Beyond Civil Defense: Guns and Recreation

Muzzleloading Season
Guns & Recreation
Priming Horns?
Editing History
Craft Apprenticeship
Wallace Gusler Retires
Written for The Colonial Williamsburg Interpreter
Vol. II No. 3
November 1990

INTRO: Gary is the master gunsmith in the Department of Historic Trades and is currently serving as the interpretive planning teams coordinator in the Department of Interpretive Development. The following is extracted from a manuscript on guns and gunsmiths that is to be published in the not-too-distant future.

Early settlers and pioneers in America faced an immense wilderness unlike anything they had experienced in Europe. As frightening as this vast forest filled with strange beasts must have been to the first immigrants, it was also a "sportsman's paradise.'' Author Samuel Johnson noted that "hunting was the labor of the savages of North America, but the amusement of the gentlemen of England." While hunting was a necessity for the Indians and for the settlers along the frontier, it soon became an important form of amusement in this country as well.

In England and most of Europe, legal hunting was controlled by the wealthy because wild game was considered the property of the landowner. Colonists found that Indians had a completely opposite view: to them wild game, like air and sunshine, was a resource free for the taking. While the colonists did not adopt completely the Indians' philosophy, it may have influenced their thinking. Before 1640 a colonist wrote, "wee accounte of them as the Deare in Virginia— things belonging to noe man." Beginning with a law enacted in 1632, which prohibited the killing of wild hogs and set a bounty on wolves, wild animals in Virginia became public domain. As such, their use was subject to control by the government rather than by the landowners.

With wild game on unoccupied land free for the taking, the colonists were more likely than their European counterparts to own hunting guns and to become skilled in their use. In 1705, Robert Beverly commented in The History and Present State of Virginia that "the people there are very skillful in the use of Fire Arms, being all their Lives accustomed to shoot in the Woods." The reputation and tradition of Americans as gun owners, hunters, and marksmen can be traced, at least in part, to the decision in Jamestown that wild game belonged to no one man.

In 1739 John Clayton of Gloucester County described hunting in Virginia to a friend in England:

"To satisfie the Gentlemen you mention who is desirous of knowing the diversion of hunting and shooting here and the several sorts of game. ...
Now the Gentlemen here that follow the sport place most of their diversion in Shooting Deer; w'ch they perform in this manner they go out early in the morning and being pritty certain of the places where the Deer frequent they send their servants w'th dogs to drive 'em out and so shoot 'em running, the Deer are very swift of
foot the diversion of shooting Turkies
is only to be had in the upper parts of the Countrey where the woods are of a very great extent,... the shooting of water fowl is performed too in the same manner w'th a Water spaniel, as with you,... the bears, Panthers, Buffaloes and Elks, and wild cats are only to be found among the mountains ... and hunting there is very toilsome and laborious and sometimes dangerous."

Another description of deer hunting comes from Colonel George Hanger, a British officer who was invited on a hunt in South Carolina after the siege of Charleston. He explained the popular sport of "fire hunting at night." Burning pine knots were carried in a long-handled frying pan balanced on the hunter's shoulder as he rode slowly through the woods. The fire was behind the hunter, and it illuminated the deer's eyes as it stared toward the light. For this method, a smoothbore gun loaded with buckshot was the best choice because a spread of pellets gave the greatest certainty of a hit.

Deer hunting by the more conventional methods of stalking and trail watching required a more accurate firearm. The first of these firearms were made in Germany before 1500 by cutting spiral grooves inside the barrels to give the ball a spinning motion along its line of flight. The grooves, or rifling, in the bore allowed the hunter to fire a round ball accurately. (The English word "rifle" comes from the German word riffeln, meaning "grooved.") A skilled marksman could hit a four-inch circle at a hundred yards with such a gun. Throughout Europe, rifles became the most popular guns for hunting big game, from deer to wild boar.

Cut away view of a loaded rifle barrel showing, from left to right, the threaded breech plug, powder, patched ball, and rifling grooves. The flash pan, from which the charge is ignited through the touch hole, is shown by the dotted lines.

The colonists made and used rifles based on the German long-barreled "stalking rifles" with English and French design influences. Many regional styles of rifles evolved in America after the 1750s. They were produced in all the populated areas, but more seem to have been made in Pennsylvania because of both the German influence and the huge number of immigrants who came through Philadelphia. This has led to the myth that rifles were invented in Pennsylvania and the mistaken use of the term "Pennsylvania rifle" for all rifles of this type regardless of their place of manufacture. Rifles made from the Carolinas to New England differ only in stock architecture, or shape, and in decoration; students of these "American long rifles" often can pinpoint the area and date of production from these details. By the last quarter of the eighteenth century American rifles had evolved into a form well suited for the sport of hunting and the necessity of survival, and their production continued well into the era of breech-loading cartridge guns.

In addition to his rifle, a hunter needed other specialized equipment. A powder horn could be purchased from a horner or made by the hunter himself. To ensure the correct powder charge for loading, a powder measure was made from the tip of a deer antler or a tin measure could be purchased. Bullets, round lead balls, were cast in a mold that resembled a pair of pliers and, because the rifle bores were not standardized, each rifle had its own mold. To carry his bullets, spare flints, and powder measure, a hunter wore a small leather pouch attached to a strap. The powder horn and a knife might have been attached to this shooting bag strap as well.

Unlike other leisure time activities, hunting had a benefit beyond recreation. It provided food for the hunter's table. Evidence of the popularity of venison is found in the recipe books of the period and in the bones that archaeologists have retrieved from trash pits. Roast venison was a favorite tavern dish and at least one Williamsburg resident, Thomas Everard, ordered a "Venison Pastry Pan"in 1773.

Hunting for sport and for the table was not limited to deer. Robert Beverly wrote in 1705, "As in summer the Rivers and Creeks are fill'd with Fish, so in Winter they are in many Places cover'd with Fowl.... I am but a small Sports-man, yet with a fowling Peice, have kill'd above Twenty of them at a Shot."

The "fowling piece" was a smoothbore, without rifling, designed to fire shot, small lead pellets. Today this type of sporting gun is called a shotgun. Fowling pieces of the colonial period ranged in size and weight from "duck guns" with barrels over five feet long and weighing more than twelve pounds, to "Bird guns" with small bores and weighing less than five pounds. The heavy guns could fire larger charges of shot and powder. To kill over twenty fowl with a shot, Mr. Beverly probably used one of these. Medium-weight guns were more common because they could be loaded with a variety of sizes of shot to shoot game from buck to quail, answering the hunter's every need.

Cut away view of a loaded fowling piece barrel showing, from left to right, the powder, wadding cardboard (to transmit the force of the burning powder to the shot), shot, and more wadding (to prevent the pellets from rolling out of the barrel before the gun is discharged).

Whether hunting for sport and food or to protect their crops and livestock, most rural Virginians needed to own a gun and to become skilled in its use. This was especially true on the frontier, where Colonel Hanger observed, "You will often see a boy, not above ten years of age, driving the cattle home, but not without a rifle on his shoulder: they never stir, out, on any business, nor on any journey, without their rifle." John F. D. Smyth found that frontiersmen always carried rifles and that "with his rifle upon his shoulder, or in his hand, a back-wood's man is completely equipped for visiting, courtship, travel, hunting, or war."

With rifles in almost daily use, both the formal and impromptu shooting match occurred. Shooting at a mark as a test of skill began long before the development of firearms when archers matched their abilities for prizes. The European tradition of competitive shooting was well established in the colonies by the eighteenth century. When Queen Anne came to the throne in 1702, part of the celebration held in Williamsburg was a shooting match sponsored by the governor. "The prizes consisted of rifles, swords, saddles, bridles, boots, money, and other things." Francis Michel, a visitor from Switzerland, reported this match and its conclusion: "When most of the shooting was done, two Indians were brought in, who shot... so as to surprize us and put us to shame."

In his book, Early Settlement and Wars of Western Virginia and Pennsylvania, written in 1824, the Reverend Dodderidge described frontier shooting matches from the 1770s:
"Shooting at marks was a common diversion among the men, when their stock of ammunition would allow it. ... The present mode of shooting off hand [standing up] was not then in practice. This mode was not considered as any trial of the value of a gun; or, indeed, as much of a test of skill of a marksman. Their shooting was from a rest, and at as great distance as the length and weight of the barrel of the gun would throw a ball on horizontal level. Such was their regard to accuracy, in these sportive trials of their rifles, and their own skill in the use of them, that they often put moss or some other soft substance, on the log or stump from which they shot."

In addition to formal or competitive shooting, shooting also occurred during celebrations and on holidays. A1655 law prohibited shooting at "drinkeings" except for weddings and funerals because it was a waste of powder. The 1661 version of this law exempted only "buryalls." In Williamsburg the king's birthday and other holidays were celebrated by the firing of both small arms and cannon. Before the telephone only the report of a gun could share the joy of Christmas morning with distant neighbors.

In addition to man's natural urge to compete was his desire to collect fine things. European nobility often had extensive arms cabinets, and this tradition continued in America with the wealthy owning firearms as curios and art objects as well as for use. Part of Lord Dunmore's collection survives and is on exhibit at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Gallery. Estate inventories that include old or very old guns suggest a collection of family heirlooms rather than arms needed for use. Sometimes just the number of firearms in an estate inventory(such as that of Ralph Wormeley who had twenty-one in 1702) indicates an exceptional interest in guns.

Today, collecting antique guns and their accoutrement is divided into highly specialized fields. . Some collectors seek out guns made in a particular area, while others look for associations with historic events. Most collectors see another value as well. Their collection provides a link across time with the men who used the guns: a feeling of kinship and an understanding of the bond between a man and his gun in early America.