Black powder shoot punctuates Vineyard deer-hunting season

Steve Carlson is enveloped in a smoky blast after he fired at a deer target at the Martha's Vineyard Rod and Gun Club black powder shoot Sunday. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Snap! Kaboom! The annual black powder shoot Sunday at the Martha’s Vineyard Rod and Gun Club was a blast, literally and figuratively. It is great fun to shoot a rifle that punctuates the pull of the trigger with a thundering boom and cloud of dense smoke.

The competition among Island shooters on a clear, crisp winter day provided a warmup to the start of the Massachusetts muzzleloader deer hunting season that began Monday and ends December 31.

Competitors fired at a standing deer target and a bull’s eye set 60 yards distant. Ladi Navratil of Vineyard Haven won the primitive firearm’s title. Michael Ferry of Oak Bluffs won the modern firearm title for the second year in a row. Dick Carlson of Oak Bluffs took second place in both divisions.

The club also presented the Bill Nicholson Award in memory of Bill, a well-liked Civil War and black powder enthusiast, to Mike Ferry.

The assembled weaponry included flintlock rifles, percussion cap rifles and ultra modern in-line rifles with scopes. Although the ignition systems varied from exposed stone to shotgun shell primers, the rifles had one thing in common, they loaded from the muzzle and provided the shooter with only one shot.

Hunters tend to focus more when they know they need to make that first shot count. In that respect, the hunter holding a black powder rifle and the archer holding a bow seldom can count on a second shot, even if an occasional deer does hang around long enough to allow the hunger to reload.

Not so long ago, the muzzleloader season was an afterthought to the shotgun season. It lasted only three days and was called the primitive weapons season.

The Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (DFW) restricted hunters to rifles that operated on a Civil War-era percussion system exposed to the elements and susceptible to failure from a variety of causes. The hammer struck a small percussion cap fit over a nipple that led to the main powder charge.

Over the past decade, DFW has relaxed its muzzleloader restrictions as part of the effort to control the state’s growing deer herd and meet recreational demands. For example, rifles that feature enclosed ignition systems that rely on the same primers inserted into shotgun shells are now permitted and widely used.

Homeowners who battle to save their landscaping, victims of tick-borne diseases, and vehicle drivers who have tagged a deer have pushed more than hunters to relax hunting restrictions and increase bag limits. Those groups want to reduce deer, or even eliminate deer from some communities.

Generally speaking, hunters support the notion of shooting deer to reduce tick-borne diseases, but they are not keen to reduce deer numbers dramatically. They like to have more deer to shoot.

Hunters do help to reduce deer tick numbers in the woods — mostly by walking in pursuit of deer and collecting ticks on their clothing.

The variety and sophisticated weaponry available to deer hunters in all seasons has followed a trajectory that mirrors the growth of the state’s deer population. These days, hunting catalogs are the equivalent of a Middle East arms bazaar and feature a startling array of compound bows, scoped crossbows (that’s right, everyone’s a William Tell), shotguns, and black powder rifles outfitted with fighter jet technology scopes.

Years ago during shotgun season, I hunted with my 12-gauge Browning Light shotgun. It has a small bead at the end of the barrel that provides a sight to aim and fire a one-ounce hunk of lead with the aerodynamic features of a brick that drops about nine inches at a distance of about 100 yards.

I recently hunted with a Savage Arms bolt-action 20-gauge slug gun mounted with a Bushnell Trophy scope. The Massachusetts Company has earned a reputation for building inexpensive, highly accurate rifles.

I used the recommended Remington AccuTip slugs, a saboted bullet that travels at 1,850 feet per second and has an effective hunting range to 200 yards, according to the literature. I hit a deer at 80 yards exactly where I placed the scope.

On Sunday, I traveled to the starting line of the deer arms race and fired a 50-caliber Thompson Center flintlock Pennsylvania long rifle. The projectile was a round lead ball. I managed to hit a big piece of plywood from a distance of about 60 yards but missed the deer target pasted to it.

A hunter with more modern tastes could look in a catalog and find Thompson’s latest muzzleloader model, the “Triumph Bone Collector,” with a retail price of just under $600.

It features a stainless steel barrel and fiber optic sights. Add a scope for several hundred dollars more and you are good to go. A skilled hunter could probably take a deer out to 200 yards with a modern muzzleloader firing a saboted bullet. Davy Crockett would be impressed.

One would think that with all this weaponry wandering through the woods the deer would not have a chance. In fact, no matter the weapon the essentials have not changed since Davy held a rifle to his shoulder — hunting skill and a steady aim still matter most.