Murray County residents John Bandy, Bob Wilson and Eddie May are keeping history alive with muzzleloaded rifles.
Wilson, 69, got his start with them 33 years ago.
“My wife ordered me a set of parts in 1969, and I put it together,” said the retired history teacher, noting that he and she have built nearly 20 muzzleloaders from kits.
He’s also developed skill in shooting the old-fashioned guns. He can get off two and sometimes three rounds a minute, which is no small feat in light of the steps one must go through.
While there are variations, generally one pours a measured amount of black powder down the barrel and then, using a ramrood, stuffs it with a lead ball wrapped in a small piece of cotton material. Additional gunpowder then goes in a “pan” before the rifle can be fired.
Muzzleloader maintenance also is more involved than for a conventional rifle such as a 30-06 or a .300 Winchester magnum.
“The black power is very corrosive and will cause rust in the barrel if not cleaned at the end of the day,” said Bandy, at 47 the youngster of the Murray muzzleloading trio.
“You can take a $700 rifle and turn it into a $100 rifle,” Wilson said.
Black powder is a mixture of sulfur, charcoal and saltpeter. Some sources say it was first used on battlefields about 700 years ago; it is believed to have first appeared in China.
“There are not many black powders that are now made in America,” Bandy said.
One source is GOEX of Doyline, La., which claims on its website to manufacture black powder the same way it did when the company was founded in 1802.
Bandy said he got serious about muzzleloading around 1976, buying his first muzzleloaded rifle for $100. Now he figures he has about $1,200 tied up in guns and supplies.
For Wilson, the investment is more like $20,000 to $25,000.
May, a 66-year-old retired music teacher, has close to $50,000 worth of equipment and rifles. One of his is valued at $12,000 to $15,000. All the parts of that one, except the barrel, were handmade by Houston Harrison, a well-known Tennessee gunsmith.
“It took Harrison 650 hours to build the rifle,” May said.
In addition to shooting, May manufactures and sells lead shot and other supplies to muzzleloaders.
“The difference between Eddie and us is that Eddie is a single guy,” Bandy joked. “I’m the tightwad. I don’t go for the custom-made stuff.”
About 1.9 million muzzleloaded rifles were manufactured and purchased for the Civil War.
“It was designed to shoot one foot high at 100 yards, and they would aim at the belt buckle,” Bandy said. “Some sniper rifles would go out to 1,000 yards.”
Muzzleloading appeals to some hunters because big-game seasons start sooner for the old-style guns.
When the Murray men started hunting, though, Georgia did not have a designated muzzleloading season.
This year, deer hunting with muzzleloaders starts Oct. 13 in Georgia and Nov. 3 in southeastern Tennessee.
Bandy, May and Wilson seldom use their muzzleloaders for hunting, although those are their preferred guns. They focus on shooting matches.
The amount of black powder needed “varies on the yardage,” Bandy said. “You don’t have to kill the paper; you just have to shoot a hole in it.”
He said he cleans his gun after each firing, as the powder gets in the grooves and affects the accuracy of the round.
There were an estimated 21.8 million hunters of all types in the United States in 2010, when figures were last available; 3.5 million used muzzleloaders.
“It’s a dying sport,” May said.