By Tom Fegely
In 1975, the second year of Pennsylvania’s winter flintlock season, I was invited to join a commercial outfitter in the Pocono Mountains for a post-Christmas muzzleloader hunt.
Two of the participants were New Jersey hunters who, a couple days before, had received flintlocks from their wives as Christmas presents. The guns had never been shot, so the cook took time to give the hunters a hasty lesson before they set out. When we took a break for lunch, one of the Garden Staters voiced his frustration at having a misfire at a doe that morning.
He asked me to check his gun for the source of the malfunction, which I immediately recognized as a misaligned flint. Taking the spotless Thompson/Center .50-cal. Hawken well off to the side of the crew partaking of sandwiches and Cokes, I brushed the remaining powder from the pan, realigned the flint and cocked the hammer, squeezing it while keeping an eye on the frizzen to note the amount of spark.
Imagine my surprise — and everyone else’s — when the gun went off. Fortunately, I’d safely pointed it at the ground in the opposite direction of the lunch bunch. The spark had jumped directly from the empty frizzen through the touch hole to the main external charge. No priming powder was involved. The errant spark did it all.
The experience was both frightening and educational. It underscored the fact that improperly handled muzzleloaders hold the same potential for danger as do centerfire rifles, shotguns and inline muzzleloaders. The truth be known, too many casual or first-time muzzleloader shooters consider these primitive guns accident-free because they don’t shoot like modern centerfires.
Several other experiences and accidents (or potential ones) over the years related by fellow blackpowder hunters underscore the need for care and caution whenever a frontloader is carried afield or to the range. Consider the following precautions for accident-free muzzleloader use while on the range and in the field.
Whenever a flintlock, caplock or inline rifle fails to fire, make certain that it’s pointed in a safe direction for at least 15-20 or more seconds before making a closer check. Hangfires are relatively common occurrences in blackpowder guns. Powder that has absorbed a bit of moisture can slowly smolder rather than burn. As it smolders, it can explode, often several seconds after the trigger has been pulled.
Going Off Half-Cocked
If your blackpowder arm has a lock (caplock or flintlock), regularly check its tightness and function. Screws and pins should be tightened, and the hammer should click solidly into the full-cock position. Tugging the trigger with the gun in the half-cock mode, however, should not result in any hammer slippage. If there’s a continual malfunction, have the gun checked by a gunsmith.
Replace wooden ramrods with fiberglass or composite substitutes readily available from muzzleloader equipment supply houses and catalogs. I once had the “opportunity” to drive a friend 25 miles from a range to an emergency room in Alabama after he shattered a wooden ramrod by pushing a patched ball down a barrel that hadn’t been swabbed between shots. When the rod snapped, the sharp end protruding from the bore penetrated his palm. When driving a ball or bullet down a clean barrel, use short strokes, gripping the ramrod as close to the muzzle as possible.
Finally, be sure the ramrod can be inserted in the thimbles far enough to keep it from protruding beyond the muzzle. Not all ramrods are the same length.
Improperly seated loads are disasters waiting to happen. When a preferred load (powder or pellet, bullet, patch and/or sabot) is established, drop the ramrod down the bore until it hits bottom, then scribe it with a knife where it exits the muzzle. In the field, it takes only a few seconds to ascertain that the load is properly seated.
If an air space separates the powder from the rest of the load, the extreme compression holds potential for fracturing the barrel or breech, causing injury to the shooter or someone nearby. Under such circumstances, the ball or bullet becomes an obstruction.
Another range precaution: Always keep flasks and other powder containers closed and far enough away from the firearm to prevent an errant spark from turning the storage device into a miniature grenade. Although it should go without saying, smoking should also be restricted when powders are being handled. We’ve probably all seen shooters sighting-in their guns or working up loads while someone nearby observes the activity while puffing on a cigarette or cigars.
Trigger performance is often ignored by the casual muzzleloader hunter upon purchase of a replica firearm. Some muzzleloaders are equipped with set triggers, which are welcome on the range under controlled conditions. When the set (rear) trigger is squeezed, it creates a lighter pull on the front (hair) trigger. In most cases, accuracy is increased with a lighter pull, although I’ve not found it to be necessarily so under all field conditions, where I choose not to use the set trigger. The hair trigger should be adjusted to individual preferences whenever a new gun is purchased. If trigger adjustment is new to you, stop by your gunsmith for a bit of help.
Also, under cold weather and when wearing gloves, premature firing may accidentally occur on light pulls. I wear gloves with the tip of the trigger finger cut off to provide better squeeze control.
Over the years, I’ve watched as blackpowder hunters cautiously performed the aforementioned essentials, followed by sliding the gun in a back window-mounted gun rack in the rear of the truck or SUV. Chances are slim that an accident will occur, but it’s not impossible. Although I’ve never seen it, I have heard tales of muzzleloaders self-firing under such circumstances in which an errant ember from a cigarette found its way via breeze or gravity to the nipple or touch hole.
My insurance is to insert a pipe cleaner in the touch hole, then pinch a dry cleaning patch or handkerchief between the relaxed hammer and the pan or nipple. Of course, pointing the muzzle away from the passenger area is also a common-sense move. Most states permit the transport of partially loaded muzzleloaders in vehicles as long as the pan powder, percussion cap, primer and/or pellets have been removed.
Of course, when hunting from treestands, muzzleloaders should be similarly “neutered.” Wait until you’re safely belted in your stand, then pull the gun up and go about the process of powder or percussion cap placement and halfcocking the hammer. Never full-cock the gun until you’re ready to shoot.
Compared to traditional caplock and flintlock muzzleloaders, inlines are light years ahead in terms of safety. Most inlines have double safeties; one a knurled ring on the rear of the plungerstyle straightline hammer. When the ring is threaded forward on the hammer, it shortens the stroke and prevents the hammer from contacting the capped nipple. The gun can’t go off with the secondary safety in place, even if it’s dropped from a tree.
This article was published in the July, 2008 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.