The Muzzleloader Predator Advantage

Chasing predators with a smokepole might just open the gateway to unexplored fur-taking opportunities.

The Muzzleloader Predator Advantage

"Muzzleloader Only" zones often have incredibly high predator populations and are frequently close to home and in close proximity to large urban population centers.

Still-hunting through rolling terrain can be a great way to sneak up on an unsuspecting whitetail buck. As I slowly crept over a hill, I glassed the trees and open pasture as far as I could see before moving forward. A few more steps opened a vista down a deep draw, and I no sooner got my binocular to my eyes when I spotted a big, lone coyote. I immediately switched from deer hunter to predator hunter. I was in a muzzleloader-only area but did not consider the smokepole I was toting a limitation. I quietly extended my shooting sticks, placed the forestock of my trusty Traditions muzzleloader on the yoke and found the wily coyote in the scope.

There was no need to rush, because I was downwind, and the song dog had no idea I was there. The coyote was busy mousing as it slowly closed the distance toward me, and when I ranged it at 110 yards, I knew it was time to drop the hammer. With my rifle sighted dead-on at 100 yards, it would be a relatively easy shot. I followed the coyote in my scope, waiting for it to turn broadside and didn’t have long to wait. I saw the old dog’s nose twitch, as it turned to check out a mouse tunnel. I tightened up on the trigger, and a second later my rifle belched a cloud of gray smoke. Even with a somewhat obscured view, I saw the coyote fall dead in its tracks.

I have never been shy about shooting coyotes while deer hunting and firmly believe it does not hamper my chances of putting venison in the freezer. I’ve often shot coyotes from my deer stand or blind and left them lay until my deer hunt was over. I have even shot deer within 10 minutes of killing a coyote. Whenever seasons and opportunities overlap, I cannot help but take advantage to increase my annual fur harvest.

The pasture where I was hunting has produced many such coyotes. Hunting the same property close to 20 years has allowed me to figure out the travel routes, escape cover and food sources of all the critters that live there. And since it’s a muzzleloader-only zone, I quickly embraced the smokepole option for taking coyotes annually during and after deer season

The Traditions NitroFire muzzleloader and Federal Firestick make reloading quick and quiet, and ensure consistent performance and accuracy.
The Traditions NitroFire muzzleloader and Federal Firestick make reloading quick and quiet, and ensure consistent performance and accuracy.

Firearms Restrictions and Limitations

As urban sprawl expands in many regions of North America, there are more and more restrictions on the firearms that can be used in these human occupied areas. Muzzleloader-only seasons are common here, and so are healthy predator populations. I stumbled on the smokepole option for harvesting coyotes because I was already in the field carrying a muzzleloader. After shooting dozens of ’yotes in this manner, I realized it had been an overlooked opportunity. My coyote hunting buddies travel to areas where they can use a centerfire rifle. That often means driving right past some of the highest densities of coyotes and prime hunting opportunities closer to home. 

A muzzleloader should not an encumbrance to a predator hunter. Yes, you get only one shot, but that helps focus your attention and make sure that you gently squeeze the trigger every time. And it opens the door to new opportunities that others often do not take advantage of or overlook.

Doubling Down

Predator aficionados take advantage of shooting opportunities whenever they arise and that often means doubling down during other hunts. Some hunters are programmed to shoot predators no matter what big-game tag they’re trying to punch. A friend of mine was stalking a long, heavy-horned gemsbok while hunting in Africa. A jackal ran from cover when he was setting up to take the shot, and the hunter’s attention immediately switched to predator mode. He shot the jackal, and the gemsbok reacted but did not go far. A short stalk provided the opportunity to take the handsome bull as well. 

Some hardcore deer hunters will not sway from their primary focus, which is fine. In this case, they can take notes regarding when and where they saw coyotes and other predators while hunting and return after deer season to thin out those populations and further hone their skills with a favorite smokepole.


Never Too Much Gun

When most people think of a .50-caliber muzzleloader, they immediately picture a large-bore barrel and bullets big enough to stop an elephant. But in many cases, predator hunting is about population control work and not based on fur collection. And controlling these predators’ numbers is also a great way to build relationships with landowners where other hunting opportunities, such as deer, might be a possibility. There is no concern with bullet damage or maintaining fur integrity when simply controlling predator numbers and shooting a .50- or .45-caliber muzzleloader is an excellent option for harvesting everything from coyotes and foxes to other predators and varmints. 

I have been a muzzleloader enthusiast for decades, and I do not feel like you affect fur quality by shooting a coyote with a smokepole, if you take some precautions. Some bullets can leave a large exit wound, especially if you hit bone, but most kill cleanly with a minimal damage. I you’re worried about fur loss, work up a load with reduced energy to limit damage. 

Several years ago, I shot a mountain lion with a blackpowder rifle. Prior to the hunt, I spent time working up a load to minimize damage to the pelt. Shooting 80 grains of Pyrodex, I used a bullet designed for larger game, which minimized expansion. The combination of less energy and a bullet that holds together allowed me to harvest a cougar while producing only small entrance and exit holes in the hide. 

On a Texas handgun hunt for deer, I called in and shot a coyote with a Ruger Super Blackhawk revolver chambered in .44 Rem. Mag. Shooting a Hornady 240-grain XTP (Extreme Terminal Performance) bullet proved to be the perfect medicine for the ’yote standing head-on. It has a muzzle velocity of 1,350 fps, delivering 971 foot-pounds of energy and maintains a velocity of 1,134 fps at 100 yards, while delivering close to 700 foot-pounds of energy. The same bullet can be used in a muzzleloader using a sabot.

There are lots of muzzleloading bullets and sabot options on the market to ensure excellent ballistic performance while keeping fur damage to a minimum.
There are lots of muzzleloading bullets and sabot options on the market to ensure excellent ballistic performance while keeping fur damage to a minimum.

The Evolution of Muzzleloaders

Pennsylvania rifles, also known as Kentucky long rifles, were the most carried gun during the American fur trade era. These flintlock rifles were the only option for a long time, and fur collectors did well with even the large .54-caliber rifles. The Kentucky long rifle, developed by Martin Meylin in Pennsylvania in the 1700s, was one of the first firearms to have rifling. These spiral grooves in the bore of the rifle stabilized projectiles in flight and extended their effective range. This was a drastic leap forward from the smoothbore muskets of the day that were accurate to only 50 yards or so. 

Muzzleloaders have continued to evolve by leaps and bounds with improved ignitions, propellants, projectiles and designs. Tony Knight developed the modern in-line muzzleloader — his MK-85 the first production rifle to offer consistent ignition, accuracy and safety using a No. 11 percussion cap. Thompson/Center (T/C) followed Knight with the first muzzleloader to integrate a 209 shotgun primer ignition for an in-line muzzleloader. The hot, consistent ignition burned magnum powder charges faster, providing increased velocities. The T/C Encore rifle was modified to become the first 209 primer, break-action muzzleloader. The new design made for easier cleaning. Later, T/C took things a step further with the Speed Breech, a quick release breech plug, easily removed by rotating it 90 degrees, eliminating the need for a tool.


Muzzleloader Bullet Options

With the wide range of muzzleloaders on the market today, there are plenty of bullet options for both modern and traditional gear. A ball and patch might not have the accuracy of a modern in-line muzzleloader but is more than adequate for taking coyotes and other predators. Some jurisdictions have muzzleloader restrictions, where traditional equipment can keep you in the field longer and in more places. 

Accuracy and consistency are required for successful predator hunting. I once heard a red fox described as a salami on sticks and have never forgotten the analogy of how tiny this target is. Raccoons, possums, skunks and even badgers, where they are legal to shoot, are also small and challenging targets to hit consistently. 

The coyotes I have taken in recent years were shot with Traditions Smackdown Carnivore bullets. These heavier 250-, 275- and 305-grain bullets were engineered to deliver better weight retention and penetration when used on larger game such as elk, bears and moose. The stout bullets, with minimize expansion, work great for predator hunters who want to punch smaller holes in fur. 

Traditions also has the Smackdown Bleed in a 170-grain option. The XR is a mid-weight hollowpoint projectile optimized for longer ranges. Traditions Smackdown XR bullets are available in 200-, 230- and 250-grain weights that are effective beyond 200 yards. The Smackdown series of bullets use the Traditions Ridgeback sabot, providing a consistent gas seal in the barrel for repeatable accuracy. 

CVA embraced the long-range shooting surge and introduced the Paramount in a .45-caliber bolt-action gun that can handle radical propellant charges, producing muzzle velocities of 2,200 fps. The Paramount uses a hotter large rifle primer to burn extreme muzzleloader powder charges. The Paramount Pro was a natural succession and came with a threaded barrel for a muzzle brake to help quell some of the considerable recoil. 

The 285-grain PowerBelt ELR bullet is one of the most aerodynamic muzzleloader bullets available — its elongated shape producing pinpoint accuracy on even small predators.

Barnes makes muzzleloader versions of its copper X-Bullet, the polymer-tipped Barnes TMZ and T-EZ. The 250-grain Barnes muzzleloader bullets are made for deer-size game and a 290-grain option for larger game. Both bullets are made from 100 percent copper. 

The Hornady SST bullet is another good option for predators and works in a wide range of rifles. Available in 250- and 300-grain configurations, the SST expands rapidly, so those wanting to process fur need to shoot for vitals and avoid the shoulder blade or more prominent bones.


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