January 8, 2012
By Seamus McGraw, Post-Gazette.com
Writer SEAMUS McGRAW explains why he walks the Pennsylvania woods
with a weapon from the past
She took me by surprise. Though I had been stalking her through
the dense undergrowth for about 40 minutes, I had lost sight of her
as the afternoon light began to fade. It was getting late and I was
about ready to call it a day when, just as I hit the crest of a
shadowy depression in the mountainside, I caught a glimpse of her, a
beautiful doe, the matriarch of a small clan that foraged behind
She saw me, too.
She stepped out from behind a shagbark. Even in the spreading
dusk I could see her eyes as she glared at me. She stomped out a
warning on the rocky ground.
I had to admire her guts. I dropped to one knee, fumbled in my
pocket for my old brass powder charger, freshened the powder in my
frizzen and pulled back the hammer on my .50-caliber flintlock. I
took a deep breath and then I drew a bead on her.
An instant that felt like an hour passed before I squeezed the
trigger. The hammer fell, the powder in the frizzen flashed,
startling me even though I was prepared for it, and a heartbeat
later, the whole world exploded with the thunder of 90 grains of
black powder erupting in fire and blinding acrid smoke from the
barrel of my gun, sending a lead minie ball rocketing toward the doe
at a lethal 1,400 feet per second.
In the smoke and the confusion I couldn't tell if I had hit her.
And then I saw that I had. The impact of the bullet had knocked her
to the ground, and as the rest of the herd high-tailed it over the
ridge, she struggled to stand, staggered a few yards and then
collapsed again. I had hoped for a clean kill. But I had failed. I
knew what had happened -- I had flinched when the powder in the pan
went off. Instead of hitting her in the heart or lungs, which would
have killed her instantly, I had mortally wounded her. Now I would
have to finish the job.
I hate to kill.
I know that must sound like an odd confession coming from an avid
deer hunter, a guy who, like thousands of others in my home state of
Pennsylvania, spends the better part of the year looking forward to
those few short weeks in October and November, and especially to the
special flintlock season that begins the day after Christmas, when I
can load up my rifle and get lost in the mountains behind my home
all alone. But I suspect that if you could wade through their
boot-top-deep braggadocio and really talk to hunters, many of them
would tell you the same thing.
For me, and I suspect for many others like me, the art of hunting
is far more profound than taking trophies. It's about taking
responsibility. For my needs. For my family. For the delicate
environmental balance of this wounded but recovering part of the
country. There is something sobering about hunting for your food.
Meat tastes different, more precious, when you've not only watched
it die, but killed it yourself. There is no seasoning in the world
that can compare with moral ambiguity.
Biologists estimate there are now 1.6 million deer in
Pennsylvania's woods, far more than when white men first set foot
there. I took up deer hunting a decade ago when I realized that this
staggeringly large population was decimating many of our forests,
forests that after hundreds of years of clear-cutting were at last
poised to recover. With no predators to speak of -- the wolves were
wiped out centuries ago and the last mountain lion in the state was
killed more than 70 years ago -- the responsibility for trying to
restore a part of that balance fell to me. And to all the other
Maybe it's because I grew up in a family that always did things
the hard way, or maybe it's because I'm basically a Luddite, but
when I took up hunting, I eschewed all the technological gadgets
designed to give modern hunters an extra edge over their prey. I
like to believe that there's something primitive and existential
about the art of hunting, and that somehow, stripping the act of
hunting to its basics makes it purer.
I wanted a weapon that required more of me, one that demanded all
the skill and all the planning that I could muster, a weapon that
gave me just one chance to get it right. I made the decision to hunt
only with the most basic firearm there is, a muzzle-loading
black-powder rifle, fired by a piece of flint striking cold steel. I
often tell my more conservative friends that I carry the gun the
Second Amendment explicitly guarantees me the right to carry.
There are hundreds of us in the state. Some are history buffs,
guys who believe in the sanctity of some imagined past. Some, like
me, are purists. In late December we wander into the woods, usually
alone, with our antique weapons and our obsolete notions of what a
hunt should be.
But those antique weapons also carry with them an antique sense
of responsibility. To kill with a flintlock, you must get close. And
because these ancient guns are notoriously balky and inaccurate,
there is a very good chance that you'll miss your target altogether
or, worse, that you'll simply wound the creature and in so doing,
inflict greater suffering than is necessary. And so you take every
precaution to make sure that your one shot is clean, that it kills
quickly and mercifully. And still, sometimes you fail, just as I did
that late afternoon in midwinter when I flinched as my gun went off.
• • •
I followed the blood trail a few yards and found her. She was
still alive. I could see her breath. It was ragged. She looked at
me. I loaded my gun, charged the frizzen, and pulled the trigger.
There was a flash in the pan -- that is where the expression comes
from -- and then nothing. I tried again. Still nothing.
The sun was sinking behind the ridge. I didn't have the time or
the tools with me to fix the gun -- I had carelessly left them
behind -- and so I laid my rifle down on the ground, pulled my knife
from its sheath, wrapped my arms around the wounded and frightened
doe, and ...
I hate to kill.
But if I'm going to profit by death, and to some degree we all do
-- even those who find the very act of eating flesh to be offensive
still benefit from the restorative act of responsible hunting in the
nation's wild places -- then I believe I also have an obligation to
do it in the most honest way possible. It has to cost me something.
And it does. I would not be so presumptuous as to suggest that the
obligation extends beyond me. But speaking only for myself, it is
compelling. It's a debt I owe the place I've chosen to live. And
it's why, if you're looking for me on the day after Christmas,
you'll find me in the woods of Pennsylvania with a flintlock rifle
in my hand, and a few gnawing regrets in my heart.
Seamus McGraw is the author of "The End of Country." He wrote
this for The New York Times. The flintlock hunting season in
Pennsylvania runs through Jan. 16.