Two weeks ago I wrote about black powder and some associated history. In recent years, muzzleloading and black powder have made a bit of a comeback on the hunting scene. Lots of hunters are searching for new challenges, and I’m one of them.
Some hunters try to shoot a moose or caribou with bow and arrow. I gave that a try in my early hunting years, but it just didn’t tickle my fancy.
Last year, I watched Jim Shockey shoot a huge bull moose on his TV show with a black powder muzzleloader. Although he used a modern-looking rifle, complete with a scope, it was still pure smoke-pole. When its primer ignited powder, it belched a sweet-smelling cloud of grey, puffy smoke, just like in the old western movies. And it shot one bullet at a time, a large .50 calibre projectile that had to be pushed into place through the entire length of the barrel by hand, with only the help of a ramrod. The rod, stored beneath the barrel of the gun, did double duty: cleaning and loading.
Black powder rifles have to be cleaned, not only at home after a day of shooting, but also in the field between shots. After only a few rounds the bullet will stick upon loading if a rag isn’t run down the barrel to clean out the burnt powder residue. This was earthy, down-and-dirty shooting. Muzzleloading looked like it might just satisfy that itch that I needed to scratch.
I did some homework. I ended up buying the same sort of muzzleloader that I had seen Shockey use on TV. I chose the Thompson Center Encore, which is a modern incarnation of the black powder tradition. It’s a true muzzleloader, but built using advanced metallurgy and 21st-century machining, along with an important and long overdue design tweak — what smoke-pole enthusiasts refer to as an inline gun. This means that the percussion cap ignition system is moved from the side of the weapon, where it was on the 19th-century guns, to the rear and centre of the powder charge. This makes the rifle far more accurate, easier to clean and scope-friendly, all very important attributes.
There are still traditionalists amongst us who prefer to shoot with historically correct rifles that look, function and shoot just like they did in the Davie Crockett days. Companies such as Lyman and Dixie Gun Works sell these sorts of weapons. They are beautiful and intriguing shooting irons, and I’m very tempted to try one out, maybe even take one along on a hunt someday.
But for me, as a black powder beginner, at least for now, I opted for the user friendly and more efficient inline weapon. It’s a balance between challenging yourself to hunt with less firepower, and ensuring a humane and quick kill. The period-true weapons are deadly on moose not much further than a modern compound bow. At least, that’s my understanding. Maybe in the hands of Daniel Boone it would be a different matter, but I wanted to feel confident that I could kill a moose with that one and only shot from at least 150 yards. To that end, I opted for a scoped inline muzzleloader.
Yes, I opted for a scope. Some of you might be laughing at me about now. What happened to tradition? Boone and Crockett didn’t use scopes.
In my defence, I’ve shot plenty of moose and other critters with open iron sights. My eyes aren’t quite what they once were, but I still do quite a bit of plinking and hunting with traditional sights. That said, I would only have one shot at this moose, considering that it takes me at least a minute to reload. The absolute worst-case scenario is to watch a wounded moose walk off to suffer and perish. I wanted to be absolutely sure of placing my one shot in the vitals.
These days there are scopes manufactured specifically for shorter-range black powder rifles. They are optically optimized for about 100 yards and have elevation lines in the reticle that allow a shooter to compensate for the big, slower bullet’s curvy path. I chose a Burris Fullfield and mounted it in sturdy steel rings.
Finally, I got all the gear together and read up on the loading and shooting process. It was time to head to the range and learn to accurately shoot and load a muzzleloader.
I chose to use Pyrodex Pellets, which are preformed 50-grain cylinders that slide right down the barrel. Two makes for a pretty powerful charge, although my Encore rifle is rated for 150 grains. That, however, is an absolute maximum charge.
The powder slid down the barrel and I pushed the massive 290-grain bullet into place with my ramrod. I have to say I was just a little nervous. I put the primer in place and pulled back the hammer. With the cross-hairs steady I squeezed the trigger. When the smoke cleared I could see a big hole in the target not far from the bull’s-eye. I adjusted the scope, cleaned the barrel, and loaded up for another shot. After a dozen rounds I had my smoke-pole shooting deadly accurate out to 150 yards. I was ready for moose season.
On the hunt
Shortly after daylight broke on opening day 2012, Robert, Matt and I were hiding behind a lone rock on a wide open bog, sizing up a young bull moose. He was looking directly towards us and standing about 200 yards away, after bursting from a clump of woods to investigate Robert’s moose-calling efforts. With only four points on his antlers we decided to pass on this super early opportunity and look for a bigger specimen. We hunted and called the rest of the morning and didn’t see a thing furry.
We cooked a late dinner back at the cabin and decided to call from a nearby hill until darkness ended our hunt. Just as the sun was setting, a very nice bull crossed a long, narrow bog about 700 yards from our perch. Robert called his heart out, bellowing his absolute best lonely cow seduction. It worked. The frisky bull came trotting down the edge of the treeline right towards us. He abruptly stopped about 120 yards out and looked right at us.
I aimed at his chest and waited for him to turn. Finally he made a move and presented me with a broadside shot. My rifle belched smoke and the sturdy-footed moose staggered from the impact. In less than 30 seconds he was dead on the ground, a fine 12-point bull, and my first muzzleloader moose.
Paul Smith, a native of Spaniard’s Bay, fishes and
wanders the outdoors at every opportunity. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.