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Popularity of muzzleloaders grows

November 11, 1999|By BRUCE HAMILTON

The popularity of primitive weapons is growing among Tri-State hunters eager for new challenges with old-style guns

DNR surveys show a steady increase in the use of muzzleloaders since the 1992-93 season when Maryland legalized the use of scopes on the single-shot weapons, according to Doug Hotton, deer project manager for the Wildlife and Heritage Division of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

Ten years ago, about 30,000 people used muzzleloaders in Maryland and spent a total of 111,000 days hunting deer with them.

In the 1997-1998 season, some 37,000 people stalked deer with muzzleloaders, hunting on a total of 240,000 days, according to Hotton.

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Last year, 5,725 deer were taken during Maryland's three-day muzzleloader season, a 38 percent increase over the previous season, according to DNR. In Washington County, hunters took 476 deer, more than any other county in the state.

One in five of Maryland's muzzleloader hunters harvested a deer during the three-day October hunt.

"We're selling a lot of the muzzleloaders. It's really come up," said Barney Barnhart, manager of Hunter's Den Inc. in Waynesboro, Pa.

He uses the guns himself. "It's a challenge," Barnhart said. "It's getting out in the mountains more. I can't wait to take my grandson."

Traditional muzzleloaders are percussion or flintlock rifles or shotguns that use black powder and have iron sights. Loaded from the muzzle instead of the breech, they recall the muskets and long arms used in America's colonial period.

As ignition systems improved, the guns fell out of favor in the early 19th century. The gun's one-shot limit and shorter range have made it a nostalgic choice often favored by history buffs.

Hunters have to be close to the quarry and have reasonable accuracy to kill with one shot. For purists, it's fairer because it gives the prey a fighting chance.

New weapons

Scopes and modern gun models are changing the sport.

Maryland first made scopes on muzzleloaders legal in the 1992-1993 season. A wave of hunters applied for permits that year, according to DNR Permits and Operations Manager Mary Jo Scanlan.

Pennsylvania allows only flintlock muzzleloaders, but some states are less restrictive.

Maryland permits newer "in-line" models that resemble modern single-shot rifles. They are designed for better ignition and somewhat longer range. The advances reduce the challenge of a so-called primitive gun.

"Everybody's buying in-line. Everybody's putting scopes on, too," said Butch Canfield, owner of CEC Sporting Goods in Sharpsburg.

In Maryland, muzzleloader season is earlier than for other firearms.

Steve Davis, an employee of Keystone Sporting Goods Inc., said it's an opportunity to kill bigger deer sooner.

The Hagerstown company benefitted from the early business this season. "We sold a lot of muzzleloader equipment," Davis said.

"The muzzleloader has increased in popularity each year," said Cathy Parr, a clerk at Sparks Sports Center, Inc. in Martinsburg, W.Va. She believes the new designs are appealing for different reasons, but they are also a fad.

"It's a new gadget and hunters like new toys," Parr said.

Perhaps returning to the early settlers' way of life is an antidote to the stresses of a high-tech world. Maybe hunting is more fun when it's harder. But the primitive firearm is back in style.

Ask Pat Durham, owner of Fort Chambers Black Powder Gun Shop in Chambersburg, Pa.

"You can only hunt with one thing for so long before getting tired of it," he said. "I think it's an increasing sport."

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