The sun burns hot when you are wearing a buckskin dress and leather leggings. But 37-year-old Michele Lachman of Ventura is used to it.
As the sun climbs above Rose Valley, Lachman and fellow members of the Muzzleloaders contingent of the Ojai Valley Gun Club fire their re-created and authentic antique weapons, sending smoke signals skyward.
The group, named for the type of firearm they use, is practicing for their annual camping get-together called the "Sespe Rendezvous," which begins Oct. 17. They expect a crowd of 500 over five days to shoot at metal animal targets, eat, shop, dance, camp and dress up in early American costumes at the Ojai Valley Gun Club's shooting range in the Los Padres National Forest.
The group reloads. This process involves pouring carefully measured amounts of gunpowder down the rifle barrel making a "wad"--cutting a cloth patch to hold the "round ball." After pushing the wad down the barrel of a flintlock rifle with various-sized rods, they prime the flash pan with gunpowder. Next, the Muzzleloaders close the striker and fully cock the hammer. Finally, they are ready to shoot again--once.
Not an efficient weapon for Rambo. But folks who shoot muzzleloaders are not interested in brute firepower. And they are not interested in shooting at anyone or any animal. They want to re-create the costumes and the culture of Americans who lived between the time of the French and Indian War, waged from 1754 to 1763, to the end of the Civil War in 1865.
As night falls, Lachman and her husband, Jeff, head for their "primitive camp"--a large canvas tent with an early American flag flying overhead.
After a long day shooting her 20-millimeter cannon, Michele Lachman drops the tailgate of the couple's Toyota pickup and removes the hand-stitched canvas cover that disguises a red and white Igloo ice chest. She pours herself a Kahlua and milk.
Although the Muzzleloaders try to be as authentic as possible, certain concessions to modern life are made. Jeff Lachman wears the hand-sewn muslin shirt and leather pants of the early plainsman era (1780-1820). But, he admits, "I'm wearing Lycra underneath instead of nothing." A torn playing card in his hat brim is a shooting trophy. He earned it by shooting at the sharp edge of an ax blade, splitting the bullet which, in turn, cut the adjacent card. Both he and his wife are members of the National Muzzleloading Rifle Assn.
"I think that Muzzleloaders are a friendlier bunch of people," said Bill Bland, 41, shooting chair of the group. "We're not quite as serious as some of the other shooting disciplines. For us, it's a party."
Bland has been a shooting enthusiast all his life. He got hooked on muzzleloader weapons about 15 years ago. "A friend had an original Civil War rifle, and things just deteriorated from there," he joked.
Bland says his group is more open-minded about authentic detail than some associations. "You have to be flexible, because it gets expensive. I've got over $400 invested in skins alone," said Bland, who wears the fringed leather clothes of an 1820s mountain man. Michele Lachman agreed. She substitutes buttons made of animal horn for authentic pewter buttons that cost $1 each.
Most men and women make their own costumes and accouterments or trade for supplies at the group's annual five-day get-together. Others order their gear from catalogues.
According to Helen Haverly, the club's vice president, 90% of the club's members are male. Michele Lachman, the only female member who owns a cannon, said, "If any single women want to meet men, this is the place." The group welcomes newcomers and is glad to teach people to shoot.
"We correct the errors in some movies where, for instance, someone just pours gunpowder down a rifle barrel," said Frank Dvoracek. He demonstrated the correct way to measure powder grains with the tip of an animal horn or an adjustable brass tube.
Dvoracek, dressed in the homespun white cotton or linen attire of a Revolutionary War militiaman, said some militia groups dyed their cloth. Jeff Lachman recalled the Fire Zouaves--a Civil War volunteer company from New York that resembled Turks with red bloused pants, black fezzes and puffy white shirts.
Lee Draughon dresses as a Confederate soldier, complete with patched gray wool trousers, suspenders and a black felt slouch hat. "In the 19th Century, to be considered dressed, I'd have to wear my vest and jacket," said Draughon. "In a military camp of all men, I could leave them off, but I'd still be considered naked without my hat."
WHERE AND WHEN
The "Sespe Rendezvous" will be held Oct. 17-21. The public is welcome as participants or spectators. Sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis for primitive or modern camping. Shooter's fees include camping cost, Saturday pancake breakfast, Saturday night barbecue and dance, and all events: $15 per shooter, $25 per couple, $10 for juniors. Camping cost for non-participants is $15 per tent or RV. How to get there: From the Ventura Freeway, take California 33 north to the California 150 intersection near Ojai. Go left on California 33, proceed about 14 miles to Rose Valley. Turn right on Rose Valley Road and go four miles to the lake and sheriff's work camp on the left. Continue down the road, enter the Ojai Valley Gun Club gate on the left. Camping and event areas are marked. For details, call (805) 488-5102 or (805) 485-8917.