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Putting some fun back into the gun

Muzzle-loaders are returning to vogue with a big blue whoosh

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."

Inevitably, of course, the kid had to build his own shootable muzzle-loader. And shoot something with it. "I'd killed a deer when I was 12," he recalls, "but that was with a modern rifle. I didn't like killing that buck and I've never shot another, with any type of weapon. But I've killed squirrels with my muzzle-loaders. That was the great challenge anyway—barking squirrels, the oldtimers called it. You don't shoot the animal, but rather you aim for the branch it's lying on. The concussion kills the squirrel without wasting any meat." Can Andy do it? "I'm proud of the shooting, I guess, but not of the killing."

The same could not be said by the majority of the 800,000 hunters who flooded the Pennsylvania woods on opening day of this past deer season. Before the month was out they would kill 75,000 bucks and 50,000 does. A wet, heavy snow had hit the day before, and visibility, both for spotting deer and tracking them, was excellent. Andy was armed with a .36-caliber flintlock and I with the .45 Hawken when we entered the woods just before dawn. We were hunting an area, Lloyd Riss pointed out ironically, "between Desire and Panic"—two small Pennsylvania towns. What he said was as true metaphorically as it was geographically. On our way up to a ridge where we had found abundant deer signs the previous day, we were hailed twice by other hunters. As the light increased, we could see the woods pockmarked by blobs of Day-Glo orange, an ugly, jarring color that makes for hunter safety but takes a lot of the esthetics out of the sport.

At first light the fusillade began, a stuttering cacophony that echoed off the rolling, hardwood hills, punctuated now and then by a distant whoop of delight when a hunter found his bullet had told true. At one point, a hunter stalked up to within five yards of where I stood against a green and shadowy hemlock, and never saw me—I was wearing the traditional red-and-black-checkered hunting jacket. But no bucks came our way. That first day, on which some 60% of the seasonal kill occurs before 11 a.m., we saw a total of 14 deer. The next day we saw 19, and on the third day 77. Only one was a buck, and Lloyd missed it with a running shot at 100 yards plus. But we did see a lot of successful hunters. Toward sunset I bumped into one of them while still-hunting my way through some overgrown spoil piles—the scars of strip mining that crisscross the countryside around Du Bois—just this side of Panic. He was lost.

"You ain't seen a blue Chevy station wagon, have ya?" he asked. His breath was redolent of whiskey and his Day-Glo jacket was spotted with blood and deer hair. "I got me a six-point buck just before lunch. I was just lighting a cigarette when he walked right up to me, not 15 yards away. I shot him through the chest with my .270 but he run, so I shot his jaw off and then shot him three times more. Still, I had to stick my knife in his neck to finish him. Hey, you ain't got a cigarette, do ya?"

Driving back that evening, we passed an old barn. Andy's eyes lit up and he stopped the Scout to do a little wood prospecting. While he palpated the siding and lusted over a giant log of apple-wood, Lloyd mused on the frustrations of the day. "When I was a boy Andy's age, you could sit in a tree during the deer season and see 200 or 300 deer move past you in the course of a single day," he said. "You could pick your buck. Now, with all this pressure, I don't know. I'll bet if they made everyone hunt with these muzzle-loaders you'd sure separate the men from the boys in a hurry. It might all come back, like the old days."

A wistful wish at best. But young Andy, whose generation will inherit what is left of hunting, is not even that concerned with easier shooting conditions. After all, it is not the killing that interests him, but rather the weapons themselves.

"Anyone who knows me will agree that I feel closer to the past than to the present," he says. "I think that with my basic attitudes I have the potential to become a real craftsman. I'm only a beginner now. There's nothing I'd rather do than work with my hands. I'm not concerned with how I can make money by selling my guns. I've given away many good rifles that I wasn't satisfied with; in fact, I hope I'm never satisfied with the quality of my pieces. I hope to fashion better and better products and never limit myself by saying that this piece is the best that I can make."

Since that abortive deer hunt, I have shot my Hawken many times. As I grow more familiar with it, and as it "shoots itself in," i.e., the lands and grooves get increasingly worn down, I find myself able to shoot as well over short ranges as I can with a modern rifle. I take a deep delight in its classic lines, the artistry of its wood and metalwork, in the intricacies of loading and maintenance, and particularly in the triple sound of its discharge—the snap of the cap, the boom of the main charge, the sonic crack as the ball leaves the muzzle. And in the funky, sulphurous cloud of smoke that follows the shot, a cloud from the past that puts me, momentarily, at one with Crockett and Kenton and Bridger and Beckwourth. The other day I tried to bark a squirrel. With a scoped .22, at about 50 yards, it would have been a cinch. Not with the Hawken. The ball hit about three inches north of the squirrel's nose. He stared down the tree at me and chattered querulously, as if to say, "Who do you think you are, D. Boone?"

One of these days....

And thus it seems to me that perhaps the answer to the American hunting bind might lie, in part at least, in what the Risses, père et fils, propose. A return to the difficulties of the muzzle-loader would certainly reduce hunting pressure during the short seasons of today, thereby reducing the boozy crowds in the woods and increasing the chances of hunter success; at the same time it would bring about a return to a true American artistic tradition.

Certainly, it would put the fun back into the gun.



YOUNG MASTER of an old trade, 20-year-old Andy Riss has created 24 unique firearms.