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Choosing Bullets for Muzzleloaders

E-mail Double guns with bullets on kudu hide
Round balls in 12-gauge and .50-caliber were used in the double-barreled muzzleloading rifles on the L. and R., and a skirted PowerBelt was used in the middle gun.

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  Outside of putting the bullet in the right place, the next most important thing is that the bullet  is of appropriate size, weight and design to destroy sufficient tissue to quickly kill the animal.  Muzzleloading bullets come in four basic designs, round balls, elongated bullets, saboted projectiles and skirted bullets.

 Traditionalist can rightly claim that patched round balls of sufficient diameter can kill any of the world’s game. The trick is that they not only be large enough but also sufficiently hard for penetration on large species like bison, Cape buffalo, elephant and the like. I have hit, but failed to kill, with round balls that were too soft to penetrate deep enough in heavy animals because the bullets deformed into rounded discs.

  For deer and average-sized hogs, .50-caliber patched round balls do well with about 100 grains of FFg black powder equivalent. Moving up to elk and big boars a .54-caliber is appropriate. For big African species the 8 and 4 gauges are,  and always were, recommended  while 12-gauge balls could be used for things like zebra and wildebeest.

E-mail .54-caliber MaxiBall used to shoot a European boar.
.54-caliber fired and unfired T/C MaxiBall from boar

 Bullets with their longer length allow more bullet weight for the 1:45-1:22 twists barrels that are designed to use them, which includes all in-line and many side-lock rifles.  I have shot more Thompson/Center MaxiBalls in .50 and .54 calibers than any other type of elongate projectile. These bullets work best if they hit bone before they go through the lungs in order to insure expansion. I have lost game with high-lung shots that hit the animals, but did not yield good blood trails.

 Saboted bullets use a plastic cup between the bullet and the barrel. This cup has to have an appropriate composition to stand the heat and pressure generated by the powder charge in order to give good accuracy. Also, they require that the barrel be whipped every few shoots to keep the plastic residue from gumming up the barrel. One quick follow-up shot can be managed, but if you shoot more than three or four times, you need to clean the barrel to be able to force another bullet down the bore.

  I like the Barnes type solid copper bullets when used with sabots. These will expand even on small animals, and the solid copper bases continue to drive through the animals.   I have also had success with Thompson/Centers’ Shock Wave spire pointed .50-caliber, 250 grain sabots on deer-sized game using both 100 and 150-grain charges.

E-mail Components
Fired and recovered bullets from Cape buffalo and ostrich

  In most modern designed rifled muzzleloaders I use the PowerBelt bullets. I like the .50-caliber, 295 grain weight for deer and used 444 and 530 grain .50-caliber PowerBelts in Africa on ostrich and Cape buffalo.   Power belts bullets are made of copper plated pure lead, except for their now-discontinued steel tipped Safari bullets that I used on Cape buffalo.

  This bullet has the plastic skirt common to all PowerBelts, a pure lead midsection to engage the rifling and a steel point. The pure lead 444 grain bullet expanded to about 70 caliber and remained in the body of an ostrich. Although of heavy weight, this bullet would not have done the job on a buffalo.   

 No bullet will compensate for poor shot placement, but choosing an appropriate bullet for the gun and game will help insure success. For recommendations on inexpensive muzzleloading outfits see other articles in this blog and my book, Backyard deer hunting:Converting deer to dinner for pennies per pound.

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Buying Used Crossbows

E-mail Horton Steel Force with bobcat
After much struggle, a kill was finally made with Horton's Steel Force Crossbow. Both the author and another hunter missed deer with it because if its terrible trigger pull.

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 The axiom that potential buyer of used crossbows should keep in mind is, “Good crossbows are seldom sold, but less good ones often are.”  While economic necessity might force someone to give up his favorite hunting crossbow, it is much more likely that only death or disability would part a user from a crossbow that had consistently performed for him.

  Crossbow technology is being upgraded every year. About every decade it would pay to take another look  and see if any new crossbow offers sufficiently increased capabilities to justify buying a new one. The majority of crossbows seen in pawn shops are the less expensive models, older ones with less desirable features or are somehow broken. Archery shops are better places to look, because their owners would be less likely to take in poor or non-functional equipment.

E-mail A Fred Bear Crossbow now no longer made
The author though enough of this Fred Bear Crossbow to take on an Alaskan hunt, but the company no longer makes crossbows.

  Crossbows to avoid at any price, even free, are those that are huge, ugly, have a pseudo-military look about them, those that shoot arrows using standard knocks and  those made in China with strange camo patterns. Hard looks need to be given to crossbows by Bear Archery and PSE. These may be shootable, but parts (other than having custom strings made) for older crossbows may no longer be available.

  One of the most common crossbows that shows up is the Horton Steel Force, which was for years the least expensive crossbow in that company’s line. These had terrible, non-adjustable triggers that were extremely difficult to shoot. These have now been discontinued and should have been. I can’t recommend them for anything.  

 I recently shot an example of an O.K. used crossbow. This was a

E-mail Barnett Revolution
A used Barnett Revolution, that if priced at about $150 would be a reasonable hunting crossbow for stationary shots.

Barnett Revolution split-limbed compound crossbow. This crossbow was about 10 years old, was apparently seldom fired and had a functional scope. I chose some new carbon arrows for it, gave it some 100-grain points and it shot very well. Like most crossbows of that era it had a long  trigger pull. If your target was stationary and if you were shooting from a rest, this crossbow would work. How much is worth?  I would say, $150.

E-mail GA gator crossbow knife pistol and harpoon
The Horton Hawk in this picture has been used to take gators up to 12-feet long.

 I have also had a Horton Hawk, that is of a  later time period, but used the same compound-wheel technology. These had better triggers and some components might still be available. This might also be a reasonable purchase for about the same price. I leave mine rigged for alligator hunting and have taken several of the big reptiles with it.

    Go with used crossbows by makers who only make crossbows like Barnett, Horton, TenPoint and Excalibur.  Work through archery shops if possible. Shoot before you buy. See if the money asked won’t get you into a mid-price-range new crossbow. Only if all of these considerations are favorable, should you purchase a used crossbow.

For more information on crossbows, check out my book Crossbow Hunting at

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Mossberg 500 and 835 Shotguns


From the top down. Mossberg 835 UltraMag and Model 500s in 12-gauge Model 500, 20-gauge and .410-bore.

  Mossberg pump-action shotguns have remained among the least expensive repeating shotguns on the American market and have been produced by the millions.  These guns in varying condition are common on used-guns racks, and those who are now looking for inexpensive hunting tools are finding them attractively priced.

E-mail Mossberg 835 with pattern
Mossberg with effective turkey pattern shot at 40 yards

  The question is, “Are these guns worth having?”  Often they don’t look too good because the aluminum receivers are easily scared and don’t retain their finishes terribly well. They were also low-cost guns to begin with, and their owners often did not take care of them.

 These guns are found in 12, 16, 20 and .410 gauges, and the 835 will even chamber the 3 1/2-inch 12-gauge hull and function with any smaller 12-gauge shell. Unless they have been treated terribly, or someone has disassembled them and not put the “extra parts” back where they needed to be, these are very durable guns. If repairs are needed, the parts are available.

 Options for 12-gauge and 20-gauge guns include slug barrels, barrels with interchangeable chokes (except for the 410 and 16 gauge), a muzzleloading barrel for the 12-gauge 500s  (you must also disassemble and clean the entire action after you shoot black-powder or most substitutes)  and ribbed barrels.  Barrels and chokes are not interchangeable between the Model 500 and 835,  so be certain that your replacement barrel is for your gun.  Unless you are a young shooter or a small individual, I would recommend the 12-gauge guns.

 I add weight to the 835 to make it really shootable by pouring lead

E-mail Paul Presley shooting 12 gauge 835 Mossberg 12 gauge pump
Adding weight to the Mossberg 835 is necessary to make it really shootable with heavy loads

shot fixed in melted beeswax into the hollow buttstock and using a piece of steel re-bar for a plug in the magazine. This increased weight tames the gun sufficiently so that I can shoot 3 1/2-inch 12-gauge turkey and waterfowl loads in it without loosening teeth. (Seriously, this gun is much too light to shoot with these  heavy loads without adding weight to it.)  The newer barrels also come with muzzlebreaks, but I would also add the extra weight to guns fitted with them. 

 In short, the Mossbergs are good, inexpensive, versatile guns that with a little care will take your deer, waterfowl and small game year after year. They also allow you to shoot a variety of shell lengths in 12, 20, and .410 gauges without making any adjustments to the gun so that you don’t have to shoot the most expensive shells all the time.

The 12-gauge Mossberg 500 was provided by the manufacturer, the others were purchased as new or used guns.

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Hunting Knives for Deer and Other Game

E-mail Folding and fixed blade knives which the author has used for decades
Knives like this Schrade folding knife and the "Sharp Finger" are what most American hunters think of as hunting knives.

  As I demonstrate in Backyard Deer Hunting: Converting deer to dinner for pennies per pound, almost any steel knife that has a sharp edge may be used to process deer and similar-sized game animals. Larger game such as moose and elk

E-mail This rusted old Kamp King knife was used to skin and process this deer.
With a sharpened edge, this old Kamp King knife did fine for skinning and cutting up this deer.

require bigger tools, but for deer anything with from 2-4 inches of blade length will serve.

 If you want to save the hide it pays to use a knife with not too much “prick” on the point. Spear pointed blades such as the one on the old Kamp King knife shown in the lead photo will do very well for skinning without jabbing through the hide with nearly every cut.

E-mail Case Tripple X changer with blades
Case XX changer using interchangeable blades to accomplish a variety of tasks.

 Milti-bladed knives have a place in that they offer a variety of blades that can be used to open the hide, take off the skin and sometimes even saw blades. Such knives may have interchangeable blades, like the Case XX Changer, or only two with different point styles.


 A little “hunt magic” is incorporated into knives that use part of the animal to make the knife. The extreme is in the Germanic knives which actually use a hoof for the handle and many knives which incorporate stag handles. An

E-mail Folding German hunter with carry pouch
European hoof-handled knife with pouch.

 American company, Silver Stag, ( will take your antler section and make a specialized knife from it with an appropriate-sized blade with, or without, a schrimshawed picture. I can’t think of a better way to commemorate a young hunter’s first kill that was just too small to mount.

  Yet other types of hunting knives are specialized in that they are mostly designed for either killing game or skinning. These are often large fixed-blade with Bowie blades with a sharp point or even cleaver shaped with rounded edges.  Killing knives can have blades that are over a foot long and are very nearly short swords.

E-mail A set of Italian fixed blade hunting knives.
A variety of custom knives for killing and skinning from Italian makers, although the Bowie deisgn (L.) has American origins.

 There is much variety and interest in hunting knives. I often write about this subject in Knife World and in the Krause knife annuals such as “Knives 2010” which are now on the stands.

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Squirrel Stew, Part 2.

Squirrel stews are often the first wild game meal of the season and frequently the first game cooked by new hunters.
Squirrel stews are often the first wild game meal of the season and frequently the first game cooked by new hunters.

 Squirrels are among the most underutilized game animal in North America. The two common species, the gray and fox squirrels (there is also the red squirrel of the Arctic and the Albert squirrel of the Southwestern desert mountains), may be taken with .22 rifles, handguns (in some states), muzzleloading rifles (almost everywhere) and both muzzleloading and breechloading shotguns. These are often the first game animal taken by young hunters.

Cleaned squirrel and hide.
Cleaned squirrel and hide.

  Cleaning the animals are easier when they are warm. Squirrel hides cling tightly to the carcass. The best way is to cut around the body and then pull the hide in opposite directions with both hands. Clean and wash the squirrels and freeze until you have the five (or so) it takes for a stew.

 I like to first salt, flour and brown the cut-up squirrels in hot oil. There is no need to cook completely done,  just brown.  Boil the meat in a pot until the meat falls off the bone. This will take an hour or two. Remove and debone the meat. Then add canned corn, stewed tomatoes, cut-up onion, 1/4 of a bell pepper, salt and pepper to taste to the squirrel meat and water. You will need to add more water as it cooks. If the end result taste too “fresh” add a little more salt. Also try a tablespoon of vinegar and see if you like that additive.   

 Play around with the recipe. You can spice it up or cook it bland or put in other things like cut-up potatoes. Almost anything works except carrots.

 See my books, Backyard Deer Hunting: Converting deer to dinner for pennies per pound and Crossbow Hunting,   for details. Be patient, it is going to take some hours to finish up the stew.  The squirrel can also be browned and started in a crock pot while you are out hunting and the stew finished when you get back.

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Persimmons: Good for Cooking, Eating and Game

Big seedless Japanese persimmons are more available than the wild products, but are not as tasty.
Big seedless Japanese persimmons are more available than the wild products, but are not as tasty.


In early Fall when the persimmons start dropping, the outdoor world goes wild for them. There is almost nothing out there that will not eat ripe persimmons, including my dogs. If I am picking them up, I have to be quick or my “hound dogs” will get them before I do.

  Persimmons are so easy to cook, or even eat raw, that many recipes have been developed for them.  With soft, ripe persimmons all that needs to be done is to mash them through a sieve to remove the seed and rime, mix them with nuts and raisins (or almost anything else), add a little flour for thickening, chill, boil to kill any bacteria and you have a pudding.

First attempt at bread using Japanese persimmons, whole-wheat flour and almonds. Needed sweetner and dried fruit for added flavor.
First attempt at bread using Japanese persimmons, whole-wheat flour and almonds. Needed sweetner and dried fruit for added flavor.

  The pudding can be enriched by adding an egg, and if you want perhaps a little sugar substitute.  Some added sweetner in the way of sugar, honey or dried fruit is needed with the large Japanese persimmons which are seedless, big and not nearly as tasty as our wild products.  Add two eggs, more flour, put into a crust and you have a persimmon pie. The problem is finding enough wild persimmons to do it.

 On the Georgia coast there are

Ripe persimmons, ready for consumption by man or beast.
Ripe persimmons, ready for consumption by man or beast.

persimmon trees that are nearly two feet in diameter and as tall as a two-story house. Most of the trees that we now have in the Southeast are growing in over-cut lands and are much smaller. After storms, deer go from tree to tree to see if any “deer candy” has fallen. The seeds show prominently in their droppings when they are feeding on the fruit.

  I gather some persimmons and freeze them. When I deer hunt I spread a persimmon mush on nearby trees as a scent attractant.

The end product of persimmon seeds after having gone through a deer's digestive system. When these seed are lightly covered with soil they will germinate.
The end product of persimmon seeds after having gone through a deer's digestive system. When these seed are lightly covered with soil they will germinate.
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Urban Deer Control Programs Ongoing in Many States

Two urban deer taken by the author on one afternoon's hunt.
Two urban deer taken by the author on one afternoon's hunt.

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  Urban deer control by hunters has been widely recognized as an effective and efficient tool for reducing deer populations near metropolitan areas. States like Ohio, Missouri, Arkansas, Georgia, Maryland, Montana and Pennsylvania have policies for allowing hunters to help reduce urban deer populations.  Other states, cities and towns are considering such programs.

  These programs have been successful with deer reductions on the order of 50 percent being reported from some areas of Missouri.

  The need for deer population reductions are to reduce vehicle-deer collisions, reduce the potential of the deer transmitting Lyme disease and other vectors, reduce attacks by rut-crazy bucks, save endangered plants,  decrease the amount of browse on gardens and ornamental plantings and improve the health of the deer.

Death from starvation and disease are the result of overly concentrated deer populations.
Death from starvation and disease are the result of overly concentrated deer populations.

  Overpopulation stresses food resources, increases the chances of disease transmission from deer to deer with the result that starving deer must forage more which increases the potential for vehicle hits. Each year in the U.S. there are some 1,000,000 deer-vehicle strikes, 10,000 injuries to people and about 100 deaths. Airbags often deploy when a deer is struck, and the driver no longer has control over the vehicle which could plunge off the road or into on-coming traffic.

 Archery hunting using bows and crossbows shot from elevated tree stands is often the best tool to use. All of the shots are directed towards the ground, these stands offer good visibility and many hunters are already using these types of stands.

 Arrow shot, or even gunshot, deer do not often fall in their tracks.

Ask before you retrieve.
Ask before you retrieve.

 They will run and die 30 to 150 yards away. In urban areas they might expire on someone else’s property. Most people would not want a deer rotting in their driveway; however it is trespass to enter onto someone else’s property without permission. Talk to your neighbours and get permission prior to your hunting.

  To give faster kills so that the deer will not run as far, I use points with very wide cutting arms like the Grim Reaper with extra-long blades (see earlier posts) for taking small, close-range deer.

  For more information see posts on my books, Backyard Deer Hunting: Converting deer to dinner for pennies per pound  and  Crossbow Hunting.

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Best Production American Made Revolver and Bolt Action Rifle


Four shots fired at 50 yards from the S&W .460 revolver. I would have no trouble hunting with this fine revolver.
Four shots fired at 50 yards from the S&W .460 revolver. I would have no trouble hunting with this fine revolver.

  Although I almost never hunt with cartridge guns, I still enjoy shooting them at writers’ conferences and trade events. Two guns that recently struck me as being the “best of their class” were the Smith & Wesson .460 revolver and the South Carolina made Winchester Model 70.

  The .460 has a lot of muzzle blasts and recoil. I shoot a few shots a year with it and its larger relative, the .500 S&W. This is quite enough for my old joints. Even for younger people shooting these big guns with full-powered loads should be done with moderation. I will never own one, but would readily take one on a hunt if invited. For my own use I would prefer these cartridges shot from a 14-inch barrel fitted to an Encore Thompson Center Arms single-shot pistol.

The new South Carolina made pre-64 Model 70 Winchester.
The new South Carolina made pre-64 Model 70 Winchester.

 This new rendition of the pre-64 Model 70 Winchester is a light-weight version fitted with a floating barrel and nicely stocked in American walnut. It is a delight to carry, and in .270 Winchester, it is an excellent shooting gun. When the  barrel was shot so much that it became too hot to touch, the gun lost its accuracy – as is typical of featherweight barrels.

 For myself, I would prefer this gun with a heavier barrel. I will  never own one, as I don’t hunt with cartridge guns anymore unless they are the only available option. (In some European countries hunting with muzzleloading guns, bows and crossbows  is illegal.)  

   I think a lot of American shooters will be delighted with this revitalized version of the Model 70.  Many never really appreciated the Model 70 until we very nearly lost it forever.

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Reusing Hunting Arrows and Points

  Today’s carbon shafts and mechanical points may commonly be

Although some of these points are too far gone, some may be rebuilt and reused.
Although some of these points are too far gone, some may be rebuilt and reused.

cleaned and successfully reused, in comparison with aluminum shafts which could be slightly bent when passing through a deer or or wooden shafts which often broke.  

Grim Reaper point after cutting through 200 lb. hog.
Grim Reaper point after cutting through 200 lb. hog.




Resharpening the limbs on a Grim Reaper point.
Resharpening the limbs on a Grim Reaper point.
 I frequently use vise grips to hold the cutting limbs on these heads when I resharpen them, and these grips and some spare parts always go in my “away from home” hunting kit. With points and shafts sometimes costing tens of dollars, it is a considerable savings to salvage and re-use what you can. 

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   It is possible to take a good thing too far. These points are

Replaceing the damaged components in the bottom of the picture enables this point and arrow to be returned to service.
Replaceing the damaged components in the bottom of the picture enables this point and arrow to be returned to service.

carefully balanced. If a component is nicked or bent replace it. Always take care that the stem of the point remains true and that the cutting edges open easily. Be frugal, but not foolish in an attempt to save every possible penny.
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How to Shoot a Deer

E-mail Backyard deer cover 

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The picture of this deer is from the cover of my book, Backyard Deer Hunting: Converting deer to dinner for pennies per pound. This deer is standing broadside and looking straight at the photographer who was able to raise her camera and take the photo.

 Really wild deer are not commonly as foolish as this backyard visitor. The optimum place to place an arrow or bullet is behind the crease of the front leg mid-way down the body. This will take out both lungs. Should it go a little low, it will take out the heart or the blood vessels above it.  If a little high it will hit the spine.

 From a tree stand with a rifle, spine shots are good. These will down the deer in its tracks. Often a quick follow-up shot will be needed. If it is squirming on the ground shoot it again. Near spine hits can down a deer, only to have it recover, get up and run.

 Moving deer are always a problem. If you aim at the shoulder on a walking deer the hit with an arrow will likely be in the middle of the body. With a faster bullet this is not quite so much of a problem, but it is a factor if the deer is beyond about 50 yards. If the deer is at a steady walk at 200 yards with a rifle aim about four inches into the shoulder.  If the deer should stop, that will still be a good hit, if it continues its pace the bullet will take out both lungs.

 When lever action guns using soft lead bullets were being used, two problems arose.  Many of these guns, like the 1873 Winchester, were under powered and not particularly accurate. Unless the spine or bone was hit these bullets would often not expand, but punch straight through the animal. The advice was often to, “Shoot for the biggest part of the animal and keep shooting until the critter is down.  Reload and keep shooting until it is dead.”

 Modern expanding bullets kill very effectively. A better approach is to wait until the animal offers a good shot. Place that single shot where it needs to be to take out both lungs. Aim carefully, watch your breath control and trigger pull and steadily increase pressure on the trigger until the rifle fires. Exactly the same approach is needed for crossbows and muzzleloaders – none of this bang, bang stuff with the hope that something will connect. If the shot is that chancy, wait for another deer.

 I know that is hard. Be patient, more deer will come. Even if they do not, there will be another day when you can place that vital shot or arrow in exactly the right spot.  Watch every deer being cleaned that you can. This will teach you more about deer anatomy and projectile performance than anything else.

 There is much satisfaction in overcoming “deer fever” and doing precision shooting, despite your instincts to just blast away. If deer did not get your heart pumping and have you a bit excited, you might as well shoot hogs in a feed lot. Good game shooting is as much of a contest between you and you as between you and the deer.

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