What Muzzleloader Should I buy?

By Randy Wakeman


This is the number one question, posed over and over in countless e-mails. As in all things, opinions are subjective, skewed, slanted and based on one's individual experiences and values.

Some folks care deeply about quality triggers; some feel if it "goes bang," that's fine. Some obsess about warranties; some care more about good manuals and prompt customer service. Some care about resale and long-term value; some care only about getting through the next hunting season. Some find maintenance repugnant; some find accuracy to be the only thing that matters.

This level of combinatorial factors never results in consensus, nor will my comments here. Having lived with some thirty different inlines through several thousands of shots, I'll offer my opinions. The only thing I can promise the reader is that these assessments are not bought and paid for, as I am affiliated with no muzzleloading manufacturer or industry-related company. The following guns, I believe, are worthy of your consideration.

The Economy Choice: The Knight Wolverine 209

The Knight LK-93 has been a popular choice for over ten years now, with the same basic action as Tony Knight's "original modern inline," the MK-85. The Wolverine was the first Knight to have barrel and receiver made from one block of steel, an integral design now found in all Knight Rifles.

The Wolverine 209 continues on quite nimbly today, augmented by Knight's full red plastic jacket that weatherproofs the action and reduces blowback. Current Wolverines offer the same "factory adjustable for free triggers" found on the most expensive Knights, with a array of configurations very few muzzleloaders can match: thumbhole, camo, youth, and even left-handed solid synthetic stocks, .45 or .50 caliber, and either 22" or 26" blued or stainless Green Mountain barrels.

It has Knight's sub 2-1/2" accuracy guarantee, though most shoot far better out of the box, and less than 1 MOA is not rare. Ian McMurchy's extensive tests showed 1.33 to 1.53 inch average five shot group sizes.

The street prices vary from around $199 to $299. This gun proves that you need not spend a lot of cash to have a reliable, weatherproof modern muzzleloader with a great trigger, backed by a strong USA company with excellent customer support.

For all the reasons mentioned, there is no reason to settle for less than the Knight Wolverine 209, an all-American classic. Some feel that despite its affordable pricing, you aren't settling for less of anything at all, and I can't argue with that.

The NEF / H&R "Sidekick" has recently earned the distinction of being one of the best values in a well-made muzzleloader as well.

The Gorgeous Choice: The Austin & Halleck 420

Reviewed in greater detail elsewhere, the curly-maple stocked Austin & Halleck 420 .50 caliber looks like a $1000 gun, offers 3-way ignition making it 50 state legal, is extremely soft shooting, and shoots better than 1" at 100 yards out-of-the box in my hands. Yet, it costs less than $499 with two stocks, and the synthetic stocked 320 model has a MSRP of only $399.

It looks, handles, and feels like a quality center-fire rifle. The short throw bolt gives it extremely fast lock time, and its American "Bold" brand trigger (Minneapolis, MN) gives it a quality, adjustable trigger no "off-the-boat" imported muzzleloader can match. It looks great, shoots straight, and its open-breech quick-release bolt action is legal where hunting regulations prohibit 209 fired or closed-breech guns.

Under the management of North American Arms and Ray Crow, the quality control of this beautiful rifle has continually improved. The only problem for many people is trying to convince their "significant others" they didn't spend $1200 on it! Austin & Halleck placed 2nd this year at the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association manufacturer's championships, and while such events bear little semblance to real-world hunting conditions, it is yet another feather in Austin & Halleck's increasingly brilliant cap.

The Scoped-only Accuracy Choice: The Knight Elite .50 caliber SS

When I can sail bullets through the Illinois winds into a one-half inch hole (or smaller) all day long, it is either divine intervention or an uncannily accurate rifle. Maybe both are at work, but the Knight Elite, with its tapered, non-iron sighted stainless steel barrel with the new, big-footprint "long tined" cantilevered recoil lug barrel remains the most accurate out-of the box muzzleloader I've ever fired.

The Knight Elite has been reviewed more fully elsewhere, so these comments are mercifully brief. The new recoil lug seems to be the primary reason, and it beautifully floats the barrel. If you subscribe to the comments of Col. Townsend Whelen, who remarked that, "only accurate guns are interesting," this may well be the most interesting muzzleloader made today. Sadly, this brilliant frontloader has been discontinued for 2005. Grab one if you can!

The Easy Maintenance Choice: The Thompson Encore .50 caliber SS (The only REAL break-action choice)

It is fast handling, it is built like a rock, accepts centerfire rifle and shotgun barrels, and is sub-MOA accurate. It is also ambidextrous and amazingly easy to maintain. It is the finest break action muzzleloader made today, and perhaps the finest single shot rifle available at an affordable price. Demand still exceeds supply, and it is one of the few muzzleloaders made where used gun pricing can actually exceed new gun pricing.

The Thompson Encore is the Mercedes of break-action muzzleloaders, and it remains the "Gold Standard" in sealed breech 209 fired muzzleloaders today. It is not the prettiest, but it comes with real American steel, and real walnut stocks if you prefer, and real bluing from a real American company, with great customer service. Its owner's manual is the best in the industry, and the Encore is easily one of the strongest muzzleloaders ever made, as you might expect from a firearm that accepts a .375 H & H barrel if you choose! The Encore does everything competently, and some things no other muzzleloader can do.

Another muzzleloader that is equally easy to maintain is the Thompson Omega. That model gives you the same barrel in a dual recoil-lugged stock, also in a sealed ambidextrous design. The Omega is a lower-priced alternative that gives you "similar Thompson muzzleloading" performance. The Omega's demand has also outstripped its supply.

The Smokeless Choice: The Savage ML-10 Smokeless Muzzleloader

There is a rumor going around that smokeless powder is no less a black powder substitute than the popular Hodgdon Triple Seven powder, and actually more of a rational black powder substitute than a Pyrodex or Triple 7 pellet, as it is a powder. (By the way, have you ever seen a box of 12 gauge shotshells marked "3 drams equivalent" right on the box? Hmm, thought so.)

There is also the rumor that the Savage ML-10 II is an extremely safe, well-made muzzleloader that offers better ballistics than so-called "magnum" charges of Triple 7 powder; with less recoil, better repeatable accuracy, and far less powder cost per shot. These rumors are all true.

Affordable, featuring a sealed action, with the pace-setting Savage Accu-Trigger now standard on all models, the Savage ML-10 II is the choice for those who wish to make their own traditions, rather than blindly following the tormented, fabricated "traditions" of others. Choice is part of what America is all about, in this hunter's view, and the Savage is both a valid and good one. The vast majority of all deer in all seasons are taken inside 100 yards, in many areas less than fifty yards is the norm. You have one shot. That the Savage may allow you to harvest your game more quickly and more humanely at all ranges is hardly a cause for criticism. It is just another choice you have in equipment, and that, my friends, is "no smoke."

Conclusion

There is a tendency to order non-Form 4473 muzzleloaders sight unseen. All the above are in this category, excepting the Thompson Encore. That is a pity, as holding a gun in your hands and up to your shoulder can instantly tell you more about balance, feel, fit, sights, weight, and overall handling in your personal context than any text review can possibly convey. There are, happily, many quality choices available. In my opinion, no one is making a mistake with any of the exemplary models cited above.




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Copyright 2003, 2012 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.


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