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Old Hunting Terms in State's New-Fangled Hunting World


With hunting season upon us, it might be interesting to consider how the terminology of shooting has contributed to our language. Most, if not all of the sayings related to guns, come down from the days of muzzle-loading firearms, when a rifle or shotgun was loaded, not with a ready-made metal cartridge, but with separate portions of powder and lead.

For instance, a modern-day hunter need not take any special precautions to insure that his watertight shells remain shootable, but my grandfather, who began hunting with a muzzle-loading shotgun in the 1870s, knew that the slightest exposure to moisture could render the contents of his powder horn useless. For him, the admonition, "keep you powder dry" no doubt carried much stronger connotations than it possibly could for us today.

Similarly, a hunter who has loaded his rifle from the business end knows exactly what it means to say that a man stands ramrod straight. A person who has never tamped a charge into muzzle-loader probably understands what the phrase means, but the power of the image is just not there.

Many other still common expressions arose from the daily activities of the black powder burners of yesteryear. For example, after an oldtimer loaded his long-rifle or shotgun, he "primed" it by placing a percussion cap on the nipple or by pouring a bit of powder into the pan, if the gun was of the older flintlock variety. Once primed, the gun was ready for action. We still say someone is primed when he or she is well prepared.

With his gun charged, the prudent hunter would set his firearm at halfcock, that is with the hammer in the safety position so that the weapon could not accidentally discharge. If he failed to pull the hammer all the way back to the firing position when he sighted game, his gun would not fire at the crucial moment. To this day, to be "halfcocked" is to be illprepared for the task at hand.

Muzzle-loading weapons were never quite as reliable as modern breechloaders. Even when the guns were fully cocked and primed, sometimes things went wrong. In the case of a flintlock, for example, the priming charge in the pan might ignite but fail to fire the powder in the barrel. In such a case all the hunter would get would be a "flash in the pan"a phrase we still use to describe a brief but unsustained success.

Other times, in case of flintlocks and percussion arms, the priming charge ignited the main charge, but due to poor loading, damp powder, or a dirty barrel, there would be a delay between the combustion of the primer and the actual firing of the main charge. Though the interval between explosions might be but a fraction of a second, it was still enough to cause the shooter to waiver in his aim and miss his target. We still use the pioneer's term for that phenomenon, "hangingfire," to describe indecision or delay that adversely affects the outcome of a plan or project.

Of all the muzzle-loading terms in use today, perhaps the least understood is the phrase "lock, stock, and barrel," which we use to mean "the whole works." That's exactly what those words mean, for the lock, stock, and barrel make up the entire works of a blackpowder firearm (the lock being the hammer and firing mechanism)the whole shooting match, some might say.

So that’s it, lock, stock, and barrel. Keep your powder dry, and don’t go off half-cocked!

James T. McCafferty is a lawyer and award-winning writer who grew up in the Mississippi Delta and now resides in McComb. He is the author of many magazine and newspaper articles, two children’s books about Delta bear hunter Holt Collier, and the full-length The Bear Hunter: The Life and Times of Robert Eager Bobo in the Canebrakes of the Old South. For more information see his website:

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