Brotherhood of arms: A black-powder affair

Why We Wrote This

For America’s birthday, our photo director aims his video camera at a semiannual event whose participants have a blast – literally – celebrating freedom. 

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
Members of a carbine-shooting team prepare for target competition May 18 in Winchester, Va. The North-South Skirmish Association hosts a national tournament at which people compete using an array of Civil War-era firearms.

Happy Fourth! 

It’s a day when “bombs bursting in air” are symbolized by fireworks – or waterworks, or light shows – reminding us of an anthem that was written after the War of 1812 and a flag that emerged from the revolution of 1776. 

For one history-minded set of American hobbyists, black-powder activities are a rare chance to revisit the armaments technology from around the 1860s. 

That was a time of tremendous division. But at a semiannual gathering of the North-South Skirmish Association near Winchester, Virginia, the atmosphere is collegial. 

Tipped off by a neighbor who’s an amateur cannoneer, and with an eagerness to learn about a culture that’s foreign to me, I decided to poke my video camera into the world of this strain of Civil War history enthusiasts. They’re not reenactors. And what I found was not fancy period uniforms or choreographed routines – just period-perfect mortars, cannons, and light arms. 

As the morning fog mixes with gunsmoke, thousands of men and women gather at Fort Shenandoah to fire these vintage weapons and display their marksmanship. Many have been coming here for decades, upholding this living memory of an era – and worrying that young people are not showing enough interest to keep the event going.

On America’s birthday, I hope you enjoy my video exploration of this slice of American culture.

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