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Giant Punt Gun

Punt gun used to hunt waterfowl on Lake Mendota, Madison, Wisconsin, c. 1866-1870.
(Museum object #1947.1743)

Talk about bang for the buck! (Or should that be that "bang for the duck"?) Made by August Herfurth of Madison, Wisconsin, this jumbo shotgun, called a punt gun, could kill an entire flock of waterfowl with a single shot. Punt guns were used by commercial hunters in the 19th century to maximize their takes. The guns were so large, and their recoil so severe, that they were typically mounted on narrow, flat bottomed hunting boats called punts.

This muzzle-loaded monster measures 63 inches overall and weighs 26 pounds. Its one-inch diameter, part-octagonal barrel, which is marked "Remington" on the bottom flat, is 46 inches long. The gun has a back action percussion lock, a walnut half stock, pewter fore tip, German silver escutcheons, and iron trigger strap and buttplate. The stock is cracked and the ramrod is missing.

This gun was made shortly after the Civil War by August Herfurth, who operated a shop at the corner of Webster and King Streets in Madison. August was born in Braunschweig, Germany in 1832 and probably came to Wisconsin around the same time as his older brother Theodore, who arrived in 1850. August was listed as a gunsmith and gun dealer in the 1860 and 1870 Madison censuses, and appears in Madison City Directories as a gunsmith through 1877. Although Theo remained in Madison, August moved away late in the decade. He appears in the 1880 United States Census as a gunsmith in Fremont, Nebraska, where he died in 1885.

Most punt guns were custom built by individual smiths. In this case, it appears that Herfurth bought a barrel from E. Remington & Sons and built the gun around it. Even at its relatively large size, this gun is small compared to some similar punt guns used on the Chesapeake Bay, which featured bore diameters up to 2 inches and weighed over 100 pounds. Still, in Madison, this gun was known to sportsmen as "Herfurth's Cannon." According to a subsequent owner, John Sumner, this gun was used to shoot at flocks of ducks from the shore of Lake Mendota. Hunting from shore would have been an unorthodox approach, as punt guns, because of their weight, were typically fired from boats. Hunters would quietly maneuver their punts into line and range of a flock resting on the water or standing on a mud flat.

Fired from boat or shore, this particular gun would not have been used for very long - legally anyway. In 1870, the Wisconsin legislature outlawed the killing of "any wild duck, brant or wild goose, with or by means of the device, instrument, or fire arm known as a punt or swivel gun." The ban applied to Dane and fifteen other southern and central Wisconsin counties. Dodge County, however, was not one of them, and according to an online history of Horicon Marsh, punt gunning continued to be used among the waterfowl there well past 1870. One hunter claimed in an 1876 Mayville newspaper that he had killed 96 ducks with one shot on Horicon Marsh.

It is unknown whether that writer was a sport hunter or a market hunter, but starting about 1850, the combination of still-plentiful wildlife, a growing urban demand for food, and efficient railroad transportation created a heyday for commercial hunting in North America. Across the continent, rural hunters earned comfortable livings supplying huge quantities of game to urban dealers. Wisconsin and most other states eventually banned punt guns entirely because of the alarming depletion of wildfowl in the late 19th century.

Habitat loss was also a huge factor in the declines, but much of the blame fell on market hunters, and much of it was supplied by upper-class sportsmen, who wanted to preserve game for their own enjoyment at private hunting clubs, like the nationally known Diana Club on Horicon Marsh. Indeed, the wildlife conservation movement was largely founded by well-off sportsmen in opposition to working-class hunters.

Although the sport hunters' arguments for sustainability through limited hunting proved sound, new regulations were not immediately accepted. A January 1899 report in Forest and Stream entitled "What Ails Wisconsin?," noted that hunters widely ignored state laws, and that authorities all too often looked the other way. The article claimed that up to 500 partridges per day were being shipped to Milwaukee from the small town of Ogema (Price County) alone. From Milwaukee, these birds were often re-packed and smuggled to Chicago and elsewhere, in violation of a state ban on exporting game.

After its brief useful life, Madison hardware merchant John Sumner purchased the gun from Herfurth - perhaps when the latter left town about 1878 - to display in the window of his store on Madison's Capitol Square. The next owner, F. G. Warren, of Warrens, Wisconsin, recalled buying the gun from Sumner for $5.00 about 1903. Warren donated it to the State Historical Society in 1918, coincidentally, the same year that a series of federal regulations effectively outlawed the already declining practice of market hunting.

[Sources: Kimball, David and Jim. The Market Hunter (Minneapolis: Dillon Press, 1969); Waterman, Charles F. Hunting in America (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1973); Volkert, Bill. "Horicon Marsh is Wild Again," Wisconsin Natural Resources Magazine available online at www.enjoyhoriconmarsh.com; Frautschi, Walter A. "Early Wisconsin Shooting Clubs," Wisconsin Magazine of History, Vol. 28, no. 4, June 1945 available online at http://content.wisconsinhistory.org; Hough, E. "Chicago and the West. What Ails Wisconsin?" Forest and Stream, Jan. 14, 1899 available online at http://proquest.umi.com.]

DBD


Posted on August 14, 2008

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