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The PA ‘One-of-a-Kind’ Flintlock Deer Season Turns 50!

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Dec 30, 2004
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New England
PA ‘One-of-a-Kind’ Flintlock Deer Season Turns 50!
‘The greatest hunting sport there is’:

Published: Dec. 19, 2023, 6:59 a.m.

Twenty years ago, Michael Vaka’s grandfather-in-law Glen Barlow showed up at his door with a gift for his grandson-in-law – a box containing a flintlock rifle he’d bought decades before for $50 at a local bar. The Thompson/Center Hawken, which had been stored in Barlow’s attic for many years, started Vaka on a magical journey to what has become his favorite hunting pursuit, and one that’s unique and steeped in history.

“My wife’s grandfather gave it to me and I was so excited that I went to the range and I tried shooting it and I could not get the damn thing to fire; I couldn’t get any ignition,” Vaka recalled. “Here, I was shooting Pyrodex (powder) instead of black powder. I mean you want to talk about being a newbie – I understood muzzleloading, but I didn’t understand black-powder hunting.”

When it comes to black-powder firearms, Pennsylvania and in fact, the Lehigh Valley, has a rich tradition, with the Moravians bringing their gunsmithing and gunstocking skills with them from Europe when they settled Bethlehem in the early 1740s. The state is also known as the home of the Pennsylvania Longrifle, with the first of those longrifles likely made in the Lancaster area sometime early in the 18th century. By the late 1770s, according to information from Jacobsburg Environmental Education Center, which is home to Jacobsburg National Historic District, William Henry II of the Henry Family of gunmakers from Lancaster had opened a small gunmaking shop in Christian Springs near Nazareth. Then, in the 1790s, he purchased land at Jacobsburg and built a gun manufactory, with a larger facility opened in the area in 1812. Today, visitors can learn about the history of the Pennsylvania Longrifle and gun manufacturing in the area by visiting the Jacobsburg Historical Society and its Pennsylvania Longrifle Museum.

Pennsylvania’s Flintlock Season
The Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) honors the tradition and history of the flintlock rifle in the state by holding what is believed to be the nation’s only flintlock-only deer-hunting season. While other states have muzzleloading and primitive weapons seasons, those seasons allow black-powder percussion rifles and/or modern inline rifles. Pennsylvania’s flintlock season has been held since 1974, which makes the 2023 event, set for Dec. 26-Jan. 15, the 50th year of the hunt.

According to PGC Director of Communications Travis Lau, the first flintlock hunt was held Dec. 26-28, 1974, on 37 State Game Lands, with 65 deer taken during the 3-day affair. “Eventually it was expanded to include more game lands, then made statewide in 1979,” Lau said. “Today, it remains a much-anticipated opportunity to enjoy the deer woods after Christmas, and it seems like every year some dandy bucks are taken in this season. I believe Pennsylvania is the only state that has a season dedicated to flintlocks, and in Pennsylvania, it’s the only deer season in which hunters can harvest an antlerless deer with their unused buck tag.”

Hunting with a flintlock in the flintlock season is a challenge in many ways, starting with the fact that sportsmen are using a weapon that has the opportunity to misfire, especially if the powder, flint or frizzen get damp or wet. Plus, it’s often cold and windy – weather conditions that certainly aren’t for everyone. Then there’s the fact that the major deer seasons have come and gone, so whitetail numbers are at or near their lowest point of the year.

The game commission estimates 77,000 hunters took part in the flintlock season in 2022-2023, harvesting an estimated 12,000 antlerless deer and only 1,230 antlered deer. Compare that to the overall deer harvest, where an estimated 650,000-plus hunters took 422,960 deer over the course of the entire hunting season, and you can see the odds aren’t necessarily stacked in the flintlock hunter’s favor.

A Passion for Flintlock Hunting
After his initial experience shooting his flintlock, Vaka called upon friend Rick Grgurich for guidance. The pair then spent time at the shooting range, with Grgurich going over the proper powders and setup for Vaka, including finding the right projectile for his particular gun. Fast-forward to today, and Vaka’s love for black-powder hunting burns strong. Every winter, he, his sons Ben and Cameron, and several friends gather to make deer drives on public hunting lands during the flintlock season, hoping to take a deer or two if the opportunity presents itself. Over the past 18 years, the Lowhill Township resident has been fortunate to harvest eight or nine deer, pretty remarkable when one considers the challenges of flintlock hunting.

“Our groups were originally like five or six people and now there are times when we get up to maybe a dozen guys,” Vaka said. “I think it’s the most beautiful time of the year, generally because of the snow and there’s no pressure. We’ll put on little pushes to each other and my sons are usually on the mountain with me, (plus) a lot of our friends. There are times we’ll see groups in excess of 20 or 30 deer because they’re in winter herds.”

When it comes to flintlock hunting, Vaka stresses the importance of practicing regularly to ensure you are familiar with the gun and have it in excellent working condition. “We spend a lot of time at the range, getting the guns to run right, getting good ignition, making sure you’re using the right flint, the right projectiles, the right powders,” he said. “Making sure you’re cleaning them between shots. It takes a lot of love and time.”

Vaka is so adamant about practicing with his flintlock that not only does he hit the range several times a year, he and his friends started a muzzleloading jamboree a few years ago to hone their marksmanship skills. During the daylong event held each June, the group competes in several skills challenges including shooting freehand at a target 50-yards away, taking aim at an egg suspended 10-yards away and shooting from a rest at a steel deer target 100-yards away. The winner of the competition then walks away with the coveted Wolverine Trophy. “We came up with this idea … because we felt like it just wasn’t enough,” Vaka said. “We felt like we needed to continue to challenge ourselves. It was an excuse really to just shoot more. And we love it so much — we spend more time with the guns and with each other.”

When it comes to actually being in the woods, Vaka says the biggest challenge for flintlock hunters is keeping everything dry so the gun fires properly. Unlike other black-powder or modern firearms, the flintlock relies on an ignition system that is completely exposed to the elements. Basically, the gun’s flint, frizzen (the metal plate the flint strikes when the trigger is pulled to create a spark) and black-powder pan sit on the outside of the barrel. That primer powder in the pan then ignites the powder inside the barrel via a touch hole on the side of the barrel.

“I would absolutely say you want to be prepared,” he said. “If there is any type of precipitation whatsoever, you have to have something to cover your frizzen and your lock.” He also notes that cleaning the gun regularly – both inside and out – is essential. That helps keep all of the parts in good working order, prevents rusting and wards off possible damage to the inside of the barrel.

“Every time you shoot it you should give it a really good cleaning,” he said. “And that takes time; it’s a commitment.”

Looking Ahead
While Christmas 2023 will be spent with family and friends, come Dec. 26, Vaka will once again be in the same environment he always finds himself on that day – making deer drives in the woods and hills of eastern Pennsylvania, his trusty flintlock at his side. For Vaka, it’s a tradition he tries to never miss.

“We always say that the day after Christmas is our favorite day of the year because it’s just like a reunion,” he said. “A lot of guys travel in from different areas to hunt in our group. I love all seasons, but if there was one (hunting) tag or one season I could only hunt, it would be flintlock, purely because of the challenge and camaraderie and the tradition. It’s not easy to get started. You kind of have to shift through the gears, but once you really understand it and you have confidence in your gun and your ability, it’s the greatest hunting sport there is.”

Source = ‘The greatest hunting sport there is’: Pa.’s one-of-a-kind flintlock deer season turns 50

Great story, all ready to enjoy that season here, pobably only get out on weekends this year though. Been doing this hunt since '80 when I was 12yrs old.
Thanks for posting the article. I commend your state DNR for maintaining this truly traditional hunt over 50 years!

77,000 participants is impressive! The harvest stats aren't anything to snivel at either. Just goes to show that people will try it and hunt if the season is left as traditional. I hope this remains as-is for another 50 years. :thumb:
you are right but here in berks we have to share this season with doe rifle tag holders Hi power rifles and flinters in possible buck skins/camo no hunter orange:doh: not great I wish it was flint only
i'll be out there with everyone else. looks to be a wet one, gonna be using the lock cover and balloon this year
In 1974 when our PA flintlock-only season started, I was ten years old and into my third year as an "undocumented hunter" in rural Centre County. If I close my eyes and think back to those times, snippets of hunts, neighbors, deer, guns, smoke, snow, hoof tracks in the snow, blood on the snow, blue jeans and flannel shirts, and excitement trickle through my foggy memory banks. It was all new and exciting, because flintlocks were enjoying a new renaissance. Tomorrow I will be one of those roughly 77,000 PA flintlock hunters afield with a flintlock over my shoulder, and also a 22 on the hip to dispatch critters on the trapline. I like walking the trapline with a flintlock, because I feel all mountain-manly, and there are actually some times that I get a shot at a deer while checking traps. If I think hard about this, it is probably most honest to admit none of my shots at deer have connected while I am running the trapline. Not really a mountain man yet, though in the ten-year-old-boy corner in my head, I am. Really the best time of the year, especially when we get snow. Which does not appear to be on the menu this coming week. But I will love every moment of it. Good luck, everyone.
I'm glad to live in the northwest corner of Lehigh County. I'm glad my state has seen fit to keep this season. Early archery and late season muzzleloader are two of my favorite times in the woods.
I too love the late season.Worried though it will be to warm to handle a deer in these temps.Might have to wait for cooler temps.
I have been hunting flintlock season here in Pa. since 1979 with a Thompson Center Renegade. Over the years a few other TC guns have made their way into my collection along with a few custom Flintlocks. I enjoy this season a lot and look forward to it every year. Good luck to everyone that is lucky enough to get out!
Hopefully I will be joining the 77,000 for the 23-24 season. First I just have to get off my a$$ and decide on a rifle. Hopefully see some of you then.
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EIGHT guys to get ONE deer? He musta been a tough rascal!

It takes 8 because 7 of ya go into the cave where they hidin, fire off those flintlocks and chase the deer out where the stander is waiting to wrastle 1 to the ground and convince him into surrendering. You then take your pic, with everybody grinnin then let them go and watch them run off.
My buddy and I were out there the first year of the Pa. flint season in the early 1970's. Looking back , we were among the first guys around , trying to unravel the practical deer hunting use of flint guns. Looking back , only way to describe it was we were having trouble finding our a$$es w/ both hands. Because we were regular shooters at a local m/l club , we did know how our guns worked , but had to adapt our thinking from using modern scope sighted ctg. guns to kill deer , to short range iron sight , single shot m/lers. Learning curve was conquered using "still hunting" and slow tracking techniques. Also ,we found our best deer killing days , were in the worst weather. We had 60 k + acres of State Game Lands to learn. the craft ,as well. Learning about deer , using all custom built m/l's , jaegers to longrifles of different calibers , so we could understand what worked best for us. It's been an experiment few folks ever get to try. So many deer to eat. Too old these days to go where the deer are. ......oldwood