Saturday, April 2, 2011

My new favorite walking stick:

Is a blowgun. Although a casual observer wouldn't know it. There's a chair leg protector on the bottom (removed before shooting, of course), a wrist lanyard and a cloth-tape grip.

My curiosity about blowguns was piqued when a friend told me about killing a feral cat with a heart/lung shot from one. I had no idea that they were capable of such a thing without, you know, curare or poison frog juice or something. I have an interest in primitive weapons, but didn't know much about this type. My extensive experience shooting beans through straws in elementary school probably led me to write them off as toys. Took a more serious look at the adult equivalent and was amazed at the accuracy and velocity of blown darts. Those of .40 or .50 caliber might not be suitable for taking game, but larger diameters emphatically are. A dart going right through something the size of a cat was not a fluke.

Amused myself on a rainy day experimenting with different lengths of 1/2 inch inner-diameter conduit, which is actually about .62 caliber. A friend of mine has a Creek Indian blowgun, and that's about what it's bore is. Five feet seems like the minimum length for good velocity, six is better. Optimum likely varies depending on your lung capacity. Ideally you should probably run out of air just as the dart exits the muzzle. A mouthpiece is necessary, you just can't get enough oomph behind a projectile without one. Easy enough to fabricate from wood with a drill and a little whittling.

Tried a few variations on darts, like nails through pieces of foam and long wood splinters with the aft end wrapped in cotton. (Our southeastern Indians seem to have used primarily locust wood and thistle down, although I also found references to mulberry and white oak with feathers and rabbit fur.) My best by far were made with bamboo skewers from the grocery store, with paper cones super-glued to their bases. Also made some more durable plastic cones by heating an appropriately cone-shaped piece of brass on top of the wood stove and pressing it into a milk jug. Finally decided to save myself time and trouble and bought a variety of manufactured darts online, along with a commercial five-foot .625 blowgun. Money well spent, although the experimenting was fun and now I have the knowledge to improvise both darts and gun.

Steel darts with flattened tips - like miniature broadheads - are probably best for non-flying, non-burrowing critters on the ground. Very consistent and therefore accurate. They easily penetrate quarter-inch plywood, and after a little practice are accurate enough to hit cans consistently at ten to fifteen yards. They penetrate a little too well sometimes. It's difficult to pull them out of a tree without pliers, and it's easy to pin a squirrel to a trunk high enough to make retrieval difficult. They tend to zip through practice targets and continue on to parts unknown, leaving their plastic cones behind. Something like a phone book makes a good backstop.

Haven't shot anything live with the blunts, but they're good for target practice, and surely they have some hunting utility. At least you wouldn't worry about a skewered bird flying off for the bunny-huggers to find, especially since every dart automatically has your DNA on it. And they're easy to carry in a pocket. They hit with a pretty impressive thud and easily punch through two layers of corrugated cardboard. They'd be a fun way to train the neighbor's dog not to poop in your yard.

Bamboo darts are my all-around favorite. They penetrate squirrels, but not trees. Their length helps prevent chipmunks from scrambling down holes before they expire, and birds from flying off. A lot of the ones I bought were warped, but even those still fly well enough for practice and plinking. The straightest ones can be reserved for more serious targets. The shafts are biodegradable, and no worries about hitting one with the lawn mower. They float, which opens up some interesting target practice opportunities that won't result in lost, broken or even dulled darts.

There are some videos on YouTube of a guy using explosive darts made by taping two percussion caps back-to-back and then super-gluing them to the tip of a metal dart. He was blasting some fairly impressive holes through plywood. Looked like a really fun way to lose an eye - there's no telling where such a dart will rebound.

There are also videos of a guy shooting bluegills in shallow water. He ties a fifteen-foot length of fishing line from his wrist to the dart and loads from the muzzle. Looking forward to trying that when the ice melts. (If you shoot fish, remember to aim low because of the refraction of the water.)

If you look at photos of aboriginals shooting blowguns, you'll notice that they usually hold them in a way that at first seems odd, with both hands, palms up, right in front of the mouthpiece. Trying it made the reason apparent: by holding it that way, you are much less likely to move the muzzle inadvertently when you exhale forcefully. My accuracy decreases dramatically if I hold it like a rifle, with one hand further down the tube. Keep both eyes open and center the target between the two "ghost images" of the muzzle. Use your diaphragm for an explosive puff - it's even good exercise. Hold a spare dart between your fingers like the hunter above for a quick reload.

For gathering protein,a large-bore blowgun isn't quite in the same league as a .22 pistol, but not as far out of it as you probably think. And a lot less likely to attract unwanted attention. They're so quiet that sometimes a missed wee beasty will stick around to give you a second chance. Besides, you can use it as a tent pole, or to breathe your fire to life without getting down on your hand and knees in the mud and smoke. I'm trying to come up with a way to further constrict the flow of air for the latter purpose, perhaps a piece of metal tubing that will friction-fit over the muzzle and can be hammered partially closed.

The downsides are limited range, projectiles that are sensitive to wind, and being somewhat unwieldy to transport. The latter flaw could be obviated with a take-down model. You could probably take a two-piece, uh, hiking staff on a public bus to, ah, feed the pigeons in the park without anyone raising an eyebrow.

They're good fun, even indoors. You'll be a hit with your kids and your kid's friends. A simple stroll now becomes a hunt, with the attendant increase in awareness and purpose. It might be a productive way to pass time on a deer stand without alarming the big game, too. Seems like every year I get squirrels almost sitting on the barrel of my rifle.

Haven't figured out a good way to carry pointed darts yet. A leather belt quiver might be most practical. Commercial blowguns come with convenient built-in clips, but then there goes the pretense of a hiking staff. I like the idea of "urban camouflage" for a variety of reasons. Blowguns are banned in the People's Republics of Taxachussettes and Kalifornia, so it's about the only viable option for you poor guys other than voting with your feet and moving to a free state.

Encasing a six-foot length of conduit completely in wood might be a fun project. Rip a 2x2 down the middle, cut channels with a router table and a half-round bit, then epoxy it all together and shape the outside. The top of the "hiking staff" could be carved as a mouthpiece. An inch or so of the conduit could protrude beyond the wood at the muzzle and be covered with a chair leg protector. It would take a close inspection for someone to figure out it's primary purpose, and the increased heft would be conducive to a steady hold and good follow-through.

*This seems like a better way to make darts, from an old issue of Mother Earth News I just came across:

"To make the darts, all you have to do is lay one of the empty milk jugs on its side, and with the propane torch set at a low flame, carefully heat an area about the size of a quarter until the plastic turns clear. Then push the pointed end of the plumb bob into the soft spot and hold it there until the dimpled area clouds. Make several rows of cones in this manner (leaving a bit of room between each), and cut the dimpled wall from the jug. You can use a short piece of scrap tubing to separate the cones from the rest of the sheet. Just bevel one end of the conduit to a sharp edge, then place the plastic-points up-on your wooden block. Center the tubular cutter over each cone to be removed, and give the back of the tube a smart rap with the hammer.

Once you've freed a number of cones, it's easy to make darts out of them by pushing nails or wire stubs through the pointed ends from the inside. A dab of silicone sealant or clay set behind the metal will serve the threefold purpose of securing the point, sealing it, and giving the dart some necessary weight. A bit of research will help you to determine which combination of points and putty works best - though we're partial to drywall nails backed with silicone."

And a couple references to Cherokee blowguns:

"...turkeys, geese, ducks of several kinds, partridges, pheasants, and an infinity of other birds, pursued only by the children, who, at eight or ten years old, are very expert at killing with a sarbacan, or hollow cane, through which they blow a small dart, whose weakness obliges them to shoot at the eye of the larger sort of prey, which they seldom miss." The Memoirs of Lt. Henry Timberlake, pages 71-72

"The common killing range for small game is 40-60 feet. The Cherokee cane 9-10 feet in length and throws a dart of 21 inches length, having a piston of thistledown. The Cherokee stance is to hold the cane with both hands near the mouth, not with one hand extended forward as does (some other shooters)." Speck; The Cane Blowgun in Southeastern Ethnology; American Anthropologist N. 9, vol. 40, 198-204


The Suburban Bushwacker said...

Very cool - that looks a lot of fun

Exploriment said...

Sadly, blowguns are “streng verboten” in Canada. Still not entirely clear why though.

Anonymous said...

Are walking sticks verboten?

AveBarnett said...

It's really nice! i have also an antique walking sticks

Tristan Benette said...

That's totally hardcore, man! It could be useful once you travel at the wilderness and you need something to eat. But you might have to find out if carrying that stick around is legal in your state.

Rod said...

On restricting airflow to help blow your campfire to an extra ferrule for your cold steel blowgun and drill a small hole in it. Attach it to the bottom of your blowgun and blow through the mouth piece. Experiment with various size holes, going from small to large until you find the size that works well for you. Hope that helps!!!