News Column

Volunteers prep for black powder shooting demonstrations at fort

July 17, 2014

By Tom Vogt, The Columbian, Vancouver, Wash.

July 17--Ramming and priming, sure. But biting and spitting?

They're all part of loading a Civil War-era musket.

Several volunteers recently went through the drill -- literally -- to prepare for the historic weapons program at Fort Vancouver. Re-enactors honed their skills for the summer schedule of black powder shooting demonstrations at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.

One Saturday session focused on weapons used by the U.S. Army from about 1860 to 1890, from just before the Civil War through the Indian campaigns out West.

The other session focused on an earlier generation of firearms used by employees of the Hudson's Bay Company. They arrived in 1824, but were still using the pre-Industrial Revolution technology of the 1700s, instructor Mike Twist said.

On a recent Saturday, Emily Wattez was among several volunteers dressed in blue Union army uniforms provided by the fort's costume department. After a classroom session in Pearson Air Museum, they went out behind a hangar. That's where Twist -- a National Park Service guide -- barked out the nine-step loading sequence to groups of volunteers on the firing line:


--Handle cartridge!

Wattez, who'd just gone through the drill, used her replica 1861 Springfield musket to explain the basics.

The 1861 Springfield combined aspects of weapons that came earlier and later. It was a step up from the flintlock, Wattez said: pulling the trigger dropped the hammer on the percussion cap that ignited the charge. Rather than a smooth bore, it had rifling -- which is why the term rifle musket was used -- that put a spin on the MiniÉ ball. The musket ball and black powder came packaged in a paper cartridge.

But the rifle musket was still a muzzleloader. "You still had to load it the old way," Wattez said.

--Tear cartridge!

"You ripped the end of the cartridge with your teeth," she explained, then you spat the piece of twisted paper on the ground.

--Charge cartridge!

--Draw rammer!

--Ram cartridge!

--Return rammer!

If you fired off the ramrod, Wattez explained, what you had in your hands was a big club or a bayonet-tipped spear.


--Ready! Aim! FIRE!

... And flame flared from the muzzles as smoke shrouded the faces of the shooters.

A well-trained soldier could do all that three times in one minute, Wattez said.

"That was while you were being shot at," Wattez pointed out.

The training process serves a couple of objectives, said Twist.

"It's to instill very safe procedures," said Twist, "and it's to present an authentic program," since it echoes the format used more than 150 years ago.

Back in the 1860s, that nine-step loading drill was all about practice, not part of a battle, Twist said.

"It was training to instill muscle memory," Twist said. And then, "during an adrenaline dump (of battle), it's automatic."

Twist and park ranger Robert Gutierrez had their own training this spring, attending a two-week certification course in Alabama.

Wattez, a 21-year-old Vancouver woman, said she's been a Civil War re-enactor for 10 years, including last year's 150th observance of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Her dad grew up near Kennesaw Mountain in Georgia -- site of an 1864 battle -- but she got herself into re-enacting, Wattez said.

"Fourteen is the minimum to be on the battlefield," Wattez said. She practiced the loading and firing steps until she was old enough to participate.

John Miller, a Fort Vancouver volunteer from Scappoose, Ore., also is involved in other re-enactment activities as a member of the Vernonia Muzzleloaders club.

"I'm a lover of history and the frontier and exploration," said Miller, who brought a flintlock musket to the session. His replica of a 1762 English "Brown Bess" is tailor-made for the Hudson's Bay-era re-enactments, but that sort of weaponry would been used in some Civil War battles, he said.

"The South used flintlocks early," Miller said.

They would have been backwoods militias, however, not the Confederate army, Twist said.

The U.S. Army re-enactments include more advanced weaponry that was introduced after the Civil War and used on the frontier.

"Breechloading rifles could fire 10 shots a minute," Twist said.

All the firearms used in the demonstrations are replicas, by the way. It's a Park Service mandate, Twist said: "No original weapons!"

There are safety concerns, of course. Any firearm that is 150 or 200 years old will have some reliability questions. But that artifact also represents a cultural heritage issue, Twist said.

"It's a non-renewable resource."


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Source: Columbian (Vancouver, WA)

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