The game is back on effective next weekend. Next Saturday starts the final portion of the fall firearms deer season … with exception of a “youth only” weekend in early January. That youth hunt aside, this is the last chance for holders of unused rifle deer tags to cash in on their investment. “Alternative methods”, formerly blackpowder-only, season remains open until the end of shooting light on Dec. 30.
With an unfilled tag in my wallet it’s time to dig out the “smokepole”. My blackpowder rifle is a 50-caliber Hawkens-style reproduction percussion rifle. While it was made only a couple decades ago inItaly, it looks like it might have been taken along with Lewis and Clark on their expedition westward. It carries all the indications of a historic rifle — octagon barrel, iron sights and a brass patch storage compartment milled into the stock. It also carries the nicks, scratches, a few surface rust pits and normal wear and tear of a well-used firearm.
History shows the percussion rifle gained considerable popularity in the early 1800s. The popular “Hawkens” rifle was created and produced by brothers Samuel and Jacob Hawken in their St. Louis gun shop shortly after the business was established in 1815 in the heat of the burgeoning Rocky Mountain fur trade. St. Louis served as the hub for fur trading and shipping activities, and was a stepping off point where many wanna-be mountain men stopped for provisions before heading into the wilderness in search of bountiful and profitable furs.
The brothers made several firearms, but the “Plains rifle” became their best seller, even after they sold the shop in 1858 to William S. Hawken. The store remained open another 57 years under two subsequent owners and kept offering the “Hawken” rifle.
My rifle is of little value based on condition or name brand, but holds a great deal of sentimental attachment for me. Isn’t that the case with so many firearms. While they’re a great investment and fun to buy and sell, and fun to brag about to other gun owners, the ones which come to mean the most to a person are usually the well-worn, low-dollar pieces that carry sentimental value far greater than any monetary worth on the open market.
I bought my blackpowder rifle in the mid-1990s from Park Hills businessman Gary A. Young. Most people knew Young as a bailbondsman, pawn shop owner, rental store owner and co-owner of several other businesses. He was an amazingly interesting individual who also collected guns, especially rare high-end collectible rifles and shotguns. I first met him while working as a police officer in the region when he came into the police station to bond out people I had arrested.
Through the late 1980s and early 1990s I got to know Young. From time to time he’d buy anywhere from one to a dozen or more collector guns from an individual or at an auction or estate sale, and sometimes he’d give me a call to have a look at them. When I began shooting blackpowder competitions at rendezvous (target shooting, tomahawk throwing, knife throwing – all done while running an obstacle course through the woods), I contacted Young to see if he knew where I could find a percussion rifle that was used and could be used more without fear of ruining its value. As luck would have it, Young had one laying around the house and sold it to me at a very reasonable price.
I left police work in 1994, and by 1998 I was working as a reporter at the Farmington Press, then known as the Press Leader. I got a call one November day to cover a murder investigation. As it turned out two young guys had gone to Young’s home outside Park Hills to supposedly pay a debt on a bail bond. But after he met them at the front door they brutally attacked him, carried guns and other merchandise out of his house, then poured gasoline in the entryway and set the house on fire. Firemen called to extinguish the blaze found Young’s body inside.
A full-blown murder investigation ensued, with a break coming in the case the following day when one of the thieving murderers sold one Young’s very distinct rings at a local pawn shop. I was sitting in the sheriff’s office when investigators brought the murder suspect into the jail for booking.
The county lost a businessman who was a friend to many in Young. I was glad I bought that old off-brand reproduction blackpowder rifle from him a few years earlier. Every time I look at it I think of the times we talked about business, guns, and life in general … usually in the middle of the night in the police station after he had bonded someone out. He was truly wise beyond his years.
Over the years I’ve killed lots of paper plates and tin cans with that rifle but I’ve yet to shoot an animal with it. The couple times I did go blackpowder deer hunting I didn’t happen to see a deer. After buying the gun I quickly accumulated all the necessary accessories — blackpowder carried a powder horn, brass powder measure, cotton patches, antler-handled patch knife carried on a leather string, lead balls, short starter, ramrod, nipple wrench and leather percussion cap holder … all carried in a leather possibles bag I made myself. A “possibles bag” was the means a mountain man used transport all his necessities that he needed close at hand for immediate protection or survival.
Other stuff would have been stowed in a saddle bag or bedroll, but your shooting accessories, flint and steel and charred cloth for fire starting, an extra knife, and maybe some biscuits or hardtack and jerky were kept in a possibles bag … the mountain manly equivalent of the metro-sexual guys “man purse” of a decade or two ago.
As our kids were growing up I’d occasionally get the rifle out and we’d fire off a few rounds in the backyard just so they could see how a piece of history worked. I’d almost always tell them some good things about my friend Gary Young who had sold me that rifle. In fact, the rifle is the one shown in the photo that accompanies this article each time it runs. I had my then pre-teen daughter take that photo in our back yard one afternoon the week that I started writing the column.
If my schedule allows I intend to put in a couple days hunting during the upcoming “alternative methods” season. I’d kinda like to hear the old smokepole fire off an echoing round through the hills and hollers of the farm and see it put some meat on the table. If that happens I’ll take a moment to once again thank my friend Gary Young for selling me that rifle.
As I side note, in writing this story and using the name “smokepole” I got to thinking about other names people call their long guns. A quick Internet search turned up the following list: Ole’ ott three, Big Rhonda, Thumper, Smoke ‘n thunder, The Enterprise, ‘Ol Sloppy, Stag hammer, Death wand, The thunderstick, Crowbar, Ole faithful, Boomstick, Bad Medicine, Old Betsy, Long Tall Sally, Meat getter, Big nerf gun, Ole’ Meat in the Pot, Daisy, Ole Painless, Rusty and Vera were a few I found. What do you call your favorite rifle, shotgun or handgun? Drop me an email or call and let me know. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 573-518-3615.
Regardless of the name, here’s hoping you have some luck if you go hunting during the upcoming season.
Doug Smith lives in an old house, drives an old truck, tinkers with old tractors, is married to a young woman, hunts and fishes often, and can be found on any given day wearing his Buffalo plaid flannel jacket and matching Elmer Fudd hat ( … and perhaps sometimes gets too sentimental about outdoor gear, or maybe not)!