Some year I’d like to dress-out a deer in weather where the temperatures are somewhere north of zero Fahrenheit. Last year might have been the year but I was on crutches, just a week after a hip replacement, when I shot my deer. I had to ask my son to do the honors in forty-degree weather. My bad luck!
I thought this year I might get the chance. I had two muzzleloader doe tags waiting for me in on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in southern South Dakota and the weather forecast looked exceptionally fine. Clear and warm. This not only set well with the idea of gutting any deer I might kill without losing the feeling in my digits, but it also meant that the 400 miles of road between my drive and my brothers’ front porch would be dry as well: Good news since two thirds of these roads are local county or Bureau of Indian Affairs roads that get no consideration by the road crews in bad weather. I had a new set of studded snow tires on the Jeep just in case but it looked like smooth sailing. With a song in my heart and my gear in the back of the Jeep, I set off a week ago Thursday morning. The drive was 7 hours of uneventful wildlife viewing with the occasional stop for fuel and sustenance. I arrived early in the afternoon to a warm welcome by my older brother, Charlie. The last of his seasonal hunters had just left his lodge so we were free to spend the afternoon catching up on old times. It was a good meeting and we talked much about the plans for the next day’s hunt.
That evening I pulled out my rifles and gave them a once over. Both were reproductions of old rifles. My primary weapon was an Uberti-made copy of a Hawken Plains Rifle in “54” caliber; or so it is stamped. I have found this rifle to actually be a .52 or .53 caliber depending on how many decimal places you want to carry the ball measurement. Caliber confusion notwithstanding, it is a superbly accurate rifle. Its favorite hunting load is a .528” round ball wrapped in a .010” linen patch over a charge of 100 grains of Pyrodex RS, a black powder substitute. This load combination gives 2.5 inch, five-shot groups at 100 yards using the open “buckhorn” sights.
My second rifle, and one I really just brought along for fun, was an old Navy Arms “Buffalo Hunter” .58 caliber patterned after a Zouave military musket of the US Civil War era. It is a crude weapon compared to the Hawken, but accurate. No double set triggers like those on the Hawken. A much shorter sight radius than the Hawken, and an ugly solid- brass ramrod I made for shoving the 450+ grain minne balls I down the barrel. The mold for these hollow based bullets had the “plug” that forms the hollow base altered so that the bullet is left with a thick “skirt” that will take a heavy powder charge without deforming as it leaves the muzzle. This was an alteration specifically made for this rifle. The result was a bullet that I could thumb start in the barrel and push home with a single stroke… and here lies one advantage this rifle has over Hawken Rifle. The Hawken needs the tight round ball/patch combo to be started into the muzzle with a short starter tool, and then the ball is carefully tapped into place by short strokes on the ram-rod. The .58 was much easier and faster to load. And it was accurate, as well. At 50M all my rounds touch using the rather coarse open sights.
My last act of the evening was to set out my powder flask and measures, along with the patched round balls for the .54 Hawken. A fresh tin of percussion caps was opened and a half dozen caps were snapped on the nipple of each rifle to clear out the flash channel and dry out any lube left in the immediate breech area of the barrel. When all was ready we called it a night.
I awoke before dawn the next morning to the ruckus of wild turkeys coming down from their night time perches in the trees. The sunrise was beautiful. Charlie said we’d go out hunting after a leisurely breakfast and take our time stalking the small canyons and draws that crisscross the area. We would just walk about and see what we could find. No hurry. After all he said, I didn’t want to shoot the first whitetail I came upon, did I? Frankly, doing just that sounded fine with me but I kept quiet.
We stalked the sunlit canyons all morning and into the afternoon when we were joined by our friend Mike Marshal. Mike is a hunting guide for the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and our friend of the last 35 years. He is a quick eyed hunter whose ability to find game (I’ll grudgingly admit) is excellent. Charlie and I had been seeing deer all morning and continued to do so after Mike joined us but, whenever I was making ready for a shot, I’d hear one of them whisper, “No. Not that one. Too small… Wait for a bigger one!” No whitetail I saw was big enough… at least those that showed within roundball range. In the end I carried that heavy barreled Hawken many miles that day and never fired a shot.
That evening we talked of the deer we’d seen that day, and the huge buck that my brother was waiting to again encounter after their first run-in two weeks previous: An animal that truly must have been impressive to cause him to fever so. I should mention that while both of these clowns carried rifles, it was just in case they ran into Bambi’s dad. They still have a month and more of muzzleloading season ahead of them and they weren’t in a hurry. For my part, I just wanted a fat little doe for the freezer. We stayed up until the wee hours recounting past adventures from the old days. That alone was worth the drive.
I woke up the following morning to the sound of wailing wind. I attempted to look out my bedroom window but it was plastered-over with driven snow. In the kitchen, I found my brother squinting through frosty panes at the thermometer on the front porch: -15 F degrees with 10 to 30 mph winds. Uh-oh. I guess I didn’t look far enough ahead in the weather forecast. It was cold. I mean, ear freezing, nose blackening, finger numbing cold. Mike arrived shortly thereafter, less than eager to go out afield. I must admit, none of us were too eager don the arctic gear for our foray into the winter winds. When we arrived at the hunting area we immediately dropped down into the draws and canyon bottoms to escape the wind. As long as we stayed low it wasn’t too bad. It reminded me of the average morning in Montana!
Shortly after 0900 we rounded the corner where two of these draws met and I spotted four does on the edge of the bottom. They bounded off but slowed to a stop about 100 yards away. It’s worth mentioning that by this time, my companions were now a good deal less fussy as to the size of the deer I should shoot. I put the silver blade of the 52/53/54 Hawken on the chest of a small doe standing clear of the group and touched off the set trigger. The deer buckled, regained its feet, and loped off around the corner trying to follow its startled mates. I reloaded as I walked and was putting the patched ball to the barrel when we spotted her on the hillside about 50 yards distant, wobbly legged and about done in. Charlie asked me if I wanted him to put her down with his scoped “modern” muzzloading Knight Rifle firing a 325 grain jacketed hollow point over 150 grains of powder. The deer was done for but I agreed for mercy sake. He took aim and fired as I glanced down at my ball starter. He flattened her alright but unfortunately, she took one last lurch as the hammer was falling and the bullet took her squarely through the hind quarters. Crap! I gutted her out in record time. She turned out to be a he (second time this year shooting an antlerless buck) and was an absolute mess on the inside. Both hind quarters were wrecked and my round lead ball had exited through the left shoulder area leaving dammed little meat from what should have been a fine animal. My brother is a fine shot and this was just a case of bad weather bad luck. We made the best of it but when we got through skinning her some time later it was obvious that I’d need to fill my second tag if I wanted any quantity of meat to take home.
After a quick lunch we headed out again. About ten minutes after we parked the truck I took a shot at doe bounding across in front of me and missed. She stopped about 100 yards off and I got busy to reloading. That’s when disaster tried to make an appearance. In my haste to get that tight patched ball down the bore I broke my wooden ram-rod with the ball seated only half way down the barrel. Well. That was that! Using a combination of the fiberglass rod from the Knight Rifle and the broken rear end of my ramrod, I managed to seat the ball onto the powder charge. That was a relief. (If you aren’t aware, it is hazardous to the N-th degree to leave an air space between powder and bullet with black powder) In any event, this Hawken was done for the season. I fired off the Hawkins’s last load into wood-pile when we returned to the house to retrieve the .58 caliber Buffalo Hunter, thanking Providence that I’d acted on the whim to bring it along.
I’d found the Buffalo Hunter at a yard sale in Yuma Arizona, of all places and I liked it. It was a plainly furnished, strong rifle and one set up for big game hunting. I had done quite a bit of work developing loads for the big .58 and often dreamed of another buffalo hunt but this time using the fifty-eight. As it turned out, I almost got the chance an hour or so into the afternoons’ hunt. Charlie and I were quietly making our way across a snowy patch of clearing above the edge of the canyon we were intent on stalking. The wind was keeping us squinting against the swirling snows and we cleared a small patch of baby ponderosa pines and came face to face with three bull buffalo (bison to some of you purists) at a distance of about 25 yards. We stared at them, and they at us. I noticed my dear brother shifting his Knight to a more ready position and I did the same with my .58 caliber.
This was interesting! The buffalo on the Reservation are pretty much wild, not ranched like cattle. They looked as big locomotives. Suddenly the lead buffalo turned and trotted off across the meadow and dropped down into the canyon, with the other two following. I looked at Charlie and rolled my eyes.
“Ah!” he said, “Half the time they’ll just run away from you, y’ know?”
“Yeah, but what about the rest of the time?” I ask.
He grinned and resumed walking. It was a rhetorical question.
Two hours later the sun is setting behind the canyon rim tree line. We were about a quarter mile from the spot where I shot that little button buck, walking out to the truck. Suddenly there were three does loping through the oak about 60 yards to my right. They slowed to a stop and looked at us. The foremost doe was a big one and I put the blade of the .58 on her rib cage as I squeezed. Down she went, and then up again. She wobbled about 20 yards and put her head down. There was a tap on my shoulder and I turned to see the scoped Knight being passed to me. She was almost out on her feet when I put the 325 grainer through the ribcage about 3” from the first shot. She dropped like a stone and stayed there. Field dressing proved the second shot a redundancy.
I took a good look at the doe and did a mental calculation as to how far the truck was from where we were. I’d forgotten my disposable surgical gloves and if I gutted her I’d be dragging her out with blood encrusted, freezing hands so I just grabbed a foreleg and took her out the way she was. I gutted her near the warming truck and we had her skinned and hanging a half hour later. She was a fine doe. Large and fatty.
So that was my two day, two deer hunt. Not a big deal to you folks who shoot several at a sitting but it was a big deal for me, especially considering the weather. It was tough hunting that made the best of the off hand practice I’d put in. It was also a chance to again see my big brother in his element. He is a big man who walks silently and gracefully through any wood -and is as skilled at finding deer as any man I know. (Don’t tell him I said that, though…)
Along with the scores of whitetail deer we saw, and the buffalo we avoided, we saw 20 or 30 mule deer and several hundred wild turkey as well…not to mention antelope. Certainly worth the 400 mile drive. And hey! I still have all of my digits and best of all, I had some fresh whitetail steaks for dinner tonight. Delicious!~Muir