February 21, 2014
By Sherry Grindeland
Modern mountain men prove their mettle shooting 1800’s-style muzzleloaders
Steve Baima struggled with his muzzleloader. An old-timer watched as Baima tried to get his handmade rifle to fire. Instead of the advice Baima expected, the old-timer told him a line he’s never forgotten.
“He said, ‘I hate to tell you this, but your scalp is already on the pole,’” Baima said.
That drove home to Baima that his new hobby — he had just started to learn how to make and shoot black-powder guns — once was a life-or-death necessity. Originally, he said, muzzleloaders were needed for self-protection and to put food on the table.
Although today’s muzzleloaders, according to Cascade Mountain Men members, can still be as temperamental as they were back in the 1800s, shooting them is also just plain fun.
Where else, asked Harry Charowsky, of North Bend, can you dress up in comfortable period costumes and make your own toys — guns, powder horns, lead balls — hang out with like-minded folks and shoot, too?
And then, there’s the bringing-home-the bacon part.
The club, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, has traditional monthly meetings. But the fun part happens the third Sunday of each month, when members meet at the Issaquah Sportsmen’s Club range with their rifles. They shoot at paper targets of bear and deer. Winners go home with steaks. Those whose aim was off a bit get hamburger.
“We’re not shooting live game, but we can still put food on the table,” said Baima, club president. “Everyone who participates goes home with something.”
Back in the day…
The monthly shoots are also a chance to show off your newest “old” stuff.
At a recent shoot, the stuff included period outfits. Baima was dressed in a fringed buckskin outfit. He carried a powder horn and handmade knife. He also has a hand-carved club.
“Back in the day, you had one shot, and then had to go to plan B with a knife, a tomahawk or a club,” he said.
Back in the day means in the 1800s, before the advent of bullets and guns that fired multiple shots. These are the weapons early explorers and fur hunters carried as they wandered the western United States.
Cascade Mountain Men
Muzzle Loading Arms and Pioneer Craft Show
Monthly shooting match
Like old-time mountain men featured in books and movies, at the recent shoot Bob Tresch and Ken Whitney wore blankets as coats. Convenient, one of them said, for both day wear and to cover up with at night.
Many of the members carry powder horns to store their black powder. Just as the handmade rifles vary in size and finish, so does the black powder.
Black powder, invented by the Chinese, was the standard means of propellant for a ball or a bullet — from flintlock days to early cartridge guns. Black powder is a combination of charcoal and saltpeter (potassium nitrate). Some shooters add a touch of flour or cornmeal to their powder to increase its burn power.
Loading a muzzleloader follows the same basic pattern. First, powder is shaken into the barrel — the amount depends upon how big a bang you’re after and the caliber of the ball. Then, a small patch of material is jammed down on top of the powder. The material is cotton and usually soaked in oil or grease. The shooter uses a rod to tamp everything tightly into the barrel. Finally, a lead ball is loaded.
“Black powder fouls it a lot,” Baima said. “When you see someone shoot a black-powder gun, you sometimes see debris come out and burn, a flash.”
Club members often staff booths at community events — such as the annual hobby fair at Pickering Farm. Last summer, club members worked with Cub Scouts one weekend, teaching them how to start a fire without matches. They like sharing the history of the original mountain men and how hard everyone had to work.
Continuing a tradition
The Cascade Mountain Men can share how difficult things were 150 years ago — just when it comes to making their equipment. Most members make their own guns. Darrell Kapaun, of Duvall, shoots a 50-caliber gun he made.
“I put 100 hours into my gun, but I’m pretty slow,” he said. “One of the guys who founded this club could make a gun in 20 hours.”
They also make their own balls — something the original mountain men did, too. Finding sources for lead these days is difficult, members said.
That’s one reason they continue their club tradition of sponsoring the annual Muzzle Loading Arms and Pioneer Craft Show March 8-9 at Evergreen State Fairgrounds in Monroe. There will be about 145 vendors featuring diverse period things such as leather craft, arts, costumes, spinning and weaving, and a lot of muzzle loaders and other old-style weapons.
“I think of it as going to the Wal-Mart of 1840,” Charowsky said.
Other muzzle loader club members from the Pacific Northwest — including some from as far away as Alaska, Canada, Montana, Idaho and Oregon — come to enjoy the exhibitions and pick up a few supplies.
Sometimes, they run into anti-gun people.
“Schools won’t touch anything firearms-related with a 10-foot pole,” Baima said. “But this is a historical group. We’re keeping old crafts alive and studying history.
“When I got involved in black-powder guns, I had trouble hitting the target and making the rifle even fire. I don’t know how they survived in the 1700-1800s.”
Club members site several reasons for joining and sticking with the hobby.
Some call it a sport, some call it a hobby, and some cite preservation and interpretation of history as reasons to participate. Member Bob Pinell, of West Seattle, had an even better reason to be at the monthly shoot.
“It beats mowing the lawn,” he said.