Miss. expands list of primitive weapons

One of my all-time favorite movies is “Quigley Down Under.”

In it, Tom Selleck plays a hard-bitten Texas cowpuncher with a knack for long-range shooting. He answers an ad for a rifleman needed on a station in the Australian outback, where he thinks he is going to be paid to shoot vermin marauding on cattle herds. He finds upon arrival the vermin are aborigines, whom were considered by many in 1870s Australia to be little better than animals.Needless to say, he refuses the job, but not before making a couple of spectacular shots with his falling-block Sharps .45-110 “buffler” rifle — one of the kinds of rifles used by Buffalo Bill Cody and other buffalo hunters on the western plains to decimate millions of the herd animals.

Most riflemen love that movie, and it has been often said it is the first movie, if not the only one, to come out of Hollywood giving a rifle almost equal billing with the star.

Several of the shots Quigley makes, while obviously dramatized, are never out of the realm of possibility for the type of rifle he was using.

Probably what made the shooting, rifle and entire movie so enjoyable is the attention to detail in dress, actions and ballistics.

When Quigley, near dead from a beating and left to broil in the relentless sun, rolls over and takes aim, firing a shot at the back of the man abandoning him, the villain is almost out of sight and rapidly disappearing. It takes a really, really long time for the bullet to travel all that distance and take the no-good varmint off the wagon. It’s so long a time, you begin to think he’s really going to drive out of sight before the bullet catches up with him.

There are a lot of those types of reproduction rifles on the market today, varying in price from “Oh really?” to “Ohmigod!”

Unlike the originals, which shot brass cartridges but used black powder as a propellant, most of these can and do shoot cartridges with modern smokeless powders. Most of the old original guns can only shoot the black powder cartridges due to the pressures developed by modern powders.

I heard rumors floating around the gun counters that Mississippi had expanded the parameters of what encompassed “primitive” weapons. Supposedly the state included the old blackpowder breech loaders patented and in use before 1900.

In fact, people were coming in and pricing Marlin Guide Guns in .45-70 and other repeaters because they believed such were legal, and they were going to gain an advantage over lightly hunted deer during the primitive-weapons season.

Unfortunately, it ain’t quite exactly so.

I went to Bowie Outfitters in Baton Rouge, and counseled with my experts, the gurus behind the gun counter, Norm Kottemann and Myles Brumfield.

“We had one of the Shiloh-Sharps Quigley reproductions on the rack for a few days,” said Brumfield. “It was up there over $1,200, and it didn’t last long. It was an absolutely beautiful piece.”

“They’ve been coming in every day,” said Kottemann, “asking about the new Mississippi regulations. We point them to the clearance rack over there with last year’s models of muzzleloaders — great deals — but everyone wants to know about Mississippi, and the new versions of primitive weapons.”

Kottemann gives them the facts, as he did me, then he directs everyone to the Mississippi Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks website (www.mdwfp.com), where you click on “primitive weapons,” and the new regulation pertaining to types of rifles and ammunition come up.

Here is a direct quote from the page:

“‘Primitive firearms’ for the purpose of hunting deer are defined as single- or double-barreled muzzle-loading rifles of at least .38 caliber; single shot, breech-loading cartridge rifles (.38 caliber or larger) of a kind and type manufactured prior to 1900, and replicas, reproductions or reintroductions of those type rifles; and single- or double-barreled muzzle-loading shotguns with single ball or slug.

“All muzzle-loading primitive firearms must use black powder or a black powder substitute with either percussion caps or No. 209 shotgun primers or flintlock ignition. Breech-loading single-shot rifles must have exposed hammers and use metallic cartridges.”

So now you know. If you ever wanted to be Buffalo Bill Cody, if you ever imagined yourself in the character of Matthew Quigley … well, there aren’t any “buffler” left to hunt, but you can fulfill your rifle fantasies to your heart’s content with a whole new style of rifles that will stomp the everlovin’ bejevers out of a whitetail buck.

A friend who grew up hunting deer behind dogs in the Atchafalaya Basin told me once that his father’s club hired a “hound man” to work the dogs, feed and keep up with them. And this gentleman “ran” the dogs on foot as they trailed.

He frequently got decent shots jumping deer, but the .30-30 he used just didn’t do the job on the running animals. The club bought him a Marlin lever-action in the venerable U.S. Army round, the .45-70-originally chambered in the famous Springfield “Trapdoor” rifle carried by the plains troops.

He said the deer would turn flips in the air, and land dead on their backs when he connected with the big 400-grain slugs. They rarely had to trail a deer when he walloped one with the .45-70.

Capt. Bobby Font, head of the EBR Sheriff’s Office Firearms Training Unit, described shooting something with a .45-70 “…like hitting them with a flying paint can.”

Of course, that is not the only cartridge available out there that was designed and in use as a blackpowder metallic cartridge before 1900. Among many still available, some of the more popular are the .38-55, the .44-40, the .45-65, the .45-110 and 120, and the ever-popular .45 Long Colt. The second number on most of them, of course, denoted the original loading of black powder in grains.

Most all of these are available for use in modern reproduction rifles with modern smokeless powders. But the rifles have to be designed to withstand the pressures of smokeless powders.

Among a few of the designs being reproduced today are the Browning Model 1881 and 1885 falling-block actions, the Spencer and Sharps falling blocks, and the copies of the Model 1873 Springfield “Trapdoors.” (David Reynerson, general manager of Bowie Outfitters, has an original trapdoor Springfield in his office. You heft it, and wonder which Indian battles it survived, and if it was used later for buffalo.)

Another wonderful old action that is available in reproductions in a variety of calibers is the exceptionally strong Martini-Henry, which had an extractor so powerful, it would rip brass cartridges apart if they jammed. You practically could not damage a Martini extractor.

Most of these repros are exceptionally beautiful copies of early rifles. Many, particularly when you get into the designs with the aura of Hollywood, such as the Quigley rifle, can get very pricey.

But the “tip-up” or “crack-barrel” design first developed by Ballard in the mid-1800s, produced in the latter part of the 19th century by Harrington & Richardson, and still produced today by H&R and New England Firearms, is of an original design, safely shoots the modern versions of the old cartridges, and doesn’t fracture the budget as badly as some of the others.

They are plain and simple single-shot rifles that shoot well, just like the plain and simple rifles they copy from those early days when the .38-55 was first developed as a target and competitive round.

To me, the thrill would be owning and shooting one of the beautiful examples of these early rifles, the aesthetics as much a part of the mystique of shooting them as the actual hunting with them. But the less-expensive versions offer their own satisfaction in taking game with a cartridge that has been around and in continuous use for well over 100 years.

You can’t take the Sharps out on the plains and down a “buffler” any more, but there would have to be a satisfaction that thrilled a rifleman’s very soul to walk up to game he had taken in fair chase with one of these old rounds.

He would reflect that he was continuing a tradition with a cartridge that was around and used to protect and feed men and women when this country was truly growing up with a rifle in its hand — when a rifle was an integral part of every family, as necessary as a plow and livestock to live in a hard, unforgiving, beautiful and spacious country.

Great move, Mississippi!

Gordon Hutchinson’s best-selling novel, The Quest and the Quarry, a generational tale that parallels the lives of a line of trophy bucks with the youth of a farming family and their hunts for them, can be ordered at www.thequestandthequarry.com or by calling (800) 538-4355.