BLACK POWDER – THE OLD WAY OF SHOOTING (April 17/98)

“The back trigger sets the front one, pull it first when you’re ready to shoot,” my friend said, handing me the rifle. “When it’s set, the front one’s a hair-trigger,” he cautioned.

I shouldered the rifle and looked down the range. Some 50 yards away my target, a piece of orange-painted scrap metal hanging on a chain, seemed to waver when I held the sights on it. I took a deep breath, tried to steady the sights, and squeezed the trigger. A minuscule pause and wham! A puff of smoke momentarily obscured the target and when it cleared the piece of metal was dancing on the end of the chain.

This was the first time I had ever used a black powder rifle and I knew it was a lucky hit. The rifle was loaded for me two more times and I missed the remaining shots. As the smoke cleared on the second and third shots the target hung there unwavering in the crisp April air.

This was my introduction to black powder shooting, an avocation that caught the interest of shooters in the province in the late 60s and early 70s and now has many adherents. I’m at the range of the Blue Mountain black powder club on Jones Road south of Kentville. It seems to be a bit chilly to be at a shooting range on this first Sunday in April, but some friends had invited me to see what it was like to shoot the type of firearms our ancestors used to colonize the province.

Black powder shooting has always fascinated me, and I gladly accepted their invitation. Fortunately, I dressed as if I was going duck hunting in December and I was soon glad I did. By the time we finished a dozen or so rounds of practice shots, I was shaking from the cold. Which I was going to use as an excuse for my misses until one of my friends hit that pesky orange target twice in a row.

The first thing I noticed about black powder shooting is the tedious loading process. Compared to the loading of a modern rifle or shotgun, it’s painstakingly slow. First, powder is poured into the muzzle. A patch is laid over the end of the barrel and the ball is placed on the patch. A “short starter” is then used to tap the patch and ball into the barrel and a ramrod completes the job. A primer or cap is placed over the nipple and the firearm is ready to use. I didn’t time it, but the process took at least a minute.

Perhaps it’s this leisurely style of loading and shooting with components and accessories unchanged for centuries that makes black powder appealing. However, I found that some black powder shooters use replicas of old-time firearms. The use of replicas and the challenge of shooting with black powder may explain why it has many adherents.

After the practice rounds, I accompanied club members on a shoot that took us through a rough woodland course. Metal targets are hung on chains at various points on the course at ranges of 20 to 100 yards. The targets were set in areas where shooters had to contend with bushes, limbs, logs and rough trails; they were placed where they offered the utmost challenge to shooters, duplicating I suspect the terrain in which our ancestors hunted.

As well as using duplicate firearms, black powder shooters carry the same equipment our great-grandpappys used. Powder horns, leather pouches, powder measures, caps, “possibles bags” and so on, are often duplicates of the accessories hunters carried a century and more ago. Black powder shooting, in other words, is shooting the old way, using the old tools, a means of stepping back in time to recreate the old days.

(I barely covered the ins and outs of black powder shooting in this column. If I’ve sparked your interest, there are two black powder clubs in this area, the Blue Mountain Longrifles, as mentioned, and an affiliate of the Annapolis Valley Shooting Sports Club, located near New Minas. Black powder clubs can also be found in Bridgetown, the Halifax area, Yarmouth and the South Shore.)

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