Saturday, August 19, 2006

Flintlock Afternoon

Today my son and I went out to a rifle range nearby (you must remember that in rural Arizona, nearby probably means a greater distance than it does to city dwellers and back easters)

We took only our flintlocks. The rifles were replicas of the Pennsylvania Long Rifle that was so famous (not all that justifiably though) from the American Revolution. One is in .54 caliber and one is a .32. These are hunting weapons. While they have amazing range and accuracy the loading process is long and involved, but I'll get into that a little later. We were using only open sights. I also brought along a replica Colt 1851 Navy cap and ball revolver.

We took along a big ice chest that was full of 1/2 gallon milk cartons, filled with water and frozen. These make great targets, especially if you're shooting out in the sticks because there's no debris to go and pick up. They also explode nicely and give off a sparkle when you make a direct hit.

I love these old weapons. There is a definate skill set to shooting them. We used a newer synthetic powder because it's much less caustic to the rifles, more stable to store and has a longer shelf life. One of the appealing things about the black powder guns is that they are made and used with technology I am perfectly capable of doing myself. In a pinch, I can make my own powder, cast my own balls, find my own flint. It's a sustainable technology. If the supplies for newer higher tech weapons ever dried up the folks that rely on cartridges and lots of moving parts would be up a creek, I'd still be shooting. I also have a healthy respect for the people back then who fed and defended their families with these weapons.

To load a long rifle you stand it upright and brace the stock with your instep. Measure your powder (I use a measuring flask for this but I also have a small brass powder measure that hangs by a chain from my powder horn). Overloading on powder will not improve your muzzle velocity, it just blows out the barrel or, and this is not a good thing when you're shooting black powder, remains in the barrel unburned. Measuring is important. Then you take a lubricated patch and your ball and place it at the muzzle. A short, stout, starting ram and a hammer get the ball and patch started down the barrel. This was one of the steps that made the rifle a liability on the battlefield. It takes too long and you have to lug too much equipment around. While the riflemen were reloading the enemy would be charging with fixed bayonets, that's is several kinds of no fun. The backwoods riflemen were generally used as snipers (one shot and run like hell), or on the flanks of the main formation with the task of picking off the officers and non-coms. Still one or two volleys was about all you could expect from them. The effect of rifles on the battle is more the stuff of legend than of fact. When the ball is started the long ram is pulled out and you force the ball and patch down tightly on top of the powder. It is important to get it all the way down. You want zero gas leaking around the bullet and you want the explosion of the powder to be contained in as small an area as possible. Now you bring the stock of the rifle up to your waist and bring the hammer to half-cock so that it is out of the way of the pan and the frizzen, which is the rough face steel cap on a hinge that you tilt forward to expose the pan. Pour a small amount of powder into the pan and give it a light tap to make sure that powder goes down into the channel that leads to the chamber of the rifle. Snap the frizzen closed and shoulder your weapon to sight. Bring the hammer back to full cock and take aim. When you trip the hammer with your trigger it falls forward, the flint on the end of the hammer strikes the rough steel face of the frizzen and creates sparks while at the same time pushing the frizzen forward to expose the loose powder in the pan. This ignites in a flash and puff of smoke (some of which and maybe a cinder or two will always go right into your eyes) then if you don't experience the cliché flash in the pan the powder in the chamber ignites and expells the ball. You have to stand steady through this process. You can't flinch when the pan goes off in your face, you have to stand steady against the push of the discharge too. There is more of a push than a kick to a flintlock and holding straight and true aim through this process is what makes for a good rifleman. It takes practice. Lots of practice. As soon as you fire the weapon it's a good idea to blow a quick puff of air into the pan to clear the channel and get any hot sparks that might have lingered out of there. Running a plain cloth swab is a great idea right now too, if you have the time.

The main thing we are doing, besides the cliché Way Out West thing of going out in the sticks (OK, further out in the sticks, we live in the sticks) and blasting away at stuff with great big fucking guns we are preparing for our fall ritual hunt of elk and deer. The last eight years we have done this only using the muzzle loaders and open sights. This requires a great deal of actual hunting. Since my son's ambition in life is to guide elk hunts professionally the extra hunting skill serves him well. While I have, with age, and nagging memories of combat, become much less bloodthirsty, I still enjoy the hunt. With black powder weapons, you have to get much closer. I generally try to be within the 150-100 yard range. Also, referring to the process above, with these weapons you simply cannot count on getting another shot. You have one. It must count.

We both have our rifles loaded and primed, there are two targets set up at the 100 yard mark. We take our aim. Son fires first. Dead center. An explosion of ice is a visual reward, chunks fly and glitter in the air. I shoot. I hit, but not dead center. Mine spins and falls. We reload. (this takes a little over a minute) Again my son obliterates his target beautifully. I hit mine, but it's a little bit high sending the ice block spinning end over end where it plunks in the deep sand. My son offers to trade rifles. He's shooting the .50 and he thinks that the bigger projectile will increase my chances of creating a crushed ice explosion. I thank him for his kindness but tell him that the fault is not in the rifle but in the shooter. He begins to run downrange to set up a couple more targets. I set to work loading both rifles.

When he returns we go for another round. Again, he's perfect. Again, I make a hit but not totally on mark. We load again. He, once again, right on target. I am really taking my time on this one. Timing my breathing, tuning in to the slight bump of the sight picture as my pulse throbs through my cheek resting along the stock. I exhale, blowing any excess out through pursed lips. S.q.u.e.e.z.i.n.g.s.l.o.w.&.s.t.e.a.d.y. This time. Total success. Wanting to quit a winner I talk my son into launching an ice block with our surgical tubing slingshot. He does. Out comes the big .44 revolver. I hit it twice on the fly. Which is not a mean feat with an old single action pistol which needs to be fully cocked by hand for each shot and possesses a vicious recoil. My son gives the old man some props and then says "You know, if those targets were shooting back at us, I wouldn't want anybody but you in the fight with me."

He's trying to make me feel better about the semi-misses I've been making all day. Then I realize what a sweet and considerate gesture that really is. I also realize that on this day my son, at almost seventeen, is not only a better shot than me. He's a better man.


Blogger J. Goff said...

Hey, my email is

8:07 PM  
Blogger maurinsky said...

That's the sweetest father/son bonding over guns story I've read all day.

6:52 PM  
Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

i think one of the things that i admire the most about my son is his sweetness. he has always been a kind and considerate soul. he loves his hunting, and the attendant kills, but there is a love of his prey that is there too. when it is time to prepare the kill he is reverent and loving too. like my daughters, he is a much better son than i deserve to have.

10:06 AM  
Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

i just got the sarcasm of the sweet father/son bonding over guns, touché mi amiga.

3:30 PM  
Blogger J. Goff said...

hey, I'll have the review to you by tomorrow of Stairway to Gilligan...just to let you know.

4:12 PM  
Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

thanks for the kind words jack. they're rare in a cut throat business. glad you liked it.

10:56 PM  
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