A move is quietly afoot that could place a pre-1900 .45/70 "buffalo rifle" in your Ohio deer hunting hands, if you and fellow fans of traditional black-powder cartridge rifles are willing to work for it.
Toby Bridges, of the International BPCR (Black Powder Cartridge Rifle) Hunting Association, based in Cape Girardeau, Mo., is one of the prime movers in an effort to convince wildlife agencies in the "shotgun only" states to allow use of these vintage-style arms for deer hunting.
Note that while it is sad to see the recent production demise of the classic lever-action Winchester 94, know that Hollywood romance - and stretching of historical realities - aside, neither the 94 nor its lever-action predecessors truly were the guns that won the West.
A typical buffalo rifle of the late 1800s is this Winchester High Wall, equipped with a crude but effective telescopic sight.
That honor belongs to the big, beautifully made, superbly accurate Sharps and other fine single-shot falling-block and rolling-block buffalo rifles. Those hallowed arms were chambered for brass-cased, blackpowder cartridges in such favorites as .38/55 and 45/70, among many others.
These were the rifles of serious long-range sharpshooters who preceded the fanciful John Wayne types. They did the job they were built for, in spades.
Among examples most often mentioned for BPCR deer hunting are the single-shot actions such as the famous Sharps, Remington Rolling Block, and Winchester High Wall, vintage or reproductions. Conceivably, there also would be room for new-made actions such as the break-action H&R Buffalo Classic.
Bridges says that such an addition to hunting-arm choices will add diversity to and increase interest in deer hunting while not altering the legitimate safety concerns that attend use of modern long-range, high-power centerfire rifle cartridges, which generally are banned in densely populated states and regions.
Bridges also cites a "fast-growing list of companies that have jumped in to support the lobbying efforts" of the BPCR effort.
"With this kind of support from the shooting industry," he adds, "it is inevitable that some of the 5,000,000 deer hunters in the U.S. who have been faced with 'shotgun only' regulations for the past 50 to 60 years soon may have a new choice."
Black powder cartridge-rifle supporters have been working hard on some Midwestern states, and bills that allow the vintage-style rifles are in the legislative hoppers, if not racing to passage, in Illinois and Indiana.
But Bridges is disappointed at the response from neighboring Michigan, where state natural resources authorities have presented vague, hidebound "safety concerns" about BPCR use in the southern third of the state, which falls under shotgun-only rules.
Such arguments are patently bogus. Modern saboted-slug (contains bushing to make it fit barrel) shotgun ammunition and souped-up, in-line muzzleloading rifles using modern saboted bullets - often barreled in modern bolt-action rifles that cannot be told from centerfire high-powers at first glance, save for the ramrod - easily equal or exceed the performance of the old .45/70 and .38/55cartridges of the late 1800s.
Obviously some state bureaucracies need to catch up with the firearms education curve. Goodness knows, most of their agencies could use all the deer hunters they can get nowadays, given that they have their feet pressed down on the massive coiled spring that is deer-reproduction potential.
Notes Bridges: "In a caliber like .45/70 Govt., or .38/55 Winchester [a favorite old target round], even with modern smokeless powder loads, one of the new-made rifles like the Remington Rolling Block Rifle still could not outperform today's hot new shotguns and saboted loads."
The BPCR association can provide plenty of comparative ballistics to reinforce the point. Visit the association Web site, www.bpcrshooter.com, and see for yourself.
Always a progessive state when it comes to deer hunting, deer management, and accommodation of hunter choices, Ohio may lead the way in the BPCR effort.
Steve Gray, chief of the Ohio Division of Wildlife, brought an open-minded response.
"We would be willing to hear what people have to say about black powder cartridge rifles. We understand the ballistics."
Over the years Ohio's "shotgun only" season has expanded beyond slug-loaded shotguns to include shotgun-load improvements, magnum handguns with select straight-walled cartridges, muzzleloading rifles, and archery tackle.
The state has been forward-looking, not hidebound, on the issue of crossbows, including them in general archery seasons - to no detriment to the quality of the deer herd or the Ohio hunting experience. Indeed, popular separate seasons are in place for archery and muzzleloading arms, that latter which progressively allowed modern technology of in-line rifles alongside traditionally styled sidelock arms.
Not that Bridges and company are seeking a separate BPCR season, only inclusion with shotgun rules.
Notes Chief Gray: "We don't want to create new seasons or allow hunting implements that hunters don't want." It took years of lobbying and analysis to bring handguns into shotgun week, for example.
Gray noted that historically the division has not allowed centerfire rifles into deer seasons because of safety factors in a relative populated, compact state such as Ohio. That prohibition will stand, no matter what.
But we're not talking a .270 Winchester, .30/06, or .243 Winchester here. A bullet from one of these rounds may carry for several miles if fired - unsafely - at maximum trajectory.
That said, the ball now is in the court of BPCR enthusiasts. States Gray: "We've not had a lot of people ask us about black powder cartridge rifles. There has been no groundswell of support." He acknowledges, however, the increasing use and popularity of low-power, black powder cartridge-era arms in such events as cowboy action shooting.
Sums Bridges: "During the early to mid 1960s, there were only about 200,000 muzzleloading shooters in the U.S., and very likely less than half actually hunted with a muzzleloader. It was the opening of muzzleloader hunting opportunities that encouraged the growth of this segement of the shooting sports. As new seasons or hunting opportunities were established, more and more hunters picked up a muzzleloader for the first time.
"Depending on who you ask, there are now between 3 and 3 1/2-million muzzleloading shooters in the country and easily 90-plus percent of them hunt deer and other big game. The same thing can, and will, happen with packing an old style black powder cartridge rifle for hunting deer, if only state game departments will give it a chance."
Gray welcomes letters, addressed to the chief at the Ohio Division of Wildife, 2045 Morse Rd., Building G, Columbus, Ohio 43229-6693. Or e-mail wildinfo@ dnr.state.oh.us.
The chief also highly recommends public input at the annual district fish and wildlife regulatory open houses, held each March in the five district headquarters. Lastly he suggests talking up BPCR with local state wildlife officers and district wildlife managers.
Deer hunting rules already are set for the upcoming 2006-2007 seasons. But change can happen quickly if the BPCR constituency is motivated and cooperative. It only would take a rules change, suggested Gray. That can be accomplished through the chief's recommendation and Ohio Wildlife Council approval, without the cumbersome need for action by the Ohio General Assembly.
Here is hoping that Ohio will be a leader in shotgun states to welcome the BPCR movement.