Imagine yourself rowing or poling a small boat out into a large body of water just before dawn. It’s cold and mist fills the air. You try to be as quiet as you can because you do not want to alert your quarry, hundreds of ducks rafted up together on the water for the night.
Across the bow of your boat lays a cannon of sorts. It is known as a punt gun or merchant’s gun. It is basically an oversized muzzleloading shotgun with a 2- to 3-inch bore diameter. It is loaded with a half-pound of black powder and a pound or more of shot.
Your objective is to pilot your small boat close to the flock of ducks and fire a single shot which can kill a hundred or more birds. This was a common practice used by market hunters from about 1880 until the early 1900’s. Used in concert with another hunter, a pair of market hunters might kill 500 ducks per day.
I found a reference of market hunters on Chesapeake Bay working together with up to ten punt guns being used during the hunt. Thousands of ducks a day could be taken in this fashion. In his novel, Chesapeake, James Michener chronicles the lives of Chesapeake Bay waterman and the historical use of punt guns to take ducks and geese. This is a very interesting book to read if you’re a waterfowler.
Stories of hunters taking hundreds of ducks are common in documents written about the topic around 1900. One story I found reported that three market hunters took 3,008 ducks in eight days near Bath, Illinois in 1901.
Punt guns came in all sizes and bore diameters. They were built by local craftsmen to the specification of the hunter that intended to use it. In general, they averaged a 2-inch or larger bore, were six to eight feet in length and weighed around 100 pounds..
Punt guns were simply a tool used by market hunters. At the time, duck was a prized item to have on the menu of up-scale restaurants and market hunters just filled a niche created by the demand. It was a way to make a good living in a time when job opportunities were limited in rural America. Market hunters sometimes earned $1.00 per mallard and 15 to 50 cents for smaller ducks (more if they were cleaned and dressed), good money for that day in age.
Market hunting was not an easy job. This style of hunting meant long hours of work in dangerous conditions. Cold and freezing water temperatures were a constant threat. After the shot, hunters had to retrieve the downed ducks. The rest of the day was spent cleaning the birds and packing them in wooden barrels full of salt for shipment by rail to restaurants in Kansas City, Chicago, San Francisco and New York.
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