One of my favorite outdoor activities is hunting squirrels with a flintlock rifle. I’m there for the experience, and here’s how I set that up.
By Leon Pantenburg
The ker-floo of the flintlock firing and cloud of gunsmoke momentarily masked everything. The head-shot squirrel plopped onto the forest duff.
I walked over to pick up the animal. From the top of the ridge, I saw a pair of younger hunters, armed with shotguns. They waved and headed my way.
As usual, my flintlock rifle (named Annabelle) got some looks and comments. They watched me re-load the rifle, and I explained the procedure and told a little about the rifle. The two hunters, not being rude or sarcastic, wondered why I used the old-time firearm.
“Can’t really explain it,” I commented. “But there’s a certain feel that comes with hunting with a muzzle loader.” They nodded like they sorta understood.
“Well, that’s really cool,” one young man commented. “But isn’t a flintlock, like, really inefficient? How do you hit something with all that fire going off in front of your eye?”
“Well, I’m doing OK today,” I said. “How about you?”
We all laughed. Each got to fire the flintlock before they moved on.
I started hunting squirrels in Iowa about 50 years old. Growing up, I loved the longhunter tales of James Fenimore Cooper. In the timber along the Squaw Creek bottom, I imagined adventuring with a flintlock. My squirrel rifle was a Ruger 10/22, but someday, I promised myself, I would have a real flintlock longrifle.
Fast forward 15 or so years. I was working as a reporter/photographer for the Vicksburg (Mississippi) Evening Post, and heard about a local gunmaker named Charles Crowther. Charlie was a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Vicksburg, and his hobby was building old time Pennsylvania long rifles. I phoned him and we arranged to do a story.
Charlie and I were friends instantaneously. We did the interview, and then went to a gun range to shoot some photos. Charlie loaded a flintlock and handed it to me.
“What sight picture do I hold?” I asked. Charlie’s raised eyebrows and a nod showed he understood my question. He recommended a full front sight centered in the rear sight.
I held for the center of the target, squeezed the trigger and kerr-floo!!! To my complete surprise – and delight – the first shot ended up in the black at 100 yards.
“Where’s you learn to shoot?” Charlie asked. Charlie was a U.S. Marine in World War II – he knew something about marksmanship.
“My dad taught me,” I said. “He was stationed at Camp Shelby, Mississippi for a while during World War II and taught rifle and pistol. I never had the chance to learn bad habits.”
That first shot was like a gateway drug and I was instantly hooked. We stayed at the range, target shooting, while Charlie taught me about the care and cleaning of black powder rifles. We only left when we ran out of powder.
After that first outing, Charlie and I hung out together. He recommended I build a .50 caliber Lyman Great Plains percussion rifle from a kit, which I did, and we hunted, and went to blackpowder competitions together. (Charlie was always the one to beat in the flintlock aggregate division.) I’d frequently stop by his shop to check out his latest long rifle project. Charlie became a regular at old-time music gatherings at my home in Campbell’s Swamp.
Despite my hinting, outright asking and shameless begging, I couldn’t get Charlie to make me a flintlock. He retired from the Corps of Engineers in 1986, and mentioned one day that he might have some time to make rifles for friends.
At the time, I was about to be transferred with the U.S. Army to Washington D.C. One afternoon before I left, Charlie called me and said we needed to plan my rifle.
I knew exactly what I wanted, since I’d been thinking about it for a long time. My longrifle would be a flintlock, naturally, and have a curly maple full stock. It would be built on a pattern similar to those made by A. B. Beck of Pennsylvania around 1800. My rifle would have a 42-inch browned Green River barrel, a Siler lock, brass furniture and a horsehead brass patch box. The end of the barrel would come up to my chin. There would be three traditional silver inlays in the stock.
I thought a long time before I chose a .40 caliber. That was the traditional bore in the east during the mid-1700s, since that caliber could kill any of the animals back there, and it was easy on lead.
Besides, my favorite deer slayer had become my Great Plains rifle, and I wanted a specialty rifle for small game that could also be used for deer hunting. And, one time, I wanted a custom rifle, built exactly as I wanted it, and to hell with the cost.
Fast forward a year: Charlie sent me a card saying my rifle was finished, and how should he get it to me? That was easy – a couple friends and I decided to road-trip back from D.C. to Vicksburg for Thanksgiving, and I’d pick it up. I couldn’t wait to take it hunting.
I stopped by Charlie’s house, and he got the rifle out. Charlie had outdone himself – the firearm was a work of art. He handed it to me, and I ran my hands over the smooth surfaces.
“Wow,” I said softly and was momentarily speechless.
The rifle looked like it should be in a museum. The browned barrel apparently grew out of the curly maple stock. The double set trigger and lock worked as smoothly as I’d imagined. The stock fit me like a glove, and when I threw it up to my shoulder, my eyes automatically looked down the sights. It was everything I’d dreamed about in a custom flintlock.
“So do you like it?” Charlie asked.
“Oh yeah,” I answered, running my hand down the stock. “Yeah. This will do!”
After admiring the rifle and gabbing for a while we made a date to go hunting. I pulled the checkbook out of my hip pocket.
“So what do I owe you?” I asked. I didn’t care what the final bill would be. I’d been saving up for a year, because the rifle would be expensive.
“Nothing,” Charlie said. “It’s a gift.”
My jaw dropped – again – just the parts cost several hundred dollars.
“I’ve got to pay you something!” I protested.
Charlie just smiled.
“You just did, with that look in your eyes when you picked it up,” Charlie said. “Now, what are you going to name it?”
That was another tradition. During the 1700s, a frontiersman might only be able to afford one firearm and he carried it every day. It did everything, from putting meat on the table, to self defense. Target shooting was a popular recreational sport, and a man’s social standing in some areas depended in part on his ability to shoot straight. A frontiersman’s rifle had to have a proper name.
Charlie’s wife, Annabelle, had come in with coffee and cookies. Annabelle was also an astute judge of longrifles, and was proud of her husband’s skill and craftsmanship.
“That’s easy,” I said. I had decided on a name during the roadtrip. “It’s Annabelle.”
Since 1988, Annabelle and I have hunted all over the country. The rifle has killed large numbers of rabbits and squirrels, and I still plan on harvesting a Mississippi buck with her some fall.
Along the way, various accouterments have been added. I immediately bought a 45-inch cleaning rod and long linen guncase.
The leather fringed hunting pouch and brass powder measure were bought from Dixie Gunworks, and I ordered a small, white powder horn with the idea of learning how to do scrimshaw. My friend, the late Ronnie Anglin, and I made short starters for our blackpowder rifles out of the antler of a buck I killed. One of my powder measures was made out of an antler tinge.
Years later, another good friend, the late Jim Grenfell, made me a matching pipe tomahawk. I ordered a custom, handmade four-inch hunting knife with a curly maple handle from knifemaker C.T. Fischer of Elk City, Idaho.
Annabelle is my firearm of choice in most of the small game hunting I do. It’s all about feel.
And come October or November, I want to be stalking squirrels in a deciduous forest with my flintlock rifle. I’ll do my best to harvest a few, since I love squirrel jambalaya and gumbo. But I’m a long way past needing to kill anything to have a successful hunt.
So here’s how my ideal, bucket list scenario would play out: It’s mid-morning in Campbell’s Swamp, Mississippi, and I’ve bagged several squirrels. I stop by a spring where the water gushes out of the ground between two rocks. I have no hesitation about drinking my fill. Then, I prop Annabelle up against a hickory tree. I sink the Grenfell tomahawk in the tree next to the rifle, and hang the hunting pouch and horn on it. I like looking at the ensemble.
I take out the C.T. Fischer knife out and gut and skin the squirrels. I place the carcasses in a culinary-quality mesh bag carried for that purpose. I wash the knife and my hands, then take out some hardtack I baked and some jerky I made from a deer I killed last year.
Then I’ll lean back, eat lunch and take in the surroundings. Annabelle and I fit in. I listen to the rippling water and the sounds of the woods. A quick gust of wind causes a few leaves to fall from the trees. A squirrel chatters up on the ridge, showing the morning feeding time may not be over. I watch quietly, because a buck just might come nosing along the treeline, on the way to get a drink.
I may or may not go after another squirrel. Or if I find some fresh sign, I might go deer hunting. I may go rambling. It’s all about feel. I’m thankful to be where I am, and wouldn’t change a thing.
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