Deer tracks in the fresh December snow.


In between the sugar cookies of Christmas and the pork roast of New Year’s Day, there’s a special time for deer hunters in Pennsylvania.  The cold days of early winter, fresh snow on the ground, and the tranquil woods beckon the flintlock hunters. 

The “primitive” season is December 27 through January 15 statewide and runs through January 29 in the special regulations areas.  A hunter can harvest either an antlered or antlerless deer with a general license, as well as additional antlerless deer with the proper licenses.  Fluorescent orange is not required so a hunter may choose to don his buckskins and coonskin cap and find a place of solace among the squirrels and blue jays.   

The firearm must be an original or similar reproduction of a muzzleloader made prior to 1800.   That means it must be a firearm with a flintlock ignition, either a single barrel long gun, .44 caliber or larger, or .50 caliber or larger handgun.  The ammunition must be a single projectile.  Telescopic sights are not legal, but peep sights are permitted.

For a weakling like me, the firearm of choice was the short, light Thompson/Center Pennsylvania Hunter Carbine.  For the more discriminating, tradition flintlock hunter, we like the Lyman Great Plains rifle for its craftsmanship and accuracy. 

A trial flintlock season was first introduced in 1974, when the PA Game Commission (PGC) experimented with a conservative three-day flintlock rifle hunt on 37 state game lands around the state.  Participants were required to buy a special muzzleloader license for $3.25, and that first year, flintlock hunters bagged 65 deer, including four bucks.  The season expanded in subsequent years and went statewide in 1979. 

In 2000, the pre-rut October flintlock season was established, and then, in 2002, it was opened to all types of muzzleloaders.   When that happened, you would have thought the world was coming to an end.  How dare those lazy inline hunters shoot a deer that the pure and proper flintlock hunters wanted to harvest?  It was almost as contentious as crossbows in archery season, except that there were far fewer flintlock hunters. 

Today, the license costs $11.70.  But the price of the license is not the only thing that has changed in the flintlock season.  Originally, only firearms using patched round balls were permitted.  By the end of the 1990s, firearms that used sabots, Minié balls, and maxi balls also became legal implements. 

In the late 1990s, muzzleloading handguns were banned, but the Commissioners had the wisdom a few years back to make them legal again.  The argument for banning them in the first place was they wounded too many deer.  But at the same time, the Commissioners allowed deer to be harvested with .410 “punkin” balls and a .22 Hornet.   There was no logic in that decision. 

Similarly, peep sights were a big no-no, but the law also changed to allow them.  Back when we had more hunters, “no peep sights” was a way to make the hunt more challenging.  But peep sights are primitive, and today’s older hunters like their advantage. 

Most important, the deadline for applying for a muzzleloading license was dropped.  At one time, the PGC felt that a deadline was needed to prevent a careless hunter from getting a flintlock for Christmas, then taking it out the next day to hunt deer without the benefit of practice.  That was not a proper message to send to hunters. 

Some felt a summer deadline would help the PGC anticipate the number of flintlock doe hunters, but it realized that the flintlock doe harvest is not that great to justify a cut-off date. 

As the flintlock season evolved, some hunters began to fear that it would soon become a late muzzleloader season, filled with percussions and inlines.  Commissioner Bob Gilford used to say that, if changes were made, it would be analogous to the camel getting his nose under the tent, and before long, the whole camel would be in the tent.  But in its infinite wisdom, the Board of Commissioners has seen fit to keep the season for flintlocks only. 

The flintlock harvest now ranges from 20,000 to 25,000 deer, most of which are does.   

Pennsylvania may be the last state to have a flintlock only deer season.  It is a great tradition that harkens back to the days of mountain men and French trappers.    Even if you don’t harvest a deer, let your imagination lead you along bison trails, through Iroquois villages, to British forts.  Take time between bowl games to walk off some of that pumpkin pie and ham, and enjoy the flintlock season in Penn’s Woods.  – Roxane Palone