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December 21, 2020

Flintlock First-Timer: Hunting with an Antique Rifle

By Brian Beck

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Merry Christmas, troops! I hope that everyone is staying happy and healthy this holiday season. Hopefully by now, Ol’ St. Nick has left a few goodies for everyone under the tree. Perhaps it was that flintlock rifle you've always wanted!

In the woods with my rifle (not hunting).

If you read any of my previous blog posts then you know that I’ve been gearing up for my first whitetail deer hunt with a flintlock rifle. Thankfully, I managed to get an over-the-counter “antlerless only” Illinois muzzleloader tag (even though it is notoriously difficult to get them in my county). It would have been nice to have the option to take a buck as my first flintlock prize, but since I still have yet to figure out how to safely consume antlers, I was content with the tag I got.

Being an avid bow hunter for some time now, I knew that my first time out with a firearm would be a bit different from what I was used to–especially since it was also my first hunt with a traditional flintlock. In Illinois, you can hunt the second shotgun season with a muzzleloader, but since I was busy with our world record setting December Premier Auction during that time, I had to wait until the “muzzleloader only” season.

Another picture of me in my traditional hunting attire (not hunting).

To immerse myself fully in the experience, I decided to spend the hunt wearing traditional 18th century clothing along with using as much traditional gear as I could. Due to Illinois regulations, however, I still had to incorporate blaze orange into my attire which limited some of my choices, but I made my best attempt with the clothing and gear I had.

After wrapping up the Premier Auction, the following week seemed to drag. I must have checked and rechecked the weather about 50 times a day, adjusting my game plan with each tiny change in weather. I did the same with my gear, checking it all again and again. As Friday rolled around, the forecast wasn’t looking great. Cold steady rain was predicted all day, carrying on through the night, with some models showing a mix of rain and snow by Saturday morning, others just rain, and others showing snow.

The Colonial American Longrifle kit from Jim Kibler that I built.

At that point I didn’t care, I just couldn’t wait for Saturday morning. What follows is the story of my first flintlock hunt.

Day 1

My alarm went off at 5:00 a.m. Saturday morning and I leapt out of bed. I was dressed and awake even before my second alarm went off a minute later. As I walked over to shut off the alarm, I could already hear rain tapping on the roof and windows. Walking into the kitchen for a freshly brewed cup of coffee, my relaxing morning was rudely interrupted by the cold rain and darkness that greeted me from outside my kitchen window.

With sunrise still two hours and twenty minutes away at 7:20 a.m., the anticipation was becoming too much to bear and I grabbed my coffee to check my gear one last time. Everything was in order, just as it had been the previous thirty times. I migrated back into the living room with my coffee to see if some television could alleviate my boiling eagerness. Anxiously flipping through channels with the hope that time had magically accelerated, I fixated my gaze on the sliding door peeking outside–yearning for the weather to clear.

Morning coffee and checking my gear over one last time.

A frigid 34 degrees outside, the rain quickly intensified and started to freeze. The sleet came down in buckets for about ten minutes and I dolefully watched the pellets bounce off my patio. Quietly, I was kicking myself for not making a “cow’s knee” to cover the lock on my rifle to protect it from the dreadful weather. There was nothing I could do about it at that point except cover it best I could with my hand, and make sure I checked the powder in the pan regularly.

Thankfully, shortly after 6:30 a.m., the sleet faded into a light snow that quickly started to cover the ground. With this ideal change in the weather, I couldn’t contain my excitement anymore, gulped down the rest of my coffee, and started to get ready. Legal hunting would begin at 6:50 a.m., so I needed to hurry.

Arriving in the Woods

Around 6:45 a.m. I left the house and headed north towards the woods. A steady wind blew snow in my face as I traversed the dark landscape, snow crunching under my feet with every step. With sunrise still a half hour away, it was appallingly cold so it was a good thing I had decided to wear my insulated hunting boots instead of moccasins first thing in the morning. You never know how long traditional footwear, like the moccasins I own, will stay dry while out in the cold and while walking on saturated ground.

A preview of what i was wearing underneath the blaze orange.

Once I got to the woods, I headed west along the tree line and then turned north once I had reached the edge of the trees. Hoping to find a good spot to wait for some deer venturing back to a known bedding area, I perched myself on a nice large tree at the top of a low, mostly cleared, grassy knoll in the northwest corner of the woods. I had encountered deer at this location during bow season in October, so I figured it would be a good spot to sit for a while.

The Wait

The snow continued, but I didn’t see any deer. After a while of not seeing anything I was starting to feel the chill, so I checked my pan powder, which I found to have soaked up plenty of moisture from the air. I pushed the hockey puck of powder out of the pan and replaced it with a fresh pour of fine FFFFg powder and flipped the frizzen closed.

With fresh powder, I headed back the way I came in search of a new spot to try my luck, while also attempting to keep my scent blowing out onto the open field to the south rather than into the woods. My confidence was rapidly declining when I reached the eastern border and I had yet to see even a single track in the fresh snow.

Looking north into the woods as the snow falls lightly.

I found another tree and sat for a while an area in the northeast corner where deer come and go from the neighbor’s property fairly regularly. While sitting there, I was surrounded by what seemed like an army of squirrels, making all the typical noises that drive deer hunters crazy. Every few minutes I seemed to hear a deer heading through the trees, but nothing ever came.

Despite the lack of deer, I couldn’t help but admire the beauty of the woods covered in fresh snow and the sounds of the wildlife that inhabited this scenic environment. After a couple hours of nothing but squirrels and birds, I decided to head back to the house at 10:00 a.m. for another cup of coffee and to dry my clothes before heading to another area. Perhaps south of the house would change my luck.

Warming Up

After warming up with more coffee and some grub, I put on my moccasins along with my 18th century leggings and headed to the south around 11:00 a.m. to a small scrub-wood tree line that I had recently been given permission to hunt in. With the wind still straight out of the north, I decided to walk to the southern edge of the area since the tree line was thin enough to see through to the field on the other side. I found plenty of evidence of deer, paths, bedding areas, tracks, and droppings, but no deer. By then the sun had broken through the clouds and was already beginning to melt the snow, just adding moisture to the already over-saturated ground.

Looking at the southern tree line, the snow almost all melted.

At this point, my moccasins were completely soaked, so I proceeded to make my way back to the house to warm up. Later, a good friend of mine stopped by for a couple midday pints and a chat. Before long, evening had arrived and it was time to switch back to my boots and continue my hunt.

With the wind still holding steady out of the north, I headed back to the knoll in the northwest corner where I had sat that morning, hoping I’d catch some deer on the way out of the bedding areas for an evening meal. I sat there with my back against the tree admiring the evening as the sun went down behind me. As the picturesque pastels of the evening sun fell behind the horizon, I started to feel the chill of the ensuing night, but shook it off. I had come too far to let a little cold discourage me and I stayed out the maximum time I was allowed, making sure to check the powder in the pan often.

Saturday evening on the knoll looking down the clearing.

No deer came my way.

Staying Prepared

Disappointed but not defeated, I headed back to the house. I was a bit concerned with all the moisture of the day and that the main charge in my rifle may have been affected, so I put some fresh powder in the pan and fired it into a hillside.

Enjoying a fireside dram of Talisker 10-year-old whiskey and reflecting on the day's hunt.

It went off flawlessly. I took it inside and cleaned off the thin layer of rust that had started to form from all of the moisture and wiped it down with oil. I had a shower to warm up, poured myself a dram of Talisker 10 year old, and went out to sit by the fire pit to reflect on the day. Hunting always amazes me in that, even if nothing goes your way, it never seems to feel like “nothing went your way.”

Day 2

My alarm went off Sunday morning at the same time it had the day before and I reacted in the exact same way. The quiet moments of the morning before sunrise have always been special to me, but they are just that much sweeter, and the coffee tastes that much better, when you know there is a full day of hunting ahead. I was undaunted by the lack of success the previous day.

Patiently waiting and hoping that something will come my way.

The weather was much calmer this time around, with a slightly stronger north northwest wind that was predicted to shift to the west late in the morning. I ventured north to the woods again around 6:45 a.m., returning to the northeast corner I was stationed at before. I lingered in that corner for about an hour, but feeling the pressure of the last day of the hunt, I decided to move along and walk trails instead.

Mindful of the wind, I traveled back to the south side of the trees. It was quiet as I walked at first, but as the sun started to rise, so too did the normal sounds of the forest. Squirrels scampering from tree to tree–frantically preparing for winter, the plethora of birds that had yet to head south chirping away, and the whistle of the crisp breeze surrounded me completely. It was at this moment of clarity and intense reflection that reminded me of how lucky I am to be here. Isn’t it a shame that there are people out there who will might never get to experience such an amazing opportunity? I wondered just how many people might be happier if they got to wake up with the forest just once. I pondered how many of our daily quibbles and differences might be relieved by simply spending more time outside.

A beautiful sunset.

As I emerged from the woods on the southern side and looked east, I was met with the sun just poking over the hilltops, painting the sky blood red. I hoped it was a good omen.

A Close Encounter

I continued walking trails, this time seeing plenty of deer tracks in the damp earth. Some were fresh from the night before while others were washed out from days earlier. I decided to take a path cutting directly through the heart of the woods. Passing an ancient and twisted apple tree, the path delivered me into a familiar clearing on the north side where I regularly hunt during bow season. I moved down the path cautiously, peering deep into the woods on the right and left to catch any glimpse of movement.

Fresh deer tracks in the mud.

As I rounded the corner into the clearing, I immediately stopped. There–right in front of me–twenty yards away, was a group of three does, headed right towards me.

I froze.

They froze.

I can only imagine that in that moment my thoughts and theirs were incredibly similar: “Oh shit.” We stared at each other for what seemed like an eternity, them not wanting to run, and me not wanting to even breathe, scared it would make them run. Finally, one of them snorted at me, they bolted, and were gone.

I quietly swore at myself for not moving cautiously enough, knowing full well I may have just missed my one and only chance. I sat by a tree in the clearing for a while, hoping they would come back. I sat there, second guessing all of my actions of the morning so far. The does had been right in front of a tree stand I regularly sit in with my bow. If only I had taken five minutes longer to walk down that path they would have walked right in front of me. They didn’t seem to be coming back and I had finally managed to shake off the negativity and moved on. I walked more paths on my way back to the house for another cup of coffee and to reevaluate my plan for the shifting wind and the afternoon hunt.

The path looking down into the clearing, the does just around the corner to the right.

Licking My Wounds

After a couple cups of coffee and warming up a bit, I decided to head south like I had the day before. By 10:30 a.m., the wind was out of the west, so approaching the tree line from the south and walking it to the west would be fine. Just as the day before, I saw plenty of signs of activity but no deer.

Disappointed, I headed back to the house for a quick bite to eat and began planning my evening hunt, my last chance to get a deer with my flintlock until next year.

One Last Chance

With the wind holding steady out of the west, I decided to throw my “Hail Mary” early in the evening. I was going to walk the tree line that I knew to be a bedding area, possibly push some deer out, and hope that one of them would stop long enough to give me a shot.

My last shot.

With sunset at 4:33 p.m. I had less than three hours left to get a deer.

I left the house just before 2:00 p.m. and headed north one last time. As I reached the southern edge of the woods I stopped and poured a small measure of powder into the pan and flipped the frizzen down. I slowly crept down the eastern border of the woods, stopping to listen every few steps. When I reached the northern edge of the woods I waded through the small stream and out into the field, making sure to hug the tree line and not silhouette myself.

This area of the woods and field is a low valley and was still very damp from the previous day’s rain and snow, but I slowly started to slog my way west along the tree line, headed towards the bedding area. I continued moving slow and stopping to listen. I wanted to be able to react if anything came running out of the trees. I walked until I reached the areas where the deer regularly enter the tree line from the field and could see tracks, droppings, and flattened brush all over, but still no deer.

Slightly discouraged, I turned and headed back the way I came, planning to sit in the northeast corner again and hope that maybe something would come to me along with the west wind. I found a nice large tree to sit up against with some low brush in front of me for concealment.

Near where I sat on Sunday evening.

I could see all the way down the clearing to the west where I had seen the does that morning, and all the way up a path to the south, and there I sat to wait. As I waited the birds and squirrels again started playing games with my mind. Every falling leaf became a doe’s creeping foot step, and every squirrel chewing into a nut became a doe nibbling on brush as she walked towards me.

None of these visions ever manifested themselves and as sunset approached I began to get desperate. I changed the powder in my pan one last time and got up to head west down the clearing. As I reached the stream I stood by a tree and waited until sunset. As the sun dropped over the hill, so did my hopes of getting a deer during my first flintlock season. I crouched on the southern edge of the woods for the last few moments, hoping, just maybe, something would come walking by. I watched the last embers of the day slowly fade below the horizon. Before I knew it, it was 5:03 p.m. and my season was over.

I turned south and started the long disappointed walk home.

Exploring the Unknown and Trying New Things

“We shall sooner have the fowl by hatching the egg than by smashing it.” –Lincoln

I knew going into this muzzleloader season that in the area that I hunt, the chances of getting a deer after rut is over start to dramatically decrease, so I had tried hard to temper my expectations, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed. I’m sure many of you that hunt will agree with me, however, that any day spent in the woods is never wasted.

Top of the path through the hearty of the woods.

There is always something incredibly rewarding about placing yourself back directly in the food chain and providing for yourself. I couldn’t help but feel blessed with the beautiful weekend that Mother Nature decided to give me and the fact that I had the means and ability to be out there to enjoy it. I again thought about all the people that never have an opportunity to have a weekend like I just had, or even a day such as that, and felt nothing but gratitude. I truly enjoyed every minute of it, the ups AND the downs.

I think often in hunting, as in life, we succumb to the temptation of placing too much emphasis on measuring success by the attainment of a goal, and in doing so, we overlook so many amazing things during the journey. Not attaining your goal isn’t necessarily a failure, but failing to learn and enjoy the journey most certainly is.

This first season was just the start of a journey for me and I didn’t overlook a single moment. I learned a lot along the way and I will most definitely be back to try again next year. I hope this story of my first flintlock hunt will encourage and inspire you to try it. To try a new type of hunting outside your comfort zone, try hunting in general, or just get out there and experience the magnificent beauty that Mother Nature provides us with every single day.

One of many beautiful mornings spent in the woods.

Good luck to those of you that have hunting seasons upcoming or still ongoing, I wish you all the best, and don’t forget to stop once in a while and enjoy the journey!

Rock Island Auction Company will be holding one last Online Auction on December 29, 2020, starting at 9:00 a.m. C.T. For more information on the flintlock items for sale, explore the digital catalog available now. For other inquiries regarding consignment, future auctions, or registration, please contact Rock Island Auction Company today.

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