Deer Hunting Tools: Centerfire vs. Crossbow vs. Muzzleloader

Which deer gear is the most enjoyable, a centerfire rifle, crossbow or muzzleloader? Author Joe Byers got to test all three in a single season as he accomplished the Great Plains Triple Play.
Deer Hunting Tools: Centerfire vs. Crossbow vs. Muzzleloader

As the flames of the campfire rose in the darkness, so did hunter voices:

“Bowhunting is better because you get closer,” said one.

“I like rifles since it challenges my marksmanship,” said another.

“No, muzzleloading is best because I build and create one great shot.” 

Smoke from the embers might have shifted that evening, but personal opinions did not, and each man agreed to disagree before calling it a night. As sportsmen, we are blessed with an abundance of hunting choices, options and gear, so this debate might never be settled. However, the 2013 hunting season landed me with a unique chance to savor the best of all three.

“You lucky dog, you,” exclaimed my good friend Ken Byers when I told him about my tags for the upcoming season. “You drew an archery and a muzzleloader tag, plus you can buy a rifle tag over the counter.”

As an outdoor writer, I’m very fortunate to hunt in many situations and with a wide variety of sportsmen and women. People often ask about my favorite hunt or, more often, “Do you enjoy hunting more with a rifle or bow? How about blackpowder?” I usually make some meager attempt at humor, because I very much enjoy all three. I figured by the end of the 2013 season, with three tags, I could finally answer that question with some degree of intelligence.

Gear and gadgets have become such a part of the outdoor hunting regiment that it seems crazy to go hunting without them, and the answer to this “which is best” question might be rooted in gear selection.

Beginning In A Blizzard

Last year’s early October blizzard in South Dakota is one of the great Western tragedies. Two days of blowing, near-freezing rain soaked livestock, and two feet of snow followed. Winds in excess of 60 mph pushed cattle and horses into fence corners, where many of them froze or were trampled to death. Whitetail and mule deer fared relatively well by hiding in secluded and sheltered ravines to outlast the storm.

The group I hunted with in central South Dakota challenged the raging storm and even attempted to use it to our advantage. The howling storm forced deer into the heavy cover of creek and river bottoms, where they could be vulnerable to well-organized drives. Even monster bucks would have difficulty sneaking away.

We were on the frontal fringe of the blizzard and believed we could drive out of it and make several deer drives before conditions became severe, but as luck would have it, a live power line was lying across the highway. We were forced to make a detour that nearly proved disastrous. One of our two rigs got off a main track of a gravel road and became hopelessly buried. Luckily, 200 yards up the road, a road grader was idling waiting to plow one lane of the 18 inches of snow that covered the road. The operator came to our rescue and we limped back to camp, believing that our attempt was great fodder for the next “Jackass” movie. 

Our camp was in the bottom of a creek bottom — just the kind of cover we planned to drive — so Seth McGinn and I grabbed our muzzleloaders and headed out. Ironically, we were barely 50 yards from camp when we began to jump deer. The storm had exactly the effect on deer that we anticipated. 

Stalk And Stand

I saw a decent buck bound from cover, but I couldn’t get a shot in the blowing snow. As we moved along, the snow abated, but the wind still howled. We headed for high ground on a path that would intercept the deer we had jumped, and I had no sooner gotten to the lookout than the buck I’d seen earlier came sneaking along. The deer was a modest 8-point, yet I had both muzzleloader and archery tags for this hunt and doubted I could take two monster bucks. The range was about 75 yards and the deer hadn’t a clue I was here. Using a limber sapling to steady the rifle, I squeezed off the shot just as the buck stepped behind cover. In seconds he went down in a thicket just below us. 

McGinn and I high-fived at our good luck. We had just left the cabin 20 minutes ago and already had a buck on the ground. With the wind chill about zero, there was no chance of meat spoilage, so we decided to hold our ground in case another buck came along the narrow bottleneck — and one did! 

This buck worked along an open field, entered the tree line and walked within 25 yards of where my buck had stood. Boom! A cloud of white smoke raced perpendicular to the muzzle in the wind, and McGinn’s deer crashed 10 yards from mine. How crazy is that? Two bucks with muzzleloaders in less than an hour! We each held whitetail tags for an Indian reservation and cashed in on the special blackpowder season. 

Crossbow Connection

Hunting the Great Plains is always an adventure, especially with archery gear. My license was for any whitetail deer, yet some states and Indian reservations offer “any deer” tags such that you can take a mule deer or a whitetail. Usually, mule deer are found in wide-open areas where they can use their keen eyesight to spot danger a mile away. Whitetails, on the other hand, love the thick cover of creek and river bottoms and typically only venture out to feed at twilight hours. 

We believed that the intense rain, wind and snow would have even mule deer tucked into bottoms and set out the next day to exploit this location before animals scattered out into their normal routines. One section bordered a river that was now so swift that no deer could cross it, and we devised a plan that pushed the heavy cover along a half-mile section that bottlenecked into a patch of dense cedars. I had hunted this section previously with a muzzleloader and always wondered what it would be like to post up in the midst of the cedars with a bow.

I got to find out. We set up the drive and posted hunters along well-used escape routes, while I settled at the base of a steep hill where I could see two intersecting trails. Tucking into the first available cover, I swung the Mission MXB-320 with an Aimpoint red dot scope to make sure I could move without making the slightest noise. If opportunity “nocked,” it would come swiftly and suddenly. 

Within the next minute, I saw brown legs moving along a trail and raised the bow in anticipation of a shot. A big buck stood in the cedars just 10 yards away, but he did not step into the clear. Although I couldn’t shoot, I saw this was a shooter buck and tensed for the action. The buck paused for several seconds and then turned back into cover and headed for a second escape trail. As the deer moved, I followed it with the glowing dot, knowing the window for a shot would be very short. The buck stepped into a tiny opening and saw me immediately, but before he could flee, my arrow zipped through his chest. The buck ran up the steep bank, but I was sure the shot was good. 

Midwestern bucks are known for their size and stamina, and this buck was a perfect example. The NAP Hellrazor took off the top of his heart and left an incredible blood trail, yet the 200-pound-plus beast went a full 100 yards before crashing. This was a great 8-point with good mass and tall tines, precisely the trophy I had hoped for — and having the plan come together in the dense thickets made the success extra sweet. 

Great Bucks In Bad Lands

Aside from the “which gear is best” question, another common query happens at the Baltimore/Washington D.C. airports that I frequently fly from. “You’re going out West to hunt whitetail deer?” people ask in amazement. “Why don’t you hunt the ones around here?” To fully compound this question, you must know that Maryland has a 36-deer limit. Any resident or nonresident can take a truckload on a standard license, and some regions of Maryland and Northern Virginia have unlimited harvest of does. I have one friend who charges suburbanites $100 for every deer he takes on his property. So why would someone from my neck of the woods go to the Great Plains to hunt deer? That question is easy to answer — adventure!

Have you ever raised your binocular to check out a deer-like object and the Devil’s Tower comes into focus? Or heard an elk bugle as you check out a fresh scrape in the aspen leaves? Or sneaked across a patch of prairie only to come upon a batch of Badlands terrain that looks like the Grand Canyon? Whitetails are always challenging and fun to hunt, but when you take up the quest in the Great Plains, you understand the words of Horace Greely and a chorus of thousands who take his advice and head west each year in search of big game and bigger adventure. Whether you choose the Sand Hills of Nebraska, the rolling plains and Black Hills of the Dakotas, northeastern Wyoming or southeastern Montana, there’s a host of great adventure and big bucks waiting. 

The Centerfire Challenge

In the East, South or Midwest, a hunter could (and often does) hunt with all three methods from the same stand, yet in the Great Plains where trees are as scarce as skyscrapers, hunting is often done on foot — and shots can easily stretch from 200 to 300 yards or more. For marksmen, this is often one of the main attractions of the region, as they can put their skills to good use.

I used Ruger’s new Guide Gun in .338 RCM for my centerfire adventure; a bit heavy for whitetails, but these deer are large and the rifle shot exceedingly well at longer range. My best group was ½-inch at 200 yards, and I was anxious to test in the vast expanses of the rolling prairie.

On opening morning I took a rather bland-looking post just above a dry stream bed in a mile-square expanse of prairie grass. My pulse quickened when a mature doe suddenly appeared at 50 yards and sharpened my senses. It seemed impossible that a deer could get so close without being seen, yet the first two hours of daylight passed with only a few shots heard in the distance.

Around 10 a.m. a couple of pickups crested the horizon and drove around as if looking for something, and a hunter approached on foot saying he’d hit a big buck but was unable to track it. The two pickups and four hunters spent another half hour searching and then drove away. Given the activity, I was tempted to leave as well, when I suddenly spotted a deer moving in my direction. A quick glance in the Vortex scope showed a dandy buck limping right toward me. Despite the steady wind, I was able to take a sitting shot and downed the buck as he tried to cross the small stream. 

Obviously, this was the buck the men had been seeking. Apparently he had lain still in the grass and allowed the trucks to repeatedly drive past his location. The deer had an injured front leg and I honestly expected the hunters to return and claim the buck (first blood), but they did not, and my friends soon arrived to help with the dressing and loading chores. 

Which Is Best?

Is it more exciting to stalk a buck in a blizzard with blackpowder, ambush a buck at point-blank range in thick cover, or pick the perfect spot for a prairie rifle shot? This year, the point-blank ambush was the highlight, but I’ve stalked whitetails on the prairie for hours and closed the deal with a challenging shot from a .270 Winchester and stalked deer in pouring rain with a muzzleloader that were just as thrilling. Diversity and drama are the great elements of multiple tags, and the more you have, the more fun that lies ahead. If you can work multiple tags into your fall hunting, I heartily endorse it.

Hat Trick Gear

Ruger Guide Gun: I ordered Ruger’s new Guide Gun in .338 RCM for an elk hunt a month earlier. The .338 cartridge is a bit large for whitetails, but the rifle shot so accurately, I couldn’t leave it at home. It’s short and easy to handle and is also chambered in .30-06, the deer hunter’s favorite.

Traditions StrikerFire: The 30-inch barrel of this very accurate muzzleloader allows for a full powder burn and provides genuine 200-yard energy, ideal for any deer season.

Hornady: The Lock-N-Load sabot offers a quick reload with a stem that holds three 50-grain pellets and a 250-grain MonoFlex bullet, combining power and accuracy.

Mission MXB-320: I found this crossbow to be light, maneuverable and exceedingly easy to cock. The bow has no cocking stirrup, which shortens the “cocking stroke” and gives a hunter quick and easy power.

Aimpoint Red Dot Scope: I used this red-dot scope on the Mission and it proved to be perfect for the fast action of my deer ambush. Team the scope with a rangefinder and you can shoot great groups out to 50 yards.

NAP Hellrazor Broadhead: Do they shoot like target points? For me they do. I love the cut-on-contact structure of the head, and I could practice with target points interchangeably. Plus they are sharp as … well, you know.

Vortex Rangefinder and Binoculars: These 8x42 binoculars are among the brightest and sharpest I have ever tested, and the rangefinder allowed me to be in the know regardless of hunting method.


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