Savage Ceases 10ML-II Production: The End of an Era

By Randy Wakeman

Firearms come and go on a regular basis; books have been written about models that have made a statement and developed huge fan bases. You might look back on the Winchester "Super-X Model One," a gas autoloader considered yet today as the finest, best quality shotgun of its genre ever built. You also might reflect on the Winchester Model 21 side-by-side, a Jack O'Connor favorite that was made from 1931-1960, with total production in those twenty-nine years just barely breaching the 30,000 unit mark. Some of the more loudly lamented discontinued firearms of days gone by would include a couple of my favorites, the Browning A-5 and the Colt Diamondback revolver. For Savage aficionados, the Model 99 was a watershed product, invented by Arthur W. Savage himself in 1893. The hammerless Model 99 is considered the first lever action rifle designed to shoot high-intensity, smokeless cartridges with pointy or “spitzer” shaped bullets. The .250 Savage (.250-3000) was the first commercial round to yield 3000 fps velocities, while the .300 Savage cartridge from 1920 developed into the .308 Winchester and, ultimately, the 7.62 x 51mm NATO. Firearms have no shortage of rich histories.

For modern inline muzzleloaders, the most important of the lot was the Knight MK-85, the rediscovered and improved inline rifle that launched the entire modern muzzleloading industry. With faster twist 1:28 barrels, more reliable ignition, and dual safeties where many prior muzzleloaders had none at all, muzzleloading quickly became an accurate, enjoyable, reliable, and ethical way to hunt. Additionally, inline rifles are far more suited for scope mounting than sidelocks, the scope being one of the greatest safety features that can be added to a rifle. Now, thanks to Tony Knight, muzzleloaders went bang when they were supposed to, didn't go bang when they weren't supposed to, and the average hunter could both see and hit what he was shooting at.

When the then-new inline muzzleloading craze spiraled upward in popularity, dozens of companies sought to quickly get in on the action with several interesting and not so interesting rifles. Two familiar names in centerfire rifles joined in: Remington and Ruger. Apparently, the idea was basically screwing a breechplug into a preexisting short action rifle, changing the bolt from a firing pin to a hammer to pop a percussion cap, and though not any improvement to the breed, the familiarity of the brand and look of the rifles was thought to be enough to ensure success. As it turns out, it wasn't. The Ruger 77/50 went from #11 percussion cap to musket cap ignition, but didn't last long enough to receive any 209 primer attention, the 209 ignition itself pioneered by the long-gone Michigan Arms “Wolverine” rifle of the mid 1980s. The Remington 700ML lasted a while longer, but ultimately failed, plagued by a filthy open ignition system. The “three way” type of ignition system just a series of nipples with a springy 209 primer holder being one of them. A glut of cheap, sub-standard Spanish muzzleloaders were imported to try to cash in on the craze, with injuries, recalls, and bankruptcy proceedings a sad result of no muzzleloading standards. The Remington brand later tried once again to field a muzzleloader, this time selling a Remington box with a Spanish Ardesa made rifle, imported by Traditions (the Genesis) on the inside. This halfhearted attempt was very short-lived, deservedly so.

The story of the Savage 10ML series of rifles began twenty years ago, on September 20, 1990, when North Carolina machinist and custom rifle builder Henry C. Ball was injured by a defective sidelock muzzleloader. The beginnings of the Savage 10ML are chronicled in an article from seven years ago, called “Instant Slamification. It was an unprecedented nine years of testing, research, and development before the Ball “module gun” captured the imagination of Savage CEO Ron Coburn. In late 2000, a small number of the original Savage 10ML models shipped. It was, and is, the answer to everything that people hated about muzzleloading: the corrosive propellants, the poor visibility, the tinker-toy quality of several imported rifles, the cost of propellant, the cleanup, the swabbing between shots, the scope-burning blowback, the poor accuracy. The 10ML finally offered the modern muzzleloading enthusiast supreme safety, pinpoint accuracy, low maintenance, along with superior velocities and game-getting performance. It was, and is, the best-tested, strongest muzzleloader ever made-- far stronger than most centerfires, and built to an engineering standard of a 300% service factor. All Savage 10ML rifles ever made are machined from certified ordinance grade steels, the same best-quality metal used in all Savage centerfires. Additionally, every single Savage 10ML series rifle ever made is individually proof-fired and function fired, handily exceeding all applicable SAAMI / ANSI centerfire standards. Supremely safe, supremely clean, and supremely simple was the Savage 10ML mantra. Now, with all of these blatantly obvious features, benefits, and build quality, just what could go wrong? Here, finally, is the one-shot one kill muzzleloading rifle that everyone had always asked for, eliminating what performance-minded hunters had always hated about muzzleloading. Just what, pray tell, could possibly go awry? As it turns out, plenty.

The launch of the new, revolutionary 10ML was suddenly aborted after a year. The complication was the BATF that threw a wrench into the works. Savage Arms, quite rightfully, wanted a dedicated muzzleloader that they could market through all the regular muzzleloading channels as a non form 4473 arm, the way most muzzleloaders are classified. The BATF had looked at the 10ML and ruled that, yes, it was a muzzleloader and should be classified as such. However, the BATF changed its mind and decided that the 10ML, or “module gun,” should instead be considered a regular firearm. How, exactly, they came to that conclusion is a mystery to me, but I'm reminded that Tony Knight had a battle on his hands with his DISC (“Dual Ignition System Concept”) rifle. The BATF had ruled that the DISC rifle was a Form 4473 arm on the tenuous basis that it used a “modern” ignition system. Tony Knight ended up going to Washington and finally, the BATF dropped the matter, for good.

Savage Arms wasn't quite so fortunate. Suddenly, after nine years of development by Henry Ball and a couple of years of further testing by Savage Arms, with the associated tooling costs and start-up costs, Savage found themselves with a muzzleloader that could not be sold as a muzzleloader. So, it was back to engineering and R & D, with the entire testing cycle started all over again. The end result was the 10ML-II, with new patents awarded for the integral primer carrier on the bolt face on top of the preexisting ventliner (replaceable aperture or flash hole) and other patents. The Savage 10ML-II was ready for launch in 2003.

Three years after the initial launch meant that all the prior efforts in rolling out the 10ML were, in large measure, ineffectual and just not topical by the time the 10ML-II was finally engineered, tested, and fully tooled up for. Three years to have the non-4473 10ML-II in the pipeline is a very, very long time to lack either readily available product or a consistent message. How do you vividly, smoothly get the message out that "we got it," only to be followed after a few months of production by "well, we don't got it"? No one's fault, just a big "thank you" to the confused, decisionally challenged BATF. On top of that, there were other, additional complications.

Savage Arms knew that a non-traditional, ground-breaking design would be met with resistance. What only hindsight reveals is the level of that resistance, both the somewhat anticipated commotion from competitors, and the unforeseeable resistance from some game departments and consumers that fell prey to misinformation. Some game departments arbitrarily banned the use of smokeless powder, though Pyrodex had long been classified and marketed as the “smokeless muzzleloading propellant.” Various companies perpetuated the notion that smokeless powder was strange and mystical and somehow meant high pressure. The suits behind the counters at big box stores could not, and for the most part still cannot define what smokeless powder is, nor could they begin to tell you what is in Triple Se7en propellant for that matter. They have no clue. They remain equally clueless as to what muzzleloading pressures are today.

Everyone seemed to forget that most every shotgun and rifled slug gun that goes bang uses smokeless powder, the original black powder substitute. Every cheap .22 rimfire that goes bang is also using smokeless powder. Every .380 blow-back pistol that goes bang uses smokeless powder. Yet, where is smokeless powder banned for hunting in a shotgun or a handgun? When was the last time anyone asked if their pistol, rimfire, or shotgun was safe to use with smokeless powder? This mesmerizing wall of ignorance is hard to believe. Can I go dove hunting with smokeless powder? Pheasant hunting? Turkey hunting? Just how is it that shotguns work, anyway? Even the most casual, amateurish firearm users seem to know that a shotgun works with a 209 primer, smokeless powder, and a wad or sabot.

Take this 125 year old, incredibly simplistic concept and apply it to a muzzleloader designed for use with specific modern propellants and this dark wall of befuddlement seems to quickly cloud men's minds. I once thought that only “The Shadow” had the power to cloud men's minds. Now, it seems that it is not only Lamont Cranston but also Ron Coburn. I was chatting about this with Tony Knight recently, and Tony asked, “So what's the big deal here? If a guy doesn't care to use smokeless, can't he just use Blackhorn 209 or what ever floats his boat?” The answer is, of course he can. For whatever reason, if you want to use organic blackpowder, something marketed as a substitute, you can go any way you prefer with a Savage 10ML-II. Blackhorn 209 works beautifully in it, in fact factory Savage Arms barrels were used in the development of Blackhorn 209. As I write this, it is just after resighting in a couple of Savage 10ML-II's for longer ranges, using Accurate 5744 smokeless powder as recommended by Savage, a propellant I've used continuously for the last seven years. It is easy, it is safe, it is fun, and it is simple. I'm a simple guy and by now I'm spoiled by how effortless this all is.

There's an old saying, often attributed to William Goldman: “Nobody knows nothing about nothing.” It is impossible to precisely foresee what people take a shine to and what they don't. Marketing affects us more than we like to think it does. MacDonald's spends over one billion dollars a year trying to persuade you to eat their stuff. It works. Now, I have no idea what Savage Arms' marketing budget is, but I'll hazard a guess that it isn't comparable to MacDonald's. Savage has always been a fairly restrained, hyperbole free type of company letting their products do most of their talking for them. Firearms companies, contrary to some people's ideas, are small businesses in the United States today, small OEM's that cannot be rationally compared to the automobile companies that they are often mentioned against in the same breath. Also, note that many firearms companies and muzzleloading companies in particular use their guns as a launching pad for consumables, accessories, clocks, key chains, and clothing. This is neither good or bad, just an observation. Savage does not sell bullets, bases, rings, scopes, sabots, or a large line of accessories. They are devoted to accuracy for the dollar and to being your gun company.

Regardless of what business you are in, sooner or later a product has to carry its own weight. The 10ML has been a part of Savage Arms catalog line for a decade by now, available to their many distributors and dealers across the country just like all Savage product, and well-supported by their customer service department. The 10ML-II, though it has developed a cult-like following in several areas, just has not taken off as hoped in the mainstream. It has been around far longer than any other muzzleloader from a name-brand centerfire rifle company, having been in existence af or this writing for two years longer than the T/C Omega and longer than any dedicated muzzleloader I can think of. At the same time, other Savage Arms products have knocked it right out of the park. From the AccuTrigger in general to their AccuTrigger-enhanced rimfires, their heavy barrel varmint rifles, competition rifles, and as of late the 220F twenty gauge slug gun and the new Savage Edge, all of these offerings have lit up the marketplace without much trouble. Mainstream Savage product needs no detailed explanation and generates little in the way of questions or controversy. By comparison, the concept of smokeless muzzleloading has been a real pantload. So very simple, yet when you are the only game in town you have to spend way too much time explaining the game rather than just enjoying playing it.

The Savage 10ML has hardly been neglected throughout its production. It was promptly given the now industry “Gold Standard” AccuTrigger treatment, along with Savage's improved, oversized three-position safety. As interest in thumbhole stocks became apparent, the 10ML-II thumbhole laminated version was released. Just this year, the 10ML-II was given a socket-head breechplug that needs no special tool to remove, with the synthetic-stocked models given the highly-regarded “P.A.D.” recoil pad along with the latest Savage centerfeed action screw spacing. The tens of thousands of 10ML-II's sold would be a dream come true for any custom rifle builder, but it wasn't the return on investment that Savage had hoped for. Successful, yes. Long-running, yes. But not half the numbers Savage had been expecting and with the current economic landscape, apparently no significant surge could be expected, either.

Somewhere along the way, the convenience over performance factor weighs in. Even though loose powder is a preferred way to work up loads, even though the cost per shot in a Savage 10ML-II is a very small fraction of the take three pellet and call me in the morning approach, even though Savage ballistics are better than can be had with three pellet loads with far greater accuracy, many muzzleloaders can't be bothered to weigh charges. Happily forsaking performance, accuracy, and paying 600% or more per shot in propellant cost with the added bonus of hard fouling, crud rings, obscured vision, and corrosivity-- pellet shooting doesn't make any sense at all, but surprisingly it persists. The peculiar aversion to weighing powder charges is so prevalent that there are many who have said they would love to shoot smokeless, but only if it came in pellets. Again, “Nobody knows nothing about nothing.” These things don't have to make sense and often, they just do not. If you say you like something or if you say you don't, you're always right.

Caught up in a perplexing array of BATF decisions, knee-jerk DNR regs, and needless controversies, our failure to grasp that smokeless powder has always be a black powder substitute, our peculiar fascination with pellets, and perhaps a few cheap shots from jealous competitors, the Savage 10ML series never lived up to a fraction of its sales potential.

The Savage 10ML has more than lived up to its promise as the strongest, safest, best-built, best-tested, most accurate production muzzleloading rifle ever offered, though. It obsoletes all previous muzzleloaders by virtue of low maintenance, low recoil, low cost per shot, non-corrosive propellants, and upgrades inline muzzleloading performance to a higher, more effective level of exterior ballistics and game-getting accuracy at the same time. Built to be lifetime hunting rifles, those fortunate enough to own them will be filling their meat-lockers for many happy decades to come.

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Copyright 2010, 2015 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.