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Shotgun or Muzzleloader?

The choices hunters face when hunting whitetails where rifles are not an option can be confounding.


It’s a choice every hunter dreads, yet still hopes he will encounter someday.

I had been watching a huge buck for two days in a row. His antlers were an unusually bright white and so big he looked like something out of a Dr. Seuss book.

I had seen him twice the morning before; both times he was out of range. This morning, as the sun lit up south-central Iowa, he was feeding out in a bean field 360 yards from my stand, much too far for my firearm. Within a few minutes of light’s arrival, he drifted off into the woods. But, now there was another buck in the cornfield to my right, in range and coming closer. He was big, not a match for the white-horned buck, but big.

He was also available.

So far it had not been my best year of deer hunting. I tried, but it seemed like the world was aligned against me. A couple of early hunts were just unmitigated disasters and ended with no shots fired. My home state, Vermont, had experienced one of the snowiest winters on record and the winter kill was worse than anybody imagined. It was like an alien spaceship had run a giant vacuum cleaner around the woods and sucked up most of the deer. There were very few tracks and droppings and the mast crop lay rotting and uneaten on the ground. Still, I managed to locate the biggest buck I have seen in 45 years of hunting in Vermont. He came from a direction I didn’t expect and I had to climb a few feet up a steep bank and poke my rifle through some brush and over a blowdown. It was an amateur mistake, one I should never have made; my scope cleared the blowdown while my bullet did not. It clipped the top of the log and sailed off to that place where misbehaving bullets go to die.

That shot still keeps me up at night.

So here I was, late in the year and venison-free. I was hunting with my good friend Mike Mattly, who is the PR director for Pradco, on his farm in Iowa. Faithful readers may remember “The Bully Buck” I wrote about in American Hunter a couple years ago. I shot him in the last hours of the last day in the most brutal cold and wind I have ever experienced while deer hunting. I could see the hay bale I used to block the wind that day, just 50 yards from my current stand. I shot another very nice 9-point buck less than 200 yards from here a few years before that. His photo and story also graced these pages. This ground had been generous to me but I wondered if it was trying to send a message.

I turned to look again at the buck feeding in my direction. As the morning light grew stronger, I was beginning to see more detail as he moved through the brown, standing corn that filled the steep hillside and his dark antlers appeared to grow larger. I watched him and thought about that white-horned giant. Then I said out loud, “Go away before I shoot you!”

But not loud enough for him to hear. I am not completely insane. Still, as if he heard, he disappeared for a while and I breathed a sigh of relief. The irony of experiencing relief when a world-class buck walks off didn’t occur to me until later.

Well, perhaps irony is not as good a word as stupidity, particularly considering the tough year I was having.

When he reappeared the light was much better and he had grown considerably larger antlers. Must’ve been the corn diet.

Through the clear lenses of my Swarovski binocular I could see that he was a true 12-point buck. While the front point on each side was broken off, the bases remained. In all my years of hunting whitetails just about every place they live, and in shooting what is probably far more than my fair share, I had never shot a true 12-point, main-frame, whitetail buck. I have lots of 10s with an extra couple of points, but a clean, typical 12-point has eluded me and I was a bit obsessed with finding one. Of course the deer hunting gods exposed their usual cruelty with the broken tines, but I could live with that.

I made a decision: This was the buck I truly wanted. I took my eyes off him for a moment to reach behind me for my gun and when I looked back he had his head down feeding in the cornfield about 75 yards away. Just before the final slack came out of the trigger I realized something was wrong, so I waited. When he picked up his head, the buck morphed into a huge doe.

Twenty minutes ago I was telling him to run away, now I was trying not to lose my breakfast out the blind’s window. The disappointment turned me numb. But, over the years of hunting I have learned that when you are not sure what to do, it’s best to do nothing. So I waited and watched.

Ten minutes later a cornstalk shook a little, even though there was no wind. I focused the binoc and could see an antler tine tapping it as the buck struggled with a cob he had pinned with his front feet. It took about three eons of waiting, but finally he abandoned that ear and moved into an open row. When his shoulder was covered by the crosshairs, I finished my interrupted date with the trigger.

In a lot of places deer hunters now have the choice I faced on this hunt. No, not the choice to shoot the really big buck in front of me or hold out for the really, really big buck that may or may not show up later, but the dilemma of using a shotgun or muzzleloader.

In all the years I have hunted in south-central Iowa, this buck was a game-changer. Until then I had shot all my deer there with a muzzleloader. The wide 12-point fell to a Benelli and the new Federal Trophy Copper 12-gauge slug. In fact, I was using engineering samples from Federal and it was one of the first deer ever taken with that new slug.

Which Gun?
So, how do you choose between a shotgun or muzzleloader? Which is the best option? There are pros and cons to each. The most obvious: A shotgun carries more than one shot so it’s very fast on the reload. In fact, if you’re using a Benelli Super Black Eagle semi-auto like I was, the gun will be ready for the next shot in about .15 second. I have gotten pretty good at reloading a muzzleloader over the years, but I am not that fast.

Compared to a muzzleloader, a shotgun does not have to be cleaned every time you shoot it or risk corrosion destroying the firearm. That’s a big plus for anybody but a masochist with a gun-cleaning fetish. Shotguns are much more reliable in wet weather than a muzzleloader. If you have not experienced the frustration and rage of a muzzleloader failing to fire at a deer while hunting in the rain, well then I’ll wager you have not hunted with them much. Trust me, it will happen, sooner or later it gets everybody.

Accuracy—I picked at random 30, three-shot, 100-yard groups from slugs and slug guns I have tested for the NRA over the past few years. I included all the popular, top-of-the-line, 12-gauge sabot slugs and several different shotguns. I came up with an average 100-yard, three-shot group size of 2.54 inches.

I looked at an equal number of three-shot, 100-yard muzzleloader groups with several rifles. These included a multitude of different rifles, bullets, propellants and propellant charges. The average for those groups is 2.24 inches. With a difference of only .3 inch that’s pretty much a dead heat. To be honest I was surprised. I thought the muzzleloader would kick the shotgun’s butt in accuracy, but the numbers don’t lie.

Of course, a shooter can choose an accurate firearm and then experiment with different loads or ammo until he finds the one that is the most accurate and probably cut those numbers significantly. But that would tell us nothing. This is a relatively large sample picked at random and it says the muzzleloader has a slight advantage in accuracy, but very slight.

Shotgun slugs have changed and evolved over the past few decades so that the modern sabot slug is now very similar to the modern sabot muzzleloader bullet. The new Federal 300-grain Trophy Copper shotgun slug is an expanding, solid copper bullet with a polymer tip and represents the leading edge of slug technology. Jessica Stevens at Barnes Bullets tells me that their bestselling muzzleloader bullet is the 250-grain Spitfire T-EZ. So, let’s look at the external and terminal ballistics of these two for comparison.

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3 Responses to Shotgun or Muzzleloader?

Chris wrote:
January 28, 2015

I have this rifled shotgun v muzzleloader dilemma right now, which gun to buy for 2015 deer season. For me in Ohio it came down to, which weapon has more hunting days...muzzleloader at 14 days or shotgun at 7.

Pilic wrote:
September 08, 2012

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yankeeclipper747 wrote:
September 06, 2012

Man, I only wish I had the dilemma! Any chance to hunt with anything would be a good day! My hunting mostly has been an enjoyable day taking my gun for a walk in the woods!