Why Muzzleloading


I can hardly count the number of times I’ve been asked why I choose to hunt with a muzzleloader. The questioner usually has a centerfire rifle at hand for his own hunting. He is so captivated by the precision of his modern rifle that he can’t imagine handicapping himself with anything less.

Indeed, the modern rifle is a marvel of precision. It shoots very close to where we point it, it nearly always works, and when it doesn’t work, we think of it as a disaster. It’s mostly impervious to weather, even if the cartridge is outside the gun. It’s even hard to damage except in the worst of accidents.

It’s about all I could do to lift that big head up. Near 7 foot red bear on the Ute Reservation, near Roosevelt, Ut, Sept. 2001. I love hunting bears.

I suppose that most of us have been preconditioned to think about our hunting arms in such a manner. This being the case, why would any intelligent man stoop to using a gun that is slow to load, has a trajectory like a rainbow, requires constant management, is dirty, smelly and otherwise loathsome to use.

In my case, it’s been said that I brought it with me from the last world. My mother tells me that I was playing ‘guns’ before I could talk. I remember making toy guns out of orange crate ends during WW II, when there was no other supply of wood. One of the great adventures of my young life was watching trains full of military goods pass through town. It was a great day when a trainload of cannon or tanks went by.

My eyes were opened when I found a little red book in the local library, The Bears of Blue River. It was dog-eared and worn, written by a hunter young in the flintlock days of Pennsylvania. The sole support of his family, he hunted bears for the hides, meat and tallow. This was the family’s cash crop. I read that little book about a dozen times. I’ve loved flintlocks and bears ever since.

…. why would any intelligent man stoop to using a gun that is slow to load, has a trajectory like a rainbow, requires constant management, is dirty, smelly and otherwise loathsome to use….

The Longrifle, Stewart Edward White’s classic novel of the early eastern frontiers, had its way with me too. Devoto’s and Fisher’s works were avidly read as was any other book on the opening up of the West. I especially admired Kenneth Roberts’ and Allen Eckert’s series on the Old Northwest and expansion into the trans-Mississippi country. Indeed, the frontier mystique is a part of why I hunt with a muzzleloader.

I killed this stone sheep at 450 yards, but it was an easy shot with the 30-338 I was using. The rifle was sighted in at 300 yards and dropped only another 4 inches at 450.

But there’s far more to it than that. I’ve hunted with modern guns of all kinds for all kinds of game for many years. Some of the hunting has been challenging. Mostly, the shooting has not. It’s been far too easy. I remember taking a 450-yard shot at an eleven year old Stone sheep with a hotshot 30-338 Magnum. I’d shot that rifle 270 times by actual count that fall.

The 450-yard shot, using a Speer 180 gr. Grand Slam bullet at 3150 fps, dictated only a 4-inch holdover at 450 yards. Hardly a difficult shot since I had the scope set on six power, was dead resting over the guide’s pack and was well rested. We’d been watching the sheep for the previous six hours.

….compared to managing a muzzleloader a modern rifle is so easy as to be ridiculous. A muzzleloader, depending on the type, can be a complicated affair….

It seems like all the other animals taken were just as easy. Hitting a moose at 100 yards with a scope sighted rifle just didn’t seem difficult. Even putting a bullet between the eyes of a charging grizzly on the Chistochina in 1973 wasn’t hard. He was six yards away. A bear’s head is pretty big at that range.

Now, compared to managing a muzzleloader, a modern rifle is so easy as to be ridiculous. A muzzleloader, depending on the type, can be a complicated affair. And there are a number of types to choose from:

Matchlocks are downright dangerous. Flintlocks can be delicate. Percussion guns are simpler and modern inlines are simpler yet. With all of them, you have to make sure that oil and moisture are cleaned out of the barrel before loading. You have to be careful of moisture and humidity even after they’re loaded. Try a flintlock in the rain sometime-you might as well go home most of the time.

Dutch10Clubutt779CloseLockEuropean Doglock, one of many varieties of flintlock that evolved during the 1500-1600’s.

Black Powder is variable from day to day. On dry days, it shoots harder. If it’s wet, the powder gets soggy and won’t shoot as well as last week when the sun was shining. Some guns prefer FFFg Black Powder, some digest FFg better. Some want Pyrodex or one of the new substitutes. All have to be promptly cleaned or they’ll turn into a streak of rust.

Grandpa was used to that. He didn’t have anything better to do after a tough day in the woods than clean his rifle. Soapy water and stink, black hands, wife chases you out of the house. Oil it all real good so you have to clean out all the oil the next morning before you can shoot it again. What a mess.

I’ve decided that using a muzzleloader is akin to making love. The more you handle the object of your affections, the better you feel and the more pleasure it brings.

I’ve seen mechanics like that. One I knew, Bill Large, a super barrelmaker, used to stand beside his lathe with a barrel turning in the spindles. He’d lay just the tippy-tips of his fingers on the vibrating barrel and smile. I’ve always wondered what he was thinking about and was feeling for. It must have been something significant, ‘cause the man was famous for his fine barrels.

….I’ve decided that using a muzzleloader is akin to making love. The more you handle the object of your affections, the better you feel and the more pleasure it brings….

The smoke and stink must have something to do with it, too. It’s perverse to become enamored of an object that smells up the house and clouds up the forest like a muzzleloader does. ‘Course, I was accused of being a pervert once. The girl was right pert, too. I told her not to worry, being a pervert doesn’t matter much once you are too old to do anything about it.

She wasn’t convinced. I’m not convinced either, that the romance of a stinky, complicated rifle has everything to do with my love for it, but it may play a little part in it.

If you carry a muzzleloader, then dressing the part is as natural as stink on a skunk. Some get carried away though. I remember Paul Mantz coming through an American Mountain Man camp once. He was waving a blanket, the sign for a blanket shoot. No, you didn’t compete for the blanket, you put a prize down on the blanket, as would all the other shooters, then shoot to see who got first pick. Last place was last pick.

Paul set up a triplet of gongs across a little crick seventy yards off. The largest was a plowshare, the middle sized one was a foot wide half-inch steel roundell and the small one a saucer-sized round of heavy steel. He’d hung them in chains in the trees then sprayed them red.

Rendezvous in Chadron Nebraska, 1972. Note the ‘authentic’ costumes of the shooters.

The crowd gathered in their buckskins and fancies. The shooting started with practice, everyone shooting at the gong of their choice. Most shot the big plowshare. Paul was standing next to me and loosed a shot at the small round with his .54 caliber Hawken repro. He hit it hard enough that it flipped over and landed edge on, on top of a horizontal fork in the branches. Everyone hooted. He said, ‘Knock it off, White.”

So I did, using the double-barreled original English John Hayton-Birmingham made bullet gun that I was carrying. It was pure luck to hit that inch thick target at 70 yards, but the heavy bullet hit it with such force that it ripped the round off the chain and threw it on the hillside, from whence it rolled into the crick. There was a stunned silence, then the great majority of the so-called shooters faded into the woods and disappeared, leaving Paul and I and a few other brave souls standing there.

The point is not that I get in a lucky shot once and again. The point is that many dress up in their fancies but forget to get in any practice with their muzzleloaders. The dress, at least in their case, had become so overemphasized that skill and confidence in the muzzleloader had been forgotten.

The new crowd who’ve captured the muzzleloading market doesn’t worry much about dressing up. They’re hunters. Literally thousands of hunters tired of hunting with modern rifles are flocking into muzzleloading.

That’s not to denigrate traditionalists. There’s more opportunity to rendezvous now than ever before. It’s just that hunters are coming into muzzleloading in such numbers that they are literally changing the direction of the market. And none of them ever dress up, of course. Hah. Except in camo.

One young friend, invited to travel with us to hunting camp showed up dressed in hunting camo from head to boots. The rest of us looked like tourists going to Disneyland. We had a day’s traveling front of us and had chosen to dress comfy. We asked him why he had dressed for the hunt so early. He said he wanted everyone to know that he was going hunting and wanted us to know that he was part of the group. He stood out like a sore thumb.

In the end, he wanted to be invisible in the woods, being seen only when he wanted to be seen. He just didn’t need to be quite so invisible before he got there.

Anyway, I’m glad that neither crowd worries about dressing up. I like to put on the rendezvous fancies sometimes and go hooraw the firing line. None of the youngsters think an old man can shoot and it’s fun to fool them.

Deer hunt on Pidgeon Water, Uintah Mountains, close to Roosevelt, 1976. Everybody is dressed up here, just not in traditional gear. All kills with round ball, sidelock rifles.

Sometimes I like to put on camo and go hunting. I like the look and smell of the woods and the mountains. I like the people I meet there and I love the animals I chase. I feel a little sorry every time I kill a critter, but then I’d have a hard time eating him if he was still kicking. So I thank him for his sacrifice and enjoy the hunting and eating.

The unique thing is that both activities involve muzzleloading. Either way, I get to shoot . Either way, I get to relax and feel good. Either way, I live longer. Either way, I meet people and animals that I like to meet under the best circumstances in the world. Either way, I am a better man for it.

So there’s a number of reasons for muzzleloading: being a part of history, living up to the traditions of your forefathers, the romance of going it the hard way, dressing up in an adult sort of way, accepting the challenge of an inferior weapon and making it work despite the problems&limitations inherent to it.

Here I am all dressed up in camos like a modern hunter with Tom and Tominator shotgun, near Birtchtree, Mo, 1995.

But there’s more. Have you noticed that game departments all over the USA are offering lots of hunts for muzzleloaders. Not just the few hunts that we began with 30 years ago, but more and better hunts all the time. There must be a good reason for the phenomenon.

Let’s think about what makes a hunter “effective”. By “effective,” I mean having the ability to harvest an animal with reasonable certainty. Obviously, a hunter with a spear has much less “reasonable certainty” than a man with a rifle. The reason is not so much the implement he uses as the range at which he can use it.

A man with a rifle has a “Circle of Effectiveness” that roughly corresponds with the distance at which he can usefully wield his rifle. The average hunter with a modern rifle on a rest, with a little time, should be able to shoot decently out to 300 yards. With a little practice, he might even make it 400.

….The unique thing about all this is that both activities involve muzzleloading. Either way, I get to shoot. Either way, I get relaxed and feel good. Either way, I live longer—and I’m a better man for it….

A muzzleloading hunter is more limited. His rifle won’t shoot as flat or as effectively as the modern one. It also loads slow, and there’s usually just a single shot. The fact is that the best muzzleloader made, like the White Super-91, shoots less than half as well as a modern rifle. My 30-338 Magnum shoots its 180 grain bullet to the same point of drop at 450 yards as my SUPER-91 .451 caliber does at 200 yards with twice the energy and 20 times the repeatability.

The Circle of Effectiveness, showing a 4:1 advantage for the modern hunter. It’s no wonder game managers like muzzleloaders

What all this means is that the modern centerfire hunter has an effective hunting radius of 300-400 yards. The average muzzle-loading hunter, on the other hand, has an effective radius of only 150-200 yards. Since the area encompassed by a circle is calculated by taking Pi (3.1414) times the radius squared, the centerfire hunter is effective in an area not twice as large as the muzzle-loading hunter, but four times as large.

Imagine that you are a game manager, with the usual triad of game animals, public and private land, and hunters/nonhunters to look after. Ask who crowds the land more, the modern hunter or the muzzleloading hunter? The answer is obvious.

….Fact is that the fanciest muzzleloader made, like the White designed Model 98, shoots with less than half the energy and half the velocity and 20 times less the repeatability, compared to a modern centerfire rifle….

Add the fact that muzzleloading rifles have limited reloading capability, making the muzzleloading hunter mighty careful with his first shot.

Factor in that muzzleloading hunters tend to be experienced hunters, not needing lots of shots to improve their chances.

Factor in the closeness to nature that muzzleloading promotes, naturally making muzzleloading hunters into better woodsmen and mountaineers.

Factor in the stewardship promoted by having to take detailed care of a complicated tool, thereby promoting better care of game and habitat. If you were the game manager, which would you prefer? Again the answer is obvious.

Everyone worries about new technology in muzzleloading. It’s analogous to the technology that’s overtaken archery. The concern is that improving the weapon will scare off the game managers and diminish the special seasons. Rumors that the White rifle and other in-lines will soon be outlawed run rampant every year.

What we forget is that all muzzle-loaders, even White’s, have but a single shot and a rainbow like trajectory compared to a modern magnum. As long as hunters are limited by one shot, slow reloading and the limited ballistics imposed by black powder or its equivalent, not even White’s fanciest is going to scare off anybody.

To the contrary, the fact that the new generation of rifles are more accurate and hit a lot harder is attracting game managers to the benefits of muzzleloading rather than driving them off. The managers worry more about wounding loss with primitive weapons than they do about any other factor. And the new generation of bullets and rifles, including White’s, have gone a long way towards resolving that problem.

Muzzleloading hunting is so highly regarded among game managers that the “special season” designations that were first used might no longer apply. Muzzleloading seasons in some states are bigger than the “regular” seasons. And the best thing about muzzleloading seasons is that they bother the herds and the land less and put additional money in the game department’s account.

Not all muzzleloading hunting need be for native American game. Here’s a Nilgai, an import from India, taken with a G-series Bobcat muzzleloading pistol of my design. (The Bobcat never came to production) It throws a 440 gr bullet at 1200 FPS, better than any 44 Magnum. The Nilgai went down with one shot.

Will muzzleloading seasons become so packed with hunters that they become just another ’regular’ season? Not for the present, at least. Muzzleloading hunters are better hunters and better caretakers because they have to learn and know more about the game they pursue and the environment it lives in to be successful. Muzzleloading automatically weans out the impatient and shallow.

The very nature of Black Powder and its substitutes predicts that a muzzleloading hunter will never collect more game than a hunter armed with a modern rifle. But then muzzleloading hunting need not be frustrating and fruitless either. The knowledge and wisdom that accompanies the muzzleloading experience brings the hunter closer to the land, the game pursued and to himself. In the words of Japan’s great fifteenth century sword-master, Matsuyo Matsumoto, it makes him, “part of the game.”

All three facets of the hunting equation benefit; the game pursued, the hunter, the land, and are the better for it.

Closer to the Land,

Closer to the Game,

Closer to Himself.

Good hunting,

‘Doc’ White

DocRedBear2001Doc and the same  near seven foot red-phase black bear seen in the introductory photo, taken next morning. The rifle is a White Super-91. The load was 100 grains Arco powder under a 480 grain White designed SuperSlug. The bear went about 6 feet after the hit through heart and lung.