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Muzzleloading Shotguns: How Does Smoke Affect Your Shooting?

posted Feb 21, 2012, 8:24 PM by Peter Lucas   [ updated Mar 12, 2012, 12:27 PM ]
Muzzleloading Shotguns produce clouds of beautiful white smoke.  One of those clouds of smoke played a big part in one of my favorite hunting memories.  Dodger, my Red Setter, and I were pheasant hunting in a large field of knee high grass in central Kansas.  As we approached the crest of a hill, Dodger went on point.   As I moved in behind the dog, a cock pheasant flushed directly into the wind. Reflectively, I took a quick shot at the bird.  As soon as I fired, my view of the bird, and most everything else, was completely obscured by smoke.  The wind was blowing the smoke from the gun directly back into my face and I had no idea if I had hit the bird.  When the smoked cleared, the only thing which I could see was Dodger on a dead run disappearing over the crest of the hill. 

I was completely alone.  Both the bird and the dog were on the other side of the hill.   I was not sure if Dodger was heading out to retrieve a dead bird, or whether he was simply chasing a bird which I missed.  If Dodger was chasing a live bird, there was a strong chance that he would flush any remaining birds in the area.  If that was the case, I needed to call him back immediately. On the other hand, if Dodger was searching for a dead pheasant I did not want to call him off the retrieve.  After about 10 seconds of this internal debate, Dodger came back over the crest of the hill with the pheasant in his mouth.  As Dodger dropped the bird at my feet, he received an unusually large amount of praise.  

The effect of the smoke produced by muzzleloading shotguns in this story is obvious.  I was unable to determine if I had hit the bird and where the dead bird might have fallen.  Fortunately, Dodger did a good job of marking what turned out to be the dead bird for me.  On the trap, skeet or sporting clays ranges you have a scorer or a nearby friend who will let you know if you hit the target.  Consequently, it is easy to believe that the smoke from your muzzleloading shotgun should not affect your shooting.  However, most shooters still need to be aware of, and consciously compensate for, the impact which black powder smoke may have on your shooting.

In both cases, the shooter hit the bird. (You can see some orange chips through the smoke cloud.)  However, both shooters have picked up their heads and dropped their guns in order to look for the broken bird.   

First, we need to consider the mental aspect of shooting.   The muzzle flash and smoke cloud from a muzzleloading shotgun frequently obscures your vision of the target.  If you hit the bird squarely, you may not even see any fragments of the clay target emerging from the smoke cloud.  If you let it, the inability of the shooter to see the broken target can have a detrimental impact on your confidence. concentration and rhythm.

Shotgun shooting is an instinctive game.  The secret to good shotgun shooting is to stop thinking about shooting and just do it! You shoot best when you get in a consistent rhythm and just let your subconscious take over.   It is both easy and counterproductive to over analyze the shooting of clay targets.  In order to shoot consistently, you need to clear your mind, see the bird clearly, pull the trigger and break the bird.  Seeing a bird break provides immediate positive feedback, which in turn develops confidence in your instinctive shooting skills.  This positive feedback loop is an important component in developing and maintaining good shooting skills.  When the smoke from your gun obscures the bird, the immediate positive feedback is removed.  Even if you hit the bird, a level of doubt creeps into your mind and you start thinking about your shooting technique.   Make no mistake about it; doubt is the enemy to good shooting.  Being aware of the issue is the first step in avoiding it.  Remember to stay positive and under no circumstances start to second guess your technique during the middle of a round.

The second impact which black powder smoke may have on your shooting relates to your physical shooting technique.   Regardless of whether or not you are shooting black powder, your gun must be kept swinging smoothly and follow through after the trigger is pulled on every target. Follow-through contributes to good shooting fundamentals by maintaining your lead. 

This is a picture of a rare miss by Rady Dyer on the Skeet range.  If you look closely you will see an intact orange target behind all the smoke.  You can also see that Rady has lifted his head to get a better look at the target through all the smoke.

When a  shooter wants to see if he breaks the target, he frequently picks up his head to get a better view of the target. The presence of smoke which obscures the target increases the temptation to lift your head.    This head lifting movement, or “peeking” often starts before the shot leaves the barrel. When you lift your head from the stock to “peek” at the target, two things happen.  First, you subconsciously bring the barrel up to match the perceived flight path of the bird.  Second, the act of raising your head tends to slow down your swing and truncates the follow through. Frequently, the result is that you shoot over and behind the bird resulting in a missed target.

Finally, smoke can create a problem when shooting clay target events which involve a simultaneous pair of birds.  The doubles thrown from Station 7 on the Skeet range are considered some of the easiest birds on the course by modern Skeet shooters.  However, for muzzleloaders, the second bird (the high house bird) can often prove very challenging.  Your first shot on Station 7 is a straight away shot directly at the center stake of the Skeet field.  This is exactly the location where you would typically try to pick up the second bird of the pair.  All too often, the second bird is completely cloaked in smoke from the first shot.  Sometimes, the second bird does not emerge from the cloud until it is close to the out of bounds stakes.  In those cases, you better be anticipating the bird. Otherwise it is too late to take the second shoot.     

So what can be done to reduce the negative impact which smoke has on your shooting?  Here are a couple of suggestions:

  • Concentrate on your fundamentals.  As noted above, regardless of whether or not you are shooting black powder, your gun must be kept swinging smoothly and follow through after the trigger is pulled on every target.  Make a habit of keeping your head on the comb of the gun until you finish your follow through. In a perfect world, I try to keep my head on the comb of the stock until the gun has come to a complete stop.  You may not be able to see if the target breaks, but there is a better chance that it will break.
  • Practice with Black Powder Shells from time to time.  I find it useful to occasionally practice with my modern gun loaded with black powder cartridges. Like most muzzleloading shot-gunners, I do the majority of my shooting with a modern gun and with smokeless ammunition.   Shooting a few rounds of clays with black powder shells allows me to get used to the smoke while still shooting the gun that I am most comfortable with.  Just remember to give your modern gun a good cleaning when you get home.  
  • Dummy Loads.  Pistol and rifle shooters will sometimes have a friend randomly load dummy rounds into their guns to see if they are flinching.   This type of drill can also be useful on the skeet range to see if the shooter is smoothly swinging through the target.   I have found that a flintlock gun is the perfect device for dummy load drills.   Under the best of conditions, a flintlock will misfire from time to time.  If your gun misfires, use the opportunity to think about the quality of your swing. Is your head still on the stock? How was your lead? Did you jerk the gun?  You can learn a lot from a misfire. 

    Those clouds of white smoke are a big part of the allure of a muzzleloading shotgun.  I would not want to give up the smoke, even if I could.   On the other hand, remember that the smoke may well be effecting your shooting. 


    One quick story about the effect of shooting a muzzleloader.  Generally, I try not to put too much stock in anecdotal evidence, however, this story fits in nicely with this article.  The Western National Shoot was held at the Ben Avery Range in late February and early March. Rady Dyer consistently scores well at the event.  This year, Rady went down early to shoot in a modern Skeet competition to tune up for the Western Nationals.    Rady shot respectably in modern event scoring 92x100 in the 410 class.

    On the first day of the Western Nationals, Rady was on fire.  He had the first perfect score in the muzzleloading Skeet Aggregate event (16 singles and 14 doubles).  Rady also had a perfect score in the qualifying muzzleloading Skeet competition.  However, the more Rady shot the muzzleloader, the worse things got.  By the end of the Western Nationals, Rady was breaking considerable fewer birds and he did not win the Skeet Championship. 

    Was the decline in shooting a function of the smokey loads?  It is hard to say for sure.  However, there is certainly a case for arguing that the smoke was negatively effecting Rady's shooting.  Rady shoots a converted Remington 3200 as his muzzleloader. Rady's muzzleloader is a nearly a twin of his modern skeet gun.  However, after of a couple days of shooting the muzzleloader, Rady was not able to come closing to matching the scores which he had posted with a modern 410.