How to Select a New Muzzleloader
Over and over and over again, the same (quite reasonable) question is posed. "Hey, I'm interested in having some fun with muzzleloading, what should I get?" Like anything else, there is no "best," "right," or easy answer. In the end, personal preference will prevail. Steak or seafood, blue or red, it is up to the individual's preference. We don't buy automobiles based on specifications or efficiency alone, nor are muzzle guns selected that way. There is a reasonable path of selection, though, one that the more learned blackpowder aficionados can add to. This little commentary is not comprehensive; but it is a start.
This is up to you, but the overall cost of ownership, considering range fees, powder / bullets/ caps, scopes / bases / rings, can easily exceed the cost of the firearm itself. A quick look at the cost of modest "starter kits" may allow for a rethinking of what reasonable gun costs might be. To some, a grand for a gun is no great shakes. To others, it seems ridiculous. But, you have to start somewhere. I believe that part of the reason muzzleloading guns do not get the respect they deserve is that too much obsessing is attributed to gun cost alone.
To me, it makes little sense to buy a muzzleloader for BB gun pricing, then begin to ensconce it with $400 worth of accessories and consumables. The notion of an "entry-level" gun confuses me. Why enter any sport with sub-standard equipment? If you go too cheap, you have to buy a product twice. That is no bargain for anyone. It is quite easy to pop $200 on powder, bullets, slings, range-rods, cases, cappers, and so forth. Yet, we have not yet visited "Scopeland" yet, nor do we even have a trigger to pull. Competent muzzleloaders can be can in the $240 area, or a few dollars less. To go greatly below that is to tempt fate, as only so much cost can be taken out of a refrigerator, a lawnmower, or a rifle. Tony Knight has commented that it is virtually impossible to shoot out a BP gun's barrel; no one seems to disagree.
Sidelock or Inline
As a respected BP dealer pointed up to me, the "Rule of 250" applies. In a room of 250 people, perhaps 10% will hear the "good news." Yet, seemingly 100% will hear the "bad news." While sales of sidelocks plummet year after year, you just might enjoy one! If you plan on scoping your rifle, using Triple Seven pellets or other blackpowder substitutes that offer convenience, yet are harder to ignite, an inline seems a better choice. However, your personal tastes may dictate a pretty Hawken-esque sidelock that looks stunning above the fireplace with its glowing brass metalwork, or your local hunting regulations may make a reproduction of a classic design more useful to you.
If you intend on killing paper, it hardly matters. However, the projectile type has great bearing on what rifle you select. Conicals such as Maxi-balls require moderately fast twist barrels. Although slow by center fire rifle standards, 1:24 or 1:28 is common for the conical and sabot shooter. The rule of thumb has always been better too fast of a twist rate than too slow. Fifty caliber is the most common today, and that means more choices. Forty-five caliber is gaining new life for deer-sized game. Again, checking the applicable hunting regulations is always prudent. Nothing wrong with .54, .58 or other calibers just limited mainstream choices in firearm or projectile. As it stands, a .45 or .50 is a solid and acceptable choice for deer sized game, with the edge in availability and flexibility going to the .50 caliber rifle.
Although deer hunting is a big force in muzzleloading, you may primarily (and economically) enjoy target shooting with patch and ball. In that case, considering slower twist rate barrels (1:60, 1:66) may be in order for you. Regardless of what you choose, a little effort in defining your own needs can save time, money, and frustration down the road.
I prefer stainless steel barrels as they are easier to clean, and it is easier to tell when they are clean. They still require maintenance, as stainless steel really isn't. But, it does give you a little cushion. Downside? It certainly costs more pesos, and is brighter in the woods, unless you go for an aftermarket black Teflon or other darker coating, adding yet more cost. Whether camo tape sticks better to stainless than blued guns I really can't say.
If you are left-handed, a hammer gun is solid choice. You still have various break-opens and drop-actions to choose from, but lacking any compelling local regulation many lefties will be drawn to hammers, though some plunger-style guns have made concessions in both ambidextrous cocking bolts and stock designs. Working the action and shouldering the gun before you buy is always good advice.
Plunger-style actions were popularized by Tony Knight, and still remain popular in-line choices. They are simple, cost-effective, reliable, and many have additional safety features built in that disable the action.
Bolt-action in-lines (first introduced popularly by Remington, I believe) are the most popular style today. Many can fire #11 caps, winged musket caps, and #209 shotshell primers with the change of a nipple or a breech plug. Open actions comport to some hunting regulations requiring them. They were introduced as a "faster lock time" alternative to plunger guns, and are also more familiar to those joining the BP ranks from center fire rifle backgrounds. The close-fitting tolerances of bolts can become gummy upon heavy firing. This has been addressed by some makers in the form of quick-release bolts that can be quickly wiped down at the range.
Less choices, but most break-open guns and other hammer guns are essentially closed or at least semi-closed actions. This speaks to weatherproofing as well. However, most bolt actions can be weather proofed in large measure, and some are marketed as just that (Knight Extreme). For target shooting, a closed / semi-closed action keeps fouling off your face and scope. Scope protectors address this to a degree, and a little primer experimentation can help as well. It is not nearly as great of a factor in a rifle you have no intention of mounting a scope to.
Closed actions seem "the rage" right now, and they do have built in benefits of easy cleaning and less blowback. Some point up that the hammers are noisy in the woods, the two-piece stock design lacks the rigidity a one-piece design can offer, and lock time cannot be as fast as it is with the comparatively short-throw firing pins found in many bolt guns. How much lock-time matters is a personal choice. It makes the gun functionally more accurate, as nothing much good can happen from the time you pull the trigger till the projectile leaves the barrel. However, the greatest deer-bagger in history remains the .30-30 lever action, distinctly a hammer gun.
This is an area most likely to encourage bickering, so I'll make it as generic as I can. I believe most consumers are far better off buying a rifle from an established muzzleloading company, with a good track record, and even then being a bit wary of "first year offerings." Naturally, established muzzleloading rifle manufacturers have done it longer, they have done it better, and they understand it better. They should, as that is what they sell to stay in business. This means Austin & Halleck, Knight Rifles, Thompson/Center Arms, NEF/H & R, and now the Savage 10ML-II with its five year history. Their current, quite broad, product offerings in muzzleloading rifles and shotguns will satisfy almost anyone's needs.
Sneaky Randy Tricks
After you have narrowed your selections a bit, download or order an owner's manual. That will give you a far more realistic look at shooting and maintaining your arm than ad-copy or mythical gun reviews. Better yet, shoot one first. You might also have concerns about the quality of customer service after the sale--I know I do! The sneaky way to find out what level of service to expect after the sale is to call or e-mail customer service asking a basic question, such as the recommended bullet for whitetail deer at 70 yards. If no one answers the phone, or your e-mail is ignored, you have learned it before your purchase, not after.
None, really! 209 shotshell primer ignition is the usually the best choice unless prohibited by regulation. If you are shooting loose powder, #11 caps do a fine job, but you might want the ability to changeover to 209 shotshell primer ignition for the future. Widely available .45 or .50 caliber rifles are both suitable deer hunting tools. For plunger actions, Knight and White are acclaimed; T/C has done reasonably well with their Black Diamond. For a bolt style, Austin & Halleck, CVA, Knight, Traditions, and White have substantial offerings. For closed or break-action firearms, Thompson has popular models, with CVA / Winchester Muzzleloading joining the ranks as well.
There is an unfortunate tendency to order these guns without handling them first. Stock fit, balance, and other handling issues are unknowns unless you can hold one personally. How does that sight picture really look? So, a test drive or a test-handle is never a bad thing. I want to know how well a gun feels, what the maintenance ritual really involves, the pull weight and crispness of the trigger, the ease of scope mounting, how easy it is to prime / de-prime, and the amount of blowback from the action. I also want to know about available options, warranty, and the quality of customer support.
Good luck and good shooting!
Copyright 2003 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.