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Hunting Upland Birds: Issues related to the Double Barrel Muzzleloader

posted Nov 2, 2010, 12:47 PM by Peter Lucas   [ updated Aug 23, 2011, 8:25 AM ]
    For me, there are two great joys in upland bird hunting.  The first is watching the dogs work in vast open fields of grass.  The second are the brief periods of frenetic activity when coveys of quail or groups of pheasants flush.  Even with a modern gun, when you are in the middle of a big flush of birds it is easy loose track of the number of shots which you have taken or which barrel has been fired. Using a double barrel muzzleloader simply adds another of level of complexity to the situation.  Until I developed a repeatable routine with respect to how to efficiently use my double barrel,  I found myself missing several good opportunities to harvest birds.  These are my thoughts on the best ways to minimize potential problems while hunting upland birds with a double barrel muzzleloader.

Carrying the Loaded (and Primed) Gun in the Field

    Safety is obviously the first and foremost consideration when handling any firearm.  For most muzzleloading activities, this means that you do not cap your gun until you are ready to shoot.  However, for upland bird hunting this is simply not practical.  You are going to have to carry a capped gun while hunting upland birds.  However, safety mandates that the primed gun be carried in the half cock position until you are ready to shoot.   This means that I do not put the gun in full cock position until a bird has flushed.  The only exception which I will make to this rule is that I will cock the hammer on one barrel when a dog is on point, everyone is in position, and a flusher has moved in to find the bird.

    I have heard from a number of hunters that the cock both hammers when the bird flushes, so that both barrels are ready to fire.  With some practice, it is possible to simultaneously cock both hammers for a double barrel gun by placing your thumb across both hammer spurs.  While it is possible to cock the gun in this fashion, I find that it is not practical (or safe) to simultaneously cock both barrels under actual hunting conditions.   In order to cock both barrels simultaneously, it is necessary for me to be holding the gun with both hands with muzzle up and the barrels angled slightly backward.  After carrying the gun for a while in the field, it is highly unlikely that he gun will be in this position when a bird flushes.  In addition, while it is possible to span both hammer spurs with you thumb, cocking the gun in this fashion also increases the possibility that one of the hammers could slip off your thumb between the half cock and full cock positions.  If this happens, there is a good chance that gun will go off.

    Rather than attempt to cock both hammers simultaneously, I cock the first hammer as the gun is mounted.  For the second shot, I partially dismount the gun and cock the second hammer as the gun is re-mounted. Cocking only hammer of a double trigger gun does create the potential for missed shots if you attempt to pull the wrong trigger.   In order minimize the number of missed shots caused by pulling the wrong trigger, it is important to get into a routine with respect to which hammer will be cocked first.  I make it a practice to cock the right hammer first and make sure that my finger is on the forward trigger.   If a second shot is required, I partially dismount the gun, cock the left hammer and pull the rear trigger.  (Note: I am a left handed shooter making it easier to cock the left hammer of a partially mounted gun.  Right handed shooters would likely find it easier to cock the left barrel first). 

    My method of cocking only one barrel at a time appears to have been the generally accepted practice during the muzzle loading era; as indicated in the following excerpt from instructional manual from 1840:

Many experienced sportsmen disapprove of the practice of cocking both barrels at the same time. They think that it ought to be a rule never to cock either barrel, until the game be upon the wing, then that the left barrel should be cocked and fired, and thereafter taken from the shoulder. The right barrel should then be cocked and fired if necessary; if not discharged, it should be put back to the half-cock, and the left re-loaded.

The Rod and the Gun: Being Two Treatises on Angling and Shooting by James Wilson, Author of Oakleigh shooting code.

    While this method of cocking the gun takes some getting used to, I believe that it is the best practice for shooting in the field.  (While shooting skeet, virtually all shooters cock both barrels on doubles and most shooters pull the forward trigger first).

The Loaded but Not Primed Gun

    Another issue which you will have to face with muzzleloaders is what to do with the loaded gun when you get back to the car.  This is a frequent issue while pheasant hunting since you are likely to get in and out of the car many times during the course of a days worth of pheasant hunting.  If you are done hunting for the day, you should completely unload the gun--usually by firing both barrels.  However, what about the situation where you are only moving the car a quarter mile down the field in order hunt a new row of corn or fence line? 

    In part, this question of putting loaded but not primed muzzle loaders in the car may be answered by State law.   In many states it is illegal to have a loaded gun in the car while hunting.  The question becomes as to whether a loaded, but not primed muzzleloader is "loaded".  In Colorado, the hunting regulations state that muzzleloading rifles are considered unloaded if the percussion cap or shotshell primer is removed, or if powder is removed from the flashpan.  Unfortunately the Colorado regulations do not address the issues with respect to muzzleloading shotguns.  

    My practice with respect to putting loaded muzzleloaders in the car is largely pragmatic.  If I am going to be using the gun in the next few minutes, I generally uncap the gun and put it the car.  I am, however, very careful to make sure that the barrels are pointed in a safe direction.  If I am not going to be using the gun for any significant length of time, I will completely unload the gun, usually by firing it. 

Reloading in the Field

    Reloading the double barrel muzzleloader also presents a number of issues.  I have previously addressed the mechanics of reloading a muzzloader in a the field in a couple of previous articles.  When ever possible,  I use "shot cartridges" while hunting.  In addition, I also use my "belly fob" to hold the gun while loading.  I have not addressed the question of whether or not to reload the empty barrel if you have only fired one shot.  My approach to this question is largely pragmatic and the answer to this question is largely dependent on the other members of my hunting party.   If we are in the middle of a drive and reloading one of the barrels would cause the other hunters to wait, I will generally continue hunting without reloading the single empty barrel.  On the other hand, if we are at the end of a drive or am hunting by myself, I will generally reload the empty barrel.

    If you choose to reload a single empty barrel, you must remove the cap from the loaded barrel.  To do otherwise is simply inviting disaster.  Also, when you reload one of the two barrels a number of times, it is a good practice to check to make sure that the charge in the second barrel has not moved.  This issue was addressed by the dean of modern muzzleloading shotguns, V.M. Starr, in his book The Muzzle Loading Shotgun It’s Care and Use. 

It is also good practice if it so happens that you fire one barrel several times without firing the other, to check with your ram rod and see if the shot wad is still tight in the unfired barrel, a half dozen shots or so will sometimes loosen the wad and let the shot roll out and spoil your shot right when you need it most. I have missed a few doubles on pheasants that way myself.

The Muzzle Loading Shotgun It’s Care and Use By V. M. Starr

    If you choose to reload one of the two barrels, you also need to make sure that you reload the correct barrel.  I may be dimwitted, but I have "reloaded" the wrong barrel on more than one occasion, resulting in a double charge in one barrel and no charge in the unfired barrel.  In order to avoid the possibility of loading the wrong barrel, I will generally place the ramrod in the loaded barrel as I am loading the empty barrel. The practice of putting the ramrod in the loaded barrel was discouraged by sports writers of the 1800s as shown by the following excerpt.

Do not, as many do, put the ramrod into the loaded barrel while you are charging the second barrel with shot. For, should a good shot chance to show itself, you would not ordinarily have time to withdraw it, or you might possibly forget yourself, and shoot it away. Indeed, shooting away the ramrod is not an infrequent occurrence with new beginners. A relative of mine once shot his away, and was fortunate enough to kill a partridge with it. This kind of a charge, however, is quite objectionable as a substitute for shot; and I would hardly recommend its use.

On the Wing: A Book for Sportsmen By John Bumstead 1869

    If  you ignore the advice of the period sportsmen and place the ramrod in the loaded barrel you need to be very careful while pouring shot into the barrel which is being reloaded.  I have found out the hard way that a few loose pellets on top of a ramrod make it almost impossible to get the ramrod out of the barrel.   Fortunately, the period sportsman had a secret for dealing with this situation.  Namely, turn the gun upside down an allow the loose shot to fall out of the barrel.  This was described in Hints to sportsmen by E.J. Lewis, an early American sportswriter.

As soon as we discover that a ramrod is thus wedged in the barrel, we must arrest our efforts to draw it out by main force, as this is impossible; we should rather turn the muzzle downwards and press the rod on the charge as forcibly as possible, and the shot will disengage itself from the sides of the barrel and roll out. -This will not so easily take place, provided we have been tugging and pulling at the rod sufficiently long to mash the shot up into a flattened mass; but even then it is the only plan to be pursued. It will be necessary in some cases to give the ramrod a few gentle taps with a small stick of wood to make it go down far enough to disengage itself from the shot

Hints to Sportsmen, Containing Notes on Shooting; the Habits of the Game Birds and Wild Fowl of America, the Dog, the Gun, the Field, and the Kitchen by E. J. Lewis Lea and Blanchard, 1851

So there are my thoughts about hunting upland birds with the double barrel muzzleloader.  With a little forethought and practice, you will soon find that many of these practices will become second nature allowing you to focus more on the birds and less on the gun.