The legendary mountain men and frontiersmen of early American history have long been admired for their independence, endurance, and wilderness skills. They are a symbol of freedom and self-reliance. Painter of the Wild West Frederic Remington said that the frontiersman was “untainted by the enfeebling influences of luxury and modern life” and author Washington Irving once said of the mountain man that “with his horse and his rifle, he is independent of the world, and spurns all its restraints.”
Through the use of muzzle loading black powder rifles like the ones the frontiersman carried, a contemporary outdoorsman can still find a direct link to this mythic man of the American wilds.
A muzzleloader is a firearm in which the projectile (bullet/shot) and the propellant (black powder) are loaded through the muzzle of the gun. A measured amount of gunpowder is first poured into the muzzle, then wadding and the projectile are inserted and packed down with a ramrod. A priming charge is then placed on the priming pan or a percussion cap is placed on the nipple, and the gun is ready to fire. Each time the gun is shot, it must be reloaded in the same manner.
Lars Lutton, of Morgan County, is a muzzleloader enthusiast who has been shooting black powder rifles competitively since the early 1980s.
“I was interested in muzzleloaders ever since I was a kid, watching Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone parading around with them on the television set,” Lutton said. “I like them because they are accurate, easy to operate, and relatively inexpensive to use. Part of the attraction is shooting old time guns and using old time technology. Flintlocks have been around for 300 years or more and percussion rifles started back in the early 1800s.”
Lutton enjoys building his own guns and the personal connection he has with the weapons that he crafts.
“Contemporary companies make components that are replicas of the original ones and you can construct almost the entire gun yourself. There are very few working parts and I build from components that I can mix and match. All you need to build a gun is a stock, lock, barrel, and a trigger mechanism. For shooting, everything is by hand. There are no cartridges involved. You have to hand load everything. You can cast your own bullets. The only thing that you have to buy is powder and caps and if you shoot flint, you don’t need caps,” Lutton said. “When Davy Crockett went to the Alamo he brought a flintlock because he knew he could find flint but didn’t know if he would be able to find any caps.”
As his previous statements imply, part of what Lutton likes about making and shooting these guns is their simplicity. He also appreciates their deadly accuracy.
“The mantra of muzzleloaders is ‘powder, patch, shoot.’ That is how the gun is loaded, simple as that, and if you screw that up and do it in any other order, it doesn’t work out so well,” Lars laughed. “You pour powder down the thing, load the bullet, fire it, and it goes off. These primitive firearms are as accurate as any other contemporary, modern rifle. Today, they have 1,000-yard shooting matches with muzzle loading black powder rifles. A common misconception is that flintlocks are inaccurate and take too long to fire, but if it’s properly tuned and you know your gun well, it is very fast and very accurate.”
This sentiment is echoed in Carl P. Russell’s exhaustive book, Firearms, Traps, and Tools of the Mountain Men where he writes, “The touted accuracy of the long rifle is genuine and still demonstrated daily by muzzleloader devotees…the shorter, big bore rifles adopted by the mountain men also are accurate, and the muzzle-loading fraternity of today keeps that fact always before the eyes of the interested public.”
Lutton does use these weapons for hunting, but he also takes them to muzzle loading shooting competitions across the state.
“I hunt deer during muzzleloader season with old school primitive weapons and I have taken out my 16-gauge flintlock to turkey hunt several times,” Lars said. “When I first started shooting muzzleloaders competitively I would go to what are called ‘Rendezvous,’ which were period correct competitions and gatherings that featured frontier life and culture. They are much like Civil War reenactments. Everyone wore period clothing and lived in period correct accommodations like lodges and teepees. Anything modern had to be covered and hidden from sight. I ended up getting into frontier culture and lore because it allowed me to compete more regularly, but then I found out about these other muzzleloader clubs where you didn’t have to worry about period specific clothing and such. My Rendezvous period didn’t last too long. It was way too much work.”
There are primitive weapons clubs across the state that routinely get together to practice, compete, and fraternize that were started several generations ago and whose members may still be the descendants of the club founders. Lutton belongs to one such club.
“The one closest to my home that I belong to is Wolf Creek Cap Snappers in Chesterhill. We also shoot at a sister club in Lowell that is called Cat’s Creek Muzzleloading Club. The one in Chesterhill was started by one of the boys’ grandfathers in the early 1950s and most members are multi-generational, dating from the ‘50s. They hauled a building from Chesterhill in a hay wagon several miles down to a property that they own to make the clubhouse. One amusing club anecdote: the founder’s grandson — who shall remain anonymous — was once beaten in a shoot by his own mother with his own rifle,” Lutton said.
Muzzleloader shooting competitions are diverse and colorful affairs where the shooting challenges are as unique as the clubs at which they are held.
“There are ‘off-hand’ matches which are target shoots where the target is usually 25 yards away. Out at Wolf Creek and Cat’s Creek, targets are set at 30 yards. There’s what is called a ‘woods walk’ where you follow a trail through the woods and shoot at different targets at different distances and different difficulties. At ‘blanket shoots’ everyone brings a prize of a certain denomination that is usually associated with muzzleloading. The best shooters with the best scores get first choice and you choose in descending order, but everyone gets something. Usually the dubious prize keeps showing up competition after competition.”
“There are also what are called novelty matches. You go around to different clubs and each has their own novelty matches and challenges. Almost everyone has some that are peculiar to their club and have often been passed down for generations. There’s the ‘outhouse door,’ where you sit on an outhouse toilet seat, call pull, the outhouse door opens and you shoot at some target that can be pretty far away. You only have so much time to draw and shoot before the door closes on you. There is another one called the ‘rattle box’ where you are shooting at small targets at different distances. A rattling timer is placed next to the shooter — a ball bearing is dropped into a vertical maze that eventually comes out of the bottom and hits a bell that times the shooter out. We shoot at crossed strings at 25 yards and try to break both strings with one shot, or shoot at playing cards with the edge facing the shooter, trying to shoot it in half. We shoot all kinds of things — eggs, charcoal, poker chips, lollipops.”
Despite the competitive fun and intrigue of muzzle-loading shooting sports and the rich historical legacy embodied by primitive black powder weaponry, interest in them is waning. Lutton knows he may well be a member of a dying breed.
“There is a dwindling of interest in the sport and membership numbers in the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association (NMLRA) are down. It’s mostly an age thing. The membership is dying off and there are very few young people taking it up; but that’s true for all shooting sports—they’re in decline, as is hunting in general,” he said.
This is an unfortunate truth in our nation, a sign of the disappearing appreciation for that heritage. Author Wallace Stegner once commented that the “wilderness idea” in America is “something that has helped form our character and that has certainly shaped our history as a people…something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed.” And while Stegner is referring to the literal, physical wilderness of our nation, it is equally true that vestiges and artifacts of that wilderness frontier, crucial to the forming of the American democracy, like the black powder muzzle loading rifle, are important to preserve, promote, and celebrate for their great historical and cultural value.