No other muzzleloader type offers the numerous advantages of these inline guns.
By Sam Fadala
The most beautiful rifles to ever grace the American landscape were built by immigrant Germans who were mistakenly called “Pennsylvania Dutch.” When asked by area residents what nationality they were, these grand masters said, Deutch — German — which was taken for Dutch.
You can bet your favorite pony that Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett and the rest of the Eastern leatherstocking clan carried the Kentucky (also known as Pennsylvania/Kentucky) long gun. These .45-caliber rifles, shooting 133-grain round balls, were deadly accurate. This was the rifle Tennessee sharpshooters used to rout the British in the 1815 Battle of New Orleans.
Before the Kentucky long rifle, an incredible number of different firearm designs existed. Take a tour through Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo., and you’ll see repeating flintlocks, and, yes, even an inline frontloader made long before the day of the percussion cap. The 20th century saw a mad dash to create charcoal-burning rifles suited to modern sportsmen. The inline, more contemporary with Christopher Columbus than Kit Carson, came to the fore — not because it offered greater power (it did not), but because it enjoyed the familiarity of the modern rifle.
Some were blackpowder mimics of highly successful cartridge guns, including the Ruger Model 77, Savage Model 110 and Remington 700. More recently, drop block action muzzleloaders came along. These guns have no traditional lock. They are true muzzleloaders with no avenue to the breech when the block is dropped. They feed one charge at a time from the spout. The T/C Omega is a prime example of the breed, as is the CVA Kodiak with its patented Pivot Block action. The block lowers to reveal the priming area. It’s another excellent means of building a modern blackpowder hunting rifle.
However, a more basic design recently crashed on the scene. It’s the break-open, familiar in the long-lived single- and double-barrel shotgun.
There has been a stampede to this style, and for good reason. Usually there’s a trade-off between various lock and action types — you get this, you lose that. But I can’t think of a single black mark against the break-open blackpowder rifle.
As good as break-open muzzleloaders are, no hunter should abandon his or her favorite smokepole to buy one. But they do make sense.
Consider these high points: total ease of operation; full visual access to the priming area for speedy capping and equally quick decapping; direct access to the breech plug for removal and reinstallation; true inline ignition; facile handling; clean lines; hammerless or with an easy-to-reach hammer; short for barrel length; sensible weight; swift barrel interchangeability, and more. Other muzzleloaders share in many of these virtues. But I can’t come up with one that whips the break-open overall.
The break-open muzzleloader is a snap to operate. Release the catch and bend the barrel down for access to capping. A newcomer to muzzleloading grasps its function in seconds.
Break-open is accomplished swiftly and certainly on all models. The NEF Huntsman has a thumb release located by the hammer. The T/C Pro Hunter employs a trigger-guard release. CVA’s Optima breaks with a lever positioned at the base of the trigger guard. The Lyman Mustang’s swinging release is just in front of the sliding safety, exactly where it rests on one of my favorite shotguns.
With the rifle broken open, there’s no doubt that a cap (actually a 209 primer) is in place or not. The rifle is either in battery, ready to fire, or in the unprimed mode. Decapping is just as easy as capping. The shooter has both visual and manual access. This is not true of all modern muzzleloaders.
There’s no fishing around with a tool to lock onto the breech plug; it stares right at you. The removable plug is one of the best features of the modern muzzleloader, allowing cleaning from the breech end of the rifle, just like most modern guns. Tip: Be sure to use anti-seize lubricant on breech plug threads before reinstalling.
Break-open muzzleloaders have true inline ignition. Moreover, the distance from igniter (primer) to powder charge is short. Other inline designs share this trait. But the break-open provides as short a distance from ignition flame to powder charge as any, challenged only by side-hammer and under-hammer blackpowder pistols and rifles with direct ignition via nipple.
The 209 shotgun primer has taken over the percussion cap world. Combine short flame distance with powerful primer, and reliable ignition is ensured. Special 209 primers made just for muzzleloaders have recently come onto the market, and these are better than the already-good original shotgun 209 primer.
The break-open is fast-handling not only in capping/decapping, but also bringing into battery. It flies to the shoulder like a single-barrel shotgun with similar pointing quality and balance.
The lines of the break-open muzzleloader are clean because there are no protrusions such as a bolt handle. The break-open compares with the slab-sided lever-action rifle carried so sweetly in a saddle scabbard. These clean lines also contribute to the satisfying aesthetics of break-opens. Lyman, realizing this, offers a premium Ultra Grade Mustang with fine-figure “Ultra Grain” wood.
Familiarity of the break-open design is a cousin to ease of operation. Anyone who has handled a single- or double-barrel shotgun knows how to gain access to the priming area of the break-open muzzleloader. Taking this one step forward, anyone who has seen a break-open shotgun should easily pick up on the management of the break-open muzzleloader for capping, decapping and breech-
The break-open muzzleloader design is ideal for either hammer or hammerless function. This trait is hardly exclusive, but it exists and must be included in the positive criteria of these guns.
There’s no extended action on break-open rifles, so they’re short per barrel length. Lyman’s Mustang Breakaway has a 26-inch barrel, but total overall length is 43 inches. The CVA Optima Elite Compact with 24-inch barrel goes only 38 inches long overall.
The T/C Pro Hunter with 28-inch barrel has an overall length of 42 inches. By comparison, my Model 94 Winchester with a 20-inch barrel is 38 1/2 inches from stem to stern.
I’m not a fan of the ultralight big game rifle. Flyweights are great to tote in the field, but when the moment of truth reaches out and snags me, I want stability that comes with a rifle of reasonable weight. The Pro Hunter weighs 8.5 pounds scoped and loaded. The CVA Optima Elite I carried on a recent hunt in Canada weighed 9 pounds, scoped and loaded. Bravo to that. After all, this rifle is allowed three 50/50 Pyrodex or Triple Seven pellets equivalent to 150 grains volume powder. The handy CVA Optima Elite Compact is about 11/2 pounds lighter, but still not a peanut-weight. It does say “Good Morning!” when you blast away with a big cargo of fuel. But balance that against the handy nature of the little beast, and it trades well. Traditions Pursuit LT tips the scales just shy of 8 pounds scoped and loaded. With a scope and ready to shoot, the break-open rifle weighs 8 pounds.
Safeties on all modern blackpowder rifles I’ve seen are well-placed, secure and easy to operate. But I know of none that are better than those on break-opens. The Traditions Pursuit has both transfer bar and cross bolt. Quick and sure, the cross bolt is just back of the trigger in the web of the trigger guard. The Lyman Mustang Breakaway safety is located just behind the lever catch, exactly like the tang-located safeties on shotguns. It’s not only fast, but also absolutely silent. Exposed hammers on the CVA Optima, T/C Pro Hunter and NEF Huntsman are reliable and as familiar as hammers on millions of Winchester and Marlin lever-action rifles.
Barrel strength is hardly exclusive to break-opens. But it does belong in the list of good features. Modern muzzleloader rifle strength comes from barrels of quality steel coupled with good breech plugs. The break-open resides on the same high plain with other modern muzzleloaders with barrels of top-grade materials married to good design for undeniable integrity.
Break-opens are candidates for barrel interchangeability, and many are. The reasonably priced NEF Huntsman muzzleloader is a glowing example. It even comes in combo packages. Combo 1 is a 24-inch-barrel, .50-caliber muzzleloader along with a 28-inch, 12-gauge modified-choke shotgun barrel with a 3-inch chamber. Combo 2 offers the same .50-caliber muzzleloader barrel with a 24-inch rifled slug barrel in 12 gauge. Combo 3 has a .50-caliber 24-inch muzzleloader barrel and a 22-inch .243 Winchester companion barrel.
CVA’s Optima is a .45- or .50-caliber muzzleloader in .223 Rem, .243 Win, 7mm/08 Rem, .308 Win, .270 Win or .30-06 Springfield. Or how about the CVA Optima Pro 209 shotgun with the extra full screw-
The notion that modern muzzleloaders are more powerful than old-timers is fallacious. William Moore’s 19th century two-bore baby fired a 3,500-grain round ball (that’s a half-pound of lead) at 1,500 fps for 17,000 foot-pounds at the muzzle. That makes our .458 Winchester “elephant gun” at 5,000 foot-pounds cower in the corner.
Power goes with top construction of the best steel to withstand strong loads. All of today’s break-opens are rated for good powder charges. Built right, these rifles swallow the three pellet 150-grain equivalent charge for sufficient energy to put a bull elk on the ground with one well-placed shot. Rate of twist is geared for heavy conical bullets for extra punch in “smaller” calibers — that is, smaller by comparison with old-time big-bore round ball shooters that often began at 12-bore and went up from there.
All break-open muzzleloaders are scope-happy. Lyman’s Mustang comes drilled and tapped for the Weaver-style base, and scope bases are included in the package. The Traditions Pursuit NEF Huntsman and T/C Pro Hunter are drilled and tapped for
scope bases, too.
Accuracy is a matter of good bullets out of good barrels. Therefore, any muzzleloader from horse and buggy days to the 21st century is capable of fine accuracy when good bullets are properly loaded into good barrels.
The break-open frontloader is accurate. Before heading for the Saskatchewan woods with a CVA Optima Pro .45-caliber rifle, I took it to the range with a supply of Powerbelt Platinum 300-grain Aerotip bullets. The loaner rifle came with a Bushnell 4200 Elite variable scope. At 100 yards with the scope on the highest magnification, bullets cut patterns under an inch center-to-center with boring repeatability. Pushed by the big powder charge, 130 grains of Triple Seven FFg, the rifle was not only accurate, but also sufficiently powerful to take elk-size game.
I won’t bore you with the sad tale of a misfire on the biggest bull elk I have ever seen, and at only 12 paces from the muzzle of my frontloader. But that is what happened upon that rainy Colorado mountain. Break-open design provides a closed system to fight the wet weather gremlin.
Lefties won’t have to worry about buying a special break-open blackpowder big game rifle. The basics of the design automatically lend them to ambidextrous utility.
We could walk this trail deeper into the forest of information with cost comparisons and other traits of the break-open muzzleloader. But I think the flame from this campfire chat burns brightly enough to put the break-open in good light.
Reprinted from the September 2007 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine. Subscribe today to have GunHunter delivered to your home.