The Nation's Pulse

Museum Pieces

Muzzle-loading up for deer season.

By 11.9.05

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Dateline: November 2015. Your author and his 11-year-old daughter stroll through the dusty cases of a gun museum, perhaps this one.

"Dad, why is that ugly gun in here with all the old muzzleloaders?"

"Well, sweetie, that's technically a muzzleloader too."

"Come on, Dad. That gun has a plastic thumbhole-pattern stock with a RealTree camouflage pattern. It looks like a modern deer rifle."

"Well, there's a reason for that, and actually, it involves politics."

"Oh no, I didn't mean to get you started on guns and politics..."

"See, a long time ago, there was a group of dedicated hunters who were very interested in re-creating the experience of hunting as it was done back in the frontier days. So they used replicas of old-fashioned firearms, like Hawken rifles or Kentucky rifles like Daniel Boone used."

"Did Daniel Boone's rifle have a fluted, chrome-finish barrel with an integral ported compensator to reduce recoil, like that one?"

"No, sweetie, that came later. Anyway, in most states, hunters were granted a special season in which they could hunt deer only with these old-fashioned black-powder firearms. You had to be a very good hunter, and sneak in very close, because you only got one shot and it took forever to reload. And those old weapons weren't nearly as accurate as a modern rifle."

"Oh. So that's probably why they mounted that Redfield illuminated-reticle variable-power scope over the existing fiber-optic sights."

"Yes, but that came later, too. See, about 1985, this smart fellow named Tony Knight was fed up with the old-timey technology, and he did a little research. Knight proved that there were a few obscure gunsmiths in the 18th century who made some guns that were laid out like a modern rifle. Instead of having the hammer off to the side like on a musket, the firing mechanism was in a straight line behind the powder charge. It never caught on back then, but Knight modernized it and began selling a new sort of rifle that was a 'primitive' muzzleloader as far as the letter of the law was concerned, but looked and shot much more like a twentieth-century deer rifle."

"Why would these traditionalist black powder hunters want something like that?"

"They didn't, silly. But a lot of hunters who didn't really care that much about hunting in ye olde pioneer spirit, like this guy, saw it as a way to extend deer season by a week or two and get an extra deer tag to fill. With these in-line muzzleloaders it was much more like hunting with their regular rifles. So Knight and some other companies sold millions of the things. Why, I remember looking at a page from a national outdoor catalog back in 2005, and noticing that all of the muzzle-loading rifles they were selling were modern in-line or break-action designs, with no old-timey rifles at all!"

"So what happened to the old traditional black-powder rifles?"

"They still make them. If I were going to go black-powder hunting I'd get an old-fashioned one. I like the idea of accepting the limitations of the frontier equipment. It would be a great lesson, I think, in the hardships our ancestors went through in settling this country."

"Mmm. Say, does this place have a gift shop, Dad? Because maybe instead of this lecture..."

"Really, the point of the sport is about accepting a particular handicap, one based in history. If you miss the deer because of the old technology, well, then you miss the deer. Unlike Daniel Boone, you can stop and get chalupas on the way home from deer camp and your family won't have to scavenge for poke salad for dinner. So I don't think it's all that sporting to game the system with a tricked-out, ugly high-tech rifle in low-tech season just because you can't stand to leave the field empty-handed."

"So do you want to ban them?"

"Oh, goodness no! That was what the liberals did with the assault weapons ban that expired in '05 -- they essentially banned types of guns based on cosmetic features, like the shape of the stock. This is America and you can own any kind of ugly gun you want. I'll even defend your right to own ugly guns with some very ugly guns of my own, should it come to that. There's no reason you shouldn't hunt with an in-line muzzleloader if you want to. But I sure don't have to like them."

"Dad, are you an elitist?"

"Have you been listening to Hugh Hewitt again? No, sweetie, in outdoor sports, you're always the sportsman; it's the other guy who's the elitist. Actually, I may be a gun snob, but I think the in-line muzzleloader crowd are the elitists. These are guys who want an extra week of deer hunting all to themselves, and are willing to buy not only an extra deer license, but an extra government-approved gun to do it. Like a lot of penurious hunters I never could spring for that platinum-plus deluxe deer hunter package."

"Well, what happened to these things? Why aren't they around any more?"

"A few years ago, the states saw deer populations skyrocketing. So they extended the regular modern-rifle deer season by another week or two. And at the same time, people started realizing that what these special seasons did was effectively to grant a monopoly to the muzzle-loader industry. Some states began cracking down on their definition of what qualifies as a black-powder rifle. Others just eliminated the primitive firearms season altogether, figuring that if a hunter wanted to hunt with a primitive firearm -- traditional or ugly -- in the longer regular season, nothing was stopping him.

"Hunters were glad to get the extended season with their regular rifles, so they didn't mind. Most of them had only bought their in-line rifles to comply with the regulations, not because they actually preferred them to their Rugers and Marlins.

"No, the ones who really complained were the muzzle-loader manufacturers who were deprived of the entire reason for their product. Without the laws and the loopholes that created them, there was little reason for anyone to buy them. There was still a market for the traditional rifles among traditionalists, but the in-line rifles just became expensive, unsightly wallhangers. Mainly you see them in garage sales for twenty dollars, but occasionally you see them in gun museums -- as a curiosity from a more regulated age."

"Hmmm...so, Dad, what you're saying is, the inline muzzle-loading boom is an example of how government regulations distorted markets, produced unintended consequences, and codified an inferior, un-competitive technology that would have vanished long ago without the regulations that sustain it?"

"Exactly. That's my girl! Hey, let's go to the gift shop and find you a pro-second-amendment T-shirt that will get you kicked out of school."

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