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?Primitive weapons' require caution

By Ed Brock

Amusement warms Richard Whatley's face with a smile when he talks about the way muzzleloading guns are handled in period-piece movies.

So often the pioneer or soldier is shown pouring black powder into the muzzle directly from a horn full of the explosive material, then ramming their packing stick down the barrel again and again.

Sitting in his Stockbridge home with his own .45-caliber muzzleloader across his knees, 53-year-old Whatley chuckles and explains that if someone performed the latter action they would stand a good chance of losing their hands or their lives.

"You do not do that," Whatley said. "Black powder, if you hit it hard enough, it will go off."

As for pouring the powder straight from the powder horn, Whatley warns that if there is still a stray ember in the bottom of the barrel the powder will ignite and burn back into the horn, causing an explosion.

These are just some of the safety tips the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Resources Division wants hunters to remember during "primitive hunting season." The season started on Saturday and lasts until Friday, after which hunters can still use the muzzleloaders as well as other firearms.

Muzzleloaders are single shot weapons in which black powder is first poured down the barrel (using a special "speed loader") followed by the round, or "ball." A firing cap is then placed on a metal nipple and when the hammer falls on the cap it emits a spark that travels down the nipple into the chamber where it ignites the powder.

The special season gives hunters a different opportunity to hit the woods, DNR Ranger Jeff Bryan said. It also gives some hunters a jump on the regular firearm hunting season that begins this weekend and it helps control the state's ever-growing deer population, he added.

"(DNR officials) are trying to open up many legal ways for hunters to harvest deer," Bryan said.

People can contact DNR about a general hunting safety course, Bryan said, but it only touches briefly on the subject of muzzleloaders.

"We suggest people get with somebody who has experience," Bryan said.

Whatley learned how to handle the weapons from his father and brother. He started using them about 14 years ago, though he'd been hunting with other weapons before then.

Whatley's father brought his boys up with a lot of knowledge and respect for guns in general, and Whatley is the same way with his 13-year-old son. Next year will be the first year for the younger Whatley to use a black powder weapon, but Whatley said he's confident he'll be OK because he scored very high on his hunting safety course.

While Whatley's muzzleloader was actually made about 30 years ago, many of the guns use the same steel and manufacturing techniques used more than 200 years ago when they were the weapon of Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett.

That's why they can be dangerous, Whatley said. Some people don't know the rules.

Along with the rule against ramming the powder too hard and pouring out of the horn, Whatley said some people mix the black powder with modern, non-explosive smokeless powder.

"What would happen is that it builds up so much pressure that it becomes a pipe bomb," Whatley said.

Mixing the powder is called a "duplex charge," Whatley said, and there has been at least one case of a hunter getting killed when his muzzleloader exploded from a duplex charge.

"You're working with chemistry and detonation," Whatley said. "So you've got to play by the rules. If it bites you, it bites hard."

The guns must also be properly cleaned before being put away at the end of the year or when the hunter takes it down from the closet they'll find it to be almost useless.

Hunting with the weapon is also more challenging. Whatley's gun, which is a "side lock" with the firing hammer on the side, has an effective firing range of 75 to 100 yards. An "in-line" rifle (the guns do have rifled barrels) can kill from about 200 yards.

If you miss, you have to reload after one shot, but Whatley said that doesn't necessarily mean you'll miss your opportunity. The guns make a different sound from regular weapons and deer don't always recognize it as a gunshot.

"A lot of time when the smoke clears (the deer) will be looking at you like ?What was that?'" Whatley said.

A muzzleloader can cost between $150 to as much as $800. Despite the challenges and the increased maintenance, Whatley said the use of the guns for hunting is growing.

In the 2003-2004 deer harvest season in Georgia there were 69,078 muzzleloader hunters who killed 22,300 deer, according to the DNR. That represented 4.6 percent of the total harvest for that year.

Whatley also hunts with regular firearms as well as bow and arrow, but he said some people are prejudiced against other forms of hunting. He likes the challenge of hunting with his primitive weapon and is eager to pass it on to the next generation.

"They're a lot of fun to shoot," Whatley said.