Hunting with Muzzleloaders: Tradition or Technology?

Lyman Great Plains Rifle-- Old School Cool

Many states began offering special muzzleloading-only “primitive” hunting seasons in the 1960s and 70s. Hunters participating in muzzleloading season faced additional challenges including only having one shot, keeping their percussion caps and powder dry in wet weather, using “open” iron sights no matter the range to target, and reduced stopping power and range compared to modern centerfire rifles. Shooting cast lead round balls with a side hammer, percussion cap Civil-War-type rifle, these hunters had to get close and choose their shots carefully. The time taken meticulously loading their rifles was exceeded greatly by the time taken cleaning them after even a single shot, as the gunpowder used was so highly corrosive it seemed the barrels would start rusting before they even arrived home from the hunt.

Fast forward to the present day: muzzleloading season now sees hunters in the field with scoped bolt action rifles made from stainless steel and coated in hyper realistic designer camouflage. Loaded inside are compressed pellet powder charges and ballistic tipped hollowpoint bullets riding in plastic sabots. They’re no longer shooting true black powder but substitutes like Pyrodex, Triple Se7en, or American Pioneer. They have enough stopping power to take large or dangerous game like elk, moose, and bear, and those optics aren’t for laughs; 150 yard shots are no longer “tall tales.” What the heck happened? Technology happened.

This CVA Optima is ready for your scope choice and uses a stainless steel barrrel

Knight Firearms began the innovation when they pioneered an “inline” ignition design, which moved the #11 percussion cap from the side of the gun to the breech end of the barrel for more consistent ignition. Soon stainless steel “all weather” models with plastic stocks followed. Old school iron sights were replaced with fiber optic, high visibility adjustable sights, and rails to mount scopes. As powder charges got bigger and substitute powders became popular, the percussion cap was replaced with a 209 shotshell primer to help touch off the bigger loads. With robust ignition in place, the need to measure loose powder was then eliminated by the creation of pellet charges made of compressed powder. The pellets burn consistently every time, providing better accuracy. Although the powder and bullet still must be loaded from the front, the 209 primer can be held in place from the rear via a break-open action, as Thompson Center prefers, or via a small bolt-action. Eventually the 209 primer itself became specialized; now there are special muzzleloader-only 209s available which are not intended for use in shotshells at all! Finally, bullet technology moved from the 19th century to the 21st century. A wide variety of hollowpoint, ballistic tip, and saboted bullets were designed using state of the art technology to improve terminal ballistics. Now the muzzleloaders give up nothing to their centerfire brothers in terms of stopping power.

The Savage 10ML-II represents the current pinnacle of muzzleloader technology. It is the first mass-produced modern muzzleloader designed to use smokeless powder, making cleanup super easy and protecting its scope from the ravages of black powder’s corrosive smoke. Using smokeless powder doesn’t give the 10ML-II any advantages in range or stopping power because chamber pressure and velocity are roughly the same no matter which powder you are loading. It does offer an accuracy advantage, and smokeless powder is safer to store and handle than black powder. But don’t get them confused! It takes much less smokeless powder to reach the correct loading than black powder. Black powder is measured by volume and is pretty forgiving of measurement errors, but smokeless powder is measured by its weight and isn’t forgiving at all. Pouring a black powder volume of smokeless into the Savage will blow up the gun and likely send the shooter straight to the hospital.

The emergence and subsequent popularity of modern inline muzzleloaders has created a rift in the hunting community. Many old school black powder shooters with wooden-stocked replicas feel like the modern inline shooters are “cheating,” violating the spirit of the primitive hunting season and ignoring the history and tradition of the true muzzleloader. The inline hunters believe that their increased accuracy and power means they are taking game more humanely, increasing the popularity of the sport, and they think the old school guys need to get over themselves. At the end of the day, there are more than enough deer in the woods for both sides!

 

Conical, saboted, ballistic tipped bullets mean more stopping power

 

Shotguns and Deer Hunting

If you have land surrounded by urban sprawl, or you live in a state that requires that you hunt deer with a shotgun, you will have a lot more luck if you properly prepare yourself and your shotgun before you try to bag that 10-point with your grandpa’s old scattergun.

Shotgun Ammo

Shotgun Ammo

Pick a Gun Any Gun

There are a million different configurations of shotguns to choose. Bolt-action shotguns, while rare, offer a high level of precision, while maintaining that rifle feel. This is a good option if you are used to hunting with a standard rifle. Single shot breach loading shotguns offer high precision and very low cost, but should you need a follow up shot, you will waste valuable seconds reloading. Pump shotguns are great for almost any shotgun application. One obvious advantage is that you can shoot virtually any kind of ammunition out of a pump shotgun, and since the action is manual, the shotgun will cycle no matter what. Semi automatic shotguns are gaining popularity in all types of shotgun sports. Their recent reduced cost and improved reliability make them an excellent option for hunting deer or any other game animal. Whatever your choice, you should pick a gun that fits you, your shoulder, and your lifestyle.

A Barrel of Fun

So here’s what not to do. Don’t grab your bird hunting setup and try to drop a deer. Birdshot is useless when hunting anything but small game and clay pigeons. You will probably just make the animal angry and it will run off. Look at your shotgun model. If you own a common shotgun, like a Remington 870 or a Mossberg 500/590 variant, then you are in luck. They make interchangeable barrels for most modern shotguns in production. Grab yourself a rifled barrel and you will have in your possession a weapon that has an effective range past 150 yards, well inside the range of most deer kills. If you don’t have access to a rifled barrel or your shotgun is an uncommon model, deer hunting with a smoothbore barrel is still quite possible. Make sure you buy rifled slugs rather than traditional ones.

Gear Up

Brenneke Slug

Brenneke Slug

When hunting deer, even at medium range, you might find yourself staring down the barrel and only seeing a front bead sight. While very fast, this is not contusive to the type of precision that most deer hunters prefer. At close range or in heavy brush, you might be okay with traditional rifle iron sights or ghost rings. Red dot sights would also work well. Designers created the red dot to be fast, and inside of 100 yards, fast is good. If you are like me however, out past 100 yards or so, I need a little help to see what I’m trying to hit. A low power riflescope might to the trick.

Slugs in the Wind

Plumbata Shotgun Slugs

Shotgun Slugs

Slugs are large and heavy. This makes them susceptible to manipulation from windage. Obviously, increasing range exacerbates this problem. Make sure you adjust your shot for windage, or you might be chasing your kill a long way into the brush.

The Bottom Line

I’m not saying that given the choice, I would use shotguns to hunt deer every time, but there are situations in which a shotgun is your only choice. That being said, it’s important to know how to configure your equipment so you can move in for that kill on opening day.

8 Steps to an Enjoyable Hunting Season

There are several steps every hunter should take before leaving the house to go hunting.

Before you start acquiring supplies for your upcoming hunt, you should make sure that you are aware of the requirements for the area in which you intend to hunt. Some states require different equipment for different types of hunting. You can review your own state’s requirements by contacting the applicable state wildlife agency. You do not want to show up in the field with an extended tube magazine on your shotgun when you are not allowed to have more than three. Non-firearm hunting supplies are essential too, such as a game processing set, game call, game scent, game decoy, and binoculars.

Coyote Hunting with Remington 700 BDL in .223 Remington

If your state requires completing a hunter education course, you will need to take the course before you hit the trail. You will also need to purchase a hunting license. There are usually several different options for hunting licenses, so make sure you choose the correct one for the type of hunting you plan to do. Some states, however, offer an “apprentice hunting license,” which allows licensees to accompany an experienced hunter before taking a hunter education course.

I highly recommend reviewing the firearm safety rules for obvious reasons. This will help you remember to bring certain items, such as hearing and eye protection, as the rules require. Speaking from personal experience, being anywhere near an AR-15 type rifle with a muzzle break when it goes off is conducive to hearing loss.

Taking your primary hunting handgun, rifle, or shotgun to the shooting range before a hunt is always a good idea. Time at the range lets you confirm your zero while providing a good excuse to clean your firearm before hunting time. Dirty guns are more prone to malfunction and decreased accuracy than clean guns. Besides, shooting is much more fun when your gun(s) work properly.

With all of the residential and commercial construction expanding out into the suburbs, don’t forget to confirm the location of, directions to, and boundaries of the property you plan to hunt before you leave. The boundaries can easily change in between, and even during, the seasons. It can be costly to get all the way to your intended destination only to find the entrance is closed, causing you to have to go all the way around to another entrance several paved miles away; or scrap the hunt all together. Also, driving or walking onto land that was previously open for public hunting, but is no longer open to the public, can make for an interesting situation. Add to that: getting your truck stuck in the mud; having to call for a tow truck to yank it out; and having the local Game Warden randomly show up. All this while on non-hunting property and within three hours of waking up—you get a very non-fun experience. Ask me how I know.

In summary, if you observe these eight steps:

  1. Know your area rules and requirements
  2. Take a hunter’s education course
  3. Get your hunting license
  4. Review gun safety rules
  5. Use ear and eye protection
  6. Warm up at the range before the hunt
  7. Clean your firearms
  8. Confirm location

All there is to do after that is get outside and have a great time!

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Tracking Your Prey

Call me a softy, but when I shoot a deer, I like to kill it immediately. I hate tracking deer in cold, muddy environments, and I especially hate to cause unnecessary suffering on the part of the deer. I usually hunt in south and east Texas, so our whitetail deer are not normally very large. I use a .270 or 30.06 caliber round with one of a couple scoped bolt action rifles, so as long as my gun is properly sighted in, I usually do not have a problem. There are occasions however, that despite a perfectly placed shot, the deer just seems to be able to run forever. I chased a deer that had a hole in its heart 200 yards in the thickest, briar patch infested scrub brush you have ever seen. Tracking deer is something that most deer hunters will have to do eventually, so it is best to be prepared.

Preparation starts at home. Gather some supplies together before you leave for your hunt and put them in a bag. Any small pack or dump pouch will do, my backpack/hydration bag works perfect for me. Gather up a flashlight, some snacks, water, hydrogen peroxide in a squirt bottle, and a roll of biodegradable flagging ribbon. If nothing else gets packed, the flagging ribbon and the flashlight are the absolute must have’s.

White Tailed Deer

When you first take the shot, and the deer doesn’t go down, watch its reaction, if it jumps when it’s hit, it might be a heart or lung shot. It will most likely not get very far if this is the case. If your shot went awry, and you hit it in the leg, you might see it go down, and try to stumble away. Should this happen, it would be a good idea to deliver a finishing shot before you attempt to approach your prey. A gut shot is the worst type of scenario. The deer is going to be wounded and frightened, and will probably run quite a distance before it decides to bed down. If it is a gut shot, the deer might run with its tail down.

When you shoot, don’t jump out of the stand immediately. Make a note of where you shot the deer and watch where it runs. It will most likely head to thick brush to hide. If you follow the deer too soon, it will hear and smell you coming and keep running. Go to the spot where he took the hit. If you see a great deal of fur, you might have grazed the deer. If you don’t see too much hair, you probably have a body shot. If you see bits of bone, a leg shot is probable.

When looking at blood, take note of where the blood lies. If it is up high, in tall grass, you might have a shot to the heart or lungs. If there are air bubbles in the blood, you have a lung shot, and you won’t have to track your prey very far. Blood that is very dark red with bits of green in it indicate a gut shot, and you might be in for a long trek. If the blood trail gets thin, or you aren’t sure that what you are looking at is actually blood, use your hydrogen peroxide spray bottle, the blood will bubble up just like it does on an open wound. As you get into the woods, liberally use your flagging ribbon. Tie it around trees or branches at eye level or higher. Keep your ears open too, a deer falling on the ground can make a very audible “thud.” Remember not to let yourself get thrown off by tracks. If it is a trail often used by deer, you may be following the wrong buck.

Image Courtesy of Matthew J Obrien

While on the trail, don’t move forward until you see the next drop of blood. If you loose track, and don’t see any blood, move back to the last spot and search for more sign. Should you not see any blood at all, try to look for the path of least resistance. You could get lucky and pick up the trail again, if you still don’t see any, move back again and use your spray bottle. Take your time and don’t try to rush, if it gets dark, who cares, you have your flashlight and flagging ribbon, right? If the blood trail abruptly stops, look around for a spot with heavy brush. A deer on the run will try to bed up in order to hide, especially if it is running out of energy. Typically, this is where the deer will expire. Once it lies down, it usually won’t get back up.

Keeping these simple tips in mind will make it a bit easier to track your prey the next time it runs off. I figure there is no reason to shoot an otherwise harmless animal unless you intend to eat it, so recovering your prey is the most essential part of your hunt.

Shooting in Foul Weather


Gathering rain clouds don’t have to postpone your springtime trip to the range.

As the winter weather ebbs away and warmer breezes encourage us to get outside and enjoy the return of spring, many of us begin to gather our rifles, pistols, and shotguns and head out to the range to get some practice after a long winter spent indoors. With the return of warmer temperatures comes spring rains and weather that is, while somewhat warmer, a wet and soggy mess. It’s not just the rains that can turn your outdoor range into a mud hole, melting snow after months of accumulation can turn normally solid ground into a boot sucking swamp.

Most people are deterred from heading outdoors when dark clouds gather and rain pelts the roof of the house. Even when the sun is shining, a soggy trail suitable for only a 4-wheel drive vehicle can keep many shooters from reaching their outdoor shooting range. But others, like myself, are undeterred. Come rain, shine, snow, or hail… ok, maybe not hail. That stuff hurts. But barring hail, lightning, or a howling tornado, you can likely find me braving the elements.

Foolish? Some might say so, but I disagree. There is an old axiom that you should “Train like you fight.” Now, I’m not in the military, and I’m not a law enforcement officer. I’m not out there practicing dynamic entries or running a “tactical” pistol and rifle transition course, though I might practice transitions for an upcoming 3-gun match. Even though, in all likelihood, my life will never depend on my skills with a rifle or pistol, I feel that it is valuable to shoot under varying environmental conditions.

Late Season Deer Hunting

As deer season progresses, deer become scarce quickly. It seems that as soon as the rut ends, they all just up and disappear.

Obviously, they’re still there, but where and how do you locate deer that seem to have gone nocturnal? It’s not easy, but late season deer can be hunted with success, you just have to adapt your hunting strategy.

Many hunters fill their tags within the first few days of deer season. What’s more, fierce winter weather deters many hunters who don’t want to endure the elements in the late season. For the late season deer hunter, this is good, as it means that you won’t have to worry about large numbers other hunters being around. Deer are often pressured early in the season when there are large numbers of hunters eager to get their deer during the rut. In the past I’ve had great success hunting deer as late as January when they’ve had time to relax from the pressure of early season hunting.

During the rut, many hunters set up in the early morning in blinds and tree stands where they will be able to rattle or call up a buck. But the rut is a crazy time for deer, between intense hunting pressure and the powerful hormone drive to mate. When deer go nocturnal, relenting to the pressure of the onslaught of hunters, they are less active in the early morning. The midday and afternoon however can be more productive.

Too many hunters hunt the rut exclusively, thinking that deer behavior during that time is “normal”. It is not – deer are so caught up in their hormone driven activities, they throw caution to the wind. It is only as the rut fades that deer return to normal.

No matter how much or how little hunting pressure there is, deer still need to eat. After the rut, bucks turn their attention to food. All of the sparring and mating of the rut leaves most bucks run-down and searching for food. Likewise, does that have been bred during the rut increase the amount of food they consume. Though they remain bedded down during the day, by the afternoon they become hungry and are forced to head back to forage at nearby food sources.

Identify food and water sources. Deer will bed down nearby to established food and water sources. When the pressure is on, they won’t want to travel far for fear of being exposed. Fresh hoof prints and droppings are signs of activity that will allow you to easily identify where the deer are feeding, and which trails they are using.

Once you’ve identified a food or water source, find the deer trails that lead back to their bedding areas. Bedding areas are carefully planned by deer: they are extremely good at choosing bedding locations with multiple escape routes. It is extremely difficult to stalk a deer that is bedded down. A bedded down deer that scents you will explode out of the bedding location and all you will see is the white flash of tail as it bounds away at breakneck speed. Even if you do get the drop on a bedded down deer, it is still difficult to get a good shot at a vital area.

To hunt bedded deer, set up near the identified food source, or along an active trail to and from the food source. Pay close attention to the wind direction to avoid alerting the deer to your scent.

Finally, it’s not unusual to have a second, or even third rut. Though not nearly as active as the first fall rut, secondary ruts can still bring out the bucks and does who have not been bred in the first rut. Does will reach estrus every 28 days, so if you’ve pinpointed the first rut, knowing when the second rut will come is a simple calculation.

In a secondary rut, rattling will not be quite as productive as grunting and calling, but you can still rattle up the odd buck or two. It’s not unheard of to find two or even three of four bucks chasing a doe during the second rut, completely oblivious to anything going on around them. Giving a few soft grunts or a short rattle can bring the deer your direction and present you with a shot.

If you don’t mind facing harsh weather and deer who are back to their usual cautious ways, then the late season is for you. Scouting ahead to identify where the deer are and where their trails are is key, but once you’ve identified them, you can rest easy in the fact that the deer will come.