By Ralph M. Lermayer
In the not-too-distant past, muzzleloader ignition was pretty iffy. Great care had to be taken with old flinters and sidelocks so that when the moment for the shot came, it would happen.
Weather was a big factor. Dampness, rain and fog were a nightmare for traditional rifle shooters. Today, inline actions, weather-friendly receiver designs and the wide acceptance of hot musket caps and 209 shotgun primers for lighting the charge have all but eliminated the worry.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that these advancements bring with them a host of new concerns.
If you continue to hunt with an old-style muzzleloader, then you’ve no doubt made a study of all the unique tips to ensure ignition. Volumes have been written on the subject, but sadly, traditional rifle users have become the minority.
The majority of today’s muzzleloader hunters are converts, brought to the sport during the new inline era. They haven’t lived through the days of hangfires and misfires, so they assume that no matter what they do in the loading and charging process, that new inline will go off every time.
Not so! As many are discovering, carelessness or a lack of understanding in the loading process, no matter how hot the cap, can cost you that once-in-a-lifetime shot, either from an accuracy shift or a full misfire.
Following are some of the problems today’s muzzleloader shooters are encountering, the reasons for them, and the solutions.
Pre-loading your 209 primers in holders such as these for the Marlin Huntsman make recapping fast and easy.
The Fouling Shot
In spite of what you’ve heard, muzzleloader rifles don’t like squeaky-clean barrels. Old timers always fired a “fouler” to condition the bore before they began shooting. That practice was done to ensure accuracy, and it’s still vital today. Unless you fire every shot from a meticulously clean bore, there will be a distinct difference between the impact point from a clean vs. a fouled bore. Clean bores offer less resistance, velocities have a tendency to be much higher, and bullet placement can be as much as 6 inches from the next few shots. That’s a miss at the long ranges inlines are capable of shooting today.
“Bullet walk” is another problem a squeaky-clean bore causes. Most popular saboted and non-saboted bullets today are about the same size or slightly smaller than modern bore diameters. They load slick and easy, even in a fouled bore. If you load any of these in a clean, well-oiled bore and seat them firmly on the charge, the jostling around in a truck, 4-wheeler or scabbard can cause the heavy bullet to drift off the charge, towards the muzzle. That causes inaccuracy and a potentially dangerous situation. If the bullet walks very far towards midbore, it will act like an obstruction and cause a bulge in the barrel, or worse, a blowup. Bullets must be seated firmly on the charge and stay there.
What’s more, blackpowder and Pyrodex don’t explode like nitrocellulose-based powders; they burn. It takes a certain amount of time for this to happen, but the flash and power in the 209 shotgun primers is instant and intense. It can, and often does, move the whole charge and bullet downbore before powder ignition is complete, particularly with a squeaky-clean, well-oiled bore. What we need is a 209 primer with half the power. But since they are designed for shotshell ignition, we must live with the power excess.
A fouled bore that helps to hold things in place will diminish the problem. I recently proved this with a certain manufacturer’s .50-caliber rifle known for easy loading. No surprise, the bore miked at .504. I loaded a 295-grain Power Belt in a clean barrel with no powder charge. The hot 209 primer shot it 15 feet across my loading room. Those primers pack a lot of punch!
How to Foul
Popping a cap or two in an uncharged rifle has long been a way to “clear” the ignition channel. Old-timers used to see if they could make a blade of grass dance; this proved the channel was open. But this practice may cause more problems than it corrects. The charge in caps and primers is held in place with a paper seal. With a loaded gun, pressures and heat generated in the breech are such that that paper is totally consumed. However, with no backpressure or heat as found with an unloaded rifle, the primer ash is not consumed and can easily clog the small .028 hole through the breech plug to the charge. Next shot - a misfire.
Just popping a few 209s will leave a residue in the bore than can serve as a fouler, but it can also cause a plugup. Shove a tight-fitting bore brush with a patch wrapped around it a few inches down the muzzle, then pop a few 209s. That obstruction will create enough pressure to completely consume the ash. The other way is to simply fire a half-charge of loose powder or a single pellet and any scrap bullet. Do this safely, and shoot into a good backstop, of course. It will coat the bore and clear the ignition channel. After that, load up and go hunting.
The next problem that has begun to plague inline shooters is diminished bolt power. You can’t see it, but centerfire primers, including the 209s, have an anvil - a single point primed with a hotter compound -- at their very center. It’s designed to be hit with a narrow, sharp-pointed firing pin. Muzzleloader bolts have a broad, flat surface that smacks the entire face of the primer, not the center. Massive power in the bolt springs that drive the muzzleloader hammer is adequate to ignite the primer, but as bolt force weakens or slows, ignition can suffer.
Many of the springs found inside the bolts of some of the imported inlines lose tension after time, especially if you put them up after the season with the bolt back, maintaining pressure on the spring all year. The solution? Don’t leave them under tension unless you’re hunting. And if you suspect the spring may be weakening, change it. Any gun shop can get you a new one for a few bucks.
Another problem is a dirty bolt housing. Most centerfire shooters don’t even take the bolt apart in that bolt-action rifle. It’s a safe bet that nine out of 10 hunters don’t even know how they come apart. You can’t get away with that with an inline. Fouling, especially the hot stuff generated by 150-grain charges, will drift back into the bolt’s innards, slowing up and eventually stopping bolt travel to the point where it won’t reliably set off the primer.
I saw this happen in Canada recently. The proud owner of a pricey new inline threw down on a respectable caribou bull, only to hear a sickening “snap” when he pulled the trigger. The bull trotted off, leaving the hunter scratching his head.
“I shot this gun hundreds of times hunting and practicing at home, and it’s never done this!” he complained. His comment led me to the problem: His bolt was gunked up with fouling and liberal doses of lube he’d squirted around the outside. The Canada cold simply shut things down. I took his bolt apart right in the field, flushed the gunk out in the river, and he was back in business.
Finally, whether you use an inline or a sidelock, you must keep moisture from getting down the bore and contaminating the charge. Rain is the most obvious culprit, but snow and even heavy dew have been known to get down the muzzle and turn the charge to mush. No cap, no matter how hot, will light that! Keep the muzzle taped. It will save you a lot of headaches and won’t affect the shot.
Modern inlines are more carefree than traditional guns, but that doesn’t mean they don’t require attention. You still have only one shot. Make sure it will count.
Reprinted from the November 2004 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine