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Bitter winds, ushered in by a polar vortex, howled across the Ohio countryside in January 2014, bringing with it bitter-cold temperatures with wind chills as low as -30 degrees Fahrenheit. News outlets in Columbus, Dayton, Cleveland and Cincinnati were warning citizens about being outside for more than a few minutes in that type of weather. Cities were scrambling to keep roads clear. Generator and kerosene sales spiked. But Chad McKibben was actually sitting outside in the bitter cold… on purpose.

It was muzzleloader season in Ohio, just a few days long; and vortex or no vortex, McKibben had to take a chance on finding the gnarly, old buck that had eluded him in November. As the sun rose just enough to send a diamond shine across the icy landscape and the wind chill dipped to -20, the buck stepped out at a bit more than 150 yards.

McKibben raised his Traditions muzzleloader, centered the scope on the buck’s shoulder, cocked the hammer and pressed the trigger. When the roar of the rifle died and the smoke screen cleared, the buck was down.

Muzzleloaders and handguns used to be real “primitive” weapons, but they have advanced greatly—thanks to modern machining technology, improved designs, and better loads and bullets.

“Handguns and muzzleloaders aren’t what they used to be, and it’s hard to call them “primitive” weapons anymore.”

ADVANCEMENTS IN MUZZLELOADING

One hundred fifty-yard shots with a muzzleloader may seem pedestrian today, but that’s only because modern muzzleloaders, black powder propellants and bullets are so good. Not very long ago, that was pushing maximum range; and today, hunters with muzzleloaders routinely make clean kills at 300 yards or even more. Almost every component of muzzleloading has changed over the last two decades. Many hunters have replaced loose black powder with pelleted powder such as Triple 7 and Pyrodex. And these pelleted powders do more than just simplify the loading process. They are fine-tuned for muzzleloader projectiles and burn efficiently and cleanly in standard-length barrels. That means more accuracy. Just as importantly, it means you’re getting a full burn with less cleaning.

Traditionally, most rifles have been loaded with either two (100 grains) or three (150 grains) pellets, but Remington is pushing the envelope and calling for a 200-grain, four-pellet charge in the Model 700 UML. This capability comes thanks to a special conical breech plug that was designed to fit Remington’s ignition system, which looks like the rear portion of a metallic centerfire cartridge. So loaded, the UML is capable of outstanding accuracy at long ranges.

As powders have improved, so have bullets. The days of round balls are gone, replaced by cutting-edge products from large companies that are investing in muzzleloaders. Hornady offers its Lock-N-Load Low Drag Sabot, which features a tail section that holds three Pyrodex of Triple Seven pellets for faster loading. Remington, too, is offering its Accutip muzzleloader bullet—a traditional jacketed sabot with a notch cut in the base. Upon firing, the sabot jacket drives forward into the notch, and the bullet and jacket spin at the same rate. I used this bullet in New Mexico to take a large bull elk at 332 yards. The performance was excellent, and the bullet came to rest under the skin on the far side of the elk.

Ohio hunter Chad McKibben took this buck during Ohio’s muzzleloader season using a Traditions muzzleloader. The range was 150 yards—well within reach of today’s modern smokepoles.

Another outstanding new projectile is Federal’s Trophy Copper muzzleloader bullet with B.O.R. Lock. These tipped, all-copper bullets have a unique polymer cup design that replaces the old sabot system. The cup and the bullet have a diameter slightly less than the bore of your rifle. That means easy, consistent loading.

Upon ignition, the polymer cup slides forward and expands around a widened shank on the bullet, locking into the lands and grooves in the barrel and creating a tight seal that promotes consistent accuracy. I’ve used all these bullets in various muzzleloaders and have seen just how effective they are first hand. A 100-yard shot on deer-sized game with a muzzleloader was a gamble not all that long ago. Today, however, you can print near-MOA groups with modern muzzleloaders at that distance.

Once upon a time, iron sights were standard on muzzleloaders. Then, a few years back, scopes started showing up on smokepoles. Today, however, muzzleloader tech has risen to a level at which a very good scope is the order of the day. When I was hunting with the Remington 700 UML in New Mexico, it was topped with a Trijicon Accupower 3-9 scope. Variable scopes with great lenses such as the Accupower make long shots easier, but today’s muzzleloaders are so good that you can actually use ballistic turrets to dial in your dope. For that New Mexico hunt, I zeroed the rifle at 200 yards, reset the scope’s elevation turret to zero, and from there, I could dial
up as needed to make 250- and 300-yard shots and longer. In that instance, having the right optic helped glean the most from a modern muzzleloader.

A couple of quick notes about muzzleloader hunting: First, you can’t fly with black powder. If you’re planning a hunt halfway around the country, you’ll need to budget some time to stop at a sporting goods store and pick up some propellants (don’t assume there will be a store open that carries the powder your gun likes. Ferret out a store near your destination and call to be sure that it stocks exactly what you want). Another option is to have your outfitter pick up some powder; but again, you need to be certain they know exactly what you’re after.
In addition, you need to check local game laws to be certain about exactly what constitutes a “primitive” muzzleloader. Some states require that the rifle doesn’t have an optic and doesn’t utilize an inline ignition system; so before you buy a new blackpowder rig, be certain you can use it in the state in which you plan to hunt.

HUNTING WITH HANDGUNS

I thoroughly enjoy handgun hunting. For starters, a holstered revolver, single-shot or semi-auto leaves your hand free for climbing into rough country where big game abounds. Even the heaviest hunting revolver weighs less than most light hunting rifles—a real bonus when you’re in the backcountry. But the real thrill of handgun hunting is the challenge. You’ve got to get close, and limiting your range requires you to stalk closer and get in place for a shot. However, you’d be surprised what you can do with a handgun.

Dan Wesson’s Bruin is a long-slide 10mm Auto that is perfectly suited for big-game hunting.

Paul Pluff is one of the best handgun hunters I know. I had the opportunity to learn from him when we hunted together in Texas last year. He has taken some really impressive game with a handgun, including an Eastern Cape kudu bull in Africa at about 200 yards. That’s a long shot for a handgun, to be sure, but if you combine Paul’s high level of shooting skill with the right gun (he was carrying a Smith & Wesson .460 with a scope), you’d be surprised what you can accomplish. After a session with Paul on the range, I was consistently making good shots with a Thompson/Center Contender handgun in .44 Magnum and topped with a Leupold VX-3i scope out to 100 yards.

Later on during that hunt, I managed to take a cull buck with the same handgun. The buck stepped out of cover at about 40 yards—not a long shot—but I was confident in my gun; and after the trigger broke, the buck made it just a few steps before piling up. Long-range shooting is all the rage, but a large percentage of deer-sized game is taken at ranges of fewer than 150 yards, at which a handgun is more of a challenge—but not as much of a handicap as you might imagine—provided, of course, you’ve put the time in at the range required for such a task.

10mm Auto loads vary in velocity and energy, but the more-powerful loads approach the .41 Remington Magnum in terms of capability, making this a great (and underrated) handgun cartridge.

.460 S&W Magnum, .480 Ruger, .454 Casull, .44 Remington Magnum, .41 Magnum and others. Plus, these robust, reliable wheelguns are easy to maintain, and most come with good triggers that break cleanly in single- and double-action mode. Don’t discount semi-autos, however. The various 10mm Autos are capable of producing plenty of power to drop whitetails and even larger game at moderate ranges, and there are many long-slide 10s
with 6-inch barrels that allow these loads to reach their full potential (which falls just short of the mighty .41 Remington Magnum). In addition, these guns are light and easy to carry.

The author with a Texas cull buck taken with Thompson/Center’s G2 Contender in .44 Magnum. The .44 is a great hunting cartridge that blends ample stopping power with manageable recoil.

Another option is semi-auto pistols that are chambered in cartridges traditionally considered revolver rounds, such as the Magnum Research Desert Eagle in .44 Magnum. I recently tested the new Desert Eagle L5 in .357 Magnum, and it was quite accurate. It might be the best sidearm for those who hunt sounders of hogs. No matter whether you choose a muzzleloader or handgun, so-called “primitive” weapons are perfectly capable of taking game cleanly to ranges that extend far beyond what was imaginable just a few years ago. You’ll need to play with loads to find the right one, and you’ll need to spend plenty of time at the range (just as you would with a modern bolt-action centerfire rifle), but the rewards are many.

If you’re looking for a new challenge this hunting season, these guns have a lot to offer. They’ll demand a little more from you as a hunter—but that’s a good thing.

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the July 2017 print issue of Gun World Magazine.