I count myself lucky to have done a little Missouri quail hunting back in the ’60s and ’70s. During that time, I enjoyed some success, but it pales in comparison to the thrill I get today from taking a muzzle-loading shotgun to the field in pursuit of bobwhites. I suppose it is a combination of the smell of burning powder, the smoke from the blast of the shotgun, and harvesting quail with an old-fashioned firearm that makes hunting in this manner so enjoyable. Pouring the charge components down the muzzle-end of a shotgun barrel, thereby “making my own shells” also adds to the reason I find hunting with muzzleloaders highly addictive.
If you want to try your hand at hunting quail with a muzzleloader, you’ll need some basic equipment and know-how.
Unlike modern firearms, muzzleloaders don’t use removable shells or cartridges that contain gunpowder, primer, and projectiles. Rather, they have an ignition system
that ignites the powder, which is poured down the barrel. This burning powder causes rapidly expanding gases to propel the projectiles out the barrel. The three most common types of muzzleloaders today are the flintlock, the caplock, and the inline.
The flintlock uses a spark from an actual flint rock striking a steel plate in order to create a spark that will in turn, ignite the gunpowder in the flash pan.
The caplock uses a percussion cap made of thin, somewhat flexible metal that fits neatly over a small, round, hollow anvil that leads directly to the powder. The anvil is also called the nipple, and by squeezing the thin cap slightly, deforming its round shape, it will be less likely to fall off once in place.
The inline doesn’t have an ignition system off to the side of the firearm. It is straight in line with the barrel and also why the first two are sometimes called sidelocks.
Inlines are also ignited by a cap method, but some have been modified to accommodate a modern shotshell primer, which burns hotter, thereby ensuring a better ignition. Some newer types of inlines are even equipped with an electronic ignition system that uses a 9-volt battery to rapidly heat up a small wire coil that contacts the powder directly upon pulling the trigger.
Now that you have some idea of the kinds of muzzleloaders available, let’s look at a shopping list.
- A muzzle-loading shotgun
- Black powder or black powder substitute. I must warn you that smokeless modern shotgun or rifle powder cannot safely be used in muzzleloaders. Many purists will use nothing other than black powder with its three main components: sulfur, activated charcoal, and potassium nitrate (in some recipes sodium nitrate is used). Several black powder substitutes (which are perhaps less corrosive than black powder) are also available. Pyrodex, Triple Seven, and Black MZ are just a few.
- Shot. For quail, I prefer shot sizes 6, 71/2, or 8.
- Wads. The primary wads I use are made from pre-cut and lubricated cellulose, and I use pre-cut cardboard for the overshot wads.
- Eye and ear protection. Polycarbonate lenses offer the best eye protection. I also prefer electronic muffs because I feel they are safer than earplugs. They protect your hearing while letting you hear low sound levels, like a flushing bird and other hunters’ conversation.
- Dog(s). Although optional, dogs aid tremendously, not only in finding quail, but also in retrieving downed or wounded birds that fall in dense cover.
Loading and Safety
Whether you use a sidelock (flintlock or caplock), or even an inline black powder shotgun, loading is much the same. In all instances, point the firearm up and away from yourself and others. To avoid double charging any muzzleloader, make absolutely sure that there is not already a charge in the barrel. You can do this easily by dropping in a ramrod that bears a mark indicating both a loaded barrel as well as an empty one. This is also a good practice to perform after loading, especially if you shoot a double-barreled shotgun. You’ll ensure that there are no double loads to touch off, which could injure you and/or damage your shotgun.
Once you know the barrel is clear, pour a measured amount of black powder or readily available black powder substitute into the barrel, followed by a wad. The wad (I prefer a pre-lubed cellulose wad) should be firmly tamped onto the powder charge so there is no gap between it and the powder. Even a small gap between the two could cause pressure buildup, which could lead to firearm damage or shooter injury.
Next, add a measured amount of shot. Unlike loading a single projectile, there is no need to seat the shot because gravity does an adequate job of settling the loose projectiles. The next step is adding an overshot wad made of thin cardboard to prevent the shot from rolling out when you tilt the barrel downward. Depending upon the action of your smokepole, it’s much safer to prime the flash pan or cap the anvil after the dog is on point. Now you’re ready for action!
Good Quail Hunting on Department Areas
If you’re not blessed with good quail hunting on your land, check out the Department’s 21 Quail Emphasis Areas.
These conservation areas are located throughout the state, and recently the Department has ramped up quail habitat-improvement efforts on them. You can browse all 21 areas at mdc.mo.gov/node/3333.
Tips for Hunting Quail With a Muzzleloader
When you’ve gathered your gear and found a good place — and you either have or can borrow some good bird dogs — you’re ready to begin the hunt. Chasing quail with black powder shotguns is, I think, more fun despite some obvious handicaps. Sometimes you must literally wait for the smoke to clear before taking that second shot, and it does take more time to reload. With that in mind, may I offer some tips:
- When shooting at multiple targets with a double barrel, I prefer to shoot at a trailing bird first so that, for the second shot, there remains a bird that is not obscured by smoke.
- A word to the wise: you should also remain focused and take your time when reloading to eliminate mistakes, such as omitting a step or doubling up on one of the components.
- When shooting at a moving target, keep follow-through in mind. There is a delay between the pull of the trigger and the ignition of the main charge. This is especially true of flintlocks.
- After the hunt, you must clean the barrel of the muzzleloader! The sooner this is done, the better. Residue from the black powder or some of the substitutes combines with water in the air to form sulfuric acid, which, in time, will corrode and pit the barrel, rendering it worthless.
A Memorable Black-Powder Hunt
The four of us got started about 8:30 a.m., and the going was a bit tough through crunchy snow left from a snowstorm a couple of days prior.
Finding the quail was difficult. At times the footing was even more than difficult, especially when I took a gentle roll after losing my balance in order to maintain muzzle control and not plunge the gun barrel into a snow bank.
As noon approached, the temperature rose above freezing and the footing became more treacherous still. But it was really enjoyable watching the dogs work, and the excitement got cranked up a notch or two after Harry bagged the first bird. For good measure, a couple of clean misses followed. Unlike with clay targets, one can’t always predict the path a flushed bird will take.
One of my fondest memories of this particular hunt occurred shortly after we bagged the last bird. As we were congratulating Harry for another great shot, and the dog for a good retrieve, we all heard a distinct gobble from nearby cover. No one uttered a word as we just looked at each other, smiling. Then again, another gobble echoed. We enjoyed that moment immensely for all of us were turkey hunters, and this treat in the dead of winter brought the promise of good hunting in spring.
Moments later we decided to call it a hunt, and a successful one at that. Nobody limited out, but all the shots were safe, all managed a shot or two, and the memories will last a long time.
The hunt pictured took place on Dec. 17, 2013, and I had the privilege of hunting alongside my good friend Harry Chapin, a relative of Ed Chapin, landowner of one of Missouri’s few century farms, in Howell County. The Brittany spaniels, Bonnie, Sage, and Pearl, were owned and handled by Cory Purgason of Caulfield, and all contributed to lasting memories of black powder bobwhites.