Muzzleloading's 2004 Blowback Awards

By Randy Wakeman

Once again, it seems appropriate to single out muzzleloading offerings that are the most influential, the most surprising in performance, or have distinguished themselves in other quantifiable ways. It is of course subjective; it is certainly a matter of opinion, and your results may vary depending on how and where you drive. Once again, these comments are not formed strictly from my own experiences, but are well augmented by the feedback from hunters and shooters around the country.


Thompson wins again this year with its Encore .50 caliber muzzleloader, for a different reason. While the Encore is by no means a new model, it has remained as one of the most sought after front loaders, and one of the very best. It selection as the most influential muzzleloader is uniquely easy, as the gush of new break-action rifles introduced in 2004 is directly attributable to the Encore's lasting success. Though the clear intent has been to capitalize on the Encore's lasting desirability, no break action muzzleloader has come close to the overall strength and quality of the Encore, with perhaps only Thompson's new Contender G2 .45 caliber rating in the same league.


Though not touted or promoted as loudly as some, the Thompson Contender G2, just cited above, is an easy pick as "gun of the year." This is the very first .45 caliber rifle that finally delivers on the promise of being what a .45 frontloader really can be: light, great handling, 1 1/4" MOA accuracy, and a joy to carry in the field. It does a fine job with .40 caliber bullets from 180 to 220 grains in .45 caliber sabots, and also does admirably with 275 grain bore-sized Powerbelts. Those that like an equally handy single shot cartridge rifle can make it so with the change of a barrel. The G2 is easy to operate and maintain, and extremely well made. For whitetails out to 150 yards or so, it is one beautiful hunting tool.


The number of satisfied customers is overwhelming, the Bushnell Elite 3200 (honorable mention last year) wins handily. Bushnell's Rainguard, quick focus, finger click adjustments, titanium-alloy tube, combined with a lifetime warranty and an affordable price makes this a fabulous choice, not just for muzzleloaders, but for most hunting rifles. Never before has one scope pleased so many new hunters in one year. Hat's off to Bushnell!

There is just no reason to settle for anything less than the Elite 3200, I can't think of any scope that has ever been offered that is this good, has this many attractive features, and is this affordable. Whether in 3 x 9 x 40, or 4 x 12 x 40AO configuration, the Elite 3200 is a beautiful hunting and shooting tool.


Austin & Halleck won this hands down this last year, but there is no clear trend to cite in 2004. Knight Rifles' customer technical support remains the best in the industry, and Thompson still leads the pack in the warranty and owner's manual department.


The consensus is that NEF / H & R "SideKick" break action, finally a non-4473 firearm, offers accuracy and a good trigger in a "Made in USA" platform with the lowest cost of entry seen in some time. Owned by parent company Marlin Firearms Company, NEF / H & R is the gun that currently offers the best level for the dollar due primarily to quality barrels. Not the "perfect muzzleloader," the ramrod supplied is one of the worst I've ever seen, and the hammer sets too high--meaning you just cannot obtain a sight picture prior to cocking it. Nevertheless, with current models in the $160 - $230 street price range and its good handling characteristics, it is the most accuracy you can get for the dollar from today's inline offerings.


Though a nitrocellulose-based powder, and therefore suitable only for the Savage 10ML-II, Accurate Arms 5744 propellant has clearly shown to be the most user friendly 10ML propellant there is, because of its Lee Dipper volumetric measuring, cleanliness and its sure-fire ignition. For this attractive combination of features, and its remarkable consistency, Accurate Arms 5744 rates its well-deserved accolades here.

Last year's winner, Hodgdon's Triple Seven FFg sulfur-free, gluconic acid salt based propellant, remains the "people's choice" for most other inline muzzleloaders.


The bullet that has been the proven in-line game-getter in thousands of clean drops is the Hornady .452 XTP in 250 grain or 300 grain configurations. This is not to be confused with the thicker-jacketed "Mag" version of this bullet, which has been shown to be both less accurate and a notch down in terminal performance from the standard XTP. It is the bullet, when coupled with a current formulation MMP short black sabot, that others aspire to beat; hence its citation here.

Honorable mention goes to the Thompson / Center "Shockwave" .40 / .50 200 grain, new for 2004. It seems clear that for deflagrating (fast burning) powders such as Triple 7, substantial ballistic gains can only be achieved by a combination of sufficient barrel volume complimented by smaller caliber projectiles. Though currently only offered in one grain weight, it is a clear step in that direction.


Lee Mecham's "Black Ice" Black Teflon coating has been universally embraced by muzzleloaders that have any residue or blowback from their respective rifles. Primer residue and so forth just tends to fall off, making guns a delight to clean--and no external oil need ever be applied. It is attractive, durable, and adds a level of corrosion protection to even stainless steel barrels.

Honorable mention goes to Competition Electronics "Pro-Chrono Digital" chronograph. Many muzzleloaders have discovered that without an accurate muzzle velocity to start with (from their own rifles), accurate exterior ballistic knowledge just is not possible. The Pro-Chrono has all the extras one could hope for, at a $100 or so street price. It is a fine product, and a delight to use.


This is an all-too-easy choice, and is the Hornady "Lock-N-Load Speed Sabot." Offering no more speed or ease of use than existing speed loaders already offer, this ready to be trimmed pig-tailed wonder is infinitely forgettable. At over ninety cents each, and void of any real value, it is the "Pet Rock" of muzzleloading for 2004.


In the case of last year's "gun to watch," the Savage 10ML-II, consumers have discovered the 10ML-II to be just as competent with Pyrodex and related propellants as it is with smokeless, and the Savage is on track for a 35% sales increase for 2004 as a result of that versatility. The 10ML still needs better synthetic stocks, and more detailed owners' manuals to help the new buyer, but the Accu-Trigger makes it easy to shoot accurately, and its supremely sealed action prohibits scope damage and blowback to the shooter's face. Savvy DNR departments are realizing that, as a game management tool, the ballistics of the 10ML are similar to today's pellet-powdered inlines as they use the very same projectiles, with scant difference in the field. But the Savage allows the hunter to use safer propellants that are non-corrosive and will impair no hunter's vision, with a gun manufactured to a higher standard in barrel making than all others.

On the horizon, exciting new propellants from the makers of "Black Mag3" are in the works; with Black Mag3 itself in its final extended testing and tuning phases. Look for Buffalo Bullet Company to offer a revamped, improved line of its well-proven, terminally proficient and accurate "SSB" bullets. Austin & Halleck and Knight both have new models in the works, with scant details known at present. It will all be fun to watch.

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Copyright 2004 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.