Running Buffalo


From On the Upper Missouri Rudolph Friederich Kurz


October 15 1851


The father of our new trader, Battiste Lafontaine, was the best-mounted buffalo hunter ever known in this region.  Once he ran buffaloes with others in the Yellowstone to see which of them could kill the greater number at full gallop.  He covered 1 English mile in 6 minutes and shot 12 cows--- that is, two every minute---notwithstanding that cows run much faster than bulls.  Lafontaine weighed 230 pounds but sat his horse so lightly and comfortably that the beast was not sensible of his weight.


Own Mackenzie can load and shoot 14 times in 1 mile but does not invariably hit the object at which he aims.  Still, I do not doubt that Mackenzie has the skill to shoot 12 cows in 1 mile, if his runner should come up with that number.  Last year Mackenzie ran a race with Clark from Fort Benton on a wager and broke his collarbone during the adventure.  He was just getting a start to his goal when his runner stepped in a hole and fell.  Mackenzie went hurtling over the horse’s head and came down on one shoulder.  He won the race nevertheless, in respect to both his horse’s speed and the rapidity of his shots.


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; 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.  Taking the powder horn in his right hand, with his teeth he draws out the stopper, which is fastened to the horn to prevent its being lost.  He shakes the requisite amount of powder into his left palm and closes the powder horn.  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 touch pan (hunters at this place discard percussion caps as not practical).


Now he takes a bullet from his mouth and with his left hand puts it into the barrel, where,  having been moistened with spittle, it adheres to the powder.  He dares not hold his weapon horizontal---in the 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.  There is no danger so long as the ball rolls down freely.  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 in the hands and face by the bursting gun barrels, which---especially when the weather is extremely cold---shatter as easily as glass.


The hunters always aim at the heart of the larger beasts of the chase, the surest and simplest method, since the heart is inevitably vulnerable part.  When hunting wolves, foxes, and beavers, they aim a 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 being alert to spring aside if a buffalo tosses his head.  Otherwise, if he is only a passable horseman, he will immediately find himself upon the ground and may not count himself happy if he is not trodden underfoot.


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