Smokepole Squirrels

By Darren Haverstick, photographs by Noppadol Paothong | April 21, 2015
From Missouri Conservationist: May 2015

Of all the kinds of animals I have hunted over the years, the ubiquitous gray squirrel and his cousin, the fox squirrel, still rank toward the top of my list of critters I like to pursue. Maybe it’s because of all the fond memories I have of pursuing them as a boy growing up in the Ozarks. Maybe it’s because I really like eating fried young squirrel accompanied by fried ’taters, biscuits, and gravy. Or maybe it’s because squirrels are, well, really fun to hunt!

Whatever the reasons, you can bet I have the calendar marked for the opening of Missouri’s season the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend.

For the past couple of years, I have combined my love of hunting Sciurus carolinensis with another hobby of mine: traditional muzzleloaders. Armed with a flintlock scattergun that I had made for hunting spring gobblers, I stalk Mr. Bushytail just like Daniel Boone did back in the 1700s. This change in weaponry has added even more enjoyment to an already enjoyable pastime and has helped me become a better hunter in the process.

Perfect for Novice and Seasoned Hunters Alike

Why chase squirrels with a traditional smokepole? I think the match is ideal because each half of the pairing has characteristics that work well with the other. Squirrels are the perfect animal for novice hunters to start out on and seasoned hunters to practice on. They are usually plentiful, they do not require ghost-like stealth or Annie Oakley marksmanship to kill, and the bag limits are generally liberal. They also tolerate field errors that would scare off other creatures. Hunting them successfully isn’t easy, but it’s not so difficult as to discourage someone new to the sport. Plus, the Show-Me State’s long season gives a person ample opportunity to hone their skills and learn from their mistakes.

An archaic firearm like my flintlock is the perfect gun to practice your woodcraft with because its limitations force you to strengthen your ability to move unseen and unheard through the woods. Most likely it will be loaded with a single round, and have a shortened range, so you will need to get in close to your target to increase your chance of success. I like to be 25 yards or less from the squirrels I shoot in order to ensure a clean kill. And I feel that all this sneaking practice sure pays off in the fall when I’m after more unforgiving game like whitetails with my longbow.

Hunting Methods are the Same

As far as hunting methods are concerned, going after squirrels with a muzzleloader is no different than going after them with anything else. Figure out what they’re eating at that time of the year, find that food source, slip in, and be patient. During the early months of our season, these animals are drawn to the new buds and flowers on the vegetation around them. You can find them zipping about the treetops in search of these tender morsels just after daylight and just before dark. Prime squirrel hunting time, however, is when the mast crop ripens in the early fall. Find yourself a hickory tree laden with nuts, get comfortable on a stump nearby, and wait for the action. I have never met a squirrel yet who could resist those tasty treats! In fact, an old-timer’s way of calling in a squirrel is to take two hickory nuts and bang them together. You’ll know you’re in the right spot by the piles of nut hulls on the forest floor. Several times I’ve killed my daily limit of bushytails out of a single hickory tree in this fashion.

Gun Choice is a Matter of Personal Preference

Is there a special type of blackpowder gun to use for this kind of hunting? No, not really. Like with modern firearms, the type of muzzleloader you use, rifle or shotgun, is a matter of personal preference. I own both and I choose my shotgun for squirrel outings because I think a person wastes too much meat if he shoots small game with a blackpowder rifle. Even the smaller calibers like .36 and .32 are too big for my taste, and I can’t shoot well enough to hit a head shot every time. Rumor has it that our forefathers’ way around this issue was to “bark” the squirrel instead. Barking is where you shoot the tree limb underneath where the critter is sitting. The combination of the percussive shock and wooden shrapnel will kill the squirrel and leave the majority of the meat unharmed.

My 12-gauge flintlock smoothbore, however, gives me the versatility to shoot any game, big or small, in North America. From turkeys down to quail, I just decrease the amount of black powder and shot I put down the barrel. For coyotes up to moose, I increase the powder charge and switch from shot to round ball ammunition. With no rifling in the barrel, my accuracy is only good out to 75 yards or so, but I know this ahead of time and pick my shots accordingly. Besides, I’m limited more by my sight than by my weapon. The front bead on my barrel will completely cover the vitals of an average whitetail at that distance.

Loading is Way Different

Whatever type of smokepole you choose to use, you will first need to work up a load before heading to the squirrel woods. This is a front-stuffer term for determining the precise combination of all the items you shove down your barrel in order to get the best performance for a particular situation. A piece of modern ammunition already has this combination prepackaged for your convenience. Here, you will have to do it the hard way. For a traditional muzzleloading shotgun, a typical load can be broken down into four basic parts. In the order they are placed in the barrel, there is the gunpowder, the wad, the shot, and then some sort of stopper to hold all that stuff in place. Each of these components can vary widely in size and material type, so the combinations for you to try are practically infinite. But don’t worry, there are some general rules of thumb to use that will give you a good starting point, and you should have a load figured out with only one or two trips to the firing range.

For a shotgun, one of these guidelines is to use an equal amount, by volume, of powder and shot in your load. My typical squirrel load is 65 grains of real 3F Goex blackpowder (not the Pyrodex or Triple Seven used in modern muzzleloaders), an overpowder card, a ¼-inch lubed wad, a homemade paper shot cup holding one ounce of #6 chilled lead shot, and an overshot card to keep everything in the barrel. I imagine a lot of this may sound foreign to you, so I suggest you do some research on the subject ahead of time. There are many good books about traditional muzzleloaders that cover these loading guidelines and definitions of the terminology. The information can also be found on the Internet. Just search for “Traditional Muzzleloading Association,” “The Muzzleloading Forum,” or “Ol’ Buffalo Muzzleloading Guide” to retrieve several days’ worth of reading.

It’s Worth the Trouble

You may be asking yourself, “Why on earth would anyone go to all this trouble to hunt anything, let alone squirrels, if they didn’t have to? Why not just use a modern firearm and be done with it?” Well, if you are asking that question, then traditional muzzleloader hunting is probably not for you. But I’m going to try to answer it anyway, in hopes of persuading you otherwise.

To me, hunting is not about killing an animal — it’s about the challenge of killing an animal. With today’s technology, anyone with a minimal amount of practice can become proficient with the modern weapon of their choice. But I don’t want to be known as a good shot, I want to be known as a good hunter. So I use more primitive equipment that, in turn, forces me to sharpen my woodcraft skills to achieve my goal. Unlike famous U.S. frontiersman Simon Kenton, who could load his flintlock rifle on the run, it takes me a while to reload after a shot, and this slow, methodical process only improves my patience, the number-one attribute all good hunters have.

Keep in Touch With the Legacy — and Pass It on

Another reason I hunt using primitive methods is that it makes me feel more in touch with hunting’s history. Hunting is a legacy that we pass on from generation to generation. You learned how from your elders, and you will (hopefully) pass your knowledge on to some youngster. By using the weapons my ancestors used, I feel like I am honoring them and their skills, and I can appreciate more the struggle they had to go through just to survive. More and more folks are losing touch with hunting’s past, and I never cease to be amazed when someone asks me if I can really kill an animal with my longbow or flintlock gun. Humans have only been hunting with bows for something like 30,000 years, and the flintlock was the weapon of choice for two centuries. With that kind of track record, I’d say they are both pretty effective tools.

So if you want to give yourself an extra challenge during squirrel season and have a whole lot of fun in the process, go out and get yourself a traditional muzzleloader. You’ll learn some new skills, a little history, and that it doesn’t take modern science and technology to be successful in the field.

This Issue's Staff

Editor In Chief - Nichole LeClair Terrill
Editor - Angie Daly Morfeld
Art Director - Cliff White
Staff Writer/Editor - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Heather Feeler
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Designer - Stephanie Thurber
Circulation - Laura Scheuler