Instant Incapacitation

Apparently it’s not possible to tell a hunting story in under 1,000 words.  Something about the laws of rhetorical physics.  You’ve been warned.


I choose Late Muzzleloader season in Eastern Washington because it allows the harvest of almost any deer – three point minimum or antlerless.  We see few bucks around here, and since I hunt for the table I don’t care about old, tough bucks with big racks.  They’re chewy and don’t taste as good.  All that and there are very few other hunters out this late.  It’s win win.


Late Muzzleloader lasts one week, so I’ve been out twice a day since last Wednesday.  The below zero temp Wednesday morning was hard to take, but it was beautiful and I remember sitting up in the tree thinking, “This is definitely worth it even if I don’t get a deer.  Wow!”


The tree I sit in is on a steep slope, with deer tracks crisscrossing all below and behind me, with a few tracks in front along the top of the ridge overlooking the Palouse River.  I’ve seen at least six deer by Sunday (or two deer three times) but no clear shots.  Mostly I’ve seen them on the run or behind tens of yards of thick brush as I walk to the stand, or after legal hours.  One of them got stuck in a snow drift.  We usually think of deer as graceful and poised at all times, but this fellow was flailing all over the place, feet in the air even, trying to get away from me.  I was a little bit embarrassed for him.  By the time I’d stumbled out of the brush to get a clear shot though, he was gone.  That’s how it went for several days.  Several shots I could’ve taken, but no.


Sunday evening I was going to stay in and rest up, by my son convinced me go out again.  Good thing.  I see no deer on the way up to the tree.  That’s good.  Infiltration without detection means I have a better chance of sniping one unawares.


I’d been up there for no more than half an hour, mostly looking around behind me where most of the tracks were, trying to spot a deer before it got to me.  Therefore I failed to spot the nice three pointer walking casually along the ridge above, silent as a ghost in the powder snow, until he was right in front of me and already walking away.


It’s a sharp quartering away shot, 20 yards or less at eye level.  Good backstop with several miles of empty farm fields behind.  The time for the ideal shot was spent with my back turned.  Hurry with getting the mitten open so the trigger finger is exposed.  Silently cock the sidelock.  He’s oblivious.  He’s going to be out of view in a few seconds.  I have to duck so I can sight under some hanging pine boughs.  Aim for the heart.  That means hitting behind the rib cage at this angle.  Since I’m bending way down to see under the boughs, my glasses frame is in the way of the rifle sights.  Crap.  Have to dismount and push the glasses farther on.  Take aim again.  Time’s up.


Crack!  I hadn’t thought to worry about the powder charge that had been in the barrel for several days.  After that morning in below zero temperature, the barrel had frosted over when I came inside, and it had been snowing every time after, such that I’d take the barrel out of the stock to dry things out each day.  No problem.  120 grains of FFG under a patched soft lead 50 caliber ball with a #11 percussion cap.  Perfect ignition.  This newfangled percussion system you kids have been using just might catch on.


There’s always a moment of uncertainty for me, especially with black powder because you’re peering through a smoke cloud trying to see what happened to the target.


I’ve heard of “anchoring” the animal in its tracks, but was beginning to think the phenomenon a myth.  My son and I have killed around 9 deer and this has never happened, even with both lungs, and the heart, obliterated they always run some distance.  This time the ball must have upset the central nervous system because the fellow went straight down.  Zap! And he only twitched for a short while.


Some sense of reverence comes upon me when I approach the animal.  It’s happened every time.  They are very beautiful, strong, sleek, and delicious with new potatoes, turkey gravy, fresh fruit and red wine.


The ball had gone in at the back of the ribcage on the right side and exited through the base of the neck under the spine on the left.  ~21.5 inches of penetration, and though you could fit your thumb in the entry wound, I couldn’t get but the tip of my little finger through the skin at the exit wound.  The ball had just barely pooped out of the skin.  Though it’s what we would call a short range prospect, I’m beginning to trust the 50 caliber patched ball load.


It was a good day.  I’m happy, and the freezer will soon be full.


I’m still puzzled.  That pure lead ball leaves the muzzle at around 1920 fps according to my CED chronograph, or a little more ’cause that’s averaged at 15 feet.  Last year I shot a deer at 85 yards and the ball penetrated 25 inches with almost no deformation.  We here concluded that the velocity at impact had been subsonic due to the very poor BC, hence a lower pressure at impact, hence the pristine ball (I recovered it from just under the skin and thought it was probably good enough to load again).  This shot Sunday was at no more than 20 yards, maybe more like 15, yet I see no sign of ball deformation so far (I’ll check it out more closely upon butchering in a few days).  You’d think with all the talk about bullet integrity, hard alloys and such, that a pure lead ball at that velocity would obliterate, giving shallow penetration.  So what gives?


5 thoughts on “Instant Incapacitation

  1. I think it’s very cool you choose to hunt old-style. Ever think about hunting with a crossbow?

  2. First, of course, congrats on the clean kill – always good to hear those stories.

    Why no deformation? Could be the cold made the lead harder. Could be it isn’t a pure (soft) lead ball, but a harder alloy. Could have been the combo of thick hair, soft hide, warm fat, and angling in with a line of muscle tissue rather than crossing it that allowed it to decelerate slowly enough in a cocoon of stuff to not deform (did it drag in a lot of stuff through the wound channel?). Could be a poor / cold ignition, causing a much lower than expected MV and ME, so that the impact was similar to the previous 85 yard shot. Could be the powdered unicorn horn the young’n sprinkled on it. Could be I don’t have a clue 🙂

    I’ve hunted with a muzzle-loader a bit (.54 cal Hawken, also patched ball), but never took a shot at anything; I’m confident enough, though, at close range, it’d drop anything I shot at. So far, every deer I’ve ever shot (all modern rifle, using a variety of rounds from 7.62×39 to .30-06), except one, dropped in its tracks and stayed there. That one made it less than 30 yards through a foot of new snow. Well, technically there was one other that made it about five yards, but that was because he was shot mid-leap at (very) close range, and had to fall and slide to a stop; that particular 180gr softpoint from a .30-06 entered high on the neck, and the bullet core ended in his rear knee – between four and five feet of penetration, with bits and pieces left along the way.

    Penetration and bullet performance is weird – my brothers shot two similar-sized moose, one with a .308 and one with a .375 H&H Mag, similar distance, similar shot placement, similar conditions, both bullets stopped just under the opposite side hide, both moose went a similar distance before collapsing. 2800 ft-lb muzzle energy vs 4300 ft-lb, and nearly identical results.

    Shot placement and karma counts for more than numbers on paper, I guess.

  3. We’ve been talking about bow hunting. Our neighbor is something of a local legend as a longbow hunter and fletcher, and would be more than happy to help out (he took a black bear in 2009, IIRC, at a distance of ten feet using a longbow). Our main concern is getting a fast clean kill. We’re talking extremely low energy compared to even a lightweight blackpowder rifle load.

    I’d go for a flintlock if I wanted to go more primitive. Poking the animal with sticks, while challenging no doubt, seems a bit, I don’t know, uncivilized. Some people are very enthusiastic about it though. So far I’ve only used my 55# recurved bow for plinking.

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