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Muzzleloaders add a degree of difficulty to hunt.

Byline: Mark Blazis

COLUMN: Outdoors

Muzzleloaders hunting deer this month are part of a very old tradition. Black powder first exploded on the battle fields and hunting grounds in the mid-1300s with the invention of hand gonnes or hand cannons. They were the first hand-held black-powder weapons, truly primitive and difficult to shoot. Their introduction, though, changed the world.

From the late 1400s through the early 1700s, the quest for greater fire power and accuracy produced the first stocked, shoulder-fired matchlocks. These large-bores looked like rifles but were very heavy and unwieldy, often requiring monopods for support. The earliest had tiller bars rather than triggers. Their match chords were soaked in salt peter, dried, and ignited to fire. In the military someone - usually a sergeant - was usually responsible for having igniting material ready to light the matches at all times.

Wheelocks, incorporating a wrench-like wheel in their firing system, came on the scene in the early 1500s. They were enthusiastically welcomed for their beauty and new technology. A major advance was their ability to produce a spark for firing using pyrite. They were the first decorative guns - often ornately inlaid, status symbols for the upper class - highly valued as hunting weapons for the aristocracy.

Innovations that followed produced snaplocks and snaphaunces, the latter being overly complicated versions of the future flintlock. Just as bigger-than-refrigerator early computers went through the process of miniaturization, early black powder weapons would evolve to more simplified and efficient forms. They were followed by English locks, dog locks and, finally, by the 1660s the captivating and beloved flintlock, which would dominate battle fields and hunting grounds up until the Civil War and remain the weapon of choice for many of today's most traditional shooters. Flintlocks speak antiquity when they fire. Flintlocks didn't require a match and someone on the scene always ready to ignite it; they employed a reliably obtained spark from flint to ignite their powder. They had fewer parts to cause problems and were easier to use and maintain. Black powder percussion caps would dominate the Civil War era. Newly developed cartridges would continue to use black powder.

Then came 1884 and with it the invention of smokeless powder in France. Its impact was earthshaking. With black powder, there was always a revealing puff of smoke after a shot. A shooter couldn't hide his location. After 1884, one could fire with anonymity and greater impunity. Smokeless powder was cleaner, more efficient and far deadlier. It would be the powder of choice for military use and most hunters. I say most because a stubborn breed of traditional muzzleloaders refuses to shoot anything but black powder today, despite its technological drawbacks.

Jim Shockey and American Pioneer Powder have since come up with Gold Sticks, a sulfurless, black powder replacement to eliminate sulfur corrosion, diminish fouling, swabbing between shots and rotten-egg odor. For some, this product literally, and figuratively, takes away both some of the color and essence of the sport. For others, it makes muzzle loading more pleasant. It boils down to a question of tradition versus modernization and how easy you want it all to be.

As recently as 1992, muzzle loaders had only a three-day season, strictly requiring pre-1865 original guns or replications of those smooth bores, rifled flintlocks or caplocks. Today, we have safer, modern muzzleloaders with rifle-like accuracy and greater weather dependability. Proponents of traditional muzzleloaders, however, wouldn't think of shooting them. Like most other Massachusetts hunters, I do. My weapon of choice is a rifle-barreled, rifle-accurate Thompson Center Omega. It looks like a modern rifle. It's really not all that primitive, other than the fact it loads from the muzzle and shoots malodorous, vision-obscuring black powder.

Muzzleloading today is an option for some hunters who no longer qualify to carry firearms. A felony conviction precludes them from ever hunting with rifles or shotguns. Even a conviction for driving under the influence makes one ineligible to be able to hunt with firearms in this state. Many fair people consider that punishment unfairly Draconian and punitive.

Primitive firearms hunters love the muzzleloader for its tradition, an additional three-week deer season and the opportunity to test their abilities under demanding limitations. After several frustrating misses, muzzleloader Garrett MacAdams left his black powder at home and shot two deer with his shotgun, but he's back in the woods today with his flintlock for what he considers his ultimate challenge. Great hunters don't ever choose to hunt because it's easy.

Mark Blazis can be reached by e-mail at
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Title Annotation:SPORTS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Dec 18, 2009
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