Thinking about those deer hunting seminars coming up led to a wandering, wavering line of thought about the past.
The early settlers of Arkansas hunted deer, didn’t they? Sure, and every now and then somebody tells us that we have more deer in the state today than the pioneers did a century and a half ago. It’s one of those arguing points that is unprovable.
The oldtimers had deer and hunted them. They also had elk, bison and swans that they hunted, along with rabbits and squirrels. The journals of early explorers tell us about these and how they shot something nearly every day for food that night.
Let’s stick to deer here.
We know from history that Arkansas was almost solid forests in the years before statehood. This is where the deer lived, and this is where the pioneers and explorers hunted them.
They used rifles for the most part, although some worked with shotguns. The term buckshot came from this era. Until the 1840s or 1850s, those rifles and shotguns were flintlocks. Then percussion caps came along, making shooting much more reliable, especially in wet weather.
Both flintlock and percussion cap rifles had to be loaded from the muzzle, and they were single shot guns. Yes, a few double barrels were around but not many. An experienced muzzle-loader rifleman could shoot, reload and shoot again in about 30 seconds, we are told. The really good ones could do it in 25 seconds.
Miss a shot at a deer or just wound it, and imagine how far that deer could run in the half-minute it took to reload and shoot again.
Scopes on those flintlock and percussion rifles? Not hardly. The sights were open and usually fixed. A few caplock rifles were equipped with peep sights in later years, but these were more suitable for open country shooting.
Nearly all these rifles in use in the early days of Arkansas fired round balls. Conical bullets came along near the time of the Civil War. The round balls were often made by the user. Lead was melted over a fire and poured into a bullet mold. When it was cool, the ball was removed and smoothed off.
To make the lead ball fit tightly in the rifle barrel, it was put in the muzzle on top of a small square of cloth, usually something from a discarded piece of clothing. To make it go in easier, lubrication could be a bit of lard or tallow or, more often, some spit.
Those old rifles were effective up to a hundred yards and sometimes a bit more. But long ranges weren’t needed in the Arkansas forests. The pioneers didn’t have to take "bean field shots" as we sometimes do today.
Written records and histories tell us that deer hunting was done in daytime. No spotlighting in those days because they didn’t have spotlights. Deer hunting was done by the hunter going after the deer on the ground. The oldtimers didn’t climb a tree and wait for a deer to come to them.
It is partly speculation, but a guess is that those folks of yesteryear could move silently through the forests in contrast to the tromping and thrashing we do today in a walk in the woods.
The oldtimers didn’t use four-wheelers or Jeeps either. A horse or mule might be a help in getting to an area and also in taking a deer carcass home. Mostly, though, it was walking for the hunter then dragging the dead deer back with the aid of a rope.
Throwing a deer carcass over a shoulder and carrying it several miles is largely fiction. Don’t believe this? Try it sometime.
The deer hunter of old took something to eat on his quest. Sometimes it was jerky, but more often probably a leftover piece of cornbread or a cold cooked sweet potato. A candy bar? Wouldn’t the pioneers be amazed?