For some hunters, Pennsylvania's flintlock deer season is more than one last chance to tag a whitetail -- it is history relived. To others, it's a way to trim the modern hunter's technological edge down to its essential roots.
Established by the Pennsylvania Game Commission in 1974 on 37 selected state game lands, the unique hunt lured steadily increasing numbers of black powder participants as the season was offered on more game lands tracts, and then expanded statewide in 1979.
The robust initial growth of flintlock hunting in Pennsylvania was neither a random accident nor the result of marketing campaigns to sell a "new" class of firearms.
"There was already this 'underground' of people in Berks, Lehigh, Lancaster and Schuylkill counties who had never stopped making these rifles," said Doyle Dietz, flintlock hunter and black powder historian from Orwigsburg, Schuylkill County. "Even before the craze in the '70s we had Dixon's Muzzleloader Shop in Kempton, Berks County, that supplied these guys and kept the old tradition of Pennsylvania rifles going. You could even go to general stores in Lancaster County and buy locally made flintlock and percussion guns.
The Pennsylvania Federation of Black Powder Shooters was an instrumental part of the flintlock community.
"These guys went to the Game Commission and said they'd like to have the opportunity to enjoy this kind of hunting," said Dietz. "They got the season in '74, just as two other things were happening that got even more people interested -- the gearing up for the bicentennial [in 1976] and the movie 'Jeremiah Johnson' [in 1972]. Every outdoorsman who saw the movie wanted a .50-caliber Hawken gun to hunt with because that's what Jeremiah Johnson carried."
Lots of newcomers to flintlock hunting learned, however, that hunting deer in rain, snow and cold with black powder, after deer had already been chased for months with bows and modern rifles, was no romantic walk into history. Flintlock hunters took just 65 deer in the initial season. By 1979, the first year the flintlock hunt was offered statewide, participants reported killing 2,459 deer of a total reported harvest of 114,794.
It is difficult to gauge current participation in the flintlock-only season because hunters in the more recently established October muzzleloader season, during which in-line and percussion guns may be used, buy the same muzzleloader license required of flintlock hunters. About 175,000 hunters purchase muzzleloader licenses each year, but no attempt is made by the Game Commission to distinguish flintlock hunters from muzzleloading enthusiasts using more modern technologies.
Unlike the October muzzleloader season, which was established as part of the commission's current deer management program, the flintlock season, since its inception, has been viewed more as recreational opportunity than management tool.
"The flintlock season provides an additional recreation outlet to hunters who wish to accept the challenge of this limiting technology," said Christopher Rosenberry, deer management supervisor for the Game Commission. "The flintlock-only stipulation provides a statewide season for as many hunters who wish to participate, and accounts for a small percentage of the total deer harvest."
Still, a dedicated core of hunters has always been drawn to the flintlock hunt, regardless of fashion or the odds against downing a deer.
"I got started shooting flintlock rifles in high school in the 1960s," said Tarentum flintlocker and professional artist, Mark Anderson. "My dad made a gun back then and I shot my first deer with a flintlock in 1976 or '77, with a gun I made myself. It was up around the Allegheny National Forest. Back then, you got a map from the Game Commission showing the various public lands that were open to flintlock hunting. It was the coldest deer hunting I've ever done. The high that day in Pittsburgh was 5 degrees. My gloves froze to my gun while I was dragging that deer."
Anderson said he's drawn to the guns' architecture and design.
"As an artist ... I like the challenge that a flintlock demands over a modern rifle or even an in-line," he said. "Since sometime in the '80s I've hunted only with black powder, even in the regular rifle season."
Anderson feels the limitations of flintlock technology have enabled him to grow into a better hunter.
"You put in the time and effort and learn your limitations, as well as that of the gun," he said. "You hunt within those limitations, and you have to be more aware of all the circumstances surrounding the shot to make that one shot count. It's your responsibility as a hunter to the do so.
"This special flintlock hunt is an opportunity that, as far as I know, only Pennsylvania offers," Anderson continued. "I hope the Game Commission never tampers with or changes the season. It's part of the heritage of this state."
Flintlock season runs statewide Dec. 26-Jan. 9, 2010. Only true flintlock ignition is permitted, firing single projectiles .44-caliber or larger (minimum .50 caliber for flintlock handguns). Telescopic sights are prohibited.
Antlerless deer may be tagged with a WMU-specific antlerless license, and a legal deer of either sex may taken statewide on the general "buck" tag if the hunter has not previously tagged a buck. Flintlock season hunters are not required to wear fluorescent orange.