Another Visit with Tony Knight: The Future of Muzzleloading

By Randy Wakeman

Tony Knight
Tony Knight accepting an award from the Wild Turkey Foundation.

A little over three years ago I had the opportunity to visit with the Father of Muzzleloading, William Anthony �Tony� Knight. What I said back then was that no single individual has worked harder and longer to promote the sport, no single person has been more influential, no single person has done more to popularize the sport of muzzleloading in general and muzzleloading hunting in particular and these words are just as true today. A while back, Tony decided to leave the umbrella of the company that bears his name, Knight Rifles, so I am going to ask Tony to freely comment on the entire industry. With that, it is a pleasure to be able to welcome back Mr. Tony Knight for a more extensive visit.

RW: Some feel the sport of muzzleloading today is dying, some feel its best days are ahead, some feel that it has found its own level. What are your impressions about how the sport of muzzleloading is likely to progress?

TK: Muzzleloading is not likely to progress until manufacturers are willing to nurture the sport. The same has been true with bow hunting and other hunting activities. Very few folks in the industry spend any great effort to work with DNR departments around the country. Today, we are too often left with a group of people that just want to sell product but put scant little or no effort into promoting the sport. I�m referring to training young folks, enhancing muzzleloading opportunities, offering help and encouragement to those who like to muzzleload, and giving more people opportunities to use their muzzleloaders. Take a look back at what Fred Bear did for archery; we need that type of rejuvenated enthusiasm in the sport of muzzleloading today.

RW: An aspect of muzzleloading that is all too often overlooked is the potential it has to teach us all the fundamentals of firearms. A young man or woman that starts getting involved in muzzleloading is going to learn all about firearms. They are going to learn about actions, they will learn about rate of twist, they will gain an understanding of ignition, propellant types and amounts, they will learn about different bullet types and how all of these items work together. A muzzleloader is a comprehensive course in handloading and in firearms function in general. What are your thoughts on this?

TK: In most every seminar I�ve ever presented, I�ve suggested that muzzleloading hunting is the best way to begin hunting. It commands respect for both firearm and game animal; once you learn the fundamentals of muzzleloading you have learned the fundamentals of all firearms.

RW: Several people have asked if experience with muzzleloaders tends to make you a better hunter. I think it does just that. With no instant second shot to fall back on, whether psychologically or in reality, I think being limited to one shot forces the sportsman to be more careful, more selective prior to hitting the trigger. We�ve all heard about things like �sky-busting� or �emptying your gun at an animal.� Well, you empty your gun every time you muzzleload, it had better be at the right time or you might have a problem. �One shot and make it a good one� forces hunters to be more selective, more confident in their shot. What do you think of this?

TK:No question, muzzleloading demands that you become a better hunter. In some states, where you have party hunting the weapon of choice might be a five-round capacity semi-auto shotgun. Too often, that results in quantity over quality. Muzzleloading means you have to be better than the �get the lead in the air� type of hunting�you have to be better prepared, more selective, and more precise to be a successful muzzleloader. It�s a big part of the appeal of the sport and its built-in challenge.

RW: I often get the question as to �how far can you shoot a muzzleloader?� Yet, no one ever asks me how far you can use a .45-70 Government. Why do you think the confusion exists about what a muzzleloader actually does? It seems to me that if we cannot hit the paper at the ranges we intend to hunt, we have no business hunting at those ranges in the first place. Until tree stands come equipped with �Lead Sleds,� our field accuracy is unlikely to be better than our paper target accuracy. What�s your take on all this?

TK: 1000 yard matches were originally blackpowder events, as you know. Stretching shots is nothing new; some game regulations are in place to combat the notion of the �1000 yard club,� as too many animals become wounding losses. Ethics and morals cannot be legislated, though, only the individual can decide for himself what range he or she is supremely confident at. There�s no answer for all; if we apply ourselves and thoroughly learn our firearms and hone our own abilities, then the real answer becomes obvious.

RW: I�m sorry to say that many of the muzzleloaders being sold today are, to use a technical term, �junk.� By that, I�m of course referring to soft-barreled CVA branded guns that have fraudulent proof marks on their barrels, no reliable or reasonable quality control and seem to be sold with the idea of �profit at all costs,� with a total disregard for the future of the sport of muzzleloading and the health of the poor fellow pulling the trigger. What�s your feeling on the good and the bad out there today?

TK: Quality muzzleloaders are at least as costly to produce as centerfires; some components, such as the barrel, must be more precisely made than the tolerances that work well in centerfires. A good center-fire barrel may be a horrible muzzleloading barrel. We don�t get the luxury of shooting oversized bullets into smaller holes. Though not always true in everything, in muzzleloading rifles you generally do get what you pay for. It takes time and money to use certified barrel steels, to control the melt at the mill, to magnaflux and Eddy-current test lots of steel to insure uniform quality in barrels. Skip these costly, but necessary, steps and you might get disposable, �Bic-lighter� examples of muzzleloaders. It doesn�t take much to appreciate the differences.

RW: I�m also interested in your opinion of hunting television shows, particularly the �show� part. They often give a false depiction of what hunting is really like and have generated other problems along the way, such as the alleged charges against Gregg Ritz (former T/C President) and other media types? I�m referring to the April news report that, �A Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources deer biologist, who noticed discrepancies while analyzing 2006 hunter deer harvest data, triggered an 18-month long state and federal law enforcement investigation that produced one of the largest wildlife penalties in state history last month in United States District Court, Owensboro."

Game Trails, a more than 12,000-acre commercial hunting preserve in Union and Crittenden counties controlled by sole proprietor owner and then Thompson/Center Arms President Gregg Ritz and its site manager, William Dirk McTavish, Jr., 43, of Paducah, paid $50,000 in fines after pleading guilty to numerous misdemeanor violations of the Lacey Act of taking wildlife unlawfully and for making false statements to Kentucky officers about the takings and interstate transporting of wildlife.� Tony, does this kind of stuff bother you? If so, what should be done about it?

TK: Yes, it bothers me greatly. I tend to avoid watching them; most of the people I respect in the industry don�t bother with them. (Including the Guns and Shooting Online staff! -Ed.) Hunting is fun, challenging, and also requires a serious amount of respect. We are taking an animal�s life; we owe it to that animal whose meat we are taking to do it well, efficiently and with dignity. The hunting woods are not the best place for being cute, stand-up comedians, or the place for Hollywood wannabe types. It is challenging, serious, rewarding and memorable. Hunting isn�t a �show,� it is a serious endeavor. Anything that distorts or trivializes the true hunting experience turns me off.

RW: Tony, we�ve visited in person a number of times. Could you share with us the story of muzzleloading�s �best friend,� the generally anti-gun senior senator from New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer?

TK: Yes, the famously anti-gun senator proved to be more intelligent than most. Back when the ATF was trying to control muzzleloaders like handguns, Sen. Schumer and his people attended the meetings and quizzed the ATF.

Are muzzleloaders used in robberies? (ATF: Not that we know of.) Are muzzleloaders used in drive-by shootings? (ATF: No, not that we know of.) Okay, how about suicides? (ATF: None reported.) By gang-bangers and drug lords? (ATF: No, not that we know of.)

I don�t have a problem with them. What are we doing here? (Sen. Charles E. Schumer)

RW: What are your general thoughts on rangefinders, scopes, binoculars and what is often referred to as �technology�?

TK: I couldn�t possibly be more supportive of anything than allows us to take game more quickly, more efficiently, more humanely, with no chance of wounding losses. Anything that that enables us to place the bullet more precisely is a good thing. As far as I�m concerned, a true sportsman is more concerned about the game than anything else. We owe it to the animals we hunt to do the very best job we can: a rangefinder, for example, can remove a lot of the guesswork. We need to remove unnecessary guesswork in order to show respect to our game and our sport.

RW: One of the more provocative comments I�ve heard you make is that you are less than completely thrilled with a few �Hunter ID Cards� and the like.

TK: Just what is wrong with a father or mother signing off on a hunting license for their son or daughter? Just who do we think is more concerned about the safety of their kids, the government bureaucrat or Mom and Dad? The answer should be obvious. We can�t possibly rely on the government to raise our kids or keep them out of harm�s way on a daily basis. Sometimes a �Hunter ID� asks us know the tail feather length of a merganser and other ridiculous questions that have nothing to do with safety or hunting at all.

Of course safety is important. It is something we practice every day; something we continually teach and reinforce every time we shoot or hunt. That a state or local government requires a �test� is no substitute for daily respect for firearms. It is ridiculous to think that a one-time paper test is helpful at all.

Safety is vitally important. We put the secondary safety on Knight Rifles just for that reason. How practical is it to unload a muzzleloader when crossing a fence or a road? Does anyone really believe that all sidelocks are completely unloaded before the hunter crosses a fence or hauls them up into a tree stand? Clearly, a muzzleloader cannot be quickly unloaded like a cartridge gun. That secondary safety was designed in to positively make a Knight pull-cock or bolt action rifle inert. The action is mechanically prohibited from any movement. Now, we have had a few hunters complain that they �forgot� to take it off. That�s something people need to learn as well. The secondary safety helps keep hunters as safe as they allow themselves to be in the field. We�ve had a few hunters tell us that it �cost them a buck, but the design is more than worth it.�

Knight Rifles was the first in the industry to include instructional videotapes and DVD�s with their product. We never could convince everyone to read the owner�s manual before ever operating their rifles. We found out that a lot of folks would watch a video, though�folks that would refuse to read a manual or ignore warning labels. So, safe firearms use and manufacturing muzzleloaders that promote safety and are easy to use safely is something I�ve been constantly focused on.

So, to sum up, safety is important and I have a deep appreciation for those that conduct firearms and muzzleloading training and seminars. We are taking the fun out of hunting and destroying its growth in the process. Firearms use is serious, it demands responsibility and commands respect. We can enjoy hunting and share the outdoors with our kids without making it a hassle and while practicing proper respect and safety.

My objection is not about focusing on safety. It is that we seem to be doing our very best to take all the fun out of hunting with things that have nothing to do with safety.

RW: Where did the now fairly standard 1:28 rate of twist in muzzleloading barrels come from?

TK: While in the process of developing a more effective, safer, more user-friendly muzzleloader I contacted the most reliable sources in the industry for their suggestions as to the �best� rate of twist for saboted .50 caliber muzzleloaders. No one really knew, exactly, but they all had the same general idea of the window that would likely work.

We tried all of the different rates of twist in that window. We had barrels made up in 1:18, 1:20, all the way to 1:48 and 1:60. Then, we just did a lot of shooting; testing them all until we had convinced ourselves what the most generally accurate, versatile rate of twist was for our applications. Several closely related rates of rifling twist worked, but not all the time. We finally settled on 1:28 as the most forgiving, the most generally accurate and versatile. It wasn�t long before the rest of the industry copied us, following our 1:28 standard. I believe it can also be fairly stated that we standardized bore dimensions (to a degree), as well. It was common for patch and ball rifles to have bores all over the place; shooters just used a thicker or thinner patch as dictated by the rifle. Our .50 caliber rifles were, for the first time, actually .50 caliber.

RW: Most people are likely unaware that you are not associated with Knight Rifles, and have not been for several years. What were the Tony Knight influenced designs and what designs were not?

TK: Certainly the MK-85, LK-93, its many variants, the DISC rifle and its many off-spring and the premise of the .52 caliber, but not what was finally offered.

RW: It is fair to say you had nothing to do with the �Revolution,� the �Vision,� or the �Knight Rolling Block�?

TK: More than fair; absolutely nothing at all to do with any of them, nor the Kitchen Police Model. It is common knowledge that break-action rifles are vastly inferior to bolt-actions in terms of trigger quality, accuracy and so forth. It is that way in centerfires, rimfires and that is just as valid in muzzleloading rifles. No one with any basic understanding of firearms design would opt for a break-action platform. Ever see a break-action at Camp Perry? There�s a reason for that.

RW: What was the premise behind the .52 caliber?

TK: The .52 caliber was developed in an all-out quest to find the most accurate muzzleloader ever developed. Using a proprietary Barnes 200 grain bullet developed by Randy Brooks, it shot like a rope to 200 yards with absurdly good repeatable accuracy. It was, and is, the most accurate muzzleloading platform I�ve ever seen. Too bad things were �improved� to where what we originally developed never made it to market in its proper form.

RW: Now that Knight has announced they are closing up shop, what are your thoughts?

TK: Well, naturally I have mixed emotions. I�m pleased with all we did while I was involved to promote muzzleloading, and to make muzzleloading a better, safer, more accurate, more reliable, more user-friendly place to be.

As far as the direction that �Knight� has taken in the last several years, as you know I�m not particularly pleased with the product or what has taken place. In the political environment of grand-standing and internal �one-upmanship,� the basics were lost. In a strained and forced �desire� to have new rifles, the fundamentals of what grew Knight in the beginning was set aside. Somehow, the idea of making muzzleloading rifles for shooters by shooters became more of a PowerPoint presentation than truly being in touch with the consumer. For all kinds of reasons, the consumer was forgotten, there was a failure to defend and champion Knight product against the rest and things fell into disarray. It has been a bit too much commotion and not enough locomotion. It�s a great brand, with a lot of pent-up customer recognition and loyalty. Let�s hope that whoever ends up with it gets things back on the right track.

RW: Do you prefer sabots or bore sized projectiles?

TK: Saboted bullets, without question. You can get better accuracy, better trajectory, and better downrange terminal performance with sabots than possible with bore-sized slugs. One thing I don�t like, though, is the worship of �easy-load� type sabots. It is part of the sport, if you want tight groups your sabot needs to load reasonably tight. We can�t expect loose-fitting bullets that rattle down the bore to give repeatable performance. Quite often, they don�t.

RW: What was the most successful Knight muzzleloader?

TK: Without a doubt, the MK-85 and its related models. It was a huge seller and the only muzzleloading rifle rated as one of the top fifty rifle designs in history. Beyond the MK-85, it would of course be the DISC rifle. Not only was it a commercial success, it remains one of the most accurate muzzleloading rifles ever made. When properly set-up, Disc rifles hit the range, the break�action shooters tend to pack up and go home.

RW: What�s your favorite propellant?

TK: It depends on the application. I do like the convenience of pellets; pellets have allowed me to reload and take a 30-inch wide mule deer from a prone position in the tall grass where, if I was using loose powder, I would have had to stand up to reload.

It is a good time for muzzleloading propellants; they�ve never been better. I�ve shot some of the best groups I�ve ever shot in my life with Blackhorn 209. If a shooter is willing to do his homework and work up the best load for his rifle, Blackhorn 209 is amazingly good stuff. It�s the only muzzleloading propellant where you don�t have to swab between shots.

RW: What do you see for the future of muzzleloading?

TK: That has a lot to do with what the current players do to nurture the sport. Too many just want to sell guns. It takes more, much more than that not just to sustain the sport, but to grow it.

The advantages of muzzleloading are clear. The record books are relatively wide-open. Often, we can hunt earlier in the year under milder conditions and with less congestion. It is great for game departments, they sell more tags and please a lot of people. It is a great way to introduce our kids to hunting and shooting. When you understand muzzleloading, you understand that successful hunting is a lot more than just yanking on a trigger a bunch of times.

It�s one shot and make it a good one, with limited range compared to centerfires and no chance of an instant second shot. It demands responsibility, clean uncontaminated powder, attention to your breechplug and proper loading. It makes you a better hunter. It�s handloading in the field and immensely rewarding and satisfying.

However, our industry cannot just slap together guns and sell them. We need to be engaged constantly with young folks, with game departments, with all of our forms of government to make sure our sport flourishes.

Folks apparently like to think I�m retired? Nothing could be further from the truth. I love to shoot, I love to hunt, I love working with the kids and newcomers to the sport and I�m expanding that. Though my rifles were the MK-85 and the Disc series, not the later �Knight� Revolution / Vision / Kitchen Police One nonsense, that was management of a large corporation that just listened to the wrong people and was not in touch with hunters and shooters. Big companies don�t always make the best decisions or have much vision. Maybe General Motors recently proved that.

I�m currently doing seminars for Bass Pro, for starters, and always seeking to become more involved in advancing and promoting muzzleloading. There�s a lot of work to continue.

RW: Well, Tony, I believe that updates things for now. The folks reading this article may not be aware that we�ve hashed over several issues concerning muzzleloading in person on occasion and there has been enough discussion on the fine points of muzzleloading over the phone to form at least one book, if not two.

I think most people realize by now that you are the Father of Modern Muzzleloading and the rapid growth muzzleloading enjoyed from the late 1980s, through the 90s and up until the last couple of years did not happen by accident. It took a lot of work, effort and involvement. If muzzleloading is to continue to thrive, it will also take a lot of work and involvement�a lot more than we are seeing this year, to be sure.

We can always agree that if someone has never experienced the joy of hunting and shooting with a good muzzleloader, they are really missing something. Here in Illinois, for example, cartridge rifles are taboo for deer hunting. It is shotgun, muzzleloader, or revolver. A good muzzleloader that you�ve spent some time with is not just the only hunting rifle you need, it is by far the best, most accurate and the most rewarding way to experience deer hunting. It is also a great experience to share with your children, family and friends.

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Copyright 2009 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.