Beware the First Year Models
When advertising hyperbole takes over, the flood of e-mails received daily often turns to "the new for 2004" models. Paying too much attention to the advertising (not to mention all of the bogus "tests") can be a sad mistake for the new enthusiast, and sometimes equal or greater credence is given to the "new" than to established performance in the field.
The Thompson Encore has been a wildly successful muzzleloader. Hardly a new or unproven design, it was a successful centerfire single shot rifle and handgun long before T/C Arms decided to offer .50 and .45 caliber black powder barrels for it. It was a success from the beginning, with a well-proven design. That it ranks as one of the best inlines you can buy should surprise no one.
However, many new offerings have no such background to build upon, and the purchaser of the first year model can be setting himself up for a distinctly sour experience. After Thompson's success, there has been a rush to cash in on the coattails of the Encore; break action rifles are now more popular than ever before.
I augment my own testing with customer feedback from the field. The CVA Optima was rushed to market in 2003 and sold well, along with the cheaper "Beartooth" models. Many people bought the sizzle, but there was no bacon. The first several thousand of these cheap imports came with horrid triggers.
The gun that I tested was replaced a total of four times. First for a jumpy 8-14 pound trigger, then replacement of a rough barrel that unfortunately did not fit the second gun's action. I persisted, and at the end of the mess had a 3-4 MOA gun that worked fine but still lacked a reasonable trigger and exhibited erratic accuracy. A year later, the number of people offering their Optimas for sale was astounding. It is no Encore, never was, although it promised to be just that in smarmy ad copy.
The same happened with the "Winchester" Apex, which most people realize is just a Spanish CVA (BPI) gun with a licensed Winchester decal on it. It promised to be a Thompson Omega clone, but failed in direct comparison in terms of workmanship, accuracy, trigger, and an action that allowed blowback spray to ruin scopes and made cleaning a chore. Now re-released as the CVA "Kodiak," this cheapened version promises to deliver more of the same.
The imported Traditions Pursuit model was released for 2004, another break action knock off with a universally poor trigger, and it is one of the fussiest guns for which to find an acceptably accurate load. It too has been rushed to market without much attention to detail or quality control; the cobby workmanship is all too obvious.
It seems that CVA and Traditions bring in more sub-standard, poorly tested in-line muzzleloaders than most companies, but even the new Knight Revolution has issues that make it a questionable purchase, especially when compared to their outstanding Disc Elite rifle. Although quality is not an issue, and Knight Rifle product testing is better than most, the promise of easy cleaning has not been fully addressed, and there are ergonomic problems that Knight will be looking at improving for 2005.
There is a break-action bright spot for 2005, though, that being the NEF / H&R Sidekick, made in Gardner, Massachusetts. Now under the ownership of Marlin Firearms, the Sidekick is not exactly a designed from scratch model. It builds on the long history of the H&R Huntsman and NEF Handi-Rifles; the distinction being this version is a non-form 4473 (muzzleloading) arm. For the money, it looks to be the best break-action value on the market today. Full reviews of the Sidekick and Knight Revolution will be forthcoming after the next few hunts.
In the meantime, whether it is a refrigerator, a lawnmower, or a muzzleloader, new models do not automatically mean good models, or even acceptable models. Having to buy a hunting tool twice to get the job done is no bargain. The new muzzleloader buyer might do well to take a long, hard look at established quality models (Austin & Halleck, H&R / NEF, Knight, Savage, T/C) before essentially buying a lottery ticket based on glossy ad copy.
Copyright 2004 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.