By Chuck Nottingham
If you're in the Havre area Memorial Weekend, don't miss Bullhook Bottoms Black Powder Club's 21st annual rendezvous at historic Fort Assinniboine, 10 miles south along Old Fort Road (now U.S. Highway 87).
Rendzvous (ron!-day-voo) is French for "meeting," but a frontier rendezvous is so much more.
It's an historic gathering of mountain and plains men and women of all races, creeds and cultures trappers, traders, hunters, miners, artisans, homemakers, warriors and soldiers. The event may be the lone rival to native pow-wows for providing authentic, in-the-flesh history of territorial Montana.
Pow-wows and rendezvous are bright flashes of our dim pre- statehood past. Their entertaining experiences can be counted on to lend far keener insights to the way things were than a semester of history texts or a series of PBS documentaries.
Firearms are only part of 2000s Fort Assinniboine Rendezvous, yet they're vital to such gatherings, then and now. Nearly everyone of every ancestry and gender packed at least one gun, so shooting contests remain inevitable.
Although black powder cartridge guns of every description are featured in the various "shoots," the primitive matches will be tangible nineteenth-century Montana history lock-stock-and-barrel.
You'll see many shooters decked out in authentic skins, leathers, and hand-woven fabrics of the time. Whether they're shooting flintlock muskets or percussion-cap rifles, yesteryear's muzzle loaders operate their guns like this:
The gun is stood muzzle-up to measure in a charge of loose black powder a mixture of 75 percent white potassium nitrate, 15 percent yellow sulphur, and 10 percent black charcoal. Though lesser by volume, the charcoal overpowers the mix of powders thus the name.
After the gunpowder is in, a swatch of spit-lubed cloth covers the bore to cradle a round lead ball. A "short ball starter" sets the wrapped ball just below muzzle-level. A sharp knife removes excess "ticking."
Next, a "long ball starter" pushes the patched ball another few inches down the bore, where a long ramrod takes over to thrust everything firmly onto the bed of powder below.
It's loaded, except for the last step priming. When ready to fire, the shooter sprinkles priming powder in pans of flintlocks or earlier mechanisms, or fixes tiny blasting caps on nipples of cap-and-ball guns below spur-like hammers.
Smooth-bore muskets were notorious for missing targets smaller than the broadsides of barns. That's why British troops volleyed from wide ranks of shoulder-to-shoulder soldiers, attempting to make their firearms more effective by sheer fire-power.
On the other hand, muzzle loaders with rifled bores grooves twisting inside the long barrel to spin the lead projectile and stabilize it in flight are extremely accurate.
When the heavy white smoke clears away, you'll be awed at the accuracy of the old-time guns without benefit of telescopic sights.
You'll also see shooters busy scrubbing their "smoke poles," as black powder needs to be scoured out of barrels as soon as possible.
For one thing, residue builds up quicker than with new-fangled smokeless powders, and some black-powder guns often require "de-fouling" to continue firing.
Another factor is black powder dregs are highly corrosive to metal.
Traditional muzzle-loading guns are designed for easy barrel disassembly for scrubbing in hot, soapy water. But with elbow grease and a few "possibles" from tool-kits all shooters carry like modern ladies' over-the-shoulder purses (called "possibles bags"), the dried and oiled barrels are soon back in battery for more shooting fun.
Even if you're gun-shy, a rendezvous is a feast for the senses. The traditional mountain and plains garb and equipment from our past are worth the time at Fort Assinniboine, Saturday through Memorial Day, May 27, 28, and 29.
For a brochure or more information, contact "Hats" Griggs at 265-7431.