Up the Ante — Muzzleloaders for Bear Hunting

Today’s in-line muzzleloaders are more accurate and reliable than ever before. Using one in pursuit of a black bear adds another layer to the challenge and, in some cases, extra spice to the season.

Up the Ante — Muzzleloaders for Bear Hunting

Nearly everyone is painfully familiar with the bear attack depicted in “The Revenant,” and how the movie ends for Leonardo DiCaprio. My family apparently has the mauling memorized better than most. They recite the scene, word by word, every time I’m about to leave in pursuit of a bruin with my muzzleloader.

Their recollections are always punctuated with a reminder that the depiction is loosely based on an incident Hugh Glass survived — at least for a while — in the 1800s. It’s apparently entertaining fun for them, but it’s statistically improbable today.

During an average year, roughly 11 humans are attacked by a bear in the United States, and only one of those attacks is fatal. That’s all. Considering more than 50,000 grizzlies and somewhere between 300,000 and 750,000 black bears live here — depending on the source — along with a few polar bears passing through, the figure is surprisingly small. Nearly all the incidents are the result of the general public’s ignorance. A search on YouTube for Yellowstone National Park encounters illustrates that point. 

In other cases, someone becomes a victim because another person, unknown to them, is illegally feeding the animals nearby. Once accustomed to that act, bears take exception to any human who doesn’t offer handouts. Experienced outdoorsmen know and religiously follow practices to avoid attacks. Hunters on the losing end of an encounter are extremely rare, although when they are it never fails to make headlines.

Boring It is Not

The numbers indicate there’s no real danger when heading afield to hunt bears with a painfully slow-to-reload muzzleloader. So what’s the real attraction? It’s the challenge and satisfaction that attract Chad Shearer, director of advertising and media relations for CVA

“Hunting predators with a muzzleloader is very rewarding,” he said. “I especially prefer hunting bears with a muzzleloader. The larger, heavier PowerBelt muzzleloader bullets I use have the knockdown power needed to stop a bear in its tracks.”

“Muzzleloading certainly provides a one-shot challenge, so it can be exciting to use a muzzleloader when hunting predators,” added Allison Hall, marketing manager at Traditions Performance Firearms. 

Marsha Schearer, Chad’s wife and co-host of “Shoot Straight TV,” agreed, summarizing that hunting bears with a muzzleloader, “… is an adrenaline rush combined with a one-shot challenge.”

Precision Mandate

Don’t ask me how I know, but when there’s no bear to be seen after the smoke clears from a muzzleloader shot there are some unsettling moments. The incident numbers indicate there’s no reason for trepidation, but it underscores the importance of bringing the right equipment and building intimate familiarity with it. That starts with the gun.

“I think anyone who has taken the time to look into muzzleloading quickly realizes that muzzleloaders of today are not the same as they were back in the day,” Hall said. “Inline muzzleloaders have come a very long way in terms of performance. Our break-action muzzleloaders are all made with chromoly steel barrels and are capable of 200-plus yard shots. Rifling twists, such as our 1:24 inch VAPR twist, make our muzzleloaders extremely accurate. We are matching the rifling to the bullet and making sure the powder and primer all work cohesively, which translates to improved accuracy.”

Chad agrees that accuracy is key. “Having hunted in Canada several times with a muzzleloader, I have had several outfitters echo my sentiment saying, ‘We love it when the CVA muzzleloader folks are in camp, we very seldom have to track a bear taken with a modern muzzleloader.’”

Many factors can come into play when purchasing a muzzleloader, according to Hall. “What type of hunting are you doing? If you are doing more hunting in wooded areas/blinds/treestands, you may want to opt for a shorter barrel. If you are anticipating farther shots, a longer barrel might be the way to go. What features are crucial to you? If ease of loading is a huge factor, the NitroFire with the Firestick system should be your top choice.”

Chad concurs that when choosing a gun for bear hunting the first consideration should be the average distance of the shot. CVA makes several great options, including its budget-friendly Wolf line and popular Accura models that have earned an enviable reputation for performance and the flat-shooting Paramount Pro that delivers performance rivaling many centerfires. 

Other Considerations

Bears blend into their surroundings with alarming dexterity. For that reason, Chad says quality optics are a critical consideration. “Many times, black bears come in at low light and an illuminated reticle is very helpful compared to a black reticle on a black bear, which can be difficult to see,” he said. “For the price you can’t beat the Konus Glory 2-16x50mm.” Features he prefers on the optic include its removable zoom throw lever, extremely wide field of view and multicoating for great light transmission.

Anyone interested in starting out in muzzleloading, though, should try before they buy, according to Hall. “I always recommend going into a store and shouldering a firearm,” she said. “It’s important to find a muzzleloader that is comfortable for you.”

There’s another critical component, too. “Make sure you match the bullet for the type of predator,” Chad cautioned. “When hunting large black bears, I like the PowerBelt ELR 330-grain bullet combined with 100 grains of IMR White Hot powder.”

Bear Regulations

Most states have launched muzzleloader-specific seasons for deer. Whether they arrive earlier, before centerfire pressure reduces success rates or are simply longer, it’s a big advantage inching its way into bear management.  

“Some states, such as Pennsylvania and Virginia, actually have dedicated black bear muzzleloading seasons,” Hall said. “Legality is also something everyone should do their homework on. If you are hunting in a particular season or state, understand the regulations and what [equipment] can be used.”

The Heritage of Bear Hunting

There’s something special about pursuing bears with a muzzleloader. Finding the right bullet, proper powder or pellet charge and deliberately limiting yourself to a pioneer-like single shot delivers an unusual sense of timeless accomplishment. 

Chad forwarded an entry from a Michigan Historical Society clipping that mentioned his great, great grandfather, who hunted bears there. “John Schearer has had considerable experience in this line, and his expeditions generally end successfully,” it reads. “In the fall of 1872, he killed three black bears; he shot more from trees in the forest where they were busily engaged in eating acorns. In the course of five years he killed 16 in all.” Chad still owns his muzzleloader, a family heirloom that holds a place of honor in his Montana home.

When the Curtain Rises

My record is embarrassingly pale by comparison. In fact, I’ve blanked when it comes to taking a bear with a muzzleloader, but I’m going back every season. The show alone is well worth the price of admission and I’m not sure the players would be as animated once rifle season arrived.   

Bears are sneaky quiet when they want to be — ghost like. While hunting from a stand in Canada, I had one crawl in directly below me without making a sound. In fact, I have no idea how long it was watching me. 

It wasn’t huge, so the guy with me insisted I pass. I complied and after the bruin saw me wake my co-hunter from his nap it eagerly displayed its might. It tossed small logs, ripped branches off trees and generally let us know it owned the forest. Afterward, it drifted back into the wilderness just as silently as it arrived.

They can be loud, too. The next season I passed on an immature bear that came in with identical stealth. Nothing else came in the rest of that day. Hours later — as I waited in the dark to be picked up outside the ground blind — I could hear what I think was the same small bruin gnashing its teeth and grumbling. Then it started crashing through trees nearby, constantly moving around me.

There I was, armed with a muzzleloader I forgot I had dutifully removed the primer from — for safety sake before my ride to camp — and a dim headlamp. That meant I had a club I thought was a gun, a narrow strip of light that reached maybe 20 yards and a predator circling. I felt like I was about to relive that “The Revenant” scene until my chariot arrived.

It didn’t turn out to be my mathematically improbable last stand, but it was an indelible experience, one I don’t regret. I’m not sure I want to repeat it — the primerless part, especially — but there’s no way I’m missing bear season this year. If you want to up the ante when you head out on your next bear hunt, give it a try with a muzzleloader. You’ll be glad you did.


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