About 25 years ago Virginia established a separate special deer hunting seasons in which only muzzle-loading rifles could be used. Hundreds of thousands of hunters have embraced the idea to the point where it’s now a firmly established practice: so much so that “hunting with a muzzle-loader” has come to mean hunting deer, specifically. But any hunter who really likes both a challenge and the idea of doing things “the old-fashioned way” should consider the option of pursuing small game with a muzzle-loading gun, an exciting way to spend time in the woods.
America’s pioneer forebears—for whom game meat was the principal source of protein—found small animals at least as important in their dietary, perhaps more so, than large game. Small game animals were abundant, readily obtained, and easier to hunt. They provided “basic training” for youngsters learning woodcraft and hunting skills, allowing them to contribute to the family’s larder with a reasonable chance of success and minimal danger. There is a legend that Davy Crockett’s first hunt as a boy was for squirrels, and that instead of a lead bullet, he used hard, dried peas! Considering the cost of lead in the frontier wilderness of 17th Century North America, maybe that isn’t just a legend.
If this is true, it certainly isn’t accidental that first hunt was for squirrels. In frontier times in North America squirrels were the premier quarry for the muzzle-loading hunter. If it weren’t for squirrels, most of the southeastern parts of North America would never have been settled at all, most likely: squirrels “planted” the vast hardwood forests that blanketed the continent in pre-Columbian times, due to their habit of burying nuts in the winter. A squirrel could have traveled from Maine to the Mississippi River without ever touching ground: and 25% of that virgin forest consisted of chestnut trees, a reliable source of food for wildlife. Thanks to an unlimited food supply squirrels flourished: many reliable eyewitness reports exist of the phenomenal abundance of squirrels in the 17th and 18th Centuries. One reference from the Columbus (Ohio) Gazette from August 29, 1822, describes a 3 day hunt in Franklin County in which 19, 660 squirrels were killed. A paper in the National Geographic Society Journal from 1918 remarks that:
During the early settlement of the country...west of the coast, gray squirrels existed in great numbers...In 1749 they invaded Pennsylvania in such hosts that a bounty of three pence each was put on their scalps. Eight thousand pounds sterling was paid on this account, which involved the killing of 640,000 squirrels. In 1808 a law in force in Ohio required that each free white male deliver 100 squirrel scalps a year or pay $3.00 in cash.
Given numbers like these it's no wonder that when settlers moved west of the seacoast, small animals provided an easily accessed source of protein. Today, while nowhere near their original levels, small game populations in most areas are at sustainable, huntable numbers, providing great recreational opportunities. There’s immense satisfaction in making a good stalk and a clean shot on small targets with a “primitive” weapon.
Deer hunters using muzzle-loaders almost always opt for one of .50 caliber or larger, with the “in-line” gun pretty much having driven the older sidelock guns off the market. But the typical “Kentucky” style hunting rifle of eastern North America’s Colonial period—a sidelock gun, of course—was usually about .40 caliber. That was adequate for any of the animals to be found in eastern woodlands, large and small and with four legs or two. Equally important was the fact that small bullets conserved powder and lead, both of which were scarce and valuable: every ounce had to be carried over the mountains from the coast into a howling wilderness with few roads.
One tactic for killing squirrels that preserved lead was "barking" them, i.e., shooting the branch just below the animal. John James Audubon described how this was done by none other than Daniel Boone:
Barking of squirrels is a delightful sport, and in my opinion requires a greater degree of accuracy than any other...I first witnessed this manner of procuring squirrels [by] the celebrated Daniel Boone...a stout, hale, and athletic man...carrying a long and heavy rifle...He raised his piece..the whip like report resounded through the woods..Judge of my surprise when I perceived that the ball had hit the piece of bark immediately beneath the squirrel and shivered it into splinters, the concussion produced by which...killed the animal and sent it whirling through the air as if it had been blown up by the explosion of a powder magazine...Since [then]...I have seen many other individuals perform the same feat.
One reason for "barking" squirrels was to preserve lead. The bullet could be dug out of the tree limb and melted down for re-use.
Later in the westward expansion, as settlers moved into the Mississippi Valley and the Great Plains, the small-caliber guns of the eastern forests were inadequate to deal with the very much larger animals they encountered. Big-bore Hawken and Plains rifles (.50 caliber and up) were needed to handle grizzly bears and elk. But this wasn't needed in the east and near midwest. As civilization advanced and hostile native populations were driven out of what was called the “Northwest Territory” (the present day states of Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan), the nature of sporting guns changed there too: smaller calibers became the rule.
While Kentucky and Ohio—which had no game larger or more dangerous than black bears once the woods bison were gone—were very much the “frontier” in the 18th Century, by the mid-19th large animals had been pretty much wiped out as the frontier had moved westward. The needs of people in the settled areas favored very accurate small caliber rifles (.32’s and .36’s for the most part). What today are sometimes called “Ohio Rifles” became more common, used for small game and recreational shooting, not big game. Many original guns of this type survive today as family treasures, or in private collections and museums.
If you’re lucky enough to own an original example of such a rifle it’s probably not the best choice for any kind of hunting. After a couple of hundred years—especially considering the hard use to which these guns often were put—most of them are worn to the point where their real value is as collector’s pieces or family heirlooms. Fortunately good quality small-caliber replica rifles—usually sidelocks in traditional style—are now being made.
If you're flush with funds, any number of present-day individual craftsmen can custom make you a muzzle-loading rifle or fowler that would be source of pride to a wealthy member of the 18th aristocracy, let alone a pioneer on a hardscrabble Ohio farm in 1825. These guns aren’t “replicas,” really: they’re made in the same ways and with the same methods as were the guns of the 18th and 19th Centuries. Other than the actual date of manufacture they’re identical, and if the builder is meticulous about authenticity it would be hard to determine the actual age of such a gun. If you can afford this sort of high-grade, high-dollar custom handiwork, you can get a hand-made-to-order, one-of-a-kind beauty, nor would you ever be disappointed in it. But as you’d expect, they’re very, very expensive and can take years to be delivered.
You can even do it yourself. If you’re handy with tools, kits and parts are on the market to allow you to create your own rifle in any caliber and any style, and in any level of fit and finish you like. Muzzle Blasts (the official journal of the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association) carries advertisements for pre-manufactured parts as well as hand-assembled guns. Several companies serve this market, most notably Track of the Wolf in Minnesota, The Log Cabin Shop in Ohio, and Dixie Gun Works in Tennessee. So whether you want a complete, ready-to-go product, a rifle built to your specifications, or parts to make your own, all that is available.
But fortunately there’s an easier and less expensive way to take up the sport of small game hunting with a muzzle-loader. Very good, reasonably authentic, easily affordable mass production copies of Colonial-era rifles are available from gun dealers and through catalogs. These reproductions are not only as practical and as useful as the guns of two centuries ago, they’re also safer and better, thanks to modern manufacturing methods and materials. You can have your choice of percussion or flintlock ignition. “Set triggers” with very light let-off and traditional sights, common features of the originals, are standard features of the reproductions as well.
A muzzle-loader for small game should be between .32 and .36 caliber, with the smaller caliber probably more common. A .32 is fine for squirrels and rabbits while the larger .36 is more effective on raccoons, groundhogs, or coyotes. Neither would be advisable—and probably not legal—for deer or bear. While I don’t doubt a .36 would kill a feral hog with a good shot, I’d want something bigger in case it didn’t kill him fast enough to prevent a charge!
Using a muzzle-loader for hunting requires a few bits of kit, most of which are applicable to both rifles and shotguns. Some of these are shown here, although in truth the variety of gadgets available is endless.
But really, what you need most is the right mindset. Any muzzle-loading firearm requires a different way of thinking than does a breechloader: you need complete knowledge of your rifle or shotgun, what it “likes” and “dislikes,” and what its idiosyncrasies are. With a double gun—there are double rifles as well as double shotguns—there's a special risk: that of getting mixed up in the loading sequence and double charging a single barrel. This is NOT good. Standard practice is to keep the ramrod in the barrel that's not being loaded, to prevent double-charging. One further precaution is wise, especially with a shotgun: the recoil of one barrel may jar the load in the second one a bit and loosen it. Before re-loading a fired barrel, be sure the load in the un-fired one is firmly seated, too!
The perceived drawback of slow reloading is just that. In fact, knowing you usually have only one opportunity will make you a better, more careful hunter. It encourages fire discipline and the willingness to wait for the perfect opportunity. All this may perhaps translate into fewer shots fired but a higher success rate for those you choose to take.
The preferred projectile in .32 and .36 calibers is a round ball rather than a conical bullet. A .32 caliber round ball weighs 45 grains; the .36 ball weighs 65 grains, comparable to bullets used in cartridge rifles. Round balls can be exceptionally accurate and they perform well on small game, so there’s no real advantage to a conical bullet. Furthermore, the makers of the replicas expect round balls to be used so they use slow rates of rifling twist. Most of the commercial replicas are made in Spain, but some of very high quality are produced in Italy. Balls and powder are readily available through catalog supply houses and sporting goods stores. The small charges of black powder used (a .32 will use about 20 grains of FFFg powder per shot; a .36 perhaps 30 grains) provide a lot of fun and fine shooting at low cost.
Accuracy matters when hunting small animals, so how accurate are small caliber muzzle-loaders? Quite adequately so: in the hands of a competent marksman, a good one (the mass production guns included) is easily capable of shooting 5-shot groups the size of a dime at 25 yards, smaller than a squirrel’s head. Instead of being cut-rifled one groove at a time as in the past, today’s barrels are button rifled or hammer forged, leading to better uniformity, greater accuracy, and reduced production costs. Locks are typically investment cast and/or CNC machined. Often they use coil springs rather than the flat leaf springs, resulting in faster lock time and enhanced durability. Other factors contributing to accuracy are minimal recoil and noise, as well as "set" triggers that provide a very light let-off.
Traditional style guns will have iron sights: only rarely are small caliber sidelock muzzle-loaders even capable of mounting a telescopic sight. This isn’t a big deal: at the short ranges of small game hunts (usually well under 50 yards) iron sights are more than adequate. A peep sight is better than open sights, and some companies offer after-market peep sights that can easily be installed.
Don’t forget muzzle-loading shotguns as another option. The resurgence of muzzle-loading rifles for sporting use has created a smaller but significant revival of interest in muzzle-loading shotguns. World-wide, shotguns are far more commonly used on game than rifles. The Colonial militiaman’s musket was a smoothbore that could easily fire either ball or shot, and functionally it wasn’t much different from a better-heeled settler’s “fowling piece.” The inherent flexibility of shotguns suits them for any kind of game, large or small, furred or feathered.
Old fowlers, especially flintlocks, are almost always single shot guns. Although double-barreled flintlock fowling pieces were made, they were very uncommon, thanks to the expense of manufacture, plus the fact that carving away enough wood for two locks rendered the stock relatively very fragile. “Shooting flying” well with a flintlock takes practice, thanks to the long lock time.
Don't shoot an original gun. It will have a “Damascus” barrel, which by virtue of its method of manufacture is prone to developing invisible weak spots that can cause a rupture. Hang it on the wall and admire it. A new replica will cost you less than the co-pay for getting your fingers sewn back in place. The replicas are far stronger and most of them are capable of handling the non-toxic shot required in many localities.
Once percussion ignition—which is much faster than flintlock—came into general use, shots at moving or flying game were easier to make, and became accepted practice. So far as I’m aware, no current manufacturer offers a double barreled flintlock shotgun, but percussion doubles are easily found on the open market, including elegant reproductions in 20, 12, and even 10 gauge.
Virtually all factory-made muzzle-loading shotguns use the small #11 cap. Because the nipple is screwed into the barrel directly and not into a bolster, the cap’s flash has a direct path to the breech and doesn't have to turn a corner. These guns are very much less likely to misfire than a flintlock.
In the field the hunter “handloads” his gun, carrying powder, wads, and shot separately: he can adjust powder charge and shot weight on the spot, giving him the flexibility to tailor his charge to the needs of the moment. This makes up in large measure for slower reloading. A muzzle-loading shotgun is easier to load than a rifle because the barrel is smooth and there is no need for a cloth patch.
Gauge nomenclature in muzzle-loading shotguns is identical to that of breech-loaders. While all manufacturers who produce muzzle-loading shotguns make a 12-gauge, some make a 20-gauge, and one or two make 10-gauge guns. The 16 gauge is quite rare, and so far as I’ve been able tell, no .410 bore muzzle-loading shotgun is manufactured today.
Even now, a century and a half into the breechloading era, markings found on fixed shotgun ammunition reflect black powder convention in the use of the term “dram equivalent.” This practice comes from a time when bulky black powder was measured by volume, not weight: a powder scale is impractical to carry into the field, but a volumetric powder measure isn’t.
A dram of black powder is roughly equal to 27.3 grains avoirdupois, depending on density and granulation of the powder used. Sportsmen were familiar with how many drams of their favorite brand of powder produced what level of performance, and as the transition to smokeless powder took hold, factories marked shells as “Drams Equivalent” so that their customers would know what to expect. A shell loaded with smokeless powder and marked “2-1/2 Drams Equivalent” of smokeless powder has the same general performance level as one loaded with 68.25 grains of black powder. Anyone hunting with a muzzle-loading shotgun needs to be familiar with this system.
Most authors advise using a "square" load, i.e., one in which the volume of powder is equal to the volume of shot. But because volumetric measurements are less precise and less repeatable than gravimetric ones, I prefer to weigh out and pre-measure my charges at home, carrying them with me in my possibles bag.
Another consideration is the matter of choke. Some modern black powder shotguns are cylinder bored, some are choked, and at least one brand of gun uses screw-in choke tubes. Choke becomes an issue when it’s too tight, because it hampers insertion and ramming of the wads. It can be nearly impossible to insert a wad through a FULL choke, but if the gun has removable tubes, the tube can be removed, the gun loaded and the tube (carefully) screwed back in.
With fiber wadding, you can expect somewhat looser patterns and slightly reduced effective range compared to breechloaders with plastic shells using shot cups. But in terms of the energy of the pellets themselves, that depends on their velocity, and the velocity depends on the powder charge. A lead pellet propelled by black powder at X feet per second has exactly the same energy as one propelled at that same velocity by smokeless powder, and will be just as effective, all other things being equal.
If you want to try this alternative hunting method, you need some basic kit besides the gun. The variety of gadgets and widgets is endless, but there are some basics: caps, bullets or shot, wads or patches; cleaning equipment, and a powder measure at a minimum. The manufacturer’s manual will provide valuable information on optimum loads and handling safety: any number of good after-market books can be found that will give guidance in depth.
If the gun is a flintlock, a few spare flints and a couple of tools for setting the flint in place are important. For a percussion gun, some caps. For a shotgun, pre-measured powder and shot charges make things a great deal more convenient; and a supply of the various types of wads will be needed as well. Everything you need can be carried in a “possibles” bag.
This charming portrait in the Belvedere Museum in Vienna, titled Joseph Strommer as a Hunter shows a typical rig for the mid-19th Century sport hunter. With the possible exception of the rather flamboyant hat Herr Strommer is wearing, a modern day muzzle-loading shotgunner can easily duplicate all the items of his equipment with new-production equivalents. His gun is a double-barrel with outside hammers. Over his right shoulder he has slung a “shot snake,” a long leather tube containing shot, equipped with a built-in measuring spout that hangs next to his left hip. The spout lets him select however much shot he wants. From his right shoulder hangs a bottle-shaped powder flask of copper or leather, with a similar adjustable dispenser. In his pockets or in the “possibles bag” peeping out from behind his right hip, he will have a capper, plus as many wads of several types as he thinks he needs for the day’s shoot. A ramrod is slipped through thimbles under and between the gun’s barrels. He’s ready for anything.
In the final analysis, hunting is hunting. If you’re beginning to think that, “sometimes it’s too easy,” and are ready to play by a different set of rules, try doing things the way the “Old Timers” of the frontier era did them. It will bring you not only much satisfaction, but perhaps a better understanding of the world in which they lived, and how they dealt with it.