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WILTZ: Black powder is like beer — You can brew your own

A few days ago I was talking to Neil, our high school principal in Wagner. He said, “Roger, are you going to make it to Lake Erie this spring?”

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I told Neil that Erie was on my bucket list, but that before I went to Erie, I wanted to fish Devils Lake, N.D. The phone rang later that day. It was Steve, the middle school principal. “Roger, come by my office after 4. Let’s talk about Devils Lake.”

Steve introduced me to one of the teachers — a Devils Lake native. On his cell phone we looked at pictures of leg-long northern pike, 4-pound perch, and football-shaped walleyes. Can you imagine a 4-pound perch? How about big pike on every cast? I looked Steve in the eye. “We’re going.”

Muzzleloader deer regulations

The South Dakota Game, Fish, & Parks people and I do not see eye to eye on the South Dakota muzzleloader deer season. Time of season, management and tag numbers are fine by me. My issue relates to weaponry. While South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks says modern in-line rifles are permissible, telescopic sights or scopes are taboo.

I understand their viewpoint on the telescopic sight issue. The GF&P wants the muzzleloader hunter to have a primitive experience. Hence, no telescopic sights. If a primitive hunt is GF&P’s objective, why the modern in-line rifles? Why not limit the muzzleloader season to side hammer flintlocks and percussions? I see two reasonable choices. Allow scopes on the rifles like most of the other states, or go with primitive side hammer weapons, period! By going with the first choice, the hunter can still choose to hunt as Davy Crockett did with the antique side hammer rifleless scope.

An ethical, human choice should be the force behind this issue — not someone’s view of what is the most sporting. If the hunter’s old eyes can’t handle open sights anymore, the result being a wounded deer in all probability, allow him/her the choice of hunting with a scope. Sadly, too many senior hunters have quit muzzleloader hunting because of the eyesight issue. I’m not being dramatic. It’s a fact. Eyesight deteriorates as we age.

Last January, I killed a deer with a .50 caliber Hawken muzzleloader that was built by my father. The projectile was a lead ball I cast myself. I used genuine black powder, not a modern black powder substitute. Though my overall primitive experience was very satisfying, I will admit that I struggled with my sight going in and out of focus before I touched the trigger. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been out there.

So where are today’s thoughts on muzzleloaders headed? Remington has developed a new .50 caliber rifle called the Model 700 Ultimate Muzzleloader.

Performance makes this rifle exactly what its name implies, and I found its performance difficult to believe.

I will keep my description of this rifle brief and to the point. The information came from the May 2014 American Hunter magazine. The article “Remington Model 700 Ultimate Muzzleloader” was written by Adam Heggenstaller.

During the author’s test firing, he shot a group that measured .89 inches in diameter. Think about this. The slug holes had to be touching each other. The muzzle velocity was 2,372 feet per second.

We’re talking lethal muzzleloader performance beyond 300 yards. We’re talking about a rifle that outperforms most cartridge-type rifles. There is no primitive experience.

We can go out there with a Model 700 Remington, but we can’t use a scope? We’re talking some serious age discrimination that gives this 72-year-old a slap in the face. Try to find a 65-year-old who can effectively use open sights on a deer-sized target at 300 yards. Personally, let’s limit the hunt to antique side-hammers like mine and see how close we can get to a deer.

On the lighter side, back in that paragraph where I told you I had cast my own lead balls, I could have told you I made my own gunpowder. Let’s go back to a 1958 high school chemistry lab. Like our classmates, lab partner Jim Wroblewski and I had just finished a gunpowder-making experiment. We weren’t satisfied with our gunpowder, so we continued to make a new, larger batch on the side as we toiled with the next lab.

When one of us would go into the storage room for equipment or chemicals, we would smuggle quantities of sulphur, charcoal, and potassium permanganate back to our lab table. One of us would grind the components together in a mortar with a pestle while the other kept a watchful eye on Mr. Thompson. Then we added water to our concoction and formed it into a cake to dry. Eventually we broke up the dried cake and ground it into a fine powder. We now had a large bowl filled with our newly manufactured explosive.

Testing time. We put a small quantity on a dish and attempted to ignite it with a smoldering wood splint. Nothing happened. “Wrobo, we need more powder,” I said.

I dipped the smoldering splint into the powder bowl. There was a loud “woosh.” A tongue of orange flame shot to the ceiling. It rivaled a Jupiter C rocket. It also singed our hair.

Jim and I received out-of-school suspensions. Our parents had to come to school. My dad missed work. I really didn’t know if I would be reinstated. I think some promises by some very sorry young chemists led to our return. Today I believe that was a “wake-up” call. Yes, I know how to make gunpowder.

I don’t know if gunpowder making is in today’s high school curriculum. It might have gone the way of Art Jones’ Burke High School shop class where the students made muzzleloader pistols and rifles in class. Those were the good old days.

See you next week.