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Over the past year my work with a .54-caliber blunderbuss kit that is made by Traditions, but only available from the Sportsmans Guide catalog company, has taken on something of a quest. This started with putting the gun together, initial shooting, taping on a conglomeration of cardboard and tape so that I could get it to shoot to the point of aim, attaching a homemade wooden stock comb and refinishing the gun. On the hunting end it killed five squirrels, knocked down a swan that I had to finish off with a Mossberg 500 12-gauge pump, and because of mechanical failures failed to hit a close-range deer because the ball rolled out of the barrel and missed an even closer hog when it lost its barrel-retaining screw.
With renewed resolve, a permanent wooden comb, better loads using MMP .54-caliber sabots (instead of my hand-cut wads), a nitride-coated barrel from H&M Metal Processing of Akron, Ohio, and a proven load of 70-grains of Hodgdon’s TripleSeven powder and a mix of no. 5 and 7 1/2-lead shot, Young Blunderbuss and I went turkey hunting. Eight times we went turkey hunting with no shot opportunities and no turkey. They would not come to my calling, although they sometimes responded. When I set up in areas they commonly used, they were elsewhere. Ug.
I was invited by friend Roger Kicklighter to go in early April to a piece of property that we had hunted perhaps 10 years before. I had turkey hunted with Roger for perhaps as many as 20 times, but had never killed a bird with him, although I had taken birds on my own. At 5:30 AM, he arrived and I grabbed some wild-hog sausage biscuits that I had made that morning and some coffee and we were once again off. Between smoke, fog and pollen he could hardly see the road to drive. Nonetheless, at 6:00 AM we were at the starting point before dawn was starting to break.
He was hunting a few hundred yards away from me, and he positioned me in an area with heavy turkey scratchings close to a field road which ran through some mature planted pines. I put my three many-times repaired decoys out and awaited developments. There were some. At least three gobblers in different directions called from their roost trees. After a time, I talked to them and they to me; but they would not approach. Once I looked up and saw a white head at about 80 yards. I called to him, but he would not come. By 10:00 AM the woods were quiet again, Roger returned and we ate the biscuits and some pickled eggs.
Decision time. I agreed with Roger that the area where I was looked very good from the mix of old and new scratchings. I decided to stay where I was while he went to set up on a food plot to exercise some of his new decoys. I moved Andre, Helga and Henrietta to the near side of the woods road so that they would be easily visible, repositioned myself to another pine tree, cut some briers, pulled some downed limbs around my hide, put my old cushion down, put camo on and sat. From time to time I would call a little, but got absolutely no response.
Looking through the trees down the road about an hour-and-a-half later, I saw two toms approaching at about 70 yards. They spotted my decoys which were moving slightly in the breeze. As they approached they were side-by-side with one stopping to strut a little while the other pulled ahead. There was no need to call, and I did not. My gun was across my lap, and I had to wait until there were trees between them and me so that I could raise the blunderbuss. If I was too late in making that movement they would spot it and fly. It was imperative that I let them get to within 25 yards and that they would separate.
As a guest, I was not going to shoot more than one bird, and I had rather have a single bird killed that two wounded. When their heads were blocked by a group of pine tree trunks, I moved slightly and raised my gun. I picked out a clear area along their projected travel path and pointed the gun at it. I sighting in over the top of the belled muzzle, put my cheek firmly down on the comb of the stock and waited. By happenstance, one of the toms had pulled ahead of the other one by almost two bird lengths.
When the leading tom stepped into the open spot, I checked my “sights.” Since the blunderbuss has none, this consisted of lining up the entire length of the barrel with the middle of the tom’s neck and aiming precisely over the top of the middle of the funnel on the end of the barrel. I had already “silent cocked” the gun. I had checked my no. 11 percussion cap and crimped it on the nipple when I shifted my location. The cap was still on the nipple.
Although the turkey’s head was held against the body, I aimed half-way down the neck and pulled the trigger. Blunderbuss had been loaded for nearly three weeks and been on eight previous hunts. There is always a risk that through all that handling some or most of the shot had dribbled out of the barrel pass my homemade wad. This time that was apparently not the case, as the gun went off instantly, and I saw the bird drop in its tracks.
It was apparently fatally struck, but I wanted to take no chances with it. Its companion ran about 20 yards off and then returned to spur and pick at the bird. I was trying to stand on my numb legs and staggered towards my flopping bird. Only when I was at the side of the road did its buddy run away. If I had another shot or a cartridge gun, I could have surely taken a second bird, but one was enough.
After a number of steps I was somewhat more walking than falling on my numb legs and put a foot on the bird’s tail and promptly pulled out all of its tail feathers. As hard as they are to pluck when the bird is cold, they came out easily when the ambient temperature was 80 degrees. I killed the bird and recovered it. It had about a 9-inch beard and 7/8-th inch spurs, which is typical of a 2-year-old Eastern Tom.
One of two YouTube videos made at the time is posted at: http://youtu.be/VQqscMImf1A.
When I plucked it I found that some 30 shot had struck the bird all the way from its legs to its beak. This is about what might be expected from a cylinder-bored gun. Of these, 8 had hit in the vital head and neck area. The immediately fatal shots were a cluster of three through the brain. This was the reason that the bird went down so fast.
Cleaned, dressed and ready for the freezer it weighed 15 1/2-pounds and will next appear on a platter for Christmas dinner along with cornbread dressing, giblet gravy and the usual holiday fixings.
Blunderbusses were never very common, although they did have uses as self-defense guns by stage drivers because they could be loaded while bouncing along and for military uses in close combat aboard ships. Use of the gun probably peaked about 1790 when numbers of them were employed by those resisting the British during the Irish Rebellion of 1792. Many of the Irish did not own guns and were not shooters. The intimidating blunderbuss gave the untrained urban revolutionaries a feeling of confidence against the British with their Brown Bess muskets. While true that they would likely hit something, they had best be nimble enough to get out of the way of their opponent’s bayonets.
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