Muzzleloading Your Gobbler

Using a muzzleloading shotgun or even a rifle can add a new angle to your turkey hunting. Here's what you need to know, and a few places to practice the sport. (April 2006)

Hopefully expectant, I sat behind the cut-pine branches at the edge of my food plot, watching the turkey decoys revolve in the light breeze. Clutched in my hands was a 12-gauge muzzleloading double-barreled shotgun waiting to be used on one of the toms that sometimes patrolled the field's edges. This antique-pattern double was one of the modern reproductions that allow today's shooters to experience the challenges and thrills of yesteryear's hunting techniques.

Georgia law permits replica muzzleloading shotguns and rifles to be use to harvest turkeys, but muzzleloading handguns are not allowed. These modern muzzleloaders provide effective alternatives to old originals of doubtful strength and condition. Replica guns can still capture the spirit of hunts of centuries past, when blackpowder muzzleloaders ruled the hunting world. These guns may range from flintlock rifles and fowlers to scope-sighted in-line muzzleloaders that look like cartridge guns. The option of using a scope permits some older hunters to continue to participate in this exciting sport.

Not just any combination of black powder, shot or ball rammed down the bore of a muzzleloading gun will kill turkeys. Careful load development is necessary to come up with a charge that is sufficiently accurate -- and powerful -- to slay turkeys at the desired range. In addition, patience is needed to let the toms get close enough for a shot. I needed to wait until a turkey approached within the 25-yard sure-kill range of my double-barrel before I could pull the trigger.

One hundred yards away, two toms came into the field. I yelped with my box call, but they seemed not to hear. Although getting closer, they were intent on strutting rather than coming towards me. In a few seconds, I would try again.

I had used that double to take geese, ducks and deer in the U.S., as well as guinea fowl and a blue wildebeest in Africa. The waterfowl had been shot with the required non-toxic bismuth or steel shot, and the big game with a patched round ball. The lack of a choke allowed this dual-purpose use. The unchoked barrels restricted the effective range of the shot, even when loaded with plastic wads and hard HeviShot No. 4 pellets. Previous shooting confirmed that I could get tighter patterns out of the left barrel and better groups with round balls from the right.

Patterning also revealed that the best turkey load for the right barrel was 100 grains of FFg black powder and 1 1/4-ounce of copper-plated lead No. 4s loaded in a red Winchester AA wad designed for 1 1/4-ounces of shot and CCI Magnum No. 11 caps. This load would reliably put eight No. 4s in the head and neck of a turkey target at 25 yards. Accepting the challenge of using this gun meant that I would have to get the birds in close or not shoot.

I called again, louder. This time one of the toms spotted the decoys. Accelerating their approach, the birds came straight for me. I silently cocked the left hammer by pulling back the rear trigger and hammer simultaneously and then lowering the hammer down to catch the full-cock notch. Slowly moving the barrel, I raised the gun's muzzle above the top layer of pine branches and pointed the gun at my decoys 20 yards away.

Slowing, the toms went into strut and approached the decoys. They were almost close enough, but the wide shot pattern would hit them both. I had to wait until one turned to offer a clear shot. Finally stepping slightly to one side, the closest bird was well exposed. Aiming at the bird's head, I pulled the trigger, and a billow of smoke erupted from the gun. Before I could see the turkey, I heard the sounds of wings beating on the ground. I had my blackpowder turkey and had experienced the flavor of hunting from a simpler time when every act of loading and shooting was done by the hunter.

PICKING YOUR PRIMITIVE

Flintlock rifles and fowlers of authentic patterns are available from a variety of importers. Among the better commercial guns are Pedersoli's Pennsylvania and Kentucky rifles that have enough fancy work to be attractive at much less than the $3,000 to $4,000 price of a custom-made flinter. A fast, sure-fire lock is vital to a flintlock. L&R Lock from Sumter, South Carolina, makes replacement locks for Thompson/Center, Lyman and others that considerably improve lock speed, flint life and functionality. These locks require a small amount of inletting to fit the guns.

Although .32- and .36-caliber rifles are typically recommended for turkey hunting, .45- and .50-caliber guns may also be used. I have taken turkeys with all of these, as well as with a .54-caliber round-ball gun. None of these low-velocity projectiles "blew the turkey up," or spoiled significant amounts of meat.

In all of these guns, I use one load for everything. A load of 20 grains of FFFg with patched round balls usually gives excellent results on both turkeys and squirrels in .32- and .36-caliber guns. In .45- to .54-calibers, I load from 85 to 110 grains of FFg for patched round-ball turkey and deer loads. Accuracy is more important than power, and different combinations are required for each gun.

I also purchased a .45-caliber Navy Arms Company Kentucky flintlock rifle to be used on turkeys and deer. A good-shooting load eluded me, until I ultimately found an accurate load consisting of 85 grains of FFg, 30 grains by volume of Cream of Wheat followed by a patched round ball. I won some local matches with this gun, and also took five squirrels with as many shots.

To prepare the gun for turkey hunting, I covered the shiny brass inlays and wood with a camouflage gun sleeve and cut a hole to allow free functioning of the lock. I sighted in this rifle to hit the point of aim at 50 yards. If I allowed for 3 inches of drop, it would still stay on a full-bodied turkey target at 75 yards.

Although capable and used for hunting during several seasons, this particular gun has yet to shoot a turkey.

A flintlock that I have used is a Lyman Deerslayer with a replacement L&R lock. This is a .50-caliber rifle and was loaded with 85 grains of FFg and a patched round ball. It was unusual in that I had a Lyman peep sight installed on the rifle for more precise aiming.

On one hunt, a turkey was coming up the steep-sided valley to the small bench where I was set up. I could hear him gobble and the crunch, crunch of the leaves as it approached. When it broke over the crest at about 40 yards, I aimed at the center of his chest and fired the Deerslayer. To my surprise, the bird flew.

When I examined the ground, I found chest feathers where the ball hit and cut wing feathers. As the tom strutted, it had turned slightly with

each step. The ball hit breast meat and cut some wing feathers as it exited, but had not penetrated the bird's organs.

While I was looking for this turkey, it suddenly busted out of a tall pine and flew deep into the nearby swamp. This episode taught me to take shots with rifles only at broadside birds or shoot for their neck or head.

I cannot recommend a flintlock rifle or shotgun for anyone's first muzzleloader. The guns require exacting preparation to load and shoot. On the other hand, almost any percussion rifle or shotgun, even the low-priced versions, shoot tolerably well right out of the box.

PRIMITIVE, BUT USER-FRIENDLY

The percussion system using metallic caps was designed to provide a more reliable and faster method of igniting black powder in muzzleloading guns. Using either CCI Magnum No. 11 percussion or Musket Caps with appropriate-size nipples promotes sure-fire ignition. One inexpensive percussion rifle is the .32-caliber version of the Traditions' Deerhunter, which retails at a little over $200. This gun, with its heavy barrel, has the balance of a target .22 L.R., and the punch of a .32-20 rifle. It is equally effective on turkeys and squirrels.

If price is an important consideration in selecting a muzzleloading rifle that will do double-duty as a turkey and deer rifle, Connecticut Valley Arm's synthetic-stocked .50-caliber Bobcat at less than $70 is a good candidate. This gun is no longer cataloged, but some are still available in stores at close-out prices.

Tradition's .50-Caliber Deerhunters are still in production. These inexpensive guns are lightweight and consequently, uncomfortable to shoot with heavy charges. About 85 grains of FFg, or 75 grains of Tripple Seven, is a good load for these guns with a patched round ball.

Thirty years ago, the .45-caliber muzzleloading Hawken-style guns were very popular. As these guns are being replaced by the more effective .50-caliber rifles, more .45s are now appearing on the used-gun market. These guns were, and are, some of the best rifles ever designed for off-hand shooting. The Hawkens are accurate, stable to shoot and can nail a turkey at up to 50 yards. If you have one that belonged to your father or has been replaced by the latest scope-sighted wiz-bang, the old Hawken is an ideal candidate for a turkey-hunting rifle.

Shotgunners have their choice of choked or unchoked doubles. Although not commonly seen in retail stores, they are available from several catalog-sales outlets. blackpowder guns may be ordered by mail and delivered to your home in Georgia. Most suppliers offer a shotgun package complete with powder flask, shot measure, shot pouch, wads and other accessories. This one-stop-shopping assures that you have the proper accessories and wads for your gun.

Smoothbore muskets in .14-gauge (.69 caliber) and 11-gauge (.75 caliber) may also be employed for turkey hunting using 16-gauge and 12-gauge plastic wads over the top of 14- and 11-gauge card wads and a 30-grain buffer of Cream of Wheat. The 14-gauge with 1 1/8-ounce loads is effective at 20 yards, while the 11-gauge with 1 1/4-ounce loads extends the killing range another 5 to 7 yards.

MODERN MUZZLELOADERS

Conventional wisdom has it that muzzleloading rifles with fast-twist 1:28 to 1:22 barrels do not shoot patched round balls very well. Not true, as my turkey hunting experience has shown. The trick is to load them down to levels where the patches are not torn up. Typically, loads of about 55 grains of FFg and a patched round ball are about right in .45- and .50-caliber guns. These low-velocity loads shoot very accurately out to 75 yards and are effective on turkeys.

I developed this concept with a fast-twist .45-caliber Markesbery rifle. My hunt plan was to blind up on one side of a small pond and take a turkey when it came to water 80 yards away. The first part of the plan worked. The turkeys came. When I rose to shoot, they saw me and spooked. I quickly selected one, placed the scope's crosshairs on the center of its body and shot. After the smoke cleared, I found that I had practiced yet another version of "catch-and-release" turkey hunting. The ball had passed in the front of the turkey's chest, cut off his beard, but left him otherwise unscathed. The concept worked, but my execution was faulty.

Knight's TK-2000 muzzleloader stands as the most efficient muzzleloading shotgun ever designed. This striker-fired, in-line, 209-primer-fired shotgun will shoot up to 2 1/4-ounces of shot, although with considerable recoil. The shotgun is easy to disassemble and clean and may be downloaded for occasions when less than maximum charges are desired. Heavy charges require that an adjustable sight, scope or red-dot sight be used to reconcile the strike of the shot with the point of aim. For normal game shooting, the adjustable rear sight may be removed, and the shotgun shoots to the point of aim with 1 1/4-ounces of shot. The last TK-2000s were produced in 2003.

Many of the newly announced muzzleloading shotguns are drop-barreled guns that resemble single-barreled cartridge shotguns. Among these are Thompson/Center Arms' Encore Turkey gun with a 24-inch barrel, and the CVA Optima Pro with a 26-inch tube. The longer barrel of the Optima Pro makes it much more comfortable to shoot and provides better balance.

Whatever muzzleloading rifle or shotgun you purchase, the secret to success is spending time to develop an accurate load that hits to the point of aim. muzzleloading shotguns are often made for only a year, or a few years. If you see one you like, buy it. Use your new muzzleloading turkey gun only after you can take the time to develop a good load. Otherwise, put it in the closet. When your homework is done and all is right, then bust a turkey with your blackpowder gun.

WHERE TO GO

The Oconee, Clybel and Dukes Creek Wildlife Management Areas offer quota hunts for turkeys. The limited access provides a fine opportunity to try for a blackpowder gobbler, and the rolling country generally provides sufficient hilly topography for safe shooting with a blackpowder rifle. As always, make sure of your target and that you have an adequate backstop.

For those strong of limb and lung, the Cohutta and Coopers Creek WMAs provide enough room for a primitive turkey-hunting experience while backpacking through the Chattahoochee National Forest. Keep in mind that some areas may restrict the use of blackpowder rifles. Always check local regulations before heading out for the hunt.

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