CHINESE CAMP -- In colonial times, giving it your best shot was complicated.
As demonstrated this weekend by the members of the Modesto Muzzleloaders at their three-day annual "rendezvous" target-shooting competition, firing a rifle in the late 1700s and early 1800s had several components.
Those included packing two types of powder, lubricating a small cloth patch, packing the cloth and the lead ball shot with a ramrod, arming the flintlock in firing position, and taking steady aim to blast your target.
If you missed, you might go without food, or get the business end of a shot in return.
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The members of the Modesto Muzzleloaders describe events such as these as one part history re-enactment, one part friendly competition and one part dressing up and camping out like soldiers and woodsmen of yore.
Tim Broughton, 65, said many budding members start out fascinated by the rifles club members use, which are reminiscent of those used by farmers and militiamen in our country's early days.
Those who participate in the rendezvous pay a fee and take their rifles and pistols onto a shooting range, in this case nestled among the foothills north of La Grange and east of Oakdale, on Red Hill Road.
The targets, at varying distances and in shapes ranging from a barn to a rabbit, mostly are metal, so ears more than eyes tell a shooter when he or she -- there were nine female shooters as well Saturday -- hits the mark.
Shooter keep their own score, although the three-day rendezvous seemed much more like a large-scale camping expedition than a competition.
Shooters who attend such events, Broughton said, often begin buying apparel and accessories that hearken back to colonial times. "Traders" set up tents to sell rifles, powder horns, shirts and moccasins.
Over time, many who get further into the hobby will camp for three days or longer. Some take it beyond that by setting up "primitive" camps with tents, campfires and no evidence of anything containing a computer chip or a potato chip.
"It's just a heck of a lot of fun," said Pat DeLano, 50, president of the Muzzleloaders. He'd established his low-tech tent in what was a small mining pit. Others set up tepees, A-frames and other canvas structures.
If a hot shower and cell phone reception were in short supply, it didn't bother other rustic shooters, such as Steve Grubb, 58, a Modesto Junior College music instructor.
"We come out here and we live it," he said, though his ears perked up at the mention of a shish kebab lunch, as the crack of rifle shots echoed nearby.
"You feel like you're part of what the early settlers went through, but they hunted their food. We bring up ours prepared," he said, with a touch of wistfulness.
Grubb and William Luebke, 60, an MJC astronomy professor, said students would learn more by living in a primitive camp for a day than by reading about it.
A rough lifestyle
Broughton, who got into rifle shooting 18 years ago, has learned plenty since. He can talk at length about the craftsmanship that went into rifle-making and the intricate process of loading and firing.
"It was a rough, rough, rough lifestyle, at best," said Broughton, a Modesto resident and retired janitorial supplies salesman. He's built four rifles, based on other designs, and has nearly finished a fifth.
"A lot of the early gunsmiths lived into their 70s or 80s, so I figure, if I keep doing it ..." he said, grinning.
Still, some fear the hobby of gunsmithing and rifle-shooting is slowly dying.
Broughton said the rendez- vous had as many as 10 traders a few years ago, and group treasurer Joe Kroeze of Modesto said it's been years since a hundred people participated in a single weekend event.
"If you didn't come out two days early, you couldn't find a camp site on the hill," said Kroeze, who's been with the club almost since its founding in 1979. "Now, there's no young blood. They'd rather stay inside."
Well, not everyone. Modesto's Sierra Mireles, 14, looked comfortable in a frontier dress, outside her grandmother's tepee in the primitive camp.
"A lot of my friends think it's cool, but they wouldn't ever do it," said Sierra, an Enochs High freshman.
Sierra first attended a rendezvous as an 8-year-old with her grandmother, Rhonda George. She even shot a rifle, but disliked the recoil and noise and didn't pick up a gun again until earlier this year.
She's been at an event almost every month since.
"It's like one big family out here," she said. "If you don't know them, you get to know them."
Bee staff writer Ben van der Meer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2331.