How W. Milton Farrow became a crack shot

Monday, February 20th, 2012

Google’s wonderful digital library includes a number of historic shooting books. The beauty of old, out-of-copyright books is how the past is so clearly a foreign country — just look at W. Milton Farrow, author of How I became a crack shot: with hints to beginners:

I was born at Belfast, Waldo County, in the State of Maine. My father was a native of Bristol in the same State, and served his country during the war of 1812. It was his misfortune to be for a time confined in the prison at Halifax. My grandfather was a sergeant in one of the companies during the war of the Revolution, and was present at the surrender of Cornwallis. Descended from such stock my claim to be a thorough American is certainly a valid one.

From my earliest recollections the love for powder and bullets, rifles and guns, was paramount to balls, tops, marbles, or any of the games of boyhood. Cannons, improvised from tin pen-holders, mounted on blocks with pins, were the first essay. The premature explosion of this weapon with its natural consequences brought disfavor from parental source, and powder was one of the interdicted substances. By a lucky trade with an old junk man a rusty horse-pistol barrel was obtained, mounted on an oak block, secured by an iron staple. It proved a source of great delight. The standing piles on the pier-head, 300 yards’ distance, was the enemy, and many were the pounds of lead fired away in the attempt to make “Long Tom” do fine work.

School vacations were spent when possible on board father’s vessel, a goodly schooner of seventy tons burthen, plying in the coasting trade from Belfast, east and west; here the use of the shot gun was learned and chances for practicing on coots and ducks were never neglected. The feelings of triumph were most keenly enjoyed when returning to the vessel in harbor from some neighboring ledge of rocks or island in the bay with a goodly bag, to hear the hearty praises from older lips. Never will I forget my first bag of that most wily bird, the “Black Duck” of the coast. One November morning I noticed with the telescope a flock of ducks feeding over the bar running from Tory’s to Trumpet Island in Eggemoggin Reach, a sinuous passage amongst the islands, running east and west on the coast of Maine. The schooner was in Centre Harbor. I informed father of the ducks in sight and I desired to go after them. Smiling and shaking his head, he replied: “Black ducks! you want to go after black ducks, it takes an older hunter than you are to shoot black ducks.” I at last got his consent to try.

After stepping the mast in the boat alongside and the gun passed in I pushed off. A light southerly breeze soon carried the boat out into the Reach. Yes, the ducks were still there. Steering for the leeward point of Tory’s Island, my plan was formed to land on the side opposite the birds and try to stalk them through the grass. Gun in hand I stepped on the outer shore of the island to walk towards the. farther point where the birds were feeding. The high bank would conceal my approach up to one hundred yards, then the grass was barely high enough to conceal one lying flat. The gun I carried as I took my way along was an old muzzle-loading twelve bore which was in the usual condition of guns kept on ship-board, barrels like a rusty bar, the locks inclined to be weak, and the hammers rather shaky, but for all that it had a reputation for killing coots and ducks second to none in the county. My progress through the grass was very slow as I pushed the gun in advance. I had received minute instructions from father never to get in front of the gun in crawling or working my way up to birds, as it was better to occasionally lose a shot than to run the risk of shooting myself drawing the gun towards me by the muzzle. The grass was getting thin in front. I must be near the bank on the side next the ducks.

With both hammers at full cock I raised nearly up, my left elbow still on the ground. Thirty yards in front were the ducks, a flock of fifteen or more. Aiming for the centre of the bunch I pulled the trigger; a sharp click was the only response, but every duck’s head was straight up at the sound. Nervously my finger felt for the left-hand trigger, when bang went the other barrel, without any aim, up went the ducks as only “blackies” can “go up ” not a feather touched. I could have cried, as I lay and watched their receding forms. Presently I noticed they had changed their course, were swinging toward me with intent to cross the bar between the islands, but the strong southwest wind blows them leeward fast, they are flying at right angles to the wind and will cross within shot. I feel for another “G. D.,” but the box of caps was left in the boat. On come the ducks. I sit up now and look at them, sixty, forty, only thirty yards away, and bunched so beautifully.

I put up the old crow-bar as I had called it, to show what I could have done had I not forgotten the caps and derisively pulled the trigger right at the middle of the flock. Bang! — I was nearly laid flat. Enough of the fulminate from the ” G. D.” cap had remained on the cone to cause the explosion of the powder. Jumping to my feet I looked for the birds. The aim was deadly. Five of them dropped on the point and the shore, two others left the bunch and after a moment set their wings and slowly settled to the waters of the Reach. My joy knew no bounds. How I caressed and patted the rusty barrel which the moment before I had so feelingly dubbed a crow-bar. I picked up my ducks, three with broken wings and two killed outright, put them in the boat and started in the direction I had marked the two crippled ones. One only I found floating dead, then headed the boat for the harbor. I carefully concealed the ducks under the stern sheets and ranged alongside. “Pity the ducks were so shy. Hand up the gun. I was watching through the glass when you fired. How near did you get to them?”  ”About thirty yards,” I replied. “Thirty yards and not drop one! Well, well, I expected better work than that after all my instructions; what was the matter?” “Oh, the gun missed fire and I pulled off the second barrel without taking aim.” “I thought I heard you shoot a second time. What did you fire at?” with a little impatience. “Come, jump up out of that boat.” Coming to the side of the vessel just as I pulled out one duck he said, “What have you got there?” “Where?” I answered, as I tried to conceal the bird behind me. “A black duck?” inquiringly and with some astonishment. “Yes,” I shouted, “and another and another,” I repeated, until I had tossed on the deck the six beautiful birds. My triumph was complete, and boy like, I shouted, “Now I guess you will think I can shoot black ducks as well as some older hunters.” I cannot describe his astonished looks. He had seen the ducks fly away uninjured, and then to have them introduced so suddenly to his attention was too much for his equilibrium. “Well done, well done!” “Six.” “Why — how — how — did — you — do — it?” and he looked at the ducks then at me two or three times. A full explanation followed with congratulations encore. I remember at the next meal, however, the favors of kind Providence were mentioned most devoutly in the Grace.

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