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The Traditions Express and the Second Shot Muzzleloader Advantage

By Randy D. Smith

Traditions Express rifle
Traditions Express O/U Rifle. Photo by Randy D. Smith.

A double barrel muzzleloader has a lot of appeal for many of us. A double barrel muzzle-loading shotgun provides an instant second shot to bring down tough pheasants and sort out a covey of quail, or insures that a misfire wonít ruin a turkey hunt. In the deer woods a double barrel rifle provides some extra insurance that a buck is down for good. For me, a second round is especially important to put down tough or dangerous game. Iíve been in several situations where I was glad I had that second immediate shot.

I enjoy the challenge of dangerous game muzzle-loading. Iíve hunted on three continents for Asian water buffalo, bear, African plains game, and Russian boar. I like to get up close and use big conicals or special projectiles to take big game. In the early years I used a .58 caliber Enfield carbine replica and later a .58 caliber Thompson/Center System 1 on these hunts. Normally I loaded 525 to 555 grain conicals. The big .58ís had a lot of advantages as long as ranges were kept relatively short. Val Forgett, the founder of Navy Arms used .58 caliber muzzleloaders in Africa. In 1985 Val was recognized by Safari Club International as the first man in a hundred years to take the Big Five of African game with a muzzleloader.

As time passed, muzzleloader technology improved, and after a couple of hairy incidents, I decided that I wanted a double barrel. I know from experience that I can get off the first two shots with a double barrel muzzleloader as fast as any gun on earth. So far that is all Iíve needed. After testing various sidelock doubles I had a .50 caliber inline double made. A .50 caliber double is a good choice because of the wide variety of projectiles on the market. .58ís and .54ís are generally limited to heavy conicals and round balls. My custom double utilizes a musket cap ignition system and is regulated for a 150 grain Pyrodex P powder charge shooting a 600-grain slip fit conical. The gun is an experimental design and it is going through its third major revision.

Generally, a high grade muzzle-loading double barrel that can be a dependable dangerous game rifle is an expensive custom order proposition. Iím not talking about deer class doubles but rather a serious dangerous game double for stalking a Cape buffalo or Alaskan grizzly bear. Most of the time you can expect to pay at least $3,000 for a plain working class gun but many custom gun makers will ask as much as $6,000 without batting an eye, especially when you get to the 10, 8, 6, and 4 bore models. Iíve tested a number of double barrel muzzleloaders and come away less than impressed. Frankly, they just werenít as heavy as I thought they needed to be or dependable enough for dangerous game.

A dangerous game double barrel muzzleloader must be absolutely dependable. Iím not talking about a few misfires per hundred, but virtually none. It should have enough weight to help with recoil management, a stock design that will not only properly direct recoil into the shoulder but also hold together under sustained shooting, a generous recoil pad, and a ruggedly solid trigger system. It must be, or be able to be, regulated for heavy loads, be easy loading, have a foolproof ignition system and good sights. On top of those features it must also be responsive, that is, it must have superior handling features. Neither companies nor individuals can manufacture guns like that cheaply.

I was very interested when Traditions Performance Firearms of Old Saybrook, Connecticut, announced plans to market an over & under .50 caliber muzzleloader for less than $2,000. I was intrigued by the gun but had no immediate hunts where I could test it in a suitable environment. When I learned that Kansas no longer restricted early muzzleloader deer season to a single barrel I contacted Traditions immediately.

The Traditions Express O/U is a .50 caliber with 24Ē barrels and a modern 1:28Ē twist, a 209 shotgun primer ignition system, a projectile alignment system, top tang safety, drilled & tapped for a scope base and a high grade walnut stock. It is rated safe for 150 grain powder charges. The Express boasts a steel frame and four locking lugs, features that are absolutely necessary at heavy powder charge levels.

>A .50 caliber has limitations for dangerous game. Using 500-600 grain projectiles modern muzzleloaders can attain short range power on the level of a .375 H&H Magnum (using the popular Taylor Knock-Out formula as an estimation tool). The formula takes the bullet weight in pounds, thatís weight in grains divided by 7000, times velocity in feet per second, times caliber in thousandths of an inch. This produces an index value that can be related to other values to reflect killing power. For example, a .375 Magnum, considered the premier all-purpose African hunting round, throwing a 300-grain bullet (divide by 7,000), times velocity of 2,560 feet per second times caliber of .375 produces an index number of 41.

A 500-grain conical (divide 500 by 7000, times velocity of 1,400 fps times the caliber of .500) produces an index number of 49.7.However, this is close range power and the .375 H & H has long range trajectory, modern penetrating bullet construction and fast repeat shot advantages. For a muzzleloader to reach that performance level demands a black powder or Pyrodex charge of approximately 150 grains and a Triple 7 charge of at least 120 grains. I want to generate a muzzle velocity of around 1,400 fps with these heavy loads. This makes a .50 capable of taking anything on the North American continent where the vast majority of these guns will be hunted. In Africa I consider even the heaviest loaded .50 to be marginal for Cape buffalo out to fifty yards and unsuitable for anything larger or for that matter farther. These loads push recommended loadings for the Traditions Express and go well beyond the Pedersoli Kodiak, another popular muzzle-loading double.

The Express is based on a pre-existing over/under shotgun platform. Iím sure this greatly helps to control costs by using components that are already in production and it provides for safety features that are not present on conventional sidelock doubles or my custom inline. A tang mounted safety is quick, dependable, and easily accessed in even the most challenging circumstances. The over/under design is also drilled and tapped for mounting a scope. This is another feature that is usually only available through custom gunsmithing on conventional sidelock doubles. By using a shotgun design the internal components should be fully proven and completely dependable. This has been a weakness of my custom double where stock and trigger refinements continue to be made.

By going with a .209 primer system the Traditions Express is compatible with the use of pellet propellants, a major advantage over sidelocks. Pellets are also much easier to meet airline and transport regulations to Africa. While I use Pyrodex and Triple Seven powder in my custom inline double, only black powder provides the dependability I want in any sidelock that I have tested. A 209 primer system makes the Traditions Express a thoroughly modern muzzleloader design, a claim no other double can make. Pellets make it quicker to reload than the sidelocks. New Easy Load sabots significantly decrease loading time. Since the Express is a break action the 209 primers are well protected from the weather. Fired primers clear the breech easily. The projectile alignment system enhances the loading phase. I canít stress enough the importance of a quick reloading system or ignition dependability in a gun intended for tough and dangerous game.

Along with this quick reloading capability is the importance of Traditionsí choice of an aluminum ramrod. Aluminum ramrods have been proven to be far more dependable than wooden ramrods and far less bulky than steel. When a hunter is driving home reloads in a tight situation, I believe that aluminum or heavy polymer ramrods are the only ways to go.

A high quality recoil pad and tight grain walnut stock help insure that heavy 150 grain powder charges will be manageable. Recoil management is especially enhanced when combined with the Express doubleís 12.5 pound weight. I consider this to be a good weight for a .50 caliber double. The gun is not unduly bulky yet it is heavy enough to limit felt recoil. A dangerous game double should be compact and the weight should be toward the center of the gun rather that concentrated in the barrels. Iíve tested some doubles that were so barrel heavy that it made snap shooting difficult. These guns must come to the shoulder quickly and on target the instant the butt hits the shoulder.

Traditions clearly states that the gun is intended for hunting ranges out to a hundred yards. This is exactly the claim that should be made for any double. If the barrels are regulated with a decent load the rifle is ideal for short to medium range hunting, a common goal for all doubles no matter what the price range. The Express O/Uís modern fiber optic sight system is more than adequate for all hunting at those ranges. Traditions fiber optic sights are among the best in the industry. They are open and easy to focus on with a robust front blade for quick acquisition.

I have read reviews of the Express rifle with the main complaint being its heavy trigger pull. I felt that the triggers were comparable to most shotgun triggers and more than adequate for hundred yard deer hunting. It is certainly as good as most new rifles equipped with ďlawyer proofĒ triggers.

This gun is not and never will be a target rifle. It is designed for quick handling and fast shooting as is any double rifle on earth no matter what the price. To criticize a double for not shooting like a single barrel rifle demonstrates ignorance on the part of the critic. I once shot a $9,000 .470 Nitro Express double that has never shot a double barrel group tighter than six inches at 100 yards. The owner uses it on a daily basis supporting dangerous game clients and the gun has never failed him.

The Express has an adjustable top barrel that tunes with an Allen wrench to line up with the bottom barrelís point of impact. A ďbarrel jackĒ has four adjustable screws that encircle the end of the top barrel, allowing it to be adjusted in relation to the bottom barrel. This is done more or less by dead reckoning through repeated shots. The first step is to sight in the bottom barrel which corresponds to the front trigger. I sighted the barrel 2 inches high at fifty yards. The top barrel was not as difficult to sight in as I imagined it would be. To get the barrel to shoot higher and to the left, I reduced the tension on the top two screws and increased the tension on the bottom two, a half turn at a time with an extra quarter turn on my 8 0íclock screw. Three shots later I had barrel impacts within an inch of each other. You want to pick a load and stay with it, but the beauty of this double is that you can make a deer rifle into a big game rifle by sighting in new loads. My custom double is strictly a big game muzzleloader designed for 150 grain powder charges and 600-grain conicals. This set regulation trait is true of all welded barrel doubles.

Hunting whitetail deer with a dangerous game rifle is a good way of ascertaining a gunís handling qualities. I have used deer, elk, and feral hog hunting as a means of evaluating several dangerous game rifles including my current muzzle-loading double, .375 H&H Magnum and .458 Winchester Magnum. I am not evaluating heavy loads in any other fashion than as a means of seeing how the gun will handle and manage the loads in my hands under the pressure of a hunt. I am evaluating the rifleís handling features, field accuracy, recoil traits, and loading ease. Individual big game load performance itself cannot be reliably judged on a light boned, thinned skinned animal like the whitetail deer. That is best done through direct big game observation, experience, and expert recommendation. If a big gun wonít handle to my satisfaction while hunting deer, however, it wonít do well for me as a dangerous game choice.

I took a mature whitetail doe during early muzzleloader season at 120 yards with a load of 100 grains of Triple 7 Magnum pellets and Traditionsí 250-grain APB projectile with Easy Load sabots. Cover was extremely heavy but I caught the doe in the open. I was in the open as well. She saw me as soon as I saw here. I immediately sat down and took a sitting position shot at her aiming dead on, waiting for her to turn broadside. When she presented the proper angle, I fired. The bullet impacted a bit far back in the rib cage. I heard the impact and knew I had a solid hit. She stood for at least a minute if not two before wavering and eventually going down. I chose not to deliver a second round as I did not want to startle her into surrounding heavy cover.

Doe taken with Traditions Express rifle
Photo by Randy D. Smith.

The Traditions Express is primarily intended for normal deer or feral hog loads. Most hunters want a double for those reasons. That is a good whitetail load and a bit light for large feral hog hunting. I range tested some much heavier loads including 150 grain Pyrodex pellet loads with 530-grain steel tipped dangerous game Power Belts and 435-grain Buffalo SSB sabots. I have used the Buffalo SSB on African plains game with excellent results. If this were my gun Iíd probably sight it in using at least a 400 grain projectile and a charge of 100 or 150 grains of Triple Seven for maximum knock down power on North American game. For a conical, the powder charge would be from 100 to 120 grains of Pyrodex and probably no more than 100 grains of Pyrodex Triple Seven Magnum pellets.

Each of us has a different reason for using such a gun but I would set the Express up for North American heavy feral hogs and bear. If I want a long range precision muzzle-loading rifle, Iíll use my Pursuit Pro. To my mind the whole idea of a double barrel muzzleloader is for short-range knock-down power using high momentum projectiles.

I came away feeling that Traditions probably has the best production double barrel muzzleloader on the market, especially considering the price. You can spend a lot more money for a custom double that wonít do any better and certainly wonít be as flexible. Mainly, it is important to understand what can and should be done with such a rifle. Accept its limitations and you will profit from its advantages.

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Copyright 2007 by Randy D. Smith. All rights reserved.