel?

I phoned Thompson Center in New Hampshire, but because of fears of product liability, I could get no advice. Testing is under way now, and I'd have to wait until it was completed, I was told.

Geese won't wait, so I chose the plastic cup type, still mulling the decision when Moore called in a flight of honkers. They passed in front of the pit. I waited until one was just right -- there are no second shots with muzzleloaders.

Dierker got one; so did Mueller. I chose a bird 40 yards off, fired and it crumpled dead in the air.

What a thrill: my most exciting moment in 56 years of hunting. Were you watching, great grandfather?

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