My name is Gordon Baker and my shootin friends call me by my SAS handle, Will Hangfire.
I grew up around firearms and have been around them all of my life.
Do I call myself a shooter? Well, I shoot so I must be. Am I a good shot? It depends on your standard of what a good shooter is. No, I don’t fancy myself as being in the same league as many of the fine dedicated marksmen who make up the target sports but I have enjoyed shooting, collecting, and working on firearms most of my life.
My interest in firearms started when I was about 4 year’s old living on a small farm in North Central Pennsylvania.
My dad was a full-time tool and die maker so we didn’t do much farming. We raised chinchilla rabbits and had some goats to provide milk because I was allergic to bovine milk.
We did plant a large garden every year and the deer made a habit of visiting it every evening. My dad was an avid hunter so he would use the occasion to supplement our food supply.
Mom would step out the back door with the old 5 cell flashlight and spot for deer while dad stood by with his Winchester 94 32 Special. I recall being scared from the boom but I was fascinated that every time it happened we had venison for dinner the next day.
I admired dad’s 94 and he would always allow me to handle it after showing me how to check to see if it was loaded.
Watch Out Squirrels!
When I turned 6 mom and dad bought a Crossman .22 cal. Pump air rifle for my birthday and dad taught me how to shoot it. That old air rifle required about 10 pumps to bring up enough pressure to give it enough velocity for my satisfaction.
It wasn’t long before my interest turned to the growing squirrel population that occupied the track of woods behind our home. Hunting those squirrels honed my rifle skills to the point that I could knock one out of a Popular or Oak tree on a pretty regular basis. Even with 10 pumps the Crossman didn’t have enough knock-down power at a range beyond 30 or 40 feet so I recall having to occasionally fire 2 or three rounds to bring it down.
That was a lot of work! Pumping up the Crossman while running after the squirrel and reloading. But one thing it did teach me is to make every shot count!
When I turned 10 mom and dad bought me a JC Higgins single shot .22 rifle which I was only allowed to use under dad’s supervision. He would take me squirrel hunting occasionally and he would teach me the finer points of marksmanship.
One year I received a chemistry set for Christmas and I would experiment with making fun things such as gunpowder. Back then you could walk in to any drugstore and purchase Sulfur and Potassium Nitrate without any type of prescription or license.
I constructed a pistol made from some 3/8” pipe. I found an old cigarette lighter and salvaged the sparkler wheel and flint magazine out of it. I drilled a hole through the breech plug for the sparkler wheel/magazine assembly and a flash hole just ahead of it. I soldered a U shaped piece of copper around the hole to hold some powder. I carved out a pistol stock to hold the piece of pipe and firing assembly.
I figured out how to craft some lead balls just the right size by rolling a piece between two steel plates until it was round. I would trim off a bit of lead until I got just the right fit for the bore of the steel pipe. Then I weighed it on dad’s precision photography scales so I would know exactly how much to use next time.
I guessed at the amount of powder to pore down the bore which was extremely dangerous and I hope nobody reading this tries this. I pushed the ball down on top of the powder charge and poked some newspaper wadding on top of that so it wouldn’t fall out and headed for the woods.
I realized that what I was doing was dangerous and that my parents would stop me if they knew what I was doing, but never the less I had to try out my invention.
I charged the pan with black powder and stood in front of a large Popular tree about 8 feet away. I spun the sparkler wheel and whooom – there was a flash and cloud of smoke. It fired the first try and when the smoke cleared, to my astonishment there was a hole in the tree. I was quite pleased with myself but I think that was the only time I fired that thing. I at least had enough sense to quit while I was ahead.
My interest in firearms got put aside for a few years as other things captured my attention such as cars and girls.
When I graduated from high school I served a 4 year apprenticeship to become a tool and die maker like my dad.
The Allure of Muzzleloading!
Eventually I moved to Ohio and got married. We rented a house on a 50 acre farm. I didn’t own any firearms at that time but I wanted to take up shooting again with all that land I had available. I had never owned a handgun before. I decided I couldn’t afford regular ammunition so I ran across a used .44 cap and ball Colt Army clone that I purchased against my wife’s wishes. I loaded it up and used Crisco to fill the chambers in front of the balls to prevent the flash from igniting an adjacent cylinder. I couldn’t hit squat with it but I liked the concept of muzzloading and the economy of it.
I purchased a Thompson Center .45 Cal. Hawkin flintlock Rife which I discovered was quite accurate and reliable once you got use to holding it still for 15 minutes for it to go off. While at a local range I met some fella who had a Kentucky muzzloading rifle he was shooting. He was an amazing shot and I really admired his rifle. He told me about an organization he belonged to that everybody used muzzleloaders and would get together at different places for an old fashioned rendezvous. That sounded really interesting to me because I grew up watching Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone.
After I learned that he built the rifle himself I decided I would give it a try. I bought a nice looking piece of tiger stripe curly maple; a .46 cal. diamond lapped Douglas barrel, a lock and some various hardware.
As I recall I had purchased a full-size plan drawing with some limited instructions. I sawed the curly maple to the design profile first and then began inlaying the barrel. In case you are not familiar with Kentucky Rifle design the barrels are generally 42 inches long and octagon. I didn’t have any wood working equipment and very few tools so I carved out the barrel channel using a Case pocket knife and some wood chisels. It is an ever so slow process whereby you smoke the bottom side of the barrel by passing it over a candle flame until a coating of black soot builds up. Then, you place it on top of the stock leaving the soot on where the barrel touches the wood. Then you carefully remove the wood wherever there is soot, repeating the process over and over and over until you have carved a half octagon channel almost the full 42” length.
Actually, it turned out pretty darn good! The whole rifle turned out quite well considering it was my first attempt. I couldn’t wait to try it out.
Using the recommended powder charge I fired a round from about 25 yards putting a .450 hole about 2 inches high and center. Several more shots created a respectable group considering I was learning how to shoot this new firearm. Wow, was I ever pleased!
Most of my life I have enjoyed exceptionally good eyesight and looking down a 42 inch barrel I could see a sight picture almost like looking through a 10x scope. With a little practice and adjusting my load I could keep my shots inside a 2” circle at 100 yards – no kidding!
After finally convincing my wife it would be fun we attended a Rendezvous where I expected to impress some people with my marksmanship and new creation. Everyone there was dressed in period clothing while I was wearing a tee shirt and blue jeans so I immediately felt out of place. We were warmly welcomed and made some new friends rather quickly. Some of the families there had authentic-looking tepees set up where they camped and we were invited for dinner where it was cooked on an open fire inside the tepee.
The Rendezvous consisted of a series of shooting competitions that were quite different than you would encounter on a normal firing range. They had one completion where a steel fry pan was hung from a makeshift tripod and set about 75 yards away. The contestants had to fire offhand and whoever missed would be eliminated. I was nervous and missed my first shot. These guys would shoot two or three series before anyone would miss and be eliminated until finally there would be only one remaining.
Another completion was held at night where they would set up a two by four board nailed to a stand. They would place 6 lit candles on it and from about 25 yards away the contestants would fire at the candles. The object was to extinguish the flame with the turbulence from the bullet (ball) without touching the candle. Out of six shots each whoever extinguished the most candles was the winner.
That was incredibly amazing to watch – the powder flash and the muzzle blast lit up the range and believe it or not there were guys there who would hit 3 or four candles out of 6 shots. I don’t recall if I ever did extinguish a candle – I probably didn’t even come close.
Another competition I recall was the one set up on a small pond. A trolley was erected kind of like an old clothes line with so a floating target could be pulled along the water. The target was a wooden float with a plywood profile of a duck. When I first saw the setup it was explained to me that the object of the completion was to shoot the duck while it was being pulled from right to left holding the rifle offhand. I thought to myself “this should be a piece of cake!” Wrong!
After I already signed up for the competition the rest of the rules were explained to me. The range master explained that the shooter must shoot from the offhand position while standing up in a canoe while it is being rowed by someone else in a parallel course to the target. Turns out the actual target was a paper hole reinforcer stuck on the silhouette to represent the eye and the closed shot to the eye was the winner. Yea, right!
I opted to go last. The first two shooters placed shots in the head area within half an inch from the eye and the next 4 or 5 hit the silhouette which in itself is pretty good shooting from a distance of about 25 feet while moving…2x.
I had never even been in a canoe let alone fire a flintlock rifle from one standing up but I was willing to give it a shot. At least if I missed no one would think too lowly of me under the circumstances. While observing the other shooters it occurred to me that the best time to make my shot would be between paddle strokes.
When it came my turn I climbed in to the canoe being careful not to fall overboard with my rifle. When the range master asked “is shooter ready” I reluctantly mumbled “yes” and the rower began rowing and the target puller began pulling.
Now that pond want that big so I didn’t have time to lolly gag around so after a couple row strokes I slowly stood up and brought old Betsy to bear best I could. And when I detected the rower was between strokes I squeezed the trigger while attempting to hold the sights on the duck eye best I could and until the rifle fired. My shot felt good and I saw the target jump so I knew I had a hit. That was such a relief but before the canoe came to rest on the opposite side of the pond someone spoke out saying “center hit on the eye!” Sure enough, as hard as it was to believe, I drilled on dead center on that poor wooden duck.
That competition gave me a little credibility among the shooters and gave me enough confidence and encouragement to practice and attend more Rendezvous. With some experience and much-appreciated mentoring I gained some measure of respect as a shooter. Of all the different types of shooting I have done and all the different shooters I have witnessed those people I encountered at those Rendezvous are among the best shooters I have ever witnessed.
A Duck Too Far
That little teal duck was too far for a………………….
My wife and I moved to PA not far from where my dad grew up and I took a job as a tool and die maker at the manufacturing plant near town.
One of my coworkers brought in a Remington 788 chambered in 22-250 along with some reloading equipment and wanted to sell it. In those days and in that area of the country it was as common to see someone bring a rifle in to a place of work as it is today to see someone bring a smartphone in. Nobody cared or thought a thing about it.
I had never owned a centerfire rifle before and I didn’t know much about the 22-250. I really wanted a good rifle for shooting wood chucks (aka ground hogs.) This rifle had a nice 10x fixed power Weaver scope mounted on it and the price was manageable so I went ahead and bought it.
When I took it out to shoot off a bench rest I was pleasantly surprised to be able to print a moa group or better at 100 yards with factory ammo. The ammunition was a bit expensive for my intentions so I studied up on reloading and began experimenting with reloads until I had developed a load that would print almost ½ moa. I understood how accurate that was but I didn’t quite appreciate the fact I was archiving that kind of accuracy from a factory production rifle.
In a short time wood chucks almost became extinct around those parts. I would drive around the back roads in my old Volkswagen Van watching for chucks and when I spotted one I would stop and shoot from the berm or sometimes from inside the van. The longest shot I recall was about 300 yards shooting up a 15 degree hill.
That Remington 788 had such a fast lock time which helps with accuracy especially for someone use to a flintlock.
A fella I worked with was a part-time gunsmith as well as a tool maker and he use to invite me up to his place to shoot. He had a nice 100 yard range set up with a very sturdy bench. Herman was a pretty good shot and a good gunsmith. I learned a lot about firearms from Herman.
One day a farmer invited Herman and me to come up to his place and shoot some wood chucks that were giving him problems. Herman carried along his .257 Roberts he had built from an old Mauser action and I took along my trusty 788. When we arrived at the farm we went up in the front yard where there was a swing set. There was a huge field to the rear of the farm house that ran flat for about 150 yards and then began increasing in grade for about another 400 yards or so.
The farmer pointed out a chuck that was about 60 yards away and said there’s one for you to start with. I took a standing rest off of the swing set post and touched off a shot. To my embarrassment the chuck just stood there on his hind legs looking at us! I fired another shot and the same thing. The farmer said “ya missed again!” Herman said “no he didn’t, his bullet never got that far.”
I had been shooting a handload that clocked just under 4000fps on Hermans homemade chronograph and when those tiny 55 grain Sphere HPBT projectiles would strike a blade of grass they would just explode, never reaching the target.
About that time a big old crow landed in the top of a huge maple tree along the side of the pasture about 320 yards out. I dropped in another round and took my rest of the swing set. The crow exploded in a clump of feathers dropping to the ground as the farmer’s jaw dropped. That was one of my best long distance rifle shots I have ever made. It sure made a believer of the farmer.
Herman knocked off two or three chucks with his .257 Roberts before we called it a day.
To Be Continued