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Muzzleloading Basics

By Randy D. Smith

The popularity of hunting with a muzzleloading firearm has grown dramatically in the last twenty years. The largest growth took place after states began special muzzleloader only seasons. These regulations have drawn many modern hunters into trying muzzleloaders. Thousands of hunters take advantage of these extended seasons each year. Some have enjoyed the sport, some have become devoted muzzleloading enthusiasts and many have found it to be more trouble than it's worth. Muzzleloading has come a long way from spit patch round balls, soap and water cleaning techniques, powder horns, and bulky shooting bags. Only the intrinsic low energy properties of black powder propellants and the one-shot limitation inherent to the design restrain muzzleloaders from being as effective as modern rifles.

A modern .50 caliber muzzleloader loaded with sabots (a pistol bullet enclosed in a plastic collar), whether of sidehammer or in-line design, on a shot for shot basis, can competitively perform with a smokeless .30-30 rifle round. If heavy conical bullets (large soft lead projectiles) are being used the same gun can compete with the .45-70 Government cartridge. Anyone familiar with firearms performance will tell you that a hunter can take any game on the North American continent with one or the other of those so-called black powder loads provided the load is configured properly. Only so much energy can be generated by the combination of black powder propellants and projectiles. With each alteration of one or the other, velocity, trajectory and energy change accordingly. Muzzleloading companies have designed guns to achieve the most performance within those limitations. One company, Savage, is marketing a smokeless powder muzzleloading rifle but because of the current limitations of muzzleloading projectiles and advances of new sulfur free propellants, the advantages are minimal.

Muzzleloading Rifle Configurations

Muzzleloaders are available in three common designs. "Historic replicas" are close or exact copies of antiques and are often custom made guns. These guns are usually designed to work and perform just as the originals. Most flintlock muzzleloaders and many Civil War vintage guns are in this category. If the originals shot patched round balls or Minie balls, the replicas function best with the same rounds. These were the first muzzleloading gun designs to develop in the 1960's and 70's and the first wave of new age muzzleloading hunters tended to be history buffs.

"Replica hunters" represent the second group. These guns tend to have the same general lines as the replicas but beyond that point the similarity ends. Replica hunters have modern adjustable sights, can be easily mounted with scopes, usually possess internal improvements of trigger and lock design, are often fitted with synthetic stocks, and have rifling designs better suited to modern projectiles. The early models stepped away from round ball engineering and introduced the use of heavy lead conicals as projectile choices offering more down range energy. These guns are still popular where design is regulated by state statute or as choices for buyers wanting to experience historic handling and modern performance characteristics. Perhaps the most successful rifle in this class is the Thompson/Center Hawken.

The "In-line" class places modern rifle configurations into a muzzleloading package. Except for the fact that it is a muzzleloader, an in-line can look just like any modern rifle. In-line designs have copied the configurations of lever action carbines, tip-up camp guns, modern bull pup military rifles, overly complicated gimmick guns and the striker bolt in-line design. Along with the development of the in-line has been the sabot that uses an undersized projectile enclosed in a plastic sleeve. Bullets used in sabots tend to be jacketed and therefore too hard to be loaded directly into the rifling.

Because it is the rifling or "barrel twist" that dictates whether a gun uses a sabot/conical or patched round ball most effectively, both in-line and sidehammer guns can be manufactured to shoot any kind of projectile. Therefore, the only real advantage of one design over the other is personal preference. Do you want a muzzleloader that handles like your modern rifle or do you want a muzzleloader that handles like an old time gun? The majority of muzzleloading hunters have made the choice of the in-line over the replica hunter. The historical replica falls far behind the other two in sales popularity.

Muzzleloading rifles also come in three general categories. Inexpensive models tend to be European or Asian imports. A functional in-line muzzleloading rifle can be purchased at prices varying from $85 to $250. Mid-level rifles usually are manufactured in the United States and are generally priced from $250 to $400. These guns usually have better trigger configurations, heavier stocks, more substantial (and precise) sights and superior ramrods. Top of the line muzzleloading rifles are priced from $400 to many thousands depending upon preferences. Most of the truly expensive rifles of this class are custom made historical replicas using the finest materials. High end in-lines are usually the best, most advanced designs of the industry. Examples of this category are the Knight DISC, the Thompson-Center Encore, and the White ThunderBolt.

If all you are going to do with a muzzleloader is some whitetail deer hunting for a few days a season, any of these rifles will perform adequately. If, however, you are a dedicated enthusiast who intends to do extensive hunting and shooting in adverse weather conditions, perhaps even pursuing very large or even dangerous game then the old adage, "you get what you pay for," applies to muzzleloaders as well as any other firearm design.

Muzzleloader Loading Recommendations

The bulk of new muzzleloader sales are in .50 caliber because of flexibility, power potential for commonly hunted game, and the convenient accessibility of support and maintenance equipment in that caliber. For years it was recommended that shooters "work up a load" by starting at a low powder charge and increasing it in small increments until the gun shot its best group. Most in-lines and replica hunters are now shot at pre-set propellant levels with preferred projectiles and the sights are adjusted to set the impact point. A large part of the reason for the change is the development of popular Pyrodex pellets manufactured in 50 and 30-grain capsule units.

For whitetail deer hunting in-lines with a 1:24" - 1:28" twist will deliver excellent performance with a 100-grain propellant charge and sabots in the 250 - 300 grain range. Conicals in the 300 to 385 grain range will do very well with the same powder charge.

A .50 caliber muzzleloader with a 1:32" - 1:38" twist rate will do very well with the same sabots and conicals with a propellant charge in the 85 - 90 grain range.

A .54 caliber muzzleloader is almost universally manufactured with a 1:48" twist. An 85 - 100 grain charge will effectively shoot sabots, conicals and patched round balls with equal accuracy. Most often I choose a 425-grain conical to take advantage of a .54 caliber muzzleloader's knockdown potential.

Sight in a muzzleloader at 50 yards, trying to impact three inches above the bull's eye. This will put me in the six-inch kill zone out to 120 yards. For long range hunting opportunities sight for impact two inches above the bull at 100 yards. This will place my impacts in the six -inch kill zone out to 150 yards. Most rifles will easily shoot one-inch groups at 50 yards and three-inch groups at 100. If groups are wider with the above loads, reduce powder charge by five to ten grains.

Recently, many gun marketers have been touting the capability of using 150 grain powder charges and enhancing velocities in excess of 2,200 feet per second. These ads have misled many novice muzzleloaders into unrealistic expectations from a black powder firearm. In spite of all the hype a muzzleloading rifle is at best a 150 yard firearm with 200 yards being the maximum that can be expected from all but the most expert of marksmen.


There are three basic configurations of muzzleloading propellants - traditional black powder, Pyrodex (essentially blackpowder with cleaning and scrubbing agents added), and so-called sulfur free propellants. The advantage of black powder is that is has a low ignition temperature and is reliable. The disadvantage of black powder is that it is highly volatile and builds up in the barrel and gun mechanism with several shots. It is normal for a shooter to have to run a cleaning patch down the barrel after three or four heavy loads of black powder or the gun becomes virtually unloadable. It is also highly corrosive and must be cleaned from the gun after each shooting session. Pyrodex has better multiple shot capabilities without using a wiping pass than black powder, a bit higher ignition temperature and is not as volatile. Because Pyrodex contains sulfur, it must be cleaned from the gun after each shooting session as well.

For over a decade various companies have struggled to create a sulfur-free muzzleloading propellant that provides dependable performance and is economically viable to produce. The reason for creating a sulfur-free powder is to substantially reduce fouling traditionally associated with black powder and increase interest in muzzleloading from shooters and hunters who believe that cleaning a muzzleloader after each shooting is too much bother. These "breakthrough" propellants have been announced to the world with great fanfare and were usually greeted with a resounding "thud" from muzzleloading hunters after one season. Most of the products, except for the possible exception of ARCO powder, have proven less than satisfactory. Even though ARCO worked well, there were difficulties with developing a consistent formula and the project was eventually scraped. Most non-sulfur powders either exhibited poor ignition qualities, uneven performance, or were unhandy to use in the field. Still others never seemed to get to the market place in spite of the fanfare. They lived out there in some sort of propellant nether land promising miracles but never able to survive the demands of mass production. The success record for such products has not been good.

Hodgdon's newly developed Triple Seven propellant is sulfur free and seems to be the answer to many muzzleloading shooters demand for such a propellant. It is marketed in loose powder and pellet form. I am mainly concerned with three characteristics that must be present in any viable muzzleloading propellant - Is the powder ignition phase smooth without delays or sudden jolts? Is ignition dependable? How does Triple Seven compare to my standard loads of Pyrodex RS, Pyrodex Pellets or Goex FFg black powder for groups and patterns? After shot clean up is not among my major concerns. If the stuff doesn't shoot right I don't care how convenient it is. So far I have been satisfied with Triple Seven with one exception. It must be carefully cleaned from in-line breech plugs after every shooting. Breech plug threads should be heavily lubricated when using Triple Seven. The residue left from shooting is dry and tends to set up hard. This can have a dramatic effect when removing a stuck breech plug. But, on a shot for shot basis, it is good stuff and fills a need for many shooters.

Cleaning and Maintenance

Modern in-line rifles can usually be thoroughly cleaned and reassembled for storage in less than twenty minutes. There are so many good cleaning solutions on the market that it is difficult to name them all. The best advice is to avoid harsh chemicals and rely on solutions that are specifically designed for cleaning muzzleloaders. Triple Seven can be cleaned with soap and water.

There are two suggestions that are critical to successfully maintaining a muzzleloader. Get in the habit of regularly removing and thoroughly cleaning your nipple assembly. Improper nipple maintenance is the number one cause of ignition failure. Use a naturally "seasoning" compound to lubricate and protect the rifle bore and internal working parts. I use this with Triple Seven as well as any other propellant. Examples that come to mind are Natural Lube and Wonder Lube treatment compounds. These compounds will reduce loading difficulty and form a protective coating on the rifling and working parts, much like a well-seasoned cast iron frying pan. Treated guns also store better over long time periods with a minimum of corrosion.

Muzzleloading Challenge

Heading into the field with a muzzleloading rifle makes a unique statement about a hunter. The hunter with a muzzleloader is accepting the rigorous challenges of one-shot only encounters with game animals. It is a good option for a hunter who wants a greater challenge than conventional rifle hunting offers and yet does not have the time or resources for bow hunting.

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Copyright 2003, 2016 by Randy D. Smith. All rights reserved.