Small Game Hunting with Muzzleloaders


Are Smokepole Squirrels in Your Future?

The first one was a gray. I hadn’t been seated long enough even to get my pack situated when I heard the tell-tale sound of sharp nails on rough bark behind me. Turning, I caught quick movement; a tail and a flash of white weaving through the oak leaves. I grimaced, thinking this one was probably simply going to speed off through the treetops. But then the squirrel pranced onto a near-horizontal limb not 30 steps from where I sat, and stopped, head high, looking.

“That was a mistake, Mister Squirrel,” I thought to myself as I shouldered the rifle. Snapping the set-trigger, I eased the hammer back to full-cock and settled the front bead low into the heavy buckhorn rear sight. With 8 ounces of pressure, the hammer fell, sending the 45-grain patched round ball skyward in a plume of white smoke. The squirrel tumbled off the limb to the woodlot floor.

By two o’clock that afternoon, I’d fired the rifle five more times, all but one of them resulting in another squirrel for my pack and an ever-widening grin upon my face. I had every reason to smile. It’s not every day I bag a near-limit of squirrels with a .32 caliber muzzleloader.


My particular rifle is a Blue Ridge series .32 caliber, made in Italy by Davide Pedersoli. It’s a percussion, but an identical .32-caliber flintlock is also available. It’s 55 inches long and weighs just shy of eight pounds. At first glance, I thought the length would be cumbersome, but the gun is incredibly well-balanced.

While aesthetically pleasing, the rifle arrived as a very simple piece, with few bells-and-whistles. The hardwood stock is pretty, but plain; the elongated brass trigger guard is appealing visually, but nothing elaborate. Accustomed as I am to blued metal, I was somewhat surprised to see the .32 sporting a browned octagonal barrel. The piece does come with fully adjustable double (set) triggers.


I live just 10 miles from a nice public shooting range, so it didn’t take long to assemble the gear and find a seat at one of the benches. My equipment for the shoot included my traditional range/tackle box containing cleaning accessories, loading/unloading tools, brass drifts for adjusting sights, and a complete gunsmithing screwdriver set. Because I was starting from scratch with the Blue Ridge, I carried both Pyrodex and Triple Seven powders, lubed and unlubed .010-inch-thick all-cotton patches, a box of .310/45-grain pure lead round balls and No. 11 percussion caps. Rounding out the list of equipment was a set of Caldwell Dead Rest shooting bags.

After setting my target stand at 25 yards and popping three or four caps to clear the nipple and flash hole, I charged the Blue Ridge with 20 grains of Triple Seven based upon advice I’d gotten from avid blackpowder shooter and Technical Answer Man for Connecticut Valley Arms, David Meredith.

“With calibers such as the .32 or .36, the basic rule of thumb says the caliber is your maximum powder charge (.32 caliber = 32 grains), and one-half your caliber (.32 caliber = 16 grains) is where you want to begin.”

Atop this tiny powder charge, I seated one of the pea-sized .310 diameter round balls wrapped in a thin and lightly lubricated cotton patch and soon found myself peering down the 39-inch barrel at the black and chartreuse target some 75 feet downrange.

To my great pleasure, this first shot printed but an inch right and an inch low. Grinning, I swabbed the barrel, reloaded and settled down for Round Two. The second shot clover-leafed the first. Taking a small brass drift and diminutive hammer from my range box, I tapped the buckhorn rear sight ever so softly to the left. Again, I swabbed the barrel, poured the powder, seated the ball and readied the rifle. At the sharp .22-esque report a yellow dot appeared just below center on the target.

The range time revealed several vital pieces of information.

  • The rifle shot quite like a .22 rimfire, with almost instantaneous ignition.
  • Second, and given a very slight front bead settled into the buckhorn, a six o’clock low hold was necessary to put the ball precisely on the "X."
  • Third, the best accuracy, I surmised, was achieved in part due to swabbing the barrel clean between shots. I would continue this practice into the field.
  • And fourth, 20 grains of Triple Seven seemed to be plenty of propellant. “Some folks,” said Meredith, “are hung up on energy. But remember, this is small game; game that can be killed with an air rifle or even a slingshot. So it’s not so much energy as it is accuracy with these small calibers. And at times, less powder and less energy mean improved accuracy.”


Afield, and inside a possibles bag, I carry the following for charging the piece – short ball starter, brass powder measure, powder flask, speed-loader containing 15 round balls, lubed cotton patches, and a container of caps.

In a separate compartment, I have pre-cut seasoned/lubed cleaning patches, nipple wrench, nipple pick, Q-tip swabs, and ramrod accessories including a breech plug scraper, patch puller, ball puller and cleaning jag. I also carry an extra nipple and two small screwdrivers – one flat, and one Phillips.

Equipped as such, I’ve never encountered a situation where I’ve been unable to strip, clean, and reassemble the .32 in the field.

Regarding actual squirrel hunting strategies with a muzzleloader, they change little, if at all, from those now-infrequent times I carry a modern firearm. The limitations I face with the percussion gun versus, say, my Ruger 10/22 are two. The first is a 30- to 35-yard maximum range. I’m certain the gun is suitable for game such as squirrels and cottontails out to 100 yards. In fact, the 45-grain round ball over 30 grains of FFFg practically mirrors the .22 Long Rifle projectile (40-grain bullet @ 1,255 fps muzzle velocity) at 300 feet. But the task, as I see it, is putting that tiny lead ball under a squirrel’s ear a football field distant. My eyes aren’t what they used to be, and I refuse to put a scope on that gun. Thus, I limit myself to 30 to 35 yards, a distance at which both gun and shooter seem most efficient.

As for the second limitation, this one is personal. If I miss, that bushytail gets a pass. True, and in the time required to swab and recharge the .32, most squirrels have hightailed it for safety. But on those occasions when that fat fox squirrel decides to hunker down and stand pat – well, I’ll likely see him on my next trip to the timber. To me, hunting, and squirrel hunting in particular, is all about that special challenge; one-on-one with our most traditional wild game species. And what better way of achieving this mano-a-mano status than the one shot offered by that little .32 caliber muzzleloader standing, oft-forgotten, in the corner?

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[Editor's note: This article was first published June 14, 2011.]