I was huddled under a tree, dressed in camo and trying to keep the lock of my flintlock shogun dry in the light New Mexican rain, an indefinably light, misty drizzle that bounced up off the ground and soaked me to the crotch.
It was about 9 in the morning, not a fine time to be hunting turkey in New Mexico. Usually we would be heading back to the ranch by now, but the day had started slow, dismal and dark. The birds hadn’t come off the roost until late and then reluctantly. To boot, instead of flying down off the roost tree, a huge old cottonwood, they flew up onto a big hill, with only a few sparse gobbles to tell an aspiring muzzleloading turkey hunter where they might be headed.
I had followed them for a while, gradually coming to the realization that they were heading in the direction of a strutting ground about a half mile away. I knew I wouldn’t be able to sneak up on them there, so decided to sprint ahead and take the chance on an ambush.
So sprint I did, if you can call hurrying through slippery New Mexican goo sprinting. I reached the strutting grounds with nary a sound behind me to tell me the birds were coming, found a likely tree with a decent field of fire and sat down to wait.
I was carrying a decoy and a pocketful of calls. I had watched Ray Eye’s tapes through three time then tried calling. I found I could make the dogs bark. The only time I got a turkey in sight, I had called seductively only to see the bird jerk up in alarm and take off for the nearest brush pile, so I decided to leave the decoy and the calls in the pocket. The birds would have to come in on their own or not at all.
I sat under that tree in the drizzle for an hour or so. Nothing happened. no bird calls, no critter noises, nothing but drizzle. It was a touch cool, too, but not so cool that I didn’t drift off once or twice.
I woke up from a catnap to find a hen standing upright and looking me in the eye from about 40 yards. I was well back in the trees from her angle but I was sure she could see me. I held as still as my frosty breath would let me and waited. She glared at me for a century, then turned and began pecking at the ground.
Suddenly the air was full of birds. They had snuck up a deep ditch and were jumping up and over the edge, about thirty of them congregating in the middle of the strutting field.
There wasn’t anything for me to do but hold still. I was hoping that they would decide to come past my sit on their way to another open field about 500 yards up canyon.
After an hour wait, the birds began to spread a little. There were three gobblers with the flock but they weren’t making much noise or fuss. The rain was keeping them quiet.
Two of them started my way, the first a younger bird, the second bigger with a beard that cam within 2 inches of the ground.
By this time, I was quietly fussing with my flintlock. I hoped the misty rain hadn’t soddened the priming powder to the point that it wouldn’t fire. I wiped off the frizzen and resolved to hold the gun true, following through just in case there was a hang fire.
The tom finally strolled close enough for a shot. He was in the open, about 25 yards away. I had the gun up, elbows on knees, with hammer cocked and frizzen freshly wiped. I pursed my mouth and squeaked, like old man Daniels had taught me. He used to squeak prairie dogs out of their holes and catch them with a lasso on a willow when he was a kid in Hill Crick about a hundred years ago.
The tom stopped, swivelled his head around for a look, and stared straight at me, right down the barrel of the flint shotgun. I squeezed the trigger, or jerked it more truthfully, and the gun roared, a big cloud of white smoke billowing out under the trees.
Doc, Mirriam and Manton style flintlock shotgun. It has the lines of the best English single barrel fowler, a ‘patent’ counter-bored touch-hole, the quickest flintlock in the world, a 32 inch barrel and an interchangable Colonial choke. It is a delightful muzzleloading shotgun, capable of 40 yard head shots any day of the week.
The billow of white smoke brought back a lot of memories. I’ve been muzzleloading for over 50 years, starting when I was a kid in middle Utah in the late 1940’s. I made my first muzzleloader before I was 12 and hunted deer in Utah with one long before there was ever a season for muzzleloaders anywhere in the country.
I had built the flintlock fowler that I was using as a prototype for Muzzleloading Technologies, for whom I did R&D. It was modeled after the fine, late flint guns made by the Englishman Manton, with a short 32 inch, 12 gauge barrel, a very modern looking half stock with straight grip and the finest of flintlocks, a model made by L&R called the ‘Durrs Egg.’ This lock is so good it’ll fire upside down twenty times in a row even with a dull flint.
I had also designed the production model of the percussion shotgun I had brought along. It had been produced by the original White company, and was then licensed to MTI. Both the flint and the percussion guns will shoot 80-90% patterns with the percussion gun holding a 10% edge because of its straight rifled barrel and Hastings choke.
I had started this adventure with the percussion shotgun, called the ‘Tominator’. I had driven south from my home in Rooosevelt, Utah to Clayton, New Mexico, where Black Jack Ketchum was hanged in 1901 for robbing a Union Pacific train. (the sheriff botched the job and jerked his head off.), to the ranch operated by Ric Martin, whom I had met at SCI. He had bragged up his New Mexico Rio Grande turkey hunting something fierce.
I found the country not at all like the turkey woods of Missouri, where I had taken big Eastern turkey. This was a high western plateau, with canyons dropping off to water here and there. Cattle grazed the short buffalo grass of the highlands while the canyons were wooded. It was in the canyons that the Rio Grandes were found.
Ric’s brother, Fred, had taken me out the evening that I arrived. He was fascinated but obviously dubious as I loaded my Tominator with 100 grains of Black Powder, a couple of yellow wonder wads, a White “Powercup” plastic shot collar and 1 ½ ounces of #5 copper plated shot, followed by another yellow Wonder Wad to hold the shot in.
We walked a mile or so from the house to a big roost tree, stopping about a hundred yards away. Fred figured the birds would come through our sit on their way to the tree.
He hadn’t called but only a few times when I heard feet thumping to my right. Suddenly three big birds, looking like jakes to me, with 8 inch beards and tall slim bodies, came running past, not 10 feet to my front. They galloped past, heading for the strutting area below the big tree.
I glanced back at Fred, started to say “Jakes” explaining why I hadn’t shot. His eyes were bugging out, face red and veins all swollen up. He looked apoplectic. I could see that I’d made a mistake. He whispered, voice tight with suppressed frustration, ‘Doc, those were mature birds”
“Sure looked like Jakes to me” I said, “they weren’t anywhere near as big as the eastern birds I’ve taken”
He cussed, “‘Course not. These Rio Grandes are skinny and tough compared to those fat acorn fed Easterners you’re used to.” It was obvious we were going to get to try again.
Next morning we were out before first light. We traveled to a deep canyon, hiking down to the bottom and setting up. We got a gobble from what sounded like a mile away. Fred’s calling was excellent. We could hear the bird coming for a half hour before he showed, about 200 yards to my left. He could see the hen decoy we had set up about 30 yards to our front. Still, it took the cautious bird a full hour to make that 200 yards. It was call, gobble, take a few steps, strut, gobble and wait. Then repeat the process all over again.
Now Fred was cutting and making sexy mew-like sounds. He near had me excited. The tom was gobbling with every step, but coming on slow and cautious.
I waited until he was about 35 yards away, still 20 yards from the decoy. I knew the pattern I was shooting would hold 90% at 40 yards, so waited until a gobble stopped and he stretched up his head to look around, then slapped the trigger, the bead right on the turkeys head.
There was a whoop of delight from the right as the tom went over in a heap. Fred charged out of the trees, not that he needed to. The Tom was down and dead, not even much flop and quiver.
Fred counted the pellets in the birds head, He was amazed to find more than a dozen hits with 4 in the brain case area. “Wow’, He said, “that muzzleloader really is effective. I was surprised when you shot so far away. I figured you’d have to wait for a twenty yard shot.”
“Nope”, I said, “this gun shoots better than most modern ones. In fact, I’d rather use this muzzleloader than any modern shotgun. The patterns are tighter and the shot pattern more even. There’s no forcing cone or opening shotshell to disturb the shot pattern.”
“And who needs a second shot on a turkey”, he chortled.
The very first muzzleloader I ever built was a shotgun, using an old full choke Marlin barrel and a Back-Action percussion lock and stock I made myself. It shot such a tight pattern that I couldn’t hit a thing with it, but it taught me how to get a good tight pattern out of a muzzleloading shotgun. I made good use of that experience when I designed the White Tominator in the early 1990’s. The secret of the Tominator is the rifle-like configuration, the straight rifling and Hastings screw in-screw-out choke. 90-95% first shot patterns are easy.
That night another hunter from the east showed up. we enjoyed a great supper and an evening of hunting stories. The new hunter had only one day to hunt while I was staying three, so Fred asked permission to take out the new guy next morning. He was sure he could get him a bird first try. I agreed, with the proviso that I could return to the first roost tree that we had hunted. The tree wasn’t far and Fred didn’t think I could get lost so agreed. So it was that I ended up earlier in the story with a big cloud of white smoke billowing out from under the trees I was hiding in.
The tom had disappeared in all the smoke, which was especially heavy because of the intense humidity with all the drizzle. But I realized all was well when I heard a whoop from up canyon, and saw Fred, closely followed by the new guy, charging into the field at a dead run. He sprinted to the bird in Olympic time but, once again, hardly needed to make the effort. This bird had even more shot in the brain case than the first one. ‘Course, it had been closer, too.
We all stood around and admired the bird. The new hunter wasn’t even surprised by the flint gun’s performance. Come to find out, Fred had been tattling on how well the percussion gun shot.
Fred drawled laconically, “well, you can’t complain about the hunting, and I sure can’t complain about the shooting. I’m flat impressed with those muzzleloaders. Puts a new slant on the game” He didn’t want to appear too enthusiastic, but the glint in his eyes said different.
As usual, the next words out of both their mouths were ‘where can I get one?.’ You might be thinking the same thing. The Tominator that I used that day is not in production. White Muzzleloading, sometimes has a used one in stock, as well as flintlock and percussion single barrel fowlers in both 12 and 20 gauge. Click on Custom Traditional above to see the latest offerings. You can also find a custom maker to get a good flint or percussion gun by looking in the pages of ‘Muzzle Blasts’ the official magazine of the National Muzzleloading Rifle Association, Box 67, Friendship, Indiana, 42067. I know you will enjoy it, Like Fred said, it really does put a new slant on the game.
That’s Fred Martin on the left and Ric Martin on the right with me in the middle. These guys do some marvelous outfitting. I have hunted with them several times, every time a delight. They are good at what they do.