The following is something I typed up back in the late 20th or early 21st Century. It was originally published on the old Sixgunner.com website. Jim Taylor recently reminded me of it so here it is with a few corrections/clarifications/revisions for any who might find it interesting. That was indeed a different time and place.
The sun was still high as I climbed into my hammock. It was near four o’clock in the afternoon and I’d slung my hammock about three meters in the air in the branches of a berry tree. It was hot and still with only an occasional breath of air moving the dusty foliage. It was early August. The dry season had begun two months before and now the animal denizens of the sertão were feeding on blossoms and berries under the great trees at night. This was to be my first attempt at the espera, that most typical of hunting styles in Brazil’s great northeast.
I hauled my pack up by parachute cord and got ready for the long night. I placed my spare shells in the loops of my vest and checked the old H&R singleshot 28 guage shotgun before slipping the full brass black powder shell with a load of 3T shot into the handcut chamber of the old, rebuilt, basket case shotgun. The Ruger MKII with the long tapered barrel was examined, loaded and slipped back into its place. The quarry sought was deer and I didn’t trust my aim enough with the Ruger to risk using it. It would be called on for small game only, smaller even than the tiny deer typical of this region.
With a flapping and squawking the tree filled with pemba. The gamecock size birds went about their business of feeding, paying no attention to the motionless figure in the cloth sling. They eventually moved on to roost and calm returned to the berry tree.
Darkness came, and with it came countless unnamed noises in the dark. The scurrying and rustling of tiny feet was easily heard as the rats, possums and other small creatures went about enjoying the succulent repast of fermented fruit under the tree. Occasionally a louder noise would provoke a blinding flash from my flashlight and the activities below would barely slow as I sought the source of what surely would prove to be at least a cutía or paca, if not a deer. Time after time I was greeted with the sight of some little rodent under a great pile of leaves, busily seeking out some morsel.
The night grew colder and the blanket was drawn tight. A breeze moved the branches and wafted my scent through the trees, this was not good for not only did the breeze seem to penetrate to my bones, it had the effect of sending a warning to my quarry.
The cold grew unbearable and then came the faint tinge of light in the east, announcing the coming heat. As the light grew more perceptible the pemba returned, squawking and flapping, to fill their crops with the morning meal. The Ruger spoke twice before the pemba moved on to find a quieter place to dine, leaving two of their number to provide my own meal. As I climbed down from my perch to await my companions I reflected on the passing of this way of life. The sertanejo’s life has never been easy. Now, with the vast acreages of virgin jungle being cleared to make way for far-flung plantations of rice, corn and soy, the game was disappearing and their simple way of life was threatened.
Those were simple days. Simple times. The simple people once met in the vast southern regions in the state of Maranhão are sorely missed. There is nothing that compares to their simple cuisine and carefree lives. They are poor, most only having one set of clothes and only the bare necessities of life. When they pack up to move on, their earthly possessions will usually only occupy the back of a donkey, perhaps two. But they are very hospitable and friendly, freely sharing what little they have. Their diet usually consists of short grain rice, farinha (ground up manioc root which has been roasted until dry) and beans. It is a diet short on vitamins, proteins and fats. A typical breakfast consists of strong, sweet coffee and “cuis cuis”, a steamed loaf of ground rice or corn, and if the hunters have been successful a bit of fried meat to go with it. Meat and fat is craved by all and fruits as well. When the oranges are in season they barely have a chance to turn slightly yellow before getting knocked down and eaten. When piquí fruit comes into season people will travel for miles to gather it for use in cooking (to me it always smelled like week old road kill) and to dry and store up for making soap with later in the year.
That is why the people hunt as they do. There is no talk of sport, they hunt for lunch or supper and returning home empty handed means white rice again with nothing to fill in the nutritional imbalance. So they take to the trees at night with flashlights and carefully hoarded batteries to await what ever chance may bring their way.
Most houses have at least one firearm of some kind. The “por fora” is very frequently found, being seen in various persuasions. This is the commonplace Brazilian muzzle loader. A typical one will have a paper thin barrel made even thinner by mistaken neglect. The people believe that a muzzleloader or shotgun becomes deadlier as it builds up “veneno” (poison) in its barrel over time. What actually occurs is that the barrel grows thinner and thinner and eventually will burst where the rust hast eaten away at the already thin walls. A “por fora” will have a smooth bore barrel made of some kind of iron curtain rod like material around .40 caliber. The breach area will be wound with a layer or two of iron wire brazed in place by way of reinforcement. The nipple will be set in a bolster welded to the side of the barrel and the lock will not have a functional half cock. A variation on the theme is the “rabo de macaco” or “Monkey’s Tail” muzzle loader. In this variation the nipple is of the “inline” persuasion and the striker is directly behind the barrel. The typical load is a .38 spl case full of FFFg powder, or possibly only a .32 SWL case full. A wad of jute or other fiber is pounded into place over the powder using a steel ram rod made of thin rebar, and a few pieces of 3T or smaller shot will be loaded on top, followed by another wad of fiber to hold it all in place. When things work as they should, the por fora can be deadly out to 20 yards or so. After that it scatters too badly to be effective.
It is not uncommon to find a variety of shotguns scattered among the homes in the area. The .410 and the .28 gauge are probably the most common, but one can find all the usual (and some unusual) gauges if time is given to search and to talk with folks. The 9.1 mm, 36 (known as the .410 in the US), . 32, 28, 24, 20, 16 and 12 gauges can all be found. Brazilian law forbids (at the time this article is contemplating) anything in a “magnum” gauge or caliber but I’ve seen 12 gauge 3″ magnums in the hands of some of the more well to do. (as well as many forbidden calibers and firearms – many with “legal” documents obtained through political connections) Full length brass shells with Berdan primers and black powder in FFFg were by far the most common fodder for the shotgun in northern Brazil. Some of the smokeless powders were beginning to take root and find a following. Tupán is one of the early powders that began replacing black powder. It got a bad rap among many because it split shells and had to be packed tight. It there wasn’t enough compression it would not burn properly. I learned to load with this powder. It was in a 32 gauge Boito that belonged to an american rancher we knew. He’d leave it with me while he was in the US earning money to keep the ranch going. I’d use a mallet and a dowel to pack the wad over the powder, keeping the primer from contacting anything by holding it in a special base. The split shell problem was only in older guns. I’ve seen a sertanejo shooting a shotgun that headspaced on string wrapped around the base of the shell. This was because the chamber had eroded away from years of neglect. It did OK with black powder, but the newfangled powders built up too much pressure for such chambers and split the shells, or worse.
The 22 LR was the most common chambering in the rifles one found in the sertão. It was used to hunt everything on the South American continent. They would use it for everything from doves to cougar and jaguars. The CBC singleshot was fairly common as were the CBC bolt actions. I’ve even seen Belgian “half automatic” rifles and many others brought in from the US and Europe. Some of the finest were brought in by priests or protestant missionaries. The 22 LR was well regarded and often misused. Some of the hunters would shoot a deer from over 100 yards away and then have to track it with hounds.
There was also a good quantity of model ’73 and ’92 Winchesters, mostly in 44-40. These were left over from the rubber trade days. The rubber workers demanded the best weapons available for protection from (and aggression against) the Indians. I saw one 38-40 cartridge and 32-20 ammo was available, but the 44-40 was king of the centerfire rifles.
A good revolver was sought by many and the S&W was king. The old Military and Police was very common and many an old timer refused to give up his “smeetchy”. Almost invariably the S&W was in 38 SPL and while Colts were not unheard of, they were known as the “cavalinho” or “little horse” revolver, I never personally handled one while living there. Most folks carried a handgun for protection against two legged varmints or because they WERE two legged varmints, few people used them for hunting. I was regarded as a rich man because I used my Rossi .38 so much. With shells costing US$2 a piece in the stores at the time, no wonder folks didn’t shoot them much. I’d carried loading supplies in and so could shoot my 38 cheaper than a shooting a 22. I paid for my loading setup by selling shells to folks. I’d take six empty cartridges in exchange for one loaded round, not a bad profit margin, or sell ammo for half the store price if they supplied the brass. Any Berdan primers would have the anvil drilled out, the primer removed replaced with a boxer primer then loaded with a light load of powder. Some of the brass I came across was of the old balloon head type which also received light loads. My ammo was more accurate than that sold by CBC and once I even sold 400 rounds to the police. Once I learned more about Brazil’s laws I ceased selling reloaded ammo and only used it for my own shooting. They finally allowed reloading, but not the sale of reloaded ammo. I even replaced my supply of primers via mail order. The powder I used most was “Especial de Caça“, a smokeless shotgun powder similar in burn rate to Bullseye. This I’d load under a hard cast WC or SWC HP. The hollow points were cast from Lee’s 150 grain HP mold, the wadcutters were from a Lyman mold a friend swapped to me. Projectiles were pan lubed with a concoction made up of stingless bees’ wax and paraffin from melted candles.
I learned to make do with about anything. A friend showed up with a Broomhandled Mauser and some dud shells. I pulled the bullets, replaced the Berdan primers with boxer type, dumped in a load of Bullseye and pushed the bullets back in. After firing twice the cases were too loose to hold the bullets, but making do allowed the old gun to speak once more after a half century of silence. It had the original wood shoulder stock/holster and was in fairly good condition, but I never could convince them to let me have it.
One of my favorite places to hang out was at an old black smith’s place. I’d sit in his shop and talk all day with him about guns. He was self taught and could build about anything you needed to repair a gun, from scratch. His drill was homemade as were many of his tools. Welding was done in the forge. 22 shells served to braze with and if he didn’t like you he wouldn’t do the job. If he DID like you it still might take six months or longer because he couldn’t talk and work at the same time. What a character! He learned not to double charge 22 shells. Once he’d taken a dud shell apart and dumped the powder into another, unfired, shell and pushed the bullet back in place. He then proceeded to fire it in a Belgian half automatic rifle he owned. The bolt cracked in two, the head blew off the cartridge case which left the case in the chamber and the bullet buried itself so deep in a mango tree that he never was able to dig it out. That was when he learned a) not to double charge 22 shells and b) how to weld a bolt back together again. He later traded that rifle off. I saw one like it, chambered originally for the .22 short. It would eject the case when you fired it and keep the bolt open so you could load another round. It was a singleshot. For some reason you could load it with .22 LR shells and it worked fine.
The sertanejo is typically a fine person. Their ways are different from ours and I learned a lot from them. They are very pragmatic when it comes to hunting, sport has nothing to do with it. What ever it takes to get the dinner pot filled is fine with them. Unfortunately the habitat is shrinking and the hunting pressure is to heavy for the declining population of game animals. I gave up hunting because I didn’t need to hunt to survive. We lived on goats which took care of our protein needs and I even helped others get into raising goats as well. But I regret that I never did get one of the elusive deer while hunting from a hammock.