Other than a handful of Wildlife Management Areas below the fall line, primitive weapons seasons for deer in South Carolina have always been an Upstate thing. Maybe the proximity to the mountains is what beckons hunters to squeeze in a few days between stick-and-string and the heavy artillery to honor those pioneers who settled the land with their trusty smokepole at their side.
However, with advances in black-powder hunting technology over the past 20 years, calling a muzzle-loading firearm a “primitive” weapon is a contradiction in terms.
Although in-line muzzleloaders using 209 primers, PowerBelt bullets and pelletized powder dominate the market, a few “old souls” still use flintlock rifles, for the enjoyment of the experience, and Roger Metz of Greer is one of these. An avid outdoorsman and outdoor radio show host in the Upstate, Metz is more than just a flash in the pan.
“It’s just fun,” he said. “It is something different that not many people do. It’s just fun to carry it around. You sit there and think ‘Daniel Boone, this is what he was discovering Kentucky with.’ Very few people hunt with flintlocks anymore, and I like to be odd and do things nobody else does.”
Metz had few if any tips for hunting with a flintlock, with the exception of long sage advice.
“Keep your powder dry,” said Metz, quoting the anthem of Civil War infantrymen. “Black powder will soak up moisture. The lock on my Hawken-style Kentucky Hunter is a very good lock; it makes a tight seal around the edges.”
Metz said another big challenge is simply obtaining black powder. It can’t be shipped without a lot of red tape because it’s a hazardous material. It’s also highly suspect for use in homemade explosives.
“The toughest challenge is finding black powder, because just any retail store can’t carry black powder. It has to be a vault to store. I get it out of Ledford’s Trading Post in Hickory, N.C. We go up there and buy about a pound, because if you order it online, it’s a hazardous material paperwork and all that stuff. It’s tough to ship.”
Once in the field, actually killing a deer with a flintlock rifle is still not guaranteed. With no scope, no immediate ignition characteristic of modern ballistics or even in-lines, firing a flintlock and hitting the target requires both luck and skill.
“It’s a challenge to kill one with it,” said Metz. “Open sights, real black powder, round ball. It’s not a done deal when you pull the trigger. I’ve had misfires, flash in the pans — everything everybody who shoots black powder will go through. It’s a challenge, and I’ve missed before, but it’s still a lot of fun.”
Metz admits, like anyone who has ever owned any type of black-powder rifle, that the least fun part about ownership is cleaning it. Unlike in-lines, where the shooter can unscrew the breech plug and run a jag and cloth all the way through the barrel, a flintlock is close-ended: one way in, one way out.
“You put your cleaning patch in the barrel and just ram it like you’re loading it,” he said. “It’ll twist, you can feel it twisting because it’s binding against the jag and the barrel, so it’s rolling with the lands and grooves. After about four shots, you pretty much have to clean the barrel because you can’t get the bullet down the barrel.”
On the subject of cleaning muzzleloaders, another Greer resident said that care and maintenance of a black-powder rifle, whether it be a Hawken flintlock or a Thompson Center in-line, is the most-important aspect of ownership. Mark Sloan, an independent gun mechanic who sees his shop flood with black-powder rifles as soon as summer begins to wane, it’s not the care, but the lack of it, that keeps him in business.
“At least 90 percent of the problems I see with muzzleloaders is poor maintenance,” Sloan said. “A man will load his gun, go out in the woods to hunt with it. He might shoot it, he might not, he doesn’t clean the gun, but he’ll leave that powder or Pyredex or residue whatever in it. The moisture overnight will set in, and within a few days, he’s ruined the gun.”
“Years ago, when a pioneer hunted, he came home and cleaned his guns,” he said. “He might use homemade lye soap, some hot water, a lot of working, and when he got done, he lubricated it with a mixture of bear grease and bee’s wax, and the thing would last forever.”
Sloan said he can tell with one look whether the gun has been maintained. The exterior may be shiny and clean, and the stock, scope and finish look brand new. It’s looking down the muzzle that tells the tale.
“Black powder, Triple-7, Pyrodex, all that stuff is highly corrosive,” he said. “If that powder or the residue is left for any amount of time, it will pit and rust the barrel; that affects the accuracy. That bullet or that sabot is supposed to spin when it’s shot. That’s why they put rifling in the barrel. You get pits and grooves from it rusting, and that bullet don’t spin right when it’s shot. You miss. It’s just that simple.”
Sloan said sometimes maintenance doesn’t quite describe the problems he’s seen. He said a lot of deer hunters only own a muzzleloader so they can hunt the first 10 days of October in the Upstate. It’s not because of a fascination with the old ways, they just want to hunt, and that often leads to treating a black-powder gun with the same standard of care as a regular firearm.
“A guy brought me a muzzleloader one time that he’d double loaded,” said Sloan. “Loaded it the year before and never unloaded it, then loaded it the next year — it had two layers of powder and two bullets jammed down in it. He wanted me to check the scope. If he’d a fired that thing, it would’ve exploded like a bazooka and probably killed the man firing it and anybody nearby.”
Field maintenance, as well as preseason and postseason maintenance, are mandatory to keeping any black-powder rifle in top condition. Sloan said it starts with the last use of the season, cleaning the gun and applying a light coating of oil to keep the bore from rusting. Before the next season, he suggests loading just a percussion cap, inserting a patch and rod in the bore, and firing the gun to clear the oil. Then it’s time to sight in for the season.
“I concentrate on getting the scope or sight dead on at 50 yards,” he said. “You see mostly .50-caliber bullets, and they will rise a little after 50 yards and that will get you where you want to be at 100,” he said. “Some people want to shoot farther than that, but mostly it’s 100 yards or less if you’re hunting around here. Any more than that, the amount of powder you need and the pressure curve, you get don’t provide the best accuracy. ”
After sighting in or shooting a deer, especially if you’re going to be away from home a few days. Sloan said you can use Windex with some vinegar mixed in, vinegar and water, hydrogen peroxide mixes, even Diet Coke, to break up the fouling that accumulates.
“Knock the breech plug out and use a cleaning rod and dip a patch in one of those solutions, work it in there good and then run some fresh ones until you get it clean,” he said. “I promise, you’ll get a whole lot more enjoyment and use out of the gun with just a little time and care.”