What Is A Muzzleloader

By “Doc” JW Carlson

What I3Doc Carlson in Rendevouz garb- about 1975

With the comparatively recent interest in hunting with muzzleloading firearms and the propagation of muzzle-loading seasons by many states, the question that seems to plague many states, Fish and Game departments, hunters and the hunting and gun related press is, “What is a muzzle-loader?” The question often has as many answers as there are folks who attempt to answer it.

The definitions are many times associated with the prejudices of the individual concerning style of firearm, type of ignition, and projectiles involved. Most of these definitions are based upon “feelings” reflected by the experience and bias of the individual and very few hard facts of ballistic performance. While there is nothing basically wrong with this type of biased definition by the individual, the facts need to be brought out so that they can be considered, at least.

…What is a muzzleloader? The question often has as many answers as there are folks who attempt to answer it…

Hunters and shooters of muzzle-loading firearms seem to fall into two camps–the traditionalists, who use the firearm with a strong historical connotation, and the hunter, who is merely interested in hunting another season–especially one that usually has fewer hunters in the field.

It is unfortunate that the extremists in both groups tend to look down at each other–both groups have the same interests: a quality hunt and a clean, humane harvest of the animal involved. They have much more in common than they have differences.

Probably the thing that has sparked the most controversy is the introduction of the so called “in-line” type of action. These guns use a striker system that works on a horizontal plane, very similar to the firing pin/striker assembly found on modern bolt action rifles.

Unfortunately, a great deal of controversy came about due to the advertising hyperbole of some manufacturers of in-line guns. They often implied in advertisements that in-lines were ballistically superior to more traditional firearms. The unspoken inference was that these guns would shoot ballistically like the modern bolt action high power rifle that they resembled. The very similar looks of the in-line and the modern bolt rifle helped to foster this thinking on the part of many.

The reaction of the traditional hunter and a few game commissions was that, if these guns shoot similar to the modern rifle, why should they be used in a primitive muzzleloading season?” Several state fish and game departments considered outlawing their use during muzzleloading seasons as a result.

I think that there are two main factors for the phenomenal growth in interest in the in-line by hunters. First, the majority of these guns look and feel like the modern rifle that the tyro muzzleloading hunter is familiar with. The gun does not have the foreign feel of the more traditional muzzleloader to the beginner. The “controls” such as safety, trigger, and cocking mechanism are familiar and in the expected places. The first time muzzle-loading hunter feels comfortable with the gun–something that has great importance when one remembers that this person is dealing with a host of unfamiliar tasks that are involved with loading a firearm from the muzzle.

The second reason for the appeal of these guns is that most are fitted with barrels that have a faster twist, intended for use with a slug or sabot type projectile. This bullet is ballistically superior to the round ball which most of the traditional muzzleloaders shoot. The elongated bullet is heavier and more favorably shaped than is the venerable round ball. The slug also looks more like the bullet that most of the hunters are used to shooting. Again, it’s more familiar to them and they are very happy to see something that looks familiar in this new, unfamiliar game.

We won’t get into a discussion of round ball versus slug type projectile here. Suffice it to say that there is little argument that the short slug is better ballistically than the round ball. As far as killing effect upon game, the hunter shooting the round ball has to get closer, at least with the smaller calibers, and recognize that the ball won’t penetrate as well as the heavier slug.

The thing that we need to remember here is that the type of bullet that a given rifle will shoot best has nothing to do with its looks or style. It has to do with the inside of the barrel. The twist and rifling depth are the major factors that determine the type of projectile that the rifle will handle best. T he outside shape of the barrel and its length have very little to do with the ballistics of that barrel with a given bullet.

…Suffice it to say that there is little argument that the short slug is a better ballistic bullet than is the round ball…

By the same token, how the gun is fired has little or no relationship to the external ballistics. Whether the gun is fired with a flintlock, percussion cap, side hammer lock, in-line action or fuse makes no appreciable difference in the ballistics–read trajectory and velocity–of the bullet launched by that gun.

A fine, Golden Age Kentucky rifle with a traditional flintlock ignition system can be fitted with a barrel that has shallow rifling and a fast twist to shoot a 500 grain slug type bullet. This gun, while very traditional looking, will shoot exactly the same as the in-line with the same caliber and barrel specifications. The reverse would also be true, if the inline had a round ball barrel mounted.

In 1808, a French gunsmith living and working in England patented a “superior mechanism for the firing of firearms” called, for the lack of a better term, an “in-line” action. The patent is virtually the same as the “new” in-line actions that are on the market. Jean Samuel Pauley, the inventor, actually came up with the mechanism before the percussion cap came into common use. This was a couple of years after the percussion system was invented by the Scottish minister Forsyth. Pauley’s patent uses an in-line striker and many of the other things that so . Pauley’s patent uses an in-line striker and many of the other things that so inflame the traditionalist. So the percussion in-line is certainly not new.

What I4Bohemian in-line flintlock action by Stanislaus Paczelt, 1738. All flintlock parts are contained within the enclosed action behind the barrel. The touch-hole fires through the breech plug in classic in-line fashion.

To further traditionalize the in-line, the tower of London collections contain an in-line flintlock smooth-bore that was made by a Bohemian gunsmith named Stanislaus Paczelt in 1738. Yes, you read that right, 1738. The action of the gun is almost exactly the same as the modern in-line also. It utilizes coil springs and a shooting and cocking trigger, the cocking trigger to pull the striker containing the flint backward to the cocked position and the shooting trigger to fire the gun. The striker holding the flint drives forward under the tension of the coil spring and hits a frizzen that is hinged onto the barrel breach, rotating up out of the way when hit by the flint, exposing the small pan in the breechplug of the barrel.

When the frizzen is shut, there is nothing projecting beyond the line of the barrel–a typical in-line feature–dated 1738.

What I5German double barreled flintlock in-line gun in the Munich National Museum.

In the collections of the National Museum in Munich, Germany, is a double barrel smoothbore gun using the same action for each barrel, but cocked using small cocking knobs on each side of the barrel set, exactly as the modern in-line uses. This gun is in much better shape and was made in the same area by another gunsmith, it would appear. Both guns have stocks that resemble modern shotgun stocks to a surprising degree. The double gun is dated to the last half of the 18th Century.

The stock style of the modern in-line looks more like a modern bolt action rifle than the classic american muzzleloader, which includes the Kentucky style guns and the famous Hawken type rifle of Mountain Man fame. However, if you compare the modern in-line style of stock with English sporting rifles of the late 18th through 19th centuries, you’ll see some surprising similarities.

The British understood how to build a stock that fit the shooter so that the gun pointed where he looked and handled heavy recoil well. This isn’t surprising when you remember that the British were, and still are, basically shotgunners. Their rifle stocks reflected that. Their shotgun stocks of the period were developed to the point that the style has changed very little on classic shotguns of today.

The British gunmakers made sporting guns with flat, shotgun style butt plates, pistol grips and various other things that we see on modern rifles. They simply didn’t go in for the hook butt plate and styling of later american muzzleloading guns.

So, the modern look was certainly around at the same time that the more commonly known american guns were being used. The style may not be classic american muzzleloader but it’s close to the british and continental style and those guns were certainly in use on these shores in the 18th and 19th centuries. The in-line is not as far out in left field as many traditionalists think.

What I6Three rifles showing that modern stock shape was developed long ago. Top: Whitworth style target rifle, 1860’s, Middle: Modern Knight MK-85, Bottom: English percussion sporting rifle, 1840’s

The advantage of the in-line rifle for the average hunter comes from ease of hunting, safeties and other “controls” being more familiar, and an uncluttered top line which allows the mounting of peep sights and scopes with less trouble than the typical side hammer traditional gun.

The hunter that is used to hunting with the traditional style muzzleloader will not view these as advantages, but the person new to the sport will appreciate them. Other than handling and possibly a somewhat faster lock time–the time from pulling the trigger until the mechanism has ignited the powder charge–the two styles are pretty much equal.

What is seen as a major in-line advantage, the superior ballistics of the slug type projectile, has to do only with the inside of the barrel. Most of the in-line rifles on the market are set up with barrels that shoot the slug type projectile well. This allows the hunter to use the heavier bullet which gives better performance on game.

The slug type projectile penetrates game animals more reliably and batters its way through bone and connective tissue to damage vital organs better than do round balls of the same caliber. This is especially true at ranges past 125 yards. However, shots beyond this range are better passed up regardless of the type of gun and bullet if the hunter is not expert and well practiced.

Trajectories begin to get rainbow shaped beyond these ranges and solid hits in vital areas with enough remaining velocity and energy for clean kills become, “iffy,” for all but the most expert of muzzleloading shooters.

Muzzleloaders do not have the high velocity impact that centerfire rifles do, regardless of the powder charge and the bullet. Therefore, bullet placement becomes very important.

In 1990, Al Marion and Gene Autry of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game did some very extensive research comparing various types of muzzleloading firearms and projectiles. They reached some very interesting conclusions which were published by the Idaho Department.

Among their more startling conclusions, they found that the length of the barrel had no practical effect upon performance. The slight differences in velocities between barrel lengths represented less than a 10 grain change in powder charge. Therefore, it was their conclusion that barrel had more to do with aesthetics, balance, weight and personal preference than with ballistics.

They also point out that the rifling form and twist often dictate which type of bullet is best, which have already been addressed here in detail.

A very interesting statement made in the Idaho research was that the differences between the flattest and the most curved trajectories of all projectiles tested were relatively minor out to 125 yards. (Ed.- they tested round balls and short elongated bullets. White’s longer bullets were not available at the time.)

This certainly backs up my own experience and explains why I feel that regardless of the gun/projectile combination used, the hunter must realize that he or she is shooting a relatively short range firearm, with limited range and power, compared to the high velocity centerfire they may be accustomed to.

…If it loads from the muzzle with Black Powder or equivalent substitute and separate projectile, it is a muzzleloader and the ballistics will be those of a muzzleloader…

In summary, muzzleloading rifles using Black Powder simply cannot be loaded to the point where they remotely approach centerfire velocities and trajectories. It makes no difference how the “fire is lit” in the barrel of the muzzleloader, whether by side hammer, percussion or flintlock, in-line action, or for that matter, miquillette, dog-lock, wheel-lock or by fuse, the ballistics are essentially similar.

What I7Whether shooting modern or traditional, good shooting stance and technique are the same.

The length of the barrel makes no practical difference in hunting ballistics. Even the projectile used makes little difference in the trajectories involved, when compared with modern rifle performance, within the first 125 yards. The projectile can make a very real difference in accuracy and terminal ballistics upon impacting game animals, however.

So, the major difference that can be discerned between muzzleloading guns is inside the barrel and, therefore, the projectile types best used. How the gun looks and what style it follows has nothing to do with ballistics and game harvesting ability. The looks of the firearm has nothing to do with how far it will shoot or how accurate it is.

If it loads from the muzzle with Black Powder or equivalent substitute and separate projectile, it is a muzzleloader and the ballistics will be those of a muzzleloader.

J W Carlson

Ed Note: It’s been about 10 years since JW wrote the words above. He’s still right, if the gun loads from the muzzle and uses Black Powder or an equivalent substitute, it is a muzzleloader and will demonstrate the ballistics of a muzzleloader. The magic words are equivalent substitute.

Since that time, new products have shown up to confuse the issue. So far, the smokeless powders advocated by Marlin cannot be classified as a substitute for Black Powder. Their progressive burning, broader pressure curves and consequent higher velocities, lack of bulk loading and the safety issue disqualifies them out of hand..

The same might be said of Pyrodex Pellets, which clearly demonstrate pressure curves and velocities that easily surpass that of Black Powder. They might smoke and smell a little like Black Powder, but in ballistic terms, the pellets are quite different, with velocities in the 2000 fps plus range available with lightweight bullets in sabots.

The clear question is what equivalent substitute really means. To me, it means a substitute that looks, smells and performs reasonably like Black Powder. How about you?