This is Harley’s wood. Set into the thick wooden stock of each hand-crafted rifle is a smooth steel barrel and an ornately carved flint and trigger mechanism. In my hands, the rifle feels foreign, but has a reassuring weight indicative of its craftsmanship. They are handsome; I had never thought of a rifle as being a piece of art before, but these ones certainly are. In fact, I had no experience holding or aiming a gun, let alone firing one. When I first met Harley, the only guns I had ever seen were tucked neatly into the holsters of New York’s finest, and in my eyes that was where they certainly belonged.
Shooting black-powder in the Vermont winter strikes at all the senses. The exposed trigger finger gently presses back against the blistering cold of the steel trigger. The numbness of the frigid finger is forgotten after a split second when the wooden stock punches back into the shoulder. The thump is accentuated by the coinciding boom of the black-powder, which resonates as if trapped by the surrounding mountains. The smell of the black-powder lingers in the crisp Vermont air long after the small smoke cloud dissipates; the smell doesn’t burn the nostrils; rather, it invigorates them. At that sudden moment of pure stimulus, only the sharp ping of the ball striking the metal target matters.
Each one of Harley Grice’s black-powder rifles is handmade, most by his son-in-law Randy and grandson Wes who live down the road. The crafting shop is on his property and is brimming with lathes, uncut wood, and different length barrels. One wall is lined with completed rifles, each differing in length, color, and carving patterns. Heated by a small wood stove, the room smells of freshly cut wood and is a cozy reprieve from the dreary Vermont winters. Although delicately crafted in the soft warmth, the rugged rifles are always taken outdoors to the primitive biathlon competitions by Harley and his family.
Every winter after hunting season ends, Harley and his family compete in multiple primitive biathlons, a close cousin of the ‘normal’ biathlon, but with a twist. Instead of using advanced, light-weight cross country skis and bolt-action rifles, the primitive biathletes use old wooden snowshoes and black-powder muzzleloader rifles. Traditional garb is also encouraged: biathletes often sacrifice the pragmatism of the sleek, skin-tight race suits for fur hats and homemade leather ponchos. The sport has a dedicated, but perhaps small, following that show up to almost all the races each winter.
More important than the well-crafted guns themselves is the man who carries them. When I first went to Harley’s house up Halpin Road for a college project on Adventure Writing, he bragged to me about his seven women. He showed me a picture of the seven women in a human pyramid, with his great-granddaughter perched alone on top. It’s quite the photo: six smiling women varying in age on their hands and knees stacked on top of one another with a blonde tot standing. He bragged about how most of them were still in Vermont, and visited him frequently. He showed me an award he had won, but didn’t say much about it; all he did was talk about how his daughter Wendy had artfully crafted the trophy.
That first day at his house was the first day I ever held a gun. The temperature was subzero and the air clear and windless; it was supposedly a perfect day for shooting, but I didn’t know that. I just thought it was cold. A friend had introduced Harley and me, and I was over there to learn the basics about shooting. When we stepped out onto his range from his basement door, I was immediately struck by the vastness. The range is about two hundred yards long, and twenty yards wide, but sits amidst three hundred acres of rolling farm hills in the forefront of the Green Mountains.
The expansive land contrasts with his moderately sized house, which is about fifty feet off Halpin Road. The walls of his home are lined with taxidermied animal heads from his hunting endeavors, some with antlers wider than a small car, each with its own story. There is a monstrously large pair that I asked about once, but Harley dodged the question and, instead, proudly displayed the deer that his late wife Marilyn had shot on their last trip together. At the time, Harley had been a vegetarian for two years to support his wife when she was having health problems. Instead of eating the meat from the deer he hunted, he would order over forty pounds of carrots and celery every week to make healthy drinks for him and his wife. Whether it’s to his wife or to his guns, this type of dedication is nothing new to Harley as it permeates into to every facet of his life.
Harley’s bristling gray beard easily keeps his face warm, although it doesn’t obstruct his ever-present smile. He always wears a pair of round framed glasses, which make him look friendly, even when holding one of his longer guns. His favorite shirt is this weathered red flannel which he wears indoors and outdoors. It’s unclear exactly how old he is, but it doesn’t really matter. Fifty-nine years after bow-hunting his first buck, Harley still competes in multiple primitive biathlons every winter. His favorite part of every biathlon is snowshoeing them with his family and the different people he trains every year. Over the years, he’s won many competitions, and I am lucky enough to train for my first ever primitive biathlon with the one true legend of the sport. His passion is shooting, but to him the sport is nothing without companionship. This is the man who taught me how to shoot, who taught to me love black-powder.
My first shot ever, which was with a .22 caliber rifle, was quite honestly underwhelming. We were shooting at a round paper target stapled onto a pile of logs about forty feet out. The first spit of the rifle hit eleven o’clock, about three inches out the bull’s-eye. The second hit six o’clock, with the third and fourth straddling the innermost ring. I could barely feel the recoil through my thick winter coat, and the target looked like it had been stabbed by a few number-two pencils. The next two shots delicately pinged off two metal targets Harley had told me to shoot at, slightly more gratifying. “This is boring.” Harley smiled, and guided me back down into his basement.
Contrasting with Harley and his ruggedly paternal charm is me. My name is Philip McVay Hughes, and I am from New York City. My dad was born there too, as was his mom. Our family is about as far removed from rural Vermont and black-powder as one can be, and we certainly pride ourselves on being true city folk.
Growing up, spending time outdoors meant playing kickball in the plaza under the watchful gaze of the Twin Towers, or playing dodge ball in our building’s hallways, much to the annoyance of our portly neighbor Herb Shapiro. For my thirteenth birthday, I was fully unleashed to wreak havoc in my skinny jeans across the city when my parents gave me my own Metrocard and set of keys. It was after that when I began to forge my own adventures.
Instead of traipsing around the woods like most American kids, my youth was spent peripatetically exploring the flora and fauna of one of the planet’s densest urban areas; quite honestly Vermont was nowhere on my radar. It was probably that state I always forgot on those terrible fourth- grade geography quizzes. It was not until spring break of my junior year in high school when I toured Middlebury on a brisk March day that I realized I was going to have to come to Vermont.
At the time, I didn’t realize that coming to Middlebury for school would actually be a homecoming of sorts. According to my mother, I was conceived in Vermont on a Valentine’s Day ski trip over twenty-two years ago. She elects to remind me of this fact every time I mention something I love about Vermont and says it makes sense that I would spend my most formative post-natal years here. In retrospect, returning to Vermont as a young man to train for a primitive biathlon has my life following some wonderfully circular trajectory.
After shooting the small breech loader rifle those few times, Harley taught me how to load the muzzle loader in his basement. The loading process is always methodical, always the same. First, I measure out the black-powder grains and pour them into the muzzle, hearing them bounce down the inside of the lubricated barrel. Next, I use the smooth wooden ball-starter to knock the circular lead ball and cloth patch down the first few inches of the barrel. Finally, I plunge the ramrod deep down the maw of the gun. It takes about three jams to get the ball all the way down, each time making a damped swooshing noise. Harley always stresses the importance of keeping your body away from the column of air above the bore, for obvious reasons. Once the powder enters the barrel, safety is the primary concern, and Harley always made this abundantly clear.
Harley’s expertise, from constant exposure and intimate familiarity, means he is acutely aware of the dangers of guns. He is a safety guru. When shooting, his first priority is always the safety of the people around him. His safety-first attitude is one that permeates through the generations, and his family members are also experts of gun safety. His grandson Wes is even becoming a game warden in Vermont, a state-sanctioned authority on gun and hunter safety.
Vermont’s strong rural character and long history of outdoor sports drive the state’s love affair with shooting. Although a very liberal state in general, Vermont has always prided itself on having some of the laxest firearm legislation in the country. With the exception of purchasing a silencer for a gun, there are no additional state-specific pieces of legislation for gun ownership beyond the federal minimum set out in the National Firearms Act. Similarly, Vermont gun ownership is the twentieth highest in the nation, with 42.0% of Vermonters owning guns.
Vermont has such loose gun laws that the term “Vermont Carry” has been coined on a national level; this refers to the piece of Vermont legislation regarding carrying weapons in Vermont. Vermont neither issues nor requires a permit to carry, concealed or openly, a weapon. You don’t even have to be a resident of Vermont and you can still follow these rules when in the state. It pretty much doesn’t matter who you are, or where you are, you can carry a concealed, unregistered handgun in Vermont.
This being said, however, very high levels of gun ownership in Vermont have nearly no correlation with gun violence. Vermont boasts not only the lowest number of gun murders in the country, but also the lowest per capita. In 2010, there were only two recorded gun murders in Vermont, with a death rate of 0.3 gun murders per 100,000 people. Contrast this with states like Louisiana and Maryland, both with stricter gun legislation, where in 2010, there were 7.7 (Louisiana) gun murders per 100,000 people and 5.1 (Maryland).
Coming from a city, and of course in light of recent national tragedies relating to gun violence, it was hard for me to understand any of the appeal of hunting and shooting, or just of owning guns in general. I hesitate to generalize, but shooting with Harley and his family has shown me a whole other side to gun ownership and is perhaps indicative of why such high gun ownership in Vermont can go hand-in-hand with such powerful non-violence.
For the Grice family, owning, using, and even making rifles are multigenerational activities. There is a common misconception that hunting and shooting are male-dominated activities, but Harley certainly does not see them this way. Harley grew up in Vermont shooting with his parents, and it is no surprise that he custom designed three ornate black-powder rifles for each of his three daughters. Before his wife passed away, they would hunt together every season, and often travel to far-away places like Montana to do so. Every weekend, he shoots with his children and grandchildren on his own private biathlon course or on the impressive range in his backyard. Led by Harley, the Grice family is legendary in the primitive biathlon community, but the biathlon is just one of the many outdoor sports he still does with his family. His daughter Wendy, who lives down Halpin road on the same piece of property, also has her own range that you shoot on straight from her front porch. Across her driveway is the workshop where Wendy’s husband Randy assembles many of the rifles.
Harley’s basement is the ultimate man-cave: there are multiple mounted pairs of antlers from past hunts, a loaded bookshelf, and enough black-powder rifles for a colonial militia. A table in the center of the room displays the only handgun in the family; it is a functioning black-powder replica pistol. Leaning against one of the brick walls is a poster explaining the best places to attack a bear when knife hunting. The rifles are all casually leaning against walls or tables, always left unloaded and cleaned. The seemingly casual placement of the strewn-about rifles cannot be confused with a cavalier attitude towards them. Only shooting one can remind you of their power.
Carrying the loaded rifle out of the basement for the first time, I became acutely aware of the weight of the gun, straightened my posture, and carefully pushed open the old wooden door. The cold light came rushing in, and my eastern field of view opened up to see the length of the Green Mountains encircling the firing range, which suddenly looked small, almost as if it was protected by the peaks.
Harley told me to take my first shot with the “real” gun at the same paper target I had riddled earlier with the .22. My rifle used a caplock mechanism, rather than a flintlock mechanism, so before cocking back the hammer, I had to delicately place a percussion cap onto the tiny “nipple” of the caplock. I pulled the rifle up into my right shoulder and cocked back the hammer. The click was distinct; I don’t know if I felt the click, or just heard it through my sound-cancelling headphones. It’s impossible to describe the sound as anything else: it was simply the clicking noise a gun makes when you cock it, and nothing else. With the stock held tightly against my right shoulder, my left hand propped up the barrel. I had taken off my gloves inside to load, but I didn’t notice the cold air. The target came into focus as I lined up my two sights, aiming for about four seconds. I took a deep breath, letting about half of it out; at that exact moment my finger sprung back onto the trigger. Harley’s voice ran through my head. “Follow through with your shots. Do not flinch.”
Muzzle-loading rifles and muskets are the oldest firearms on Earth, and range in size from anything as small as a pistol to large artillery like canons and mortars. Although obviously no longer used in combat, muzzleloader rifles played a key role in all pre-World War I warfare. In fact, they have been pivotal in Vermont’s history since the arrival of Europeans in North America. In 1609, French explored Samuel de Champlain used an arquebus, an ancestor of the muzzleloader rifle, to kill an Iroquois chief in Vermont to impress and help his Abenaki allies; although seemingly unimportant at the time, this sole black-powder shot would define alliances in the northeast through the French and Indian War and founding of the Vermont Republic.
Nowadays, black-powder enthusiasts primarily use two types of guns: flintlock and percussion cap rifles. Developed in the middle of the seventeenth century, flintlock mechanisms use the hammer to strike a piece of flint against the frizzen to generate a spark a spark and ignite a priming powder, which in turns sets off the black-powder. A percussion cap is similar, except instead of using the flint and the frizzen, a fulminate-primed metal cap is placed under the hammer to generate the spark to ignite the black-powder. I prefer to use the cap rifles because they tend to be more reliable and only misfire when wet. Similarly, there is much shorter lag between when the shooter pulls the trigger and the actual shot itself. This lag can lead the shooter to flinch and move the gun off target as the shot is going off, causing the shot to miss.
There was the recoil, the resounding boom, the smoke, the smell, and the gaping hole in the center of the target. The shot had absolutely shredded the center of the target; the hole was about seven times bigger than the ones from the .22, and just looked damn good. I spent the rest of the day shooting harder targets, with varying degrees of success. Harley even recycled some old plastic jugs which he filled with water and shot at; they exploded, much to my childish excitement. “You saw that, it’ll do the same thing to your face. Be careful,” Harley warned me. That was my first day of primitive biathlon training. I didn’t mind that I was freezing cold, or smelt like gunpowder, or was weary; my heart pumped strongly, but not quickly, and I was hooked.
I spent the next three weeks shooting with Harley, meeting some of his friends and family and exploring large swathes of his property. One warm January morning, my classmate John, another black-powder enthusiast from Manhattan, and I followed Harley from his place down Halpin Road to his daughter Wendy’s house. The onslaught of cold rain had warmed the Vermont winter, exposing worn-out patches of grass which had not been seen for weeks. We shot under the protection of the tin awning of her porch, shielding us and the guns from the rain, which never ceased to patter on the metal. As an intense fog seeped out from the melting ice, the bullets felt slow, but our shots continued to echo through the mountains. A premature thaw has a very distinct smell; when the ice melts unnaturally fast, it carries a damp smell of the freshly exposed earth which permeates through the thick air. Even though it was still early in the morning, Wendy’s children and grandchildren didn’t seem to notice the never ending thump of rifles and continued about their business as usual. Wendy only took two shots that morning, and hit both of them, to no one’s surprise.
I met two primitive biathlon legends that morning: Wendy Grice and Danielle Rougeau. Just by nature of being Harley’s eldest daughter, Wendy was destined to be a biathlon legend, but she certainly more than earns the honor. Her knowledge of flintlock rifles is matched only by her ability to use them; while she may be slower than her husband Randy when rounding a course, her shots never seem to miss. Her calm demeanor leaves her with the steadiest shot in the area. At every biathlon, there is always some challenge shot that you can take to earn free powder: Wendy hits every time, keeping the Grice black-powder stocks full.
Danielle is another story. As a docent at Middlebury’s Special Collections department, she is in perhaps more in touch with the history of the surrounding area than anyone else in Vermont. She’s the jack of all trades; besides an intellectual, she’s a long distance cross-country skier, a log-rolling champion, and primitive biathlon expert. Her mixture of perfect balance and endurance make her a lethal primitive biathlete, as she is easily able to regulate her heart rate and stabilize herself to shoot after a tiring trek through the woods. Do not be alarmed by her vivid gesticulations, as they are nothing more than an expression of her boundless energy, and always perfectly augment what she’s saying. When we shot with her off of Wendy’s porch, her piercing laughter echoed like the black-powder, and persistent encouragement and advice kept our shots flying straight through the pouring rain.
A warm snow followed the cold rain a week later, reforming the snowy floor in Harley’s woods. The snow cover made it possible for me to try on the snowshoes for the first time and take them out onto Harley’s own biathlon course. Each handcrafted, wooden shoe is about a meter long, and a foot wide in the middle. Multiple leather straps keep the boots in place, and allow for the heel to release whenever the runner steps forward. Running in them was like trying to run with small kayaks attached to your feet, allowing only for a tiring jog at best.
Snowshoeing through Harley’s woods for the first time after the snowfall revealed another side of primitive biathlon. When the wind died down, the snow muted every sound; the rhythmic crunch of our snowshoes was overwhelmed by the total silence. Over the span of an hour, the silence was interrupted by only ten shots, whose usual echoes were swiftly dampened by the snow. The snow fell gently onto the trees, blurring the forest’s edge, isolating us completely in each shot, and the adrenalin that had pumped through my body after my first-ever shot had been replaced by an unforeseen calm.
Eighteen days after touching a gun for the first time, it was finally time for my debut primitive biathlon. The Smuggler’s Notch biathlon is the granddaddy of all primitive biathlons, and the trophy is named in honor of Harley’s late wife, Marilyn Grice. Located deep in the Northeast Kingdom, I had to wake up before dawn to follow Harley and Danielle there so we could get an early race start time. Despite a pre-sunrise, ludicrously high-speed, Subaru chase with Danielle, we made it there intact.
Even after the sun had risen, it was hidden behind a ceiling of gray clouds, leaving a flat light on the thin snow. Snow was falling sideways in the viscous wind, and the tips of fingers were already cold. The race was located on the edge of a forest up the side of Mount Mansfield, the tallest mountain in Vermont. Besides a parking lot filled with weathered pickup trucks, a small barn, and two other temporary structures, there wasn’t much going on at the place, but it was bustling with bearded men in Carhart pants, homemade bobcat-skin hats, and washed-out red flannels.
Harley knew everyone, literally everyone. He shook hands, hugged, kissed, patted shoulders, whatever; everyone needed a piece of Harley’s cheer to stay warm for the race. He had proudly donned a full-length red velvet robe, with a long hood that hung down his back. Sewed into the face of the hood was an illustrious fur trim which framed his joyful face. Marilyn had made it for him, and it served to further distinguish him from an already eccentric crowd. The robe imbued him with an even greater energy, and he continued to be as gregarious as ever.
I had premeasured out my black-powder the previous afternoon, and had the rest of my gear in different shirt pockets. I strapped on my snowshoes and shuffled up to the starting line with my rifle pointed to the sky. Contestants were going off one at a time, and off I went after a five second countdown. I jogged the first mile or so, but the snow was too much for me and I slowed down to a walking pace for a while. The race flew by, with my first shot being a misfire due to my wet rifle, and my last two shots hitting the two hardest targets on the course. I finished hitting only four of nine total targets, which was a little disappointing at the time, but I would ultimately finish in the top third of contestants.
Encased in frozen sweat, I jogged across the finish line, always thinking about how I had to keep my rifle pointed straight up. Harley was still on out the course, so I bantered with some of my new friends, sharing scores and stories and our shots and falls on the course. Much to my delight, I devoured a sizzling bowl of fresh moose chili while perusing the selection of furs sold by the local trappers. When Harley finished, we exchanged the tales of our hits and misses and of course he had bested me. But when he heard about how I had hit the last two shots, he sort of tackled me. “Ohhh brother,” he chuckled.
Harley rode home in the passenger seat of my car, and we chatted about Marilyn, his church, his farm, and the importance of swimming outdoors. We chatted about my parents, my brother, woodchuck hunting, and the advent of Vermont microbreweries. We chatted about our friends, and the snowstorm that was raging in front of my windshield. By sitting behind the wheel of that car during the storm, I had been entrusted with the safety of the icon of primitive biathlon, and I was grateful for that.
I remember there was a short moment during the race when I was completely alone in the woods between shooting stations. The tall trees had blocked the wind and I had slowed down to a walking pace. Every so often, the sound of black-powder would run through the forest, quickly forgotten by the wood and the snow. For three and a half years I had travelled over four hundred miles from my concrete playground to come study the world, and there I was, walking alone in the woods on an old pair of snowshoes, reeking of black-powder, with a rifle in my right hand. At last, a thick old man wearing a full coyote-skin pelt draped over his head and shoulders carrying only a black-powder pistol scurried past. Without breaking stride, he turned around and softly smiled; the eyes of dead coyote on his head smiled too. Over the last month, I had come to expect this kind of occurrence, and remained at ease as I continued on my way through Harley’s wood.