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Hunting deer with my flintlock: I hate to kill, but if I do, it has to hurt

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 her.

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 hunters.

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.

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