By Ralph M. Lermayer
Both long-range and close-cover shooters will appreciate the accuracy found in an H&R New Huntsman.
In the 1950s and ’60s, muzzleloader hunting was associated with turn-of-the-century history, and sidelocks were the dominant style. Bucking that trend, someone at H&R decided to try something new. They took their popular and inexpensive break-open, single-shot “Topper” and converted it to a .45-caliber muzzleloader.
It was light, handy, accurate and reliable. In keeping with the milder round-ball loadings of the day, a gasket or O-ring was all it required to keep blowback inside the action. Traditional shooters rejected it as too dang modern, and it was dropped after just a year or two.
Today, inlines are the dominant muzzleloader style. Actions for igniting them have evolved from pull-to-cock, then bolt action. Today, the simple break-open design of the T/C Encore, BPI’s Kodiak and Knight’s Revolution are driving the market. Why? They are light, handy, accurate and reliable.
Deja vu all over again, and time for H&R to reintroduce what was no doubt way ahead of its time in the ‘60s: a break-open, single-shot muzzleloader now designed to easily handle the hottest allowable loadings.
The use of a break-open design for inlines makes good sense. There is no receiver, so overall rifle length is shorter. Access to the breech for recapping is fast, regardless of cap style, and it is a simple design with far fewer moving parts to gunk up and cause problems. H&R had it right in the mid-60s, but no one knew it.The second-generation H&R muzzleloader is simply a modification of the company’s popular centerfire Handi Rifle. If you already own a centerfire Handi Rifle, you can have H&R install the muzzleloader barrel and fore-end on the existing frame, and you have the “Huntsman.” It must be done at the plant, since some fitting is involved, but the cost is minimal.
If you buy a complete Huntsman, that frame can also be used for the full array of centerfire rifle and shotgun barrels, but all require initial factory installation. Once the initial factory work is done, barrels are interchangeable at home.
The Huntsman uses polymer tabs pre-loaded with 209 shotgun primers. They load fast and remove quickly.
This interchangeability does cause some problems in marketing. Muzzleloaders do not require an FFL and as such can be sold through catalogs and directly shipped. Outfits like Cabela’s and Bass Pro Shops sell piles of them. The centerfire action puts the Huntsman in the modern category and changes that.
To counter, H&R introduced a modified frame that cannot take centerfire barrels. Called the “Sidekick,” it’s basically the same rifle, but shippable without an FFL since it can’t use centerfire barrels. You can have your H&R muzzleloader either way, and performance is identical. The Sidekick is muzzleloader only, while the Huntsman is the modified centerfire.
At the Bench
I have considerable trigger time behind all of the major muzzleloaders available today, and for most applications, the Huntsman is near ideal. For whitetail hunting, especially where shots are 100 yards or less, this is the most treestand-friendly design available. Its 24-inch barrel handles beautifully in tight places. The stock design with a 2 1/2-inch drop at the heel gives it fast acquisition with either iron sights or optics. It shoulders quickly and feels natural in the hand. Its soft recoil pad and adequate weight (6.5 pounds) help tame the recoil that heavy loads can deliver. And because it has a unique priming system, it recaps easily, even if you’re wearing heavy gloves.
In the Huntsman (or Sidekick), 209 primers are pre-loaded in bright-orange polymer carriers. These carriers simply drop into the open breech. A large tab extends out of the action when closed for fast removal or insertion, and clearly shows when the gun is primed. This is unquestionably the best priming system available, far faster and easier than any other. I wish I could convert other rifles to this system.
I mounted a scope on the test model, a simple matter on the Weaver-style bases, pre-zeroed at 25 yards, and ran a series of different bullet weights from 260 to 275 grains down bore. All were tested with Triple Seven pellets. Charges were 100 and 150 grains with each bullet tested. As is the case with most muzzleloaders, recoil with the 150-grain charge, especially with heavy bullets, was no fun. One-hundred-grain loads were quite comfortable.
Groups went from 1 1/4 inches to a max of 2 1/2 inches, depending on the load. I suspect some tweaking with 120-grain loads would probably tighten things up. In shooting about 100 rounds, I never experienced a single hangfire or misfire.
Press a tab on the tang, and the action pops open. A 209 primer, pre-loaded into the polymer carrier, drops in. When inserted, a portion of the bright-orange tab sticks out through a slot, showing the loaded status. There was a small amount of fouling escaping through the slot cut for the primer carrier, but it was surprisingly minimal and all directed to the side rather than to the shooter or optics.
The Huntsman has one serious handicap: the action style won’t allow a full-length rod to be carried through the fore-end. The mechanics get in the way. There is no way to use the supplied rod for a fast follow-up shot since the short ramrod must be first removed and then extended for any reload. After reloading, it must be unscrewed, shortened and reset in the hangers. Leaving it out of the rifle for the second shot changes the dynamics of the rifle and shifts point of impact. That costs precious time.
The solution is to carry a second full-length rod. I’ve done this with other rifles and, although it’s a nuisance, it’s the best option. A spare full-length rod with a T-handle from XS Sights will be shoved in my belt whenever I’m packing the Huntsman.
The receiver is attractively case-hardened, barrel well blued, and fit and finish is about what you’d expect from a rifle that retails for $188. Not elegant, but perfectly functional. Sling studs and a good recoil pad are included. Factory trigger is set at about 3 1/2 pounds with no creep, but for a small fee, the factory will polish and lighten it. A stainless steel model and a composite-stocked version are available, as is a 26-inch barrel, but the 24-inch version seems handier and still reached over 2,200 fps with some loads.
I believe I’ll be sending H&R a check for this gun, and once I own it, I’ll send it back to have a 12-gauge rifled slug barrel and a 12-gauge 3-inch turkey barrel installed, as well as a polish job on the trigger. Turkey, muzzleloader or slugs for deer are all one-shot options, and having a dedicated Handi Rifle that can do all three makes a lot of sense. The last thing I’ll do is install a gel-type recoil pad since heavy loads are standard fodder for three barrels. As a muzzleloader, the Huntsman is a great choice. As a foundation for muzzleloading, turkey hunting and slug shooting, it might be the best choice.
Reprinted from the July 2005 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine