MERIDIAN, Texas — When Todd Van Poppel shoots a spring gobbler on his Bosque County ranch, everyone on the ranch knows what happened.
Van Poppel, the retired major league pitcher, hunts with a muzzleloading shotgun. When he squeezes the trigger, it makes as much noise as a small cannon. Under the right conditions, it’s a deep, explosive “boom” that can be heard just about anywhere on the 900-acre spread.
“A representative from Knight Muzzleloaders gave me a black powder rifle about four years ago,” Van Poppel said. “The first time I shot that rifle, I was hooked.”
To Van Poppel, hunting with a muzzleloading rifle created a challenge that was missing with his trusty .270. He knows he can take the modern centerfire rifle, secure a solid rest, place the crosshairs of the scope sight where he wants them and be pretty much certain of hitting his target. Not so much with the muzzleloader.
“I’ve missed three deer with the muzzleloader in three years, and I don’t think I’ve missed that many deer with my centerfire rifle since I first started hunting as a kid,” Van Poppel said.
“The black powder rifle has a lot of recoil, and you have to be lined up just right to make an accurate shot. You have to know what you’re doing and you have to practice to be accurate with a muzzleloader. It bridges the gap between modern firearms and archery.”
His muzzleloading 12-gauge shotgun has one disadvantage when compared with a modern firearm: Van Poppel knows he has one shot, and he’d better make it count. Even using pre-measured plastic containers of powder and shot that drop right into the muzzle and are rammed home with a ramrod, it takes as long as 30 seconds to reload the gun.
“I’m three-for-three on turkeys with my muzzleloading shotgun,” he said. “When I first got the gun, I shot at some turkey targets at 50 yards, and I was amazed at how much better the muzzleloader patterned compared to my traditional 12-gauge.”
Van Poppel has fine-tuned his own loads for turkey hunting, mixing No. 5 and No. 6 pellets ahead of 120 grains of powder. The result is an impressive, smoke-bellowing discharge that’s as loud as it is smoky.
“All three turkeys that I’ve shot with the muzzleloader have dropped like rocks,” he said. “They don’t even flop around the way most turkeys do when you shoot them with a modern shotgun.”
Van Poppel stays busy coaching youth baseball these days and heads south to the ranch every chance he gets. Both his children took their first deer on the family ranch last season, and the kids don’t much like it when he goes turkey hunting during the school week and leaves them at home.