In this era of decreasing bag limits and increasing clamor against the "immorality" of hunting, many out-doorsmen are turning to the so-called primitive weapons. Their double-barreled aim is to intensify the challenge of the hunt while at the same time defusing their critics' arguments. At first it seemed that the bow and arrow might turn the trick. Archery hunts for big game require the best of stalking or ambush skills—effective range amounting to no more than 25 yards, according to most bow hunters, as opposed to 100 or more for the rifleman. A worthy test indeed, and one guaranteed to separate the once-a-year meat shooter from the dedicated sportsman.
But still the critics howl. A rifle bullet is cruel enough, they argue, but at least it is quick and accurate, killing as much by "painless" shock as by penetration. In their view, a broadhead arrow is little more than a mugger's knife on the end of a stick. It cuts deep, with no shocking power, causing the animal to run off and die a slow death by hemorrhage. These critics, most of whom would prefer to see a deer herd die "painlessly" of overpopulation and subsequent starvation, not to mention slaughter by automobile or dog pack, conveniently overlook the fact that many arrow-hit deer merely look up at the impact, as if bitten by a fly, then continue to browse until they drop dead in their tracks. Those that are hit anywhere in the chest cavity usually fall within a few hundred yards if they run, the same as a bullet-hit deer. No matter. To the Bambi-lovers of America, the bow hunter remains a cruel, degenerate, sneaky murderer.
Now the second generation of primitive weapons is coming into vogue—muzzle-loading, black-powder rifles, both flintlock and caplock, just like great-great-great-grandpa used to shoot—and it will be interesting to see the reaction they trigger. Surely these rifles should gratify the lust for nostalgia currently sweeping our society. Esthetically, with their hand-carved stocks of curly maple or aged walnut, their heavy octagon barrels of mild, unblued steel, their bright brass and pewter "furniture," they are as pleasing to the eye and hand as, say, a restored Marmon roadster. And like a classic car they are not cheap, ranging in price from $200 to $500.
These rifles are a tinkerer's delight to shoot and maintain, from the eight-step loading process through the satisfying, blue-wreathed whoosh of the shot to the intricate, hour-long ritual of takedown and cleaning. Ballistically (and realistically) they give the game a sporting chance; slow ignition and the inherent instability of a ball-type bullet dictate shots of no more than 75 yards by the average shooter, with 50 a safe, humane range for those who hope to pack out their deer meat consistently. Still, when they hit, they hit hard. My newly acquired Hawken replica fires a .45-caliber, 110-grain ball at 2,200 feet per second from the muzzle and can penetrate four inches of pine at 80 yards. That is clout enough to put Bambi to sleep without an inkling of danger, much less of pain.
What gives me the greatest hope for the future of the muzzle-loader as a major sporting arm, however, is the gunsmith who built my Hawken. Andrew A. Riss, of Du Bois, Pa., is only 20 years old—four fewer than the number of muzzle-loaders he has created over the past three years. And I use the word "created" in the best American sense: lock, stock and barrel. Riss estimates that he puts in from 250 to 300 hours of work on each rifle. That does not include the time he spends cruising the western Pennsylvania countryside in search of old wood from which to carve his stocks—huge slabs of maple, apple or walnut, often found in the woods, or chestnut, oak and hickory discovered on or in a decaying barn. Nor does it include the hours spent at junk auctions, acquiring old bolts that will become breech plugs and frizzens, plates of brass or crocks of cracked pewter that he will transmute into ornate patch boxes and ornaments. It does, however, include the long painstaking hours spent in drawing from blank metal the eight lands (unmachined surfaces) and grooves that compose the rifling of his octagonal barrels and the detailed artistry expended on each smooth, cheek-fitting stock.
"My girl friend is totally convinced that I'm the reincarnation of some early American craftsman," Andy says with an air of mild puzzlement. Small, almost frail, quite pale, with thick glasses and a shock of red hair, quiet and intensely introspective, Andy Riss might well be the reincarnation of some Yankee tinkerer at the starting edge of the Industrial Revolution. Certainly his fascination with the ancient craft of gunsmithing is unusual in this age when kids demand instant plastic everything.
"I really can't say how I became interested in muzzle-loading firearms," Andy admits. "I was so young then. I guess I was first introduced to them through the Daniel Boone television series and was encouraged by my grandfather, who restocked and repaired his own target rifles. He taught me to shoot when I was nine or 10, and at the time I disliked the lessons."
But Andy was fascinated by an 1818 Harpers Ferry musket hanging over the fireplace of his great-uncle's hunting camp in Medix Run, Pa., just east of Du Bois. Additionally, his is an outdoors family. His father, Lloyd Riss, is a sporting-goods representative (Fenwick rods, Penn reels, etc.), one of the nation's top trainers of field-trial grouse dogs, and a canny deerhunter. "I was also greatly interested in Indians at the time," Andy says, "and my father bought Western arrowheads of quartz and obsidian and planted them at the landmark of an old Indian mill near Medix Run. We would find them under the rocks around the mill after the spring rains. My father told me that the winter heaved them from the ground. I had no idea that they weren't native artifacts until just this year when my mother told me how Dad would hide them during the rains so that I wouldn't see footprints."
By the time Andy was 13, his father was bringing home hunks of wood—"a 10-inch aspen once!"—that the boy would chop into crude gunstocks and equip with broom-handle barrels. He cast the locks and trigger guards out of lead in hand-carved pine molds that would burn up with every casting. As his fascination with the American past burgeoned, he took to running a trap line.
"It wasn't completely old-timey," says his mother wryly. "Sometimes I would drive him around to his sets. Many's the winter morning when I sat in the car, taking out curlers and combing my hair while the sun rose and Andy checked his traps." By now the lad was a confirmed wood freak, learning advanced wood-working techniques from a neighbor skilled in handicrafts, Jack Harvey, and carving replicas of traditional gunstocks. He haunted the lumberyards of Du Bois, looking for choice chunks to feed his fantasy. "One Christmas a truck from Smyer's Planing Mill pulled up to the house and dumped a load of odd bits in our backyard," says Mrs. Riss. "I dashed out to see what was up, and the driver said, 'This is for the kid.' I think it was his favorite present that year."