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Muzzleloader Shotguns

By Randy D. Smith

There's just something about the ambiance of a muzzleloader shotgun. Venturing into the fall quail woods with a good dog and a muzzleloading shotgun is the nearest encounter I know to what heaven must be like. It is a slow paced kind of hunting experience, perfect for strolling through golden oaks and brisk breezes on an autumn morning. You build your loads with the precision of a fastidious pipe smoker packing his tobacco into a fine meerschaum.

When a covey flushes you take your time choosing your bird, getting on point, cocking the hammers, drawing a bead with patience as you know you only have one shot, and dropping the hammer. The smoke rolls like steam rising from a locomotive crossing a mountain pass in the winter. Rather than the hard jab you often experience with modern shotguns, the muzzleloader nudges your shoulder with the same gentle warmth of a favorite uncle teasing you with a pat on the back.

As the smoke settles and rolls along the forest floor, you either watch your bird fall or fly away. Either result is OK because it wasn't the bird that brought you there. It was the excuse, the experience, and the life force of being alone with a good dog and a muzzleloader.

This is not the kind of hunting you are likely to experience with most shooting parties. Unless you know another kindred spirit with a smoke pole it is a hunt to be savored alone, after the opening weekend when the once-a-year bird hunters have gone home to watch their football games and drink their beer. This is a personal time with your God, and your dog, and your spirit. A muzzleloader slows things down and puts them into perspective. It is the fine wine of the shooting sports.

A muzzleloader shotgun can rival the game getting performance of conventional shotguns on a shot for shot basis. After several years in the field using muzzleloader shotguns, I believe that the actual disadvantages are not nearly as great as many would think. A muzzleloader shotgun is capable of shooting as far and as hard as any cartridge shotgun on the market. Properly configured load and choke options allow a muzzleloader shotgun to be a reliable performer. But it loads slow and demands careful attention to detail. I find it quite restful.

There are seven elements affecting muzzleloader shotgun performance. They are shotgun configuration, ignition system, propellant, over-powder wad, shot charge/containment, over-shot wad, and choke. Altering some of these elements produces only minor performance differences while others cause drastic pattern changes.

Many muzzleloader shotguns have been designed to meet rather narrow demands for specific reasons. The major sport uses for muzzleloader shotguns in the United States today are for upland game and turkey hunting. A lot of hunters using muzzleloaders for either pursuit are doing so because of positive experiences with muzzleloading hunting rifles. Because of this, several models are designed with interchangeable barrels to increase sales appeal. The reasoning is simple. Purchase a particular muzzleloader rifle and for a few dollars more, you can buy a shotgun barrel and double your gun's flexibility.

If you are a hunter expecting to primarily hunt deer and turkey with a muzzleloader, interchangeable barrels are fine. If you want to go after upland game and waterfowl, I am not so sure they will prove entirely satisfactory. The reason is that a rifle and a shotgun shoulder very differently. Rifles are aimed and upland shotguns are pointed from the shoulder. Stock configuration and drop are quite differently and specifically designed for each. A good rifle stock is not a good shotgun stock.

For turkey and varmint hunting, a smooth shouldering shotgun is not as important. Shotguns are aimed in a similar fashion to a deer hunting rifle and a shotgun barrel mounted on a rifle stock may not be a concern. For upland game, especially fast action pheasant, grouse and quail hunting, I prefer a shotgun designed strictly for quick shouldering, eye alignment and balance.

My White Tominator In-line muzzleloader shotgun is designed from the ground up to balance like a shotgun rather than a rifle. In fact the only change that I make from one season to the next is my choke choice. For Turkey I use an extra-full .665 choke, for pheasants I use a full, and for quail I use a modified. Since I use it primarily for turkey hunting I have it mounted with a 1 - 5 X Bushnell Banner scope.

My load remains the same for whatever I am hunting. I am presently loading 90 grains of FFg black powder, 1 1/4 ounces of # 6 shot, and 1/2 inch 12 gauge cushion fiber wads over powder and over shot. I usually split a wad in two with my thumbnail to replace fragile and difficult to load shot cards. Many use plastic shot cups to enhance long range patterns but I am perfectly satisfied with my shotgun's performance without them for all hunting except turkey.

My other muzzleloader and the one I carry through most of the fall and winter is a Cabela's double barrel 12 gauge with interchangeable chokes. It is a beautiful, well-fit and finished double hammer, double trigger design made by Pedersoli of Italy. I've carried it for nearly two decades and it looks almost as good as the day I bought it. The European walnut stock has darkened from years of oiling but the graceful scrollwork and bright blue metal are as showy as ever.

To aid in loading convenience, the Cabela's double is usually equipped with IC chokes in the quail woods, modified and full for the longer shots of the pheasant fields, full and extra-full for the knockdown power needed for a turkey hunt.

FFg is the only practical granulation of black powder for shotgunning. Black powder ignition is volatile, quick and dependable. Black powder is more fouling than substitute propellants but this is not a great problem with shotguns. General tolerances are more "forgiving" to bore contamination than muzzleloader rifles. I am of the opinion that for the "first shot of the day" nothing is better than black powder.

Pyrodex RS is a substitute black powder that is a bit more difficult to ignite. It does not foul a gun barrel as quickly as black powder. While I have seen a significant difference in fouling and ignition qualities between the propellants in various rifles and handguns, other than ignition I have found few performance differences between black powder and Pyrodex in shotguns.

I have had some positive results with Hodgdon Triple 7. It is a non-sulfur product and easily handled in the field. Ignition traits seem equal to black powder and superior to Pyrodex. My Tominator performs very well using Triple 7 with #11 percussion caps. Generally I will load twenty percent less Triple 7 than black powder to achieve the same performance or 80 grains of Triple 7 for each 100 grains of FFg.

I am careful to foul the barrel before going into the field for that first shot of the day. Fouling involves nothing more than dumping 20 - 30 grains into the gun and discharging the unpacked load before actual field loading. Fouling clears the ignition system of any residue. The practice also ensures that the ignition channel is clear at the shooter's leisure rather than in the field during the hunt. I have never had a shotgun charge that was prepped with a fouling charge fail to ignite first time in the field. Pre-hunt fouling charges are excellent "confidence" insurance.

If a turkey hunter will load a Tominator with a 100 - 110 grain charge of propellant and 1 1/4 ounces of #6 shot contained in a plastic shot collar and further constrict the charge with an extra-full choke, he can throw a devastating fourteen inch pattern at forty-five yards! Try to match that with any shotgun in the world.

A Tominator will shoot so effectively at such extended ranges that mounting a low power scope should give the shooter an advantage for spring turkey season. For long-range hunting of turkey and varmints on the plains this combination of shotgun and load is quite advantageous.

Reducing the charge to 90 grains of powder and backing off to a full choke is practical for varmint hunting conditions. By removing the shotcup and loading shot loosely in combination with fiber wads, excellent 30-40 yard pheasant hunting patterns will result. By replacing the Full choke with a Modified and maintaining all other factors the same, the gun will provide excellent quail and pheasant combination hunting loads.

A hunter can choose a Modified or Improved Cylinder choke combined with a plastic shot cup to get almost identical performance with an 80 grain powder charge with less recoil. As you can see, the flexibility of a muzzleloader shotgun equipped with interchangeable chokes is enormous. You must pattern these loads at the range to develop two or three that your gun likes.

Patterning a muzzleloader shotgun is not complicated. Set up a target board at thirty yards and aim for a marked point in the center. Examine the total pattern density, not just those pellet impacts in the center. If your overall pattern is light in the center and heavy to the outside, you have a "blown" pattern. This is usually the result of too heavy a powder charge. Extreme examples of blown patterns will almost look like a ring of shot surrounding a very light center. Generally if you back off your powder charge by five or ten grains you will see an improvement.

A good rule of thumb is that a solid pattern will result from a 50/50 mix of powder and shot. There are many hunters who measure their powder and shot charges with the same instrument. So, a 90 grain volume measure of powder and a 90 grain volume measure of shot will usually produce an excellent 30 yard pattern. Another remedy might be to use two over-powder wads instead of one if you are using the thinner spun wool versions; or using an over-powder wad in place of an over-shot card.

I might add here that I consider nothing to be more worthless than modern over-shot cards. They are fragile, difficult to properly align in the bore, and prone to failure. Either a felt or wool over-powder wad or a fiber cushion fiber wad is superior and has no detrimental effects upon patterns. Cushion fiber wads of the kind commonly used for shotgun cartridge reloading are inexpensive and effective. A box will last through several seasons of hunting. It is a simple matter to simply split one during loading for use as an over-shot card.

Another problem you may have is a stringy and uneven pattern. Although the number of pellets within a center ring may be of the right percentage, there are gaps and clusters of shot. I have seen this condition occur most often when using full or extra full chokes in combination with plastic shot collars. It is usually due to forcing loading components past the tight choke constriction. This practice often distorts the shot collar or the wadding, causing uneven patterns.

When using an extra full choke such as a .665 Super Full Turkey, I will normally remove the choke for the loading phase. Since turkey hunting is an all-or-nothing, one-shot affair, this is not a significant time concern. It can make a significant difference when creating an excellent turkey pattern. Another means of improving a shot pattern for tight choke shooting is to make sure that the bore of your shotgun is thoroughly clean. Running a wiping pass with your ramrod after several shots can improve slowly degenerating patterns.

My turkey hunting loads are simple. I can use the ultra tight screw in chokes but the same modified and full chokes that I use for upland game on my Cabela's double will do nicely out to thirty yards. The pattern density difference at thirty-five yards is negligible. Beyond forty yards tighter chokes have an advantage, but at that distance shot velocity is such that even the new three-inch Magnum smokeless rounds can fail to bring a bird down unless the shot is just right.

I use hotter "Magnum" #11 percussion caps rather than the standard caps, more for piece of mind than anything else. Many of the newer models use shot shell primer ignition systems and conversion kits are offered by several manufacturers to update older guns.

My most effective muzzle-loading tactic is that I never use the same load two days in a row. I always use fresh powder and fresh caps each morning of the turkey hunt. That means that I must either pull my load or discharge my gun at the end of the day. A standard ramrod mounted ball screw pulls wads easily if you have a gentle touch. I once believed that I could get around that practice by careful management and keeping my gun out of drastic temperature changes. Frankly, considering the few misfires that have always been the result of not using fresh loads, it just isn't worth the few cents difference in savings to me to work a load more than one day to justify watching a turkey walk away after a misfire. It's too difficult to get them close enough for a shot in the first place.

I use #6 shot because of superior patterns but a lot of hunters like #4's and #5's. Larger shot can make for some pretty thin forty-yard patterns. I always store my shotgun barrel down after cleaning to keep residual cleaning fluids out of the ignition chambers and I always discharge a cap in the morning before loading to vent the channels. If you follow these practices a percussion muzzle-loader will reliably fire in the wettest of weather 98% of the time. I have not experienced a misfire with fresh loads using any muzzle-loading shotgun. On one occasion I was caught in a fifteen minute soaking downpour using the White. An hour later it fired with no hesitation.

If you are of a more primitive persuasion, a flintlock trade fusil can be an effective turkey getter. Standard 20 gauge cushion fiber wads fit nicely. I loaded 70 grains of FFg and 1 1/8 ounces of #6 shot. I shot some nice 30 yard patterns with it. I didn't get a turkey with it that season, but that wasn't the gun's fault. The weather was beautiful and the gun shot its loads with solid consistency. It was just one of those seasons when I couldn't connect with a tom when I was using it.

All other strategies are the same as any other turkey hunter would use. I use the same calls. I wear camouflage because I believe the practice is effective. I use decoys if the conditions are right for a planned set. If I am hunting for an opportunistic spur of the moment situation, I don't mess with them. Decoys are also useful as range indicators. I usually set them twenty to twenty-five yards out to help me estimate a tom's range, although many other hunters prefer to place the decoy off and away from them to distract the turkey's attention. Any good turkey strategy that works for other shotguns will work for a muzzleloader.

You don't need a lot of support equipment for turkey hunting with a muzzleloader. I seldom carry more than the powder, shot and extra wads needed for three shots because turkey hunting is pretty much a one-shot deal. You either get your shot or you don't. I carry my capper on a thong hung around my neck and stuffed into my shirt pocket.

On one occasion I was hunting with a Thompson/Center New Englander and my first cap didn't set the charge off. Amazingly, the tom held his position. I kept my head, wishing I had a double barrel, moved slowly and set another cap on the shotgun. I took him with the second attempt. Yes, I was using the previous day's charge. I have never taken that chance again. The turkey gods were kind that day; they normally aren't so forgiving.

For upland game hunting nothing can beat a good field bag equipped with a shot snake and shot measure/charger. I carry my powder measure, nipple pick, and capper tied together by leather thongs to a single heavy ring of leather. The whole works is carried in the bag with my cushion fiber wads. When reloading the double, I hold the leather ring in my teeth so I don't have to constantly fish for components. Between that strategy and the shot measure/shot snake, I can reload a double barrel muzzleloader very quickly if I need to.

I've field tested a number of muzzleloaders over the years. The first shotgun I took into the field was a Thompson/Center New Englander and the first muzzleloader specifically intended for turkey hunting was a Thompson/Center Tree Hawk. The overall design of both was the same except that the Tree Hawk had a Real Tree camouflage finish and interchangeable chokes. As I recall, the New Englander was bored full choke.

The updated version is the Thompson/Center Black Mountain Magnum, which has interchangeable chokes and is available in either a camouflage finish or the original walnut stock and blue steel. The basic Thompson/Center shotgun design is a side hammer percussion with a straight hand stock with a 13 1/2" length of pull. It is sized very well, weighs around six pounds, and is easy to carry. The lock is rugged and the trigger is good.

The only problem that I had with the New Englander was that it did not have enough power to knock down pheasants flying straight away at thirty yards or beyond and, of course, there was no second shot. I had some critical misfires in the turkey woods with the Tree Hawk, but that was before I learned that a turkey hunter never goes into the woods with a day old load. The problem was more the result of my ignorance than the Tree Hawk's performance. I am sure that a New Englander would be all the shotgun you'd ever need for woods and small game hunting.

I took my first book royalties to Cabela's in Sidney, Nebraska, purchased the 12 gauge double barrel with interchangeable chokes and sold my Thompson/Centers. I have enjoyed many satisfying seasons carrying the Cabela's double. I've successfully taken geese, ducks, turkeys, rabbits, upland game and even coyotes with it. Other than its slower loading traits, it is capable of matching the performance of a modern shotgun and it has much more flexibility than a single barrel muzzleloader. The balance and stock design are wonderful.

Three seasons ago, I had the locks rebuilt because of safety concerns but in spite of hundreds of hours in the field and many hundreds of rounds fired it still looks like new. If properly maintained and cared for a muzzleloader shotgun will last a lifetime. A double is much more effective for upland game. A 10 gauge double is also offered for those who might want more knockdown power. Several marketers offer the basic Perdersoli double.

My next muzzleloader shotgun was the White Tominator. I failed by a Merriam's of getting a turkey grand slam that first season. Out of a dozen toms taken with the Tominator, four were shot at right around the 50 yard mark. Few shotguns can match and none can beat it for long-range turkey shooting. I believe its stock design, reminiscent of the Browning Auto 5, is the best in the in-line muzzleloader industry. It is a credible single shot upland game and waterfowl design. A less expensive and thoroughly adequate version of it is now marketed as the White Thunder.

I field tested a Knight TK-2000 for a season. It is a robust but heavy design that performs very well for turkey hunting. I also had a Traditions Buckhunter in-line for a few seasons and found it to be thoroughly dependable and effective for turkey hunting. Both stock designs are far better rifle than shotgun shooting platforms. A very nice little shotgun was the Navy in-line with an old-fashioned poly-choke. It was a great quail and pheasant gun but I did not try it for turkeys.

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Copyright 2004 by Randy D. Smith. All rights reserved.