Dennis Anderson: The mother lode of muzzleloaders

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 3, 2011 - 11:38 PM

Bill Young's basement is both an assembly line and a tribute to the muzzleloader, a weapon that has intrigued him since hearing stories about the firearm as a youth.

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The mind entombs memories not easily forgotten. Which explains why Bill Young recalls so vividly his years as a boy living in Emmetsburg, Iowa, and delivering the Des Moines Register door to door.

"On my route was a man named Andy Adams, a retired gunsmith," said Young, 50. "All he cared about was muzzleloaders. He'd say, 'Come on in, have a seat,' and he would talk and talk and talk about muzzleloaders.

"I wish now I would have paid more attention to what he said."

This was the other day, and Young, a schoolteacher in recovery from that profession, was in the basement of his south Minneapolis home, bellied up to a work bench on which he builds his own muzzleloaders -- rifles and shotguns that are loaded from the end of the barrel, or muzzle.

As he spoke, he wore a dandy outfit similar to ones donned by fur traders.

"This style of clothing was called 'Regency,' " Young said, "and was popular between 1780 and 1820. With the top hat, jacket, ascot and pants, I'm dressed as a gentleman of the fur trade might have dressed as he traveled by canoe with voyageurs.

"Even if a trader wanted to dress more plainly, he didn't dare. Otherwise the Native Americans might not treat him well. They'd think, 'What's so special about you? Why should I trade furs with you?' "

Captivated still by the black-powder guns he first heard about on that long-ago paper route, Young in the years since has studied closely not only the armament of the Civil War and pre-Civil war era but the broader history -- including clothing of the time -- that accompanied their deployment to the frontier.

So much so, it's fair to say he keeps one foot planted in the present -- and one well in the past.

He's not alone.

The 50-member Twin Cities Muzzle Loading Club (tcmlc.com), of which Young is president, annually holds a Memorial Day retro encampment near Cannon Falls called a rendezvous, in celebration of important parts of America's heritage.

The gathering replicates frontier-era rendezvous that began in the 1700s and ended in 1840. At them, explorers, mountain men, fur buyers, missionaries, merchants, traders and Indians gathered to buy, sell, trade and celebrate.

Central to the more recent rendezvous sponsored by the Twin Cities Muzzle Loading Club are traditional muzzleloaders in all their variations, including flintlocks and percussion sidelocks. Featured also are men, women and children in period garb, sleeping in teepees and canvas tents, cooking wild game over open fires, and competing in knife throwing and other contests.

Bison powderhorns and leather possibles bags are among items swapped and sold.

"Round balls, patches and other gear necessary to shoot the early muzzleloaders -- all of it was carried in the possibles bags," Young said.

Yet as interest in muzzleloading has spiked in recent years -- Minnesota sells some 60,000 muzzleloading deer-hunting licenses annually -- a gulf has widened between gun aficionados who, like Young, favor the old-time "smoke poles" and the fascination with early American history they engender, and the much larger faction that instead shoots modern "in-line" muzzleloaders.

"Most people who are buying and using in-line muzzleloaders are not so much interested in traditional muzzleloading and the history that goes with it," Young said. "Instead, they just want to extend their deer hunting."

Ease of use is a draw

Ease of use is a primary attraction of in-line muzzleloaders.

The igniting of black powder in flintlocks, for instance, requires a piece of rock, or flint, to strike a frizzen, or steel, when the trigger is pulled and the gun's hammer comes forward.

Scraping the face of the frizzen, the flint throws sparks, which ignites a priming black powder charge, then the black powder charge itself, which propels the ball through the barrel.

In-line muzzleloaders, by contrast -- instead of loose (and relatively messy) black powder -- often employ propellant pellets, on top of which are tamped down conical projectiles, or bullets, jacketed in plastic.

When the hammer of an in-line muzzleloader comes forward, it strikes a shot-shell primer, causing a spark, igniting the pellets and propelling the bullet.

Which is neat. And clean. But not for Young -- who is drawn to the challenge of killing game (including pheasants and grouse) with an older-style muzzleloader, and to understanding the role these guns played in American history.

"A good friend of mine who is an ex-Marine got bored hunting deer because his modern rifle was accurate out to 300 or 400 yards," Young said. "Basically, if he could see it he could shoot it. With a traditional muzzleloader, you typically have to get a lot closer. And you often get only one shot."

So it is, day and night, that Young can be found in his basement alongside his gunsmithing bench, building old-time muzzleloaders for himself, friends and clients.

All the while he recalls rendezvous of years past, including the last such meeting, held in 1840, when, at its ending, even the toughest of mountain men realized the frontier fur trade and the life that went with it was gone, never to return.

Wrote Oregon mountain man and trapper Joe Meek:

"Come, we are done with this life in the mountains -- done with wading in beaver dams, and freezing or starving alternately -- done with Indian trading and Indian fighting. The fur trade is dead in the Rocky Mountains, and it is no place for us now, if ever it was. We are young yet, and have life before us. We cannot waste it here; we cannot or will not return to the States. Let us go down to the Wallamet [Willamette Valley in Oregon] and take farms ... What do you say? Shall we turn American settlers?"

Dennis Anderson • danderson@startribune.com

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