(A slightly different version of this essay was published in Magnum Magazine in South Africa)
Daybreak on a crackling-cold winter morning in the Virginia mountains: a 3-point whitetail buck hops a fence and puts his nose to the ground, hot on the trail of a doe. Seventy yards away a young hunter raises his rifle and fires. His vision momentarily obscured by white smoke, a few seconds later he knows he’s killed his first deer, and joined the ranks of those who hunt the way their great-grandfathers did: with a muzzle-loading rifle.
In the last 40 years, shooting and hunting with black powder rifles has evolved from the peculiar hobby of a small coterie of re-enactors and devotees of the “Mountain Man” tradition to a sizable industry. Many states have created special seasons for hunting with muzzle-loaders. The selection of weapons available has grown from a few replicas of historic arms to hundreds of models, some indistinguishable from their centerfire counterparts except on close examination. Muzzle-loaders are used on every type of game in North America, and the number of hunters using them increases every season. The assortment of action types, ammunition choices, and options available to today’s muzzle-loading hunter is so great that about the only thing all these rifles have in common is that they load from the muzzle end using powder and ball driven home with a ramrod.
“Black powder” is what used simply to be called “gunpowder,” in the days before "smokeless" nitrocellulose-based propellants existed. Black powder is a mechanical mixture of sulfur, potassium nitrate, and powdered charcoal. Its history is obscure, but it was certainly known in Europe by the late 13th Century; its introduction to the West has traditionally been attributed to that remarkable polymath, Friar Roger Bacon. The oldest known depiction of a gun (a crude artillery piece firing an arrow) is in a tapestry of a battle scene dating from about 1365. If it took 20-50 years for Bacon's curiosity to be transformed into a practical weapon of war, the chronology is about right. Certainly by the late 1400's hand-held firearms were in the inventory of many kings and warlords and the "hande gonne" was on its way to displacing the armored knight from his position of pre-eminence on the battlefield.
Black gunpowder was the only propellant available for firearms until the late 19th Century, when what we today refer to as "smokeless" powder was invented. The manufacture of black powder has never quite died out, and black powder for sporting guns is still made in the USA, Germany, Switzerland, Brazil, and a few other countries. (Remarkably it still has some military use as well: some types of hand grenades use it and it's an accelerant for the very slow-burning smokeless powders used to launch large artillery projectiles!) Black powder's virtues include easy ignition, consistent performance, and stability in storage. On the down side, it’s a dangerous product to manufacture, and shipping it involves considerable hassle, since it’s a true explosive, which smokeless powder is not.
In recent years “replica" black powder with most of the advantages of real black powder but without its hazards has made significant inroads into the sport-shooting market. The best known brand is “Pyrodex,” made by the Hodgdon Corporation. Hodgdon also makes a new "replica" powder called "777," with which I have no experience.
Pyrodex is a bit more difficult to ignite than real black powder, and hence is much easier to ship and store safely. It and similar products are much more widely available than real black powder (which can take some looking to find) and all of them give substantially identical performance to the real thing. Any of these "replica" powders can be used in any muzzle-loading rifle.
A new wrinkle in propellant technology is the recently-introduced "Pyrodex Pellets." They're exactly what the name implies: stubby cylinders of compressed and pelletized Pyrodex, of uniform weight (each one is 30 or 50 grains) that are simply dropped into the barrel one at a time. They're harder to ignite than loose powder but in those rifles designed to use them, very convenient.
Both real and replica black powder are made in different granulations (for rifles, shotguns, and pistols). Grain size controls burn rate. For muzzle-loading rifles of .45 caliber or larger, the most suitable grade is “FFg,” or “double-F” black powder, or the “R/S” ("Rifle/Shotgun") grade of Pyrodex. Powders are sieved to produce optimal performance in medium-sized bores, typically .45 to .58 caliber rifles. Faster grades (such as "FFFg" black powder or Pyrodex "P") are normally used in shorter-barreled handguns, and in some small bore (.32 to .40 caliber) rifles. In big bore guns with heavy projectiles they can produce excessive pressures and should be avoided. Don't let anyone tell you "you can't overload a gun with black powder!" It can and it has been done; and it's possible to produce breech pressures in excess of 15,000 PSI using any of these products.
It is as well to point out right away that the term “black powder” doesn’t refer to color! In its early days of its existence "smokeless" gunpowder was sometimes called “white powder” because of the inherent colorlessness of its grains. As a way to control burning rate and for ease of measuring, most "smokeless" powders made today are lubricated with graphite and thus also colored black. It is exceedingly dangerous to use ANY type and ANY amount of ANY smokeless powder in ANY gun not designed for it, especially in ANY muzzle-loader.
At right above is one of the more common types of "real" black powder, made by GOEX. Shown with it are two powder flasks (a tubular model and an older-style "bag" flask) and an adjustable powder measure. Note well that the flasks and measure are NOT made of steel, but rather of brass and/or copper. There's a reason for this. Black powder is extremely sensitive to sparks and the use of non-ferrous metals is intended to prevent any possibility of creating a spark in its vicinity. Copper won't spark if dropped against a rock.
A powder measure is an essential item. Not only to make sure the charges are uniform, but because it's not a good idea to charge a gun directly from a flask. Think about it: that flask holds just about as much powder as is used for the bursting charge in a hand grenade: if there's a lingering spark in the barrel that sets off the powder train back to the flask as you pour powder in....BOOM! there goes your hand. If you're lucky and don't get killed you'll probably lose your hand. Pour the charge into the measure and pour it into the gun from that, for safety's sake.
Although shootable replicas of guns using matchlock or wheel-lock ignition are made, the only ignition systems of importance to today’s hunter are flint and percussion locks. Flintlocks were a very successful development in the history of firearms technology. Once the flintlock reached its peak form (sometime in the late 17th Century) it completely replaced the older match-lock and the less durable and vastly more expensive wheel-lock ignition systems.
Flintlocks work by whacking a sharpened piece of flint against the curved hard steel frizzen. The frizzen is on a pivot; the impact of the hammer pushes it forward, and the bottom of the frizzen acts as a cover for a small priming pan. The sparks generated fall into the pan and ignite a small priming charge. The flash from this travels through a touch-hole bored in the barrel to ignite the main charge. (Incidentally, it's from this system that we get the term "a flash in the pan," meaning something that promises much but delivers nothing: it's exactly what happens when a flintlock misfires!)
Flintlock ignition made it possible to mass-produce reliable and functional firearms at an affordable cost, both for military and civilian purposes. Although at least one matchlock musket is known to have come to the New World with Christopher Columbus, it was the flintlock that made settlement of the continent and exploration of its vast interior possible. The heyday of the flintlock lasted a remarkably long time. They were still being issued to US military forces as a regular item in the 1840's and 1850's, with not a few of them being handed by both sides during the Civil War! The flintlock in some form was the dominant ignition system for better than two hundred years.
Flintlock rifles are for hunters who really enjoy a challenge. (That challenge has been codified in at least one US state, Pennsylvania, where only flintlock rifles can be used during the special deer season set aside for muzzle-loader hunting.) Because the lock is more or less exposed to the elements, flinters are very prone to hang-fires and misfires, especially on damp days. A flintlock needs careful adjustment to stay in reliable firing order. Each one has more or less a personality of its own. The angle of the flint, its length, position, etc., all affect reliability of ignition. A very well-made flintlock on a perfect day can be expected to misfire for unexplainable reasons at least once in 20 shots: more often if it's worn or misadjusted. And in the rain...forget it.
Percussion lock ignition is really a sort of transitional technology and it had a much shorter period of widespread use than the flintlock did. In percussion ignition a small impact-sensitive priming charge is held in a cup-like container (the “cap”). The cap is placed on a nipple screwed into the barrel of the gun. When the hammer falls the flame from the detonation ignites the powder in the barrel. The very earliest forms of percussion date from about 1807, and the system was widespread by the late 1830's, though since it depends on a manufactured article of commerce (the cap) in the far-flung western reaches of North America, the flintlock held out for a long time. The invention of the percussion cap and rudimentary forms of cartridges led inevitably to the combination of the two, and once self-contained ammunition was introduced in the mid 1850's, it quickly displaced percussion-fired rifles. By 1880 and certainly by 1890, virtually no percussion rifles were in use except by a few holdouts: a "life span" for this system of less than 60 years, compared to the two-century reign of flintlocks.
However, percussion firearms are actually a bigger business today than they ever were in the 1850's and 1860's thanks to the popularity of black powder shooting and hunting. Unlike flintlocks, percussion rifles can be effectively sealed against wet weather and humidity. Good ones rarely misfire if properly maintained, even in adverse conditions (although I can testify from first-hand experience that they DO misfire, usually when there's a deer lined up in the sights). Percussion ignition is also easily adapted to double rifles. As a practical matter, no flintlock can equal the reliability of a percussion rifle and the latter is far more widely used today by muzzle-loading hunters.
Percussion systems use one of three ignition devices: the small “Number 11” percussion cap; the larger “top hat” style caps (originally designed for military muskets) or the #209 shotgun shell primer, which is increasingly used in the "modern" style muzzle-loading rifles. Musket caps and shotgun primers are "hotter" and produce a heavier flash than the #11 cap does, hence they’re better for igniting the less-sensitive replica powders, and very well suited to Pyrodex pellets. When using real black powder, any good brand of #11 cap will give satisfactory ignition in a properly adjusted gun.
The word “bullet,” from the French, boulet, or “little ball,” describes the classic projectile for muzzle-loading rifles: the round lead ball. The round ball is always used with a "patch," a thin disk of lubricated fabric that is wrapped around the ball. The ball for a .50-caliber rifle typically measures about 0.490” and is used with a 0.010” or even a 0.015” thick patch to achieve a tight fit and gas seal. Patched round balls are exclusively used in traditional-style rifles. They require a very slow rifling twist, 1 turn in 66” being a typical twist rate. The image here shows several varieties of muzzle-loading projectile. From left to right, a .58 caliber "Minie" bullet; a .58 solid, a .58 round ball; a .54 round ball; a .54 solid; and finally a "sabot" projectile. This last is a plastic sleeve that holds a sub-caliber pistol bullet: the blue part is discarded on firing.
A good quality round ball gun can be remarkably accurate, and at ranges up to 70-100 yards very, very deadly on thin-skinned game. Unfortunately a sphere is the lightest possible shape for a given diameter, so the round ball is ballistically inefficient. It sheds velocity and energy rapidly and its low mass makes it less than ideal for really big animals. Those who favor modern-style guns or who hunt larger animals prefer more efficient and effective bullets.
The catch-all term "conical" is used to describe any muzzle-loading bullet whose length exceeds its diameter. These have much higher sectional densities than a sphere: a .50-caliber round ball weighs about 185 grains, but .50-caliber "conicals" can be as heavy as 425 grains. "Conicals" retain velocity and energy better, with better penetration and a somewhat longer effective range than round balls. The “sabot” projectile, which is very popular, uses a plastic sleeve of groove diameter to hold a sub-caliber bullet. For example, a .50-caliber sabots allow the use of .44 or .45 caliber jacketed pistol bullets with good sectional density and high ballistic coefficient. "Conicals" and sabots require fast rifling (1:48” or 1:32” or even 1:20") for adequate stabilization. Neither is used with a patch.
TRADITIONAL vs. "MODERN" STYLE RIFLES
Nostalgia was the principal force driving early sales of replica muzzle-loaders. Buyers demanded close facsimiles of pieces used in frontier days and during the Civil War. The late Val Forgett (founder of Navy Arms) and Turner Kirkland (founder of Dixie Gun Works) were the leaders in the market.
No doubt the "Davy Crockett" craze of the mid-1950's (when every kid I knew, me included, bought a fake coonskin cap and died heroically in a backyard Alamo) and the TV westerns of the same time helped set the stage. The smart movers like Forgett and Kirkland recognized that there was money to be made importing good replicas from manufacturing plants in Europe as the Civil War Centennial celebrations loomed. Original guns were becoming scarce and too valuable to shoot just as the demand for muzzle-loading guns was rising.
Thanks to these far-sighted entrepreneurs and others like them, we now have an abundance of well-made guns that are in many ways superior to the classic firearms they emulate. Better metallurgy, CNC machining, tighter tolerances, and genuine parts interchangeability characterize the new generation of muzzle-loaders. Uberti's single action revolvers are as good as anything Sam Colt ever made (Uberti has made and sold far more percussion revolvers than Colt ever dreamed of); the sidelock guns made by Thompson/Center and some of the better European makers such as Pedersoli are better than anything the Hawken Brothers ever produced.
Inevitably, as sales of the reproduction weapons grew, states began to establish "primitive weapons" seasons for hunting with them. This in turn fueled more sales to hunters and the growth of a something akin to a minor industry in related paraphernalia. "Buckskinning" is still a popular hobby, a form of historical re-enactment, similar to the living-history hobby of people who are involved in Civil War and Revolutionary War commemorations.
However, once these seasons became a fixed feature of the hunting hobby, it became clear there was a very sizable segment of the hunting and shooting public who didn't care a lick about historical authenticity. To them a "primitive weapon" season was simply an opportunity for a longer deer season. In the mid 1980's the Knight Manufacturing Company introduced a "new type" of rifle, intended to appeal to hunters. Unlike traditional guns, Knight's guns weren't side-lock types. Instead, a semi-concealed striker impacted a nipple screwed directly into the breech. This "in-line" type action wasn't really new (I have seen examples in museums, dating back 150 years, that could have come from Knight's production lines) but they had sales appeal. The in-line percussion action has a very short lock time, is very reliable, and affords considerable protection from weather because the whole apparatus is usually enclosed in the receiver. Even better from the point of view of the buyers, in-line rifles are intended to be used with telescopic sights, which aren't really practical on traditional side-lock guns. Knight coined the term "Modern Muzzle-Loading," a brilliant marketing gimmick. Sales skyrocketed and today in-lines (the term has become generic) predominate in the hunting field.
The debate over which is "better" at times takes on the character of religious warfare, with vehement adherents on both sides of The Great Muzzle-Loading Divide. It's beyond the scope of this essay to address this issue, and pointless in any event. Both types function in exactly the same way. The latest twist is in-line muzzle-loaders based on bolt-action sporters such as the Remington Model 700! Many hunters like the idea of a muzzle-loader with balance and handling similar to their centerfire rifles.
WHAT YOU NEED TO GET STARTED
Using a muzzle-loader requires paying a lot of attention to detail. This is much more so than is true with breech-loading guns. There's also a certain minimum amount of necessary kit. Since you're not using self-contained ammunition, you need, at a minimum: a flask in which to store your powder and a measure to dispense the proper amount; a container of some sort for your bullets; a box of caps and a device to put them on the nipple; a short wire pick to make absolutely certain the nipple is clear before seating the cap; lubricated patches if you're shooting round balls; a bullet "short starter" (a short ramrod to get the bullet seated into the rifling); and of course the full length ramrod to shove it all home. Plus, you need a nipple wrench, a proper sized cleaning jag, a bristle brush, and a slotted tip (all threaded to fit your ramrod) for clean-up after shooting. Add to this a spiral of wire to retrieve lost cleaning patches (a "patch worm") and a ball puller to remove stuck projectiles, plus a shoulder bag to carry it all in. That's the minimum. There are lots of widgets and gadgets that make life easier for the muzzle-loading hunter, some of them worth what they cost, some not.
Most important, you also have to have the right mindset. The whole point of breech-loaders, the reason they were developed, is a rapid second shot. Shooting a muzzle-loader is a slow and deliberate process. You must do things in the proper sequence, and you have to think about what you're doing until it becomes habit: put the ball in before the powder, for example (sooner or later everyone does this) and you have a real problem. You must be prepared to accept occasional misfires or hangfires. These are so rare in modern breechloading rifles we get spoiled; but any muzzle-loader, no matter how high-quality it is, and no matter how well it's cared for, will misfire on occasion. It's the nature of the beast. The very first time I aimed a muzzle-loader at a deer, I pulled the trigger and heard SNAP! instead of BANG! It has happened to me at least twice more since that day. A misfire is frustrating, to say the least, but the only remedy for the frustration is to become thoroughly familiar with your rifle and its idiosyncrasies; to know what it does under every circumstance; and to accept a misfire or hangfire philosophically when it happens, as it inevitably will.
A few very useful gadgets that are well worth their cost and weight are shown here. Although getting off a rapid second shot from any muzzle-loader isn't really possible in the same sense as a breechloading rifle, "rapid" is a flexible concept, and with practice it's certainly possible for anyone to fire three aimed shots in a minute. The "speed loaders" shown at left are containerized packages of powder, ball, and cap, and with one of these a rifle can be reloaded in about 15 seconds if you know what you're doing and have your drill down. The 6-in-1 tool illustrated is made by Thompson/Center (as is the wedge puller) and is almost an entire tool kit in one neat package. The most useful feature of this tool is its ability to remove a live cap from a charged gun safely.
The teardrop-shaped capper is a flat box that holds about 100 #11 caps and allows one to be put on the nipple in one swift motion. This one is made by Tedd Cash, a manufacturer of high-quality brass accessories for all types of muzzle-loaders. Cappers are like women: no two are alike, and everyone has his own preferences about them. The teardrop-shaped one is designed for revolvers but works equally well on side-lock style rifles. Similar widgets exist for in-line rifles, which because of their design sometimes require awkward movement and special tools.
I've saved the best widget for last: that's the carbon-dioxide-powered "silent ball discharger." Many times at the end of a hunting trip, the gun remains unfired. The charge has to be removed. The screw-type "ball puller" is essentially worthless. The screw enters the ball all right, but as soon as you start pulling it out, the screw strips right out of the soft lead ball and you're stuck with a bullet halfway up the bore. The usual method to discharge a rifle is to shoot it, but sometimes this isn't possible. And...inevitably, one of these days you'll put the ball down the bore and find out the hard way you haven't got any powder behind it. The CO2 discharger allows you to "blow" the charge (or the ball) out onto the ground, without firing the gun. The spigot is fitted over the nipple, the lever is pressed, and POP! out comes the charge. By the way, do NOT do this over a plastic laundry sink. The CO2 is under about 1200 PSI and it will blow a .54 caliber hole right through the bottom of the sink. Don't ask me how I know. Just trust me on this one, OK?
CARE AND MAINTENANCE:
Muzzle-loaders require fanatical attention to cleanliness and maintenance. Black powder (and its replicas) deposit corrosive salts in the barrel, and your gun will rust into uselessness in a very short time if you don't clean it every single time you use it. Even if you fire only one shot, you must clean the gun thoroughly. I have an ironclad rule: I clean my gun as soon as I get home from the field, always within a few hours. If I haven't actually fired it but have discharged it with CO2, the cleaning is still done, though less stringently.
There's very little margin for error in how long you can leave a dirty gun dirty. This is especially true in humid climates: skip cleaning for just 24 hours and you may well find yourself needing a new barrel. Stainless steel is very resistant to corrosion, and for this reason it's used in many rifles (both side-lock and in-line types). If you can't give your gun a thorough cleaning after firing, at the very least rinse it out with hot water, dry it completely, and hope for the best.
There are many proprietary cleaners on the market, but none of them work any better than plain old hot soapy water. I use water as hot as I can get it from the tap (boiling water is even better) and "Woolite," a liquid soap intended for washing delicate fabrics. The metal must be thoroughly dried after cleaning, and lubricated with a good grade of grease or oil made for muzzle-loading rifles, such as "Wonder Lube" or "Bore Butter." If you can't get these, use Crisco or other edible shortening. These are a very fair substitute for the lard or bear fat the old timers used. Petroleum-based lubes should be avoided, they tend to create sticky deposits by reacting with the black powder fouling.
Muzzle-loaders are "real" guns, by any definition. They certainly aren't the equivalent of modern smokeless-powder rifles, but the hunter who understands their limitations will find he's not seriously handicapped. The principal limiting factor is practically-attainable muzzle velocity. It's not impossible to crack 2000 feet per second, but it's extremely difficult, despite grandiose claims in some advertisements. Even with light-weight round balls or saboted pistol bullets, a muzzle-loader is doing very well to manage 1800 fps, because black powder and its substitutes simply can't generate the pressures smokeless powder can under normal conditions.
In practical terms, this means that muzzle-loaders have a much more limited effective range than breechloaders using smokeless powder. With the most efficient and streamlined bullets, the heaviest charges of powder, and a good scope, 150 yards is manageable if you're a good enough shot to place the bullet where you want it, every time. With ordinary charges, good conical bullets, and good sights, 100 to 125 yards is pushing the envelope for most people; round ball shooters should stick to shots no longer than 100 yards for consistent success. Despite some of the advertising hype, there is currently no such thing as a muzzle-loading rifle suitable for regular use at 200 yards or more. It's certainly possible to hit things at that range, but doing so consistently and effectively under field conditions is unlikely.
The key to performance is the bullet. Since velocities of most rifles tend to be in the 1600-1800 fps range the heavier the bullet, the more effective the rifle will be. If the gun shoots conical bullets well, this requirement isn't too hard to meet, but in a round ball gun, the only way to increase projectile weight and effectiveness is to move up to a larger caliber. Most American states with special seasons require a minimum bore size of .40 for deer-sized game; a few require .45-caliber rifles. Both are on the light side for a big whitetail; most hunters prefer a .50-caliber rifle at a minimum. For larger species, such as the elk or moose, a .54 caliber is much more effective. Hunters after very large or potentially dangerous animals might reasonably use a .58-caliber gun, though short of the occasional elk, there's nothing in Virginia that demands anything that large.
Muzzle-loading rifles are far better killers than someone who's never used one might think. Lewis and Clark made it all the way to the Pacific and back using .54 caliber flintlock rifles firing round balls, and the classic "Plains Rifle" of the mid-19th Century typically was about .50 to .54 caliber. When the bullet is placed in the forward third of the body, deer go down hard. For whitetails in the woods of the New River Valley and similar terrain, a .50 is adequate and a .54 kills like the Hammer of Thor. I have killed at least 15 deer with a muzzle-loader in Virginia as of the date of writing: three with a .50, and the rest with a .54, except one with a .58, in all cases using patched round balls. All but two were dead before they hit the ground. One was the result of poor bullet placement that allowed her to go 50 yards before she fell; the other was hit behind the right shoulder, rolled over three times, and ran 100 yards, dropping dead next to my truck. The bullet had clipped the aorta and embedded under the hide of the off-side shoulder. He's the little buck shown at left.
Lead has a good deal of molecular cohesiveness, and though they may flatten on impact, muzzle-loader bullets rarely break up. Despite modest "paper" ballistics, they usually have remarkable penetration: even round balls from a .50 will usually go completely through a deer on a broadside shot, and a .54 round ball always does. Wound channels from large, slow projectiles are not the masses of blood-shot meat typically created by high-velocity bullets: the old saying that you can "eat right up to the edge of hole," is pretty much the case. The typical permanent wound channel will be slightly larger than bullet diameter, quite big enough to be quickly fatal. Needless to say, effectiveness is enhanced by proper placement.
If I could have only one muzzle-loader that had to cover every potential hunting situation, my choice would be a traditional-style double gun in .54 or .58 caliber (probably a .58). Such a gun looks and handles like a hammer shotgun, and it offers adequate power for anything I'm ever likely to hunt, plus the advantage of a quick second shot if needed. I'd work up mild loads for thin-skinned game and shoulder-bruising charges for the big stuff. A 500-grain bullet moving at 1660 fps has a muzzle energy a little over 3000 foot-pounds, quite a respectable figure. A bullet the size of your thumb at that speed is perfectly capable of dropping a moose or a black bear in its tracks if the hunter does his part.
WHY DO IT?
If this essay has given you the impression that muzzle-loading rifles are more trouble and work for less certain results than modern breechloaders deliver, you're correct. But none of that will that matter a whit once you try using one, believe me. Hunting with a muzzle-loader, even a "modern" in-line, is qualitatively different than hunting with centerfires and smokeless powder.
A repeating rifle is a comforting piece of equipment. You have the assurance that a muffed shot can be immediately followed up. While any ethical hunter strives for a one-shot kill, using a muzzle-loader will make you a better hunter. Self-control, fire discipline, and proper bullet placement are always important: but the man armed with a single-shot rifle whose effective range is limited, and which takes a minute and a half to reload, really understands that. You'll find yourself becoming more patient, willing to get closer, and taking a shot only when you're certain it will be a good one. In states with special muzzle-loader deer seasons the hunter success ratio is always significantly higher than in the main season.
And....there is no experience quite like that nerve-wracking half-second when your vision is obscured, when you wonder exactly what's happened. Was the shot as good as you thought? Will your quarry have fallen in his tracks? The brief but intense moment it takes for the smoke to clear is like curtain-rise at a theater, with the audience breathless with anticipation. The first time this happens—every time it happens—you'll understand the thrill and the challenge a muzzle-loading rifle brings to hunting. If you've begun to get the feeling that "sometimes it's a little too easy," you're probably ready. Go out, and challenge yourself by hunting the way Great-Grandpa did. You'll never regret it.