Thoughts on Muzzleloading

 

by Jeff Quinn

photography by Jeff Quinn

September 26th, 2004

 

 

 

With leaves beginning to fall and hunting seasons upon us, I thought this to be a good time to briefly expound upon the subject of muzzleloading. I get a lot of correspondence on the subject, and within the shooting and hunting sports there seems to be more division amongst hunters on this subject than any other. While I claim no particular expertise on the subject of muzzleloading, I am very familiar with the principles involved, and have been a muzzleloading hunter for many years. I have also had the privilege of hearing arguments on the topic from hunters and from within the firearms industry. This is not going to be an authoritative thesis on muzzleloading, but as the title suggests, just a few of my thoughts and experiences on the matter.

Muzzleloading is one of the more basic forms of shooting, and has been around for centuries. Ever since someone figured out that pouring some powder into a tube that was sealed on one end and placing a heavier object upon that powder charge and lighting it, the expanding gasses of that exploding powder would propel that heavier object with great force from the tube. It must have brought a huge smile upon the face of that first successful shooter! From that time forward, shooters have been trying to improve the system. However, the newest firearms that we have today still operate upon that same basic principle of expanding gasses propelling an object from a tube. Projectiles have changed, powders have changed, and loads are now self-contained and fed from a magazine into the breech, but the principle remains unchanged.

The progress of the muzzleloading rifle is what causes the greatest disagreement among hunters. There are those who do not want other hunters to hunt if the otherís choice of armament differs from their own. Almost all states now have a special muzzleloading only season, and some hunters get all worked up over the use of weapons that seem more progressive than their own. Some hunters like to use a flintlock rifle with a patched round ball cast over an open fire and patched with nothing but pillow ticking and greased with bear fat. Using anything but genuine black powder is an abomination to these fellows, and I understand their position. It is indeed fulfilling to enjoy the hunt this way. It is a connection to our past.

Progressing a little further, many hunters, including myself, like to hunt with a Hawken style percussion fired rifle, using either patched round balls or some type of conical lead bullet. I currently have two different percussion rifles, both fifty-four caliber. One is a rifle that I built from a kit about thirty years ago. It started as a forty-five caliber, but I had it bored and rifled to fifty-four. It is set up to shoot patched round balls, and does this well. My other percussion gun is a Sile Hawken Carbine that I have owned for about twenty years, and is my primary hunting gun for ranges out to about 150 yards during muzzleloading season.

I should clarify the term "percussion". For our purposes here, percussion refers to a muzzleloader that uses a cup-formed percussion cap that is placed upon a nipple, that when smacked by the hammer sends the spark through a small passage into the breech of the weapon, igniting the charge. I clarified this to differentiate this system from the more progressive "inline" system. After all, even modern cartridge rifles use a percussion system to ignite the powder in the brass case, so technically, most all rifles are percussion arms, whether they use percussion caps or metallic primers.

Now we come to the muzzleloaders that comprise the majority of the muzzleloading rifles sold today for hunting; those being referred to as "inline muzzleloaders". Inlines take many forms, from those resembling a break-open single shot shotgun to weapons that are adaptations of a modern bolt action cartridge rifle, sans magazine. Most inlines have a removable breech plug to facilitate easy cleaning, and use shotgun primers as the source of ignition. Inline muzzleloaders also seem to be the guns that cause the most division among hunters. However, the inline system has been around for well over 150 years, and is simply another progression in the line of firearms development.

It seems that the flintlock hunter doesnít want to hunt in the same area as the percussion hunter and the percussion hunter doesnít want to hunt with the inline man. Then comes division over the choice of powder and bullets. I suppose that a hunter could show up with a matchlock rifle and look down upon the more-modern flintlock user. An archer doesnít want to hunt in the same state as a user of any firearm. I suppose that a hunter with a rock and a stick could look down his nose at everyone. My point is that every form of firearm is simply a progression over another system, with no clear place to draw the line. A manís choice of any legal hunting weapon should be his own, and there is room for everyone.

As for the choice of powders, most states allow the use of black powder substitutes, such as Pyrodex, Triple-Seven, Black Mag, Clean Shot, and others. Many hunters will use nothing but black powder, and donít want anything else allowed. Savage really stirred up a hornetís nest a few years ago with the introduction of their inline muzzleloader that uses modern smokeless powder, such as is used in cartridge firearms. They might as well have called the Pope a Godless sinner! There are more heated discussions over this new muzzleloader than with any other topic regarding muzzleloader hunting. We need to keep in mind, however, that smokeless powder is just another black powder substitute. It was invented, as the name implies, to fire without emitting a cloud of smoke. From a military standpoint, this is greatly advantageous, as it does not give away the position of the riflemen or artillery to the enemy. Smokeless powder also contains more energy per grain of powder than does black. If Savage had introduced this rifle with a new powder that was just as powerful, but emitted smoke and fouling upon firing, there would be less controversy.  The Savage system offers the great advantage of more power and minimal fouling, and some shooters will not accept this. Think about it, a muzzleloader is simply a rifle that uses no self-contained cartridge. The breech being sealed, no brass case is needed. Most black powder substitutes are formulated to measure like black powder, while offering improved burn characteristics. Smokeless is no different, except that it measures differently. Its advantages over other black powder substitutes are those of cleaner burning and more power. To a man, every critic, except one, of the Savage 10MLII smokeless muzzleloader has never fired one. Many have never seen one, but still offer criticism of the rifle based upon the powder that it uses. I want to emphasize that the Savage can use black powder and any substitute on the market as well as any rifle, but due to the fact that it can be used with smokeless powder, many hunters want it banned from use during muzzleloading season. Again, these are shooters who have never even fired the rifle. I like the Savage, and have purchased one. It offers greater range, flatter trajectory, more power, and less fouling than any other muzzleloader on the market. I love mine.

Now for the one and only critic of the Savage muzzleloader who has extensively used the rifle; that being Toby Bridges. I have never met Mr. Bridges, but have corresponded with him. He was for years the preeminent proponent of the Savage muzzleloader, and I mention him here only because of recent developments regarding his relationship with that firearm. Recently, Mr. Bridges experienced a catastrophic failure with a Savage muzzleloader using smokeless powder. This concerned me, because I own and use an identical rifle. Mr. Bridges has published this incident on the internet, and is now advising against the use of the Savage, after years of promoting the rifle.

I want to preface my following thoughts on this matter by stating that I have no dog in this fight, and this is just my opinion, after investigating this matter as best as I could. There are, however, a few facts that pertain to the relationship of Toby Bridges and Savage Arms. Mr. Bridges worked for Savage, with the job of testing and promoting the 10MLII muzzleloader. He has fired more rounds through Savage muzzleloaders than anyone to my knowledge. After a few incidents that are none of my business resulted in Mr. Bridges having a falling out with the inventor of the rifle and a run-in with the law, Mr. Bridges also was fired by Savage Arms, for failure to perform his job, and having a really poor attitude.  Shortly thereafter, Mr. Bridges suddenly had a 10ML blow up while he was supposedly testing it. The gun was utterly destroyed, but the shooter was not scratched.  He was supposedly shooting a safe load in the gun; one which in fact I have exceeded many times. Now Mr. Bridges declares the Savage unsafe. This is, keep in mind, after he was let go by Savage Arms. I have seen pictures of the destroyed rifle. There is no way short of a divine miracle that someone could have been sitting behind that rifle with his cheek pressed to the stock, and have not been seriously injured. My opinion, and it is worth what you paid for it, is that the gun was intentionally blown up.

Now let us move on to more productive topics, such as propellants and projectiles for muzzleloaders.

In my Mountain Rifle, I prefer a .530 inch round ball cast from pure lead and loaded over a charge of Goex Ffg black. It is a combination that works very well in that rifle, and I see no need to try another.

In my Sile Carbine, I like the Lee REAL bullet, lubed and loaded over 130 grains of Pyrodex equivalent, or Ffg black. The REAL bullet weighs 380 grains cast from pure lead, and really hammers game hard. This little rifle is fitted with a two-power pistol scope with a lighted dot reticle, mounted on the barrel. While not traditional, it is very effective in thick timber and low light conditions.

This Sile carbine is the subject of an ongoing experiment. Back about 1990, if my memory serves me correctly, Ox-Yoke Products came out with a new muzzleloading lubricant called Wonder Lube 1000, and was quickly marketed also by Thompson/Center as Natural Lube 1000. The premise behind this product was that it contained no petroleum, which made the fouling much softer. Petroleum, when mixed with black powder fouling, makes for a hard residue that builds up in the bore, and must be removed frequently. The claim was that there was no need to clean between shots, and that the Natural Lube seasoned the bore, much like seasoning a cast iron skillet. Cooks know that a well-seasoned piece of cast iron will not rust, and even burned food rinses out easily. I had become accustomed to the ritual of daily cleaning my muzzleloader with soap and hot water, followed by a generous dousing of a rust preventative lubricant, as had most muzzleloading hunters. Every day during hunting season, after a long day of hunting, I would come home, fire the gun, and spend the better part of an hour cleaning the thing. I knew that the fur trappers and mountain men had neither the provision nor desire to daily empty their weapon and clean it. I also knew that leaving their rifles unloaded in bear and hostile Indian territory was not an option. They used their rifles daily, and animal fat was their only lubricant, yet there is no historical record of their weapons rusting beyond the point of being useful. During the first few years of using the Sile carbine, even after carefully treating it for storage in the off season, it would need a new nipple every year, and I would find that the fire channel had to be cleaned out, no matter how well I had doused the gun with rust preventative.  I decided to give the Natural Lube a try.  Now, after fourteen years of never cleaning that rifle, it will fire off each season just like a new gun. Allow me to clarify that: I have not cleaned that muzzleloader in fourteen years. I use it each season, leave it loaded all season, but never clean it. I use the Natural Lube on the REAL bullets, but that is it. One year I even left it loaded until the following season. After being loaded for almost a full year, it fired without a hitch. I do not suggest that anyone go fourteen years without cleaning any gun. I regularly clean all of my guns. I will however hunt with the carbine again this year, but it will not be cleaned. After hundreds of shots fired through it and fourteen years of field use, it still fires off perfectly each season. It is still an ongoing experiment. The Natural Lube 1000 works, and works well.

Moving on to my Savage 10MLII, there are a couple of different projectiles that I prefer. I really like the Hornady 250 grain SST bullet, as well as the Powerbelt 245 grain Aero. Both of these projectiles are very aerodynamic for a muzzleloader bullet, and offer flat trajectories and great terminal performance. I also like the Barnes X bullet, but have not yet tested it on game. Hornady has introduced a new sabot that is made to hold propellant pellets onto the base. Called the Lock-N-Load, it holds either Pyrodex or Triple-Seven pellets from Hodgdon. The pellets slide onto the base of the sabot, held by a stem that can be trimmed to suit the preferred powder charge. It is a great system, allowing the fastest reload possible. The Hodgdon pellets are available in both .45 and .50 caliber, in weights of 30 and 50 grains equivalent to black. Using different combinations of pellets, I tested loads with charge weights of 50,60,80,90,100,110,120,130, and 150 grains. The velocities with these Triple-Seven pellets was linear and predictable as charge weights increased, from a low of 1196 feet-per-second with one fifty-grain pellet to almost 2000 fps with three fifty-grain pellets attached to the Lock-N-Load sabot, using the 250 grain SST bullet. The Lock-N-Load can also be used with any powder by trimming off the stem, and it loads much easier than Hornadyís black sabot in my Savage. The Powerbelt bullet uses no sabot, but has a skirt attached to the base to provide a primary seal. Upon firing, the lead bullet bumps up to seal the bore and grip the rifling. With 44 grains of Hodgdon LilíGun powder, the 245 grain Powerbelt leaves the muzzle at almost 2300 fps, with good consistency and accuracy. It is also very easy to load. LilíGun is my powder of choice in the Savage. It is not listed in Savageís data with the 10MLII, but offers fine performance.

Well, there you have it; my thoughts on muzzleloading today. Even after about 500 years, muzzleloading shows no signs of becoming obsolete. In fact, it is still a growing sport.

For more information on the products mentioned above, look to their respective websites:

 Jeff Quinn

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Click pictures for a larger version.

 

Author's favorite muzzleloading rifles (left-right): .54 caliber Mountain Rifle that Jeff built from a kit some 30-odd years ago; Sile .54 caliber Hawken carbine; Savage 10MLII smokeless muzzleloader. These rifles represent a good cross-section of muzzleloading rifles seen today, from a "traditional" percussion-cap rifle to a more modern version with scope, and to the most modern muzzleloader available today. These rifles also represent the author's view that muzzleloading rifles are both links to our past and practical hunting tools, and that all have their place in the muzzleloading world.

 

 

Some of the most welcome advances (at least to the author) in muzzleloading technology are the modern powders available to today's muzzleloaders. Modern powders are cleaner-burning, more stable, and quicker and easier to store, measure and use. Shown are Hodgdon's 777 pellets in 50-grain and 30-grain pre-measured charges.

 

 

Various charges of 777 pellets on Hornady's Lock-N-Load sabots with 250 grain SST bullets (left-right): 50,60,80,90,100,110,120,130,150 grain charges. Such innovations make muzzleloading quicker, easier and safer.

 

 

Another breakthrough in muzzleloading technology was Savage's introduction of muzzleloading rifles with the ability to use modern smokeless powders. Jeff particularly likes Hodgdon's Lil'Gun powder in the Savage gun.

 

 

Hornady's SST bullets and "Lock-n-Load" sabots are great innovations for the modern muzzleloading hunter.

 

 

The performance of Hornady's SST bullets can be seen in this example, recovered from the carcass of a large Russian boar. The bullet performed perfectly, showing textbook expansion and maximum weight retention, and dropped the boar in his tracks. An unfired bullet is shown on the left for comparison.

 

 

Powerbelt's Aero bullets are hard-hitting, fast and accurate. The plastic skirt attached to the base provides a very effective seal without a sabot.

 

 

Lee's REAL bullets have long been among Jeff's favorites.

 

 

Even bullet lubrication technology has improved to help make the muzzleloading hunter's life easier, as exemplified by Thompson-Center's Natural Lube 1000.

 

 

Author's Sile .54 is the subject of an experiment by the author demonstrating that conventional wisdom is not always law. Through fourteen years of seasonal use with no cleaning, this rifle remains as reliable and accurate as ever.