August 24, 2022
With some basic tools and woodworking skills, you can start building a muzzleloader now and complete it in time for most Western blackpowder seasons.
For this build, I chose Traditions’ Kentucky Rifle Kit (.50-caliber flintlock), ordered from muzzle-loaders.com. I chose a flintlock so that it could be used in any state, and while purists might be quick to point out that it differs from true Kentucky rifles, in my mind it’s a great mountain rifle–light, short and nimble. With a 33 1/2-inch barrel, it weighs just 6 pounds, 9 ounces.
When the kit arrives, the first thing to do is open the box, remove all the parts and roughly pre-assemble the rifle. Most kits come with the wood 95 percent inlet, so the parts are not going to fit perfectly, but a pre-assembly shows the work required. Do this with a notebook at hand and write down the necessary steps in order: Fit the lock to the stock with chisels. Grind the forend of the trigger guard to fit it to the channel. Shape the stock with sandpaper. Remove wood from the barrel channel and at the breech.
BLUING OR BROWNING?
In the old days, barrels were protected with bluing or browning processes according to the fashion of the era and the whim of the builder. Guns were built to order, and a buyer might opt to leave a barrel "in the white" to cut costs. Depending on the build and the desired effect, a person might opt for a cold blue or a plum brown. There are a lot of opinions on the muzzleloading forums. Self-proclaimed experts pontificate about which techniques are historically accurate and which are not, and how to achieve the best blue or the best brown. A new builder should consider them all, but there is no one "right" way to finish a barrel.
FIT AND FINISH
Working on the flintlock during evenings and weekends, I invested about 30 hours to complete the build. However, a working gun can typically be completed in 15 hours or less. The more time spent shaping the stock to the cheek, slimming down the forend, polishing the metal and pre-fitting the screws provides higher satisfaction in the finished product.
When working on a gun, I assemble and disassemble it over and over again to make sure the trigger fits just right and the lock is neither too tight nor too loose. When removing wood, be mindful about working slowly. Often, the trigger guard comes a little too long for the inletting. When deciding between removing wood and removing metal, remember that it almost always works better to file down the metal. An inch of brass goes away in 15 minutes with the right file.
When the barrel drops into the channel, there should be the same amount of space on each side. Look at it long and hard from different angles in good light.
FINISHING THE STOCK
Take time to visualize how the rifle will look. Many different types of finishes were used in the old days, and modern formulations can recreate the old fashions while providing next-level protection against the elements. A hunter might want a deep-gloss sheen, a satin finish or a patina exuding the aura of rugged reliability.
After finishing several guns in rusty walnut and gloss, my taste runs to dark walnut, and I might put less lacquer on the gun and maybe even mar the carefully sanded stock with a few whacks from a crowbar. Hey, a gun like this is made to be used and should look the part.
Shooting a .50-caliber muzzleloader for the first time, I tend toward a load of 80 grains of FFFg blackpowder (or a substitute like Triple Seven or Pyrodex) and a patched round ball. The ball, sized at .490, seats against the powder in a small patch cut at the muzzle. Start the ball down with a short starter rod, then finish with the ramrod. For a flintlock, use FFFFg (a finer powder) to prime the pan.
Whether using a percussion gun or a flinter, experiment with different combinations to end up with a hunting charge of somewhere between 80 and 100 grains. Wipe the barrel with a patch between shots. Shoot for accuracy on a bench with the rifle rested. Final adjustments to fixed sights can be made with a brass drift and file.
Muzzleloaders can be quite accurate, but many are not. "Every mistake you make shows up on the target," as the old-timers say. Eliminate mistakes by pre-assembling the rifle and reassembling it throughout the process of inletting the barrel, filing down the forend cap, if necessary, and installing the barrel furniture and the lock with care.
The author’s daughter hits paydirt with a kit gun.
My daughter Mikayla built her blackpowder gun last July and took a record-book pronghorn with it in late August. It took about a month to finish the kit, which left enough time for two sessions at the range to develop a load of 80 grains of blackpowder to drive a 275-grain lubed conical bullet. We developed ballistics data for shots at 50, 75 and 100 yards.
On the second day of the hunt, we gathered the bones of a wild horse to build a sagebrush blind. Four hours into the sit, a big buck led a herd of does into range. Mikayla dropped the book she was reading, scooped up the gun and killed a buck that will make the muzzleloader record book.