Imagine looking down an octagon barrel as you line up the open sights onto the center of the target. You squeeze the trigger, and out of the corner of your eye you see a shower of sparks and hear a small pop as the hammer falls. After what feels like several seconds, you feel the rifle recoil into your shoulder as you hear a definitive, boom! Everything downrange is now completely obscured by a cloud of foul-smelling, white smoke. Until the breeze brushes the smoke aside, you are left wondering if your shot was true. In a nutshell, that’s the muzzleloader experience.
I started hunting deer with a traditional ball-and-cap muzzleloader in the early 1980s, because I wanted to know what it’s like to put venison on the table just like my great-great-great grandfather did and get a “mountain man” experience. After more than 30 years, a traditional muzzleloader is my main choice when harvesting venison. There are several reasons why I find it so rewarding to shoot a muzzleloader rifle.
1. Since every shot is loaded by hand, there is a degree of pride that comes with each successful shot. There are no manufactured off-the-shelf cartridges for muzzleloaders. This allows for experimentation with powder charges and projectiles until you find the combination that works best in your firearm.
2. There is no quick follow-up shot, so the shooter must make the first shot count. By hunting with a muzzleloader, I have learned to wait for a good first shot. That attitude has spilled over to all hunting. Even when hunting with a modern firearm, I load only one shot.
3. Refining the woodland skills necessary to get close to game. The effective range of a traditional muzzleloader is much less than a modern hunting rifle. To be successful, one must be able to get close to game. It is fun spending time outdoors developing these skills.
4. Longer hunting seasons. Most states offer special seasons or extended seasons for muzzleloader hunters.
Back in time
To understand the difference between muzzleloaders and modern firearms, one needs to know how firearms work, and a brief history of firearms helps to that end.
Firearms work when a primer is struck, sending sparks into the main powder charge and igniting the charge. The burning powder creates gas that expands rapidly, and since there is only one way out, it pushes a projectile at a high rate of speed down the bore and out the muzzle of the gun.
Gunpowder was first developed by the Chinese in the ninth century. Since then, we’ve used several different mechanisms to ignite the main powder charge.
The first firearm to be shouldered like a modern rifle was the matchlock, which was introduced the 1400s. Next was the wheel lock in the early 1500s, followed by the snaplock in the mid-1500s. Flintlocks were introduced in the early 1600s.
In all muzzleloaders, the main powder charge is measured and poured down the bore from the muzzle of the firearm. A projectile, a piece a cloth containing a lead ball, is pushed down the bore until it rests on the powder charge. There is a hole in the barrel, called a vent, that leads from the priming area on the outside of the barrel to the main powder charge inside the barrel. On matchlocks to flintlocks, the priming area is a pan on the side of the barrel for the priming powder. On a matchlock, the priming powder is ignited by a smoldering wick held in the hammer. The action of a wheel lock is much like a modern lighter, where a spring-driven wheel spins against a post and creates sparks. The snaplock had spring-loaded flint that struck steel, creating sparks. In a flintlock, a flint rock is clamped into the hammer. When the trigger is pulled, the flint rock is driven against the frizzen, creating sparks.
A problem with these designs is the priming powder is exposed to the elements, making the firearm unreliable in wet weather. The percussion cap was a major step toward solving this problem. Developed in the 1820s and widely used by 1840, a metal percussion cap holds a small amount of shock-sensitive material that creates sparks when struck by the hammer. The cap is placed on a nipple that screws into the side of the barrel and encloses the vent. In wet weather, the cap can be sealed with a small amount of wax, making it weather resistant.
Rifled barrels became commonplace at roughly the same time the percussion cap was introduced. The rifling grooves cut into the bore cause the projectile to spin as it exits the bore, stabilizing it and increasing accuracy (think of a spiraling football). This led to the development of the conical bullets we use today.
Muzzleloaders were obsolete by the late 1860s when the cap, powder, and projectile were put into a brass cartridge and breech-loading firearms were introduced.
Muzzleloaders enjoyed resurgence in the late 1970s by people who wanted a more primitive hunting experience. Because of the popularity of the sport, manufactures introduced inline muzzleloaders in the late 1980s. Coupled with a modern version of black powder called pyrodex, inlines rival modern sporting rifles in terms of range and accuracy.
As mentioned before, I enjoy the challenge of putting food on the table with the traditional muzzleloader. For the traditional experience, the first decision is flintlock or ball and cap. Here are a few reasons I chose ball and cap. First, the delay between trigger pull and firing is longer for a flintlock. Second, the flintlock is less weather resistant than the ball-and-cap muzzleloader; as a result, time afield is limited. Third, two types of powder are needed when shooting a flintlock. And finally, maintenance of the flint is required to keep it in shape to make sparks.
Another decision is which caliber to use. For small game, .40 caliber or smaller is best. For a majority of North American big game, .50 caliber is a good all-around choice. If you are hunting elk or anything bigger, .54 caliber or larger is a good choice.
Muzzleloading shotguns are also available for bird and other small game hunting. If purchasing a muzzleloader for hunting, be sure to check your state’s game regulations before you buy. Many states have caliber restrictions.
A final choice is using black powder or pyrodex. While pyrodex can be used in most replica ball-and-cap muzzleloaders, round out the traditional experience by using black powder.
When using black powder, one drawback is it isn’t clean-burning and leaves residue in the bore. While this is not a problem while hunting — since hunting is usually one and done — for an afternoon of target practice, you need to swab the bore after every few shots. Patches soaked in rubbing alcohol work well for this cleaning. It is also important to clean the firearm soon after shooting is over. Burned black powder draws moisture, which will corrode if left on the firearm too long.
Black powder is water soluble, so cleaning is done with hot water and dish soap. To clean the barrel and bore, remove the barrel from the stock, set the vent end in a bucket of hot, soapy water, use a patch on a rod to draw the water up and down the barrel until the bore is clean. Change patches frequently and change to a bucket of hot water to rinse. While the barrel is drying, clean the lock and other surfaces with hot, soapy water. One tool that I find essential for cleaning the vent, nipple, or pan and other hard-to-reach nooks and crannies is dental prophy brushes. They can be found in the dental section of most stores. Once clean, apply a coat of bore butter or light gun oil to the metal surfaces. While cleaning is a bit more cumbersome, one does become familiar with all parts of the muzzleloader; all part of the “mountain man” experience.
Mountain men called the equipment and supplies needed for a day afield their “possibles,” and they carried them in a possibles bag. A fun part of the muzzleloader experience is customizing the possibles kit.
If you enjoy making things, hand-crafting your possibles is a fun part of the sport. Powder measures can be made from a variety of materials. I crafted mine from a deer antler, and it includes measures for my rifle and pistol. Powder can be carried in hand-carved horns. Patched ball holders for quicker loading are often handmade. If one enjoys leather craft, you can make a possibles bag, rifle case, and ball pouch from leather. You are only limited by your imagination to the things you can handcraft for your muzzleloader. That is all part of the fun and fulfillment.
Fire in the hole
Now that you have an idea about how much fun it is, let’s load and fire. Pull the hammer to half-cock — the “safety” of a black powder rifle, if you will, as half-cock neither allows the gun to fire nor allows the hammer to rest on a live percussion cap. Set the butt stock of the gun on the ground. Pour the powder charge into your homemade powder measure, and then pour the powder down the barrel. Gently tap the barrel a couple times to settle the powder charge. Now put a patched ball on the muzzle and seat it with the short end of the ball starter. Use the long end of the starter to push the ball into the bore a few inches. Next use the ramrod to push the ball down the bore with just enough force for the ball to set onto the powder charge. Make sure to remove the ramrod. Now bring the gun up to horizontal and prime it with either powder or cap. Pull the hammer to full-cocked position. Raise the gun to your shoulder. Look down the octagon barrel, line up the open sights on the target, squeeze the trigger, and let the sparks fly.
Once you have experienced the fun and satisfaction of shooting a muzzleloader, you are going to be hooked.
At a minimum, the possible are…
• Powder in a flask or horn (two types of powder in separate containers if using a flintlock)
• Powder measure
• Caps and capper (if using a percussion-cap muzzleloader)
• Spare flints (flintlock)
• Knapping hammer (flintlock)
• Lubricated patches
• Patch knife
• Short ball starter
• Cleaning pick
• Cleaning jag
• Cleaning patches
• Nipple wrench (percussion cap)
• Vent pick
• Candle and matches (percussion cap weather proofing)
Dennis Biswell has hunted with black powder for 34 years, and currently uses a replica .50-caliber Hawken. He also carries a .50 caliber trapper pistol, a single shot side lock ball-and-cap handgun. He’s passed along his love of the outdoors to his son, Rich, who took most of the photos for this article.