In this post we take a look at some traditional muzzleloader rifles. We also cover all the accessories you need to go with it, by that we mean all the bits and pieces required to make a muzzleloader actually work. As we do all of this, we’ll cover the basics of muzzleloading so the aspiring traditional shooter will have all the information they need to buy and operate their first muzzleloader. If that isn’t enough, we’ll also layer on some hunting specific information wherever applicable.
And relax… While it’s true muzzleloaders are more complicating than our modern cartridge guns, it’s nowhere near as hard as most people think. There’s also nothing to be intimidated by so let’s get started.
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- Note to Hunters: I Grant You An Extended Deer Season!
- The Traditional Muzzleloader Rifle
- Flintlock vs Caplock
- An Original Plains Rifle
- A Reproduction Hawken
- Traditional Muzzleloader Bullets
- Traditional Muzzleloader Propellent
- Accessories for Traditional Muzzleloaders
- How Do You Load a Traditional Muzzleloader?
- How Do You Unload a Traditional Muzzleloader?
- How Do You Clean a Traditional Muzzleloader?
- Traditional Muzzleloader Shooting
- Purchase the Items in this Post
Note to Hunters: I Grant You An Extended Deer Season!
Actually no, I can’t do that. But a muzzleloader can! As I write this, it so happens to be right after the end of the most coveted of hunting seasons: the 2 week gun season for deer. At least here in Ontario, particularly in WMU 60 which is one the biggest and busiest zones. Seems like just yesterday everyone was in that exciting pre-season preparation mode. Then the deer season came and went. But what if you didn’t fill your tag?
Like other provinces (states if you are in the US), there is a blackpowder season. WMU 60 by example, starts on December 5th which is perfect as its post gun season. When most folks have gone home, in comes a much quieter and more peaceful hunt: muzzleloading. It’s catching on more and more but there is still an opportunity to get into it while it’s not as popular as the regular gun season. Muzzleloading is particularly of value if bow shooting just isn’t for you – which happens to be the only other way to extend the deer season.
The Traditional Muzzleloader Rifle
Rather than always look forward and chasing the latest and greatest in guns, which never ends by the way, what is often most fascinating is going the other way. Travelling backwards in time! Yes, there’s more skill required to shoot a traditional muzzleloader. There’s also more gear and the need for a possibles bag.
And yes, at about 2 shots a minute, one also really begins to appreciate each and every shot a bit better. Making the shooter a better one over time. On top of all of this, there’s a sheer beauty in that old world, hand made craftsmanship of a 150+ year old gun. The modern reproductions aren’t too shabby either!
Flintlock vs Caplock
One of the biggest decisions when looking for a traditional muzzleloader is its ignition system. We’ll leave the matchlock and wheel lock to the museum as it has no real use here. Flintlocks are very viable guns and reproductions are made to this day. In fact a flintlock original (or even new reproduction) gun in Canada requires no permit. You also don’t need a PAL for a caplock, but only if it’s an antique gun meaning it must be of pre 1898 manufacture.
The flintlock was developed in the early 16th century. That’s not old school nor vintage, we are talking 500 years old here! On a trigger pull, the “hammer” which now holds the flint strikes a metal frizzen. This basically opens the frizzen while simultaneously dropping hot sparks into the pan below. The powder in the pan burns, sending fire through the touch hole which ignites the main charge in the bore. The gun goes boom and target shooter is happy, or the hunter has a harvest. It works to this day and is a viable option.
Note: The powder for the main charge is different than the powder in the priming pan. We’ll cover powders below but it’s time to address this here when comparing to a caplock.
All my muzzleloaders are caplock and it’s hands down my recommendation for anyone new to traditional muzzleloader shooting. It’s not that I don’t care for flintlocks, I would LOVE one but haven’t come across one I like. It’s also one of those guns that’s nice to have, but should probably come second after acquiring a caplock.
By caplock, we are talking about percussion cap ignition and that means there is no pan, no extra powder to deal with, no frizzen and no flint! Caplocks use a tiny little cap that goes on a nipple. On a trigger pull, the hammer hits the cap and the gun goes boom. It superseded the flintlock for simplicity, reliability and speed of lock. Speed of lock meaning speed of the ignition process and it’s perhaps the biggest improvement over flintlocks. Flintlocks are slower than caplocks which makes target shooting and hunting a lot more challenging.
An Original Plains Rifle
Pictured is the first real gun I ever paid money for. It’s just gorgeous with its tiger maple stock, heavy barrel and old school detail. It was made sometime between 1830-1856 and it’s quite accurate to this day. In fact it’s easily accurate enough to hunt with. That’s pretty impressive for a 170+ year old gun!
The big question when buying an original or vintage rifle is its condition. Here’s what to look for:
- Is there any pitting or rust in the bore?
- Does the trigger and all lock parts work?
- Does the breech plug come out?
- Does the nipple come out?
- Do you have a gunsmith knowledgeable of traditional muzzleloaders? – NOT to be overlooked
The biggest issue with black powder is it needs to be cleaned immediately after use. We’ll cover that later but a neglected gun is a whole new level of neglected in comparison to smokeless. It can cause some severe pitting. On this plains rifle in particular, the breech plug was free which is rare and so was the nipple. Nipples will need replacement at some point and removing them before cleaning really aids in the process. While a bad bore is really bad news, a stuck breech plug or nipple can generally be repaired.
With an Original Traditional Muzzleloader, Get the Gunsmith!
This plains rifle came with a weak spring and it didn’t have enough strength to fire the cap. So the gun ended up at a gunsmith the very next day after purchase. The issue was made known by the vendor but it’s an effort and cost consideration I was willing to make based on the excellent overall condition of this traditional muzzleloader. These are bridges you will have to cross if you take the original rifle route.
The problem in general with really old guns is that there are usually no parts available. There isn’t even a lookup for a lot of them. Back in the day the gun market was also serviced by several smaller gun makers. It’s not like today when there are 10 million plus Remington 870s floating around and so on.
A competent gunsmith is really required on an original muzzleloader and he or she needs the skills to make (or modify what parts are out there) to fit and work in your gun. This requires time, patience and of course, money. An original rifle is always nice to have as part of your traditional muzzleloader options, I just wouldn’t start there. My recommendation is to the start with a new or slightly used reproduction model.
Danger: Any vintage rifle should be checked by a competent gunsmith before being put into service. Shotguns that are Damascus steel should not be fired at all.
A Reproduction Hawken
Pictured is a reproduction of the famous Hawken rifle. This particular model by Investarm is from 1979 but it can pass as being a year old. It must not have been used much as the bore is mint. It’s easily accurate enough to shoot into a 2″ circle at 30 yards. Past that, it gets really hard seeing the circle in the iron sights.
Tip: Many if not most traditional muzzleloaders are more accurate than their shooter’s capability! Focus on getting something a bit newer and mastering your skills. Then trust your gun to do its job.
This Hawken reproduction is substantially shorter, lighter, more reliable and more accurate with better sights when comparing to the original plains rifle above. In fact, it feels great and instills confidence almost like shooting a center fire smokeless gun. This makes for perfect candidacy as a hunting rifle!
Traditional Muzzleloader Bullets
So when we speak bullets, we picture or expect a cartridge. A bullet is really the projectile that comes out of the gun.
Traditional muzzleloaders shoot patched round balls – imagine a mini canon. The lubed patch around the ball seals it against the bore and the lube helps prevent fouling. The round ball suits the slow twist rate of traditional muzzleloaders. And for reference, any time we say traditional muzzleloader, we are referring to guns that are old originals OR new reproductions.
You don’t want to do the math on ballistics, it’s not really good with a round ball:) But don’t discount the round ball’s hunting ability. It hits deader than dead at the right distance.
Bullets for Hunting with a Traditional Muzzleloader
Sabots, powerbelts and all the other newer bullets are reserved for modern inline muzzleloaders. Their higher twist rates can stabilize the bullet. Not to mention the only bullet that should be used in a traditional rifle is pure lead. There are however some options for the traditional muzzleloader in the form of lead conicals (or maxi-balls). They don’t require patches and they hit harder than round balls making them a great hunting option. That’s of course if your Hunting Emotions are in check.
What is the Most Common Caliber For A Traditional Muzzleloader?
The most common caliber for a traditional muzzleloader is .50 cal. Also popular is .45 and .54, both of which suit big game.
What Range Can You Hunt Using A Traditional Muzzleloader?
The maximum recommended range is 100 yards. Traditional muzzleloading is not viable for long range hunting.
The bullet is actually a bit smaller than the bore diameter of the rifle. For example:
- A .54 caliber gun shoots a patched .530 cal round ball
- A .50 caliber gun would shoot a .490 cal bullet
If you really get into traditional muzzleloaders, you may even want to learn how to cast your own bullets. Oddly, it’s actually not that difficult and only requires a couple small tools!
Traditional Muzzleloader Propellent
If someone were to ask what is the best propellent for a muzzleloader? My answer is always the real deal: genuine black powder.
Black Powder Comes in Various Granulations:
|Fg||Course||Cannons, Rifles Over .75 cal|
|FFFg||Fine||Under .50 cal|
|FFFFg||Extra Fine||Priming Powder for Flintlocks|
Danger: FFFFg or extra fine is NEVER to be used as the main charge. It is for priming purposes only.
Some of the bigger black powder brands are GOEX, Swiss and Schuetzen. Personally, I’ve always used GOEX and even love their made in the US since 1802 story. There are some alternatives like Hogdon’s Pyrodex but I can’t speak to it as I’ve never tried it. Call me a purist but if shooting a traditional muzzleloader, let’s use the real stuff it was meant to shoot all along.
Danger: NEVER, NEVER, NEVER use smokeless powder in a muzzleloader. Smokeless pressures are much higher and serious injury or death may occur.
Keep Your Powder Dry and Your Traditional Muzzleloader Clean!!!
There are a couple downsides to black powder, well potentially a couple depending on how you look at it. One is smoke and believe me there is a lot of it! Personally I love it, it’s part of the fun of shooting a traditional muzzleloader. By downside, the smoke makes for some difficulty in the follow through as it’s often hard to immediately see your target after shooting. It’s not a big deal but its takes a little getting used to.
The second and really big downside is that black powder is hygroscopic. Ie. It absorbs water! That old saying “keep your powder dry” means exactly that as it won’t work wet. It causes a secondary problem which comes after shooting: corrosion. The fouling if left behind will rust out your gun very quickly. You ALWAYS need to clean your gun as soon as you are done any black powder shooting.
Accessories for Traditional Muzzleloaders
Yes, there’s a lot of them. Now that we sorted out the gun, bullets and powder, it’s time to look at all the other pieces to make it all work. Don’t skip this section, you NEED these things.
Horn / Dispenser
Black powder usually comes in plastic jugs and with its wide opening, it can be pretty hard to pour out of. Nor do you want to carry around a 1 LB plastic jug… There are a million different, purpose built, powder horn or brass flasks to store your powder for the range or your hunt. I use a brass flask with a push button valve. It has a fine spout on the end which makes it easy to get the powder into the powder measure.
Danger: NEVER pour black powder from your jug or dispenser into your rifle. Especially on a reload. If there are any embers or sparks, the container will become a bomb. Always load your rifle from a powder measure.
Next you’ll need a method to actually measure the amount of black powder for your load. Black powder is measured in grains – but by volume not weight. I use a brass powder measure myself that is adjustable from 0 – 120 grains. For the .50 cal Hawken rifle above, by example, a typical load is around 70 grains with a patched round ball.
You will need to fiddle with different loads to see what your gun prefers for the best balance in power and accuracy. The beauty of traditional muzzleloaders is you can fiddle with your charge and each shot is basically like your own hand load. It’s not too finicky whether adding more or less powder. However, do READ YOUR MANUAL for maximum safe loads!
Tip: You’ll also notice brass as a recurring theme with accessories – but most people don’t know why!!! Brass will NOT SPARK which is important considering anytime you pour an explosive load into your gun, it’s potentially rubbing against a hard steel muzzle.
Ball Starter, Ramrod, Jag and Bullet Puller
After measuring and pouring your powder down the muzzle, next comes the ball. I usually put a lubed patch right over the muzzle and get the ball into the middle of it by hand. Next comes the ball starter’s short end to get it just past the muzzle and then its long end to get it down a little farther.
To fully seat the bullet, you use a ramrod. Every gun comes with one built in but I like to have a separate brass ramrod for loading when target shooting. The brass one is also for cleaning with brushes and a jag.
As to “bullet puller”, it is exactly what is says. A bullet pulling ramrod attachment. Just in case anything goes wrong such as forgetting to put the powder in before the bullet. Before you laugh and write someone off as a moron, “dry balling” happens to all of us at some point. So keep a bullet puller handy!
Tip / Danger: The ball ALWAYS needs to sit right on top of the powder when loading. If not, you’ve created a very deadly pipe bomb. Once again I’ll say relax here. While all this may seem scary at first, traditional muzzleloaders are very safe. Seat the ball and you’ll be fine and ask for help if in doubt. It’s also good practice to mark your ramrod on a typical load so you have a point of reference in future.
Caps / Flint and Tools
Most rifles use a #11 percussion cap. They generally come in 100 quantity packs and aren’t overly expensive. What can be challenging is stock so if you see them, buy them! Suggested is that you always have a spare nipple or two for your gun and a must is a nipple wrench.
Flintlocks are more complicating. You’ll need spare flint(s), a fancy leather holder for your spares, sharpening tools, FFFFg priming powder and a separate powder dispenser. The powder dispenser is a lot smaller than that of the main charge.
You will also need really fine picks to clean the nipple passage or touch hole. For this you can buy a various sized, welding tip cleaning set for a few bucks.
Patches, Lots of Patches!!!
The patches I use are round and good for .45, .50 and .54 caliber. That makes it easy if you have multiple guns. The more you buy in bulk, the cheaper it is and you’ll find substantial savings. Traditional muzzleloaders get really dirty from black powder shooting! If you don’t go through the patches in shooting, you will on cleaning.
Authentic shooters will carry around patch material called pillow ticking and they cut it themselves with a patch knife. It’s a cool concept but harder to come across. There are however some pre-cut (often lubed) pillow ticking patches available. This gives you a really nice patch without the hassle of cutting your own.
Bore Butter – The Traditional Muzzleloader’s Best Friend
Some folks like to moisten their patches in their mouth before shooting. I just use bore butter:) Bore butter is all natural and helps prevent fouling in the barrel. I always run a clean dry patch in between shots. It’s not technically necessary and you’ll know when you have too much fouling as the ball gets harder to seat with the ramrod. Over time you’ll get an idea of how many shots you can get in before needing a dry patch. Bore butter really does allow you to get in more shots without having to remove the fouling.
After a cleaning, I always used a bore butter saturated patch to coat the barrel for storage. It helps prevent rust. Some people prefer Ballistol for storage and that’s fine as well.
Tip: Whatever you do, DO NOT use petroleum based oils inside your traditional muzzleloader! Those oils with black powder will turn into tar which will be very difficult to remove.
Breech Plug and Nipple Grease
On a cleaning, I always remove the breech plug and the nipple. It’s one way of ensuring it doesn’t rust in over time and get stuck. It also facilitates easier cleaning of the rifle. There is however a very specific grease for it. You can buy a small tube of it that will probably last you a very long time and make sure to use it on the breech plug and nipple threads.
How Do You Load a Traditional Muzzleloader?
We have hinted at the process along the way. Let’s summarize how to load and shoot a traditional muzzleloader:
- Make sure there is no ignition source: percussion cap or priming powder (if flintlock) on the gun removed. That doesn’t mean it’s not loaded as there may be a charge in the bore, it just has no ignition.
- Carefully check the bore if you can to ensure it’s not loaded with a charge. This is a lot harder to do with these guns. With mine, I KNOW unequivocally they aren’t loaded as I store them that way and I always ensure it’s discharged and cleaned BEFORE going into storage. Suggested is marking the ramrod with an unloaded line for future ease of checking.
- Run dry patches down the bore until clean. This removes any storage oil or debris.
- Point the gun in a safe direction and pop a few percussion caps. This dries out any remaining oil or moisture. On the last cap, have something like grass, dirt or leaves at the muzzle and watch them move to ensure a clear pathway.
- Optional: Run one final dry patch to pick up any pushed oil or moisture pushed out by the caps..
- Measure your powder with the powder measure. With the gun pointing up but away from your face, pour the measured powder down the muzzle. Tap the gun with your free hand a few times to seat the powder.
- Lube a patch and place over muzzle. Center the ball by hand and use the ball starter to get it down about 4″.
- FULLY seat the bullet with the ramrod. A steady motion is best and avoid whacking the bullet which may cause deformation. When the bullet is seated, dropping the ramrod from a little height above the bullet will cause the ramrod to bounce helping to indicate a seat. Also confirm by reading the seated line on your ramrod (once marked).
- Always keep any gun pointed in a safe direction whether loaded or not. With a charge in a traditional muzzleloader, the deadliest part is technically loaded! Treat as such going forward.
- Pull the trigger back to half cock and insert the percussion cap. You are now “loaded”, at least in the eyes of the law for all intensive purposes. For flintlocks, this means lift the frizzen, put some primer in the pan and close the frizzen back up.
Now you are ready to shoot simply by pulling the trigger. Remember to shoot in a safe direction, down range, with a safe backstop.
Note: If there are 2 triggers and 1 barrel: It is a set trigger system. You can pull the first trigger to discharge the gun or pull the rear trigger first which will make the front trigger a LOT more sensitive! Refer to the manual to confirm and follow those instructions versus mine.
How Do You Unload a Traditional Muzzleloader?
Shoot it! It’s the safest way.
It is ok to remove the cap or priming powder when you need to relocate hunting positions or climb a tree stand and so on. In the eyes of the law it is “unloaded” when there is no cap or primer AND one is relocating hunting spots. I don’t recall if the flint may need to be removed or not but check YOUR local laws and regulations on loaded versus un-loaded status when it comes to muzzleloading gun laws. In the eyes of reality, you CANNOT be cautious enough anytime there is a main charge in the bore and treat the gun as loaded even if the ignition source is removed.
How Do You Clean a Traditional Muzzleloader?
This can be a post of its own but we’ll give it the quick and dirty. As always, make sure it’s not loaded. Then it’s time to break the gun down. Separating the barrel from the stock is usually done by punching out the wedge that holds it in place. Sometimes there’s also a screw. Once the barrel is separated, remove the breech plug and nipple from the barrel. Note that certain modern reproduction guns have a removable breech plug but is not necessarily meant to be removed other than servicing by a gunsmith.
Fill a jug or bucket with the hottest water you can handle. The heat aids in cleaning but also helps dry the barrel when done. I took a windshield washer fluid jug and cut off the top. I couldn’t tell you why, but it works great as a designated wash bin:) Some people add a dab of soap to the water, others don’t.
Soak the breech plug and nipple in the bucket while you work on the barrel. The barrel goes in the bucket breach side down. With a patch over a jag, simply go up and down from the muzzle a number of times as it acts as a pump and washes the bore. Your water will turn black!
Finishing the Barrel
Depending on how big of a cleaning I think I need, I may also run a bronze brush. If so, I’ll follow that with another patched jag to rinse. If the water is really black, I like to drain it and “pump” it again with yet another patched jag and clean water. Then remove the barrel, run a dry patch and leave the barrel out to fully dry. Once dry, run a Bore Butter or Ballistol saturated patch for storage.
Don’t forget to clean the breech plug and nipple. Pipe cleaners are amazing for nipples.
With everything dry, apply the grease we mentioned above to the breech plug and nipple threads. Re-install into barrel. Re attach the barrel to the gun with the wedge. Wipe down all exterior metal with gun oil to clean and protect. I love and recommend Ballistol for this. Use the bore butter to clean and condition all the wooden furniture. It helps prevent it from drying out.
Traditional Muzzleloader Shooting
Well folks, it’s time to call this one a wrap. Over 4000 words later… If you got this far, you definitely deserve to run out and buy yourself a shiny, but old and cool looking gun! It will also be a long love affair with traditional muzzleloader shooting. That I can almost assure you! Don’t forget to share on social and subscribe to our newsletter if you don’t want to miss our posts.
Before you go, here’s a quick shoutout to Capandball.com. He’s a military history teacher at a university in Hungary and he really knows his traditional muzzleloaders! In fact he’s world renowned and recognized in the black powder community. When I’m not shooting stuff myself or writing about it, my relaxation comes from seeing what others are doing out there. Capandball has some excellent content and he does it with a touch of class. Definitely worth checking out.