How an obsession with homemade eighteenth-century-style rifles brought together a widowed elementary school teacher, a retired married couple, an eager young college student—and 15,000 other aficionados who are mighty proud of being behind the times.
Lou Helsel was born in the wrong era. To his dismay, the white-haired 68-year-old, who wears glasses and sports a handlebar mustache, came into this world in the mid-twentieth century, during an age of great industrialization and globalization. He may have been better suited for a bygone era when Americans lived on the vast wilderness frontier, using guns to obtain food, security and independence. There is one place in the modern world where Helsel feels at home though. Twice a year, this muzzleloading gun shooter national champion, and his similarly distinguished pistol-shooting wife, Lynn, also 68, drive from their home on the outskirts of Cincinnati to Friendship, a town of less than 100 permanent residents in Southern Indiana. Nestled in a valley where cell phone reception is spotty at best, Friendship houses the headquarters of an organization devoted to the use and preservation of old-fashioned guns, the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association (NMLRA). Like many other folks who covet American antique and replica firearms from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Helsels travel there to do what they both excel at: shooting old-fashioned guns.
“At 22 years old, I got a muzzleloading rifle, and I just fell in love with it,” Lou says during a trip to Friendship. “I was addicted. The black powder just got into my blood.” Muzzleloading guns, used in the U.S. from the time of the first European settlements to the Civil War, are distinguished from modern guns as they are loaded from the front of the barrel, called the muzzle, rather than in a chamber located at the rear of the barrel, called the breech.
Lynn, his newlywed at the time, joined him in his hobby only a few years later. “We do everything together,” he says. “We were just fortunate that we both enjoyed the same thing.”
Since then, the Helsels have become a staple at the NMLRA’s national shoots in Friendship.
Friendship’s mainstays are a church, a bar, a bank, a corner grocery store, an auto body shop and a post office, all located along Indiana’s Route 62, a road that runs adjacent to the Ohio River. For nine days each June and September, the valley swells with thousands of people who come for the NMLRA national shoots and to browse the neighboring — though unaffiliated — flea market that popped up to capitalize on the hordes of visitors. (The outdoor market is now its own standalone attraction where goods for sale range from antiques to discounted health products to disaster prep gear to bizarre animal parts.) There are no hotel accommodations; people stay in one of the countless campers parked along Route 62. Visitors, who may have come to Friendship for the flea market, will inevitably stumble upon the NMLRA’s event while walking down the two-lane highway-turned-footpath. At first, they’ll hear the sound of gunfire, followed by the sight of teepees, which may make them curious enough to pay the small admission fee to enter the grounds.
On this June afternoon, the Helsels can be found on Friendship’s Walter Cline Range. Lou loads his pistol with intense concentration. It will be shot at a paper target half a football field away. After twenty years of shooting rifles, the Helsels took on a new challenge by switching to pistols. Lou has also ventured into gunmaking. Lynn passes his station, wearing an orange vest to denote her position as a “range officer,” designated to promote safety. She instructs a nearby teenage girl on how to load and fire a muzzleloader. Long after they are both gone from the gun range, the Helsel name will live on in Friendship, engraved on trophies from both of their several championship wins.
The sport of shooting muzzleloaders attracts a very particular kind of person. While modern guns are easy and quick to load and shoot, made with convenience in mind, these historic firearms are the opposite. Guns that use musket balls or shot pellets can be fired only once, before having to be reloaded, which takes several steps that vary with the type of gun and ammunition. Most muzzleloaders are considered antiques under federal guidelines, and therefore are not regulated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
To load a muzzleloader with a musket ball, first gunpowder is loaded down the barrel, followed by the musket ball wrapped in a piece of cloth so it doesn’t roll back down the barrel. This also keeps the gunpowder, which will explode once the gun is shot, sealed behind the ball so it works to project it out of the gun. If shot pellets are being used as ammunition, that changes this process slightly; gunpowder goes in first, followed by a piece of wadding (which could be cardboard or fur), then the shot pellets, followed by another piece of wadding. This keeps the numerous tiny pellets separate from the gunpowder.
Flintlock guns, which rely on the sparks that fly after flint rock strikes metal to ignite the gunpowder, were widely used in colonial America. By the time of the Civil War, percussion lock guns rose in popularity as they were easier to load and more reliable than flintlocks. Instead of flint, percussion lock guns use a metal cap to create a flame that would ignite the gunpowder. Both can be seen — and heard, quite loudly — at Friendship’s muzzleloader extravaganza.
The noise of booming gunfire is constant from the first morning shoot at eight a.m. until the last at ten p.m. Nobody in Friendship seems bothered by it.
The NMLRA’s roots trace back to 1931, when two avid riflemen from Portsmouth, Ohio were tired of hearing about the progress of their time. Portsmouth was at a major intersection of industry along the Ohio River. In addition to the industrial growth around them, their sport of choice, rifle shooting, was undergoing immense change as well. New modern cartridge guns were becoming popular. Oscar Seth and E.M. Farris longed for the days of black powder muzzleloaders. After hosting a few muzzleloading matches, the NMLRA was founded in 1933. Thirty-seven men signed the roster, each contributing 50 cents to the new organization.
Around the same time, another muzzleloading group was forming a few hours downstream in Rising Sun, Indiana. The inventor of the Crosley Radio, Powel Crosley Jr. — who also owned the WLW radio station and the Cincinnati Reds — and WLW radio host Boss Johnston were enthusiasts of the sport. They had played a large collective role in the development of the radio industry, as WLW was the only station able to reach the U.S. rural population with its superpower broadcasting strength. Johnston, an Indiana farmer, would tell tales of coon hunts on his show, R.F.D. Hour, which was very popular with small-town communities.
The NMLRA and the WLW merged, and by 1940 they were able to acquire new land from a farmer in order to suit their growing membership, which was nearly 1,000 at the time. They moved to Friendship.
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Now retired, Lou Helsel worked as a federal meat inspector; Lynn was a histology technician, a medical professional who prepares microscopic slides of tissue, before retiring as well.
“If you ask us what we do in our free time, we shoot. It’s shooting. Just shooting.” Lynn says, as if she can hardly believe how much time she devotes to the hobby herself. “The more you practice, the luckier you get.”
“I like the nostalgia,” Lou says over gunfire from the range right behind him. “To make this old gun, or old-style gun, as accurately and competitively as the modern guns, is something that we try very hard to do. And we find it pretty fulfilling if we do that.”
The Helsels, like many members of the NMLRA, take authenticity very seriously. They make flintlock and percussion lock guns using the same tools and materials as gunmakers did from 1760 to 1840. They stay true to this centuries-old technology, which is inherently less accurate than modern guns. But the Helsels can still hit targets that would be difficult even for a shooter using a modern gun.
Lynn, a petite woman who has a competitive streak planted from growing up with nine brothers says, “The modern gun people, you tell ’em you shoot muzzleloaders and they say, ‘They aren’t very accurate.’ But really at 50 yards, I can shoot right in the center, it’s as simple as that. Don’t mess with muzzleloading.” This past June, Lynn won the pistol championship in her master-level class, the first woman to ever win such a title.
The Helsels have grown children and several grandchildren. None of them have sustained interest in the sport. One summer, Lou and his oldest grandson, now eighteen, won the senior-junior championship at the Friendship shoot. But afterwards the youngster said to Lou, “Grandpa, this is too slow.”
“He plays football, so that’s more action for him,” Lynn says.
The Helsels’ inability to get the younger generations of their family to stick with muzzleloading is not uncommon. The NMLRA’s membership is getting older, and the average age of the 15,000 members — down from a peak of 27,000 in the 1980s — is now 68. The NMLRA’s monthly magazine, Muzzle Blasts, publishes obituaries in each issue. In the May 2015 issue, there were ten deaths reported, followed by eleven in June, fourteen in July, thirteen in August, and eleven in September.
The Helsels care too much about tradition to let their love of muzzleloading fade into history. “All my children and all my grandchildren have a gun that I made in my safe with their names on it,” Lou says. “When I kick the bucket, they all get their gun.”
Lynn gasps. “Don’t say that.”
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Jeannine Marchesseau, 70, a retired elementary school teacher with a strong Louisiana accent, began traveling to Friendship in the early 1970s with her father. She had already shown an interest in shooting muzzleloaders back home in Louisiana, but Friendship fueled her passion. It is also where she met Larry Marchesseau. They were married for 23 years when, in 2009, Larry died in a car accident while driving home from Home Depot. Jeannine said goodbye with a celebration of his life at their home pasture in Covington, Georgia. But there was one more thing she had to do to honor his life: take his ashes to Friendship, Indiana.
In September 2009, only a month after Larry died, Jeannine Marchesseau dropped a pinch of her dead husband’s ashes down the barrel of her gun. She’d loaded the gun hundreds, if not thousands, of times before, a process she memorized and refined and practiced with the dedication of any competitive athlete. Jeannine walked up to the line and lifted her Smoothbore flintlock shotgun to her shoulder for the Feather Duster, her favorite event. The goal is to hit twelve clay birds. If a participant misses the first three, or three at all, they are out of chances.
Jeannine hoped her shot would count. Other than a few close friends, no one watching knew she’d be firing physical remnants of her late husband in the first shot.
“Pull!” A clay bird, which looks nothing like a bird at all, but an orange circular disk, flew out of a machine that another NMLRA member operated. In order to hit it, a shooter has to aim a little farther ahead on the bird’s trajectory as it flies through the air. Jeannine squeezed the trigger. Bang! The disk broke into pieces once hit with Larry’s ashes, the gunpowder and the shot pellets.
Jeannine hit all twelve birds in a row.
“I just knew he was with me,” she said later. “I know he was proud that I could move on and still do the thing that I enjoyed doing.”
After the match, Jeannine spread some of his ashes on the range, and then continued competing.
For Jeannine and Larry Marchesseau, attending the Friendship gathering meant they could live as what people here refer to “primitive” — camping and dressing as the frontier people of 1760 to 1840. They’d shoot muzzleloaders, throw knives and tomahawks, as well as browse expensive accouterments — moccasins, gun powder horns, and handcrafted tomahawks. In recent years, Jeannine Marchesseau has been lucky enough to find love again with a mutual friend who also is in this subculture. He goes by the name of Lizard.
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The reenactors camp together on a hillside, where they’ve gained a reputation of being partiers, especially compared to the more serious and sobered shooters. Recently, the reenactors’ encampment has become more family-friendly to accommodate children, but there are still remnants of an old party culture — one that Lizard is a part of.
“It’s a family sport now,” says Lizard, 72, whose real name is James Vincent Bregan, at his camper in Friendship. Lizard has a long white beard and tobacco constantly in his gums. “It didn’t used to be. It used to be like the real 1700s. Knife fights, we had them. Cause we were drunk and everything. But that’s what the real rendezvous were like.”
In a sense, there are two broad subcultures within the NMLRA, explains Dr. Arthur Farnsley II, 54, an NMLRA member and the Director of the Center for Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis. Dr. Farnsley is something of an outlier in Friendship. Although he camps with people like the Helsels — the“shooters” — most of his friends are “primitive,” like the Marchesseaus.
“The shooters are the most mainstream,” Farnsley writes in his book on Friendship, Flea Market Jesus, largely a sociological study about the people who frequent the neighboring flea market, though he does discuss his experiences in the NMLRA as well. “A lot of them are tradespeople — carpenters, draftsman, plumbers, contractors — and virtually all of them are fiercely independent. Ask yourself: Who wants to go to the trouble of shooting a muzzleloading firearm that is inherently less accurate and much more difficult to load and clean than contemporary guns? The answer: people who like working with their hands.”
The majority of all NMLRA members are from Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Illinois. But many others come from places across the U.S., including Alaska and Hawaii, and even abroad. Farnsley went to Friendship for the first time at the age of twelve. His father, Dale, was an on-and-off dealer at the flea market.
“It was all flea markets to me,” Farnsley recalls. “Then a guy took me up to throw tomahawk, so that was my ‘gateway drug’ into being part of the shoot.” Farnsley didn’t become a regular at Friendship until he was 23 — and a student at Yale Divinity School.
When they were growing up, Farnsley brought his two daughters every year, and they threw tomahawks and knives together. Today, his oldest, Sarah, is a professional ballerina, and the other, Caleigh, a graduate student in Europe. Dale still goes to Friendship, despite his oxygen tank, and rides around on a motorized bike.
For this family, the culture and community of the organization pervades their lives. A few years ago, Sarah was married at the Indiana State Capitol building. The affair was a formal, elegant one. To cut the cake, Sarah, decorated in a white and pink alternating scallop design, pulled out a tomahawk crafted by the NMLRA’s very own Beaver Bill. The hand-forged tool was made in the same style of eighteenth century blacksmiths.
Others have similar stories, revealing that what draws people to Friendship is, well, a connection to others.
“The common denominator is that they revere shooting ability but above that is your character,” says Tom Schiffer, 82, a former NMLRA president. “You compete all day, but if your gun breaks, there will be people who will stop their shooting to try and help you. Now, in how many sports will people do that?”
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Two men sit on a bench watching Joe Fortkamp, 23, a student at Eastern Kentucky University, shoot clay birds out of the sky.
“I’ve been coming for 60 years,” says Melvin Blaurock to former NMLRA President, Winston Roland.
“I’ve been coming for 42 years,” Roland responds.
“I started coming right after the Korean War.”
“Well, you’re an old fart, ain’t ya?” Roland laughs.
One of the NMLRA’s newest members, Fortkamp is a seasoned shooter of modern guns who was instantly attracted to the history and technical aspects of muzzleloaders. So he bought one and entered an event. He hit 98 out of 100 clay birds in his very first NMLRA competition. Everyone was stunned.
“I saw a 100-bird event and was like, cool, that’ll take all day,” Fortkamp recalls, recognizing the extensive shoot would help him learn how to use the new — to him at least — firearm.
Fortkamp may be the key to the future of the NMLRA. Despite the overall trend of an aging membership, he has quickly and unexpectedly become a regular at the organization’s gatherings. A native of Batesville, Indiana, he traveled to Friendship for the first time to visit the flea market with friends. He walked over to the NMLRA section. That’s when he fell in love with muzzleloading.
“I think I’m more passionate about muzzleloading black powder and historical firearms than most people are,” Fortkamp says. “It’s a different kind of shooting. Anyone can get a 22 out. Takes a lot more attention to detail to muzzleload.”
Fortkamp has tried to recruit friends his age who enjoy modern guns, but most are not very interested in such a slow style of shooting.
Fortkamp also discovered his passion for making guns. Even though he is working on a public relations degree, his goal is to become a muzzleloader gunsmith. His biggest challenge in pursuing that career path might be that there are fewer muzzleloading enthusiasts to buy his products than ever.
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“America has a frontier past and a pioneer spirit, neither of which are always visible in a cosmopolitan setting,” Farnsley writes in his book. Farnsley believes that a substantial reason for the NMLRA’s decline is because America’s rural population is disappearing. “It’s really picking up on a kind of American culture that’s out there,” he says of the gathering at Friendship, “but has deeply rural roots in an America that’s changing. Something they think is good and real in America has been pulled out from under them.”
In addition to population change, there are other trends that paint a bleak picture for the NMLRA. Household gun ownership is down, and has been for several decades, according to a General Society Survey poll. In 2014, only 31 percent of adults reported having a gun in their home, compared to a height of 50 percent in 1977.
But NMLRA members aren’t giving up their guns anytime soon. Farnsley analyzes their feelings in his book: “I think it’s about a particular kind of freedom. A gun is a link to that frontier past, a tie to the Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett myths. But more than that, a gun, at bottom, means the ultimate ability to say ‘no’ to coercion … Guns are a measure of individual choice and individual liberty. It may not be much freedom, but it may be all there is left.”
For the youthful Fortkamp, the dimming enthusiasm doesn’t deter him from what he loves.
“Actually, the decline makes me that much more interested,” he says, “and I want to try to get others interested, too.”