Friday, June 02, 2017

HUNTING THE SWISS ROEBUCK



My wife, also an avid Montana hunter, is a naturalized US citizen but grew up in Switzerland. My Mother-in-Law Gerda and her late husband Traugott were long-time hunters in Switzerland. Unfortunately Traugott passed away shortly before I met my wife, but I got to know Gerda well. She has an impressive array of shooting medals herself and is the only person I know who has participated in a hunter’s biathlon at age…whoops, sorry, I can’t reveal that particular information. Suffice to say it was a credible performance for any age. She still hunts in her home canton (state) of Zurich, but no longer pursues chamois and ibex high in the Alps in the canton of Graubünden.

A Swiss hunter's home.

You have to really love the hunt to become a licensed jaeger in Switzerland. When my wife took the class many years ago, they had to learn and were tested on a wide variety of subjects. These included both game and non-game species of animals and birds and their habits, identification of trees and shrubs, hunting dogs, firearms including the inner workings of various actions, ammunition and ballistics, and optics. If you failed a single topic you could re-take that particular topic over, but if you failed more than one you had to re-take the entire test. Today the exam focuses on the most practical subjects, but a new hunter must first serve a 3-three year working apprenticeship with a hunting lease group. Members of these groups have a variety of other conservation-related tasks to perform besides hunting.
Game where Gerda lives includes roe deer, wild pigs, fox, badger, hare and the quail-like wachtel. Up in the mountains they also have Hirsch, which are related to our wapiti or elk, the nimble little gams or chamois, and the noble king of the heights, the Steinbok or ibex.
The Swiss also have some traditions that go with their hunting. When an animal is killed, a ceremonial “last meal” of local vegetation is placed in its mouth, a tradition my wife and I carry on with our own deer, pronghorn and elk. It is also a widely-practiced custom to eat the testicles of one’s first buck, properly cooked, of course. Some hunters also share a bit of “medicinal” mountain schnapps from a hip flask at the conclusion of a successful hunt. Others, when they haul away their Hirsch, turn its head back for one last look at the mountains. In many areas, most notably Graubünden, the mountain hunting season ends with the celebration of the St. Hubertus Festival, where thanks are given to the patron saint of hunters. I learned fellow hunters were wishing me luck when they said, “Weidmannsheil.” The proper response is, “Weidmannsdank.”
           During our last visit to Switzerland in May 2017, Gerda was able to take me hunting for roe deer as a guest, but before I could get a hunting license (Jagdpass) and insurance I had to first pass the shooting test. For this, we drove to the Jagdschiessandlage Embrach where the shooting range is nestled in the bottom of a deep draw surrounded by forest. A slight breeze rustled the three banners on the flagpoles out front, the Swiss flag in the middle, the Canton of Zurich to the left, and the City of Embrach’s crest to the right.
         Inside the main range building, various European mounts and a few full heads hung high on the walls, including some nice moose and caribou bagged long ago, I was told, by the founders of the range. There was the traditional schutzengarten where you could sit down at a table and order a brat and a beverage. We signed in at the front desk and got hearing protection. Outside, to the left, the trap and skeet shooters were banging away with their shotguns while to the right the more infrequent but sharper bark of rifles sounded.
We donned our shooting earmuffs and opened the door to the rifle firing line, which was protected by a low-hanging roof in front and walled in on three sides. Along the front, the rifle shooters were firing from benches. Along the back wall, I glanced at the weapons leaning into individual slots within a long, communal gun rack running the entire length of the line. Typical high-end European hunting rifles with plenty of scrollwork and expensive, quality optics were most common, and virtually all of the shotguns were double-barrels, primarily over-and-unders. There were a few drillings as well, the traditional European break-action guns with multiple barrels incorporating both shotgun and rifle into one. But there were very few old war horses here, just one lonely sporterized Swiss K-31 and a couple of German ‘98 Mausers. A lone Mossberg Patrol rifle with an extended magazine really stood out on that rack with its cammo finish. Traugott always shot competition and hunted with his "Army rifles", customized K-31s, one in the standard 7.5x55mm Swiss cartridge and one converted to single-shot and re-barreled for the oddball 10.3x60mm Rimmed cartridge, roughly equivalent to the old British .450/400 Express, which is the only legal caliber for big game hunting in the Canton of Graubünden.
          The canton shooting test I had to pass before hunting big game consisted of putting four out of four shots within the 8-ring on a 10-ring target. The target itself, the Jagdshutzen, most commonly depicts a life-sized picture of a roebuck standing at the grassy edge of a woodline. Shot at 100 meters, the subdued, concentric rings of the scoring bullseye cannot be distinguished by the shooter even through a scope, just as if you were shooting at a real deal. A similar target depicting a chamois is shot at 150 meters. The target is 86x122 cm, or roughly 2 feet 9 inches by four feet.

 The 100-meter rehbock qualification target.




          I watched the action and some of the other shooters while we waited for a lane on the firing line to come open. On the far right, there was also small game practice and qualification going on. This consisted of shooting shotguns with lead shot at a running rabbit target consisting of three separate metal plates, any or all of which will fall if hit, at a range of 30 meters. There is also a moving wild boar target shot at 50 meters but no one was doing that particular course on that afternoon.
In all honesty, having grown up wing-shooting pheasants and quail, I thought the running rabbit was partially lame and moving rather slowly and was surprised at how many people couldn’t hit it. Likewise, watching a few of the riflemen score their targets, I was also a little dismayed by some of the dinner-plate-sized 3-shot groups fired at 100 meters. Then Gerda explained that Wednesdays were partially reserved for the newest and youngest hunters who were practicing or preparing to take their tests. 
          I had borrowed Gerda’s main hunting rifle, which I was only passingly familiar with, so when a lane came open I settled into position with it to do a few dry-fires. It was a bolt-action Blaser SR 850/88 Repetierbüchse, old enough that it is stamped “W. Germany” on the barrel, and decorated with scrollwork. It was chambered for my own favorite hunting cartridge, the good old .30-06 Springfield, or the 7.62x66mm in Metric, which also remains fairly popular in Europe. It wears a variable-power Leupold VX-3i 4.25-10x scope with the big light-drinking 50-mm objective bell and “Max Light Management System” with the adjustable illuminated Duplex reticle. Gerda got it specifically to shoot wildschwein under low light conditions.
          I worked the butter-knife Mannlicher-style bolt handle and closed the bolt on an empty chamber, after which I had to push the bolt handle forward to disengage the safety. A 3-position manual safety switch in front of the bolt handle allows one to lock the action and safety, work the bolt and have the handle safety re-engage after every shot, or work the bolt freely without the safety re-engaging. Gerda prefers to have the safety re-engage after every shot, but this proved to be more inconvenient for me since I shoot left-handed. The trigger was nice and crisp, but much lighter than I am used to, so I dry-fired and worked the action a few times to get a feel for the controls.
When I felt I was ready, I nodded to my wife and she handed me a single .30-06 cartridge. Gerda’s friend Robert reloads ammunition for her and I had checked the multi-national recipe on the box; American 168-grain Speer boat-tailed softpoints and CCI Large Rifle Primers, German RWS brass, and Finnish Vitori powder.
At the range, all rounds were single-loaded; one wasn’t supposed to load the magazine. I snuggled down into a solid shooting position, disengaged the safety and laid my finger alongside the trigger guard, and centered the crosshairs to squeeze one off. Still not quite “at one” with the light trigger, I called a flier right and the recoil surprised me as seeming fairly stout. My wife and I both hunt with fairly lightweight .30-06s firing 180-grain loads.
We decided to check the target after only one shot just to find a starting point for zeroing it for my eye. The range, of course, ran like a Swiss watch. The big game targets were suspended on rollers from overhead steel cables. With the push of a button, a big electric motor kicked in and one target rode back from the 100-meter berm to be marked or scored at the firing line while another passed it going out-bound in the opposite direction, ready for the next shot. My first round was roughly three inches to the right but exactly where it needed to be for elevation so, considering the flier, I decided to fire a 3-shot group.
          I did a little better this time, with no fliers called, and while the group was just a hair shy of one Minute-of-Angle it was neatly centered right in the middle of the ten-ring. I decided to call it good and put away my notebook. I was pleasantly surprised that Gerda’s zero was the same as mine; I had been expecting to have to adjust the windage and elevation and wanted to write down the clicks so we could return it to her zero afterwards.
By then, however, the young hunters in training were beginning their attempts at qualification, and there were a considerable number of them. It would be quite some time until the 100-meter lanes opened up again. Rather than wait, I was given the option of shooting my test at the 150-meter chamois target.

To save time, I qualified on the gamsbock (chamois) target at 150 meters.
 

 Hardly my best group, but good enough to pass the test on the first go-round.

          Qualification was shot from a rectangular frame representing the window of a shooting stand. Not sure off the top of my head exactly where a strange load would hit at 150 meters, I held the crosshairs approximately two inches high. That, and a flier called low, loosened up my group a bit. Still, I did qualify on the first go-round with two 10s, a 9 and an 8 (the flier). I’m pretty confident I could have gotten a perfect score had I been able to shoot the rehbock at 100 meters.
          Just on general principles, I am very much against any and all addition government regulation with regards to the Second Amendment…they already have far too much trouble interpreting even simple phrases like, “…shall not be infringed.” But the idea of a shooter qualification for hunting does have some merit. Even in Montana I’ve occasionally seen some abysmal marksmanship and almost painful ignorance of rifle ballistics over the years.

 The beautiful countryside of the Zurich Oberland near where we hunted.

          A couple of evenings later, Gerda took me out to the hunting area she leases with a group of hunters. She lives in the Zurich Oberland. The area consists of rolling green hills topped with hardwood dominated forests alternated between villages, farms, and fields and on clear days the snow-capped peaks of the Alps gleam in the sun across the horizon. As we drove along the narrow gravel road between farm fields, I was reminded that back home in Montana we are much further north latitude-wise. The local crops were more than a month ahead of ours. It was the 9th of May but many farmers were already getting their first cutting of hay and the field of peas we passed were knee-high and in full blossom.
          We were seeking the western rhe or roe deer (Capreolus capreolus…hey, I had to memorize the genus and species of a bunch of critters in college almost thirty years ago and have never once had the opportunity to actually use it so…Capreolus capreolus.)
Anyway, the roe deer is fairly small, perhaps half the size at most of the North American whitetail (Odocoileus virginianus), being just over two foot high at the shoulder and weighing, on average, about 66 pounds. There aren’t known for wall-hanger racks; three points per side is normal for an adult, and four-pointers are rare and considered really something. Roebucks actually grow their horns in winter rather than summer, scraping off the velvet in March to be ready for breeding in late July and early August. This gives them a chance to fatten back up before winter. So that the fawns are born in May when the vegetation is greening up, the fertilized eggs of the bred doe form a blastocyst (look it up…I had to) so that the embryo does not begin to develop until early January.
          As we were driving down a narrow gravel farm two-track towards the hunting stand, I said, “Well, lookie there.” Out in the middle of a hay field were two roe deer and their summer coats really did shine red in the slanting rays of the late afternoon soon. Gerda braked her Subaru Outback to a halt and whipped out her Swarovski 7x42 binoculars, focusing on the deer and informing me that one was a legal buck. Then they were gone, bounding like a pair of dogs through the tall grass and disappearing into the forest. Their tails are small and you don’t see the waving white flag of the whitetail as they flee. Silhouetted against light green leaves for a moment, I could just make out the rehbock’s forked antlers with the naked eye as he gained the timber.
          Even though we’d spooked the deer, it was still quite early, about 1530, so we took a chance that they would be back. Gerda said reh tended to only sprint a short distance and then hide up in thick cover. She parked up a gravel lane well into the forest and we walked back to the hunting stand, approaching it cautiously and quietly and glassing ahead…just in case.

 The stand we hunted from.

          Her hunting group builds and maintains the stands. It was a nice new elevated stand on a lattice of poles, the floor ten or twelve feet above the ground. Inside, it had a swivel chair and the floor, walls, and window sills were all carpeted to muffle noise. Facing south, we opened the shooting windows on three sides to look out over a field of hay and an adjoining one of peas, with a field of flax bearing bright mustard yellow blooms beyond. Past the crop fields stood the red-tiled roofs of a cluster of farm buildings, with brown and white Guernseys grazing nearby. Behind us and to our left, running along the edges of the fields, was the forest, predominantly hardwoods in full leaf. Some of the flora I recognized as being the same or very similar to species found “back home” in Montana; mountain maple, raspberry, and alder. Others were new to me and I had to ask Gerda what they were; buche (beech), schwarzdorn (blackthorn) and hartriegel (dogwood).  
A few other things were different from what I was used to, most notably being on the approach route to a large international airport and having fat-bodied jetliners roaring overhead every few minutes. Back home, the nearest airport (Bozeman) is sixty miles away and on the other side of a mountain range. When the breeze was just right, I could faintly hear cowbells tinkling in the distance and once, on the hour, I heard the low gonging of church bells rolling across the landscape.
          We dug out Gerda’s Bushnell range-finder, for I like to range several landmarks within my hunting area when I take a stand so I will know where the deer will be within shooting distances, but the battery was dead. Range estimation was done the old-fashioned way with the Mark I Eyeball but, checking out the field afterwards on Google Earth, proved pretty accurate.
I was happy using the old pair of binos I had found hanging in Gerda’s garden shed, well-used black Swarovski Habicht 7x42s of probably 1970’s vintage, but she insisted I take her new green rubber armored SLC Swarovskis. I glassed the edge of the woods intensely. As an old armored cavalry scout, we call it looking through the “wall of green.” By constantly and minutely fine-tuning the focus on your field glasses, you can train yourself to look through thinner intervening foliage and see deeper into the forest itself. It wasn’t easy here for hazel brush, maple and seedlings crowd the edges of the woods, reaching for sunlight with their leaves.
Within the first few minutes, however, I just happened to spot a deer. A shaft of sunlight from the setting sun angled through the leaves into the woods to briefly illuminate the rump of a deer before it stepped behind the smooth gray trunk of a large beech tree. Watching that edge intently, twice more I saw movement, only a patch of hide visible for a moment through the leaves, but it was the proper color and moved right, as a deer would while slipping through cover.
          Something told me the deer would come back out. I watched the projecting finger of forest where the movement had been, but nothing ever came out; the deer must have turned left to stay inside the wood line. I think Gerda wondered if I was seeing things. After about an hour passed with no further movement, I began to wonder a bit myself. At one point I was surprised to see a couple of wachtel fly out of the edge of the forest and coast across the field. For awhile after that I glassed harder, wondering if the deer had flushed the birds out. As is so often the case, no matter how hard I sought to spot the deer en route, in the end they simply appeared.
          After a long stretch of silence, around 2000 hours the doe dashed out of the far woodline and into the tall grass and hay where she stopped abruptly, looking around. Several seconds later, the buck ran out of the trees to join her, and now his little forkhorn antlers were readily visible. We watched intently through the binoculars. Where the deer emerged from cover was well in excess of 200 meters from the stand. Back home, with my own rifle zeroed for maximum point blank range and fired from a solid rest, it would have been an easy enough shot, but it was too far for the particular circumstances with an unfamiliar weapon zeroed at 100 meters.
          Fortunately, the deer worked their way straight out into the field, and as they did so they brought themselves steadily closer to us. They would feed freely for a minute or two, then the doe would get fidgety and run 30 or 40 meters before stopping to eat again, and the buck would soon follow suit each time. Their course took them down through an otherwise unnoticeable draw where the grass appeared to come up past their bellies. As we waited, I noticed the wind start to pick up a bit, blowing from right to left and full deflection, but as yet not a considerable factor. It was also darkening quickly as black rain clouds crept closer and thunder began to mutter and rumble off in the distance, slowly but discernibly growing closer.
          Finally, the deer approached the point that would bring them closest to the stand. I rested the forearm of the rifle on my hand on the carpeted shooting window and studied the buck through the scope. I was steady and could keep the crosshairs on the vitals area. The range was right about 150 meters, I judged, and although the wind was again on the increase it wasn’t too brisk yet. The time had come, I thought, where I could make a clean shot and I reached to disengage the safety.
          Just then, something on the far side of the fields spooked the deer and they took off running, bounding gracefully through the tall grass and weaving back and forth. From their initial trajectory it looked like they would pass almost directly beneath our stand before they reached the woodline. Many thoughts raced through my head; excitement from having a chance to hunt on another continent mixed with a sinking heart that this buck would get away. No matter how close they came, I had already decided I would not take a running shot with a rifle I had only put eight rounds through. Back in Montana, when the deer run I imitate the cough-like alarm call of the whitetail, and this usually causes them to stop, look, and listen long enough to get a good standing shot in. I briefly considered making my deer call but wondered if hollering out in "'Murican" to Swiss-speaking deer might just spook them further. So I only watched the action excitedly and gave a small mental sigh that they would get away.
          Fortunately, they both stopped to look back while only fifty meters away from our stand. I could no longer shoot from the sitting position in the chair, but had already risen into a crouch. I was still able to rest the rifle securely on the padded sill between the fingers of my support hand and settled the crosshairs just behind the buck’s shoulder; he jumped into focus, looming large, since the scope’s variable power was still set on 10x magnification.
Everything froze for that unique moment in time when the hunt all comes together. I took a quick breath, let half of it out, and paused before stroking the trigger. This time, when the Blaser cracked, I did not notice any recoil at all. The buck made one slow motion jump forward then faltered attempting to make a sluggish second hop with his front legs and piled up lifelessly, disappearing from our sight in the high grass. As I had trained for many years, I instinctively worked the bolt smoothly but rapidly and forcefully through its cycle to chamber another round in case a follow-up shot was needed. Gerda said it was not and she was right; the deer was down before I finished working the bolt. Only peripherally did my mind register the doe bounding away.

My little rehbock with Gerda's Blaser .30-06.

I was ecstatic and for a moment couldn’t speak, checking the safety and leaning the rifle up in the corner. Then I was thanking and hugging Gerda and we were both laughing excitedly. Silently, in my head, I thanked God for the chain of events which had led up to a perfect shot. Honestly, I had been happy to just have the opportunity to hunt a rehbock in Switzerland; actually getting one on my first hunt was unbelievable.
          Picking the rifle up from the corner, I cleared it and then found the empty case on the floor. Collecting our gear, we closed the windows and door and climbed down from the stand. For the last hour the sky had been growing increasingly threatening and now, just as we left the stand, the first drops of rain began to pelt down upon us as we headed through the high grass towards the buck’s final resting place.
There he was, dead, with a tiny, neat entrance wound behind the shoulder. The exit wound showed that the 168-grain Speer had indeed expanded well even at close range on a small deer. My first thought was that I was a little amazed at just how small he was; I've had bigger dogs. But that was just a passing observation and didn't interfere with my happiness at bagging him.

It's tradition to give the animal a "last meal."

          After a few quick photographs, I dragged him to the two-track gravel road skirting the edge of the field while Gerda went to get the car. Reaching the stand and the woodline, I finally remembered to give the buck his traditional last meal, pulling up a handful of lush green grass and placing it in his mouth. As the rain began to increase, I shucked off my coat to cover the rifle and binoculars while I waited and stood there looking down at the buck, still more than a little stunned and euphoric at our success.
          We put the buck in a large plastic tote in the back of Gerda’s Subaru Outback and drove one of the narrow gravel roads through the darkening forest to the Jadghutte, the neat little cabin the hunters of that area use and share. Nearby, a chain was stretched between two trees, with gambrel hooks hanging from it. This was the first deer I ever lifted straight up in front of me and hung with ease. It made me think of my wife’s fat, stocky four-point mule deer buck of the previous hunting season back home. I had had to tie its feet together, hang the rope around my neck, and lift with hands and legs both just to get him up onto the tailgate of the pickup truck.
          We weighed the rehbock whole at 15,29 kilos (33.71 lbs) and field-dressed at 13,9 kilos (30.6 lbs). Gerda tagged him and recorded the information, which is incorporated into a monthly report by her hunting group that is sent in to the canton, whose officials determine the harvest numbers.
I met several of Gerda’s fellow hunters at one of their many informal get-togethers at the Jadghutte a few nights later, two other women and six men, including a father and son. Despite the language barrier (what little German I learned in the Army in 1986-1988 is awful rusty) everyone was very friendly, welcoming me to their jaeger fold, and all seemed genuinely happy for my success. I could only thank Gerda and a healthy dose of good luck. One of the other hunters had just retired and expressed an interest in coming to Montana to hunt elk with us someday. I hope he does so I can return the favor, although we all knew full well that my success two hours into the first hunt is definitely the exception rather than the rule. Gerda's friend Ursina has come here rehbock hunting eight times now and has yet to get a shot.


Saturday, March 25, 2017

GOVERNMENT EFFICIENCY DEMONSTRATED



Remember back in the day when you sent letters and packages via snail mail and they took an inexplicably long time to ever get there or simply disappeared altogether? I used to imagine them ending up on some desert island with Tom Hanks and a soccer ball. Now, thanks to the wonder of the internet and tracking numbers, I can see what really happened.

On March 16th I sent Ben a package 1st Class mail from my hometown in Montana to his in Iowa. From there it went, as usual, to Billings and then on to Des Moines, who sent it back to Billings, who promptly sent it straight back to Des Moines, who then sent it to Denver. Now, on the 25th, it is for some reason in Cheyenne, WY. That little package is getting one hell of a tour of the country and I'm not even trying to predict where it will go from there.

Only good ol' fed.gov could possibly attempt to prove that the shortest distance between two points is a tetrahedron.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

REVISITING THE REVOLVER AMMO DROP POUCH



Yet another reminder that I’m rapidly approaching Old Fart status is the fact that when I took a Police Firearms training course in college, we were still using the old Smith & Wesson Model 10 “Barney Fife Special” and I learned how to properly use speed-loaders with said revolver.
          Training with double-action revolvers later did come in handy since I moved to Montana. With very few rather expensive exceptions, semi-automatic auto-loaders just don’t come in calibers sufficient to deal with a grizzly bear. So, since we live, hunt and recreate in grizzly country, both my wife and I pack a S&W .44 Magnum revolver when we’re out and about. I used to reload my own special anti-griz ammo, but now we’ve taken a real shine to Montana’s own HSM Ammunition and their .44 Mag Bear Loads. They launch a 305-grain hardcast flat-nosed “Keith”-type bullet at good velocity but cost less than half the price of the Federal or Buffalo Bore bear loads. Naturally, we still practice all the bear country precautions to avoid the need to use a gun in the first place but for reasons I'll detail in a separate post we don't rely on mere pepper spray.
Back when I had vision in both eyes, and 20/15 in the good one, I used to decapitate occasional mountain grouse for supper with my 6-inch Model 29 during my travels. In the summer, especially when fishing along the Yellowstone or the Missouri, we also have to contend with rattlesnakes. At the ranges involved, .44 Mag CCI shot loads full of #9 splatter ‘em good. We also use these shot loads around the yard so we can whack gophers in the vicinity of the rock retaining wall without worrying about ricochets.
          For spare ammunition, we used to carry six-round HKS speed-loaders in a double belt pouch. Over the years, I found these to be both heavy and bulky to carry on the belt; after all, they are the same size as the revolver’s cylinder. In addition, they were designed for law enforcement officers back in the day when revolvers were standard issue so that, in a gunfight, if a policeman emptied his gun, he could rapidly reload all six rounds at once. On my own, in the woods, I’ve never actually emptied my revolver nor needed a combat reload. I think that if I lived in a place where I had to routinely administer some critter six 305-grain .44 Mag slugs and still needed another six immediate follow-ups, I would probably just move back to Iowa.
          Almost without exception, when I actually do use my revolver I never fire more than one or two rounds, say to finish off an already downed game animal or take care of a rattler in the vicinity of my feet. In such cases, especially since I save my brass, speed-loaders are more of a hindrance than a help when it comes to replacing only one or two rounds in the cylinder.
          So I recalled the old drop pouches used in the really old pre-speed-loader days. With nothing more than the idea rattling around in my head, I began experimenting. The goats have long since outgrown the training soft packs I made for them out of some old Army surplus gas mask cases, so I had plenty of stout canvas and nylon material to work with.
          The old gas mask carriers also yielded Velcro I could re-use to keep the top flap down. I had a bunch of Swiss surplus OD green nylon cargo straps, so I sacrificed a couple to make cartridge and belt loops. I sewed it all together with my C.A. Myers “Awl for All”, which I actually get a whole lot of use out of for my various projects…goat soft packs, rifle stock shell holders, made-to-fit belt pouches for odd-sized objects like a range-finder.
The beauty of this design is that it requires nothing more elaborate than a simple rectangle of material, folded roughly in thirds, to start with. I folded over a little less than a quarter of an inch of material and hemmed it with the awl on the top and bottom edge to prevent fraying. I did the same with the sides after I completed the shell loops, sewing down the seam through the ends of the cartridge loop straps. Then I sewed on Velcro strips to hold the top flap and voila, I had a drop pouch. Later, I treated the fabric with a spray-on water-resistant shield.

The Mark I pouch with the cartridge loops sewn directly to the canvas was simple, functional and compact.
On the first example, I simply sewed the nylon strap into loops around empty cartridge cases directly to the canvas of the drop pouch. This worked, and made for the lightest and most compact “model” but tended to curve and bunch the material a bit. Plus, once I get to tinkering, it’s hard to stop. Afterwards, I took to cutting a piece of leather from an old rifle sling and sewing to shell loops to that while simultaneously attaching both to the canvas backing. This may or may not be necessary, it’s more a matter of personal preference. One modification I did really like was the attachment of a small tab on the top flap to make for easier and quicker opening. 
Just playing around, I backed the cartridge loops up with a piece of leather and made a big 12-shot version. The little tab for opening the top flap actually was a pretty nice addition.
 
Various attempts were also made for belt loops, the most simple and effective being simply a length of webbing or nylon strap formed into a circle and sewn to the back of the case. When I used the thinner nylon material for the body, I also backed the points where I sewed on the belt loops on the interior with small square pieces of strap for reinforcement. With nylon strap material, the cut edges should be melted with a lighter to keep them from fraying.  

Belt loops were easily made with a loop of webbing or strap sewn on. I put ALICE clips on the big 12-shot model so I could put it on the LBE that I wear hunting and hiking.





For the fun of it, I made Ben a 5-shot model for his puny .357, using some old .38 Special cases I had to get the size of the loops right.
 

          Once complete, the drop pouch goes on your belt in front of the revolver holster. When folded up, the cartridges are actually upside down. When it comes time to reload, you simply pull open the top flap, the flap holding the ammunition drops down, and you can pluck out one, two or three rounds; whatever is necessary. I use my index finger to push upwards on the tip of the bullet from below while grasping the rim of the case with my other fingers. I've carried them around on my belt during the day and they've stayed shut and the ammo remains secure. Nothing fancy or revolutionary but it works. I'll keep a couple for myself, let my wife chose one, and give the rest to my hunting buddies who carry hoglegs.
  

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

SKIING FOR WAPITI





 The type of country I hunted near White Sulphur Springs.

We had some unusual weather this year that made for pretty poor elk hunting during general season. First, fall rains saturated the back-country two-tracks and generated a second growth of grass that had the high country as green as spring. Then we didn’t get any real snowfall or cold temperatures during rifle season. So, there was really no reason for the elk to come down out of the high country and a great many tags went unfilled.
          Fortunately, Fish, Wildlife and Parks had an extended “shoulder season” for cow elk on private land in the hunting districts up around White Sulphur Springs that ran until February 15th. Some private land not ordinarily huntable was opened up on a limited reserve basis as well. Even so, it was no easy hunt. FWP was receiving 600 calls per day about the hunt at the start of the shoulder season! I suspect many of those interested were hoping for something like a damage control hunt where they could just park at a hay stackyard and shoot one out the window of the pickup; when they found out real hunting was involved a good percentage suddenly cooled their jets. Nevertheless, I usually encountered multiple other die-hards out hunting even when I went up there in the middle of the week.
          We got a few real blizzards and considerable snowfalls, always attended by drifting, in January and early February. Many of the seasonal local gravel roads accessing much of the country were of little use to hunters. Due to our winter winds they were often interspersed with deep, impassable snow drifts in low and sheltered areas while they were blown clean down to bare gravel in exposed open areas, making it impossible to use either wheeled vehicles or snow machines.
Of course, mere walking starts to become quite a chore when the snow gets over eight or ten inches deep on the flats and the drifts in the draws and on the lee slopes leave you “post-holing” up to your crotch with every step.
          Two ways to beat such conditions are snowshoes and skis. You can learn to use snowshoes quickly and easily and they are handier in thick timber and brush, but they are slow and still require considerable physical effort just to move around on them. As I once explained to my wife, “Cross-country skiing is a sport; snowshoeing is merely an ordeal.”
          Take it from me, if you do decide to try cross-country skiing, do yourself a huge favor and go take a couple of lessons from a real instructor right off the bat. I spent two long, hard winters teaching myself before I got to the point where I ceased to crash and burn on every downhill. Later, my wife and I did a 5-day winter trip to Yellowstone National Park. One afternoon we took cross-country ski lessons and it was well worth the effort. Even though I am reaching curmudgeon status and our instructor was a “kid” barely over 20, he was a pretty good teacher and I learned quite a few tips and techniques that were of great benefit to me in my back-country ski adventures.
          I ski as much for fitness and pleasure as anything. Once upon a time I was actually a marathon-level runner, but then a guy earning his 4th DUI hit me head-on at 70+ mph and now the vertebrae in my neck are so, to use a technical medical term, “buggered up” that I just can’t take the pounding of a run. Cross-country skiing became my low-impact substitute to running, at least for part of the year.
          When I finally got decent at it, I combined x-country skiing with hunting, mostly for coyote but sometimes for deer and elk if we got some decent snow during general season. I regularly skied some old logging roads and skid trails in the Crazy Mountains that were off-limits to snow mobiles for two years and every single time I saw pine marten tracks. The next year I spent two weeks running a trapline up there and never cut a single track; just like all the old books say, marten can simply vanish from an area entirely for no discernable reason. But I still enjoyed the experience and got plenty of exercise out it.
          If the snow is not very deep and/or there are two-tracks or snow machine trails to run on I take my modern lightweight “skinny skis”, waxless Karhu Widetraks that are slightly wider than straight cross-country trail skis and have steel edges. Breaking trail in deep snow with them, however, is exhausting and in the sagebrush, which always includes drifting, I often find myself having to stop and kick the ski tips back up and above the snow and brush every few strides. Lastly, even on a packed trail, I don’t get much glide at all on the moderate downhills with these waxless skinny skis.
          When it comes to deep powder, unbroken routes, drifts, and sagebrush, I revert to my big clunky old school Swiss Army surplus skis. They are fiberglass with steel edges, ridiculously heavy, and built solid enough that you could probably construct an emergency bridge sufficient to carry the weight of a duce-and-a-half out of them. Despite their weight, their 3-1/8 inch width distributes my own weight much better and I can slog through a couple of feet of powder without sinking all the way down in. Negotiating sagebrush and its ever-present associated snowdrifts, the Swiss monsters keep me afloat better, often riding atop a crust rather than crashing through it, and I don’t have much issue with the tips getting bogged under either. Plus you can get a little rest while coasting down even moderate slopes.
          The Swiss skis require waxing, which isn’t as big a pain in the ass as I thought it was going to be. When I prepare them ahead of time at home, I scrape the surface down bare and clean it with a little rubbing alcohol on a rag. Then I apply the wax, melt it on with an old electric iron I bought at a thrift store for just this purpose, and cork it smooth. This base layer of wax is the cold temperature stuff. If you need to you can throw softer wax on top of it. The Swiss ski poles are also old school, the metal ring of the basket attached with leather straps. If I’m expecting heavy, wet snow conditions I spray these with unscented Pam cooking oil to keep the snow from clumping up on them. The same treatment can also help on the bottom of a sled.
          In the field, I carry two or three different cans of Swix wax rated for different temperatures. If I start slipping and back-sliding, I just take my skis off and smear on some of the appropriate wax and then keep going, allowing the snow and travel to smooth it out. Sometimes under difficult snow conditions or a particularly steep uphill, I’ll throw on a fast, temporary smear of hot wax just on the “kick pockets” of the skis under the bindings to get better footing.
          I’m sure there are now nice lightweight modern Telemark skis on the market that would work better, but I’m too set in my ways to do the research and too cheap to buy new. Even with the Swiss slabs I can cover eight or even ten miles in a hunt now. The nicest part is that since the return trip is usually downhill and often in my own ski tracks, it generally requires less than half the time it took to go in to come back out.
          Skis are still just a means of transportation to get where I want to hunt. When I actually begin a stalk, I remove my skis and go afoot. For this reason, and for safety, I don’t feel the need to carry my rifle cocked and locked and ready to rock. I don’t even chamber a round until the time comes to stalk. I simply carry it on a conventional sling, slung over one shoulder and carried diagonally across my back. Although I always put a small piece of black electrical tape over the muzzle of my rifles in the field, especially in the snow, I also carry mine in a Rapid Rifle Cover. This is a Montana-made product consisting of a neoprene sleeve with elastic lining around the open end. It stretches from the muzzle of the rifle to the rear bell of the scope, protecting both quite well even if you take a spill in the snow. 


    Years ago at the Bozeman gun show I "discovered" the Montana-made Rapid Rifle Cover. I highly recommend one for protecting your muzzle and optics when hunting in the snow. 

          Of course, as hard as it was to find elk on huntable ground and finally put one down this year, the real work starts once you fill the tag; getting it back to the truck is the real trick. For that, I use a cargo sled. On a morning hunt, unless the snow conditions make it too noisy, I just pull the empty sled along behind me. At other times, I have to return to the truck to retrieve it, but the extra trip on skis is nowhere near as exhausting as post-holing and in the process you break and pack a decent trail for the sled to ride in.
          All sleds, of course, are not created equal. The thin plastic children’s toy sleds from Wally World are cheap, brittle in extreme cold, and quickly disintegrate under the load of a dead elk. There are a number of different of cargo, utility or multi-purpose sleds on the market which are made of heavy duty plastic or fiberglass and are advertised for use in ice fishing, winter camping, etc., some designed to be pulled by ATVs or snowmobiles. Look for one with a fairly large surface area to better float on soft snow, fairly high sides to keep it from taking on snow, plenty of attachment points for straps, webbing or cordage, and molded ribs or runners on the bottom to allow the sled to “track” in your ski trail. On one hunt, my wife and I even ran into one hunter who had inexpensively procured a beat-up old plastic kayak from a river guide service that he was using as a sled to haul out game.
Developed in the Scandinavian countries, the boat-shaped cargo sled known as an ahkio or pulk was designed to carry heavy loads in deep snow. The fiberglass US Army surplus ahkios are fairly inexpensive these days; I’ve seen them advertised between $150 and $200. Such ahkios are rated for a 200-pound load and are built like a tank; they’re almost indestructible and will last a lifetime. This durability, however, comes at the price of weight. An empty one still weighs 36 pounds by itself, which was more weight than I wanted to drag behind me all day.


 Ahkio cargo sleds are built like tanks just in case, like these Finnish Winter War troops, you need to tote your 100-pound Lathi 20-mm anti-tank rifle around.

When loading your sled, be sure to keep the heaviest weight on the very bottom, to keep the sled from becoming top-heavy and prone to tipping, and slightly to the rear of center to keep the nose from digging in when it is pulled forward. An antelope or deer can be easily enough pulled out whole, but even a cow elk is a damn big animal, so I quarter mine up.
Most sleds come equipped with a tow rope of some kind. When used with skis, you also need tow boars. My “tow bars” are in fact a pair of broom handles with holes drilled in each end. I use parachute cord (plastic zip ties get brittle in extreme cold) to attach one end to the tow fittings on the front of the sled. The other end has a loop of p-cord with a carabineer which in turn snaps into another loop of cord attached to my pistol belt.


My cargo sled bears no markings of any kind. It was an Army surplus bargain I picked up many years ago. Unlike an ahkio, it weighs only 7 pounds so I don't mind dragging it around empty.


Since my neck injury also prevents me for carrying a conventional backpack, I’ve taken to wearing an old Army-surplus ALICE-type LBE (Load Bearing Equipment). In addition to a fanny pack with some survival gear I carry two canteens, one of which is a double-walled Thermos-like Arctic canteen. In the morning I pre-heat it with hot water, then fill it with boiling tea, and it stays warm for most of the day. Hydration is every bit as important in the winter as it is in the summer, but sometimes when you’re chilly you just don’t want a big gulp of ice-cold water so hot tea encourages one to drink. 
The real trick to pulling a sled is that once you get it in motion you never give up any of that momentum, even when moving at a literal snail’s pace. Keeping the sled going, even slowly, is much easier than getting a stationary sled started again. And again and again.
          With proper technique and/or good waxing, on moderate terrain I have little trouble pulling a loaded sled while on skis. It is still a real work-out in the long run, but remains a great deal more pleasant than post-holing slowly forward one step and tug at a time afoot. Frequently I find post-holing even takes an extra step, i.e. wallow and stagger a little to get your foot up enough to take a step, take that step forward, put weight on foot, punch through the surface crust and sink in to your thigh, yank the sled forward a few inches, then repeat with the other foot.
          Instead equipped with skis, I gave the late season shoulder hunt no less than six tries. Four times I hunted standard Block Management Areas. Once I was lucky enough to get in on a private ranch that allowed two parties per day in to hunt the late season. Each and every time I went, I saw elk, on that particular occasion nearly five hundred of them. But, although some of them were within ten yards of one, every last elk I saw was on the wrong side of a section fence for me to be able to hunt them. There was plenty of fresh sign indicating they had indeed traveled through and fed in the areas I did hunt, but I always managed to be a day late and a dollar short on the deal.
          Still, when we had another nice dump of snow in early February, I decided to go out and give it one last hurrah. I was pleasantly surprised to actually glass elk from the road and, although three parties of guys were hunting the limited-access private ground across the highway, no one else was hunting the regular BMA on my side.
          The elk were in low, rolling hill country with no handy terrain features to hide behind and no cover taller than a sagebrush. To get within range, I had to ski a zig-zagging three mile course along the very bottoms of the dry draws and water courses. Near the end, less than a half a mile from the elk, I ran out of cover entirely. I put the hood up on my snow cammo parka, bent over as much as I could, and skied the lowest point across the open area. I was able to get behind a flat-topped hill without them spooking.
          Ascending through snow drifted two or more feet deep amidst the sagebrush, I cached my skis and sled near the top of the reverse slope. With just my rifle and ski poles, which still come in handy when walking in deep snow, I headed to the top of the hill where the wind had blown away most of the snow and only an inch or two remained. I wound up crawling on hands and knees using individual sagebrush for cover to close the range.
          By then, of course, the weather had turned quickly and decisively to shit. The skiing and post-holing had left me sweating so hard that I could not keep my glasses from fogging up. A wet snow had also begun to fall and it was growing in severity with each passing minute, making it difficult to keep my optics clear, even though I have a lens cloth attached to the binos. The falling snow also kept me from getting a reading with the range-finder. The bulls had not lost their antlers yet and there were raghorns and spikes in the bunch I was sneaking up on so I had to make sure I zeroed in on a bald-headed one.
          I kept closing the range. Finally, two cow elk emerged atop the small ridgeline I was following to feed where the snow had been blown clear of the grass and I was able to get a direct reading on them of 325 yards. On a hillside in a comfortable sitting position, with at least one elbow braced by a knee, I drove the tips of my ski pole bipod into the snow firmly and rested the synthetic forearm of my sporterized large-ring 98 Mauser across the leather straps.

 By looping the wrist straps across the handle of the opposite pole you can make a pretty steady bipod out of your ski poles.

          I’m a firm believer in the late, great Colonel Jeff Cooper’s two KISS simple rules for making a hunting shot. “If you can get closer, get closer. If you can get steadier, get steadier.” Although the ballistic reticle on my scope has hold-overs out to 500 yards and I actually do practice out to that range from field firing positions every year, in a lifetime of big game hunting I can count the times I’ve actually taken a shot over 300 yards on the fingers of one hand. Excluding a few occasional what-the-hell Hail Mary shots at coyotes now and then, of course.
          I dialed the variable power Leupold Rifleman scope up to 9x. The two cows looked to be identical in size, so I singled out the nearest one which also presented the best shot. I took a breath and examined the steadiness of the crosshairs on the target. I was satisfied I was steady enough and there was no wind to contend with. So I settled in, let out half a breath, and squeezed one off. The shot certainly “felt” good and I was immediately rewarded with the sound of the kugelschlag; leave it to the Germans to actually have a word for the wet, meaty slap of a bullet striking solidly home. Working the bolt, I got back on target and thought I saw the cow’s ears and head go down rather unnaturally just over the top of the ridge.
          Although I had glassed the place intensively from every possible vantage point on my way in, I had not seen more than fifty elk total. At the sound of my shot, however, they started to swarm out of every draw and coulee until there were well over two hundred of them. Within five minutes, every last one of them had jumped the section fence into “out of bounds” private land where they herded up and watched me.
          Other than checking the nearest departing group of elk with the binos looking for a wounded one, just in case, I didn’t pay the rest of them much attention. I was pretty convinced my hit had been a solid one. Sure enough, just below the crest of the hill where I couldn’t see her until I was right on her, there was my elk. As usual, my trusty 180-grain Sierra GameKing had done its job well; she lay sprawled on her side perhaps 12 yards from where she had stood when I shot her.

 I'm a firm believer in heavier bullets for elk, and the .308-dia 180-grain Sierra GameKing has never failed me.

          I tagged her and took a couple of quick photos; with the growing storm darkness was descending fast and the snowfall was rapidly intensifying. As I started field dressing the cow, I was surprised to still find several fat, swollen wood ticks in the thin belly hair around her udder. Although the cow hadn’t looked that big through the scope, she was considerably larger in the body than the nice fat 4-point mulie buck my wife had shot during general season. Even with the small Gerber survival hatchet I carry to cut quickly through the ribs and pelvis, field dressing still look a bit longer than a deer would have.
          By the time I was done, it was full dark and snowing hard. Before leaving home, I had zoomed in on a point forecast for the exact area I was going to hunt on the National Weather Service site. It had called for a 40% chance of snow with accumulation of less than a half an inch.
          As much as I hated to, I knew I would have to finish the job first thing in the morning. I stuffed snow in the body cavity, then put the sled over the elk and shoveled more snow over top of everything with my skis, hoping that would be enough to keep the coyotes from finding her during the next few hours. Although I felt I had the position marked well in my mind, I hung a piece of flagging from the tallest sagebrush available.
          Even though the skiing was good and I picked up my trail less than halfway back, it still took me over an hour to make it back to the truck. For almost half an hour I was within sight of Highway 89 and only a single vehicle passed that whole time. At the parking area, there was already a good two inches of fresh snow and it was coming down harder than ever. I kept the truck in 4x4 and limped towards home at only 45 mph; the snow was coming down so heavily that I could not use my high beams.
          The next morning at 0900, not wanting to chase off the elk and ruin somebody else’s hunt by going in at first light, I clipped on my skis and headed for my elk. An old ranch two-track free of sagebrush gave me quick, easy and direct access to a dry reservoir bed. From there I simply skied up the draws in my own partially covered tracks from the previous evening.
          I had no trouble finding the elk. Overnight we had gone from blizzard to Chinook and the snow was melting fast everywhere with surprising speed. A couple of ravens and some magpies had found the gut pile, but fortunately the local coyote population hadn’t. As I was quartering up the cow, however, two different packs showed up and started giving me hell from the far sides of the draws, safely out of range as usual, the little bastards. The backstraps, tenderloins, rib and neck meat went into a garbage bag, then it and the four quarters were strapped down securely into the sled.  
          Pulling the elk out wasn’t bad at all at first. The snow was still pretty firm in the draws, I had a packed ski trail that the sled tracked well in, and the course was generally down gentle slopes.
          Then the sun came out and temps rose even more. The snow got very wet and sticky and tacky, clinging to the sled and even to the baskets on the ski poles, and not even a treatment of red klister wax gained me much traction on the skis. The last half mile was clear running on the two-track down a moderate slope and I still had to pull for each foot.
          Still, I was back to the truck by about 1300. I got ‘er done. Now I just have to kill six and a half months until next bow season.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

AMERICAN RIFLEMEN 1775



(Rifles and Riflemen in the Revolution Part 5) 

Once open conflict had broken out between Great Britain and the American Colonies in April of 1775, the need for a single, unified American Continental Army, as opposed to ad hoc combined forces consisting of various, separate Colonial Militias became apparent. Although all of the Colonies were in rebellion, the army surrounding Boston consisted entirely of militia units from New England.  Numerous political and military leaders, including George Washington himself, heartily endorsed the concept of raising units of frontier riflemen for said army.
Major General Charles Lee, for instance, wrote, “The frontier riflemen will make fine soldiers…their amazing hardihood, their methods of living so long in the woods without carrying provisions with them, the exceeding quickness with which they can march to distant parts, and, above all, the dexterity to which they have arrived in the use of the rifle gun. There is not one of these men who wish a distance less than 200 yards or greater object than an orange. Every shot is fatal.”
Such testimonies as well as the talk of his fellow Congressional delegates from Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia led Massachusetts’ John Hancock, who’d never fired a rifle in his life, to exclaim to Joseph Warren, “These are the finest Marksmen in the world. They do Execution with their Rifle Guns at an Amazing Distance…they kill with great Exactness at 200 yards Distance.”
Consequently, on 14 June 1775, the Second Continental Congress: “Resolved, That six Companies of expert Riflemen be immediately raised in Pennsylvania, two in Maryland, and two in Virginia; that each Company consists of a Captain, three Lieutenants, four Sergeants, four Corporals, a Drummer or Trumpeter, and sixty-eight Privates.”
The following day, congress appointed George Washington as the chief officer of what would become the Continental Army. This is significantly considered the “birthday” of the United States Army.
If the embattled farmers turned militiamen from Massachusetts and Connecticut were familiar and proficient with their muskets, the back-country riflemen of the frontier were intimate and expert with their long rifles.

 A Captain at the beginning of the American Revolution and often described as eccentric, George Hanger, 4th Baron Coleraine, was one of the British Army's few true experts on the rifle during this period. He wrote many detailed descriptions of what he encountered on the receiving end of the Pennsylvania long rifle. 

British Major George Hanger, of course, weighed in on the subject: “The American back-woodsman has a much greater field to exercise his talents by practice, from living in a country cultivated only around his own log-wood hut, for a very short extent; has woods extensive and swamps impenetrable to every soul but to those, who, by daily practice, are well acquainted with its dreary and swampy obstacles, which contain various animals, such as the wild pig, the wolf, the bear, the panther (which the Americans call painter), the deer, the fox, both grey and brown, the beaver, the raccoon [sp] and the opossum.
“Not only their own cattle are shot with the rifle, but, when they go to the hunting grounds to kill the wild cattle for their tallow and skins, they use no other gun. The wild turkey is shot with a rifle; nay, even birds and squirrels, from the very top of the loftiest trees in the woods. No smallshot gun, during my residence of seven years of the war in America, was ever kept in the house of a back-woodsman. You will often see a boy, not above ten years of age, driving the cattle home, but not without a rifle on his shoulder: they never stir, out, on any business, nor on a journey, without their rifle; practice, from their infancy, teaches them all distances.”
An American minister of the Church of England wrote to the Earl of Dartmouth, “In this country, my lord, the boys, as soon as they can discharge a gun, frequently exercise themselves therewith, some a fowling and others a hunting. The great quantities of game, the many kinds and the great privileges of killing, making the Americans the best marksmen in the world, and thousands support their families principally by the same, particularly riflemen on the frontiers, whose objects are deer and turkeys. In marching through woods, one thousand of these riflemen would cut to pieces ten thousand of your best troops.”
Horace Kephart, who could perhaps be called our first “survivalist”, gave an eloquent if romanticized description of the backwoods riflemen, noting they were not just accustomed to hunting but also to frequent skirmishes with Native American tribes who quite naturally resented these white men encroaching into their homeland.
“But the men of the wilderness were always ready. Over every cabin door hung a well-made rifle, correctly sighted, and bright within from frequent wiping and oiling. Beside it were tomahawk and knife, a horn of good powder, and a pouch containing bullets, patches, spare flints, steel, tinder, whetstone, oil and tow for cleaning the rifle. A hunting-shirt, moccasins, and a blanket were near at hand. In case of alarm, the backwoodsman seized these things, put a few pounds of rockahominy and jerked venison into his wallet, and in five minutes was ready. It mattered not whether two men or two thousand were needed for war, they could assemble in a night, armed, accoutred, and provisioned for a campaign.”
“Incessant war with the Indians taught him to be his own general, to be ever on the alert, to keep his head and shoot straight under fire. Pitted against an enemy who gave no quarter, but tortured the living and scalped the dead, he became himself a stanch fighter who never surrendered. The wilderness bred men of iron, and probably contained a greater number of expert riflemen than could now be mustered in all America. It was the pick of these for which Congress asked.”
On the frontier, shooting matches were also popular forms of recreation and competition among the riflemen, and remained so until near the close of the 19th century. Daniel Boone, of course, was widely known from a fairly young age for his prowess in winning such shooting matches. Sometimes taverns would sponsor competitions and offer small prizes to attract customers while in a “beef shoot” marksmen paid a small fee to enter the match and the top scorer won a side of beef. Sometimes a few men met informally and shot for the fun of it and the “prize” of digging his opponents’ lead out of a tree stump to re-cast into new bullets.
The famous naturalist John James Audubon is most well known for his exquisitely detailed paintings of North American birds and wildlife. He was also a hunter who usually first shot and killed the subjects of his portraits so that he could examine them minutely and up close. In addition, he kept detailed journals of his travels, in which he included his observations on an afternoon spent squirrel hunting with Daniel Boone as well as the kind of marksmanship contests he observed in Kentucky in 1820.

 Frontier Long Hunters like Daniel Boone were famous for their marksmanship skills and often enjoyed competing against each other in shooting matches. 

“Having resided some years in Kentucky and having more than once been witness of rifle sport, I shall present you with the results of my observation, leaving you to judge how far rifle-shooting is understood in that State.
          “Several individuals who conceive themselves in the management of the gun are often seen to meet for the purpose of displaying their skill, and betting a trifling sum, put up a target, in the centre of which a common-sized nail is hammered for about two-thirds of its length. The marksmen make choice of what they consider a proper distance, which may be forty paces. Each man cleans the interior of his tube, which is called wiping it, places a ball in the palm of his hand, pouring as much powder from his horn upon it as will cover it. This quantity is supposed to be sufficient for any distance within a hundred yards. A shot which comes very close to the nail is
considered as that of an indifferent marksman; the bending of the nail is, of course, somewhat better; but nothing less than hitting it right on the head is satisfactory. Well, kind reader, one out of three shots generally hits the nail, and should the shooters amount to half a dozen, two nails are frequently needed before each can have a shot. Those who drive the nail have a further trial amongst themselves, and the two best shots out of these generally settle the affair, when all the sportsmen adjourn to some house, and spend an hour or two in friendly intercourse, appointing, before they part, a day for another trial. This is technically termed driving the nail.”
The snuffing of a candle with a ball, I first had an opportunity of seeing near the banks of Green River, not far from a large Pigeon-roost to which I had previously made a visit. I heard many reports of guns during the early part of a dark night, and knowing them to be those of rifles, I went towards the spot to ascertain the cause. On reaching the place, I was welcomed by a dozen of tall stout men, who told me they were exercising, for the purpose of enabling them to shoot under night at the reflected light from the eyes of a Deer or Wolf, by torch light, of which I shall give you an account somewhere else. A fire was blazing near, the smoke of which rose curling among the thick foliage of the trees. At a distance which rendered it scarcely distinguishable, stood a burning candle, as if intended for an offering to the goddess of night, but which in reality was only fifty yards from the spot on which we all stood. One man was within a few yards of it, to watch the effects of the shots, as well as to light the candle should it chance to go out, or to replace it should the shot cut it across. Each marksman shot in his turn. Some never hit either the snuff or the candle, and were congratulated with a loud laugh; while others actually snuffed the candle without putting it out, and were recompensed for their dexterity by numerous hurrahs. One of them, who was particularly expert, was very fortunate, and snuffed the candle three times out of seven, whilst all the other shots either put out the candle or cut it immediately under by the light.
“Of the feats performed by the Kentuckians with the rifle, I could say more than might be expedient on the present occasion. In every thinly peopled portion of the State, it is rare to meet one without a gun of that description, as well as a tomahawk. By way of recreation, they often cut off a piece of the bark of a tree, make a target of it, using a little powder wetted with water or saliva, for the bull’s-eye, and shoot into the mark all the balls they have about them, picking them out of the wood again.
“After what I have said, imagine with what ease a Kentuckian procures game, or despatches an enemy, more especially when I tell you that every one in the State is accustomed to handle the rifle from the time when he is first able to shoulder it until near the close of his career. That murderous weapon is the means of procuring them subsistence during all their wild and extensive rambles, and is the source of their principal sports and pleasures.”
As word of the congressional resolution to raise rifle companies spread through the countryside in June of 1775, many frontier riflemen flocked to the colors. Some of the company captains were so flooded with volunteers that they had to hold impromptu shooting matches to determine which riflemen were the most proficient and “qualified” marksmen. A teacher at a plantation school on the banks of the Rappahannock River in Virginia observed how one captain tried to determine which men were qualified to join his company.
“He took a board of a foot square and with chalk drew the shape of a moderate nose in the center and nailed it up to a tree at one hundred and fifty yards distance, and those who came nighest the mark with a single ball was to go. But by the first forty or fifty that fired, the nose was all blown out of the board, and by the time his company was up, the board shared the same fate.” In reporting this incident, a correspondent for the Virginia Gazette concluded the article with the admonition, “General Gage, take care of your nose!”
Pennsylvania, in particular, was swamped by the sheer number of volunteer riflemen pouring into the counties along the Susquehanna River, so much so that on June 22nd, Congress raised that colony’s quota from six companies of riflemen to eight. By July 11th, they were informed that Lancaster County had raised two full companies of riflemen rather than one, so yet another company was added. These were to be formed into the independent Pennsylvania Rifle Regiment, under the command of Colonel William Thompson.
The frontier riflemen could indeed travel hard, light and fast. At the time, of course, there were few roads, and many of them were only rough wagon tracks through the forest. There were even fewer bridges beyond the borders of New England, and streams and rivers had to be forded as the riflemen marched, some of them for hundreds of miles, through the muggy mid-summer heat.
Even so, only four days after Congress issued its resolution the first company of frontier riflemen, Nagel’s Birks County “Dutchmen”, arrived in Cambridge. The Pennsylvanian Rifle Company from Cumberland County traveled 441 miles in twenty six days. From Frederick County in Maryland, Captain Michael Cresap’s company of riflemen arrived in Boston by 9 August 1775, their march covering 550 miles in 22 days. Winchester, Virginia lay some 600 miles away from Boston, and it was there that big, burly Captain Daniel Morgan quickly raised his company. “In a few days,” he later wrote, “I raised ninety-six men, and set out for Boston, reached that place in twenty one days from the time I marched, bad weather included, nor did I leave a man behind.” Within sixty days of the Congressional resolution asking for 810 riflemen, some 1,430 frontiersmen had answered the call and arrived in Boston.

 Captain Daniel Morgan raised a company of Virginia riflemen; you will see his name again.

The accuracy and range the frontiersmen were capable of with their vaunted rifle-guns amazed the local New Englanders who knew only the smoothbore musket and fowling piece. Captain Cresap’s Marylanders, in particular, stopped to give public demonstrations of their shooting prowess in Fredericktown, Maryland and Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  Numerous accounts and letters exist of their marksmanship feats; many such narratives were run in local newspapers, and later reprinted in others. Typical of the accounts of the frontier riflemen and their skill is this description from an unknown author to a friend in Philadelphia.
"A clapboard, with a mark the size of a dollar, was put up; they began to fire off-hand, and the bystanders were surprised, few shots being made that were not close to or in the paper. When they had shot for a time in this way, some lay on their backs, some on their breast or side, others ran twenty or thirty steps, and firing, appeared to be equally certain of the mark. With this performance the company were more than satisfied, when a young man took up the board in his hand, not by the end, but by the side, and holding it up, his brother walked to the distance, and very coolly shot into the white; laying down his rifle, he took the board, and holding it as it was held before, the second brother shot as the former had done. By this exercise I was more astonished than pleased. But will you believe me, when I tell you that one of the men took the board, and placing it between his legs, stood with his back to the tree while another drove the center. What would a regular army of considerable strength in the forest of America do with one thousand of these men, who want nothing to preserve their health and courage but water from the spring, with a little parched corn, with what they can easily procure in hunting; and who, wrapped in their blankets, in the damp of night, would choose the shade of a tree for their covering, and the earth for their bed."
Others commented upon the hardihood of the riflemen, Washington’s chief medical officer Dr. James Thacher noting, “They are remarkably stout and hardy men; many of them exceeding six feet in height.” A correspondent for the Pennsylvania Packet who met Captain Cresap’s “active, brave young fellows” in Lancaster wrote, “They bear in their bodies visible marks of their prowess, and show scars and wounds which would do honor to Homer’s Iliad, etc…These men have been bred in the woods to hardships and danger from their infancy. They appear as if they were entirely unacquainted with, and had never felt, the passion of fear. With their rifles in their hands they assume a kind of omnipotence.”
Many people were also impressed by the clothes of the backwoodsmen: “Their whole dress is very singular, and not very materially different from that of the Indians; being a hunting shirt, somewhat resembling a waggoner’s frock, ornamented with a great many fringes, tied round the middle with a broad belt, much decorated also, in which is fastened a tomahawk, an instrument that serves every purpose of defence and convenience; being a hammer at one side and a sharp hatchet at the other; the shot-bag and powder horn, carved with a variety of whimsical figures and devices, hang from their necks over one shoulder; and on their heads a flapped hat, of a reddish hue, proceeding from the intensely hot beams of the sun.”

 Artist Don Troiani's painting of a Revolutionary rifleman shows his hunting shirt and accoutrements in great detail.

“Thus habited and accoutred, with his rifle on his shoulder, or in his hand, a back-wood’s man is completely equipped for visiting, courtship, travel, hunting or war. According to the number and variety of the fringes on his hunting shirt, and the decorations on his powder horn, belt, and rifle, he estimates his finery. Their hunting or rifle shirts, they have also died in a variety of colours, some yellow, others red, some brown, and many wear them quite white.”
Teddy Roosevelt would later call, “…the fringed hunting-shirt, of homespun or buckskin, the most picturesque and distinctively national dress ever worn in America. It was a loose smock or tunic, reaching nearly to the knees, and held in at the waist by a broad belt, from which hung the tomahawk and scalping-knife.”
The new commanding officer of the Continental Army, General George Washington, very much liked the hunting shirt as well and wished to make it part of the American soldier’s uniform. At his headquarters in Cambridge, he wrote that he sought a, “Species of uniform both cheap & convenient” that would also, “have a happier Tendency to unite the Men, & abolish those Provincial Distinctions which lead to Jealousy &; Dissatisfaction.”
To the Continental Congress he wrote, “No Dress can be had cheaper, nor more convenient, as the Wearer may be cool in warm weather, and warm in cool weather by putting on under-Cloaths which will not change the outward dress, Winter or Summer—Besides which it is a dress justly supposed to carry no small terror to the enemy, who think every such person a complete marksman.” Like just about everything else he requested from the Continental Congress, from gunpowder to rations, Washington would find the supply of hunting shirts to be long on promise and short on towcloth.
Regardless, the riflemen had arrived and it was time to unleash them upon the British occupiers of Boston.