If you’re new to guns, you might think of muzzleloaders and conjure up images of Kentucky long rifles and Daniel Boone or the American Revolution or Civil War.
In actuality, muzzleloading rifles have come a long way since the days when they were state-of-the-art firearms technology. Even though the advent of breechloaders and metallic cartridge rifles should have put them into the museums, modern materials, propellants, bullets, and production methods have continued to advance muzzleloaders alongside more modern designs.
Today, the mildly-accurate guns that fired round balls, and later simple conical bullets, propelled by slower-than-smokeless blackpowder have evolved into muzzeloading rifles that can compete with the best modern centerfire rifles. But those old-school style guns are still around, too, for anyone who wants a throwback shooting or hunting experience.
If you’re new to the world of muzzleloaders, it’s completely understandable if you don’t want to drop a grand on one right away. In that case, there are plenty of more affordable alternatives.
Traditions Firearms offers a full lineup of muzzleloaders, from 18th century flintlock reproductions built with modern safety standards in mind to high quality, in-line ignition guns capable of shots at 100 yards or more. The best part is that they can be had at a very affordable price in what Traditions calls their “Redi-Pak” setup.
The Redi-Pak includes the rifle, a ball starter, ball puller, bullets, powder measure, cleaning patches and picks, fast loaders, easy-to-clean grease and solvent, and a how-to DVD. Basically, it’s everything you need in one go, no trying to figure out what accessories and other bits and pieces you need for your new muzzleloader.
They’re also very affordable. The flintlock Deerstalker Redi-Pak has an MSRP of $374 and the inline Tracker Redi-Pak has an MSRP of $234.
Whichever option you choose, one thing’s for sure: you won’t be disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, I love doing mag dumps, but there’s just something really fun and satisfying about a gun that requires so much more knowledge to load and shoot properly.
Guns, Bullets, and Powder
Since you’re basically creating a cartridge inside the rifle every time you shoot, there’s a bit more support gear that you will need to use a muzzeloader than is needed for a centerfire rifle.
First, here’s a tutorial from the folks at CVA about how to load a muzzeloader safely, so we can get that out of the way.
Main Types of Modern Muzzleloaders
There are three types of muzzleloaders you will find new on the shelf these days, two designs are very much old school, and one is a more modern take on the muzzeloading design.
The flintlock is the oldest of the three actions described here, and also the most complicated. The hammer ends in a clamp that holds an actual piece of flint wrapped in cloth (so it doesn’t shatter).
The shooter must place a small charge of FFFFg powder in the pan once the gun is loaded. The hammer is cocked and when the trigger is pulled, the hammer moves the flint forward where it strikes the frizzen. This creates a shower of sparks that ignite the loose powder in the pan. This travels into the action and ignites the powder charge, firing the gun.
The caplock action is far simpler than the flintlock thanks to the invention and inclusion of one component, a primer. Instead of a piece of flint, a frizzen, and a pan being used to ignite the charge in the barrel, the job is done by a simple primer struck by the hammer.
Many modern caplock muzzleloaders use No. 11 cap primers. Once the gun is loaded simply place the primer on the nipple, cock the hammer fully, and fire. The hammer strikes the primer filled with a pressure sensitive material, which ignites the charge.
Inline muzzleloaders are the most modern take on the design and the can operate a number of ways. They can be a bolt action like the CVA below, break action, or another mechanism entirely, but =they all have a few things in common—there is no external hammer, the action is completely sealed when in battery, and the primer is positioned directly behind the chamber and the charge, with all the components lined up the way they would be in a cartridge, hence “in-line.”
Most inline muzzleloaders use easy-to-find 209 Shotshell primers and many have a removable breech plug that makes them a lot easier to clean and to unload without firing a shot.
A plastic sabot allows you to shoot a smaller bullet in a big-bore gun, resulting in higher velocities. Premium bullets loaded in sabots are devastating on game. A fast rifling twist of one turn in 28 inches helps separate the bullet from the sabot in flight.
The .50 caliber works for all big game and the .45 provides flat trajectories for longer shots. The down side is saboted bullets can be difficult to load sometimes because of their tight fit.
Halfway between a conical and a saboted bullet, the PowerBelt is a full-bore projectile with a plastic base that expands to seal the bore, then pops off in flight. Unlike many saboted bullets, PowerBelts slide easily down a rifle’s bore for fast loading and are available in .45, .50, and .54 calibers.
On paper, the round ball’s ballistics are pathetic, but it kills far better than it should at ranges inside 100 yards.
The cloth patch seals the bore and engages the rifling like the sabot and powerbelt above. In general, round balls shoot best from traditional-style rifles with a slow rate of rifling, about 1:60″. Use at least a .45 caliber for deer-sized animals; .32, .36, and .40 are for small game.
About twice the weight of the same caliber round ball, a conical bullet hits much harder, shoots flatter, and loads easier.
Thompson/Center’s Maxi-Ball was the first such bullet made for modern hunters. Conicals shoot best from a fast-twist barrel. Use .45s and .50s for deer; .50s and .54s for elk.
Muzzleloader powder comes in different granulations (check the instructions for your firearm and bullets) and as loose powder or pelletized, meaning its pressed into pre-measured cakes that drop right into the barrel with no measuring necessary. The charge is no as customizable with pellets as it is with loose powder, but its a lot easier to carry and use, especially in the field.
Here are the man types of black powder and black powder substitutes you’ll likely encounter.
For some, the rotten-egg stench of blackpowder smoke is the sweet smell of muzzleloading. One of the oldest propellants ever used in firearms, the mixture of sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter, black powder comes in different granule sizes. FFg is the size for .50 calibers; FFFg is for smallbores. Moisture is the absolute enemy of black powder and always will be.
Hogdon’s Pyrodex was the first black powder substitute widely available on the commercial market. It is less sensitive to ignition than black powder and uses the same shipping and storage guidelines as smokeless powder. However, Pyrodex is more energetic per unit of mass than black powder, but is less dense and can be substituted at a 1:1 ration by volume for black powder in most applications.
It was originally available as a loose powder in two granularities, butis now available in Select and solid pellet varieties as well. While Pyrodex offers improved safety and efficiency over black powder, the fouling is the same and significant and requires the same gleaning regimen as black powder.
Hogdon also makes Triple Seven, one of a family of sulfurless black powder substitutes. These substitutes don’t have the same odor and they aren’t nearly as corrosive as black powder or Pyrodex. They are also more energetic than black powder, and produce higher velocities and pressures. Still burning carbon, the carbon-based fuel burned here is from the sugar family, not from charcoal.
Another option is Buckhorn 209 release by Western Powders Company in 2008. Like many other black powder substitutes, it is made to be a volumetric substitute of black powder. It is dispensed in “black powder powder measures” for muzzleloading applications. Blackhorn 209 is essentially non-corrosive, low-fouling, very consistent in gas generation, but non-hygroscopic.
Cleaning a Muzzleloader
The cleaning method above for inline guns will definitely work, but here’s an old school method that will also work.
Fill a container, a bucket, or a bathtub with hot water and a squire of any dish detergent. Take the barrel off the gun and put it in the bucket. With a cleaning jag and patch on the ramrod, pump it up and down, drawing water into the barrel.
Run dry patches down the bore until they come out clean, then use one lightly oiled patch to lube the bore.
In-line guns with removable breech plugs can be cleaned from the breech just like a centerfire. With any type of rifle featuring a removable nipple, take it out, clean it, and dry it thoroughly. Finally, put a dry patch on the ramrod and run it down the barrel. Leave the ramrod in place and pop a cap. A burn on the patch proves the flash channel is clear.
Muzzleloader Gear You Will Need
Aside from everything mentioned above, there are a few accessories you will want to have for shooting a caplock or in-line muzzleloader if you didn’t buy a gun as part of a kit like the Redi-Pak mentioned above. If you’re going the flintlock route, there are a few more specialized tools you will want to have as well.
A kit like the T17 Pro Hunter kit from Thompson Center is a great place to start and includes everything you need to start shooting. You get a bottle of bore cleaning solvent, a container of breech plug grease, 40 1/2″ cleaning patches, 25 2-1/2″ cleaning patches, a breech plug cleaning brush, a t-handle short starter for getting saboted bullets into the muzzle easier, Shockwave Super Glide sabots, two Speed Shots Load Carriers—these are awesome little clear plastic tubes sized right to carry a bullet and pellets already lined up, so all you have to do is dump it right into the barrel, and an extended polymer coated cleaning jag.
A Hot New State-of-the-Art Muzzleloader from CVA
The new Paramount rifle from CVA is ready to change the way you think about muzzleloaders. It’s a bolt-action, long range rifle capable of making accurate shots out to 300 yards. No, I didn’t misspeak. I really did use the words “bolt-action” and “300 yards” in a sentence about a muzzleloader.
In order to accomplish this, CVA has turned to their sister company, Bergara, which is known for making a top-notch barrel. In this case, the 26” barrel is Nitride-treated, free floating, and has a 1:22 twist. The stock design is based on the custom Bergara HMR hybrid-chassis stock, with an adjustable comb and length of pull to accommodate almost any shooter.
Rounding out the features that help this muzzleloader really reach out and touch stuff is its adjustable trigger and the VariFlame rifle primer adapter, which is capable of igniting up to 140 grains of Blackhorn 209 powder.
If you’d prefer to run standard black powder, the gun can handle up to a 168-grain powder charge. This makes the Paramount the first CVA muzzleloader that can handle a magnum load beyond 150 grains of standard black powder.
The bolt-action mechanism provides access to the VariFlame breech plug, which is designed to use the Large Rifle Primer. This primer is hotter and more reliable than the more traditional 209 shot shell primer often used with inline muzzleloaders.
I had the opportunity to shoot this gun during Range Day at the 2019 Professional Outdoor Media Association’s annual conference. Loaded in the gun was a 280-grain .45-caliber PowerBelt bullet that was propelled at 2250fps by Blackhorn 209 powder. I hit the steel boar target at 100 yards with ease.
If this sounds like your kind of gun, the CVA Paramount has an MSRP of $1,062.95 and will be available very soon.