Regardless of the historical era, any mention of firearms will likely focus the mind to rifles: the Kentucky long rifle; the Winchester ‘73, ’94 or Model 70s; M1 Garands and Remington 700s. These and others pretty much define the evolution of firearms. But if truth be known, it is the shotgun that has been the mainstay of civilian shooters. Shotguns provided food and protection for as long as people have been shooting.
Muzzleloading is highly popular today. But as that first statement notes, the rifle is the primary arm of choice. It is a common big-game tool. The shotgun, however, seldom gets much consideration. In fact, there are not likely many who understand how to prepare a muzzleloading shotgun for effective use. Make no mistake, however; a well loaded shotgun, even the black powder variety, can be effective for clay targets, small game, waterfowl, or turkeys.
Selecting the shotgun is the first step and there are many on the market today. Certainly the truly modern units such as the Knight TK2000 are capable of casting a heavy charge of shot in a tight pattern, and the companies that produce them generally have a reliable set of recommendations for loading and shooting. But suppose you want to move back and stay more traditional. There are guns for that persuasion as well. These, however, generally demand some specialized attention.
The traditional manner of loading a black-powder shotgun is to use equal volumes of powder, wad, and shot—as long as these don’t exceed the strength of the gun. That approach still works and should serve as your beginning point. But this may not produce the tightest pattern the gun is capable of throwing.
For several years I have used a Cabela’s 10-gauge double for all my heavy work. Since I use my 10 gauge primarily for turkeys, I set out to develop the best load I could. I began with that equal volume formula. Using a bulk measure set on 100 grains, I calculated the space in the bore this would fill and used felt Ox Yoke Wonder Wads of approximately .03-inch thickness that would take up that volume. Shot was poured into that same bulk measure as the powder, thus equal volumes of powder, wad, and shot. The pattern was good, but I figured it could be better.
Care and Feeding
At that point I began some serious experimentation. I decreased the powder charge but never went above that 100-grain load, the maximum recommended by the manufacturer. I used varying numbers of .01-inch cardboard wads to tweak the thickness of the wad column and went up and down in the shot charge, all the while keeping detailed records of the patterns produced.
Shooting sessions were spaced over several days. At the end of the tests a turkey load emerged, and it was quite a bit different than the equal volume process: 80 grains (bulk) of Hodgdon’s Triple 7, one over-the-powder thin cardboard wad, two felt Wonder Wads, another thin cardboard wad for the shot to rest on, 1-3/4 ounces of No. 6 nickel-plated shot, and a final over-the-shot thin cardboard wad to keep everything down. It worked perfectly and has accounted for a great many longbeards.
While this may all sound a bit tedious, and perhaps it is, it is both enjoyable and absolutely essential to know what the best combination for your gun is. There are no shortcuts. Range work is the key.Another ingredient to toy with for maximum pattern density is the shot itself. Try different sizes. One will likely turn in better performance than all others. Also, consider the integrity of the shot. Simple chilled lead will work, but expect some fliers from the pattern. A much better choice is shot labeled magnum. And if the barrel is rated for it, as most guns of modern manufacture are, try the various plated shot, those wrapped in copper or nickel. Chances are better than even that a good, solid turkey load will have a charge of copper or nickel pellets down the bore.
If you are shooting a cap lock shotgun, propellant choices are broad. Caps will ignite black powder or the many substitutes. My choice in the double is CCI caps designated as magnum and Hodgdon’s Triple 7 powder. This affords a quick, reliable ignition. If you opt for a flintlock, black powder is the way to go. The substitutes I have tried don’t behave well in a flinter, but common black powder will go off easily.
And when the shooting/hunting is over, any muzzleloader must be cleaned thoroughly. Since there is no rifling to collect fouling in a smoothbore, shotguns are quite simple to clean. Warm water will suffice; plus, there are a great many commercial solvents that remove residue. Be sure to back the nipples out and clean them as well as the drum in cap locks. For flinters, take off the side plate that houses the frizzen and pan for a good cleaning.
Rifles may be king of the shooting game, but the shotgun has certainly earned its keep over the years. If you have not tried traditional muzzleloading shotguns in your quest of history, perhaps you should. They can be purely grand. Treated well, they will not fail to impress you with their performance.