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'Modern' Muzzleloader Meets Old-School Patience

By: Dennis Anderson, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

CUMBERLAND, Wis. (MCT) - The doe was big, I could see that, and from my stand in a swamp north of this town, amid the day's early morning light, I considered briefly shouldering my muzzleloader and pulling back the hammer.

The prospect of a buck soon following behind gave me pause, and ultimately I decided against taking a shot.

Still, with each step the doe took in my direction, unaware of my presence until finally she passed just beneath me, and then behind me - winding me, in the end, and snorting before hurrying off - I thought again of taking a shot.

The reason:

I have never felled a deer with a muzzleloader. I've only owned the gun a short while and have enjoyed practicing with it and sighting it in. But on this day - the opening of the Wisconsin firearms deer season - was the first time I actually hunted with it.

Increasingly, muzzleloaders are being seen in the deer woods. Some hunters enjoy the challenge of taking a deer with only one shot. Others like the retro nature of muzzleloaders, which represent an important part of Americana dating to the Revolutionary War.

Both describe my interest in muzzleloaders. Limiting oneself to a single shot necessarily requires careful planning, particularly in stand placement. As accurate as modern muzzleloaders are - well in excess of 100 yards, in some cases, depending on equipment and skill of the shooter - it's better, in my view, to use them, generally, as an archer might a bow, with the intention of getting an animal as close as possible before shooting.

Many different types of "modern" muzzleloaders are on the market, in a wide range of prices. Modern in this instance generally means "in-line" muzzleloaders, in which the ignition and the barrel are in line with one another. More traditional muzzleloaders have ignitions off to one side.

Modern also in this case generally is synonymous with highly accurate. Rifled barrels aligning sabots with undersized bullets encased in plastic, combined with positive ignition systems, usually are the reason.

Sighting in my muzzleloader the other day at a gun club, I was one of a half-dozen or so shooters blowing charges through "smokepoles," as muzzleloaders are often called.

Most shot in-line models, similar to my .50 caliber CVA Kodiak Pro Magnum. But a couple of guys had muzzleloaders that typically are called "historic replicas," which broadly include guns of Civil War vintage. Some of these resembled the original versions, while others were configured with modern sights. Trigger and rifling improvements also are typical of the modern versions of many of these muzzleloaders.

Neat as those guns look, and as fun as they might be to shoot and fiddle with, I opted for a model whose primary attributes in addition to accuracy are ease of operation and maintenance.

My muzzleloader works the same as most other modern in-line models.

Here's a primer:

- First, know this about muzzleloaders: If you don't like cleaning guns, you might prefer to stick with a smokeless, cartridge-style high caliber rifle. Or a slug-shooting shotgun. Because muzzleloaders must be cleaned after each use.

- I begin the loading process by dropping two Triple Seven pre-formed pellets down the barrel. The pellets are black, but are not black powder. Instead, they are made of a sulpher-free black powder substitute.

- Next I press a 295-grain .50 caliber Powerbelt bullet into the end of the barrel. Then, using a "short starter"" (a shortened version of a ramrod), I press the bullet into the barrel about 5 inches. Finally, with a ramrod, I push the bullet all the way into the barrel, and seat it onto the Triple Seven pellets.Using the ramrod, I tap the bullet surely into place on top of the pellets, and call it good.

- The final part of the loading operation involves placement of a 209 primer into the breech and closing the action. Now I'm ready to shoot.

I don't have a scope on my muzzleloader. Instead the gun is outfitted with fiber optic sights.

At the practice range, I was on the paper with my CVA out-of-the-box. Fine-tuning took longer than it would a rifle, because of the complications of loading. But in short order I was shooting 3-inch groups pretty consistently.

I say "pretty" consistently because it seemed occasionally that I had a flyer in the bunch. Not wildly so, but more off the mark than I would have liked.

I checked with a couple of other guys at the gun range, and they said reasons for the errant shots could be many, including the skill of the marksman. Also the gun might need cleaning (cleaning a muzzleloader while sighting it in is common among some shooters). Also, it's important - very important - to seat the bullet onto the Triple Seven pellets properly and consistently.

All of which might make muzzleloaders sound like they're more hassle than they're worth. That's not the case so far for me. But in the end, either you like fiddling with them. Or you don't.

It's now 2:30 in the afternoon, and I'm about to depart the small shack my sons and I call home on opening weekend of the Wisconsin deer season.

The stand I'm soon heading for is the same one I was in this morning. Surrounding by a mixture of scrub tamarack and spruce, the stand - like my muzzleloader - is decidedly retro, a mixture of old and new lumber and some steel.

I like hunting in swamps because I feel I'm where bucks want to be, particularly as the season progresses and the smartest among them seek refuge in deep cover.

Or perhaps it's just the ambiance of a swamp, and the chance, as occurred Saturday morning, to see a fisher bound among deadfalls beneath me, and to have a chickadee land on my barrel.

Maybe this afternoon I'll even see anther doe, and perhaps this time I will shoulder my muzzleloader. Or maybe not.

At day's end, our group of 15 hunters had five deer, four 8-point bucks, and a 6-pointer.

Kevin Berg of St. Paul and his son, Kyle, each took two of the bigger whitetails, as did Mark Berg of Edgar, Wis., and Tony Berg of Afton. Rick Battis, also of the Twin Cities, dropped the six-pointer.

Me? I was headed back to the swamp again, a 209 primer seated into the breech of my muzzleloader, hoping for the best.

© 2008, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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