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Muzzleloader rifles have stood the test of time. For more than 600 years, forms of muzzle-loading firearms have helped shape countries, defend homelands and procure food for survival. No other firearm has that longevity and history. Nevertheless, this endurance wasn’t due to a love affair for smoke in the air. Any Minuteman in the American Revolution would have given up his musket for an AR had the technology been available. And despite the muzzleloader’s modernization and streamlined adaptations, you still can encounter the same troublesome issues that shooters of the past experienced.

Best Bullet

Modern muzzleloader shooters have more bullet options than ever before. Few traditionalists hunt with the round ball and most have moved to sabot-jacketed bullets. Although muzzleloaders appear to be modern in look, you may be experiencing issues by following the trend of “lighter is better.” When it comes to muzzleloader bullet options, oftentimes bigger is better. It’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to push a lighter bullet faster for trajectory, but muzzleloaders have big bores for a reason and bullets perform differently than similar varieties shot from a centerfire pushing extreme velocities, sometimes more than 3,000 fps.

The key to selecting a trouble-free bullet is to choose the heaviest bullet possible that will still deliver adequate foot-pounds of energy at reasonable hunting range. For deer-sized game this means staying above 1,000 foot-pounds of energy. Larger bullets, like Hornady’s 300-grain FPB bullet with a 100-grain charge, retain maximum foot-pounds well above this level at 200 yards and beyond. A similar 250-grain bullet and load dips to minimum levels of foot-pounds when reach extends beyond 200 yards. 

gunpoweder
Store powder in its original container

Powder Charges

Most muzzleloader shooters today rely on the simplicity of pre-measured pellet charges to energize their projectiles. Manufacturers oftentimes test bullets with 100-grain charges, although the trend of stacking three pellets for a 150-grain charge is quickly gaining acceptance. 

If your bullet tends to stray then begin experimenting with varying charges. A less-is-best approach commonly provides an accurate combination good for most deer hunting situations. If you’re not seeing the accuracy you expected, plan on hunting dangerous game or tackling longer shots, then bump your load up to 150 grains. Doing so increases recoil and could actually lead to a less accurate combination, but muzzleloaders, like their centerfire counterparts, can be finicky. Some pellet manufacturers like Hodgdon manufacture pellets in 30-grain varieties to further aid in fashioning a load. The key to finding an acceptable load is testing from the bench. Begin with bullet manufacturer recommendations and experiment until you find the sweet spot.

Powder Or Pellet

Despite the convenience and popularity of pelletized charges, manufacturers still produce granular powders and the demand continues. A new revolution led by Hodgdon with the marketing of a variety of Pyrodex propellant products has paved the way for several companies to expand on black-powder alternatives. Today, shooters have a variety of safe, granular options that provide ample energy and easy cleanup in addition to popular pellets.

Why granular? Some still use granular powder simply for tradition and in some states it is the law, but for most accuracy is the main reason. It’s a great troubleshooting option to tailor a load in baby-step fashion for a clean-burning charge. Most popular brands are designed to be measured by volume, not weight. Increase your propellant charge by five-grain increments using company-recommended loads as a starting point. When you find an ideal combination, note it and test it with repeated three-shot groups.

Scope Issues

Several states still make muzzleloader hunters stick to open sights, but even those rules have allowed for fiber optics to enlighten and optimize these setups. Today, scopes rule on inline muzzleloaders, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be free of sight-in issues. Muzzleloaders are notorious for recoil and scopes require precision installation to alleviate jostling and alignment issues at the range.

After purchasing a scope to match your muzzleloader’s need, such as Nikon’s Inline XR Muzzleloader riflescope, it needs to be attached using exact tolerances. Bases need to be attached with appropriate inch-pounds, and that requires a torque wrench. Use your torque wrench to tighten rings to specific inch-pound settings as well. To maximize accuracy at short- or long-range, consider lapping and aligning rings, plus leveling the scope. For the do-it-yourselfer, look at Wheeler Engineering’s Professional Scope Mounting Kits to get it right the first time. 

muzzleloader
It’s important to clean out the barrel of your Muzzleloader after use.

Clean Or Unclean

Despite the advertising hype of “quick cleanup,” muzzleloader shooters know that cleaning is a never-ending chore. It can also be a source of inconsistency, and experts debate whether a clean muzzleloader is actually the most accurate muzzleloader. 

One overlooked aspect that could create accuracy issues is the simple fouling of a barrel. This can be accomplished after a cleaning by shooting one or two caps to clear oil from the barrel that can cause the first shot to land differently than subsequent shots. Others actually fire a charge and projectile to foul the barrel for consistent shots afterwards.

Whether you swab between shots or shoot up to 10 shots (or more) before cleaning can also affect the accuracy of your muzzleloader. In short, modern propellants don’t require as much cleaning as black powder. Bullet choice also determines how much you clean. Most modern bullet and sabot combinations work better with a fouled barrel over a clean barrel. In any case, try out varying cleaning time spans and be consistent after you find a system that works.

209 primer
The 209 primer is a great ignition tool. It’s designed for simplicity and even includes an internal anvil so it doesn’t require a nipple. Studies show that some 209 primers are too powerful for some muzzleloader charges.

Primer Pointers

If you’ve upgraded to a modern inline muzzleloader then you’re likely igniting your charge with a 209 primer. It could also be the source of inconsistencies. The 209 primer is a remarkable ignition tool. It’s dependable. It’s waterproof. It’s designed for simplicity and even includes an internal anvil so it doesn’t require a nipple. It’s also hot, and after years of testing researchers concluded that a standard 209 primer is actually too powerful for some muzzleloader charges, especially when combined with pellets. 

Two main issues can occur. First, the hot ignition can push the pellet load forward for varying burn rates. It also can lead to a carbon ring in the barrel that develops slightly ahead of where the next bullet should seat. That ring can cause people to think they’ve seated the next bullet when loading. Some shooters actually push past the crud to seat the bullet, others knock it out with a swab, but overlooking these issues could easily result in a decrease in accuracy. 

The solution is to purchase 209 primers designed specifically to enhance muzzleloader performance, such as Winchester’s Triple Seven or Federal’s Fusion 209 In-line Muzzleloading Primers.

Beating Bullet Damage 

Muzzleloader bullets have evolved from round balls to components today that more closely resemble centerfire bullets. Most have spire points with a trend toward polymer-tipped bullets to increase trajectory, ballistic coefficient, accuracy and provide controlled expansion upon impact. Troublesome issues start if you combine starting tools of yesteryear with these technologically advanced bullets.

Not using a proper bullet starter and deforming the bullet’s tip, or damaging the polymer or composite tip, may reduce accuracy at distances beyond 50 yards. That means updating your bullet starter to avoid this damage. Look for starters that are constructed with recesses on both the short and long end to fit over the bullet tips without damaging them. It should also be constructed of durable, nonabrasive materials like polymer to eliminate barrel damage. Newer models even include interchangeable loading tips to adapt to different bullet designs. 

Powder Storage

“Be safe and keep your powder dry” was a common phrase in the early muzzleloading era, and it still holds true today. Moisture is an enemy of all blackpowder and blackpowder alternatives. That means it is susceptible to contamination not only from obvious moisture such as raindrops, but humidity as well. For proper storage keep your powder in its original container with the lid screwed on tight. Immediately recap the container after taking out the required amount and never let it sit without a lid for any length of time. Lastly, keep your powder in a humidity-controlled storage room that is relatively cool. Sealing the container in an airtight bag is also a good idea. Failure to do so can lead to troublesome accuracy issues at the range and during the hunt.

Not surprisingly, speed loaders can also lead to missed opportunities from moisture contamination. Being capped in a handy carrying tube doesn’t mean they are safe from moisture, especially if stored in an inside jacket pocket next to your sweaty body. To avoid this scenario, carry your speed loaders in your outside jacket pocket or backpack. Seal them in a zip-seal bag.

muzzleloader
There are different ways to maintain your muzzleloader depending on the weather and Hunt

In-Hunt Storage

After loading your muzzleloader moisture still can cause troublesome pains. During the hunt it’s easy to forget about your rifle and put it near a truck heater or accidentally bring it inside a steamy cabin. These sudden temperature spikes can cause condensation in the barrel and possibly add moisture to your charge. 

If you load your rifle and don’t intend to replace the charge every day of the hunt, keep it in a cool, dry place between your outings. Leaving it in the back of a truck or the rear compartment away from any heater is a good idea. An even better idea is to simply discharge the muzzleloader at the end of the day, swab it and foul the barrel. The next day you can begin with a fresh load and increased confidence that moisture won’t ruin your hunt.

Flinch Factor

Muzzleloaders kick. It’s an aspect of the sport you’ll have to get used to, but some shooters begin to flinch from the experience of shooting their muzzleloader. Why do they kick? Muzzleloader propellants are simply less efficient and it takes more volume of powder to achieve adequate velocities from the bore for a humane kill. This larger volume of powder results in a felt recoil that is more jolting than those from most standard deer calibers like the popular .30-06 Springfield. 

If your muzzleloader has you flinching, begin by decreasing the load, possibly dropping from 150 grains to 100 grains of charge. If that doesn’t work, look at add-on recoil pads or padded jackets to absorb the muzzleloader punch. Using “bench bags” to add a barrier between you and the muzzleloader while sighting in also diminishes recoil. Of course, during the hunt you won’t even remember pulling the trigger as buck fever takes over.

Asking Too Much

If you’re still experiencing questionable accuracy, ask yourself this: “Are you asking too much of a primitive firearm?” Remember, you are shooting a muzzleloader, not a centerfire rifle.  Muzzleloader hunting was and still is a close-range sport. Whereas a centerfire deer rifle can produce sub-MOA groups, any muzzleloader consistently punching 2-inch groups at 100 yards has what it takes and should be considered a suitable hunting rig.

Unfortunately, many hunters today succumb to marketing hype with muzzleloader manufacturing claims of centerfire-like accuracy at 200 yards and beyond. Some of these are true, but for most 200 yards is a long shot with a muzzleloader. The big, heavy bullets flying at lower velocities surrender to wind easily and drop like a rock past 200 yards. And as noted earlier, the foot-pounds of energy needed to cleanly take game also suffers past 200 yards. If you can hit a pie-plate-sized target consistently to 200 yards then don’t mess with success. You have a keeper!

Weather & The Hunt

During the hunt you still need to be aware of moisture-related issues. Moisture can invade your bore. Sabots seat tightly into the barrel of modern inline muzzleloaders and in all but rare cases provide a watertight seal. Nevertheless, don’t bet on a guarantee. Seal the bore!

Several companies manufacture condom-like coverings that go over the end of the barrel—walhogwilderness.com’s Gun Jimmy comes to mind. You can also visit a drug store and purchase the small finger coverings doctor’s use in exams or cut the finger off of a latex glove and put it over the barrel with a wrap of tape for security. If you have electrical tape handy, use that to create a seal by taping over the end of the barrel and securing it on the sides with several tight wraps as well.

Break-open actions using the 209 primer have also all but eliminated breech moisture containment. Still, it pays to load and lock quickly to make sure even a drop of rain doesn’t slip past this guard before a primer seals the hole.

Muzzleloaders are still primitive firearms despite their sleek, new, inline look. They’ve done the job for more than 600 years, and by using this guideline you should be able to get a few more years of worry-free shooting from your old-fashioned friend.                       

For More Information:

Federal Premium Ammunition
federalpremium.com; 800-379-1732

Hodgdon
hodgdon.com; 913-362-9455

Hornady
hornady.com; 800-338-3220

Nikon
nikonhunting.com; 800-645-6687

Walhog Wilderness
walhogwilderness.com; 872-228-9453

Wheeler Engineering
battenfeldtechnologies.com;573-445-9200

Winchester
winchester.com

This article originally published in AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN®  2014-#158 issue. Print and Digital Subscriptions to AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN®  magazine are available here

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