Take your best shot: Black powder hunting begins
One shot. That is all a hunter who participates in the state's so called "muzzleloader," or black powder season that begins Monday gets.
The season ends on Thursday, Dec. 31. Over the next two and one half weeks hunters will rely on black powder rifles, in some cases of the type used by troops in the Civil War. Muzzleloaders range from the flintlock variety to far more advanced models that rely on a shotgun primer to ignite the powder charge and sport telescopic sights. What they all share in common is that they provide the hunter with the challenge of one shot.
lead balls, and lubricated cloth patches, which are wrapped around the ball.
A muzzleloader must be reloaded each time after it's fired in a three-step process. In the most traditional variety, a set measure of black powder is poured into the gun's barrel. Next, a lead ball is wrapped in a small patch of lubricated cloth and the ramrod is used to pack the ball against the powder charge.
The rifle is ready to be fired when a percussion cap is placed on a small nipple that leads to the powder charge. When the trigger is pulled the cap sparks, igniting the powder and the lead ball is sent hurtling towards its target.
That is the challenge that attracts hunters to this type of hunting. If a hunter misses his or her target with the first shot, he must re-load quickly if there is to be a second shot.
It is said that a skilled soldier in the Revolutionary War could reload and fire three times in one minute.
They relied on a piece of flint as the ignition source for the powder charge. When the trigger was pulled, the flint struck the frizzen, a steel plate, sending sparks into a powder-filled flash pan, discharging the weapon. Flintlock rifles are still in use by the more traditional hunters.
The most recent development in black powder rifles is the in-line style muzzleloader. This black powder gun most resembles a modern day rifle, except for its barrel and its use of a shotgun shell primer as its ignition source and the fact that it must be loaded by means of the muzzle.
Vineyard Haven hunter Eric Pachico uses the percussion type of black powder rifle. A lifelong hunter, he says that the two biggest deer he ever took were with a black powder gun. Flintlock guns, he says, are too inefficient and difficult to use for hunting. "They're hard to aim. There's smoke coming from the burning powder in the flash pan and it's hard to set your sights," he says.
Conversely, Mr. Pachico believes the newer in-line muzzleloaders are becoming too advanced to be called primitive firearms. "It takes away from the challenge of making that one shot count."
When asked why he chooses to hunt this way, Mr. Pachico says simply, "For the love of hunting."
Wesley Wood of Edgartown, a full season deer hunter, agrees. "Your chances of getting a deer are extended another 16 days." Mr. Wood also appreciates the history associated with black powder guns. "Imagine using something like that on a battlefield," he says. "To have to reload after every shot - wow!"
Bill Kingsbury of Vineyard Haven hunts with a percussion rifle, the difference being that his gun has a rifled barrel, and he uses a copper-jacketed bullet rather than a lead ball. He appreciates the greater accuracy and longer range afforded him with this gun. The weapon is highly accurate at 100 yards and he says his rifle sights are easier to see and much more accurate, "especially when you get older and more nearsighted."
Mr. Kingsbury explains his goal in basic terms -to put meat on the table. He only hunts in cold weather, when there is no danger of the meat spoiling before it can be processed. Processing, which many hunters prefer doing themselves, involves gutting, hanging the carcass, skinning and butchering.
For the next two weeks, the paced sound of shots from primitive firearms will be heard in the woods. It is a sport that requires patience, skill, and knowing both quarry and equipment. Even dressed in the proper garb, including hunter's orange, it's cold days staked out in the woods, often in inclement weather. Silent. Waiting. Waiting.
You must indeed make that one shot count.
Linda Wood is a member of The Times staff and a hunter.