The Gift

"I wish I may, I wish I might...." Most adults give up believing in such childish things as wishes, but I suspect many of us are sorry that must be so. How handy it would be to wish for something and have it magically occur. I can bear personal testimony to the pleasure that would bring, because it happened to me, last week.

In June of 1996, I started an internet mailing list, MLML (Muzzle Loader Mailing List), dedicated to muzzle loading firearms and most things related to them. A short time later, I published a web site for the use of that list, and both it and the list grew and prospered. In June of 1998, I turned the mailing list over to Dave Kanger, demoted myself to regular member and kicked back to enjoy the less stressful conditions that entailed. I knew list membership had grown many times over and that the members seemed to seriously enjoy having a forum of their own, but I had no idea how much they liked what had happened. Several months after the transition, I received a proclamation of intent which floored me. It stated that the list were in the process of having a special gun made for me, a flintlock smoothbore with a special turkey barrel. This was said to be in appreciation of services rendered in forming the list and web page.

The gun was presented to me at the fall meet of the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association, at Friendship, Indiana, in September of 1999. It was a thing of beauty. Along with the gun came a personalized French & Indian War style map horn, made especially for me by Jim Emerson, a quality wool blanket case made by Mike Nesbitt and a neat duplex turkey call made by Michael Pierce. Needless to say, I was overwhelmed with what the list had done. I could not then, and cannot now, get my mind around the idea that this impressive gesture had been made by a group of people, few of whom I had ever met in person. Everyone knows that the internet is a depersonalizing, detached and isolating medium, right? I began to suspect that reputation isn't entirely deserved.

The gun is made in the style of an early Virginia flintlock rifle, but with a thirty-eight inch, twenty gauge Colerain barrel made especially for turkey hunting. It is choked extra-full, from twenty down to twenty-four gauge. The lock is an R. E. Davis late English 'Twigg' lock, the iron furniture made and donated by Jackie Brown, Gunmaker, the stock donated by Jack Garner of TVM. Ron Paull of Cut Bank, Montana, did the actual building of the gun from the parts supplied, and I've never seen better work. I'll recommend him every chance I get. Dave Kanger did the wood and metal finish, and E. Carroll 'Spike' Hale III did the metal engraving. Many list members contributed hard-earned dollars to make all this possible.

Within a few days of receiving the gun I was out shooting it for pattern. In the two previous spring gobbler seasons, I had used a flintlock smoothbore with a cylinder bore, and was keenly interested to compare the performance of the new gun with that one. It was an eye opener. Colerain knows how to choke a barrel. They recommend 95 grains of FFg powder and an equal volume of number six shot, along with three thick overshot card wads. I settled on a similar combination, 80 grains of FFFg Goex powder, two one-eighth inch card overpowder wads, 95 grains equivalent (one and a half ounce) of regular chilled number six lead shot and a thin overshot card wad. Since the bore is so strongly choked, regular 20 gauge wads will not slide easily down as they do in a cylinder bore. After some experimentation, I found that I could bend the card wads over the ramrod into a curve with small radius, start them in the muzzle tipped on edge, push them through the choke with the ramrod, and then, by 'tapping' on them make them straighten out in the full-size portion of the bore. I try to place the bends at right angles, and with one up, one down, so that under the pressure of ramming the load the two wads will form the strongest barrier for good gas seal. Shooting at full-scale silhouette targets of a turkey's head and neck which show the bones, I was able to average twenty-four lethal hits in the skull and neck bones at twenty-five yards. The average dropped to seventeen hits at thirty yards and nine at thirty five. I had the thought that the turkeys were in trouble.

The first chance to try the new gun came during the fall season of 1999, but I hunted all five days without an opportunity to try it on a bird. I'm barely able to hold my own in the spring season when the toms are sex crazed and out of control, let alone during the fall when they could care less.

When this spring's season rolled around, I was out there hitting it every day, regardless of conditions. I had the feeling that there was no better way for me to show my appreciation of the honor which had been paid me than to put it to use by collecting a gobbler with it. An onerous task, to be sure, but I'm a man who pays his debts. I hunted nine of the first fourteen days of the season, early and late, with only one possible shot. On opening day two hours after daylight I had a shot at a fat jake, but the gun failed to fire. Just didn't spark. That had occurred a time or two in the patterning sessions, and I had been working on solving the problem. That failure with a turkey in my sights gave me considerable impetus, and by changing flint size and angle I thought I had solved the problem. I was anxious to give it the test of fire.

On Saturday, a friend hunted with me, and we worked a gobbler high on a hill, dubbed the hilltop gobbler, which was quite vocal from the roost. He had hens with him, though, and when he left the tree he went away from us, up the slope. We made plans to circle and approach him from the other side the next morning. The young friend had problems with a mare foaling that evening, and called to cancel. I carried on with the plan on my own.

By an hour before sunrise on Sunday, I was a half-mile deep in the woods and up slope from the bird, and anticipation was running high. Turkeys rarely cooperate with my plans, though, and this one held to that pattern by refusing to gobble a single time. I spent an hour calling from that spot, then moved down slope by 300 yards, picked a suitable spot and set up to call blindly there. I elected not to place my foam decoys, this time. The slope was fairly steep, with an old logging road running down and to my left. One particular area seemed the most likely for a tom's approach, so I set up with the muzzle covering that zone. I snuggled at the base of a huge oak tree and began a series of moderately loud yelps mixed with some softer purrs and putts. I had done this same exercise dozens of times this season, and my confidence wasn't particularly high. Over the next fifteen minutes I repeated my series of calls twice or three times, then spotted movement directly in front of me, in the fairly open section of the woods. Turkey! Male turkey, legal turkey! The bird was moving steadily toward me from about fifty yards out. He wasn't wasting any time with the usual strutting, gobbling, buzzing and popping, but simply coming in, intent on his mission. He continued until he was at what I guessed was thirty yards, then stopped, moved right, then left, while giving a series of soft putts. My planning had paid off, and he was only a few inches to the right of the muzzle. I eased my cheek down onto the stock, settled the butt in my shoulder, aligned the sights, then very, very slowly swung the gun to cover him. A rapid train of thoughts rushed through my mind....the gun had failed to fire once before....the gun has been loaded for four days, one of which was a rainy one...did I prick that touch-hole? When he turned his head to the side, offering the best target, I slapped the trigger. Instant ignition, and the turkey went down just as quickly, right where he stood. As the slow wingbeat signaling a fatal shot began, I laid the gun aside and ran to him. Nothing needed to be done, that was a turkey which had been shot as they should be shot.

As my friend and I were walking from the woods and chatting on Saturday, I had told him I wished I could shoot a mature gobbler, instead of the jakes I had killed before, and that I could do it at a fairly long range, say thirty-five yards, so I could report to the list that their special turkey gun was that, indeed. When I went to the bird, I was pleased to see that it was a mature bird with a beard of more than nine inches. Pacing the distance off carefully, I saw that it was thirty-two yards. Just right. The pattern had struck him dead center, and the head and neck were punctured many, many times. When I cleaned him, I found only one pellet in the breast, high up near the base of the neck. That's a turkey gun.

So, the thought occurred to me, my wish had come true, quickly and accurately. I was impressed, but not as much as I would be, because there was more to come.

Six days and four hunts later, I arrived early and hiked to a spot down near the creek to wait for the morning gobble, planning to hunt in the edge of that field later in the day. The boss gobbler of the hilltop started sounding off at five minutes before six o'clock, though, so I took off toward him, up the old road. I stopped right where I had hunted before, put out both decoys eighteen yards up and in the road, and sat listening to him for a long time. That rascal gobbled from the roost every ten seconds, by the clock, until six forty-five, with hardly a pause. Shooting light was at ten after six, and I started making some sparse tree talk then, eventually adding some louder yelps at about six thirty. He never answered me in any way, just kept gobbling at his own pace. When he left the tree, he went up the hill and slightly to the right, maybe toward the corner of a field on top. He continued to gobble, but only once about every three to five minutes, and he wasn't talking to me. At seven fifteen I moved up the road toward the roost area, thinking I might be able to get nearer to him without being seen, since he obviously was working the hens up there. When I reached the top of the grade, though, it looked too open for me to make it without being seen, so I took a stand there. There was a large oak which looked good, so I sat on the south side of it. A trashy downed tree was on my right, but the area straight in front was open enough. There was a small tree near the oak, and I used it as a knee and gun prop. Comfortable, and the muzzle covered the clear area well. I called intermittently for about twenty minutes, thinking that my calling sounded really terrible. Timing and tone were both off, gotta practice. I could see back down the road pretty well, and just before giving up on the spot I casually looked in that direction. There came two jakes, their red wattles back lighted by the bright morning sun and glowing absolutely brilliant scarlet. No doubt about their being male.

I had mistakenly assumed that area was a very unlikely one for turkeys to approach through. After all, I had just walked up that road fifteen minutes before. But then, I had been calling about a hundred yards down that same road for more than an hour, so maybe that was what got them started in my direction. Thinking back, the bird my friend shot last year did the same thing, approached right up our track from behind us. They are unpredictable creatures.

Now, I had a real dilemma. Turkeys were coming, in good range and on fairly open ground, but my gun barrel was on the wrong side of that blasted little tree! More than two feet of it! I had to get it on the other side of the tree to take the shot, since the birds were slightly behind my left shoulder. I went to full cock and started slowly pulling the gun back, but the butt hit the oak. I swung it out and kept pulling, and now it hit some brush. I finally got it back far enough to clear the muzzle, switched it over and started pushing it into position, but it wouldn't come. Hung on the brush. Hope a twig doesn't hit that trigger! All this time the birds are coming slowly toward me, necks stretched and heads swiveling, and I can hear their curious putts, saying "I heard you, but where are you?" When they do that, they are all eyes and hair trigger. Nothing to do but keep at it, as slowly as the situation would allow, which wasn't very slowly, because they are coming steadily on. I kept my eye on them and gauged my action by theirs, just like working a deer which is in your lap. I finally got the gun clear and got it almost to my shoulder, but they had had enough, and the bird on the right gave a loud alarm putt and flushed. As I brought the gun to bear on the other, he spread his wings for that first big jump, and his head was within a fraction of a second of going behind a tree and out of danger. I threw the gun up and slapped the trigger, like hunting quail in the old days, no sights, pure instinct. The gun fired as quickly as a modern shotgun, and the bird went down in a pile. I had killed my second turkey of the season!

I ran to him, and he did a very brief dying wing beat, then relaxed. A jake, alright, not awfully big, but beautiful to me. I had put no pellets in the body and only a few in the head, but I'm still surprised I managed to do it, at all. The distance was very close to 35 yards, an excellent shot for the gun. It fits me well enough that throwing out a shot like that was no problem, and my snap shot was bang on target. I will never need any more turkey gun than this one. I have made it mine, and it did the job without a hitch. Twice.

To complete my act of appreciation, I plan to eat the birds. Fingers of wild turkey breast, dredged in flour to which a little salt, pepper and curry powder or cayenne have been added, then sauteed in butter until golden, crispy brown. I hope that meets with everyone's approval. Other than taking many turkeys with the gun in the seasons left to me, I can think of nothing else to express my feelings. Of course, if I think of something, all I have to do is wish for it.

A gun becomes special to me because of the memories associated with it. This one came complete with many memories, memories of good times, good discussions, good friends and their remarkable act of generosity and friendship. Now, I've added some major memories of my own, but they will always be entangled with the built-in ones. There was much more to that gift than just a gun

Copyright © 2000 B.E. Spencer All rights reserved.

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