Gun Safety and Politics

Although I'm about as far from a technology buff as one can be, I have learned to appreciate, in turn, the wonders of word processing, e-mail and now, the Internet. Although my children can "cruise the net" far better than I, I've been playing around with the system for the last six months or so. My carrier, AT&T, has a half dozen or so "search engines" available, and I've typed in various topics, usually Civil War or firearm related.

A short time ago I typed in "Enfield" and came up with a variety of "hits," most dealing with the 20th century .303 Enfield metallic cartridge rifle. One very interesting muzzle loading anecdote popped up, however. It was included in a chapter excerpted from a book entitled Emigrant Life in Kansas, which was apparently reprinted by the University of Kansas( carrie /kancoll/ books/ebbutt/echap8html). The story serves as a cautionary tale for anyone who picks up a muzzle loading rifle, original or reproduction -- or any firearm, for that matter:

"One day I was alone in the house with Humphrey, and came near putting a bullet through him by accident. He was looking at one of my father's rifles, a long Enfield, which he thought was empty, and presently asked me if I could hold it out in position. 'Yes I guess I can; let's see!' said I. I tried and aimed it at him. 'Don't point it at me. Aim it out the window. Yes that's all right. Now, let's see you cock it and pull the trigger. There is an old cap on, it won't hurt the nipple.'

I pointed it out the window, and pulled the trigger, when -- bang! -- there was a tremendous explosion, a smashing of glass and wood-work, and I was kicked by the recoil half across the room. The gun was not only loaded, but the muzzle was plugged up to keep out the damp. I wonder that the barrel did not burst and kill one or both of us. The plug [tompion] was of cork with a brass top to it, and this was blown to atoms. The bullet went through the window sash frame, and the pieces of the brass smashed five panes of glass, and several were also found imbedded in the wall on either side of the window and in a clock case nearby. Humphrey was struck in the forehead with a piece of cork, and was very fortunate in getting nothing worse, as he was sitting near the window. It was a narrow escape for him; for, if he had not called out, I should certainly have pulled the trigger while aiming at him, and then nothing could have saved him.

This only shows again the danger of playing with fire-arms. Of course we thought the gun empty, but evidently it had been loaded, probably by my father, when neither of us was by."

Although the writer's claim that he was "kicked by the recoil half across the room" is dubious, even with the extra pressure created by the tompion, a tompion can prove to be a dangerous projectile. A soldier in the 13th New Jersey Infantry, which was committed to action at Antietam within a week of mustering in, accidentally discharged his musket, which was stoppered by an Enfield cork and brass tompion, as the regiment advanced. Tompion fragments struck a soldier in the front rank and penetrated into his lung, mortally wounding him. We all remember the tompion incident at the Freehold, NJ reenactment a couple of years ago.

Please check any muzzle loading musket or breech loading carbine or rifle, old or new, before firing. Checking a breech loader by opening the breech is a self evident process. An easy quick check for a muzzle loader involves dropping the ramrod down the gun's barrel. Insert the threaded end first down the muzzle, since if there is gummy powder residue in the breech, the cupped end may get stuck. If you hear a ringing sound and if the depth of the ramrod while inside the barrel matches the ramrod's length when placed alongside the barrel with its end against the breech plug, the gun is unloaded. Just to make sure, if you're on a range, fire one cap downrange from the shoulder and then another at the ground in front of you. If the ground is disturbed or a blade of grass in front of the muzzle moves from the force of the cap blast, the gun is definitely unloaded and safe.

Even after performing the above checks, however, still consider every gun loaded. Never, never point any gun, unloaded or not, at anyone!! If you're participating in a reeenactment, aim over the heads of the troops in the opposing line.

Well, the election is over -- by one day as I write this. All in all, it was not a bad outcome. The Republican Congress can stop Bill Clinton and "Chucky" Shumer from raising my taxes and confiscating my guns. (If you don't think they would like to do the latter, you need a serious check up from the proverbial neck up.) On the other hand, Clinton can stop the ultraconservative Republican zealots from raping the environment and selling off the National Parks.

About a month before the election, I e-mailed the White House with what I thought was a relevant query. I identified myself as a columnist for The Civil War News, free lance writer for other publications and a Civil War book author and inquired as to the administration's position on the future possession of original and reproduction muzzle and breech loading black powder firearms as well as the potential problems inherent in introducing "taggants" into black powder used by both reenactors and skirmishers. I explained that my readers were concerned about the future of black powder shooting and I was willing to publish the response.

I received an acknowledgement of the receipt of my message within minutes. To date I have not heard back from the White Louse. Why am I not surprised?

I will be signing copies of my new book, Civil War Firearms, at the Freehold, NJ, Barnes & Noble bookstore on January 28, 1997 at 7:30 PM. If you're in the area, please stop by and say hello.

© 1997 by Joe Bilby

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