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Hunting With A Muzzleloader – Where Do You Start?

Muzzleloading is a good way to hunt that trophy or just put food on your table. A muzzleloader will take the biggest game with ease, and the newer inline models offer pinpoint accuracy so you can make that tough shot. Muzzleloaders are also great for small game hunting. A smoothbore can be loaded just like a shotgun, so anything you think about hunting with your old twelve-gauge can be taken with a muzzleloader.

There are even some advantages to using a muzzleloader over other firearms. In some states, hunting with a muzzleloader adds days to your season. In my home state, we get a separate muzzleloader season after regular gun season is over. In other states, muzzleloader season is scheduled during the rut. If you want a nice bull elk, try bagging one during muzzleloader season.

Another advantage is price. Quality muzzleloaders are available for under $200. I even found one with a redi-pak for that price. (A redi-pak is a package deal with the gun and everything you need to go out and shoot it.)

If you decide to get into this wonderful type of hunting, you will soon find that there are many choices to make when it comes to the type of gun you buy. The type of hunting you want to do will determine what you buy. Once you have purchased your gun, be sure to read (and I mean really read) the manual that comes with it. Some of the modern guns have a nasty habit of being a little complicated.

Here is a rundown of the basics; just remember, your mileage may vary.

Ignition Systems

There are many ignitions systems out there for sale these days, some dating back several hundred years. Usually the more modern the ignition system, the faster it will ignite the charge of black powder and the more reliable it will be in the field. However, all black powder guns can experience “hang fires.” This is when the propellant charge does not explode right away; instead, it burns a little and then explodes.

Some of the first muzzleloaders were matchlocks. Basically, a long smoldering cigarette was held in place by a clamp, and when you pulled the trigger, the burning end was pushed into the pan of loose powder, the powder would ignite, and the fire would go through a small hole in the barrel, setting off the main propellant charge of powder. As you might guess, these were not very good in damp weather.

The next step up the ladder was the wheel lock. Picture the striker on your lighter. This lock was wound up, and when the trigger was pulled, it spun against pyrite and sent a shower of sparks into the pan of loose powder. Again, not too good in damp weather, and the pyrites had to be changed every few shots.

While both of these ignition systems are available today from specialty gun makers, you most likely won’t find one in your local sporting goods store. They should be considered curiosities at best by the beginning muzzleloader.

The next big improvement was the flintlock. While the flintlock uses a pan of powder for ignition, it covers that pan with a piece of steel (the frizzen). The hammer holds a piece of flint in its jaws. When the trigger is pulled, the flint strikes the frizzen, flipping it forward off of the pan, while at the same time creating a shower of sparks that ignites the powder.

Flintlocks are still popular today since you don’t need anything to shoot them other than powder, a bullet, and a rock that will spark on steel. I know someone who makes his own black powder and bullets, and he claims his gun will keep shooting as long as the earth is made of rock. (Many rocks can be used to create the spark.)

Flintlocks are still a little problematic in wet weather, but if you take reasonable care of them while in the field, they should serve you well. The Kentucky Rifle is a prime example of a flintlock.

The caplock showed up in the early nineteenth century using a standard #11 cap to ignite the powder. The cap was placed on a hollow nipple, and when it was set off, the fire ran directly into the propellant charge. Most modern caplocks still use this ignition system. This closed system is much more water resistant, therefore much more reliable. The Hawken rifles carried by the mountain men were mostly caplocks.

Just before the Civil War, the musket cap was invented. This cap is larger and has a hotter spark for more reliable ignition. Most military arms of that era were fitted with nipples that require musket caps. The military wanted the most reliable ignition available. Even today you can replace your #11 nipple with one that takes musket caps.

In the mid 1980s they came out with inline muzzleloaders. These guns place the nipple directly behind the charge instead of to the side like all the other types. Today we have four basic types of inline guns. The earliest still used the #11 cap placed on an inline nipple, while most of the newest ones use a #209 shotgun primer for almost (yes I said almost) foolproof ignition.

The simplest is the break action. Picture a single shot shotgun, but when you break it open, instead of the chamber for your shotgun shell, there is a breach plug with a nipple. Just place you cap on it, close the action and you are good to go (after you have loaded it, of course).

The plunger type looks almost like a modern rifle. You pull back the bolt, exposing the nipple to place the cap. When you pull the trigger, a plunger comes forward and strikes the cap. These are the low-end models that you will see in a big-box store. (Although when I say low end, that is regarding price only, since most of them shoot very well.

A couple manufacturers make bolt-action muzzleloaders. These look just like any other big game rifle. The bolt is opened, the cap is placed, and the bolt is closed; it is then ready to fire.

The pivot action is the newest thing on the market. They are a simple design that is easier to clean (very important) and, as a result, have become very popular.

Smoothbore or Rifle

Early muzzleloaders were all smoothbore guns. Even up until the Revolutionary War, the smoothbore was a mainstay. However, those nasty colonists proved how effective rifling could be by being able to target British officers at relatively long range with their Kentucky rifles.

Overall, most people will get a rifle when they buy their muzzleloader. Rifles no doubt are much more accurate at farther distances, plus standard supplies are much more abundant. However, being preppers, you might want to consider a smoothbore if you have the inclination. A smoothbore muzzleloader is like a single-shot shotgun. Both are extremely versatile. You can load shot and shoot grouse in the morning, then load a round ball of the correct diameter and take a trophy buck in the afternoon.

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Modern inlines seem to have standardized at .50 caliber, so if you want an inline, you have the decision made for you already. The older styles have a few more options available. Rifles in .45, .50, .54, and .58 are common, and if you are lucky, you may run across a squirrel rifle in .32.

Smoothbores are generally bigger; for example, a British Brown Bess will be .75. That is three-quarters of an inch, or basically a twelve-gauge. Many of the smoothbores are measured in gauge. This is how many round balls in the size of the bore add up to one pound. A good compromise is a twenty-gauge or .62 caliber.

Before you decide on a caliber, be sure to check your local regulations in case there is a minimum for hunting in your area.


All this is about shooting black powder guns right? Well yes and no.

Black powder is dirty, nasty, grimy stuff that leave deposits (fouling) behind when you shoot it. After a few shots, you will need to clean the fouling from your barrel or you may not be able to force your projectile down on top of the powder.

Manufacturers have come of with black powder substitutes that work well and don’t require as much between-shot cleaning as true black powder. Pyrodex also offers powder that is compressed into pre-measured pellets that you can just drop down the barrel to load. If you are planning on using these pellets, choose a rifle with a #209 primer ignition since they are hard to ignite.

At no time should you ever use any amount of smokeless powder in you black powder gun. Make doubly sure that what you use is a black powder substitute or black powder itself.

Black powder is graded by the size of the individual grains of powder. Fg is coarse and used in large caliber rifles and bigger shotguns, while FFFFg is used for priming the pan on guns that use that method of priming.


The determining factor of what you shoot will be the twist rate of the rifling in your barrel. The twist rate is how far in inches it takes the projectile to make one complete revolution. As an example, a barrel with a 1:66 twist will be for shooting round balls. A cloth-patched round ball of the correct diameter is the mainstay for the traditional muzzleloader.

Longer bullets (everything but round balls) need a faster twist to stabilize them in flight. The standard twist for shooting bullets only is 1:28.

Many of the older guns and modern reproductions have a twist rate of 1:48. This is supposed to allow for shooting bullets or round balls; however, it will not deliver top-notch accuracy for either and is somewhat of a compromise.

There are several lead bullets on the market designed for muzzleloader hunting. The best bet is to buy a small box of one kind and see how well they shoot in your gun. If they work well, you are good to go; if they are all over the place, try a different brand or configuration.

Sabots have become popular with inlines. These high-quality expanding bullets are surrounded by a plastic sheath that falls off when they are fired. The sabot allows you to load a thinner, lighter bullet in your gun with the same powder charge, giving you a much faster bullet.


As I said before, black powder is icky stuff. If you don’t clean it properly after you are finished shooting, you will have a rusty pile of junk the next time you go to shoot your gun.

If you buy a new gun, follow the manufacturer’s cleaning instructions to the letter. If you buy a used gun, you will need to do some research on how to best clean it.

The basics include removing the barrel from the stock and then removing the breech plug. Then use the cleaning jag on your ramrod with hot water and soap (yes, soap and water). Hot water will make it dry faster. Then a light coating of oil will keep rust at bay.

What’s in the bag?

Every muzzleloader needs a “possibles” bag. This is the bag where you keep all the accouterments used to keep your muzzleloader functioning. Put in anything you could possibly need.

  • A flask for your powder (two if you are a flintlock shooter)
  • Powder measure
  • A short bullet starter (used to start the bullet in the barrel)
  • Capper
  • Patches (if you use round balls)
  • A patch knife (for cutting patches if you don’t use pre-cut ones)
  • Patch lube
  • A nipple pick (for cleaning out the nipple or touch hole)
  • Cleaning jags
  • Stuck bullet puller (because sometimes they don’t go bang, especially if you forget the powder)
  • Spare flints
  • Extra bullets
  • Speed loaders (pre-made loads that allow you to load your second round faster)

Modern inline muzzleloaders give you the edge of range and accuracy. They use common components and make hunting easy. If you consider yourself a bit of a throwback, the older styles will hold your interest. Either way, muzzleloading is a way to get time in the field and bring home food for the family.

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