by T.M. Nash
Pilgrims , You can't live with them and you can't live without them! Actually, we'd better learn not just to live with them, but to get out there and recruit them! We all had to start somewhere, and I haven't met anyone yet who was born with all of the know-how to get started. If we all looked back to some of our earlier experiences, we could laugh at some of the problems and the dumb things we did. I was once told that there are three ways that we learn things in life. We can read about them; we can be shown; or we can learn from our mistakes. I'm sure there are other ways that we accumulate our knowledge, but the things we learn from our mistakes seem to make the strongest impression. I was fortunate because I had good folks who looked over my shoulder and made sure that I got started on the right path, and then we laughed together when those "dumb things" came up (they still do, but not as often!).
It's very intimidating to go out and try something new. You're worried about making a serious mistake or just making a fool of yourself in front of others (still do that too!). We've all seen the new fellow on the line who has just bought an outfit from some large discount store. Unfortunately the person selling it may not have had any more knowledge selling than the price and the recommended accessories. The new enthusiast went home and read the instruction book, loaded up the gear and headed out to his first shoot. Now I'm sure that most people are going to go out and practice somewhere before attending their first shoot, but we've probably encountered individuals who have showed up with the price tags still attached to their equipment. I've seen folks approach them and offer help, and I've seen folks avoid them like the plague. That new enthusiast's first impressions last for a long time and may help determine whether that individual stays with the sport or takes up watching golf on TV.
During the registration at a shoot, if an individual isn't familiar to you, it's a good practice to learn more about their experience and background. If they are experienced and just new to the area, they might become new active members, a valuable asset to any club. It is frustrating for outsiders to come out and feel unwelcome-introduce them to some of the other members and make an effort to make them feel at home. If the newcomers don't have much experience, here's a good opportunity to get them started off right and make them feel comfortable. Introduce them to some of the regular shooters and have someone spend some time with them to insure they are safe and don't have any problems. If they do have problems (none of us ever loaded without powder, right?), help them learn what they did wrong and how to correct it safely, without getting embarrassed in front of a group of strangers. They will thank you later and you will have made a friend for life. One of the area clubs I used to frequent had a supply of short deer antlers painted green and hung on a leather thong; at the completion of the shoot, they would make a good-natured presentation of the 'greenhorn' award to any new shooters so they wouldn't go home empty-handed. They would be told that they should wear it until the 'green' was worn off, and then they wouldn't be a 'greenhorn' any more. At the next shoot, they wouldn't be expected to wear it, but everyone would know them and would assist them if needed. It's always a good idea to include a few shoots in your schedule that have some luck involved so that everyone has an opportunity to win something regardless of their shooting ability. This is where blanket shoots are nice because everyone goes home with something to show for their efforts.
What can we do to recruit new pilgrims and help make that first experience a lasting one? Well, we don't always know what has piqued the interest of the pilgrim. It may be a book they read, a TV show or movie they've seen, or just the desire to get out and try something new. Many of the things we read or see in the movies are enhanced for reading or viewing and don't reflect real situations or safe practices. A good place to start is for a local club or organization to contact local stores in your area that sell muzzleloading supplies and make your presence known (besides it's a good way to make contacts in case you ever have to solicit prize donations). A reputable salesperson isn't going to provide deliberate misinformation to a customer, and most salespeople I've encountered have been very happy to refer an interested customer to a local club or individual for advice. This not only helps them get return customers, but it helps local clubs get new members (and we always need new members to supplement our work parties). This provides an ideal opportunity to introduce pilgrims to the world of muzzleloading and get them started in a safe manner.
It's important that the old-timer pass on good habits and practices to the pilgrim. Sometimes even the most experienced shooter can forget or through habit omit something that is important to safe handling of the muzzleloader or supplies. (Case in point: some folks still thoughtlessly blow down the barrel after a shot.) Pilgrims may take what they are shown as gospel, and then your bad habits become their bad habits.
You need to learn as much as possible about the new shooter before handling the firearm. They may be new to shooting and unfamiliar with any firearms safety. Find out what their interests and goals are; whether hunting, target practice, plinking, or rendezvous. Make them feel comfortable, and don't be too critical of their questions concerning actions that we might take for granted. Try to impress on them the need for constant safety awareness. Try to encourage them; and if we're lucky, maybe they have a better half and youngsters who are interested in becoming involved. We need to be open minded and to avoid trying to influence their opinions if different from yours. If they have a new stainless steel barreled, plastic-stocked inline action, Italian-made muzzleloader and you shoot a traditional flintlock, tolerance is the watchword: we all started somewhere. Think back to what your first muzzleloader was and what your first set of skins looked like.
Hunter education programs are an ideal place to introduce the public to the sport of muzzleloading--and not just the youngsters but also any parents in attendance. Not only do they get a good introduction to wildlife management techniques and philosophies, they also get some valuable gun safety and handling instruction. One of the most enjoyable things about working with hunter education programs is the opportunity to expose youngsters to the history associated with the early settlers and trappers. This gives them a greater appreciation for the use of muzzleloaders. Another side benefit of working with hunter education programs is the relationship you can establish with the wildlife agency and local conservation officers. You never know when that may come in handy during public meetings, or when they want input on pending rules or regulations.
In today's society, we encounter the single parent family with increasing frequency. A mother may not be able to give her children the opportunity to experience muzzleloading. Contact local organizations in your area that work with single parents or schedule an introductory seminar and post flyers on local bulletin boards. These types of activities give youngsters a chance to spend more time outdoors and to become familiar with safe handling of firearms instead of spending time getting into trouble. This is an ideal chance to introduce the interested family to the joys and opportunities of the rendezvous scene.
The rendezvous and primitive events are among the most enjoyable and interesting activities we have to offer. There are times when we need to preserve the pre-1840 experience for those of us who have worked to maintain authenticity. But sometimes we need to open our gates and let the pilgrims in for a visit. It's a great opportunity to show the world who we are and what we are trying to recreate. It's this experience that attracts many newcomers, and if the pilgrim wants to get involved in this aspect of muzzleloading, give them an opportunity to learn and understand the rules (rules, aughhhhhh!). Yes, we sometimes have to make concessions, and that's part of the game, but how we present ourselves to the newcomers and the public probably gets more attention (good or bad) than all the other activities combined. Remember, we were all pilgrims once upon a time. Most of the folks I've had the privilege of meeting at rendezvous have enjoyed the opportunity to meet with the public and share their experiences with them. However, when it comes time to lock the gate and enjoy our experience, make sure the visitors know why. They will probably understand and respect our wishes.
Instead of being critical of others in muzzleloading who may have different views, we need to work together to make our sport a safer and better opportunity for everyone. The pilgrim you recruit and help today may be the booshway of tomorrow; and that's important not just for muzzleloading, but for the sake of all shooting sports.
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