Blackpowder Bushytails: Tips and Tactics

It takes stalking skills to find -- and shooting expertise to hit -- a treetop squirrel with a blackpowder arm. But as our expert explains, it can be done! (October 2007)

Squirrels provide the perfect target for blackpowder hunters, who must hone their stalking and shooting skills to succeed.
Photo by Steve Carpenteri.

Many hunters dismiss squirrel hunting as "too easy." But try it with blackpowder handguns or rifles, and you'll change your mind!

Dave Meredith, a long-time aficionado of muzzleloading firearms, fired his first blackpowder rifle at the age of 8. Now, 58 years later, he still hasn't lost his zeal for the sport.

Meredith's infatuation with blackpowder arms began on a visit to a national battlefield museum when he saw his first muzzleloader.

One Saturday, his father and the museum guide -- who was a family friend -- decided to take young Dave out with an original Kentucky rifle, load 'em up and knock 'em down.

"Well, it did," says Meredith. "And I got up and said, 'I want to do it again!' "

Meredith has been lucky, being able to combine his passion with his profession by serving as a customer service and public relations for a major blackpowder arms manufacturer for some 14 years.

He enjoys working with the powder and the guns. But he said the best part of his job is getting to shoot.

WHY SQUIRRELS?

Why hunt squirrels with black powder? According to Meredith, hunters who choose blackpowder arms are a different breed. They're not out just to shoot their limit of squirrels, but enjoy experiencing what it was like for their great-great-grandfathers to hunt with primitive arms decades ago.

There are no special seasons designated for small-game muzzleloader hunting. So those targeting squirrels with black powder do it for the fun of it. (Continued)

Of course, blackpowder firearms will also make you a better hunter. You only get one shot, which means you have to make it count. Handling the shot better and learning to sneak up more efficiently on the prey is critical. While you don't surrender up accuracy so much with blackpowder hunting, you do lose velocity in comparison to modern weapons. So getting closer to the prey is important.

According to Meredith, blackpowder shotguns are the most fun and perhaps the easiest for squirrel.

He does recommend plenty of practice. Take your weapon to the range and get a feel for it before heading out to the woods. On the range, Meredith patterns his shotgun at about 65 yards. Of course, for smaller prey such as bushytails, it takes only a pellet or two to knock one down, so the distance of the shot can be greater and the pattern broader. Taking a squirrel at a distance of 30 to 40 yards is reasonable.

The easy part to loading blackpowder shotguns is that the amount of powder is always equal to the volume of shot. The recommended amount for a squirrel is one ounce each of powder and shot. Meredith says that No. 5 shot will do fine. To that fact, however, he adds that the beauty of hunting with black powder is that you can mix the size of your shot, as long as its total volume remains the same.

Of course, hunting with blackpowder firearms will also make you a better hunter. You only get one shot, which means you have to make it count.

Looking for a challenge? You may want to try taking a squirrel with a blackpowder rifle. If you can get your hands on a .32 cal., that's a fun way to hunt the bushytails. The smaller .32 cal. rifles are tougher to find, and many manufacturers have discontinued them due to less demand.

If you're a good shot and can hit the squirrel in the head, try a .45 cal. Otherwise, you may well demolish the meat. Our ancestors used a .40 cal. muzzleloader. In those days, it was a versatile weapon that could be used for small game and birds, turkey and even deer.

But generally, blackpowder pistols aren't a practical choice for squirrels. Their barrels are short, and they don't come in small calibers. A .45 is usually the smallest. For the woodsman who's an excellent shot, a blackpowder revolver would be great fun!

A .36 caliber would do the trick. But again, it would demand a great shot and definitely add a greater challenge to the sport.

For the hunter who's just starting out or is thinking of making the switch to black powder, Meredith advises buying a shotgun that has an interchangeable barrel system. For small game, he recommends the BPI Optima Pro shotgun. If the hunter decides that he wants to pursue other game such as deer, then he needs to purchase only the rifle barrel in either .45 or .55 caliber. This is an effective way to test the sport without spending a great deal of money.

Another feature of blackpowder hunting is the cloud of smoke that results from firing the gun. Most of us are used to seeing our target when we hit it. With a cloud of black smoke in the air, that can be difficult.

When firing a muzzleloader, Meredith says that we need to learn to look under the smoke. Smoke will rise, so the shooter needs to look beneath it.

"Don't look at where you shot, but where you expect the squirrel to fall," says Meredith. And use your ears! You'll know the squirrel was hit when you hear it hit the ground.

Also, that cloud of smoke you see means that you need to clean blackpowder weapons much more frequently than their modern counterparts. They do need to be cleaned after every use before you store them.

All powders, whether real black powders or the synthetic versions that produce less smoke, are corrosive to some degree. You should clean the barrel inside and out.

And with the proper cleaning accessories that each manufacturer recommends, it is easier than ever.

Blackpowder hunting is for those who are ready for a greater challenge. But it's also for those who just want to experience the hunt as our forefathers did. You don't need to be an expert hunter to make the switch to black powder.

More importantly, if you use blackpowder weapons and learn to overcome the challenges presented by this traditional way of hunting, you'll become a better hunter as a result.

The entire process is rewarding, and bagging a squirrel in the course

of the hunt just adds to your reward.

For more information on blackpowder firearms and hunting, or to obtain an instructional video, visit Connecticut Valley Arms website at www.cva.com.

Or call their customer service department at (770) 449-4687.

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