RATING THE INLINE MUZZLELOADING MANUFACTURERS
There are trends in customer service, uniformity of quality, and overall customer satisfaction that manifest themselves over time. It is dynamic, as a company once renowned for customer service may have taken a step backwards, and those who were not at the top of the heap a few years ago may now be. The ratings are by nature subjective, and the "one-incident" reporting has a margin of error of "totality."
Nevertheless, based on my experiences, and several informal surveys of others, these are tendencies that I'm comfortable in relating. It remains, like most things, a matter of opinion. To keep this brief overview from becoming a "drag" to read, I'll start at the bottom of the smokepole bucket and work up.
Your mileage may vary, but I've found that quality in customer service and attention to detail often correlate with quality products. No attempt has been made to cover all muzzleloading companies, as some inlines are so obscure and produced in such small quantities the general consumer has no reason to suspect they exist.
The Bottom of the Barrel
Traditions, White Rifles, and Remington have achieved this dubious distinction--for different reasons. The reports of self-firing Traditions bolt guns has been reported too often to ignore, and I've experienced this sad phenomenon myself. Additionally, when the cyclical "new .45 craze" was touted again-several manufacturers rushed to market with poorly selected or tested twist rates in their .45 caliber barrels. The better manufacturers protected their customers with replacement barrels; with Traditions it was "too bad, so sad." Less and less is heard of Traditions in the inline market these days; their sudden disappearance from Cabela's catalog was no accident.
With no legible owner's manual, apparently no inventory and no 2004 catalogs, White Rifles, LLC continues what some have referred to as a "controlled liquidation." It is a sad commentary, but "new" guns that will not fire reliably out of the box, are sometimes sold resplendent with rust, or with used barrels, is bad juju.
Remington apparently just does not care much anymore. Development of their sole model froze a long time ago, to the point where their 700ML's have recently been on clearance at warehouse clubs. The Canadian made 209 ignition has always been acknowledged as better than Remington's own weak attempt, and it is hard to spot anything but lack of improvement and a decline in quality control from this once proud company.
Middle of the Pack
CVA brand (owned by the Spanish company BPI) and the remarkably un-Spanish name of "Winchester Muzzleloading" seem to fall somewhere squarely in the middle. With independent knowledge, it has taken no less than three replacement guns to get one without a defective barrel or trigger. Yet, some of their employees do try very hard. Essentially an "import only" entity in the United States, their lack of testing shows. Their manuals are contradictory and their Lifetime Warranty is not transferable. Essentially selling 3 MOA "cheap Charlie" arms, some have found them adequate based on the price paid. Their approach has always been more hyperbole than substance; to be fair, they are hardly alone with their baseless brags. Some like to say you get what you pay for, others feel you pay what you shop for. BPI / CVA / Winchester Muzzleloading currently embodies the former.
NEF / H & R, now a division of Marlin, has developed a very good following in the "bang for the buck" category. Their 4473 status has held them back from some market segments, but they have finally addressed that this year. While certainly no prizewinner in the looks department, the argument has been made that they are currently one of the very best values in generally well made inlines. From that perspective, it is hard to disagree. Due to high marketing pressure in the $200 arena, they are now being squeezed a bit by the also "made in USA" T/C Black Diamonds and Knight Wolverines, but their customers seem generally satisfied based on the low cost of entry--particularly if the personal preference is a break action inline of some sort.
The "Good But I Don't Know" Department
Savage Arms and Sturm, Ruger & Company fall in to this category, for different reasons. I've had extremely positive customer service from Ruger with their entire line, and can be considered a Ruger fan. Their 77/50 muzzleloading attempt seems to be a "me too" offering, with scant attention paid to really assessing the market or improving the breed. I sold mine, and I wasn't the least bit sorry to see it go. Yet, Ruger rifles and wheelguns continue to impress, and there are no specific quality issues with their muzzleloader, though integral rings on an inline shows a real lack of understanding. It has always looked more like dabbling than a focused attempt, and so it remains.
Savage Arms, another fine company, does offer a superior product in the 10ML-II that has drastically improved in the last year alone. I can't comment on warranty service, as I've never had a warranty issue with a Savage. Their owner's manual needs help, which I understand it is getting, and though the Savage 10ML-II is a non-4473 arm, I can't see that it is in any way marketed as such. It is one primary action, perhaps the finest high-performance muzzleloader out there, but the distinct lack of factory accessories, stock options, lack of inventory, and a lackluster warranty coupled with the quiet marketing of this rifle appears to keep their transmission stuck in low gear. Addressing those issues could quickly pop them to the top; sometimes I've wondered if they really appreciate what their 10ML-II can do!
The Top Of Smokepole City
Three companies are on the top rung at present, in my opinion. Again, they are there for different reasons, and in different areas. They are Austin & Halleck, Knight Rifles, and Thompson Center Arms.
Austin & Halleck is a modest division of North American Arms, and prior to the NAA take-over there were vivid QC and customer service issues. I don't believe they seek to become the largest muzzleloading entity; they probably can't find that much curly maple. Their rejuvenated dealer network, upgraded manuals, informative WebSite, good selection of accessories, and attention to quality control has resulted in almost a doubling of sales in the last year. Their line entails one primary inline, and one primary sidelock, but their appeal has never been broader, nor their customer service better. Underscoring that, their inlines are pretty, and they certainly can group.
Knight Rifles has, in my opinion, the best customer support in the industry. Their Wolverine is a performance leader in its category, and the Knight Disc Elite the most accurate out of the box inline I've ever fired. Uniform barrels, outstanding triggers, average "one size fits all" owner's manuals (but enhanced by videotapes and DVD's) give uniform, excellent customer satisfaction with these two models in particular, with Knight filling the turkey hunting niche with their TK2000. Their model variations and stock options are the broadest in the industry. Their unusual choice of marketing keynotes, and an obvious over-reliance on proprietary items is a source for nit picking, but fundamentally they are an extremely high quality company of sportsmen and shooters with a dedication to customer service, and it shows.
Thompson Arms is in the enviable position of having the two most popular (and copied) muzzleloaders today: The Omega and the Encore. Thompson has the very best owner's manuals in the industry, and a true transferable lifetime warranty. That lifetime warranty has resulted in an exceedingly high resale value compared to other brands. The new Contender G2, though not yet widely distributed, is obviously another very high quality offering. All this coupled with the only mainstream "Made in the USA" sidelocks has positioned Thompson to be the market leader for many years to come. There's always room for improvement: their synthetic stocks do not compare favorably to those of Knight, and they look more than a bit silly selling "Bore Butter." They are, however, with little question the quality inline muzzleloader market leader.
Two of the three "bottom of barrel" cited makers, Remington and White Rifles, have no new muzzleloading production scheduled for 2005.
Due to the number of CVA branded guns that I am personally aware of that have put new owners in the hospital, they have distinguished themselves as a brand to avoid whether sold as "BPI," "Winchester Muzzleloading," "CVA," or "New Frontier."
Copyright 2004, 2005 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.