Black-Powder Bushytails

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Published on: Sep. 2, 1997

Last revision: Oct. 27, 2010

The hunter blinked awake and lifted his chin slowly from his homespun-clad chest. The hollow where he sat had been black as the inside of a powder flask when he nodded off. Now it was light enough to see his hands cradling a rifle with an octagonal barrel. He checked the curved hammer and found it was still clamped tightly on a leather patch, sealing the powder charge against moisture.

In his sleep, the hunter had dreamed of gentle rain. It wasn't raining, but he could still hear a gentle patter from the treetops. As day dawned, so did the realization that nutshell fragments were raining down from the treetops. The grove was alive with feeding squirrels.

Behind him, he heard the staccato rattle of a squirrel bounding through dry leaves. The sound was coming nearer. The hunter cringed as he heard the squirrel's claws on the tree bark behind him, then relaxed as he heard it scramble straight up the trunk.

The squirrel took up a sentinel perch a scant 15 yards from the hunter and began stripping away a hickory nut's green hull. The hunter already had his rifle up, and before the squirrel had the first quarter of hull off, the rifle barked two distinct syllables, "pah-wham!" Out of the blue smoke fell a limp squirrel. The hunter reached for his ramrod to reload, then thought better of it and rose to pick up the squirrel. After hefting it, he decided one was enough and headed home for breakfast.

It sounds like a scene from Missouri's frontier days, but this played out in October 1995 at Painted Rock Conservation Area in Osage County. The hunter was me. I had found a way to do the impossible -- make squirrel hunting even more fun.

Squirrels have always been among my favorite game animals. They are universally available, challenging to hunt with a rifle and good on the table. The precision of the sport appeals to me, too. Given a well-tuned .22 with a 4X scope, I can drop a squirrel with a shot through the head at 50 yards. No shotgun blast and shower of falling leaves to disturb the forest calm, no damaged meat. Occasionally a clean miss; wounding is rare with a rifle.

I never lost my love of squirrel hunting, but I did get a bit complacent about it. Darned few squirrels that let me get closer than 50 yards lived to learn from their mistake, and I began to take for granted the tack-driving accuracy of my bolt action rifle. I was ripe for conversion, and the evangelist who won me over turned out to be my son.

David has always had a purist streak a mile wide, so when it came time to outfit him for deer hunting, he naturally wanted to go primitive. I didn't want my 15-year-old venturing into black-powder shooting alone, so I bought two soot-burners -- a left-handed .50-cal. for him and a right-handed .54 caliber for me.

Eventually David moved on to a longbow. But by then I was hooked. I found the romance of frontier legends like Jim Bridger and the archaic accouterments of black-powder shooting immensely appealing. But what ultimately proved most seductive was the change that black-powder hunting wrought inside my head.

When I decided to try my hand at black powder and bushytails, I traded one of my a big muzzle-loading rifles (by then I owned four) for a small-caliber carbine. I took it to the shooting range to learn what load provided the best accuracy. I was confident in my ability to "work up" a satisfactory load as I had done with my deer guns.

I had failed, however, to take one factor into account -- size. Not the size of the gun, but of the target. The vital area on a white-tailed deer is roughly 10 inches in diameter. The average squirrel's head, on the other hand, is about 2 inches long and not quite that tall. Finding a combination of powder, bullet and patch that allowed me to hit a dinner plate consistently at 50 yards with my big guns had been no problem. Doing the same thing with a target the size of a walnut turned out to be impossible.

Part of the problem was my sights. Iron sights limit the accuracy of any shooter, especially one who needs bifocal glasses. But much of the appeal of black-powder shooting lies in going back to the way pioneers did things 150 years ago, and I never considered mounting scopes on my muzzleloaders.

Also significant is the limit of muzzle-loading rifles' accuracy. Muzzle loading rifles can't match the accuracy of modern firearms. The variance in powder charge and bullet/bore fit is greater with muzzleloaders, so shot groups from a front-stuffer always will be looser than those from a good bolt-action .22.

I concluded that the only way to make the transition from .22 to muzzleloader without frequent misses and cripples was to change my hunting habits. I would have to limit myself to shots at distances where I knew I could hit the mark. So, before leaving the rifle range, I determined my black-powder squirrel rifle's maximum effective range.

I shot at targets from a bench rest at five-yard increments beginning at 45 yards and working my way closer. I concluded that I should take only shots inside of 20 yards unless I had a secure rest from which to shoot. Even with a good rest, I decided never to shoot at squirrels beyond 30 yards.

Standing at the 20-yard mark with targets in hand, I looked back at the shooting bench. I could have hit it with a ping-pong ball. That's when I realized I was about to become a much better hunter.

Squirrels are not the most wary of game, but I was practically going to have to climb up in the trees with them. No more dropping a limit of bushytails from my comfortable seat in the middle of a 5-acre woodlot. If I was going to make muzzleloader squirrel hunting work, I would have to go to the squirrels or find ways to make them come to me.

My hunting re-education began that summer, when the trees were still thick with foliage. The reduced visibility of the summer woods had always been a handicap in the past, but it was now to my advantage. Not being able to see squirrels until I was practically on top of them was fine, since I couldn't shoot from greater distances anyway. And just as the greenery made the squirrels hard to see, it also hid me from the squirrels.

On my first hunt, I got skunked. (Squirrelled?) I sneaked into a patch of mulberry trees in an Osage River bottom about an hour after dawn and found it full of squirrels, but they were too alert for me to get close. I never even capped my gun.

I did better the next time. Scouting a trail through some upland woods one afternoon, I found a ridge where squirrels had been cutting hickory nuts. The next day, I was there well before first light, waiting for my rodent quarry to make the trip from the ridge's northeast facing slope where most of their den trees were. Sure enough, just after dawn, I heard them coming through the treetops. When the first one paused on a horizontal branch at spitting distance off to my left, I laid the front sight on his head and dropped the hammer.

I wanted to dance a mountain man's jig when that little gray hit the ground. I had bagged my first muzzleloader squirrel! But I had messed up again. By shooting the first squirrel to reach the grove, I had alerted others that were on their way. I heard the sound of their departure through the treetops.

That fall, I finally got things right. A friend told me the squirrels in her back 40 had been driving the family dog crazy. Dozens of squirrels were gathering in a grove of hickory trees early in the morning and late in the evening. They approached through the treetops, leaving the ineffectual canine to run frantically from tree trunk to tree trunk, barking its fool head off.

She agreed to keep the dog in on Saturday afternoon, and I walked into the hickory grove about 2 p.m. Putting a foam pad among the tall weeds beneath the biggest hickory tree, I settled in with a canteen of water, a sandwich, some candy, a good book and my muzzleloader.

I didn't get much reading done. It was one of those incomparable, golden October days better suited to daydreaming and dozing. The squirrels began filtering into the wood lot about 3 p.m., and by 4 p.m. I could see eight. Two were in the tree above me, within good shooting distance. None appeared to be aware of my presence, partly because I had donned full camouflage, including brown and green makeup on my face and hands.

The first squirrel fell practically in my lap. I kept my gun in shooting position after the shot as long as I could stand it, then inched the gun down until the butt plate rested on my knee. There I sat until the squirrels resumed normal activity. It took less than five minutes.

In the absence of visible danger, and with the sun setting on their supper table, the bushytails apparently weren't too concerned about occasional loud noises. I was able to reload quietly and bag four gray squirrels -- two that were in the tree above me to begin with, one that came to the same tree after I cleared it out, and one in the nearest hickory.

The pace of my hunting has slowed considerably since I traded a box of .22 shells for a powder horn. Once I choose a spot to hunt, I milk it for all it's worth, sitting for an hour or more and studying every tree trunk and branch through binoculars to see if a bushytail might be peeking from the fork of a tree.

Marksmanship has become even more of an obsession with me, now that I don't have a telescopic sight to compensate for my visual shortcomings. I almost never shoot offhand, preferring instead to use my knees, a sapling or a walking stick to steady my hand.

If you try your hand at muzzleloader squirrel hunting, you'll earn other dividends, too. It sharpens stalking skills that are assets in other kinds of hunting, and it makes a welcome adjunct to early-season deer scouting. A slower, quieter, more observant hunter sees more than a restless one. You may not cover as much ground, but you'll get more out of the ground you do cover. triangle

Black-Powder Safety

Read the instruction manual and all other product information that comes with your rifle. Gun shops also are good sources of advice. Or go to a library and check out a muzzleloader manual. Time spent studying this material will help you get the most from your rifle and avoid dangerous mistakes.

Sooner or later you will experience a misfire or a hangfire. A misfire occurs when you pull the trigger and the firearm fails to discharge. In a "hangfire" the gun discharges, but not immediately after the percussion cap or primer charge goes off.

Most hangfires are momentary, with the gun firing a split second after the trigger is pulled. But sometimes the powder charge may smolder for several seconds before igniting fully and discharging the load.

Any time you pull the trigger and your muzzleloader fails to go off, treat it as if it could go off at any moment. Keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction until the load is safely discharged. If repeated attempts to fire the gun fail, follow your muzzleloader manual's advice for removing the unspent charge.

The only mechanical safety on most muzzle-loading firearms is placing the external hammer in the half-cock position. However, any mechanical device can fail. The most certain way to keep any muzzleloader safe is to wait until you are ready to fire before installing a cap or priming charge.

Unlike shooters who use pre-loaded cartridges, black-powder shooters handle propellants in quantities sufficient to produce large explosions. Consequently, they must be careful to avoid any action that might ignite a flask, horn or can full of powder. Smoking is out while handling black powder ammunition. So is anything that might produce a spark.

One hazard unknown to many novice shooters is the possibility that a glowing ember may linger in a recently fired rifle and ignite the next charge poured down the barrel. That is why muzzleloader manuals are emphatic in cautioning shooters not to pour powder into barrels directly from large containers.

Instead, you should pour each individual powder charge into a powder measure and close the container from which the charge was dispensed, then pour the charge down the gun barrel. If a handful of powder ignites in the barrel you may lose only your eyebrows and lashes, not a hand or an arm.

Muzzleloader manuals contain more complete safety instructions. Read and follow these recommendations to ensure safe, pleasurable shooting.

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