Muzzle Loading (Mis)Adventures: Primitive Hunting in Pennsylvania
Article Contributed by Managing Editor K. Slye
I stepped off the edge of the old logging road, trying to walk quietly as the snow crunched under my boots, I carried my gun at the ready. It was the last day of the late flintlock season in Pennsylvania, and as I slowly worked my way up the side of the gulley my eyes were fixed on the opposite slope looking for any hint of movement on the snow covered landscape.
This was the first year I hunted this particular location, a hillside with old logging and oil lease roads that crisscrossed each other to a field at the top, with the gulley cutting the hillside in two. Earlier that hunting season, on the opening day of rifle, I harvested a buck while still hunting the property. The following weekend, I was able to put my friend onto a doe on the backside of the hill. On several occasions during the late season I bumped up deer, but was unable to let the smoke fly. All that time in the woods helped me pattern those deer. I knew where to walk in from, what time to do it, and a good idea where the deer would be sitting, I was prepared.
A twig snapped underfoot and up stood 5 doe, my flintlock found my shoulder almost as if it was acting on its own accord. As I cocked the hammer, I picked out the one that offered the best shot and settled the fiber optic bead just behind its front shoulders. Thoughts of me getting a deer the first year I tried flintlock hunting flashed through my head, I could taste those venison steaks. I held steady and anticipated the flash of powder in the pan and the slightly delayed explosion that is customary of a flintlock rifle. Click. Nothing happened, not even a spark. My first instinct was to recharge the pan with more powder, and as I fiddled to quickly find my touch plunger holding the fine grain powder, I realized that it wasn’t the powder that was my problem. It was the flint, or lack thereof, that was the culprit. As I watched helplessly as the 5 deer slowly made their way up the hill and out of sight, I remembered that I had taken out the flint to wipe down and dry the gun because of the wet conditions during the prior week’s hunt and forgot to put it back in the jaws of the hammer. After that I knew I would never make that mistake ever again.
My Uncle was gracious enough to let me borrow both his inline and flintlock muzzle loaders that year. My Dad hated muzzle loaders, said they made him flinch, so I never developed an interest in shooting them while growing up. But now that I had several mouths to feed and all of the financial burdens of having a family, I wanted to extend my hunting season so I could better fill the freezer. Before I bought my own muzzle loader I wanted to borrow one to make sure it was something I liked before investing my money. So, my Uncle offered his Thompson Center Firestorm and two boxes of supplies, everything from the patches and round balls to the cleaning solvents, speed loaders, and black powder. I learned how to load, shoot, and clean the muzzle loaders that summer and I felt I was prepared for the upcoming season.
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The more I shot the flintlock the more I liked it. Even after my mishap that January I offered to buy it from my Uncle. He wasn’t ready to part ways with the Thompson Center yet, but gave me a screaming deal on the inline, a Remington 700 ML. Since I couldn’t buy my Uncle’s, and Thompson Center stopped making flintlocks, I settled on a Lyman Deerstalker .50 Caliber. Right out of the box I was hitting the center orange of the targets from 50 yards. If a deer walked within 50 yards of me it was going to be lights out, or so I thought.
Pennsylvania has an early, doe only, muzzle loader season that falls in the middle of the archery season. Any type of muzzle loader can be used, flintlock, caplock, or inline. I decided using an inline would be “too easy”, and wanted to use the flintlock that week. I was going to hunt the same way I would archery hunt, from the tree stands I set up that summer specifically for fall archery hunting. My thinking was if I used the same tactics I did while archery hunting, but carried the flintlock I would have a good chance to harvest a deer.
The first morning of the early muzzle loader season, my Father-in-law and I headed out the door to an area a few hundred yards beyond my back yard. I was using the flintlock and he had his bow. We parted ways, he went up the hill to the edge of an overgrown apple orchard, thick with low hanging branches and well-worn deer trails, and I set up just down the hill, overlooking a creek bottom, where two small streams came together. It wasn’t long after I settled in that I saw a small doe working its way along the stream towards me. I quickly readied myself and as it crested the bank of the stream I took the shot. Before the smoked even cleared I had that sinking feeling. I knew I rushed my shot, and as the deer ran away, it did not act like it had been hit. My Father-in-law was there to meet me as I climbed out of the tree stand, we searched for blood or hair and found none. When I shot, I got ahead of myself and looked to see if I hit the deer a split second too soon, and hit the dirt under the deer. It was a clean miss, but at a distance of less than 20 yards, it made me sick to my stomach. I went home that day with a bruised ego, my over confidence got the best of me, but my determination to harvest a deer with a muzzle loader grew exponentially.
I finally got a deer with my inline because of the lessons I learned from the previous years’ mistakes. It’s called hunting for a reason, there’s never a “sure thing,” even after doing as much preparation as possible. But that’s why I love hunting, the challenge, the adrenaline rush, the sense of accomplishment when the hours of preparation pay off and the goals are finally fulfilled. I’ve come to love hunting the late flintlock season, the woods are beautifully quiet and undisturbed, void of other hunters. I’m still looking for my first flintlock harvest, I have a challenge ahead of me and I love it.