Why Blackpowder?

If romancing the mountain-man era doesn't work for you, then the challenge of hunting with an iffy single-shot firearm during special big-game seasons may be why you'll like muzzleloader hunting.

by Ed Park

One of the more colorful periods in American history was the fur-trapping era, which ended about 1840 when fashion trends switched abruptly from beaver-pelt to silk-top hats. Fortunately, history has been kind to the mountain men who trudged the traplines.

Those early mountaineers searched the Western Frontier for beaver and other furbearers. They trapped, wrestled with weather and wildlife, fought or mingled with Indians, and survived on woods savvy, trusting their instincts and their muzzleloading rifles. At rendezvous held each spring, trappers traded pelts for the next season's supplies. Such rendezvous also featured various competitions, renewing friendships, and the telling of tales that were even wilder than reality.

That mountain man spirit is kept alive today at rendezvous held by those who enjoy the smell of blackpowder smoke, the feel of buckskin clothing, and their own tales - some real, most imagined. Rendezvous names temporarily replace legal names. I've swapped lies with Sagebrush, Tight-ball, Front-zight, Bullfrog and others. They call me Coyote because of my superb hunting skills and great survival instincts, and not - as the uncouth would tell you- because I'm flea-bitten, will eat anything that doesn't eat me first, and howl at the moon.

While many enjoy this glamorized tie with the mountain man image, their preference for hunting with a less-efficient weapon is difficult to explain. Well over 100 years ago cartridges made muzzleloaders obsolete. Cartridge rifles were more accurate and much faster to load. Repeaters allow rapid follow-up shots.

Why hunt with an old-fashioned firearm that takes half a day to reload, and just might not even go off when you want it to? One reason is because of expanded hunting opportunities, as most states have special big-game hunts for those who carry muzzleloaders.

How limited are muzzleloaders? They are true one-shot weapons. I've noted from observing casual target matches that unhurried shooters reload in about 27.4 seconds. In timed events, where all supplies are laid out and readily available, and where speed influences the final score, reloading times average 14.8 seconds. During a hunt, where a dumber-than-average buck just stands there after being missed by the first shot, a veteran muzzleloader hunter will get off his second shot sometime next week. In other words, concentrate on making your only shot do the job.

All of the above refers to traditional weapons using loose blackpowder, patched round balls or conical bullets, and percussion caps - the same stuff used by the mountain men of the early 19th century.

But modern men are no less inventive than those who invented cartridges, although restricted by regulations that specify rifles be " . . . loaded from the muzzle . . . " To improve muzzleloaders, they concentrated on such aspects as powders, bullets, percussion caps, ignition systems and sights.

Photo by Ed Park

Today, in addition to traditional loose blackpowder firearms, we have replica powders and powders in pellet form. The most common replica powder is Hodgdon's Pyrodex, which comes in powdered and pellet forms.

Jacketed conical bullets greatly outperform the traditional patched round ball. Plastic sleeves (sabots) allow the use of smaller, faster bullets in rifles of larger caliber, and there's even a newer version yet, introduced in the year 2000 with a snap-on polymer fitting that outperforms even sabots. Since traditional percussion caps don't always furnish enough spark to ignite the powder, some modern rifles accept shotgun-style primers.

The traditional side-lock muzzleloader, with its familiar hammers and ignition systems featuring a right-angle bend for the spark to go around, have given way in many areas to in-line systems that are faster and surer. Covers and rifle bolt breeches keep rain and snow from coming into contact with pelletized powders.

Many muzzleloader rifles today are topped with glow-in-the-dark polymer sights, and others have telescopic sights, allowing far more accurate shooting than with guns having only iron sights.

All these improvements - in-line actions, pelletized powders, sabot and other modernized bullets, primers and optical sights - have turned modern muzzleloaders into highly efficient hunting weapons. Technology and innovation has transformed the traditional blackpowder rifle - iffy with its wet-prone powder, round ball and open sights - from the limitations of 100-yard shots into highly efficient, 200-yard game getters.

Since all these improvements increase a hunter's chances for success, this is good.

Or is it? Some state wildlife departments are questioning why they should authorize special big-game seasons for muzzleloader hunters when there's now little difference between a modern muzzleloader and a single-shot cartridge gun?"

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife officials noted a marked increase in the use of modern muzzleloading rifles directly coincided with an increase in game harvest, which threatened the department's elk and deer management objectives. To keep harvest within management goals, Oregon hunters had to choose between a decrease in hunting opportunities (fewer tags and fewer or shorter seasons) and equipment restrictions.

Hunters opted to limit the technology, according to the ODFW survey, and the state's regulations were amended to reflect a strong leaning back toward traditional means. Basically, in-lines are still legal to use during Oregon's muzzleloader-only seasons, but they cannot carry riflescopes or other light-enhanced sights, and pelletized powders or centerfire primers are illegal.

Therefore, in deciding which muzzleloading rifle you buy and use, the number-one consideration is the legal requirements in the states you intend to hunt. Also at least consider possible future regulation changes. It's entirely possible that what is legal today, will be illegal down the line.

Nationwide, regulations vary widely and there are too many differing regulations to list them all, but we can use the three Pacific states of California, Oregon and Washington as examples. Each of those states host muzzleloader-only big-game seasons for deer, and Washington and Oregon have them for elk as well.

In California, legal muzzleloader rifles are

of the wheel lock, matchlock, flintlock or percussion varieties of at least .40 caliber, with iron sights, and loaded from the muzzle using blackpowder or Pyrodex and a single ball or bullet. California has not made any changes recently and does not anticipate making any significant changes soon.

On the other hand, Oregon recently made major changes. Beginning last year, a muzzleloader for the special hunts must be: a sidelock, under-hammer, top-hammer, or mule-ear percussion; a sidelock flintlock; or a wheel lock. It must have open ignition (exposed to the weather) and open or peep sights. Scopes, fiber optic and various other sights are not allowed. The only legal projectiles are round balls or conical bullets no longer than twice the diameter. It is illegal to hunt with or even possess jacketed bullets, sabots, bullets with plastic or synthetic bases, centerfire primers or pelletized powders. Oregon requires a .40 caliber or larger for deer, and .50 caliber or larger for elk.

In Washington, a legal muzzleloader can be a rifled or smoothbore wheel lock, matchlock, flintlock or percussion firearm having one or two barrels (although only one barrel may be loaded) at least 20 inches long, loaded from the muzzle with black powder or a substitute and a single non-jacketed lead projectile of nominal .40 caliber for deer or .50 caliber for other big game. It must use original-style percussion caps that are exposed to the weather. The sights must be open or peep; no scopes or glass allowed.

There are other restrictions in each state, and different regulations for muzzleloaders used in general seasons, so consult the official regulations booklets for details.

Based on just the California, Oregon and Washington regulations, a rifle legal in all three states for all big game, must have a single barrel at least 20 inches long; be a wheel-lock, flintlock or percussion rifle of at least .50 caliber; be loaded from the muzzle, using loose blackpowder or Pyrodex and a single lead round ball or non-jacketed conical bullet that is no longer than twice its diameter. The ignition system must be open to the weather and use traditional percussion caps. The sights must be iron.

Actually, that describes an excellent choice for a big-game muzzleloader. The only major change I would suggest is to get a .54-caliber gun - especially where there are restrictions on bullet types - because of the nature of ballistics.

Because they are familiar with calibers such as the popular .30/06, those unfamiliar with muzzleloaders might think that .54 caliber sounds huge. However, few shapes are less ballistically efficient than is a sphere. A well-designed 150-grain bullet leaves the muzzle of an '06 at 2,900 feet per second and is still buzzing along at 2,100 fps at 300 yards; a .45-caliber round ball weighing about 20 grains less than that 150-grain bullet fired from the '06 leaves the muzzle at only about 2,000 fps and fades to less than 1,000 fps at 100 yards. The '06 has about 2,300 foot-pounds of energy at 100 yards, while your hot .45 round ball generates a piddling 350 foot-pounds.

Since muzzleloaders don't generate high velocity, their projectiles must be large to develop adequate killing power. Round balls are not very heavy when compared with modern high-powered rifle bullets of the same caliber.

A modern .32-caliber (8mm) hunting bullet will weigh from 150 to 225 grains, but a .32-caliber round ball weighs only 45 grains. The big .45 calibers in modern rifles (.458) shoot bullets weighing 300 to 510 grains, while the .45-caliber round ball weighs only 130 grains.

Therefore, to generate adequate energy, we need larger calibers. Only when we get to .50 caliber and larger do round balls qualify as dependable hunting loads for big game.

A .50-caliber round ball weighs about 175 grains, the .54 about 225 and the .58 about 280. Even then, at common muzzleloader muzzle velocities, we have muzzle energy figures of only 700 to 1,200 foot-pounds. Compare that with the muzzle energies of modern rifles such as the little .222 (1,200), the .243 (2,000), the .30/30 (2,000), or the .30/06 (2,900).

But very little game is killed at the muzzle, and out yonder, at killing ranges, we see an even greater difference. The little .222 bullet starts out with a muzzle energy of about 1,200 foot-pounds; by 100 yards this energy is still over 900. By contrast, a hot load in a strong .50-caliber muzzleloader will develop muzzle energy of about 1,500 foot-pounds, but at 100 yards that inefficient round ball will have shed most of its energy and generate only about 500. The momentum of a round ball figuratively dies with distance, so to obtain efficient kills with a muzzleloader the bullet must be large.

Before leaving this subject, I need to make two points: (1.) I'm addressing beginning or average hunters. In the hands of experts, who have the ability to stalk close and are calm when shooting at game, smaller calibers are OK. Bullet placement is the key. (2.) Conical bullets are more efficient than are round balls, and you can logically generate 100-yard energy figures approaching or even over 1,000 foot-pounds if you use the larger calibers.

Since even the hottest load in a muzzleloader is not all that powerful, the key to hunting success is bullet placement, and since there are many variables in muzzleloading, accuracy is learned by trial and error.

Begin with one combination of type of powder, powder charge, patching, lubricant, projectile and percussion cap, and work from there. Change one variable at a time, and keep experimenting until you get what you want.

Never use anything except blackpowder or some approved replica such as Pyrodex. Black powder comes in various granulations: Fg is the coarsest and is used in cannons and the larger calibers, such as .75. FFg is recommended for the .50, .54, and .58 calibers. FFFg is used in calibers from about .50 on down. FFFFg is the finest and is usually used only as the priming powder in flintlocks. Consider each brand and each granulation to be a separate variable, as there are differences in the performance between brands, and with granulations.

Hodgdon's Pyrodex comes in CTG (cartridge), RS (rifle/shotgun) and P (pistol). Use RS for your muzzleloading rifle.

To determine the best powder charge, begin with a light charge and work up. A good starting point is the weight in grains equal to the caliber (50 grains of powder in a .50-caliber gun). Under no circumstances should you exceed the maximum charge recommended for your gun by the manufacturer.

Start with either round balls or conical bullets and stick with one until you have wrung it out through all the other variables. Round balls come in slightly different sizes. For example, for a .54-caliber rifle you can buy round balls measuring .530 or .535. Pick one and use it with patches of varying thickness, types of lubrication and powder charges. Then switch to another projectile and go through the whole process again.

Stick with one brand of p

ercussion cap through the various other changes. With all these variables, keep records about what you did and the results, until you learn which combination works best in your rifle. Sometimes merely changing the type of patching, or lubrication, will alter the accuracy significantly.

Along the way, from reading or talking with others, you'll learn about other refinements that will help your hunting. When it comes to actually using your muzzleloader, nothing beats practice.

If you are serious about muzzleloaders, check out two organizations: The National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association, P.O. Box 67, Friendship, IN 47021, (812) 667-5131, www.nmlra.org; and the International Blackpowder Hunting Association, P.O. Box 1180, Glenrock, WY 82637, (307) 436-9817, www. blackpowderhunting.org. Their specialty magazines, both articles and ads, will assist your learning.

When actually hunting, learn to get close to your game, and then try to get closer. One of the true measures of a hunter's skill is his stalking ability. Before shooting, remember that the muzzleloader is definitely a one-shot firearm. In very few cases will you be able to reload in time to get a second shot.

There are many answers to the question of why some of us prefer to hunt with muzzleloaders, and usually the answer has to do with each individual's personal philosophy. Some hunt with muzzleloaders because of the special seasons that allow more opportunities for quality hunting, and we value quality hunting time over ensured success.

For others, hunting with muzzleloaders is one small way of keeping alive the romance and history of an earlier time - when hunting was a major part of everyone's lives, food on the table came from the gun, explorers looked at new country, and trappers and pioneers survived by luck, and wits, and the ability to shoot their faithful muzzleloaders.

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