Siren Song

On a recent August morning I found myself sitting at the base of a large walnut tree, waiting for the squirrels to begin moving. The air was warm and filled with mist, the beautiful early light casting a golden glow over everything. The woods were absolutely quiet. Dressed as a settler of 1778, with rifle shirt, breeches, buckskin leggings and moccasins, and a droopy black felt hat, I felt transported to another time. Across my knees rested a .30 caliber flintlock rifle, golden curly maple and brass inlays gleaming in the moist air. Over my shoulders hung a leather shooting pouch, a long brown powder horn and a canvas haversack.

Feeling delightfully detached from reality, I began to muse on the remarkable chain of events that had led me to this time and place. I let my mind wander to a time more than thirty years ago, when I first smelled black powder smoke.

Mine was a shooting and hunting family. It would be embarrassing to admit how much time I spent in pursuit of rabbits, squirrels, doves and quail as a teenager and young man. As with most people in that happy situation, guns fascinated me, and I learned all I could about them. It wasn't until about 1964, however, that I realized such a thing as a muzzleloading weapon still existed. Dr. Cy Shaeffer, a friend and teacher, invited me to shoot his caplock double shotgun, just for the novelty of it. We loaded the old original gun using crumpled newspaper wads, and tried to hit thrown tin cans. Such a noise, so much smoke and flaming confetti, that strange smell! I thanked him politely, but in my heart I knew that I was hooked, and would own such a weapon one day.

Economic considerations delayed the realization of that wish for many years, but the thought hung in the back of my mind like a nagging headache. In about 1973 I bought my first smoke pole, a beautiful, long and slender .40 caliber flintlock Kentucky rifle, made by a local gunmaker. It has a 43 inch barrel, brass furniture and patch box, and modest silver inlays. Like the handle of the early Colt revolvers, the lines are the epitome of grace and beauty in my eye. To this day, I get pleasure from just holding it in my hands.

That beauty was my Achilles heel. Fascinated with the knowledge that the early gunsmiths were able, under primitive conditions, to turn iron and wood and brass into such a thing of beauty, at once a work of art and a most efficient tool, I had to know more. That need to know, my greatest weakness, has led me on the most wonderful journey one can imagine. It has taken almost twenty years, and the end is not in sight.

Soon after I acquired that first rifle, I essentially gave up hunting with modern weapons. My arsenal expanded to include shotguns, I studied diligently the ballistics, loading and cleaning of the old guns, and hunting took on a new, more pleasant dimension. I have never been one to need a full game bag to feel a hunt has been successful. Shooting just what I want to eat suits me just fine, and doing it with a muzzleloader more nearly fits my definition of "fair chase". For me, the satisfaction of cleanly killing two squirrels with a flintlock rifle far outweighs that of taking a coat full in any other way. As a firm believer in the game laws and the scientific management of game populations, I think we would all be better off if many more of us felt that way. No knowledgeable hunter, aware of the pressure put on our game populations these days could disagree, surely. Having taken mule and whitetail deer, javelina, wild boar and many species of small game with black powder, no one can convince me that there is not an extra thrill there. Drop a dove with a flintlock shotgun, and you will see my point. Because of the different capabilities of muzzle loading weapons, namely, shorter range and limited firepower, I have become much more a hunter, and less a shooter. That makes me very proud.

It has been my privilege to become experienced in the use of percussion weapons of several types, but my first love will always be the flintlock. I enjoy the additional challenge they offer, and they fit my historic bent. They were the weapon of our pioneer forefathers. Until about 1830, flintlocks were used in every event of significance involving weapons in this country.

Learning the care and feeding of various black powder weapons, and shooting them, have provided me with hundreds of hours of intense pleasure over the years, but are only part of what I have gained from this sport. As so many have found, the desire to wear the clothes, shoot the guns, eat the food of days gone by soon overtook me. After much agonizing over what period I found most interesting, I took the plunge into living history, 1770's version.

Because my real interest is intimate knowledge of the lifestyle of that period, I made my costume, moccasins, leggings, shooting pouch, powder horn, knife and sheath, groundcloth, haversack, canteens and many smalls. I do mostly solo treking, and make a serious effort to be authentic. That is easy for me because I am seeking the experience of their daily living, not some certain look, so I don't cheat. I know quite well what it feels like to be cold and wet because I can't get a fire started with flint and steel, how difficult it is to read by candlelight, that breeches are really more comfortable than modern trousers. Clay pipes smoke hot, leather clothes are cold, jerky is tough to chew, one blanket is never enough on a cold night, and a flintlock will fire after spending the night inside your bedroll with you, every time.

Tramping the Kentucky hills in full costume, sleeping rolled in a blanket, hunting, rifle frolics, shooting matches, the list goes on. A whole world of new experiences awaited me.

As each new aspect of the subject opened to me, and I acquired new skills associated with it, I began to have a better understanding of our ancestors. It is impossible to know what they and their life were really like, but muzzle loading has opened a small window into the past for me, and I thoroughly enjoy the view.

Of course, it was my pleasure to meet many interesting people associated with the hobby over the years, and to make many friends. The vast majority has been salt-of-the-earth types, but not all. That's why they had gaols in the old days. The best friend I'll ever have came my way because of a common interest in black powder hunting, and I will be forever grateful for that.

My early inquiries into the methods of the gunsmiths exposed me to much peripheral information about the lifestyles of our forebears that was also fascinating, so I began to study them as well as the guns. That study can have no end.

Each new topic that piques my interest expands to include many more. I have become an avid student of American history, and I am seeing it in a way impossible to see in school. I study it because I have come to love it, and that makes for a good student.

In my mind, I have lived in the colonies, come to feel the oppression of the British, the frustration and rage that go with being an unwilling subject of the king. I have fought the revolutionary war for eight long and bitter years. Starvation, exhaustion, bitter cold, pain and terror are nothing new to me. Marching in the snow with only blanket strips on my feet at Valley Forge, hallucinating with smallpox at Charleston, cowering behind palmetto barricades at Fort Moultrie as the cannon balls come smashing in are all fresh in my memory. Two weeks of wading the flood swollen, ice caked Wabash river on the desperate march to Vincennes with George Rogers Clark makes me shiver still. I have stood on North Bridge in Concord and fired the first ragged volley at the redcoats, and I have stood proudly in Surrender Field at Yorktown and seen them throw their muskets down in the rage and humiliation of defeat.

The exhortations of Thomas Paine are familiar to me. Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, Patrick Henry, Benjamin Franklin and dozens of others have educated me to the meaning of our form of government. John Locke, John Milton, Edmund Burke and Alexis de Toqueville have all had a turn at influencing my thoughts. I have come to understand how this wonderful country came to be, and to love her in a way that is impossible to put into words. Warts and all. Few Americans have any real appreciation of what the founders of this country suffered through, what strength and character it took to lay the foundation this nation is built on. Where did these men come from? More importantly, where have they all gone?

Years crept by while I indulged my yearning for knowledge about the people and events at the beginning of our country. My feet weren't idle while my mind worked, however. Trips to Colonial Williamsburg, Yorktown, Vincennes, Fort Harrod and Fort Boonesboro, Blue Lick, Jamestown, Charleston, Fort Moultrie, Point Pleasant, Danville, Crab Orchard, Monticello, Cowpens, Guilford Courthouse and many others have brought to life many things I have read about. I find it a particular thrill to stand where some of these great men stood and remember the things they said and did. It is as close as I'll ever be able to get to the birth of our nation.

The Indian war of 1795, the War of 1812, the westward expansion, the feats of Jedediah Smith, Billy Sublet, Lewis and Clark, Sam Houston, Mad Anthony Wayne and dozens more all claimed their share of my attention. Not all my attention, however. Ancillary to a love of early American history is a love of the artifacts of that time. So, I became a collector of early American antiques. Guns, knives, trade axes, down hearth cooking utensils, tools and primitive furniture all catch my eye, and I live with a few of these pieces every day. Putting our small collection together has provided many happy hours of togetherness for my wife and me, many pleasant trips, many exciting times.

Sitting there under that walnut tree, I realized with surety that black powder had been for me a siren song, leading me inexorably onward to more wonderful experiences. Because of it, I have become a better, more thoughtful hunter, a more involved and knowledgeable citizen, a happier and more satisfied person. Black powder smoke has been the sauce for my goose, and unlike some, I am glad I inhaled.

Off to my right, a small shower of dewdrops fell as a fox squirrel jumped, heading in my direction. The sear made only a quiet, well oiled click as I brought the flintlock to full cock and got ready.

©1995 B.E. Spencer

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