If you have been deer hunting in the Magnolia State for any length of time, you probably know that there is one particular time of year when your chances of taking a trophy buck are better than average.

Just as the crappie angler yearns for the spawn and the turkey hunter anticipates a love-lorn gobbler, deer hunters dream about the rut.

It just so happens that in a large part of Mississippi, the statewide primitive-weapons season is open during the whitetail rut. Until recent years, hunters were restricted to using muzzleloading rifles. The regulations have changed over the last several years to allow the use of scoped weapons, inline guns and, now, single-shot rifles of certain calibers. Most will agree that these new "primitive" weapons are anything but primitive, with newer styles of these rifles as accurate out to 250 yards as your bolt action .30-06.

The latest news for Mississippi deer hunters is that they are allowed an additional primitive-weapons season prior to the regular gun season, but are only allowed to harvest does on private lands and certain public lands. Even so, some public areas, particularly some national wildlife refuges allow only the true muzzleloading rifles during their special primitive-weapons hunts. And if you are in the "method" stage of hunting, you may actually prefer the traditional style smoke pole over these newfangled gadgets on the market today.


The weapon

The muzzleloading weapon has been around for hundreds of years. When man learned to forge metal and perfected the art of explosives, he devised a way to send a projectile through the air with much greater speed and force than ever before. When the rifled barrel was invented, it created a way to send a single projectile downrange for a longer distance and with greater accuracy.

Muzzleloading firearms have evolved over the years. The matchlock, which involved the use of a smoldering wick attached to the hammer that was lowered into the flash pan and ignited the priming powder, was one of the earliest forms of muzzleloading firearms.

The flintlock was developed in the 17th century, and employs the use of a small piece of flint struck against a steel frizzen, which produces sparks that then ignite the priming powder.

The caplock, or "percussion" lock, replaced the flintlock firearm. The caplock replaced the flint and frizzen with a percussion cap that ignited the powder charge when struck by the hammer. Oddly enough, the caplock was developed in the early 1800s by Rev. Alexander John Forsyth, who claimed the puff of smoke produced by his flintlock weapon startled birds, causing them to "jump" the gun. With Forsyth's caplock weapon, there was no smoke until the projectiles were well on their way downrange. The caplock rifle, which has seen a few improvements over time, is what most modern muzzleloading rifles are. They are more weather-resistant and easier to load than other types.


The rut

As mentioned previously, the breeding season, or rut, of whitetails usually coincides with primitive-weapons season throughout most of Mississippi. Primitive-weapons season has been from Dec. 2 through the 15th for as long as I can remember. In my area of the Delta, this falls nine times out of 10 when hunters are seeing the most "chasing" activity from their stands.

The breeding date range for my area is from Dec. 20-29. It is known that "peak" activity is seen by hunters approximately two weeks prior to the mean breeding dates, so this puts primitive-weapons season squarely on top of the days when you are most likely to see bucks chasing does.

There is almost always a lesser, secondary rut that falls in January, but by that time, it is rifle season again. So knowing that the main rutting period happens when the hunter can only use a primitive weapon, how do you better your odds of taking that once-in-a-lifetime buck?


Firearm maintenance

When I think of muzzleloading for deer, one of the first names that comes to my mind is outdoor writer and hunter Tony Kinton from Carthage, who has written several articles on hunting with black-powder firearms and is a wealth of knowledge on the subject. He uses flintlock rifles to hunt squirrel and big game, and also has a couple of caplock guns for rabbit and turkey hunting.

"In my opinion, care and feeding of the rifle are the most important issues when it comes to black-powder hunting," said Kinton. "If it doesn't shoot, it doesn't matter how close you are to your target. If a spark hits dry powder, it goes off. Most misfires can be attributed to either damp powder (not properly cared for) and/or a nipple or touch hole that are clogged.

"Oftentimes, I'll back the nipple out and be sure the powder is in the drum and that the nipple is open. Be sure you replace the nipple very securely so it doesn't blow out with the charge. Also make sure there is no oil in the gun that may contaminate the powder."

Kinton said that damp, foggy, wet weather is very hard on a primitive blackpowder gun. He's never had moisture get down his bore, which is a problem some people report having. He says the key to preventing moisture in the bore is to use a good tight patch when using a round ball.

"In damp weather, like the snowy conditions we had last winter, I usually open my frizzen and reprime the pan with fresh powder every 15 or 20 minutes," he said. "You can use grease or Vaseline to create a moisture seal, but then sometimes you contaminate your powder. I prefer changing the powder in the priming pan every 15 or 20 minutes."

Kinton also gave some other tips for flintlock firearm care and maintenance.

"I make sure the frizzen is throwing a good shower of sparks before I load the rifle," he said. "I pick the vent hole every time it is loaded. A small piece of piano wire can be used to pick the touchhole. Load the powder, seat the ball then pick the touchhole. I use 4F powder for the priming pan, which is a very fine powder. I always use the butt of my hand to tap the action two or three times so the powder will settle in the drum. And on all muzzleloaders, make sure your projectile is firmly seated against the powder. You don't want a gap in there that could lead to a dangerous situation when fired."

Hal Bridges, long-time hunter safety instructor and deer hunter from Silver City, has been deer hunting for many years with a .54-caliber Hawken.

"Black powder is highly corrosive," he said. "Make sure you keep your gun clean. I swab my barrel down regularly through the offseason just to keep the rust out of it.

"After you clean your gun, fire a couple of caps off to make sure there is no excess oil left in the barrel. One thing about blackpowder guns is that the powder is really susceptible to moisture. Remember that condensation can occur if you move the gun from a cold, outdoors environment to the warm interior of a car or a home. If you pull the trigger and it doesn't fire immediately, keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction for several minutes in case it does fire."


Hunting tips

Bridges, who says he never felt comfortable taking a shot over 70 yards with his Hawken, said routine practice is the key to knowing how far you can effectively take a deer.

"Most of my shots came at 30 or 40 yards," he said. "I always tried to set up in an area where I would have a 30- to 50-yard shot from a stand or a ground blind. And I never hunted one of those enclosed shooting houses; I was always out in the open in a stand.

"Be sure that you are downwind, and remember that the firearm itself may have extra smells that a regular weapon might not have. The oil from cleaning and the sulfur in the powder have smells of their own."

Bridges, who shot 100 grains of powder with hand-made maxiball projectiles, said that hunting with a blackpowder rifle honed his skills and made him a better hunter later in the season.

"I had to be quiet and still because I needed to set up more closely to where the deer were going to be," he said. "Move slowly, be quiet and remember that the hammer will make a loud click when you cock it. If you can slowly and quietly cock the hammer as you see the deer approaching from a distance, it helps.

"Hunting with my muzzleloader made me a better rifle hunter because I had to take more time with my first shot, but I always enjoyed taking deer with a blackpowder gun."

Like Bridges, Kinton limits himself to shots under 70 yards.

"I prefer shots in the 40-yard range," he said. "I use a round ball in .54 caliber, and that is what I consider the minimum. I use 80 grains of FFG powder and a Hornady .530 swaged round ball. Conical, elongated bullets, like buffalo bullets, retain much more downrange energy than do round balls."

As if hunting with 18th-century firearms were not enough, Kinton takes it a couple of steps further.

"I hunt from the ground in my moccasins and buckskin leggings," he said. "I rarely ever climb a tree because no one in the old days hunted from trees. I find a trail, back off of it 30 or 40 yards, back up to a big tree and brush up with natural cover in front of me. Just like hunting with any other weapon, hunting an area with acorns is one of my favorite locations. And if hunting near a green field, I just back off in the edge of the woods a few yards and watch a trail."