West Virginia’s Mountaineer Heritage Hunting season began January 9, two weeks after most hunting seasons have closed. It is the second year since its conception, and most notably, it is limited to primitive weapons – like flintlock muzzle loader rifles.
The season is meant to memorialize the state’s settlers, using similar hunting techniques and weapons.
Muzzle loader rifles are long guns, easily four feet. Hunters load black powder into the muzzle — the end of the gun — to fire. It takes an experienced person just under a minute to reload. That means that for hunting, you typically have one shot to kill an animal.
“Literally these are not high tech. These are primitive weapons. There’s nothing high tech about them,” Gene Wotring, a Morgantown-based rifle maker, said.
A New Generation
As of last spring, Gene started making the WVU Mountaineer rifle — the signature piece for WVU’s Mountaineer mascot. His father, Marvin Wotring, made the rifle for over 40 years prior to that. Marvin made 949 muzzle loaders in his life, and Gene is on number nine. It takes him about 80 hours to make one rifle.
Inside Gene’s shop in Morgantown, five rifles were mounted in front of a rugged, cotton American flag. The rest of the shop was in a bit of disarray — Gene is still going through all of his father’s tools, which he inherited. But the rifles on display stand out. He made them all this year.
“A lot of frustrating hours in that gun and I had to put it up for a little bit. So then I built this one and made out of completely scraps from his shop,” Gene said.
They all have a glossy wooden shine to them. Two have a hand-carved gold emblem in the shape of W.Va. Another is made out of Birdseye Maple, which gives it a distinct, patterned look and is decorated with a metal bear paw.
Building It For The Challenge…
Gene said the knowledge of how to build muzzle loaders, and even how to shoot them, is dwindling. He said it is easier to hunt with modern rifles because they are easier to load, can shoot a longer range and can shoot multiple times within a matter of seconds.
But, he said, black powder hunting is almost a sport of its own.
“There’s a challenge to it. At some point, honestly it’s pretty easy to kill an animal with a modern rifle, you want to make it a little more challenging.”
And that is a big reason the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources advocated for the Mountaineer Heritage Hunting season. In a 2018 DNR survey of hunters, data showed that almost half of West Virginian hunters intended to take part in the season.
And Gene is one of those people. He made his first muzzle loader at 11 years old, but he had stopped building the rifles in adulthood.
…And The Legacy
When Marvin passed away unexpectedly, Gene felt like he needed take over his father’s legacy. WVU needed a new rifle right away, and Marvin had a list of other customers orders dating back to 2010. Gene said as Marvin got older, he could not keep up with the demand.
Gene was left with a stack of worn papers, big and small, that Marvin liberally scribbled names and phone numbers on.
“There’s 98, plus all the ones on the side, plus the ones on the top. He ran out of room. But some people are finding me,” Gene said.
For as long as Gene can remember his dad was making muzzle loaders, so Gene said he did not realize how special of a craft it is.
“I’ve heard comments where my work is just as good as dad’s, but when I look at it I think it doesn’t even match up – completely different category,” he said.
Building It For The History
Larry Spisak is another West Virginian who builds muzzle loaders.
His shop is down a windy turnpike outside Morgantown. It sits on several acres of forested land that he hunts on. Larry is retired and devotes much of his time to studying and interpreting the practices of our Appalachian ancestors.
“The ability of dressing in period clothing, firing period weapons, hunting and experiencing the woods as our ancestors did 200 years ago, even with today’s modern technology, for me and many others, that’s the closest as you can come to time travel,” he said.
Over 40 years he has made dozens of rifles. Larry prefers to make flintlock rifles, which are a type of muzzle loader, and are one of the oldest firearm technologies dating back to the 1500s.
“Ready To Fire”
With a flintlock, one pulls the trigger, and a piece of steel hits the flint, which is just a very hard rock. It creates a spark and ignites the black powder.
“First thing I do is take my powder horn and I’ve got my powder measure right here and that’s from a wild turkey leg bone,” Larry said.
All of his supplies are handmade. A friend made the turkey powder measure and Larry made the leather bag carrying the rifle and round lead ball, which serves as the bullet.
Larry wrapped the ball in a small piece of fabric, or a patch, before putting it into the barrel of the gun.
“The patch acts as a seal and it also allows the rifling to grip the ball better and put that spin on the ball,” Larry said. “Alright now we draw the ram rod and drive it home.”
He used the ram rod to push the black powder and bullet into the bottom of the gun, back by the flintlock.
“Alright it’s on the charge. Ready to fire. Put it on full cock and we’ll go,” he said.
The gun made a bellowing sound through the woods.
The rifle is a large part of Appalachian history, Larry said. Early settlers had to hunt for food, and muzzle loaders were the way they did it, Larry added that West Virginians today still embody their ancestors.
“A large percentage of the population lives in the mountains, and maybe not realizing it, they are, in their everyday activities in their farming and hunting, they are living a bit of the life that was commonplace 200 years ago,” he said.
And that is why Larry still makes and hunts with muzzle loaders. He likes to feel connected to the settlers who paved the way for us in Appalachia.
The 2020 West Virginia Mountaineer Heritage Hunting season is January 9 to January 12.
This story was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting and is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts, and culture.