It seemed kind of weird. It was late October, and this was my first evening of the year on the prowl for whitetails. But that’s just the way it had worked out. So far, it had been an autumn for the dogs … literally. I don’t mean that in a bad way. I’d focused on upland bird hunting during early fall and had taken my pups on road trips to South Dakota twice, Nebraska once and up north in my home state of Minnesota several times. Until now, whitetail hunting had been on the back burner. But as the evening sun melted into the haloed tree line and the cool caress of autumn washed over me, I was reminded of how much I like the whitetail game: the anticipation, the solitude, the visceral call of the hunt.
I was hunched over like a gargoyle, two-thirds of the way up a hillside, snugged tight against a small cedar. Oklahoma’s muzzleloader season was barely under way, and I was thrilled to get a chance to enjoy a pre-rut gun hunt before targeting my local whitetail haunts—to hunt the Sooner State prior to the invasion of the Orange Army. As it is with many states, Oklahoma’s muzzleloader season is about added opportunity, occurring prior to the regular gun season, beginning the fourth Saturday in October and running for 9 days. The deer gun season expands 16 days, opening the Saturday before Thanksgiving.
Lost in peripheral thought—Wonder what’s for supper?; That sure is a dumb-looking bird; Stupid Brett Favre, we should have won that game—I didn’t see the doe until she was standing just 40 yards away—giving me the bad-eye.
I pretended to be a rock, and she pretended to lose interest. She would feed along casually and then snap her head up in typical whitetail fashion, trying to catch me in a lie. The wind was swirling, but the measures I’d taken to minimize my human odor—Hunter’s Specialties’ Tec 4 base clothing, rubber boots, cover scent, scent eliminating spray—seemed to be fooling her nose. I watched the doe wander down the draw and then melt into the rural Oklahoma landscape.
With the doe gone, I shifted my position and got back to watching the tree line where a scrape line I’d scouted earlier indicated semi-regular activity. At first it didn’t register—there hadn’t been a deer standing there a less than a minute ago! The buck was up against the trees, working a licking branch, and while his antlers were somewhat obscured by the brushy backdrop, he certainly had my attention. I eased my Bushnells up for a look and immediately swapped bino for riflescope.
I was easing the rifle to my shoulder when trouble strolled into my peripheral vision—another doe walking up the hill toward me. Watching the buck out of the corner of my eye, I weighed my options: Do I risk spooking the doe and try to get my rifle around? Do I trust my concealment and wait out the doe, hoping her boyfriend stays put? The buck ended the drama as he began walking down the tree line and out of my life. It was now or never.
Too Close To Call
My first muzzleloading rifle was old school by today’s standards—a Thompson/Center .54 caliber Hawken that was my pride and joy. Hunting with it in Minnesota and neighboring Wisconsin during the often brutally cold whitetail season was a challenge I relished. Shooting round balls at sub-breakneck velocities made chasing whitetails with that smokepole a close and personal affair—75 yards tops. But it was the added challenge of hunting with a front-stuffer that drew me to the sport in the first place.
I hunted with that Hawken and other side-lock muzzleloaders for many years before following the popular trend to in-line rifles, but I never forgot my roots. To me the blackpowder game is about one well-placed shot at a reasonable range. And even though the inline rifles I hunt with today are capable of anchoring deer-sized game at 200 yards and beyond, I’ve stayed true to the game.
The truth of the matter is that while many things have changed in regard to muzzleloaders—especially those topped with modern optics—many of their limitations have remained the same: You get only one shot; range is somewhat limited; and blackpowder guns are more susceptible to foul weather than modern centerfire rifles. But the improvements are as obvious as the similarities.
Making An Impact
The Thompson/Center Impact muzzleloader I hunted with in Oklahoma is a good example of how front-loading rifles continue to evolve to fit the modern-day blackpowder hunter’s wants and needs. Not every hunter craves for the days of Daniel Boone and the challenge of hunting with a truly primitive firearm. Rather, they want to take advantage of extended hunting seasons offered to hunters who’s rifles remain somewhat “primitive” by modern standards—to increase their days in the field and put more venison in the freezer.
The Impact is an entry-level smoke-pole perfect for those hunters who want to touch their toe to the water—so to speak—and experience the muzzle-loader game without making a huge investment. But that’s not to say they’re buying an inferior gun. The Impact is simply a great value, delivering the accuracy and reliability uncommon at its modest price. The made-in-the-USA muzzleloader carries many of the same features and the same T/C lifetime warranty found on their more expensive guns. MSRP is a wallet-friendly $249.
How did they do it? The key is simplicity. The Impact has only three moving parts: the hammer, the trigger and the sliding hood breech-latch, which retracts at a touch to accept the No. 209 primer.
The rifle’s sturdy composite stock comes in black or Realtree HD camo. Length-of-pull is adjustable by simply removing a spacer between the recoil pad and the stock—which makes the Impact a great starter gun for youngsters. The spacer can be replaced when they out-grow the shorter configuration.
The breech plug is easy to remove and virtually seize-free—with triple-lead thread that screws into the breech with only five or so turns. For hunters in states that don’t allow optics during the muzzleloader-only season, the Impact comes with highly visible fiber-optic sights. Where riflescopes are legal, the perfect choice is one of the dedicated muzzleloader optics, such as Bushnell’s DOA (Dead On Accurate) 250.
Dead On Accurate
The DOA 250 takes the guess work out of estimating range, out to 250 yards. Like other range-compensating scopes, the DOA utilizes a reticle with predetermined aiming points—50-yard increments from 100-250 yards—based on the most common magnum loadings for inline muzzleloaders (250-grain bullet and 150 grains of blackpowder or blackpowder substitute).
As I’ve already mentioned, I consider muzzleloader hunting a somewhat close-quarters game. But that isn’t to say I don’t want to be proficient to the gun’s full capabilities. I have a 60-yard pin on my compound bow, even though my personal range limit for the whitetails I commonly hunt is 35 yards. I practice out to 60 yards to build confidence and to have recourse should I make a marginal shot on a deer and have to get a second arrow in it. Rather than guesstimate, I have a pin for that distance.
Same with the muzzleloader. I practice shooting out to 200 yards even though I’m likely to keep my shots closer to 100 yards. But again, should I have to take a longer shot, I’ve know where the gun will shoot at 200 yards, and I’ve practiced at the range.
One last thing: The DOA 250 reticle has a cool feature called the Rack Bracket, which has reference lines within the scope to help you accurately estimate antler width. With the scope at full power, each aiming point has a reference line that measures 24 inches (the average distance between the tips of a mule deer’s ears) at the indicated yard-age. The Rack Bracket also has hash marks on each crosshair indicating 17 inches, or the average width from ear tip to ear tip for white-tailed deer.
Now Or Never
The doe nearly turned inside-out as I shouldered my rifle and swung on the buck. She quickly switched ends and made a mad dash for home and Mother. And then a good thing happened: The buck stopped and froze in his tracks, apparently wondering what was up with that crazy doe. It was a fatal delay that gave me the time I needed.
Even though I’d perfected my load for 100 yards and had practiced diligently out to 200 yards—and even though I knew the buck would bolt at any second—I didn’t rush the 65-yard shot, knowing there would be no second opportunity. When the crosshairs settled on the buck’s shoulder, I tugged the trigger and a foul mixture of white smoke and lead filled the air. While I momentarily lost sight of the buck, I knew he was down.
As I walked up for a look at the buck, I once again marveled at how strong the primal pull of the whitetail game is—and how much sweeter the success when hunting them at close quarters. I laid the rifle on the ground next to the deer, reached down and turned the antlers in my hands.