"Choose your weapon," the traditional challenge in duels of honor, is taking on an entirely different meaning in Idaho these days.

In a holdover from the childhood game of "cowboys and indians," it's conceivable hunters may have to choose between modern high-powered rifles or bows and arrows in harvesting big game.The idea has taken hold in many western states to preserve game and spread out hunting pressure. It has been tossed around by Idaho legislators and Fish and Game officials, but its chances of being enacted soon appear slim.

That irks one of the idea's chief Idaho proponents.

"The hunter's first debt is owed to the hunted. That sums up my whole theory," said Sen. Ron Beitelspacher, D-Grangeville, a bowhunter and former outfitter.

Some archers condemn hunters using both bows and rifles. They complain such "switch-hitters" venture into the wild with bows only to cripple animals with poorly placed shots, leaving the wounded game in the field. With anti-hunting forces on the march nationwide, states are looking at new regulations to erase such "slob hunting" behavior.

"The most important question is what is the non-hunting public going to think about the hunter?" Beitelspacher said.

Idaho currently has archery, muzzleloader and conventional rifle seasons for game ranging from deer to bear. Hunters can buy archery and muzzleloader stamps to take advantage of those seasons, then carry rifles in the general hunt to expand their time in the field.

Beitelspacher pushed a resolution in last year's legislative session directing the Idaho Department of Fish and Game to consider an either-or, choose-your-weapon rule. He pulled it off the Senate floor when it appeared the resolution would fail.

Fish and Game also included either-or as an option in its upcoming five-year management plans but later withdrew it because of public comment on it.

Archery and black powder guns are perhaps the biggest hunting success story of the past two decades. Sportsmen who once relied on rifles and scopes to reach out and kill game hundreds of yards away have embraced the challenge of stalking to within a few yards of the animals.

Muzzleloaders resemble the venerable 19th-century Hawkins and Kentucky rifles. The black powder and ball are rammed down the barrel and touched off either by a percussion cap or a sliver of flint. Their range is far more limited than today's carbines.

Other states with more hunting pressure have opted for variations on the choose-your-weapon approach. Colorado has adopted a complex set of rules that oblige sportsmen to commit to one weapon.

For example, buying a Colorado deer archery license bars hunting deer with a rifle in the same year. The same is true for muzzleloaders.

Colorado did not choose its "stratified" either-or hunting because its deer and elk populations are down, said Todd Malmsbury, spokesman for the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

The state boasts its largest elk herd of the century, more bountiful than any other state or Canadian province, Malmsbury said. A record 41,500 elk and some 79,000 deer were taken in 1989.

"Our main concern is to spread the pressure around and offer a quality hunt," Malmsbury said. "You don't like to go out in the woods and have six or seven people rifle hunting near you."

Utah has archery and muzzleloader hunts, but both camps can take part in the rifle season, said Wes Shields, big game program coordinator. Citizen committees are looking at a "mixed bag" of possible changes such as choose-your-weapon or limiting vehicle or hunter access to certain areas.

While Idaho Fish and Game officials admit the choose-your-weapon concept will continue to surface for consideration, they see no urgent need to adopt it. The archers who prefer it are a fraction of the total hunter population, they say.

"The switch-hitters don't support it," Fish and Game spokesman Jack Trueblood said. "The archers, by and large, would lose out."

Everyone involved stresses the need for education before flinging arrows or musket balls.

Fish and Game proposes required classes on archery, with an exemption for those who purchased archery stamps in the past. Such a mandatory class has not been formulated for muzzleloaders, however.