Deer hunting with primitive weapons has been radically redefined. Actually the new ruling took effect in the 2005-06 hunting season, so this will be its third year in force. Hunters are still just learning what the provision is and what it means to deer hunters looking for an alternative to blackpowder rifles for our two special primitive weapons seasons in December and January plus on into February in the Zone 2 southeast section of the state.

Technically primitive weapons can be used anytime during an open gun season.

New rule summary

Basically what happened was the wildlife department wanted to increase the overall hunting opportunities for as many hunters as possible. The reason for this change was twofold. First, they wanted to offer more chances to harvest deer in an on-going effort to balance statewide deer population numbers. Secondly, they wanted to attract even more hunters to participate in the sport, especially youth hunters, since we desparately need to add new hunters to our ranks.

Accordingly, a provision was added late in 2005 permitting a whole new classification of weapons to be included in the "primitive" category. Are these weapons really primitive? Of course not. We all know that today's in-line muzzleloaders with sabot bullets and variable-power optical scopes are anything but primitive. It has been maybe 10 years since I've seen an old hammer-lock Hawken-style rifle in a deer camp.

Still, a muzzleloader meant black powder and stuffing loads slowly from the front end then adding a primer cap. It also meant more dedicated care in maintenance and cleaning. Many hunters simply did not want to deal with the hassle, though that was way overstated. Modern stainless black powder rifles are easy to keep up.

Even so, the new ruling offered an option. Primitive weapons was opened to include single-shot, breech-loading, exposed hammer rifles using metallic cartridges .38 caliber or larger of a kind and type made prior to 1900. This includes original rifles of this design, or replicas, reproductions or re-introductions of those types of rifles. It also meant the cartridges could be loaded with black powder or smokeless powder.

Wow, it was easy to see how far open the bar door swung on that one.

Buffalo rifles abound

I guess maybe I was ahead of the curve, but I certainly didn't see this one coming. I had already acquired a Cimarron Arms Pedersoli-made version of an 1874 C. Sharps chambered for the venerable and classic 45-70. Luckily for me, this configuration met the new classification guidelines, so I was set.

Initially there was considerable confusion among deer hunters and many gun dealers as to the designated model year a rifle had to copy. After all, there really were not that many pre-1900 rifle designs fitting this criterion. These mostly included the Christian Sharps rifles historically known on the western frontier as buffalo rifles, the Browning 1885 rifles and the Remington Rolling Block rifles.

Originals today sell for several thousand dollars, and are hard to find at that. Reproductions can be had between $800 and $1,000. This is still quite expensive for most hunters to cough up.

Then news came that the H&R-type single-shot rifles were approved, too. I never quite understood that because this rifle was not designed or made before 1900, but it passed muster anyway. Regardless of the technicality, the cat was out of the bag. And that was probably a good thing in the long run, because it gave more hunters a reasonably priced rifle to qualify as a primitive weapon.

For months, dealers could not keep them on the shelves, and wholesalers ran out. Even the manufacturer did not see this one coming and had to gear up big time to keep up with the demand coming almost entirely from Mississippi.

"It was amazing in that all this came on me virtually overnight," said Don Cresswell of worldwidefirearms.com in Flora. "I did not have any of these rifles in stock, but after a couple gun shows, I had a backlog of orders. I ended up selling nearly 500 rifles the first year, and sales have continued to be good as the supply chain is now adequate."

Hunters buying these rifles do have to be careful to remember the caliber has to be .38 or larger. I have had numerous hunters ask me why H&R does not offer a .308 or the 30-06. They don't realize these are only .30 caliber, not .38. The only .38 I have seen on the market to qualify so far has been the 38-55, but it is a good choice. The most popular cartridges have been the 45-70, 44 magnum and now the Marlin 444.

These new primitive weapons can also legally carry a scope, too, if a hunter wants to opt for that. I like the open sights on my Sharps, and plan to add an adjustable tang sight this year. Is it accurate? Mine can bang our 10-inch steel circle gong at 100 yards all day long. That is plenty enough zero to take a white-tailed deer.

The only fly in the ointment so far is that when it gets dark, the silver-blade front sight disappears. I compensate for that by using this rifle on morning hunts or taking the first deer to show in the afternoon.

This is not a tote-around rifle at 11 pounds, but there is virtually no recoil. That cannot be said of the featherweight H&R rifles. Parents need to add a recoil pad or a slip-on shoulder pad for youth shooters sensitive to recoil.

With this new rule in place, expect to see new hunters in the woods come primitive seasons this year. After all, that was the reason for all this in the first place.