- Clothing & Accoutrements
- Hunting Camps
- Living History
- Snapshot Saturday
- Wilderness Classroom
- Worth thinking about…
- August 2017
- July 2017
- June 2017
- May 2017
- April 2017
- March 2017
- February 2017
- January 2017
- December 2016
- November 2016
- October 2016
- September 2016
- August 2016
- July 2016
- June 2016
- May 2016
- April 2016
- March 2016
- February 2016
- January 2016
- December 2015
- November 2015
- October 2015
- September 2015
- August 2015
- July 2015
- June 2015
- May 2015
- April 2015
- March 2015
- February 2015
- January 2015
- December 2014
- November 2014
- October 2014
- September 2014
- August 2014
- July 2014
- June 2014
- May 2014
- April 2014
- March 2014
- February 2014
- January 2014
- December 2013
- November 2013
- October 2013
- September 2013
- August 2013
- July 2013
- June 2013
- May 2013
- April 2013
- March 2013
- February 2013
- January 2013
- December 2012
- November 2012
- October 2012
- September 2012
- August 2012
- July 2012
Half-leafed treetops rustled overhead. Day’s first gray glimmers half-lit the winding wagon trail. Elk moccasins whispered beside the left rut. Around the bend, the predawn stalk struck off on a well-used doe trail that angled northwest. A gentle breeze, perfumed with a hint of stagnant swamp water, kept the mosquitoes distant. Such was the start of the fifth day of May in the Year of our Lord, 1798.
Up the rise, a stately red oak once stood. Two decades before a hunter for Samuel the Trader camped beneath that forest sentinel. One-by-one the major branches broke from the tree’s hollow trunk. In early summer the year before, a hefty windstorm pushed the trunk to the south. The roots of that ancient monarch were rotted away and offered no resistance. In the cycle of life, it was time. But the hulk lived on, creating a fortification suitable for deceiving a wild turkey gobbler.
“Arkk.” To the west, in the midst of the River Raisin’s bottomland, a hen uttered a soft, gravely cluck. Crows began to caw with great fervor, and if there was any response or further discourse, it was never heard. A tom, young or old, gave no answer from the roost. Sparrows chirped, cardinals “whit-tsued” and blue jays screamed now and again, but nary a gobble.
A solid half hour after full light, the wing bone call offered a solitary “Arrk,” soft, yet crisp in tone. One cluck seemed so insufficient, but lack of vocalization by the wild turkeys demanded restraint by their imitator.
Then the sun dimmed as thin, gray clouds gave way to their denser cousins. An eerie quiet settled over the forest as if foretelling what was to come. The heavens grew darker. The songbirds sought perches low in the trees. The breeze cooled, then chilled as a fine mist dispersed amongst the hardwoods. The Northwest gun slipped back so the lock rested under the woodsman’s arm, tight to the body. Damp fingers folded the linen shirt’s collar up and snugged the silk neck scarf.
Large droplets started pitter-pattering all about like the overture to an unwanted symphony. The rain’s intensity made seeing the young trees in the river bottom impossible. The first movement crescendoed into a deafening downpour. Water pooled in cupped leaves, flowed down the west side of the tree trunks and painted an ice-like shimmer to the forest floor.
To make for the presumed comfort of the hunting camp meant the certain wetting of the smoothbore’s precious black powder. Protecting the trade gun’s charge outweighed personal comfort. The barrel remained pointed downward. Drips merged, then tiny puddles gained volume and momentum as they raced toward the turtle sight.
The same patience that waited on the gobblers and hens, now applied to the spring rain. To the west, a narrow band of light grew taller with each sopping minute. The torrent slowed, and over the next twenty minutes, the storm eased at the same rate it intensified. The ebbing drizzle brought with it a different sound, one of subtle splishes and splashes. Gray clouds replaced the dark ones, then streaks of sunlight speared through the gloom. When the mist ceased, the wing bone call again offered a solitary “Arrk,” soft, yet crisp in tone…
Unbreeching a Trade Gun Barrel
Sitting through that sudden spring downpour was a gamble. A careful walk back to the station camp’s tent risked an almost certain wetting of the priming powder and/or the main charge. Sitting tight and protecting the Northwest gun’s lock increased the probability of avoiding that calamity. Of course, the absence of lightning weighed heavy on that choice. Yet, in either case, this humble woodsman knew he was going to get wet.
Now and again, a hunter hero scribbles a few words about a wet load. Meshach Browning wrote about shooting a buck deer and pursuing him at a rapid pace:
“…But in running through the bushes, some snow having fallen on the lock of my gun, wet the powder, and it would not fire…” (Browning, 29)
Likewise, Alexander Henry found himself lost in the snowy wilderness. In his attempt to return to Lake Michigan, Henry happened upon a herd of deer:
“…Desirous of killing one of them for food, I hid myself in the bushes, and on a large one coming near, presented my piece, which missed fire on account of the priming having been wetted…” (Armour, Attack…, 88)
But as so often happens, the woodsman involved never explains what he did to remedy the situation. As living historians, we all find this lack of explanation maddening, but over time, bits and pieces of information from other writers hint at why the author left out the details. Most often the remedy of the day was so common it did not require wasting words on a step-by-step analysis.
A number of years ago, another traditional black powder hunter and I engaged in a deep discussion about Northwest trade guns. The subject turned to unbreeching the barrel to clear a wet load. Karl’s research sources are impeccable and extensive. He stated that a number of 18th-century woodsman implied they unbreeched their arms from time to time, but that he had never found a written source documenting the practice.
In his quest, he had spoken to a number of knowledgeable individuals who collected and studied the arms of the fur trade. One in particular told him unbreeching a smoothbore in a wilderness setting would not be that hard, because the breech plugs had much coarser threads than a modern reproduction. He said he did not doubt his source, but tempered that statement with a desire to verify it with primary documentation.
He became ecstatic when I offered two passages from Jonathan Alder’s captive narrative, a source he had not yet read. There are problems with the Alder journal. The original manuscript is lost and/or destroyed. The accepted version is a transcript taken from one written by his son, Henry Clay Alder, based on Jonathan Alder’s public telling of his captive experiences. That said, the commonality of unbreeching a barrel flows through both passages. The first deals with Native American superstitions and the second a personal confrontation over some lost hogs:
“The Indians have a great many superstitions and prejudicial notions about things and one is in regard to the wolf. In all kinds of hunting, you are liable to shoot at game and miss. If an Indian shoots at a bear, deer or buffalo and misses, he thinks nothing of it, but if he shoots at a wolf and misses, he thinks that the wolf has put a spell on his gun that will last for five or six moons—your gun will shoot wide for about that length of time before the spell wears off. You are liable to miss and lose a great deal of your game in that time unless you unbreech your gun and scour and wash it thoroughly clean. I have often seen them unbreeching their guns and asked them what was the matter. The answer was ‘Well, I shot at a wolf the other day and I guess I must have missed him, for my gun hasn’t shot right since.’” (Alder, 95)
“Presently, he came out with is gun but turned and walked from me and tried to fire off his gun, but he had got the load wet, and his gun wouldn’t go off. he went back into the house and took the barrel out of the stock, unbreeched it and took the load out. Then he cleared the barrel, put it together, and reloaded…” (Ibid, 132)
At the 2017 Midwest Rendezvous held at the Grand Valley Cap ‘n Ballers™ home grounds in Hopkins, Michigan, Larry Horrigan demonstrated the skills of a frontier gun maker by building a Committee of Safety musket start to finish by hand using antique tools and technology. While he was boring and tapping the tang screw, he told several bystanders how he acquired the original, late-1770-era, smooth-bored musket barrel for forty dollars.
The barrel had been converted to percussion ignition, and Horrigan told of how he cut off the barrel just before the nipple area and “installed a new breech plug with a finer thread.” His comment started a discussion about the coarseness of the old breech plug threads versus the modern. Larry said he still had the breech plug he cut off, and I asked if I could inspect and photograph it.
After making an unexpected trip to his shop later in the afternoon, Larry said, “Hold out your hand.” When I did, he dropped the cut-off breech section with the old plug in my palm. “You can have it,” he added with a broad smile.
The threads are coarse and heavy, and I’m sure a machinist would get very technical. For my purposes, I can state the breech’s bore is .720-inch, the plug is .805-inch across, cut nine threads to the inch. A modern breech plug for that size bore would have about fourteen threads per inch.
This is just one original smoothbore breech and plug from the 18th-century. It is military in nature and not of Northwest gun breeding stock. It is one lowly example, but it adds credence to Karl’s speculation and affords some insight into the possibility of unbreeching a gun in the backcountry of the Old Northwest Territory. I feel blessed that Larry Horrigan saw fit to gift me with such an unexpected treasure. Thank you, kind sir!
Give traditional black powder hunting a try, be safe and may God bless you.
A finger flipped twice. “Arrkkk…ark,” again the gravel-mouthed hen uttered two soft tones. The finger traced an imaginary line indicating the doe trail that wandered into the red cedar trees. The west face of the hogback ridge, just up from the sink hole, grew silent as the elk moccasins of the lady took three steps toward the path.
The stalk progressed with more haste than caution, but the distance was not that great. The lady of the woods’ buckskin, wrap skirt slipped by a small, purple-switched raspberry bramble without catching. Two dozen steps into the shadows a large cedar tree with no lower branches loomed. A hornbeam grew to the south of that tree. Several grape vines spiraled up into the old cedar; the vines swung free about the tree. Dry, brown oak leaves and green, wispy blades of grass covered the ground.
This forest maiden settled in the leaves, behind the cedar tree. A different hornbeam served as a backrest. The short barrel of “The Silver Cross,” her cut-off, Chiefs-grade, smooth-bored trade gun pointed in the direction of the sink hole. That old cedar tree offered a commanding view of the trails that came over the rise and down into the hidden valley below her.
To the south, just inside the tree line, a trading post hunter cleared away the leaves behind a smaller cedar bedecked with a multitude of dead, grey branches and sat in the nest. The seasoned woodsman chose that tree to put his frontier wife in a direct line with the hen’s last utterance. A few minutes passed. The hen did not call out when she reached the isthmus, if she traveled that way.
The hunter’s fingers dug in the deer-hide shot pouch that hung at his side. A hunt-polished turkey wing bone emerged and went straight to his lips. Two gentle draws on the flat end imitated the hen’s last clucks, “Arrkkk…ark.”
With a deliberate motion, the woodsman worked the trail-worn pouch’s flap up. His fingers stood the bone against the bag’s front seam. A Northwest trade gun rested across his buckskin-clad legs. The smoothbore’s muzzle pointed back to the sunlit clearing. The hen was not his bird to take.
Two fox squirrels chased down and around the spreading red oak at the top of the rise. In the middle of the valley another scampered through the dry brittle leaves. A gray squirrel added more noise, as did a blue jay that felt compelled to scream out from its perch above the bramble thicket at the far end of the valley. If the hen chose to come straight on, the steps of its scaly legs could not be detected among the sounds of the glade.
Well after the blue jay ceased, bronze feathers glistened in a patch of sunlight, to the south of the bramble thicket. A gray head bobbed about, peering into the autumn olives that dotted the valley floor. At first, the lady of the woods did not see this hen. The distance was a hundred paces, or more. When she caught the movement out of the corner of her eye, she remained still. The hen walked behind a large hemlock bush. The woman’s hips shifted south. The trade gun’s short barrel eased to that side of the great cedar.
Minutes ticked away, then a wild turkey’s head popped up beyond the crest of the little rise. The bird exhibited the same caution as the first and soon disappeared in the underbrush. This hen was closer, maybe sixty paces out. The Silver Cross’ muzzle eased back to the north. The lady’s thumb rested firm on the jaw screw…
Cut-Down Trade Gun Barrels
On that fine fall morning, Tami’s shortened trade gun barrel proved of great advantage. The reduced length navigated back and forth around that red cedar tree with a minimum of motion. A long-barreled smoothbore like “Old Turkey Feathers” would have required more movement, and with that back-and-forth action, a greater chance for detection.
The Silver Cross has the look of a sporting gun or English fowler with standard trade gun modifications as described by Charles E. Hanson, Jr. in The Northwest Gun. As was the practice with the early Chiefs-grade guns, the smoothbore kept the fine fowler lines, but sported the serpent side plate and the ribbed brass thimbles (Hanson, Charles, 41).
The only deviation from the norm is a cut-down barrel of 26 inches. The file marks are still visible on the muzzle face, by design, along with charring from the fire that required the reduction in length. The two remaining thimbles were moved for serviceability, leaving open inlets at the original locations.
Tami’s introduction to trade guns was a shooting session with Old Turkey Feathers. She struggled with the barrel’s length and weight due to her arthritis. I loaded the gun with a light load, comparable to a 28-gauge bore. She tried both round ball and shot and saw the potential for a wild turkey dinner. Overall she enjoyed the experience, but she couldn’t take careful aim without fighting the barrel’s leverage on her joints. Without mincing words, she said, “The barrel needs to be shorter.”
With that statement, I immediately thought of one “J. Long” and his Voyages and Travels of an Indian Interpreter and Trader, published in 1791. In recent years, this treatise has come under some scrutiny and question. When the Silver Cross started to take shape that was not the case, and despite the questions about the validity of Long’s actual service in the fur trade, the account is at worst plagiarized from another trader’s life experience.
According to Long’s narrative, an Indian arrived at his trading post and asked for credit of “forty skins” until spring. Long questioned the man’s hunting ability and the poor prospect of making payment in the spring. The would-be debtor stormed back to his canoe where he plotted the trader’s demise. Long takes the tale from there:
“My man observing them, watched them very narrowly, and saw the Indian endeavouring to file off the end of his gun, to make it convenient to conceal under his blanket; having shortened and loaded it, he returned with it hid under his dress. This transaction being a convincing proof of his diabolical intention, I directed my man to stand on one side of the door, and I took my post on the other, waiting his entrance into the house. Just as he passed the threshold, I knocked him down with a billet of wood, and taking his short gun from him, beat him so much that we were obliged to carry him down to his canoe, where his family were waiting for him, and ordered them all off the ground, threatening that in case of refusal his canoe should be instantly broken to pieces, and his family turned adrift… (Long, 115)”
From time to time, either Tami or I have been told “canoe guns never existed” after that individual saw the Silver Cross. In recent years, I have personally handled several original Northwest guns and at least one Chiefs-grade trade gun that were cut down. All still showed some variety of mill/file/cut mark from the bobbing. The only variable is in what century the cut-downs took place.
A week or so ago I had the opportunity to photograph a noted gun builder crafting a period-correct arm based on an original. He is also considered quite knowledgeable on French trade guns, and has cut at least one down that I know of—I have those photos, too. Anyway, the subject of cut-down trade guns came up in the course of an afternoon’s worth of hand work. The first words out of his mouth were, “Never say never!” This is good advice for any living historian.
The discussion turned to “barrel ends” found at historical sites like Fort Michilimackinac, Fort St. Joseph and fur trade locations of historical significance. Some of these sections show damage, like the trade gun that burst in John Tanner’s hands (Tanner, 60), and others are just random lengths of barrel found through archeological excavation.
About ten years ago I visited Fort Michilimackinac. A professor of archeology sat at the edge of a square hole, troweling the northwest corner in the hot sun. I asked her if she had any interesting finds. After talking about a few beads and a copper shard she stated that the week before she found a section of barrel. I asked to see it, and she said, “It’s bagged, labeled and off site by now.”
I was bummed, and she realized my disappointment when I explained my passion for traditional black powder hunting and the history of the 1790 era. She stopped troweling and checked her notes. After converting her centimeters to inches, I determined that segment was about ten inches long. Her notes spoke of tool marks where the metal was cut. Documentation on why these cut-offs frequent military posts remains a mystery, other than most fur trade posts employed a blacksmith and/or person with experience repairing the arms of the time.
The gun maker laughed at the story, and we commiserated about that lost opportunity at the fort dig. Between the two of us, we shared knowledge of almost a dozen cut-downs—and I believe that is just the beginning. I suspect there are other documented tales involving cutting down a common trade gun; I just have not run across them, yet.
There is a practical side, learned in the wilderness classroom, to a shorter barreled trade gun. Tami has proven that over and over. On another occasion, she took a fine buck after turning ninety degrees and weaving the Silver Cross’ barrel around three cedar trunks—again, just one situation among many.
On the range, the shorter barrel patterns shot as well as a longer-barreled, smooth-bored trade gun. The only difference we’ve found is the Silver Cross’ love of #5 lead shot; the bore does not pattern #4 or #6 quite as well. With round ball, the limitation is Tami’s personal shooting ability, which is why she limits herself to about forty yards and under for deer. Her arthritis has kept her from competing the last few years, but when she did shoot for score the Silver Cross put her near the top of the pack.
But as the gun maker and I talked on that humid July afternoon, there appears to be a growing intolerance among living historians to accept documented passages that contradict the popular opinions passed about as fact on social media, over the campfires at a rendezvous or even at re-enactments. This is the basis of the now-common belief that “canoe guns never existed.” Perhaps it is the name, “canoe gun,” that needs to be changed, or maybe the listener’s perception of living history needs adjustment? At any rate, following the sage advice, “Never say never!” will lead to a tolerance of other researchers’ opinions, acceptance of contradictory primary documentation and perhaps a wee bit of 18th-century enlightenment.
Slip the bonds of today and venture back to yesteryear, be safe and may God bless you.