I scanned the field with the binoculars, sweeping right to left. Suddenly all I could see through the lens was a deer staring straight at me out of a tangle of vines. I slowly lowered the binoculars and reached for my muzzleloader. The small buck stared intently. I wasn’t sure if he had spotted me moving or if he just wasn’t sure about my pop-up blind. For five minutes it was a standoff until finally the young buck decided there was nothing to prevent him from enjoying a few succulent green wheat sprouts. He eased out into the field. The .54 caliber Hawken “clicked” just slightly as I brought the hammer into firing position.
The green winter wheat field where I had placed my blind was only about 60 yards wide. On the far side was an expansive field overgrown with briars and brambles. I knew every weed and tiny tree in that field because I had been staring at it for a full 12 hours. I was settled in my blind at 6:30 am, well before shooting light. It was now 6:30 pm.
Make no mistake. Deer hunting can be boring, with a capitol “B.” When you see all those smiling faces of your friends on Facebook posing proudly with their harvested deer, it is easy to forget about the hours and hours of tedium they spent perched in a tree stand or a blind just waiting, and waiting, and then waiting some more.
You will not, however, see me posing proudly with this deer. This was a special hunt on a TWRA wildlife management area and only muzzleloading rifles were allowed. Hunters have one shot, and one shot only to put their target on the ground. These days manufacturers make muzzleloaders that perform like modern-day, high-powered rifles – easily accurate out to 200 yards. or more.
I, however, do not have one of those rifles. I prefer going old school. My Hawken isn’t an antique but it is designed exactly like the rifles originally made in the 1820’s by Jacob and Samuel Hawken, in their St. Louis, Missouri shop. It was the favored firearm of fur trappers and mountain men. I am neither, however I am proud to carry on the tradition.
“Knock on wood… I’ve never ‘snapped’ on a deer,” I told my friend the day before while we scouted for the best places to hunt.
Hawkens, like all percussion cap muzzleloaders, have a two-stage firing system. An external percussion cap works basically like a glorified pop gun. The hammer strikes the cap that explodes and sends a spark of fire through the nipple, igniting the full load of black powder that has been poured into the barrel, along with the bullet.
To ‘snap” with a muzzleloader is to pull the trigger and have the percussion cap go off, but the ensuing spark fails to ignite the full powder charge to fire the bullet. It can be due to a nipple that isn’t properly cleaned and the spark fails to reach the powder. Or the powder might have been compromised by moisture. My Hawken, however, has always been true and never failed to perform for me. Hence, I got lax this time. I did not fire the gun on the shooting range prior to the hunt. I cleaned it, but did not test fire it after it had rested in its case for nearly a year.
The buck eased farther into the field but remained facing directly toward me – a poor angle for a clean shot. The minutes felt like hours until the buck turned broadside, showing me the crease of its front shoulder. Below the crease rested heart and lungs – the perfect shot. The front bead settled perfectly into the notch of the rear sight and with a light squeeze of the trigger the hammer fell.
The percussion cap popped like a tiny firecracker, however the powder failed to fire. The next few seconds were a blur of dismay. The deer, though alarmed, did not spook and run. He threw up his head with eyes drilling holes into the dark interior of my blind.
Hawkens have a special compartment built into the stock made especially to hold extra percussion caps. Clearly frontier hunters knew, and were prepared for the possibility of misfires. It took only seconds for me to extract another cap from the stock and take aim at the buck a second time.
This time the trigger fell, the cap snapped and “Hangfire!”
“Oh my gosh,” my friend said later. “That’s worse than it not shooting at all.”
A hangfire is when there is a significant delayed reaction between the explosion of the percussion cap and ignition of the full load of powder. Here is an example from a firing range:
Hangfires can last for several seconds. This one, however, was less than a second. For a shooter however, that second is an eternity. Your concentration, and aim, is totally blown. When the full ignition of the powder charge finally came there is no telling where I was aimed. It was clearly not at the deer’s heart or lungs.
Through the haze of black powder smoke I could plainly see the buck’s white tail held high and erect as it bounded off back through the overgrown field from which it had come. The entire episode from the misfire to the miss was total operator-error. After reloading I followed slowly along the deer’s path to insure there was absolutely no hair and no blood… confirming that my miss was clean.
It was good news and bad news. I live in a modern-day society with grocery stores on every street corner. Harvested game or not, I am in no danger of starving.
However deep down in my DNA it is a different story. The primal Richard Simms feels as if a missed shot – especially after 12 hours in the blind – means another day without food. It hurts in a way a non-hunter will never comprehend. The pain is primal, deep and long-lasting. When your tribal neighbor is successful in harvesting game and dances around the fire (literally or figuratively) basking in the glory of his success – the pain grows worse.
It subsides in time. In fact, as I grow older, it subsides far faster than when I was younger and prouder man. Driving home I almost (emphasis on “almost”) felt happy that I didn’t have to perform the arduous task of dragging, field-dressing and butchering the animal. But now, as I write these words of consolation, there is an empty spot in my heart and my freezer.
The only easy way to unload a muzzleloader is to fire it. That evening I fired my Hawken before departing for home. That time, of course, it fired swiftly and perfectly. With the explosion of fire and smoke came the knowledge that after sitting in its case from one hunting season to the next, my Hawken will never again go to the woods without a test-firing at the range prior to the hunt.
I hope my fellow muzzleloader hunters take heed and learn from my mistake.