The first time I shot a black powder gun was in 1967 in Virginia, when my cousin Lou showed me how to shoot his .58 caliber Civil War musket. You had to let the smoke cloud blow away before you could see if you hit your target!
My son Bo and I also bought a black powder pistol. It was a replica of an 1851 Navy Colt revolver. With a traditional black powder gun, you only get one shot before you have to reload — that’s why Sam Colt’s revolver was such a technological breakthrough. You could fire six times before you had to reload. Amazing!
Another drawback to the old black powder guns was the actual smoke cloud itself. Not only did the smoke obscure your vision, but in a combat situation, it also gave away your position to the enemy. Even if you were hidden in the brush, your enemy could see the smoke cloud and often hit you.
In his book “Rough Riders,” Teddy Roosevelt complained about the dangers of gun smoke giving away one’s position to the enemy in the conflict in Cuba in 1898. U.S. troops using black powder guns had five times the casualties as the Spanish troops, who were using smokeless powder. It took 19,000 U.S. soldiers to defeat the 800 Spanish troops using smokeless guns.
So why would any normal person use a black powder gun today when they could shoot modern smokeless cartridges? Because shooting a black powder gun really makes you appreciate modern guns.
Recently, Bo brought home a .54 caliber percussion lock muzzle-loader, and we took it out to shoot. It is slow, heavy and cumbersome, and not nearly as efficient as its modern counterparts. Despite all its drawbacks, the old musket has a unique aura that reminds you of the pioneers who settled this land.
Read the accounts of the Lewis and Clark expedition, which President Thomas Jefferson sent to explore the new Louisiana Territory. Their description of trying to stop a charging grizzly bear with black powder guns gives new meaning to the term “fearless.” Those old black powder explorers had real guts.
When I pick up a muzzle-loader and fire, and peer through the smoke cloud to see the results, I connect with our pioneer past.
I relate to my Grandpa, when he brought home rabbits for dinner in a tent on the prairie. I relate to the millions of soldiers who fought for both North and South in a great civil war. I appreciate the sacrifices made by men from every race and every walk of life who were willing to put their lives on the line for freedom.
Why, indeed, shoot an old antique? Because they fought for my rights, and I need to be reminded that freedom isn’t free.
Until next week, tight lines.
• Don Moyer is president and CEO of a consulting firm and has more than 20 years’ experience working with the outdoor recreation community, including anglers, hunters, backpackers, environmental groups and the public. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.