Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole

Buffalo Hunting:

Running buffalo on horseback was the prefered method of hunting buffalo. Buffalo hunting in this manner at Fort Union in 1851, is described by Rudolph Kurz (Reference) in his journal as follows: 

"When running buffaloes the hunters do not use rifle-patches but take along several balls in their mouths; the projectile thus moistened sticks to the powder when put into the gun.  In the first place, on buffalo hunts, they do not carry rifles, for the reason that they think the care required in loading them takes too much time unnecessarily when shooting at close range and, furthermore, they find rifle balls too small.  The hunter chases buffaloes at full gallop, discharges his gun, and reloads without slackening speed.  To accomplish this he holds the weapon close within the bend of his left arm and, and taking the powder horn in his right hand, draws out with his teeth the stopper, which is fastened to the horn to prevent its being lost, shakes the requisite amount of powder into his left palm, and again closes the powder horn.  Then he grasps the gun with his right hand, holding it in a vertical position, pours the powder down the barrel, and gives the gun a sidelong thrust with the left hand, in order to shake the powder well through the priming hole into the touchpan.  

Now he takes a bullet from his mouth and with his left hand puts it into the barrel, where, having been moistened by spittle, it adheres to the powder.  He dares never hold his weapon horizontal, that is in position taken when firing, for fear that the ball may stick fast in its course, allowing sufficient air to intervene between powder and lead to cause an explosion and splinter the barrel.  So long as the ball rolls freely down there is no danger.  Hunters approach the buffaloes so closely that they do not take aim but, lifting the gun lightly with both hands, point in the direction of the animal's heart and fire. They are very often wounded on the face and hands by the bursting gun barrels, which, especially when the weather is extremely cold, are shattered as easily as glass.

The hunters aim always at the heart of the larger beasts of the chase, the surest and simplest method, since the heart is an inevitably vulnerable part.  When hunting wolves, foxes, and beavers they aim at the head, so that they may not do damage to the small, costly skins by perforating them with bullets. Buffalo chasers must not only have
the enduring qualities of swift riders but they must also be accustomed to the habits of the animals.  A buffalo runner must be faultless in pressing close upon his quarry and at the same time be alert to spring aside if a buffalo tosses his head.  Otherwise, if he be only a passable horseman, he will find himself immediately upon the ground and may count himself happy if he is not trodden underfoot. "

Kurz describes Battiste Lafontaine as one of the best mounted buffalo hunters in the region.  A contest was once held to see which of various buffalo hunters was most skilled.  "He covered 1 English mile in 6 minutes and shot, in flight, 12 cows-that is, two every minute- nothwithstanding that cows run much faster than bulls."  

From Kurz's description we can make a number of inferences about the preferred gun carried by a buffalo hunter.  He would have carried a smooth-bore, large caliber (likely .60 or greater) flintlock, long-gun.  Flint was the preferred ignition system even though percussion guns had been common since the late 1830's.  (I suspect that seating a percussion cap on a nipple while riding a horse at full gallop would have been quite the challenge)  The powder would have been very fine grained, or the touch-hole diameter was large, or both because the pan was charged from powder dropped down the barrel, not as a separate operation.  The ball must have been considerably smaller than the barrel diameter because it to was allowed to drop freely down to the powder and nothing held it there other than gravity until it was fired.  This gun matches the description of a NW Trade Gun, or other similar inexpensive long guns.   

James Willard Schulz provides a similar description of running buffalo by Piegan Indians in the 1870s. As a rule, the hunters started out together every morning, and sighting a large herd of buffalo, approached them as cautiously as possible, until finally the animals became alarmed and started to run, and then a grand chase took place, and if everything was favorable many fat cows were killed. Nearly all the Piegans had guns of one kind or another; either flintlock or percussion-cap, smooth-bore or rifle; but in the chase many of them, especially if riding swift, trained horses, preferred to use the bow and arrow, as two or three arrows could be discharged at as many different animals while one was reloading a gun. And yet those old smooth-bores were quickly loaded. The hunter carried a number of balls in his mouth; as soon as his piece was discharged he poured a quantity of powder from the horn or flask into his hand and thence down the barrel; then taking a ball from his mouth he dropped it down on top of the powder, gave the stock a couple of sharp blows to settle the charge, and primed the pan or put on the cap, as the case might be. When loaded in this manner the piece had to be held muzzle up else the ball would roll out; and when ready to shoot the hunter fired the instant he brought the gun down to the level of the mark. Some of the hunters—fine shots and astride exceptionally swift and long-winded horses—often killed twenty and even more buffalo on a single run, but I think the average number to the man was not more than three. (James Willard Schulz, My Life as an Indian, Mineola, New York, Dover Publications, Inc., 1907, republished 1997, page 42)

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