Muzzleloader expert Chad Schearer shares his insights
Hunting deer with a muzzleloader has advantages, including honing your hunting skills, providing a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment and it can help fill your freezer.
Muzzleloader hunting requires you to get close, closer than is necessary for most centerfire rifle hunters. That’s part of the allure said Realtree pro staffer Chad Schearer. Typical muzzleloading rifles are single shots, so you focus your skills on being in position for an ethical shot at a range at which you are practiced and comfortable. Only then you shoot and hopefully make a good shot, because it takes even well-practiced reloaders time to have a follow-up shot ready.
“The No. 1 reason for hunting deer with a muzzleloader, is the one-shot challenge,” Schearer said, who is host of the Shoot Straight television show and director of media relations for Connecticut Valley Arms Company.
Plus, a muzzleloader is his choice in states that restrict deer hunting to muzzleloaders or slug shotguns — like Illinois and Iowa.
“I tend to shoot muzzleloaders over shotguns because recoil isn’t as bad and you can reach out to 200 yards,” he said.
And, many states have longer deer seasons for muzzleloader hunters than for centerfire-rifle hunters, he said, often starting early in the fall and running late in the year or into the new year.
That’s some of the why’s of muzzleloader deer hunting, he said, but the how’s include some things you can do to help ensure success.
1. The Right Equipment
“The most important thing about hunting with a muzzleloader is knowing your equipment and being consistent,” he said. “Unfortunately, too many people pick up their gun and won’t practice enough to know what it’s really capable of doing.”
Load the same every time for consistency, he said. The first thing Schearer does, with his clean, unloaded rifle, is measure the depth of the barrel with his ramrod. He carefully loads the barrel and applies sufficient pressure to seat the load without crushing the powder pellets he prefers as propellant. Then he marks the ramrod with tape or a marker so all other loads are loaded the same and he can easily determine the bullet is seated properly and consistently.
The same applies to loose powder, he said. Be consistent on measurements and apply consistent pressure in seating the bullet. “It’s no different than seating a bullet on a centerfire,” he said, “If you push it down too far it’s going to affect accuracy.”
Schearer has also settled on his “go-to” load which he uses for deer hunting. He prefers 150 grains of IMR White Hots (three 50-grain pellets) with a 270-grain PowerBelt Platinum bullet. “I like a magnum charge because I hunt a lot of open-country deer,” he said. If he plans to hunt from a treestand or tight cover, he’ll load 100 grains of White Hots and a PowerBelt AeroLite bullet.
“It’s designed for 100 grains of powder, which for most whitetail hunters out of a treestand is a perfect load,” he said.
A related consistency tip is to carry speed loaders, with powder or pellets pre-measured, and primer and bullet close by. Schearer uses PowerBelt SpeedClips, which attach to his rifle sling.
2. Swab Between Shots
Again, for consistency’s sake, Schearer recommends swabbing the barrel between shots using a patch soaked with saliva.
“Just run that down the barrel so you don’t have fouling build up,” he said. “You need to be consistent. Either you patch, or you don’t patch. Some guys are using sabots and they’re getting that plastic melting in the barrel after each shot, and if they don’t run patches, it’s not going to load as easily or consistently.”
3. Don’t Lube the Barrel
Never use Bore Butter or similar lubricants on modern bullets, like sabots and PowerBelts, he said. That kind of lubrication is for patched round balls.
“It’d be like putting grease all down the bore,” Schearer said. “It’ll affect your accuracy. Centerfire shooters understand that if you shoot an oiled barrel versus a fouled barrel you’re going to have point-of-impact difference. It’s the same with a muzzleloader.”
And that’s why he recommends swabbing with a saliva patch, rather than a solvent-soaked patch.
“I don’t want it super-clean,” he said. “Most muzzleloaders shoot better with a slightly fouled barrel, just like a centerfire does.”
Practice at distances you expect to shoot. If you know you’ll be shooting at 100 yards or less, check your gun at those ranges. If you expect 150- or 200-yard shots, practice at those ranges. Also, if you hunt at a different elevation or different temperatures than you practice, take verification shots at your hunting location, because elevation and temperature can make a difference, he said.
“If you sight in at 80 degrees and you’re hunting in 5 degrees, your powder burn is going to be different,” he said. “So, you may want to check it once those temps drop just to verify your zero.”
5. Know Your Scope
If your riflescope has reticle hashmarks for holdover to compensate for bullet drop, don’t assume those hashmarks will be dead-on for your rifle and load. Verify what your rifle will do when using the different hashmarks.
“Don’t assume if you sight in at 100 yards that first hashmark will be dead on at 200,” Schearer said.
6. Keep Your Powder Dry
That’s not just a saying, that’s sound advice. Powder can get wet a number of ways. Rain and snow down the barrel, yes, and less noticeable ways too.
“Often, hunters hunt all day in cold weather and then come back and bring their rifle into a cabin or a house with the charge still in the barrel,” he said. “It’s safe, sure, as long as the primer is out, but the danger is condensation. It’s no different than your glasses fogging up. That’s what’s happening on the inside of your barrel.”
Either keep your rifle in a secure spot of the same temperature in which you’re hunting or unload your rifle at the end of the day and start with a fresh load in the morning, he said. Schearer often removes the breach plug, takes out the powder pellets and uses the ramrod to push the bullet out of the barrel. You can also shoot out the load, as long as local regulations don’t prohibit shooting after dark (if it’s dark) or you’re not staying so close to your hunting area that game animals could be alarmed by the shot. Schearer also takes precaution when hunting in precipitation by cutting fingers off surgical gloves and securing them over the end of the barrel.
“Of course, never use anything that obstructs the barrel, but a surgical glove finger or thin piece of tape will blow off before the bullet comes down,” he said.
Don’t drive around with your rifle’s muzzle on the floorboard. Schearer tells a story about a friend who was missing deer and asked Schearer to look at his muzzleloader. When Schearer opened the pickup door, bullets rolled off the floorboard. He determined bumpy roads were jarring the rifle enough that bullets were inching down the barrel, some to the point of falling out; some not all the way out, but enough to affect accuracy. Those were patched round balls, he said.
“It’s probably not going to happen with sabots or PowerBelts,” he said, “But you want to make sure you have a load in and properly seated on the powder.” When you get out of the vehicle, use your marked ramrod to determine the load is seated properly.
8. Watch Your Shot
“I always tell my boys to make sure you watch the deer drop in your scope,” he said. “As fast as our modern muzzleloaders ignite, there’s still a slight hesitation when that hammer drops, the primer goes off and ignition takes place.”
In that instant, many hunters lift their head to see if they hit the deer or smoke fills the air and they try to look through it, he said.
“They’ll miss the deer because they are lifting their head and that’s pushing the barrel up,” he said.
9. Have a Rest
As with any shooting, a solid rest is important, Schearer said. He doesn’t count on finding a natural rest, like a tree limb, so he carries his own, usually a BOG Pod or shooting sticks. He even takes one into treestands and blinds.
“Some guys can punch paper all day long but hunting with a muzzleloader is different,” he said. “If you get a 150- or 180-inch deer out there, your adrenaline factor kicks in and for some guys, that turns them into Jell-O.”
“Make sure you match your camouflage to the area you’re hunting,” he said. “Realtree has several great patterns and the new Edge pattern is one of the best muzzleloader hunting patterns I’ve seen. I like it because it is so versatile. Whether I’m hunting in the mountains of Montana or hunting in Kansas, it allows me to blend into my surroundings.”
Check local regulations about required clothing, especially hunter orange, but “even if I’m wearing an orange hat and vest, my extremities are exposed, so I always wear camo. You want every advantage you can get,” he concluded.