By Gary Engberg
-- Muzzleloading rifles have come a long way since the flintlock and percussion muzzleloaders that were available in the 1960s and 1970s. The days of spit-patch round balls, soap and water cleaning techniques, and powder horns are long gone except for the real traditionalists who still prefer to hunt game with the primitive-style rifles. The engineering behind today's rifles and accessories is mind-boggling. The actions, black-powder substitutes, lubricants, saboted bullets, and bullet designs make the modern muzzleloader much more accurate and considerably more reliable than its early predecessors. This has helped bring new converts to the sport. Today's muzzleloaders are not like the ones your father used!
Muzzleloader hunting has grown tremendously in the last two decades, and this growth continues with no end in sight. Much of this growth started taking place when states began having "special" muzzleloader seasons, which allowed hunters more time in the woods. Many hunters have now opted for muzzleloader hunting because it gives you more opportunities than ever before, allowing you to have the woods to yourself. These special muzzleloader hunting seasons have the potential to increase one's hunting time anywhere from a week to a month, depending on your state's muzzleloader season.
Game managers have always welcomed smokepole hunters because they tend to be very proficient with their rifles. While bowhunters are also proficient with their equipment, their success rate is low because of the bow's limited range. Bowhunting is a 30- to 40-yard shot and often only a 10- to 20-yard proposition. This is why the impact of bowhunting on a deer herd is minimal at best and muzzleloader hunting is becoming another welcomed tool in game management.
The development of the in-line muzzleloader, saboted bullets, and scopes (where legal) has made muzzleloading at least a 100-yard proposition for successfully taking game. The advanced equipment of today has muzzleloader hunters harvesting more deer and helping keep deer herds in balance. As the sport keeps growing and adding more hunters, more deer will be taken.
The real appeal to hunting with a muzzleloader is the challenge. Despite all the advancements in muzzleloading rifles and accessories, it's still difficult to put in long hours in the woods and harvest a deer with a traditional smokepole or even the newer in-line rifles. Many things can and do go wrong when a deer finally comes into range. For example, if you're shooting a traditional muzzleloader, you could encounter problems like wet powder, fouled mechanisms, and loose percussion caps. Talk to any experienced muzzleloading hunter, and he'll have horror stories of hangfires and misfires that have cost him a deer in the past.
Hunters are forced to pay more attention to details. Primitive muzzleloader hunters must learn to get close to the deer, shoot well with open sights, and keep the powder dry in wet weather. All of these variables reduce a hunter's chances for success when compared to the in-line rifles and modern guns of today.
The advent of the in-line muzzleloader in 1985 brought many new hunters into the sport from bowhunting and centerfire hunting. Every year, many more hunters are taking up muzzleloader hunting. Most stores these days only carry in-line rifles, and finding percussion or flintlock rifles is becoming more difficult every year.
Now a new hunter can shoot a gun that looks and operates very much like any modern sporting rifle. The in-line muzzleloader of today is basically a modern single-shot rifle. The hunter uses a saboted, (a pistol bullet enclosed in a plastic collar) jacketed bullet with Pyrodex pellets (essentially blackpowder with cleaning and scrubbing agents added), so he doesn't have to measure his powder charges as before. Next, the hunter uses a 209 shotgun primer for ignition that is secured in the rifle's breech, so damp and wet weather is never a problem with today's muzzleloaders. Finally, the gun is topped with a scope (in states that allow them), which makes taking a deer at 100 yards and more very possible.
Why are in-line rifles so popular these days? A novice or beginner can buy one of these rifles and be ready to hunt almost immediately. In-line muzzleloaders are very user-friendly and shoot accurately. All the shooter needs to do these days is a little basic homework and research. Most importantly, find out which loads shoot best in their particular muzzleloader and learn how to clean their muzzleloading rifle.
A hunter with an in-line muzzleloader can dramatically improve his accuracy by adding a scope, if legal in the state where hunting. Scopes will increase the accuracy of a killing shot, whether the shot is from 20 yards or 125 yards. Although it takes practice to shoot a muzzleloader accurately, it doesn't take nearly as much practice as becoming accurate with a bow and arrow.
For years, muzzleloaders got bad publicity for being an unreliable weapon. Today, nothing could be further from the truth. Modern in-line rifles are excellent and accurate performers. With some practice, a hunter can consistently shoot tight groups at 100 yards and now even farther. Try to learn your muzzleloaders capabilities and your own limitations when practicing your shooting. Many hunters talk about making 200-yard shots with their rifles, but I suggest concentrating on closer-in shots. There are new bullets on the market that will allow you to shoot at greater distances, but do some research and talk to your local experts before trying them.
A hunter who practices can become a better shot with his muzzleloader than he can with a slug in a shotgun. A muzzleloader can increase one's shooting range when compared to a shotgun.
When shopping for a muzzleloading rifle, I'd recommend an in-line model by either Thompson/Center or Remington. A basic and functional rifle can be bought for $100 to $250. These less expensive guns are usually imports from Eastern Europe or Asia. Mid-level muzzleloaders are mostly American made and run from $250 to $450. These more expensive rifles will have better trigger configurations, heavier stocks, more precise sights, and better ramrods.
If you plan to hunt deer for a few days a season, most any name-brand and medium-priced rifle will do the trick. But, if you plan to hunt extensively, shoot in inclement weather, and possibly pursue big game then spend more money because as with most items, you get what you pay for.
There is one significant drawback to muzzleloader hunting, particularly in the Midwest. Although, muzzleloader hunting has been around for decades, the special seasons for muzzleloader are still relatively new. In most states, bowhunting opens early, usually in September, and is then followed by the rifle or shotgun season for deer. When muzzleloader hunters first started asking for a special muzzleloader only season, they were given what was left over. In the Midwest, these special seasons were in December and January when it's cold and miserable outside. But, hunters soon learned that during these late seasons there still were many deer and big bucks for harvest, and there is little competition from other hunters in the woods.
Despite these possible drawbacks, hunters have adapted well and find that they enjoy the challenge, solitude, and opportunity for a trophy buck that the late muzzleloader season offers. The "space-age" clothing and boots now made enable a hunter to spend more time in the woods. I'm not saying that you'll be toasty warm if it's below zero, but the sight of a nice buck can quickly warm you up!