Pronghorn hunting remains one of the West’s most affordable, easily accessible hunting adventures. In states where their numbers have historically been the highest—Wyoming and Montana—tags remain relatively easy to draw. Some states—notably New Mexico and Colorado—are tougher to draw but there are landowner tags available. States with lower pronghorn populations, such as Arizona, have tougher draw odds, but so what? You apply and if you don’t draw you accrue a preference point and, if you really want to go hunting, also apply in a state or two with better drawing odds. Guided pronghorn hunts are also some of the least expensive in the West. Regardless, success rates are as high as the “fun factor,” making pronghorn hunts perfect for youths and novice hunters.
I’ve been fortunate enough during my lifetime to have hunted pronghorns a lot. I began in the mid-1970s, and for a time traveled to at least two states each season chasing these uniquely American big game animals. I love both the meat and the absolute beauty of the country in which they live.
While I still enjoy rifle hunting, I’ve found that as the calendar pages keep turning, hunting pronghorns with a centerfire rifle has become almost too easy. Let’s face it, if you have a modicum of open-country hunting skills and an accurate, flat-shooting rifle in hand, the odds of punching your tag are nearly guaranteed. That’s why I switched to an in-line muzzleloader.
The game changes with a muzzleloader. Instead of being able to confidently take shots “way out there,” now it becomes a matter of wiggling in under 200 yards—and preferably half that. If you’ve done much pronghorn hunting, you know that the flat, semi-open country they prefer, plus their unmatched eyesight and tremendous sense of smell, makes sneaking this close difficult.
Becoming a successful muzzleloader pronghorn hunter begins with top-quality optics—riflescope, 10X42mm binoculars and spotting scope. You’ll be glassing animals as far away as you can see, and you can count on lots of heat distortion, blowing dust and other elemental factors that will make your eyes feel like you have been peeling onions all day if you use cheap glass. This is also a hunt where a laser rangefinder pays huge dividends. The often-flat terrain makes accurately eyeballing distances problematic, and your rangefinder will let you know when you’ve crept within effective range of your pet in-line rifle.
Pronghorns are one of the smallest big game animals on the continent, which means either .45 or .50 caliber muzzleloaders are adequate. More important than raw power is using a propellant/bullet/primer combination that gives you the best accuracy possible. Bullets should be those that expand relatively quickly, not those that will simply blow through the animal’s thin chest cavity and leave a small exit hole.
Prior to my last muzzleloader pronghorn hunt, I spent 3 days at the range working up loads for a new .50 caliber rifle. Before I was truly happy, I had tried three different propellants in charges ranging from 100-150 grains, two different primers and four different bullet designs in two different weights (two with sabots, two without) in as many combinations as I could. I tried shooting with both a clean and fouled barrel. In the end, my pet load was 150 grains of loose Triple 7 behind a 300-grain PowerBelt bullet, ignited by a Winchester Triple 7 primer. With the rifle sporting a Bushnell Elite 4200 3-9X scope, I could churn out 2-inch groups at 100 yards. Sighted in 2½-inches high at 100 yards, I was confident I could make the shot out to about 175 yards.
Wind direction and velocity can change the way you stalk animals with the muzzleloader. On days when the wind is screaming (and it always seems to be blowing in pronghorn country) you can rest assured that it will buffet a slow, fat, heavy bullet about. When stalking crosswind, you need to get as close as you can to avoid making a poor shot due to wind-drift. A steady rest is essential regardless of conditions. On windy days, getting the rifle as low to the ground as possible—which means shooting from the prone position—is by far the steadiest. When possible, I like to shoot from a sitting position with shooting sticks under the rifle forearm and my back elbow rested on my knee.
The other thing you’ll find when hunting with a muzzleloader instead of a centerfire is that you’ll spend more time on your hands and knees crawling, wiggling and weaseling your way into position for a shot. In addition to being able to read the lay of the land and use all existing terrain features for cover, I always bring along elbow and knee pads, and a pair of light leather gloves. You can buy lightweight knee pads—which can double up as elbow pads—for a few dollars in the gardening section of a large hardware store.
Most hunters using muzzleloading rifles for pronghorns do so in the company of others hunting with centerfires. These often include your own buddies and other hunters with tags hunting the same public land tract. When that occurs, my buddies and I have an understanding regarding who’s up first to shoot at a buck we’ve spotted so that there’s never any competition between us. Otherwise, you’ll end up being outgunned by your pals, and that takes all the fun out of it.
Regardless of how you hunt them, the all-American pronghorn is one of the world’s coolest big game animals. Try adding the challenge of hunting them with a muzzleloader the next time you go. If you’re like me, you’ll fall in love all over again.