Shoot! There he goes!

You shoot it, my boys and I do this every weekend during the season.

No! I want to see you shoot a rabbit with that thing!

By then the rabbit was already gone and the dogs were hot on the trail. I told Jerry I would take it on the second go ‘round.

I was hunting rabbits with my good friend Jerry James, a recently retired Missouri Highway Patrolman, and “that thing” he wanted to see me shoot a rabbit with was my Pedersoli, 12 ga., percussion, muzzle loading shotgun. We were hunting on our place in central Missouri where I “cultivate” rabbits.

If you’re going to have rabbits and quail you have to provide for them. The farming practices of today are not conducive to the propagation of rabbits or quail. Clean farming where there are no brushy fence rows, there are pastures of fescue and combines and corn pickers that are incredibly efficient in their work do not make for the cover and left over feed both species need. Therefore one has to “cultivate” rabbits and quail by making sure that the species have both cover and feed.

Our family has always kept a field of seven or eight acres of alfalfa. It is surrounded on two sides by a 12 acre patch of cedars so thick you can’t walk through them. The ground is too rocky to do anything with or it probably would be in pasture also. Personally I’m glad it isn’t. We’ve also built brush piles in that cedar patch every spring and fall for a number of years. Next to that patch of cedars is what Dad always called a “wet weather creek” that we’ve allowed to grow up with all the briers, blackberries, multi-flora rose and other attendant brush that makes for cover. Consequently we’ve always been blessed with a population of rabbits and quail, even in the down cycle times of both species.

It doesn’t take a coyote, hawk or owl, not to mention feral cats and dogs, long to hunt a clean fence row. However, if the game has a place to run to or through it’s going to take the predators a while longer and their success rate isn’t going to be as high. All any of the smaller game needs is a place to hide or run to and a little feed to eat. Water is rarely a problem in central Missouri. The wild, native plants can provide most nourishment but with the addition of a legume such as alfalfa or red clover they will do even better. In this era of clean farming if you want rabbits and quail you must “cultivate” them.

I’ve kept a pack of beagles, varying from two to six dogs, for about 13 years and on this day we were hunting with Dan and Bowser. Two of my best and oldest beagles. They had a local reputation of being some of the best in the area and I am proud to own both of them. They’re slower now than when they were in their prime, but so are Jerry and I. At this particular time they had been running a rabbit for about 10 minutes and from what we could tell by their baying had not lost the trail or been confused by the evasive tactics of “ol‘ brer rabbit“. Dan and Bowser are old pros.

Having hunted the place for several years I knew about where the rabbit was going to go. Jerry and I moved to a different location and before long, as was expected, the rabbit was bouncing along in our direction. It was an easy shot and the kill was anti-climactic, for me. With the flat boom of 80 grains of black powder and the white cloud of smoke hanging in the humid air Jerry was a little surprised to see a dead bunny laying on the ground after I “shot one with that thing“. His shouts of exclamation, “You got him!”, were most gratifying. Jerry, having experienced with his own eyes the effectiveness of a muzzle loading shotgun, was more than impressed. I asked what he expected? Muzzle loading shotguns don’t give up much ballistically to modern shotguns unless they are magnums.

I need to say that Jerry is not a novice when it comes to muzzleloaders, at least rifles. He is a frequent high shooter at our monthly muzzle loading league shoots. He definitely knows which end of the rifle to hold. Muzzle loading shotguns were a new experience.

In a few minutes here came the beagles in full cry, found the rabbit, sniffed and mouthed it for a while and were off in search of another chase. Dead rabbits aren’t any fun to a good beagle.

For the most part we were hunting to hear the dogs run. The taking of a rabbit was inconsequential but they are exceedingly delicious on the plate. As Ortega y Gasset’ said, “I don’t hunt to kill, I kill to have hunted”. A couple rabbits apiece would appease both of us.

Jerry was hunting with the great American invention, a pump shotgun, and he knew both he and the gun were more than capable. As stated earlier I was hunting with my Pedersoli, muzzle loading shotgun. It is a 12 ga. And I load it with 80 grs. Of Ffg, GOEX black powder, two over powder cards, 1 1/8 oz. of number 6 shot and a thin over powder card, ignited by CCI percussion caps. The same load the great V. M. Starr recommended. Starr said, “you can use more or different wads but they aren’t necessary”. Starr being the dean of latter day muzzle loading shot gunners I took his advice to heart. It has worked admirably.

For those unfamiliar with a muzzle loading shotgun I’ll describe the procedure. For the most part consider a typical shotgun shell loaded one component at a time down the barrel. One pours a measured charge of 80 grains of Ffg, 2 F, black powder, down the bore. Followed by two of the hard over powder cards. For those old enough to remember paper shotgun shells and reloading them they are the same cards. Then you dump the shot charge of whatever weight you deem necessary, I consider 1 1/8 oz. optimum for rabbits and squirrels, and follow that with the thin, overshot card. Seating the overshot card is made easier if one punches a tiny hole in the middle of it. The air has a place to escape. Again, for those old enough to remember paper shotshells that is the same card you would see on top of those cartridges. Repeat that process for the second barrel, cap the nipples and you’re ready to go.

A word of caution is necessary here. Once you fire a barrel and before you begin to reload the fired barrel, remove the cap from the unfired barrel. If you don’t you are reloading over a primed barrel. Definitely not a safe situation. I do not personally know of an accident having ever happened but in over 250 years of muzzle loading shot gunning I can’t believe there hasn’t been an accident. Remove the cap from the unfired barrel. Sage advice.

Most muzzle loading shotguns are cylinder bore, that is, no choke. You can have them “jug choked”, which is the oldest kind of choke known and dates from 1860-1870. Or, if there is enough barrel wall thickness you can install the screw in chokes. Bear in mind that if you use screw in chokes you’re going to have a devil of a time getting the over powder and over shot cards down bore. Or, one can utilize modern plastic shot cups and attain some tightening of the pattern. The shot cups will leave a plastic residue in the bore but it is easily cleaned. Most methods will improve patterns.

But what fun is that? Only jug choking can be considered traditional. Besides, most shots at rabbits or quail are close quarter propositions. I find it more fun and certainly more traditional to work up a load that patterns well from 20 yards and in, with the traditional wadding. Those who are most serious about being traditional will use wasp or hornet nesting for wadding. I can attest that it works quite well. Certainly as good as modern wadding. Availability is always the issue.

We continued hunting and enjoying the music and excitement of the little hounds and in the process ended up with two bunnies apiece. We could have taken more, but as Dad has always said, “you need to leave some for seed”. That wasn’t a problem where we were hunting but both Jerry and I had long outlived the necessity to take home all we could.

It was a great day in the field, hearing the little hounds and sharing an afternoon of fun with a friend. To say nothing of the wonderful eating both of us enjoyed later!