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Muzzle Blasts Online
Sharpen your shooting skills on the "Trailwalk"
Shooters who have never gone through a trailwalk sometimes tend to denigrate such events as mere amusements, like shooting at tin cans, until they experience one. Then they are often amazed to find that a clanger the size of the black on a 50-yard target can easily be missed at that range. I don't mean that they miss a clanger the size of the 10 ring; I mean they miss one the size of all the black rings. For a competitor who regularly shoots in the mid-to-high 40s, this comes as a shock. When he or she does it several times, sights are often checked to see if some varmint has been rapping on them with a hammer.
At this point some shooters will, like Aesop's fox, yell about sour grapes and walk off, never to shoot another trail. Others will be intrigued by the problems that a trailwalk presents. Unfortunately, some of those who quit shooting will be pilgrims. (If you do not care for the term "pilgrim", a non-pejorative meaning a person new to buckskinning, you may substitute whatever politically correct term you prefer; the meaning is the same.) Their only experience with a muzzleloader may be trailwalk or two. We don't want to scare them off. Some folks just can't stand being the last-man-at-the-blanket long enough to learn the ropes. If you are one of those people who find trailwalks frustrating, don't despair. The task is greater than you think, it may not be poor shooting that's at fault, and there is a simple and enjoyable remedy.
Before we go to the remedy, let's look a bit deeper at the problem. When shooting at paper targets, the range is known, the light usually is consistent and changes only as the sun moves, and the nice, dark bull's-eye is outlined by many inches of uniform, creamy paper. In short, the thing that you wish to hit stands out like adolescent acne. It is extremely unlikely that a trailwalk will have you shooting from comfortably level ground and under a covered firing point, which keeps the light on your sights fairly uniform; you can see the paper punchers aren't in their element during a walk.
On the trailwalks that I have shot, or endured as the case me be, the place where you stand may be level, but more often than not it is uneven or at an angle, necessitating some real ingenuity on your part to make sure that you have good, safe footing before attempting a shot. The firing point may be dry, but it might be muddy, or you could even be up to your hoo-hoo in icy water. If you have never shot a trail in which you have to look to see if your feet are still on the ground because you can't feel anything from the thighs down, count yourself lucky.
Let me break in here for a moment to add a tiddly bit of pertinent information for those who have not shot this kind of event. The standard target on a trailwalk is a ``clanger''. This can be a hunk of scrap metal, shaped however your imagination wishes, with a couple lengths of chain welded on for attaching it to a pair of metal fence posts. Flat clangers are hung so that they will swing when hit, and are never tied down firmly. A clanger that pivots from the top will deflect the flattened ball into the ground. If tied down, it could spit the flattened ball right back toward the firing line. A properly set-up trailwalk is perfectly safe to shoot, but setting it up requires the use of common sense . . . a commodity that seems to be in increasingly short supply.
The target you wish to hit may be hiding back in the shadows under a juniper so that, once you have spotted it, you find it disappears as soon as you try to line up your sights. The clanger you are shooting at may be bigger than the black in a 50-yard target and may even be at a shorter range; but when you are standing in a grove of alder trees on a windy, sunny day, with leaves blowing about, the light on your sights is a lot like those poor guys put up with at Ft. McHenry. Remember ". . . the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air. . ."? Such conditions are much more conducive to vertigo than to good shooting. It's also possible that you might be standing out in the open sunlight, with all its delightful glare, trying to hit a target hanging in an aspen grove across a gulch. Down your sights that clanger can look like it's dancing a sailor's hornpipe.
Now, everyone knows that when the sun is high, you shoot low. Or is it when the sun is low, you shoot high? I've quit passing on aphorisms that I picked up from old-timers. Whenever I do that, some ``expert'' writes to tell me that I don't know my fanny from gopher habitation, but one way or the other, you can be sure that the light conditions will be different for almost every shot. This will require that you learn how your sights and preferred sight picture work under a variety of light conditions.
You also need to know exactly where your rifle hits at short ranges. Driving a shingle nail through a board at 15 yards is not as hard as it looks, but if you are not dead-on you will find that you only folded the nail-head over to one side which means no points. A vertical string at that range is not hard to cut if you watch the light, but with a horizontal string you had best know right where your rifle hits or you will simply leave a quivering string for the next shooter. An even tougher target is a pair of strings stretched to form an X. Often this is scored one point for one string and three points for both; a tough shot, much harder than splitting your ball on an axe blade to break the clay birds on each side.
A chain hanging vertically at 20 yards isn't bad. Hang it at a 45-degree angle and it presents a real challenge. From personal experience, I know that a .40 caliber ball will go right through half-inch chain link without touching either side. (What else would explain all those misses?) I've heard that there is a danger of chains flipping the ball back at the shooter. I have no idea how many dozens of times I have shot chain on trailwalks over the past couple of decades. Never once have I seen anything to make me believe this is dangerous. Nevertheless, I always prefer to err on the side of safety, and so should anyone who sets up a trailwalk.
Well, what can a poor soul do to prepare for such problems? If you go to the range and hang up a clanger, not only will you be limiting the conditions under which you will shoot, but also the range officer will probably have a litter right on the spot. I'm fairly lucky in that I run a small cattle and timber spread, so I can set up my own trailwalk for practicing. Being both cheap and lazy, however, I set up the kind that allows me to shoot my lead and keep it, too.
While cutting my winter's wood, I save out some soft butt blocks to act as backstops. These are set up on old stumps and are either tied down or spiked into place. This is more to keep the cattle from pushing them about than to prevent their being knocked over from the impact of lead balls. A vine maple limb about three feet long is nailed to the top of the block. with about two feet projecting toward the shooting point. About a foot of bailing wire is twisted around the end of the pole and a hook bent in its end.
Now all you need is an empty tin can from the kitchen. Punch a hole in it with an old-fashioned beer-can opener and hook the wire through it so that it hangs suspended in front of the butt block. When hit, it dances around but will settle down by the time you have reloaded. It is easy to see where you are hitting and, because the ball goes right through the can and buries itself in the block, you can turn the block into kindling when it starts to shoot apart and can reclaim your lead for making more balls. I have lead that has spent the last 40 years going through my rifle barrels over and over again.
Of course, if you start shooting too high on the can, you will blow the hook right off of your wire and will have to reattach it. This, too, teaches you a lesson about your shooting. If you keep missing the can and can't figure out why, just slip a piece of cardboard between the can and the block. Your points of impact will be visible and you can make the necessary adjustments.
To vary shooting conditions, put the block in a copse of trees where a little movement of sun makes a big change in shadow placement. Set up the firing line away from the block so that you will alternate from full light, to partial shade, to full shade as you move away from the block. Start shooting at a range from which you know you can hit the target. Take three shots. If they are all hits, move back 10 to 15 yards. Stay there until you can hit with consistency, then move again.
You can easily spend several hours doing this, especially if you shoot with a friend. During this time you will find a marked change in the light on the target. Combining this with variations in the range and light conditions from your firing line will give you a lot of invaluable practice for the trailwalk. If you have access to uneven ground, you can set it up so that you can vary the angle to the target.
One little point that I should mention: it is possible to miss the whole ding-busted block. Make sure that you have a safe backdrop. Nobody wants a rifle ball as a surprise visitor. I should also mention here that shot-up cans go to a recycling center. Some of the metal posts that hold up my fences once may have been the cans I shot.
Now that you have light and range problems solved to the extent that you can hit your tin can ``clangers'' at various ranges, get a large piece of cardboard from your local grocery store and lean it against the pole in front of your block. Fasten your next target upon it. The backer, coupled with its distance from the block, will keep your target from being ripped up by wood chips back-spattered from the impact of the rifle balls.
Tape or staple a piece of butcher paper to the cardboard. Use a felt-tip pen to draw a series of dots about the size of a thumbtack and several horizontal, vertical , and diagonal lines about the thickness of grocery twine. Next, set your firing line at a distance approximating the range from which folks in your neck of the woods usually shoot their string cuts and tack drives. Now shoot. Keep it up until you can obliterate those dots and cut those lines with regularity. The paper lets you see just exactly where you put the ball when you miss, an advantage that you don't get on a trailwalk.
When you become reasonably proficient at this, nail together a framework of scrap wood and stretch some strings across it. Keep your butcher paper behind the string so that you can see where your misses go. White string in front of white paper? You betcha! There will be times when you come to the string-cut on a trail and you will swear there are no strings left. Certain light conditions will require you to hit what seems to be only a transitory hint of a string. When this happens, the practice you have gained on your own will stand you in good stead.
Don't like to shoot alone? Invite some buddies over and have your own mini-rendezvous. The winner doesn't have to fuss with the barbecue and the loser has to clean the grill. In the evening you can sit around and swap excuses for all those misses.
"Heck!" you say. "I live in a three-room walk-up!" Well, all is not lost. If you have any Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, or other public land nearby, you might possibly shoot there. (Please obey all local laws and ordinances, check with the appropriate government personnel for permission, and be very careful about choosing your back-stops.) Failing that, many farmers will let muzzleloaders shoot in gulches on their land. Just remember to approach them politely. Most of them are fine folks and make good recruits for your blackpowder club when they see how much fun shooting can be.
If you live in a large city with no shooting places nearby, you can do as I did over 25 years ago. Move, and start saving your tin cans. MB