Fresh Tracks, Flintlock Rifles

Trying to kill venison in wintry north Pennsylvania is hard. Doing it with a weapon invented 400 years ago can be an exercise in futility.

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Chris Wright

We turn off the main road and onto the ice-crusted one-lane drive that meanders to the hill Dad calls the “Sheshequin Property”. It’s named after the Township it’s in, all the way on the northern boundary of Pennsylvania and far to the east. We bought the 23 acres from an aunt and uncle about 10 years ago. Now Dad and sometimes my cousins come up and hunt it, stopping in to check on the neat, musty little hunting cabin my cousin built just big enough for two bunks and a wood stove.

The land is about one tenth of the hill the locals call “Bald Mountain”. There’s a long, flat field on top of it that used to be thick with brush and the occasional dead deer, piles of dried bones sprinkled with little mounds of hair that you’d stumble over; then somebody brush-hogged it down to ankle-high stubble and made it bald once again. Down the hill on all sides of the field is old-wood forest. The big oaks stand comfortably apart, and in the occasional stand of pine you can feel the sound sucked up when you’re walking on a carpet of drying needles. It’s steep but not too steep, except in the back (considering where our property’s situated) where there’s a big flat steppe that drops off like the deep end of a pool.

Today two inches of snow covers all of it. Even with a gray sky everything is bright. Harsh white glares out from between the trees on the wooded hill, and the glow coming up from my feet is so strong when I step out of the truck my mind feels tricked: my eyes squint like I’m at the beach, but it’s eight degrees out. Stiff breeze.

Dad and cousin Mark set to grabbing their rifles out of the back seat and pulling blaze orange backpacks to throw over shoulders in blaze orange coats. The stock of Dad’s gun is a dark marbled wood and Mark’s is a salt-and-pepper plastic compound. Both guns are black powder rifles — flintlocks.

Hunting with a flintlock rifle is damn hard. Of all the talk of Daniel Boone “barking squirrels” from fifty yards and America’s dead-eye frontiersmen shooting the heads of nails or snuffing candles in the night with lead balls, the weapon by its very nature makes accurate shooting extremely difficult.

I last hunted five or six years ago. I’d shot a few deer with a rifle, but of all the times I’d been out with my black powder rifle, I’d never fired the thing at a living animal once. I just hadn’t seen that many deer, and when I did they were always brown streaks galloping by, flying their bobbing white tails like funny little flags. Of Dad, my cousins and my uncle (even my great-aunt had gone out with us a few times), not a single one of us have killed a deer using our historical tools. Lots of guns, as we tell the story, not going off.

Truth is, hunting with a flintlock rifle is just damn hard. Of all the talk of Daniel Boone “barking squirrels” from fifty yards and America’s dead-eye frontiersmen shooting the heads of nails or snuffing candles in the night with lead balls, the weapon by its very nature makes accurate shooting extremely difficult. These are guns with firing mechanisms invented 400 years ago. After you pull the trigger, a small explosion of gunpowder followed by a large explosion of gunpowder occurs several inches from your face. If you flinch, you’ll spoil your aim and miss your target. Some avid black powder hunters are quick to point out that the rifled guns are nearly as accurate as modern weapons, but they tend to be talking about their own trained skills used on a stationary target. That leaves out other inherent problems.

Try walking through the woods with a flintlock yourself, keeping the gunpowder intact and dry in the “flash pan”, where sparks from the downward-crashing flint must ignite before sparking a chain reaction of the gunpowder in the barrel of the gun. Chances are that when you do see the brown flash of your fleeing, small-chested spray — your heart pounding, sweat freezing on your face, trying to steady the iron sights at an invisible spot just behind the shoulder of the front leg — you’ll pull the trigger and feel not two successive, concussive blasts as the gun discharges: instead you’ll just feel silly when you flinch badly, hearing only the harsh click of flint slamming against a steel frizzen plate. Not enough powder left in the pan, or worse, powder that’s gotten wet. Deer tails quickly disappearing into the trees. That’s what my family knows about flintlock rifle hunting.

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Morning prep involves coffee, powder, and a quick note.

And yet here we are, geared up and loaded down at the bottom of Bald Mountain. Dad and Mark empty piles of fine gunpowder into their frizzen pans using small copper dispensers; they flip down the frizzen plate that covers the pans and breaks the downward-smashing flint into sparking pieces; put that same flint, still holding its potential energy, at half cock, resting against the frizzen and unable to ignite the gun. Dad pinches a rag between his flint and frizzen, just to be sure there’s no accidental spark. Our plan of action, based on a quick estimation of the wind’s direction, is for me and Mark to walk up the big bottom field and into the woods, hiking halfway up the trail before turning off into the woods and watching. Dad will circle round downwind of anything — us upwind — and push through some thick brush on the flank of the mountain. It’s to be a miniature drive, where the pusher hopes to move any animals between the two groups toward the waiters, who are supposed to be ready for anything galloping their way.

Six insulating layers, which make standing in single-digit temperatures manageable but turn walking into a loud, sweaty mess, complicate our walk up the hill. We walk slow, violently aware of the crunch and shuffle of our big boots. Above our galumphing the hill is silent as a vacuum. Just as we enter the woods, a big hawk powers off a snowy branch above us, wheeling and chopping the air with its wings. Halfway up the hill, as per our orders, we turn left and crunch a few steps into the woods. Mark leans on a big tree and I take the other side, facing where Dad will come to meet us, hopefully preceded by game. Wind bullies through the branches above us and I can feel our tree rocking, stiffly. The only sounds are the rattling of leaves and the pops and groans of half-frozen trees, belligerent towards the weather. It’ll be a long winter for them, and not all will survive — already I can spot a few freshly toppled by the brutal cold and the heavy ice and snow on their branches.

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It’s good to be in the woods again, but then, I also feel like a tourist rather than a hunter. The terrain feels alien. The trees blend and move in disorienting layers; the silence isn’t silence, but a muddle of sharp, woody sounds covered by a blanket of windy hiss. I try to recall the bits of knowledge that every hunter gains, some passed down from relatives and friends, some learned through experience. I’m looking at the woods like a picture, flat, without any depth; by moving ever so slightly side to side I can reveal new lanes between the trees, see parts of the downslope below that before were hidden. I slowly scan with my eyes, left to right and then back again, looking for any hints of movement rather than staring distantly for distinct shapes. Rattling sounds slowly separate themselves into two camps: leaves rattled by the wind, and the staccato smash-and-scratch of a squirrel far behind us digging through the snow.

Not enough powder left in the pan, or worse, powder that’s gotten wet. Deer tails quickly disappearing into the trees. That’s what my family knows about flintlock rifle hunting.

Nothing happens for a long time. I remember that I’m an animal here in the woods, not separate from the other animals but part of the kingdom. I wonder how deer survive in this weather without the help of down parkas. Sweat freezes in the bristles of my mustache.

A piece of Dad’s orange screams through the trees, and Mark and I relax a bit as he picks his way toward us. “Nothing?” I ask him.

“They were down there for sure”, he says, taking off his hat and puffing hot clouds into the air. “Tracks everywhere.”

We decide on a new plan of action, this time with me “driving” and them waiting. I’ll drop down the hill, then swing around its flank and up, hoping to push any deer over the top into the open field or around the backside, where both hunters will be waiting above the open flat area. They go off over the hill. Now I’m alone, and moving, and the woods change in my view with every step. I remember to pick up my feet to make less noise. Dad was right: deer hooves have trod everywhere, in some places making a path thick and addled like that which one often finds in the mud between a music festival’s campground and its port-a-potties. And yet when I stop and listen the woods are dead silent. When I move all I hear is myself. I’m loud and clunky, like a rattling, backfiring car.

I walk and stumble down and then back up, swing around, stop every minute or so to listen and catch my breath. There are no living animals in these woods — there can’t be. Then, toward the end of my walk, I hear something down the steep embankment, maybe a sustained breeze turning dried leaves into maracas; maybe something else — turkeys, whose tracks we see later at top of the hill, clean three-toed prints, or deer. But I never see anything, and neither does Mark or Dad. I feel like I’m hunting ghosts.

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We repeat this drive/walk process a few more times, working the other sides of the hill, then sliding down a wide-cut power line path to a cornfield hacked at knee-height. “If I were a deer, this is where I’d be”, Dad says. No animals seem to have taken his line of thinking.

The only deer we see is dead and looks like a snow-covered lump in a field. When I go over to inspect it, it materializes into a small doe, frozen solid, neck stretched out in full. Its stomach and chest cavity are ripped open and all its insides are missing. The snow is like a coroner’s white sheet laid gently across it, covering the obscenity of death, blanketing the end of life into something peaceful.

What we don’t see: any other hunters, or people, or trucks rolling down the dirt road. What we don’t hear: the distant or not-so-distant report of guns, which sometimes sound like popcorn in regular rifle season, when hunters are thick in these woods like fleas.

Around three we’re hungry and tired and decide to call it quits. You don’t unload a black powder rifle any way other than firing it, so Mark and Dad set up a small target. Mark stands about 30 yards away, his tall back arched a bit backwards, leaning away. When he pulls the trigger the flint smacks against the frizzen pan and the powder in the flash pan bursts and smokes. Nothing else happens. The explosion hasn’t transferred into the main charge in the barrel, behind the bullet. He stands still for a moment — sometimes the powder burns slowly and the gun will take a few seconds to go off — but there is only a moment of tentative silence. Mark puts more powder in his flash pan, aims, and pulls the trigger again. A flash in the pan, a puff of smoke, and again, nothing. He tries again and again, but the gun won’t discharge.

“Damn, I don’t know”, he says, shrugging, when I ask him what he’s going to do. He puts the gun away, barrel pointed safely away from us until he can disassemble it and remove the powder and ball from the breech, and we joke about what would’ve happened if he had seen a deer and tried to shoot it: same old, same old. The family curse.

Dad steps up to the firing line and takes a knee with careful aim. He trips the trigger. Click-BOOM. Smoke hangs at both ends of the rifle. “I think I hit it”, he says. When we walk closer we see a big hole the size of a dime marking dead center in the middle of the paper.

What we don’t see: any other hunters, or people, or trucks rolling down the dirt road. What we don’t hear: the distant or not-so-distant report of guns, which sometimes sound like popcorn in regular rifle season, when hunters are thick in these woods like fleas.

At home, Dad’s gun cleaned, Mark’s put away safely and still yet unfired, we pour glasses of bourbon and talk about not seeing anything: just can’t believe it. There’s little talk about the bigger curse, the dearth of deer killed by flintlock. That one tends to go unspoken, not necessarily a sour subject — just a little tender. Why talk about it when you can just keep the trap shut and go out again tomorrow?

I ask Dad why he hunts with a flintlock. We talk through it all: the heritage (doesn’t much matter to him, or me, though it is interesting); the gear (the guns are works of art); the challenge (too great for us, obviously, but fun regardless — and good god, imagine what it’ll be like when we do get one); the special seasons (most all states have them, and they extend much longer than regular rifle season, and offer woods that are nearly empty of other hunters, something that is far from true during regular rifle season). Then, fighting the elements: “It’s brutal shit out there”, he says. “Brutal.”

He admits that just like more conventional hunting, there’s a bit of an adrenaline rush involved, even when you don’t see anything. But his final reasoning is simple and stubborn. “You’re never gonna see anything if you don’t get out there. It’s like the lottery. You don’t win if you don’t participate.”

Well, we’ve never won the lottery, either.

We’ll go out again tomorrow, and though it’d be nice to see a deer for Dad to shoot smoke and lead at, I don’t mind it if all we see are tracks and the occasional hawk. Truth be told, that’s all I’ve ever needed — and in some ways, I know Dad must feel the same way, or he would’ve given up the flintlock some time ago. I’m happy just being in the woods, in the frostbiting cold, where the only sounds are crunching boots and popping tree trunks, cleansing the angry vibrancy of daily life and reconnecting with something me and Dad both love. That’s black powder season for me, and I like it just fine.

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