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Not many forms of hunting can provide as much enjoyment as smoothbore muskets

| Friday, Oct. 17, 2008

Saturday is a big day for many muzzleloading rifle hunters, and at least for the first half of the season, even Mother Nature should cooperate, with seasonably cool temperatures and cloudy skies, but no rain.

We're talking about Pennsylvania's fall muzzleloading rifle season.

Man who will be out will looking to "make meat," using some type of muzzleloading rifle. It may be a traditional flintlock or a percussion or modern in-line rifle. However, a few hard-core smokepole devotees will carry smoothbore flintlock muskets.

Needless to say, shooting smoothbore muskets calls for different shooting techniques.

Most smoothbore muskets are larger caliber than typical rifled muzzleloaders. Typical calibers may range from .62 (roughly, a 20 gauge) through .75 caliber.

The famous Brown Bess rifles of the Revolutionary War era were about .75 caliber, although some were .72 caliber.

Many trade guns of half a century earlier were made in .62 or .69 caliber. Trade guns also were considerably shorter weapons than some of the 4-foot-or-so long military muskets used in the Revolutionary War.

Local artist, French and Indian War historian, author and flintlock muzzleloader hunter and re-enactor Larry Smail recently acquired a reproduction F & I War era .62 caliber smoothbore musket, made by master gunmaker Anthony Palyszefki of Tarentum. The .62 caliber smoothbore fires a .595 diameter roundball weighing approximately 300-grains.

One advantage of a smoothbore is that it also can fire shot.

For turkey hunting, Smail uses his pet load of 1 1/2 ounces of No. 5 copper plated shot. If you're used to those 45- and 50-yard-plus shots at turkey with your favorite 3 or 3 1/2-inch Magnum, full-choke scattergun, forget it. Smoothbore muskets have a wide-open choke, and you'll have to learn to call the big birds in close and take shots at a maximum range of 25 to, perhaps, 30 yards.

On Saturday, however, Smail and a small number of others across the state will use the big roundballs in hopes of connecting with a whitetail.

Black powder loads for smoothbores are similar to those for small-caliber rifled arms.

However, as with any firearm, you must follow the manufacturer's or gunmaker's recommended loads and stick with them.

That being said, it may be a good idea to start out, for example, with a 50-grain load of 2F black powder and gradually work up a good hunting load. Smail uses about 80 grains of 2F black powder in his smoothbore, shooting the .595 roundball encased in an .018 pillow ticking patch. But keep in mind, every gun is different, and a good load in one may not be the best for another.

Regardless of the load used, shooting a traditional trade musket is a different ballgame than shooting muzzleloading rifles.

For one, that's because muskets lack rear sights, and secondly, smoothbores simply aren't as accurate as rifled barrels.

Nevertheless, with a lot of practice, you can learn to hold the musket the same way consistently and learn how to get the same sight picture every time.

Smail made a candid admission, something known to all musket shooters -- "It's easy to miss," he said. "Just a fraction-of-an-inch difference in how you hold the musket or how the front sight appears over the barrel, and you can make a clean miss on a turkey at 15 yards or a deer at 40."

However, through judicious practice and much range time, Smail can consistently shoot 3-inch groups at 60 yards. Considering all that's involved, shooting a 3-inch group at more than 50 yards with a smoothbore musket is impressive to say the least.

It's also challenging.

No one can deny, barring occasional dumb luck, it takes a good woodsman to get that close to deer consistently.

However, when it all comes together, and one shot from a smoothbore puts venison on the plate, not many forms of hunting can provide as much satisfaction.

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