Hunting with a caplock or flinter connects us with our ancestors and a simpler time.
Some shooters claim the last improvements to muzzleloading rifles came in the early ’60s — the 1860s, that is. These traditionalists prefer shooting a pure lead projectile, a rifle that belches a cloud of smoke and requires almost a minute to reload.
Carrying a traditional muzzleloader is about something other than the rate of fire.
To many, it’s a connection to a simpler time. No pressing thoughts or worries of the modern world can survive the slow rhythm of measuring and pouring powder, the long slide of the ramrod seating a bullet and resulting caustic smell of blackpowder smoke.
That busy work takes you back to the days of the free trappers in the Rocky Mountains, hunting buffalo on the Great Plains or knocking bushytails out of treetops in Daniel Boone’s hardwood forest.
There have been numerous muzzleloader designs over the years, but Tom Griffin of Lyman Products says the only current definition of a traditional muzzleloader is that it has a side hammer. “I guess you could add that it shoots blackpowder or a substitute like Pyrodex in powder form with a lead round ball or conical bullet.”
What defines a traditional muzzleloader may also depend on your family’s history and what you like to hunt. If your ancestors were mountain men or Western pioneers, a .54-caliber Hawken would be a good choice. If your ancestors were hardscrabble farmers from Indiana, a .36-caliber squirrel rifle might be the best muzzleloader for you.
Kentucky rifles were made by gunsmiths in every state along the Appalachian Mountains. But the Kentucky rifle originated in Lancaster, Penn. The typical Pennsylvania rifle featured a distinctive patchbox and a 38-inch part-round, part-octagon barrel. The stock had lots of drop at the comb and a small cheek rest. The vast number of gunsmiths building these rifles added to the individuality of each one.
Grandville Stuart, in his book “Forty Years on the Frontier,” described the rifles used by Illinois settlers in the 1840s. “The guns used for hunting in those days were flintlock rifles brought by the frontiersmen from Virginia and Kentucky. They were full-stocked, that is, the wood of the stock reached the muzzle of the barrel.
“They were heavy, weighing from 11 to 13 pounds, all hand worked with small calibers, running about 60 round bullets to the pound of lead.”
Stuart’s father had two rifles. One was a flintlock used for deep-woods hunting, where there was little wind. “If the weather was cold and snowy, he used the flintlock to quickly start a fire by which he would dress the deer he had killed.”
With the flintlock, Stuart wrote, he was sure of killing any deer within 125 yards.
His other gun, used for hunting on the prairies or in windy conditions, was a small-bore rifle with percussion cap ignition. The cap would not blow off as did the priming powder in the flintlock.
Those 19th century and earlier model guns are generally unsafe to shoot today. Their value is in a collector’s hands or as a conversation piece hanging on a wall.
For hunting, we look to modern rifles, but a hunter should determine how much technological progress he wants the gun to include. It should have some modern amenities, or the hunter is limited to smoothbore flintlocks. The follow-through required to hold a flintlock steady as it ignites makes it more difficult to shoot accurately than a percussion rifle.
Rifling twist is another consideration. A twist rate of 1-in-60 or 1-in-66 is fine for shooting round balls accurately. A 1-in-48 twist muzzleloader is a compromise, effective with both round balls and conical bullets, while a 1-in-32 or faster twist is required to stabilize longer conicals.
Many of today’s muzzleloaders are close copies of historic rifles. Dixie Gun Works’ 1863 Springfield Musket and the U.S. Model 1816 Flintlock Musket are two examples.
Traditions’ Classic Muzzleloaders include the Pennsylvania and Kentucky rifles. The .50-caliber Pennsylvania has a 40.25-inch barrel with 1-in-66-inch rifling for shooting round balls. Both flintlock and percussion models are offered.
The Pennsylvania percussion model has no pause between the hammer falling on the No. 11 cap and igniting the charge. The rifle just makes one sharp crack. The long barrel provides a long sight radius. My test gun shot Hornady .490-inch patched round balls into 1½-inch groups at 70 yards with a 60-grain charge of Hodgdon Pyrodex RS.
The long barrel of the Pennsylvania gun and other early-American firearms is no doubt to obtain a more complete burn of blackpowder. A long barrel also provides an extended sight radius for a more precise aim.
The barrel’s length and weight enhance stability when shooting offhand as well. The low stock helps keep the head erect, and a curved buttplate that nestles into the shoulder.
Despite the traditional label, most modern muzzleloaders are less-than-faithful copies of those carried by our ancestors. They are also somewhat shorter and lighter than the originals and sport other refinements.
The Lyman Deerstalker combines traditional and modern features. The gun wears the half-length forearm and plain style of a Hawken rifle. Modern enhancements include a single trigger, 24-inch barrel and rubber recoil pad.
Lyman’s Great Plains rifle is a more authentic example of the muzzleloader carried by frontiersmen crossing America’s prairies. Available in flint or percussion, and .50 or .54 calibers, the gun features a 32-inch barrel with a 1-in-60-inch twist. It also has a buckhorn rear sight that’s adjustable for elevation and windage. An additional barrel with a faster 1-in-32-inch twist increases the rifle’s usefulness so it can shoot conical bullets.
Although my ancestors crossing the Oregon trail most likely carried percussion rifles, I chose the flintlock version of the Great Plains Rifle for hunting and plinking.
As previously mentioned, shooting a flintlock requires holding the rifle steady all the way through the shot. I found this relatively easy to do when using a rest. Patched round balls punched 2-inch groups at 75 yards with 70 grains of Goex FFg blackpowder and Goex FFFFg primer. However, offhand groups enlarged a bit.
The wide range of round ball loads for plinking and small game hunting make the rifle versatile.
Substituting the 1-in-32-inch twist barrel, the Great Plains rifle shot cast 370-grain Maxi bullets and 385-, 410- and 460-grain Hornady Great Plains bullets well. Groups ran 2 to 3 inches with all bullet weights and 90 grains of Goex FFg blackpowder.
Loading and shooting the rifle and swabbing its bore takes time. It’s the busy work of a hobby, though, and time well spent. Measuring and pouring powder and the long slide of the ramrod seating a bullet has a soothing rhythm. Pretty soon, I get as dirty as a kid in a sandbox, and just as content.
Another quasi-replica is Cabela’s Traditional Hawken rifle. Available with either percussion or flint ignition, the gun has an adjustable rear sight. Most of the rifle’s 9-pound weight comes from its 29-inch octagon barrel.
The Cabela’s Hawken I tested shot round balls into 2- to 3-inch clusters at 75 yards with a 90-grain charge of Hodgdon Pyrodex RS. The rifle’s 1-in-48 inch twist also shot cast 370-grain Maxis and 375-grain Hornady Great Plains conical bullets well. With the 90-grain equivalent of Hodgdon Pyrodex RS, the Maxi bullets grouped a pinch over 1.5 inches, and the Great Plains in slightly over 2 inches.
My son Thomas hunted whitetails and antelope with the rifle, shooting a patched round ball and Pyrodex. He hunted antelope close to where his great grandfather rode the range a century ago. However, the antelope kept drifting with the wind, and he never got a shot. His only reward was the excitement of the stalk.
Whitetails were much closer in the tall timber. A storm during the night left just enough snow by morning to cover the ground. Fresh tracks in the trails beneath the Western larch trees showed where the deer had come and gone. But after Thomas took a seat, no deer followed the trail where he waited. At midmorning, he still-hunted, but saw only the whites of waving tails.
In early afternoon, he saw a doe bedded on a slight rise in a thicket. The deer lay turned the other way, looking down the slope. Thomas crawled on his knees and one hand, holding the rifle up with his left hand to keep it out of the snow. At 30 yards, he sat upright. The doe turned her eyes toward the click of the hammer. A cloud of white smoke billowed through the branches and blotted out the deer. The doe jumped from her bed, running hard.
Thomas hurried to reload. A bit of powder spilled as his shaky hand poured the charge down the muzzle. He followed the tracks to claim his prize. He had hunted right and found that shot was all he needed.
This article was published in the September 2009 edition of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine. Subscribe today to have GunHunter delivered to your home.