It was the opening day of deer season in upstate New York and I had spent the previous week scouting out a spot to hang my stand in the abandoned farmland that surrounds my home. I had it narrowed down to two locations in a creek bottom. The first location was very open with shooting lanes overlooking a number of obvious runs. The second, a wooded area about a half a mile upstream, had a much more limited field of vision. It had also seen much more whitetail activity lately. After much deliberation I opted for the more open spot, hoping to take advantage of the increased movement characteristic of opening morning.
Early in the morning I saw a number of does move through, but nothing sporting antlers. The rest of the morning was quiet and I decided to break for lunch and take a minute to re-think my strategy for the afternoon. The wind was picking up, so I decided to still-hunt the woods upstream in hopes of locating the byways where animals would be moving through. Moving into place I began to scan the woods. It wasn’t long before I spotted the brown body of a deer moving through the trees. I stopped next to a tree, knelt down for cover and looked for antlers; none to be seen, nor were there any on the gang that followed her. After watching six does pass by, I spotted a large-bodied buck hanging back in some thicket. I moved around the tree to get a clear shot, pulled up, placed the crosshairs on its vitals, cocked the hammer, and pulled the trigger—and nothing happened. I pulled the trigger again and still nothing happened. The buck looked at me. I chambered another round, fired and still nothing. After trying another two rounds the buck went on his way, more puzzled than frightened, and I exited the woods in a state of disbelief.
Just a few days before, the rifle had shot fine. so what happened? After I got out of the woods I located a few of my hunting buddies and related my story of malfunction to them. One of them suggested that the firing pin was gummed up. I’d purchased this particular rifle, a break-open Thompson/Center Encore, so that I would have the option to switch between centerfire and muzzleloading barrels. I not only liked the versatility of this design, but also the simplicity of a single shot rifle and its relatively light carrying weight; and up until now it had served me very well. Apparently, the foul from the muzzleloading munition builds up inside the firing pin, a fact that I had been unaware of having only ever used an old fashioned cap-fired muzzleloader. As I cleaned the firing pin, the built-up shot residue streamed out. By the time I got it clean enough to fire a few test rounds, the day was over.
At this point I wasn’t sure what to do; should I head back the next day and try to find this buck again or should I hunt a new spot where the deer might not be as alert? Since I was already familiar with the area and the buck’s habits, I decided to give it another try and hung my portable stand upwind of the run that he’d taken into the woods. I hadn’t been in the stand ten minutes when he appeared. I raised the rifle, cocked the hammer and pulled the trigger. This time the rifle went off loud and crisp and dropped the big buck where he stood.
Rest assured though—the moral of this story is not to be sure to clean your firing pin, or to use separate rifles for centerfire and muzzleloading seasons or even to be persistent; the moral is that each weapon has its own peculiarities and you’ve got to know yours. I once heard a story about a hunter who’d hunted his entire life with the same rifle and had never gotten a deer. He’d sight it in at a hundred yards, head out into the woods confident, and come home empty handed. It wasn’t till a hunting buddy had him shoot it at fifty yards and a hundred and fifty yards that he realized that he’d been hunting all those years with a bent barrel. He bought a new rifle and began filling his tags almost immediately. Getting to know your gun is a long learning process that involves time in the field and at the range. From now on I will pay special attention to the firing pin every time I clean this gun, especially after firing muzzleloading rounds through it. With regular cleaning I don’t expect to be having this problem again. The more we think of such “misfires” in the field as part of a larger learning process and less as just rotten luck, the more successful we’ll be in the long run.