Blacktails by Blackpowder

Hunters have always been known for a willingness to take on a difficult challenge. What else would explain their desire to hunt a demanding species with such a limited firearm as a muzzleloader?

Photo by Chuck & Grace Bartlett

by T.A. Tatterson IV

We deer hunters feel lucky to get a shot off during that all-too-brief time on the calendar we call deer season. We poke through the woods, hide in the trees or on rock outcroppings and restlessly wait for just one opportunity to fill the freezer with protein-enriched meat each fall. Most of us use centerfire rifles that are finely tuned to shoot tight groups on a paper plate at 250 yards, and yet relatively few actually get to squeeze the trigger at a legal deer.

Most of us return home empty-handed from deer season but smelling of campfire nonetheless. I know. My ex-wife told me it takes exactly 12.6 days for that smoky aroma to finally leave the house.

And while we commiserate over the could-have-beens of fall, there are those who have abandoned this annual frustration for the promise of greener pastures. No, they haven't left the hunting world. They found a new wrinkle for hunting deer: blackpowder rifles.

We must ask ourselves why contemporary hunters have taken blackpowder hunting so thoroughly to heart. While not every one of us yearns for his one shot of the year to be accompanied by a cloud of smoke, hunters have been known to sidle up to a challenge, limiting themselves in unbelievable ways. A single shot of less than 100 yards in a short season at a quarry made wary by other hunters who came before you just adds to the mix of fun. Muzzleloading adds to this challenge in the same way that flyfishermen choose their specialty over bait-fishing, and yes, as with fly-fishing, the cost of such an avocation could go as high as the sport's interest. These guns range from a $100 kit for a build-your-own model to custom-made blackpowder rifles that sell for many thousands of dollars and could just as easily be considered art as it is a working deer rifle.

What's more is that they are having success in doing it while chasing our darling deer of the West Coast: blacktails.

The blacktail's range extends from Alaska to south-central California. They can spend their entire lives moving unseen and unheard through the thick brush, old-growth timber and thorny tangles of the Pacific Coast rain forests just as easily as they can in the thick understory of scrub oak farther to the south.

Blacktail hunting requires as much or more skill, patience and hard work as any North American deer. The subspecies of blacktail found in the lower 48 is the Columbia blacktail (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus), which behaves more like our country's southern white-tailed deer than mulies, on account of both the thick cover they prefer and their nocturnal nature.

During the early season it's best to glass for blacktails in open meadow pockets and visible trails at first light and again at dusk until it's too dark to see. And glassing across canyons into thick cover also works well, especially for spotting bedded deer at midday. As pressure has mounted for more road closures in blacktail habitat, we've even seen the numbers of road hunters shrink. And with the disappearance of four-wheel-drive pickups and military-style jeeps has emerged a new breed of West Coast deer hunter who resorts to identifying trails and bedding thickets and either sitting at a vantage point nearby or setting up a tree stand.

Still-hunting, perhaps forever the most popular method of hunting blacktails, lends itself aplenty to this relatively newfound idea of blackpowder deer hunting. When the rains of fall finally come to blacktail country, the dampened forest floor and fall of deciduous leaves opens up the forest to give a slight advantage back to short-range aficionados. It's the one time of the year, with snow at higher elevations, that blacktails act more like their mule deer relatives and migrate from summer to winter ground. Bad weather is good weather for blacktail hunters!

Of course, there are blacktails that live at lower elevations throughout the year. These have relatively small home ranges, and the biggest bucks are famous for letting hunters walk right past them.

There are several different types of blackpowder firearms out there, ranging from the modern in-line systems to the flintlocks of Daniel Boone's era. Just about every state regulates these different types of firearms in their applications for deer hunting, so be sure to check regulations before making a decision to purchase a new blackpowder rifle and certainly before hunting with one.

An in-line ignition refers to a system in which a plunger-type hammer strikes a nipple centered at the rear of the breech plug. An in-line ignition is quick and reliable because the fire from the cap travels a straight short distance into the powder charge rather than bouncing around a corner as it does in a side hammer design. In all other respects, an in-line rifle loads and shoots identically to a traditional side hammer percussion muzzleloader.

There is nothing new about an in-line rifle. Some flintlocks used in-line ignitions as far back as the 1700s, although the lack of sufficiently powerful springs to drive the in-line hammers probably kept them from supplanting side-hammer rifles. In the early 1970s and 1980s a couple of rifles, most notably the Michigan Arms Wolverine, featured an in-line ignition. The Wolverine, however, had a long, heavy octagonal barrel and never caught on with shooters.

Tony Knight, a gunsmith from rural Lancaster, Mo., designed and built his modern in-line blackpowder rifle, the MK-85, to meet the needs of a group of westward-bound hunters, much as its predecessors, the Kentucky rifle and the Hawken, had done.

In the late 1970s, some farmers from Lancaster began traveling to Colorado to hunt elk in the recently established early blackpowder seasons.

These hunters had no particular interest in shooting elk with a traditional muzzleloader, but Colorado's rifle deer seasons generally coincided with harvest time back home. The only way they were going to hunt elk in Colorado and be home for the corn harvest required them to sign up for Colorado's blackpowder season.

And there's where the fun began. The novice blackpowder shooters had trouble making their rifles go off. They found, too, that a 9-pound rifle with a 30- or 40-inch barrel was hardly an ideal piece to lug through black timber in thin mountain air.

They took their complaints to the local gunsmith, Tony Knight, who ran a small shop in his garage on the family farm where he built custom rifles on Remington 600 actions. With no muzzleloading background to shape his thinking, Knight approached the problem by building a blackpowder rifle from a hunter's perspective, tradition notwithstanding.

The fact that long, heavy octagonal barrels were traditional meant nothing to Knight; in his mind, hunting rifles had tapered 22-inch barrels. In 1983 he carved a stock from a piece of walnut cut from a tree on his farm and added a Numrich Arms barrel, Remington sights and a handmade trigger to make his first in-line rifle.

Knight's rifle set the pattern for a slew of modern in-lines. They look and handle like modern turn-bolts, with receivers that are drilled and tapped for scopes, and triggers that can be adjusted. A removable breech plug simplified cleaning and allowed hunters to push an unfired charge out the breech instead of having to fire the r

ifle or pulling the ball back out of the barrel to unload it. Knight's tinkering inspired a raft of in-line competitors: the White 91, Thompson/Center's Thunderhawk, CVA's Apollo and many others, including the new Remington 700. And business is booming.

Shooting an in-line rifle - no matter how modern it may look - still means single-shot, front-loading, no-mistakes hunting. An in-line hunter accepts the same challenge of placing one well-aimed shot at relatively close range. Granted, a properly loaded, scoped in-line enjoys a big advantage in effective range over an iron-sighted rifle shooting round-balls. In a sense, the in-line rifle is to blackpowder what the compound bow is to archery: easier to shoot and harder-hitting than traditional gear, yet subject to the same underlying limitations.

The in-line rifle has attracted thousands of new hunters to blackpowder shooting in the '80s and '90s, just as wheeled bows fueled the archery boom in the '70s. And like the compound, the in-line draws its share of criticism from traditionalists who hold the improvements in disdain and who decry the influx of hunters into their beloved special seasons.

But with Knight rifles selling in discount chains and Remington's introduction of the Model 700, it should be obvious to all but the most buffalo-hidebound latter-day mountain man that the in-line is here to stay.

A few years ago, at the Modern Muzzleloading factory in Centerville, Iowa, Knight hung a 6-inch steel plate target 150 yards downrange and invited local blackpowder hunters to bring their slug guns for a shoot-out. While the slug shooters endured their shotgun's hurtful recoil and tried unsuccessfully to estimate the rainbow arc of slugs at long range, shooters with in-lines rang the plate time after time with no such projections. When the smoke cleared, Knight had convinced a majority of them to convert.

Almost every state now allows in-line rifles during their blackpowder seasons. Currently, about half of the 50 states allow scopes on muzzleloaders, and only a handful continue to restrict the use of projectiles other than the traditional round ball. While in-line rifles can shoot round balls where required by law, they perform beautifully with the conical or saboted projectiles developed over the last few years. To better stabilize these new bullets, most in-lines feature fast rifling twist of around 1 in 28-inch instead of the traditional 1 in 66-inch twist that works best for patched round balls.

The flintlock is considered by some to be the spiritual foundation of hunting in America. It wasn't the earliest American gun, or even the best of its age, but the flintlock won wars that helped characterize this country. The flintlock has been refined for over 200 years and is a gun of grace, craftsmanship and accuracy - the quintessential American gun of all times. A flintlock, which was once called a firelock and is more often called a "flinch-lock" today, is one of those unique pieces of engineering that has existed long enough to reach a state of near perfection. Understand the subtleties of the lock, and fewer misfires or hang fires will haunt you.

This is how the flintlock works: Upon pulling the trigger the hammer swings forward and the hard, sharp flint scrapes against the "frizzen," cutting off minute particles of steel. This cutting action and the impact of the flint on steel is converted to heat, through friction, which is transmitted to the metal particles, causing them to oxidize and release even more heat. This shower of sparks ignites a small amount of powder in a pan, which erupts in sparks; some of these sparks make their way through the touch hole to ignite the main powder charge.

The fall of the flint accomplishes two things. It tips the frizzen forward to expose the priming powder, and it simultaneously ignites that charge. The timing of this compound action is critical to the success of the flintlock. While a gunsmith can file and fiddle to enhance this synchronization, the average flintlock shooter is better off making this dance of flint on steel as efficient as possible.

Good flint is critical to ignition, and experienced shooters know to select a flint that is only as wide as the face of the frizzen. It is then sandwiched into a piece of soft leather and clamped in the jaws of the hammer. The flint should not be large enough to touch the frizzen when the hammer is at half cock, and not so small that it allows the top jaw of the hammer or the screw to hit the frizzen when the hammer falls.

After every five or six shots, check the flint and tighten the jaws if the flint has shifted. After 20 shots, flip the flint and dry-fire the gun. This should knap the edge. Now reverse the flint again and see if the lock sparks more efficiently. If it doesn't, replace the flint.

Two kinds of powder are available to the muzzleloader hunter, black powder and Pyrodex. Black powder burns quicker and hotter; however, it can be unstable and is more of a hazard to store and use. Pyrodex comes in either powder or pellets, with the latter in 50- and 60-grain sizes. These "pellets" allow the hunter to quickly reload a muzzleloader in the field, but more importantly will provide consistent powder loads, thus improving the hunter's accuracy. Hunters need to consult their state's regulations to ensure that the pellets are legal.

Nothing will compromise a muzzleloader hunt more quickly than moisture in your powder. Whether it is fog, dew, rain, snow or just bringing your rifle in from the field to a warm environment, moisture causes misfires.

Try this: Take a sandwich bag and pull it apart, lay it over the primer and with two rubber bands fix it to the rifle by crisscrossing them. There are precut rubber snubbers that can be slipped over the primer and nipple that can prevent moisture from entering. You can also take the same sandwich bags and put them over the end of your gun. Again, fix the bag to the gun with a rubber band just inside the front sight. Some folks use duct tape in the same fashion over the primer area to keep the elements out. Just remember, nothing is completely foolproof.

A few more little gems:

Carry a second ramrod. One year a friend broke off his rod attempting to reload his gun after missing a blacktail. Talk about a one-shot wonder: He wondered if another shot would have killed the confused albeit healthy deer.

With iron sights, you won't be able to hunt in those deep woods at first light; you just can't see the sights. The sights can be enhanced with fiber optics (if your state allows it) or you can paint dots on your sights.

Hunters must remember to clean their guns immediately after use. Pyrodex and especially black powder will pit and corrode the gun much quicker than modern powders. There's also a lot of residue that will make successive reloads difficult and impact accuracy.

Practice is essential. Unlike a modern firearm in which a cartridge is placed into the gun and a trigger squeezed, the muzzleloader hunter must measure each load of powder, put a bullet in

the barrel and then put a cap on, or put powder in the pan if it is a flintlock. The powder is not measured by a machine but by a person, and the bullets have some variability to them and are not always seated in the same exact place in the barrel. All of these things impact accuracy. It is important to practice the procedure many times before going to the field.

After getting the muzzleloader sighted in using a bench rest, try some shots from a free-standing position and see how you shoot, especially at greater distances. It does make a lot of difference for the average hunter and will also give the hunter some idea of the range at which they can accurately expect to shoot in field conditions.

After you have found the powder and bullet you want to use, put a mark on the ramrod so you'll know that a bullet is seated all the way down the barrel; otherwise, you may end up with a delayed fire and probably a missed shot.

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