In terms of shooting and hunting, for many years, Christmas meant one thing: late rabbit season with our beagles. It opened the day after Christmas in Pennsylvania (unless it was Sunday, of course), and it was my dad's favorite time of the year to chase bunnies. Plus with school out I had a lot of days to hunt. When we didn't have dogs anymore, I have to admit I didn't look forward to the holidays quite as much.
That all changed when my then-girlfriend, now-wife bought me my first muzzleloader for my birthday. She and her family were big blackpowder hunters, and back in those days, there was only one muzzleloader season in our state: a flintlock-only deer season that opened the day after Christmas.
I'd hardly ever shot muzzleloaders prior to this, but the gift — a Pedersoli-made .50 caliber marketed and sold by Cabela's as a "Hawken" — gave me hope: I'd been invited up to her family's homestead to hunt deer in rifle season the year before, and this meant I had a shot at being invited up for Christmas and/or muzzleloader season.
While I had other motives for being interested in flintlocks, it opened a whole new world for me. The flintlock is the very essence of rifle shooting, one in which you're involved every step of the way: knapping the flint, priming the pan, measuring the main charge and dumping it down the bore, lubing the patch for the roundball (sprue up!) and pushing it down on top of the charge.
Despite my years of experience with various hunting rifles and top-end competition rigs, I found flintlock most demanding to shoot. Never had follow-through proved quite as critical. It's imperative to keep the sights on target during the hammer fall, pan ignition and main charge ignition (if all goes well) — followed by the slow barrel time. It's anything but easy.
If that isn't enough, trying to kill a deer with one — in Pennsylvania at least — brings with it a huge set of challenges: trimmed deer population (flintlock is the final deer hunt); extremely spooky quarry; crappy weather (can't count how many misfires I've had on wet days); and an iron-sighted, one-shot gun with limited range.
But I love it for these challenges, for the connection to our frontier riflemen forefathers, for the elemental loading and firing process that demands strict attention to detail. While I don't live in Pennsylvania these days, when I think about the holidays, I still think about flintlocks.