Group works to save heritage of primitive weapons

Mark Davis, Powell Tribune photo Gary Millhouse of Saratoga loads his rifle with a hand-poured lead ball while competing at the Powell Black Powder Bench Match on Aug. 28. Millhouse won the top award in the event.

POWELL — For most of his life, Ned Dunn has been shooting black powder muzzleloader weapons. The Powell resident loves everything about the guns first developed in the 16th century, from pouring his own musket balls to the smell of the powder burning. Dunn is trying to preserve the traditions of the Wyoming mountain man, but, as he puts it, he’s running out of time.

“The reason I do it is because I don’t want to see it die,” he said while loading his long rifle with its long, sturdy hexagon barrel.

Dunn has been participating in state and national target competitions for decades. Shooters from across Wyoming and southern Montana gathered at the Heart Mountain Rod and Gun Club Saturday for the state’s only bench match — where shooters can take a seat and fire from a stabilized, sitting position instead of shooting freehand from the standing position. It’s important for the aging group, giving well-seasoned competitors a chance to continue enjoying the sport.

But it’s not exactly easier, said Gary Millhouse of Saratoga. “These guns are made for shooting from the standing position.”

The guns can weigh more than 14 pounds, which can be taxing in competitions that can last the better part of a day to finish multiple rounds.

“It’s pretty much white hair here. And it’s hard to get new young people involved,” said Millhouse, who traveled from Saratoga for the event. “A lot of the clubs have folded up; you know how it is with young people these days. We’re all getting older and everybody has changed.”

Before the competition could start, all the shooters lined up for a moment of silence “for those who have passed,” Dunn said. 

It was a poignant moment. Everyone in attendance has lost friends in recent years. 

“I’m going to call this a memorial shoot,” Dunn said as he instructed the group to prepare to fire a synchronized volley to “remember all those guys that we used to shoot with.” 

The shots echoed inside the steel walls of the shooting facility and across the barren land used as a backdrop. Ethen Kolacny, the youngest member of the group, was the first in line to fire.

“If something happens and I’m gone next year, Ethen will take care of [the event],” Dunn said.

Kolacny would have been a competent candidate to be a real mountain man, had he been born a century or two earlier. He’s a range management expert for Park County Weed and Pest, working in the backcountry and often putting in 10- to 12-miles on foot as he searches for invasive plant species and maps the areas.

Historical gun enthusiasts have participated in the event for several years, and the 2021 bench match marked the fourth year at the Heart Mountain Rod and Gun Club. The group loves the Powell facility so much they plan to change the name of the competition to the Heart Mountain Bench Match. But don’t confuse the organization for anything more than a loose association of like-minded primitive gun enthusiasts.

“You can call this a state match, but we can’t post to the state because we’re not a club,” Dunn said. “When I hear the word club, I shudder.”

Though the group may lack a certain status as a formal organization, these folks can shoot. Several of the members have won state and national titles. Dunn won the Western States pistol championship in 2004 and Kolacny took top honors in the Wyoming state black powder shotgun championships in 2012 and the state pistol championship in 2019.

Many are members of the Wyoming State Muzzleloaders Association and the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association, headquartered in Friendship, Indiana. It’s an appropriate town for the organization, said Millhouse.

“This is all about preserving history and a good time with good, friendly people,” he said. “You ain’t got to worry about anything. It’s just friendly competition.”

The National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association exists to “promote, support, nurture, and preserve our nation’s rich historical heritage in the sport of muzzleloading,” according to their mission statement.

Kolacny plans to carry the local tradition into the future. He’s a great ambassador for the sport, Dunn said, showing resilience despite having a hard time getting folks to join in the fun. Kolacny even offers up his equipment to those wanting to try it out.

“I’ll pay for all the supplies and everything so they can just come and enjoy it and give it a chance,” he said. 

Despite his passion for the sport, Kolacny has only been able to introduce a few folks to his hobby.

“I usually don’t get any takers,” he said.

Many hunters are now turning to muzzleloaders for special seasons developed for primitive weapons. New, in-line models using saboted bullets are reaching out hundreds of yards accurately. But most in the group prefer round balls of lead and flintlocks. A few would argue new muzzleloaders are anything but primitive.

“What’s primitive about it?” Kolacny said of the new innovations like optics, grumbling that “being single shot is the only primitive part.”

One advantage of using primitive weapons is that hunts are more intimate with the prey because sportsmen and women need to be within 75-100 yards of the target. It makes the hunt more challenging and exciting, he said. Being able to stalk prey at that range takes a lot of time and practice — not only with the weapons but with odor control and being able to conceal yourself within the environment. There is a lot of pride associated with being successful with a muzzleloader, bow and arrow or other primitive weapon.

Several women are involved in the group, although none competed Saturday. Kolacny’s wife, Sara, would normally be at the event, but has taken some time off after giving birth in June. Jeannie Dunn has been shooting for many years and currently is secretary for the Powell group. 

“At the big shoots in Wyoming there’s usually quite a few women who are active [participants],” she said.

No matter how many show up for the annual event, the sport has been seen as a great way to meet people and spend time together. But Dunn said participation has dropped by half in the past few years.

The next competition for the Wyoming State Muzzleloaders Association is the 2021 Bullshooters Pie Contest at the Sheridan County Sportsmen’s Club on Sept. 11.