The History and Future of Smokeless Muzzleloading
On April 08, 2005 I published on Guns & Shooting Online an open letter to Ron Coburn, CEO of Savage Arms. In it, I recognized the Savage 10ML-II inline muzzleloader for its strength (the strongest muzzleloader on the market), safety (the best safety record of any muzzleloader), 100% proof testing, overall high quality, accuracy, low recoil, low maintenance, Accu-Trigger and for meeting the safety and quality standards of all four monitoring organizations: ANSI, SAE, SAAMI and CIP. No other muzzleloader, before or since, has ever done this. I concluded the letter by writing: "By offering a superior product that enables swift, humane harvesting of game-and ensuring clear visibility enhancing the recovering of that game, you have made muzzleloading a better place." (See the Muzzleloading Information page for the complete text of the original letter.)
All of this is as true today as when it was first published, though "today" is tens of thousands of Savage 10ML-II's later and hundreds of thousands of big game animals later. Low cost per shot, greater visibility and safety, less hassle, less mess, less recoil, better velocities and better accuracy than possible with lesser muzzleloaders are all well-established attributes. It has been accepted by the top barrel manufacturers, propellant manufacturers, bullet manufacturers and sabot manufacturers. Whether MMP sabots, Barnes Bullets, Western Powders, Doc White, virtually anyone who is anyone has used and continues to use safer, cleaner, more economical propellants that won't foul your bore or rot your barrel in firearms specifically designed for it. The price you pay for all this is a simple one: weigh your powder charges, follow the Savage owner's manual, use the witness mark on your ramrod and remove your ramrod from the barrel before pulling the trigger.
Use of modern, safer, cleaner, smokeless propellants is not going away from rimfires, handguns and center-fire rifles. It sure isn't going away from shotguns, which use a 209 primer, smokeless propellants and a wad or sabot. Nor is it going away from firearms that are loaded from the muzzle, for the same reasons.
The idea of using better propellants in muzzleloaders is hardly a new idea or new event. Most folks are unaware of the Knight Rifles / Hodgdon Powder Red Powder Project. The idea of calling gunpowder “black powder” is a recent event. It was always just gunpowder until the last century. Several so-called muzzleloading propellants, whether Triple Se7en, Black Mag3, American Pioneer, CleaRshot, Cleanshot, Pinnacle, or White Hots have nothing at all to do (chemically) with organic blackpowder. They aren't remotely the same chemically, physically, or in efficiency. A pellet isn't even a powder at all. The muzzleloading industry has done a poor job of educating their customers, though, preferring hyperbole to facts.
The Red Powder Project was the idea of using a specific smokeless powder in Knight Rifles designed for its use. Folks have the idea that “black powder” means a whole variety of things; Hodgdon noted that powder could be offered in any color you want. By offering a smokeless powder that was red, there would be no chance for confusion. You just use prescribed amounts of red smokeless powder in red powder rated rifles only and that was it. The Red Powder Project never became a commercial reality for several reasons, one being the immense popularity and profitability of pellets. There is little motivation to compete with and obsolete your own product, so Hodgdon can hardly be blamed for not taking that path.
Smokeless Muzzleloading Inc. has been around since 1984. Ultra Light Arms offers smokeless muzzleloaders, as does Swing-Lock, as does Bad Bull. There are a countless number of custom rifle builders that currently make smokeless muzzleloaders, not the least of which is Henry and Bill Ball. However, the custom order route is not affordable in the minds of most hunters and shooters.
Bad Bull Muzzleloaders asks the question, “With the cost for a good hunt being in the $3,500 to $7,500 price range, why would a good hunter want to take a chance on a $150 "Hit or Miss" muzzleloader with a range of 100 yards?” While it is a good question, many muzzleloading hunters don't think that way. The cost of a Bad Bull “X-Series” is $3950. The utility, lowest-priced Bad Bull is based on a Stevens 200 action and sells for $2650.
On the other hand, the most expensive Savage 10ML-II ever offered is the stainless steel laminated thumbhole version, with a MSRP of $915. The blued synthetic's 2010 MSRP is $680 with typically lower street prices. You could buy four Savage 10ML-II's for the cost of the most economical Bad Bull, a rifle based on the non-AccuTrigger Stevens 200 action made by Savage. The Savage 10ML-II offers smokeless capability for today's muzzleloading enthusiast for 75% less than other options. It is the only mass-produced smokeless muzzleloader in history, the only smokeless muzzleloader that many people would characterize as affordable and the only muzzleloader offered from a reputable, major United States rifle company offered in he last ten years.
As you might imagine, as soon as Savage announced that the 10ML-II was being dropped from the line at the end of 2010, everyone wants one. We always seem to want what we cannot have. Roger Joyce of Bad Bull Muzzleloaders has done a good thing, in a way. The only powder you can use in a Bad Bull is IMR 4350. Nothing else is allowed, period. Black powder subs are also not allowed, with the exception of pellets. This eliminates the notion that it is somehow “okay” to shoot whatever you feel like stuffing down the barrel. With the Bad Bull, you use IMR 4350 and a 275 grain Parker Ballistic Extreme bullet, period. Though some may decry this lack of versatility, it stops the practice of amateur internal ballistics experimentation before it begins. The same premise was behind the Red Powder Project years ago.
Smokeless powder muzzleloading isn't going away anytime soon. Smokeless Muzzleloading, Inc., of Hartford City, Indiana, has been around since 1984. That is before most modern muzzleloaders in use today were designed, much less actually manufactured. I have been asked many times if the Savage 10ML-II will be back. Well, the direct answer is that I have no idea. I've never been a Savage Arms employee and I am just about as far from a decision maker at Savage Arms as can be. It is not particularly rational to compare a muzzleloader with smokeless capability with one that does not have it. Yet, this apples to oranges comparison has been made with surprising frequency.
I understand that Savage Arms is not a custom shop. They offer affordable firearms to consumers based on modern production methods and efficiency. Savage, like all major firearms companies, produces what their many dealers and distributors can sell and want to sell. I would speculate that the return of the 10ML-II would be a matter of demand from a major distributor or large chain retail outlet. An organization that understands smokeless muzzleloading and has the marketing influence to come to an arrangement with the executives at Savage Arms that is viable in terms of production quantities and makes good business sense. Savage listens to their customers. However, enough customers have to ask the question.
Copyright 2010 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.