The canny devils sent in a light first wave to draw our fire, and then immediately followed with a heavy, deadly serious wave to overrun us. Three hundred yards out and coming in fast. Measure powder from horn to antler tip measure and throw it down-bore... fumble in the bag for overpowder and cushion wad and ram them home together (200 yards and closing fast)... grab the shot flask and drop the shot, drop the flask.... fish out the overshot wad and ram, drop the ramrod (100 yards, and I'll never make it)... untangle the pick from the straps... prick the hole... can't get the shooting pouch flap open!... finally find the priming horn (50 yards, too late, to late, look at those suckers move, I'm a goner!)... prime and slap the frizzen shut... full cock, shoulder the firelock, pick a target, swing and touch her off... a clean hit! Damn, here comes a third wave!! Will it never stop!? Measure powder from horn....
Thus it went all afternoon on a pleasant Saturday in the fall of 1997, as Chuck Phelps and I stood in the defensive line, repulsing wave after wave of mourning doves, or as we laughingly called them, passenger pigeons. Chuck had wrangled an invitation for us to shoot over a prepared food plot near our homes, and we had the time of our lives.
We decided to impress the good old boys and show up in period 18th-century garb. Impress them we did, but I'm not sure just how. All the invited shooters, about fifteen of them, were strangers to us, so we just joined the group in the gazebo to wait for shooting time. During the twenty minutes we waited, no one would look directly at us, and not a single person asked what we were about. All those big-bellied, camouflaged, smokeless shooters just sat there looking at their own feet. Shock, it must have been. Both Chuck and I had a great deal of trouble keeping a straight face. That reaction isn't new to us, but it never ceases to puzzle and amuse us.
When 3:00 o'clock approached, the host passed the word that it was time to take our shooting positions, and there was a mild stampede toward the back field. Most of the shooters were veterans of the shoot, and knew where they wanted to station themselves. Chuck and I, being unfamiliar with the land and the flyways, didn't get very good spots. We wound up in a cul-de-sac, with tall trees behind us and on our right front . We agreed to hunt together, for mutual support.
We shot from 3:00 o'clock to 6:00 o'clock, and the action was heavy most of the time, intense for short periods. Shooting our 20 gauge flintlock smoothbores, we did our best, but we set no records. Most of the shot and wads were gone by the end of the shoot, but we had only a few birds apiece to show for our labors. Still, we stood up to be counted when the pressure was on, and that's important, isn't it?
I was shooting a Jackie Brown Carolina Smoothbore, flintlock, 20 gauge with a forty-six inch barrel. Chuck used his Narragansett Armes Tulle De Chasse, also 20 gauge, but with a forty-two inch barrel. I loaded with 60 gr. FFFg Goex powder, one card overpowder wad, one cushion wad soaked in beeswax-lard mix, 1 1/4 oz. of #8 shot and a thin overshot card. Priming was with FFFFg Goex, as usual. Chuck was shooting a similar load.
This was not the first time I had hunted doves with a flintlock smoothbore, but it was the first time I had been in a sustained, heavy flight while using one. My previous outings had involved a few scattered doves on my farm. I had killed a dozen or so, scattered over two or three hunts. I believe this was Chuck's first try at them in any concentration, too.
The weather was hot and clear, with a bright, bright sun. Before the shoot was very old, we were hot, sweaty and thirsty, but were so involved with the shoot we just pressed on. We each made shots which pleased us, and missed many more shots we should have made. The overriding impression at the time, though, was of loading, loading, perpetually loading. I'm certain this was not anything like the activities of gunners of the eighteenth century, but it was also a far cry from the modern dove shooting scene, for us.
My favorite moment in an absolutely sterling afternoon came on my last shot. I had started migrating toward the car as the shooting cutoff approached. Standing in full sunlight on a slope near the edge of the field, I saw a lone, very high dove winging in. Up came the smoothbore, follow along as I calculated lead and touched her off. The usual cloud of smoke didn't prevent me from seeing the dove tumble down, a clean hit. Before the dove hit the ground, I heard a loud, excited voice from out in the field shout, "Goddamn!! What a shot!" Chuck and I continued to the car, and a tall young man, the voice from the field, came striding up with his hand outstretched, saying, "I've just gotta shake your hand! That was some shot, and beautiful to watch. I've always wanted to see someone shoot a flintlock, and that was unbelievable. You must be some kind of wing shot". I exhibited all the modesty I could muster (not much) and told him he should try it, sometime. May have made a convert.
The uneasy, unfamiliar and standoffish manner of the early afternoon had vanished by now, and several hunters stopped to chat as they walked toward their cars. I guess it was seeing Chuck and me face the peril of a massive dove invasion right along with the best of them, never flinching when the going got rough which did it. Several donated doves to our pot, so that we each took home enough for a grand meal.
Chuck and I stopped for sandwiches on the way home and ate them sitting in the car, marveling over what a grand day we had just experienced, what fun we were having living in the 18th century and what a splendid invention was the flintlock fowler. We both agreed then, and do still, that this hunt was our best, our favorite of all those we have shared.
Copyright © B. E. Spencer 2000 All rights reserved.