Muzzleloader 101

Shooting a muzzleloader is pretty much the same as shooting a cartridge gun. Here are a few tips on things common in muzzleloaders and less so on modern guns.

Don’t Let the Big Numbers Scare You
Many beginners see a 50 caliber and imagine massive power and recoil based on knowledge about cartridges. This is not a 50 BMG. At the smaller end, a .32 muzzleloader uses a 40 grain round ball, the same weight as a 22 bullet and, with a normal powder charge will get a similar 1100 fps as the 22, therefore the same energy and recoil.

Don’t forget: Before you load, step up to the firing line and pop a cap to assure all is clear.

In target competition, you may ask the range master for a fouling shot. Don't hit the paper! The benefits are:

  • a test that all is working well
  • warming the barrel
  • leavimg a bit of residue on the inside of the barrel, making it consistent with later shots.
For maximum accuracy you may want to swab the barrel between shots.

I used to need to run a wet cleaning patch after 3 to 10 shots with pre-lubed patches. Now I use spit lube and frequently pass 20 shots without needing to swab it out . This is with “hit or miss” targets. For bull’s eye I like to swab with moose milk every shot. Confession: For this I have a little plastic spray bottle.

Develop a Load
Even small differences in load can make a big difference in results, so investing time on the sighting-in range will pay dividends in the field or on the target range. Keep notes. You will want to have the same results in deer season you had when you sighted it in. If you are using the same gun for hunting and target, work up two loads, but you may need to adjust the sights for each. A two inch radius in group size will keep the impact in the kill zone, but in competition make the difference between an eighty and a 10X.

For hunting you may be shooting bullets and will want a high energy impact. After selecting the bullet, just vary the powder charge. An old method was to shoot over a white sheet (or snow). If you see little black spots, you have overloaded and are seeing unburned powder. If you have use of a chronograph, increase the charge in small steps until more powder does not increase velocity. (Note: At this point it just blows unburned powder out the muzzle.) Back off five grains. You have your max load. Adjust the sights to move the group to the bull’s eye.

Your accuracy load for competition will take more work since there are more variables. Powder charge, ball diameter, and patch thickness all need to be considered. The old rule of thumb was one grain per caliber number, i.e. fifty grains for fifty caliber will probably be a bit heavy. Next variable is ball fit. Unless you have special needs (and deep pockets) stick with the readily available ball size (.490 for a 50) and adjust fit with patch thickness. There should be resistance all the way, but you shouldn’t need to pound on it. Start shooting different powder charges for group. Since common ranges for us are twenty five and fifty yards, I develop my load for smallest group and adjust my sights at twenty five. Then increase the load to move impact up at fifty yards to match without moving the sights. Take two powder measures to the range.

Dealing with fouling
Black powder leaves a lot of corrosive residue. This residue is highly corrosive. You must clean your gun as soon as possible after finishing for the day.

Using set triggers
Internally, pulling the trigger is resisted by the main spring. In order to achieve a light pull a set trigger is used. This is a small simple lock with a hammer to hit the sear on the main lock, releasing the hammer to fall. They are very popular on target rifles, less so on hunting rifles. There are two main types of set triggers, single and the more common double. In the double, one trigger sets (cocks) the device. The other releases it, firing the gun. In the single, pushing it forward sets, pulling it back releases. Most set triggers will fire without being set, but with a heavier pull.

Black powder burns slower and thus gives a lower muzzle velocity than smokeless. The longer barrels common in muzzleloaders allow a longer burn time and thus higher velocity but this requires more time in the tube. A steady follow through becomes essential for accuracy. The delay in a flintlock accents this. It takes thought and practice but the results of gaining this skill are valuable in all shooting sports, not just Muzzleloading.

Sights and Aiming
Aiming is pretty much the same as everything else. Pumpkin on a stick for bullseye, especially at a known fixed distance. Center of mass for almost everything else. For competition, the allowed sights vary widely .

The most restrictive, often labeled primitive usually specifies open and/or iron sights.

  • Iron could really be brass or other metal but No Glass or Plastic.
  • Open does not allow peep sights or hooded sights.
  • Some specify fixed sights which usually means not adjustable during the competion. Typically this means that a tool is required but not allowed.

Many tang sights have a knob adjustable elevation, calibrated for different distances and both can and may be adjusted between shots.

4H, YHEC and many others use a less restrictive iron sight definition. Peep sights, covered sights, tang sights and even fiber optic maybe OK. Check!

The most modern is a zoom scope, usually on an inline, which is accepted for hunting in most, but not all, places. I have rarely seen any muzzleloading competitions allowing scopes but then again, this discipline is mostly rewarded with meat not medals.


Muzzleloading 101 Classroom

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