Sunday, March 04, 2007

Afternoon at the club

I recently spent an afternoon at my local gun club. The reason I went out there was to sight a new rifle scope in. For those not familiar with shooting jargon, that is to adjust the telescopic sight so that the crosshairs rest at the point where the bullet will strike at a given distance. This particular scope is replacing an ancient Weaver variable resting on a Remington bolt action .22 (a 541S). When I came up to the range, the bay with the most room had one other shooter, whom I joined. Once set up, I walked over to chat and wait for him to hit a stopping point so that I could go downrange and set my targets. This gentleman was shooting a couple of cap and ball revolvers as well as a pair of short flintlock muskets. I asked him about one (decorated with tacks and brass cut outs, it was pretty clearly a trade gun replica) which turned out to be a replica of a shortened Charleville musket. The other piece was new to him and was a copy of a civilian made ship's musket built on a Tower lock- it was something an 18th Century ship would have carried in its locker. I asked the caliber and load for that and he enthusiastically told me that it was 72 caliber and that he loaded it with 95 grains of black powder. Then he said "you have to try it!"

Not wishing to be rude, I replied "thanks!" and watched with some trepidation as he poured a substantial charge down the barrel, topped it with a felt wad, then proceeded to pound a tight-fitting lead ball down the bore. My trepidation increased a bit when he handed me the musket and then poured a generous-seeming but unmeasured portion of powder into the pan, closed the frizzen, and suggested placing the front sight just to the right of the tang screw in order to hit a gong some thirty yards downrange. Now, this musket had a nice wide brass buttplate, which was good. Nonetheless, a near-golfball had been literally pounded down the bore, giving a fellow raised on modern rifles and storied of bulged shotgun barrels more than a little pause. Further, I discovered last fall that any charge over 90 grains of black powder in my .50 caliber mountain rifle meant a significant amount of recoil. So, all this going through my head, along with the notation that this piece was made in India (and he hammered the ball down the barrel!) I lined up to give it a try.

And flinched my fool head off. I flinched so badly that I almost had time to recover from the flinch and get back on target. I still managed to miss the gong by a good foot, an embarrassing performance to say the least, particularly given that the lock time was amazingly quick given what I'd heard of flintlocks (about like an air rifle, I would say) and the recoil negligable. What embarrasment.

Nonetheless, the afternoon passed pleasantly and I was able to help my fellow shooter pull a stubborn stuck ball later on. The little bit of knowledge and experience picked up at random at the range seems to me to be more typical of that place than not- the shooting community (at least off line) tends to be friendly and helpful. For every jerk, I've run into at least a dozen true gentlefolk, knowledgeable and eager to help or share. The ratio strikes me as more favorable than that life generally proffers.

The rifle that I was sighting in is my primary grouse gun. Here in the Southwest we have mountain (blue or spruce in the books) grouse. When flushed, the birds will fly for some distance and then light on a tree limb. A hunter limiting himself to head shots with a .22 rifle picks no lead from his meat and offers the birds a sporting chance. More sporting still is to hunt them with a .22 pistol. Once again limiting attempts to head shots, collecting grouse becomes very challenging. Sometimes the birds are humiliatingly tolerant of bad shooting. More than once I've made half a dozen attempts at heading a bird strutting back and forth on a horizontal limb twenty yards away, the bird not willing to fly but too nervous to stand still, the hunter increasingly hurried, frustrated, and inaccurate. Since I started off embarrassing myself, I will close in the same vein.

Nearly twenty years ago, my father and I were walking down a shallow draw in SW Colorado one afternoon during elk season. We were about 200 yards apart with a narrow band of quakies running down the center of the draw between us as we headed for steeper timbered slopes further down. Right off my boot toe a large male grouse startled out of the sage, running some ten yards before me then rapidly picking his way toward the bottom of the draw. I slung my rifle, drew my pistol, chambered a round, then proceeded to try to get a decent sight picture of a grey-blue grouse head against grey and grey blue sage. The bird complicated things by never holding still- he never ran really hard, but he never stopped. Finally, as he stepped from behind a clump of sage, I tried a shot. Then another, and another. Steadily we worked our way down the draw, both scurrying through the sage, our progress punctuated by the "pop" of my pistol. At one point, hunting through a pocket for more rounds, I looked up to see my dad watching our progress with his binoculars. Soon, we hit the thick aspens, the bird quickly walking between the white trunks (which provided a better sight picture but more cover) and I heard a "pop" from my left to see my father leaning against a tree making his own try. After a humiliating number of shots between us, I looked up from re-reloading my magazine to see my father doing the same. I had hoped he had quit because he had gotten the grouse. "Do you see the bird?" I asked, only to hear "No, do you?" We searched a bit but he had distanced us and was laying low. He had walked right out of our lives.

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