Muzzleloader Hunting: A Beginner's Guide
One shot. Close range. 1830’s technology. Big bull elk. Bugling. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? It’s muzzleloader hunting.
Each year more hunters are discovering the thrill of muzzleloader hunting. There are several advantages to a muzzleloader hunt over traditional rifle hunting. In the Western states in particular, there are special muzzleloader seasons that traditionally coincide with the peak of the elk rut. Licenses are limited, so there are few hunters in the woods. Depending on the location and the skill of the caller, bulls can be bugled in to close ranges. All in all, it makes for a very exciting hunt.
However, there is a learning curve to becoming a proficient muzzleloader hunter, and chances are, you’ll make every mistake in the book at least once. You’ll see some mighty fine bulls get away from a situation where it would be “meat in the pot” with a high-powered scoped rifle.
For those who are unfamiliar with muzzleloaders, allow me to explain. Muzzleloaders are the weapons that Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone carried afield with them during their bear hunts, Indian fights, and battles. Today there are two basic types of muzzleloaders used for hunting—primitive and in-line. Both are based upon the premise that the shooter pours powder down the end of the gunbarrel, then rams a slug or ball down on top of it to load the gun.
Primitive muzzleloader aficionados must choose between either a flintlock or a caplock ignition system. A flintlock is the more primitive technology, popular from the time of the Revolutionary War through the early 1800’s. The hammer of the gun holds a piece of flint wrapped in fine leather. Below the hammer is a frizzen, a swinging metal plate. Below the frizzen is the pan, into which the shooter pours a small amount of fine black powder. When the shooter pulls the trigger, the hammer strikes the frizzen, the frizzen folds back, and sparks are showered into the black powder in the pan. The ignited powder in the pan shoots a tongue of flame into the barrel of the gun via a small port. In turn, this flame ignites the black powder that has been poured into the barrel. The powder explodes, forcing the ball that has been seated on top of it to shoot out the barrel.
This process sounds cumbersome, and it is. Ignition is not instantaneous. Flintlock shooters have to hold steady for a second or more while an explosion occurs under their eyes. The possibility for error is very real.
The more modern of the primitive technologies is the caplock design. Caplock muzzleloaders use the same basic concept of funneling flame into a port in the barrel, but the ignition is accomplished through a small nipple seated under the gun’s hammer. A small copper cap with a tiny bit of nitroglycerine is placed atop the nipple. When the hammer falls, the cap shoots a tiny spurt of flame through the nipple and into the port in the barrel, igniting the powder inside and shooting the ball out the barrel. Ignition is much more rapid than the flintlock.
In the last decade or two, several companies have noticed the resurgence of muzzleloading popularity. In response, they have crafted rifles that adhere to many states’ definitions of muzzleloader technology, i.e., a ball is rammed down the barrel and it can only be loaded with one round at a time. However, these are not primitive weapons. There are various ignition systems to discharge the load in the barrel, including shotgun primers and specially manufactured discs that are loaded directly behind the charge in the barrel. These are called “in-line” muzzleloaders. These rifles look more like high-powered rifles with a ramrod than something Daniel Boone might have carried on a bear hunt. Many in-line shooters use pelletized powder that can be dropped into the barrel in 50-grain increments and saboted copper-jacketed bullets that are built much like a high-powered rifle bullet with a plastic sleeve to allow ramming it down the barrel. Many of them are mounted with scopes and other optical sights.
Muzzleloader calibers range from old .36 and .40 caliber flintlock squirrel rifles to .68 caliber muskets used for warfare. Most flintlock and caplock guns today are .50 or .54 caliber, with an occasional .58 caliber rifle. The minimum size elk rifle is .50 caliber, and .54 certainly hits harder. The biggest in-line muzzleloaders are .50 caliber, with the occasional .45 caliber rifle used for deer and smaller game.
So, if you’re going muzzleloader hunting, you must make an immediate decision: is your goal simply to be in the woods with fewer people around, or would you like to stalk an animal with the additional challenge of carrying a rifle based on 1830’s technology? If your goal is to maximize your chances with the best available technology, then get your hands on an in-line muzzleloader. If the mystique of hunting like Jeremiah Johnson or John Colter appeals to you, then look into buying a caplock or flintlock rifle.
Whichever route you take, shooting a muzzleloader demands practice and patience. If you choose an in-line rifle, thinking that you can accurately shoot an animal out to 175 or 200 yards using pelletized powder, saboted bullets, and a scope, think again. First, you’re still obligated to use iron sights. Few riflemen these days are skilled enough to consistently hit targets at 200 yards with iron sights, and scopes are illegal in most Western states. Secondly, the data provided by the rifle manufacturers that suggest an 11-inch bullet drop at 200 yards are using saboted bullets and pelletized powder, both of which are illegal in most Western states. Thirdly, even if you can hit the kill zone on an elk at 200 yards with black powder and iron sights, the bullet will have lost much of its down-range energy and the chances of only wounding the elk are great. Combine that with a minimum 20-second reloading time (if you’re fast and your hands aren’t shaking with buck fever) and you’ve got a lose/lose situation. An elk can cover a tremendous amount of territory in 20 seconds, and I HATE tracking wounded elk. I recommend limiting your shots to a maximum range of 100 yards, no matter what rifle you’re carrying. After all, the whole point of muzzleloader hunting is to be more skilful hunter and to stalk within closer ranges.
Personally, I like to imagine myself hunting the same way as the old-time mountain men, so I hunt with a caplock Hawken. When I’m hunting with this rifle, I know that I must have my game plan organized down to the finest detail. I sight in my rifle until can I put three shots in a Skoal can at 100 yards. I clean the barrel meticulously to rid it of the corrosive black powder fouling. I prepare my powder flask and possibles bag with measures of powder and bullets. I practice speed loading at the range so that I can get off a quick (twenty second!) follow-up shot. Before setting out to hunt, I load my rifle meticulously and check my gear. Then I prepare myself mentally to pass up any shot that isn’t a clear shot at a standing animal at a maximum range of 100 yards. Most of the time, I’ll even pass up the 100-yard shots in favor of a 60-yard or even 20-yard shot.
I’ve hunted on and off with a caplock since 1979, so I’ve learned a few tricks with it. First of all, elk hunters must use a heavy slug. There are three basic kinds of bullets to use in a muzzleloader: the above-mentioned plastic-sleeved sabots, lead slugs, and lead round balls. Round balls are loaded by seating the ball on top of a greased patch of cloth on the muzzle, then ramming it home with the ramrod. Slugs are coated with grease, started down the muzzle, and then rammed home. The problem with round balls is that they’re usually significantly lighter than a Minie-type slug, and don’t travel as far or hit as hard. While round balls may be fine for whitetail hunting, I wouldn’t shoot them at elk. I knew an elk hunter who shot a bull five times in the ribcage with round balls before it finally died—after many miles of tracking. A typical .50-caliber round ball weighs 150 grains, while a typical buffalo bullet or Minie-type slug weighs 350-380 grains. I’ve shot a pile of elk using Thompson-Center 370-grain Maxi-ball slugs, and they each went down like they had been hit by a truck.
Keep in mind, however, that certain muzzleloader barrels are cut with a slow twist for shooting round balls, and others are rifled with a fast twist for shooting slugs. Make sure that you research the rifle and match it with the appropriate hunting load before you purchase so that your rifle is most accurate for the type of shooting you plan to do.
Most rifles have a “sweet spot” where they shoot very accurately with a certain load. Loading a rifle with more powder may indeed generate more muzzle velocity and knockdown power, but it may also cause it to lose its accuracy. For my caplock, I’ve learned that 90 grains of powder makes it shoot very accurately up to 100 yards and it still kicks pretty darned hard. It develops plenty of energy at that rate to dump an elk with one shot. The maximum load for most muzzleloaders is 120 grains of powder, though the experts say that black powder doesn’t explode like smokeless powder and you really can put a lot of powder in a gun with no adverse consequences. I still wouldn’t recommend it, though. Please note, however, that any amount of smokeless powder will explode almost any muzzleloader because of the high pressures generated.
Whenever a system is unsealed—like a primitive muzzleloader—there is the potential for leakage. This September it rained like there was no tomorrow in the Colorado high country, and it seems that the weather hits every year during muzzleloader season. Several times in my muzzleloading career I have come upon a great shooting opportunity only to learn that my powder was wet—after I pulled the trigger and heard only the “snap!” of the cap igniting. Hunters can prevent their powder getting wet by covering the muzzle of the rifle with plastic wrap secured by a rubber band, and also by sealing the nipple’s connection to the breech of the gun with modeling putty.
If you think the possibility exists that your powder may have gotten wet, there are still ways to make the rifle go off. With a nipple wrench, you can remove the nipple, dig out a few grains of wet powder, replace it with a few grains of dry powder, and away you go again. If it won’t make a difference in your hunting, fire the gun. If it won’t fire, try several caps until it goes off. In humid places like Alabama, hunters all fire their rifles at the end of each day of hunting. Towards sunset, you can hear a ragged salute of gunfire as each hunter discharges his load.
On an elk hunt, the excitement is in getting close to the game. A rutting bull usually has only one thing on his mind, and when a big bull responds to a bugle with a challenge of his own, well…it just doesn’t get more exciting than that. Armed like one of the mountain men of the 1830’s, knowing that you’ve got just one chance to put a killing shot in him, knowing that you’ve got to be patient and wait for the ideal shot, it makes hunting with a high-powered rifle seem just a little unfair.
Gary Hubbell, a Colorado native lives in Marble, Colorado. He guides elk, deer, and upland bird hunts, as well as flyfishing and summer pack trips. His articles and photos have appeared in Outdoor Life, Bugle, Outside, Newsweek, Forbes, and Heartland USA, among others.