Gary DeAustin got hooked on muzzleloaders the first time he fired one of the old-time rifles more than three decades ago. So did Jim Townsend.
“I haven’t fired a modern one since,” said Townsend, referring to firearms that use technology developed in, say, the past 150 years or so.
DeAustin and Townsend are part of a niche of hunters and shooters who have embraced this older form of weaponry, one that’s loaded from the end of a barrel. After black powder is measured and poured down the barrel, a projectile is added and tapped into place with a ramrod. Then, when the muzzleloader is fired, there’s a big blast of smoke.
A 67-year-old Chanhassen resident, DeAustin started out with a replica of a traditional flintlock muzzleloader — a pre-Civil War design — in the late 1970s, and he still shoots it.
But he also uses a newer in-line version with innovations that he said lessen the likelihood of misfires at critical moments. An avid elk and deer hunter, he said that’s especially important when he’s in the field each fall.
Townsend, 60, also shot his first muzzleloader more than 30 years ago. He gave up hunting a decade ago, but still enjoys shooting his traditional rifles regularly and participating in outings where cohorts dress in 18th- or 19th-century clothing, sleep in canvas tents, cook over wood fires, and hold shooting contests with the long, graceful guns.
While these two muzzleloader owners are in somewhat different camps, each is drawn to the sport for similar reasons.
For DeAustin, it’s a fun, throwback activity, one immersed in history, that extends the deer season by a couple of weeks, allowing him to hunt when the woods aren’t so crowded.
“A lot of people don’t like the crowds — they like the silence,” DeAustin said as he scouted some property in preparation for Minnesota’s muzzleloader deer season, which begins Saturday and runs through Dec. 15. “The fewer the people, the better. That’s why I got into it.”
Over the years, he has recruited family members and friends to join him. One of them is a cousin, Nick Sovell, of Elko New Market.
“In the excitement of an actual hunt, there are a lot of variables in loading and reloading a muzzleloader, and a lot of things can go wrong if you are not focused,’’ Sovell said. “I guess that’s what makes it exciting.”
It’s a family and social affair for Townsend, too, but one tied to regular target shoots and the old-style gatherings. A member of the Twin Cities Muzzle Loading Club and a field representative for the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association, Townsend said a sense of camaraderie is woven into group activities.
“You go to a shoot or a rendezvous, and if somebody has a problem with a gun, or somebody new has never shot one before, most everyone will put aside their own shooting and work with the people who have the problem,’’ he said. “You don’t see that with other disciplines.”
He said he likes most everything about the activity — the attire, the smell of burning powder, the more intricate loading process, the emphasis on a single shot — and hopes some day to build his own muzzleloader.
“You’ve got to think about what you’re doing because you don’t get a second chance,’’ he said.
Lou Cornicelli, wildlife research manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and a muzzleloader enthusiast, said interest in the sport in the state appears to have leveled off at 55,000 to 60,000 hunters.
Most of them, he said, use the in-line versions that look more like modern rifles and hit stores a couple of decades ago. A smaller percentage use the old-style rifles and others, like himself, go back and forth.
“It’s really a cheap way to extend your season,’’ said Cornicelli, adding that newcomers can buy a muzzleloader and the components to use it for as little as $300. “The trade-offs are the deer are pretty well picked over. But the benefit is you’ve got the field to yourself.’’
It’s important, he added, to practice at a gun range before going out into the field.
Living the lifestyle
Few people embrace the sport as eagerly as John W. Hayes, a lawyer from rural Cohasset in north-central Minnesota who writes about muzzleloading for special-interest publications and who likes to emulate the lifestyles of the sport’s earlier practitioners.
He said people passionate about muzzleloaders typically are independent types who feel both a connection to history and the outdoors.
Wearing clothing and using equipment tied to those periods, whether on hunts or at a rendezvous, is a constant learning process, according to Hayes. Firsthand experience with historic materials like these can help to “debunk myths,” says Hayes, “and there are a lot of myths out there about traditional firearms.”
One misconception, he said, is old-style muzzleloaders aren’t as accurate as the in-line versions. Hayes insists they can be just as precise, so long as the shooter puts in the necessary time and practice.
“Anyone who works with one of these firearms can achieve a good deal of accuracy with them,’’ insisted Hayes, who has shot squirrels, grouse, bear, deer and elk with his 18th-century-style Virginia flintlock rifle.
Because a traditional muzzleloader allows more flexibility, such as using home-molded round balls and loose powder, shooters must be more adaptable, according to Hayes. And that, he said, is a good thing.
“It’s about being resourceful, and constantly challenging yourself to be resourceful,’’ he said. “We are a byproduct of the resourcefulness of our forefathers and it would be a shame to lose that.’’
Dennis Lien is a former newspaper editor and reporter and an outdoors enthusiast.