Old-school deer hunters used to have a clear idea of what was meant by the term “primitive weapon” when it was applied to deer hunting. However, since the rule changes in 2005, the clarity of the term has gotten considerably cloudier. So let’s shed some light on its current status.Having discussions with various wildlife officials over the years has convinced me of one thing: The MDWFP is always looking for new ways to increase deer hunting opportunities so more folks can enjoy the outdoors.
“When I started with the wildlife department in 1978, we didn’t have a special primitive-weapons season,” said Larry Castle, director of wildlife for the MDWFP. “I’m not sure of the exact year it was first instituted, but it was created for two principal reasons. One was simply to create more hunting opportunity for hunters excited about using black-powder rifles for deer hunting. The other aspect was to promote the harvest of more antlerless deer from an ever-expanding whitetail population.”
The original primitive
The major class of allowed primitive weapons has been traditional black-powder rifles. When I arrived in Mississippi in 1991 and first started primitive-weapons hunting, the most popular types of rifles were hammer-driven Hawken types or Kentucky rifles with wooden ramrods using real granulated black powder and lead balls in .45, .50 or .58 caliber.
Some hunters really got into the spirit of things by dressing the part in buckskins or early frontier clothing complete with accoutrements. Unfortunately, only the real diehards pursued the primitive season back then.
The new primitive
That quickly changed, of course, with the advent of in-line muzzleloading rifles. Talk about revolution in the black-powder rifle industry. First, it did away with the external hammer with an action more like regular centerfire bolt-action rifles. Then came day-glow open sights, and eventually optical scopes were permitted. Along with pressed powder pellets, sabot bullets and the use of No. 209 shotgun primers, in-line guns became just as accurate as any rifle. There is little in the way of primitive about this new class of guns.
“For several years, we rocked along as ‘primitive’ hunters pretty darn satisfied with our old Hawkens and other types of primitive guns,” suggested Louis Swarts of Big Buck Sports in Hattiesburg. “Others opted for the streamlined in-lines, and as a result, quite a few new hunters joined our ranks. These new black-powder guns are easier to load, much easier to clean and maintain and are extremely accurate with or without a scope. I’ve sold a ton of them.”
Then the state wildlife folks tweaked the hunting seasons, adding another primitive season at the end of January for Zone One and until Feb. 15 in Zone Two. New this year, Deer Zone 3 has the same seasons as Zone One. This really expanded hunting opportunities. Of course, archery gear could still be used then, too.
The upgraded new primitive
The next move by the state became the most liberal step ever toward expanding the definition of primitive weapons. In the fall of 2005, a new class of firearms was deemed “primitive” that for the first time included single-shot, breech-loading rifles with exposed hammers that could utilize metallic cartridge, primer-driven, smokeless ammunition. They just had to be .38 caliber or larger.
Initially, the rifles had to be of an original design, replica, re-introduction or reproduction of a type produced prior to 1900. Examples were rifles such as the Sharps and the 1885 Winchester. Interchangeable barrel rifles such as the TC Encore were not approved.
Confusion abounded from day one. Initial communication about the rules was nil. Dealers and hunters alike were confused. Everyone searched dealers’ shelves for metallic cartridge rifles that would meet these criteria, but frankly the dealers weren’t ready for the deluge. Ironically, there were not that many rifles available that fit the mold of the rules.
Then, amazingly, the word spread that the H&R break-open type rifles met the criteria. To this day, it is not clear how this approval got started, but it sure opened the floodgates.
A little research certainly would have revealed that this brand of rifle was not designed or produced prior to 1900, but by then, the cat was way out of the bag. In the ensuing months, literally thousands of these rifles were sold, and the factory got behind by thousands of orders.
“I started getting orders on the phone every day, because clearly hunters were eager to take on the primitive season using these firearms,” said Don Cresswell of World Wide Firearms in Flora. “The first season under this rule, I ordered as many H&R rifles as I could get my hands on, and I think I sold almost a thousand of them.”
It certainly was a boon to dealers.
The most popular chambering was the .45-70. Hunters quickly learned these lightweight rifles kicked at both ends, but did the job. Then word came that hunters could use optical scopes on these new primitive firearms. Hundreds more hunters joined the ranks of hunting the primitive seasons, which was a good thing to help with the overall statewide deer management program.
In 2008, the rules were fine-tuned again. The caliber requirement was reduced to .35, opening the door to the .35 Whelen. The rifle’s need to be of a design prior to 1900 was dropped. Also rifles with interchangeable barrels were included.