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BONNER — Clad in buckskin pants, moccasins and waistcoats of an era long gone, the Sapphire Mountain Men Shooting Club met Sunday afternoon at the Hellgate Civilian Shooters Range to shoot muzzleloaders. 

On the second Sunday of each month, the club meets to shoot flint-lock and percussion rifles and pistols of the pre-1840s era. Rather than just studying history, these individuals are reliving it, says club president Bates Kuethe.

"It's really fun to relive history," Kuethe said. "One of the things I was always curious about was, everybody says 'Oh, it must've been a rough life then.' No, they have all the same comforts, they just do it different."

Kuethe is one of the founding members of the Sapphire Mountain Men Shooting Club which has been around since the '70s after a group of men that shoot black powder guns found out about each other. Over 40 years later, the group has grown to around 60 members and a handful still meet monthly to shoot. 

"A lot of us grew up in the '50s and '60s watching all the westerns and Davey Crockett and all that stuff," Kuethe said. "We've always had that love of history." 

For the experienced shooter, the muzzle loading process takes around a minute to complete. Although for the newcomer, it takes a few tries to get down the intricacies.

Certified 4-H shooting instructor and club member Mike Tomell demonstrated the proper step-by-step technique, reciting the "powder, patch, ball, cap" mantra to loading the gun. 

Before anything could be done, Tomell showed how to check if the gun was unloaded. He dropped the ramrod down the barrel, marked with his fingers how far it went in and placed it on the outside of the barrel. When it goes down to the lock, you know it's unloaded. 

From there, he grabbed his "possibles bag" which contains just about everything you need to shoot the gun — black powder, powder measure, cotton patches, round balls, a short starter and percussion caps. 

Tomell pulled the stop on the powder measure to 70 grains and continued to fill it with black powder, a mixture of potassium nitrate, sulfur and charcoal. Next, he put a cotton patch on his tongue to lubricate it before placing it on top of the barrel with a round ball on top of that.

The short starter is then used to push the projectile a couple inches down and the ramrod gets the ball down the rest of the barrel until it's compressed against the powder. A percussion cap is placed where the hammer strikes and the gun is ready to go.

Shoot and repeat. 

"You can see how much fun these are! You make every shot count," Tomell said. "I enjoy teaching because it helps other people learn how much fun it is to shoot and the more people we can get involved in sports like this, the better off we are."

The idea of having only one shot makes the challenge all the more fun for Caleb Wilkerson.

"I like the fact that you got to work for each shot, as you can see it takes so long to load one that you got to make sure it counts," Wilkerson said. "With modern guns, shooting them is fun but if you slap 30 rounds in you can shoot all day and you don't really feel like you're working for it."

He continued to say it's also a way to get in touch with history and that he came upon the club at a Fourth of July celebration at Fort Missoula where the group had a tent set up. 

Targets with the outline of a buffalo were first set up at 25 yards before being pushed back to 50 yards. Four pieces of metal, shaped like different animals, also hung from a post 50 yards away.

One of the youngest people participating was 15-year-old Wyatt Haxton, who had only shot muzzleloaders with the club once before. Haxton got involved with the club through 4-H and his general interest in the time period. 

"If you love guns, it's a very fun gun to shoot and just getting out in nature," Haxton said of why people should join the club. "Get out, learn something new and something to practice." 

The club's biggest event of the year is the Wildhorse Rendezvous, held over Memorial Day weekend. The free, family-friendly event sets up a primitive camp and all equipment and attire used is from 1840 and earlier.

Club treasurer Debbie Tomell, wife of Mike, says the rendezvous gives people the opportunity to take part in a unique experience with people bringing bead-work, homemade salves and other era appropriate items. 

"It's just this amazing amount of history that you can sit and enjoy and learn from other individuals," she said. "I particularly like late at night around the campfire with a glass of wine and listen to the musicians play."

After the final shots were fired and the last plume of smoke dissipated, the group took down the targets on the range and discussed its next few meetings. 

The public is welcome to go out and try shooting the classic weapons for themselves. Next month the club will be shooting pistols and is planning a larger, public shooting day for May.

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