It's a great fall evening in the Ozarks, Missouri Territory, in the fall of '37 -- 1837, that is. Back East there's a new thing called an economic depression going on, and while you're pretty self sufficient, it's been hard to feed the family these days. You have to be especially careful with the gun -- careful not to waste the precious powder and lead, so you wait.
The rustling in the treetop leaves comes closer, then close enough, and as the sweet rifle reports, tonight's main course comes plummeting to earth. It feels good knowing there'll be more than just potatoes on the supper table, but it's more than just that. Heading back into the valley, you can't help linger, savoring the satisfaction of making your living with your gun and your skill in the great outdoors.
It's a long-lived tradition and one of the truest tests of a hunter, squirrel hunting that is. In the early American frontier, your reputation was often built on how far away you could displace a squirrel's eyeball with a .32-caliber piece of lead. The best hunters did even better than that. They "barked" a squirrel, blasting the branch next to the squirrel's head, stunning the animal with an explosion of wood, preventing waste of any precious meat. Even the original accounts of the exploits of Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone glorify their squirrel hunting finesse, and that's significant considering their other great achievements.
Squirrel hunting today has lost a lot of that romance in the scramble for big game trophies and exotic hunts. I believe squirrel hunting is the most overlooked hunting there is, offering some of the best opportunities and greatest hunting challenges around.
You enhance the satisfaction and enjoyment of hunting when you add the elements of black powder and patched balls. You know you made the hunt successful with a primitive gun that is somehow more part of you, because of the skill required and from the custom loads you develop yourself. And then there's the feeling you get from knowing that you've had the unique hunting experience of our pioneers, perhaps your own relatives, that very few people today can claim.
The "squirrel gun" is a fondly remembered piece of muzzleloading Americana. Long, sleek, with precise sights and crisp trigger, the best of these guns produced open-sighted accuracy that was awesome even by today's standards. Their owners took pride in their rifles and their use, and brought marksmanship to a high plane.
Today, as then, there are certain standards in what makes a good blackpowder squirrel rifle. The classic squirrel gun was a .32 caliber, though old-time gunsmiths often built .28, .30, and other bastard bores. The .36 caliber was -- and still is -- a favorite of hunters who are primarily after squirrels, but who want to be ready in case it's a turkey, bobcat, coon or fox that peeks around the tree.
A .32 caliber has roughly the same energy at normal hunting ranges as a modern .22 Long Rifle, but its larger diameter and sheer mass gives it the edge in knock-down power. A .32-caliber ball of lead weighs more and will cause more destruction than a modern .22 solid. And its performance is more reliable than a modern .22 hollowpoint, which may or may not expand at the right time and degree.
A lot of hunters go out to buy a blackpowder squirrel rifle, expecting a light, compact gun, and are surprised to find that it weighs as much or more than the muzzleloader they use for deer hunting. This is because many muzzleloader makers today use the same barrels for squirrel guns as they do for deer rifles. The bore they cut is smaller, so there's more steel left in the barrel, which makes the gun heavier. This should be viewed as an attribute, however. The heavier barrel, less affected by temperature and other stresses, aids hunting accuracy in the same way that the bull barrel of a benchrest shooter's rifle helps his scores.
The traditional squirrel gun's barrel is long, another aid to accuracy. A longer barrel means a longer sighting plane -- more distance between the front and rear sight -- which makes aiming more precise. The longer barrel also allows more complete burning of powder for higher, more consistent bullet velocity.
Load And Accuracy Refinement
Developing accuracy to take squirrels consistently with a muzzleloader is no small task. You have to find the most accurate load for your gun, develop good shooting fundamentals, and practice in way that maximizes accuracy under hunting conditions.
Each blackpowder rifle will shoot best with a certain load. The only way to find this optimum load is to test several variables under very controlled circumstances. As you shoot targets at 15 yards to 25 yards (about the range you'll be shooting squirrels), try different propellants, different propellant charges, and different projectiles on a shooting range.
Use a benchrest and sandbags, wipe out the bore and let the barrel cool after each shot, and concentrate on good shooting technique. Staying within manufacturer's guidelines, change one variable at a time, taking notes along the way, until you find the most accurate combination of powder, projectile and loading technique for your gun.
After you've sighted in, developed accuracy and learned about your gun on a bench rest, practice under simulated hunting conditions. The best advice for improving your accuracy here is to make a shooting sticks bipod. This consists simply of two, one-half-inch diameter, 36-inch-long wooden dowels tied together loosely about 4 inches from their ends. As you pull the opposite ends apart, the wrapping will tighten, giving you a solid fork at the top to rest your gun, and a wide base at the bottom for stability.
Be Wary Of Treetops
Remember that if you plan to shoot into the treetops, it can affect your point of impact. Your gun may tend to shoot high, depending on the load and the distance of your shot. It won't be much, but fractions of an inch can make a difference when shooting at squirrels. Practice by shooting at targets on a steep bank to find how elevation affects your point of impact.
Practice shooting from your bipod, from a tree trunk rest, or whatever position you plan to shoot from. Work on improving accuracy, and use life-size targets to determine your effective shooting range -- which will be the range that you can shoot 2-inch groups. Knowing this will tell you when to shoot, and when to wait till the squirrel gets closer.
Coming home with a batch of squirrels ready for the stew pot is a good feeling. But even more gratifying is using a primitive firearm to make an abundant hunting opportunity more challenging and enjoyable. Give it a try, for old times' sake.
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