“I’ve spilt my caps!”

Or . . .
What to put in a shooting bag

By Dave Braun,
Ruxton Museum and Traditional Shooting Palavar

On the morning of June 19, 1831, a “countless host” of Indian warriors on horseback descended upon a trade caravan headed up the Cimarron valley for Santa Fe. Josiah Gregg describes the ensuing chaos in his classic narrative Commerce of the Prairies:

“. . . a great portion of the men were unprepared for the emergency. Scores of guns were ‘empty’ and many more had been wetted by the recent showers and would not ‘go off’. Here one was calling for balls – another for powder – a third for flints. Exclamations such as, ‘I’ve broke my ramrod’ – ‘I’ve spilt my caps’ – ‘I’ve rammed down a ball without powder’ – ‘My gun is ‘choked’, give me yours’ – were heard from different quarters; while a timorous ‘greenhorn’ would perhaps cry out, ‘Here, take my gun, you can out shoot me!’

That doesn’t sound like it will end very well.

It does however, sound a lot like the sort of thing we hear on the shooting line, and more often than we’d like. Actually, I can’t remember a single club shoot ever, when at least one of those nasty, little disasters didn’t mess up somebody’s day. And sure, I’ve had them happen to me plenty times. It makes me wonder just how much better a company of us modern-day mountain men would fare if we were descended upon by a “countless host” of mounted warriors!

An after-action analysis of Josiah Gregg’s engagement leads to some valuable observations. First, flintlock and percussion firearms were both common on the Santa Fe Trail in 1831. That’s an interesting historical detail. Secondly, the boys who found themselves in trouble seem to have been negligent in one or more of a few basic muzzle loading practices:

  1. Familiarity with the basic operation and maintenance of their firearms. Ramrods break and balls get stuck when the shooter doesn’t hold the rod properly, uses the wrong size patch or lets the bore get too dirty. I wonder how many of those guys actually took their rifles out and practiced with them before they headed west – or at least before they got to Comanche country. And if someone were relying upon his rifle for oh, I don’t know, his very life, you’d think maybe he would put a little effort into keeping the thing clean and dry.
  2. Developing a personal loading routine and following it Doing it the same way every time is the best insurance against “dry balling” a rifle. .
  3. Target practice, which is the only way to develop confidence in your shooting skill so you don’t have to give your rifle to somebody else.
  4. Setting up a well-organized shooting bag that provides convenient access to appropriate supplies when you need them.

Let’s talk a little about shooting bags today.

1

This picture shows the contents of a fairly traditional shooting bag that measures only 51/2 X 6 inches. The bag is set up to support two long guns, a percussion .60 cal. smoothbore trade gun and a .47 cal. replica Hawken rifle. On the right is a shot flask for bird hunting with the smoothbore. I usually carry the shot flask in a coat pocket but it could easily be hung on a cord over my right shoulder.

The contents of this shooting bag in clockwise order are:

  • Strips of linen patch cloth including a roll of greased cloth
  • Three essential tools: a nipple wrench, a gun worm and a turnscrew
  • A tin of extra caps
  • A small tin of grease
  • A cloth pouch containing about a dozen 20gauge shot wads and over shot cards
  • Roughly a dozen fusee balls in a cloth pouch
  • A powder charger marked for 60 and 80 grains
  • A leather strip capper. These are very reliable, but cappers made from a leather disk are even better because all caps then have an equal chance of being used.
  • A leather, necked bag containing about 30 rounds of rifle ammunition. Since the two ball bags are made from different materials, they can easily be distinguished by feel.
  • A small, original powder horn with about a half pound capacity.

The contents of this bag are total overkill for a day of hunting or target shooting. Had I been along with Josiah Gregg in 1831, I would feel absolutely confident that my firearms were well supplied for a week long excursion away from the main caravan.

At this point, I expect that modern shooters could propose a “countless host” of essential items conspicuously absent from my outfit. So I consulted the sacred scriptures – Madison Grant’s The Kentucky Rifle Hunting Pouch (Maple Press Company, 1977).

After reviewing 122 images of original shooting bags, I concluded that Josiah Gregg probably wouldn’t have a problem with the contents of my bag. He might do a double take at my pouch of commercial, pre-cut shotgun wads. My guess is that something of the sort existed in 1831 but it probably looked a little different. A flintlock shooter would definitely need to carry a small wallet of flints and a vent pick, maybe a pick and brush set. Beyond that a few additional accoutrements frequently appear in Madison Grant’s photos but each is somewhat controversial and none is truly essential.

Short starters were uncommon, as were priming horns. Bullet boards were about as common back then as they are today. They’re a nice idea, but you don’t see very many guys using them regularly. Sheath knives are attached to maybe 25% of the original bags in Grant’s book, but a close look at construction and materials supports the conclusion that a good half of them were later period add-ons. Bullet molds were common. But you seldom see the associated lead ladle. Which makes me wonder why they would store two essential bullet making tools separately? Of course, items of personal preference such as razors, smoking pipes, turkey calls, fire starting kits, compact books of Psalms, etc. were carried in original shooting bags. But I think the bottom line is that the more equipment you want to carry, the larger, more cumbersome and less comfortable your bag must necessarily be – and the greater the odds it will be stashed away somewhere in the wagon when that “countless host” comes calling.

The one period item I might consider adding to my shooting outfit purely for the sake of period authenticity is, of all improbable things, a sewing awl. You see them a lot in photos of original gear and they’re even described in the literature as hanging from shooting bag straps. But since I’ve never yet needed one at a shoot or on a hunting trip, I think I’ll leave it off.

2

A look into my open bag shows that the necessary supplies are within easy reach and can be readily identified by feel: powder, charger, balls, patching and caps. Grease is accessible. The other tools are on the bottom. At a shoot, the essentials are taken out and distributed in convenient coat pockets for even more efficient loading – as would also be the case if I were under attack by a “countless host” of hostile warriors.

3

Viewed from the side, you can see that this shooting bag is very compact. It is lightweight, convenient, practical, and wears like an article of clothing. It contains sufficient ‘possibles’ to supply two guns for almost any frontier contingency.   Were I traveling with Josiah Gregg, this bag would be a regular part of my wardrobe. Then I’d never have to worry about spilling my caps, having the right size balls or being without powder when that “countless host” came whooping down. I still think I’d need to work on the confidence part, though.

Shooting bags by the way, are often referred to as “bullet pouches” in period literature. That can be a little confusing to modern readers. Speaking of period literature, so what ever happened to that Santa Fe caravan and the “countless host” down on the Cimarron in 1831?

Well, it’s in Chapter IV of Commerce of the Prairies. Check it out. It’s a great read!

Advertisements