I’ve been involved with muzzle-loading for as long as I can remember. My mother says that I was carving old guns out of bars of soap before I was old enough to walk. That’s probably an exaggeration, I don’t remember a whole lot about it until fifth grade and Mr. Nelson. I remember him reading us stories. If we were good we got a story a day, or at least part of one. He read them to us like a serial, always keeping us in suspense.
I remember him reading about Boone and Bluejacket and Bridger – he was always strong on historical characters. I was fascinated to learn about the opening of the Old Northwest and the Western beaver trade and the migration into Kentucky, but I was even more fascinated with the long muzzle-loading rifles that they used.
Since those formative years I’ve collected, owned, shot, built, manufactured and hunted with muzzleloading guns by the score, if not by the hundreds and thousands. I’ve had the privilege of handling and shooting literally hundreds of originals – Kentuckys, Hawkens (even Jim Bridger’s last Hawken once), and a motley of muzzleloaders, too many to detail.
I’ve admired them, written about them, bragging on some and heaping hateful words on others, and have seen muzzle-loading change from a time when there were only originals to shoot and only antique parts to fix them with, to a time when there are a dozen new muzzleloaders on every dealers shelf.
I suppose that qualifies me to say something terribly wise and significant about muzzleloading. Well, it’s growing, and changing and sure to change even more.
Change is the name of the game. You ain’t seen nuthin’ yet. But every time the sport changes a little, there’s some who holler their heads off over some problem with authenticity or enhanced performance, or even with the perception of enhanced performance. They don’t want anything to change.
I remember when Val Forgett of Navy Arms put his savings on the line and imported the first reproduction Colt revolvers back in the 70’s. You should have heard the shouts of rage and anger. The Colt collectors were ready to string the poor man up. Later, the furor died down when it became obvious that originals were easily distinguished from reproductions and you could admire the original and shoot the repro.
We got used to repros in the 70’s. They were welcomed enthusiastically because we could shoot them all day without harming history at all. Then came the western Fur Trade Rendezvous movement. Before that, the best living history games were in the East among those who did French &n Indian War and Revolutionary and Civil War re-enactments. They were lots of fun and lots of us did them all. But soon came the ‘hooraw’ about ‘pilgrims’ and ‘greybeards’ and the contest to see whom had the most ‘authentic’ Hawken. And then Thompson-Center burst on the scene with their so-`called ‘Hawken’.
I remember the fuss and bother as if it had been yesterday, hoorawing the T/C ‘Hawken’ ‘cause it didn’t look at all like a real Hawken. Well, it didn’t and it still doesn’t, but I don’t think T/C cared much. Most of the Hawken copies that turned up later, especially the ones imported from overseas, looked like theirs instead of the real thing and they giggled all the way to the bank.
At that time, in the 70’s, the authenticity of your muzzleloader mattered a lot, especially on the Rendezvous circuit. You just had to have a proper antique looking sidelock to get into camp. Then muzzleloading hunting came along.
Initially it was Rendezvouers wanting special hunting seasons for their round ball guns. Guess what? That brought another group of folks into the picture. Yeah. Hunters who were tired of modern efficiency and who wanted another season to hunt flocked into muzzleloading hunting. Guess what? They didn’t give a hoot about authenticity. All they cared about was getting the job done and the style they liked best was what worked best and was the most efficient.
That stimulated another group, inventors this time, to invent new products better adapted to the huge gang of hunters who were switching into muzzleloading. Alex Hamilton’s 10-X , Kurkowski’s Wolverine , Knight’s MK-95 and my Super-91 were all developed and marketed in the 1970-90 timeframe. Knight wasn’t the first, but he was the most successful. He came along at just the right time.
Well, the ‘hoorawing’ that started with the T/C ‘Hawken’ just got worse when the Knight and the White and other in-lines like them came along.
It didn’t seem to matter that percussion in-lines were invented by Jean Samuel Pauley within four years of the invention of the percussion cap, in 1808, nor did it seem to matter that in-lines use the same barrels and bullets as the sidelocks.
It didn’t seem to matter that in-lines were just as safe, if not more so, than side-locks. It didn’t matter that the new in-lines were familiar and easy to get used to, it didn’t matter that modern hunters were used to the shape of the stock and location of trigger and safety. (Or was it that they were TOO easy to use?)
It didn’t seem to matter that the machines used for manufacturing in-lines are the same as for sidelocks, (often the same machines with some companies), or that both styles employ barrels made on the same machines, or that both load from the muzzle one shot at a time. Both use the same bullets, have the same rainbow trajectory, limited range and limited power when compared with modern cartridges.
It didn’t seem to matter that in-lines are sometimes not as handy as a sidelock. Throw a snowball into the action of an in-line sometime and see how easily it cleans out, compared to a side-lock. The side-lock will be far easier.
A similar thing is again taking place. T/C came out with their Encore, a falling breech type of muzzleloader. It has been very successful in the marketplace, despite it clearly not being the first of its kind. The Kanke has been available for years, Various break-open muzzleloaders based on shotgun actions were available even before that. It’s just that T/C’s ad campaign was monstrously successful.
Savage has even come out with a muzzleloader meant for smokeless powder. It has attracted an enthusiastic following, even though most states will not allow hunting with smokeless during black powder seasons. The purchaser has to switch to Black Powder or BP substitutes to hunt a muzzleloading season.
Once again, cries of consternation arose from the traditionalists. Once again, those decrying the ‘new’ action completely ignored the historical fact that break-open and falling block types of actions were first developed for muzzleloaders and only later adapted to cartridge guns. And they also completely ignored the fact that smokeless powder loaded down the muzzle is still just another substitute for Black Powder, and is rarely used for hunting, except in modern rifle seasons.
Of course, all modern production muzzleloaders, whether sidelock, drop-block or in-line, are machine-tool made, cup-cutter carved, and automatic machine-sanded, with wax-cast, sintered and computer controlled (CNC) machinings. Many are never touched by human hands until the assembly stage of production. Neither type is really any more ‘authentic’ than the other. But that fact doesn’t seem to matter, either.
I’ve learned that many of us are like the kid who won’t take a bite of anything new. He knows he’s not going to like it simply because he’s never tasted it before. How can it be good if he’s never experienced it?
Consider this: there’s a far smaller difference between a round ball and an elongated bullet than there is between ‘modern’ and ‘traditional”
A centerfire shooter doesn’t mind if you choose a 35 Remington when he chooses a 300 Magnum. Centerfire shooters have few romantic notions about the tools they use, so they pick a particular rifle for a particular task, not because it’s traditional. Tradition serves best as a teacher, not a jailer.
Anyone who chooses a 35 Remington knows full well that it’s a short range arm, better in thick woods and tree stands. Conversely, a man who chooses a 300 Magnum knows it’s best scope mounted and used in more open country. The guns don’t compete. They’re meant for different tasks.
The round ball is much like the 35 Remington. It’s best used in deep woods and tree stands where the shooting is short. Like the 300 Magnum, the longer White designed PowerPunch bullet shines where the ranges are longer and the animals are bigger.
Still, even the best of muzzleloaders loaded with the best ballistically efficient POWERPUNCH or other brand competing bullet won’t hold a candle to a modern centerfire. A POWERPUNCH leaving the muzzle at 1400 fps drops about the same in 200 yards as a modern 300 Magnum drops in well over 400 yards. This makes a 200 yard shot with a PowerPunch a tough call.
Same with the modern Sabots. They claim 2000 FPS velocities, but shoot short, fat bullets with very low Sectional Densities and Ballistic Coefficients. This means the bullet slows way down by the time it reaches 200 yards and just doesn’t measure up in terms if killing power when compared with a modern cartridge. (or even a PowerPunch) A 200 yard shot with a fast sabot is still a tough call, there is no room for error. It has to hit the boiler room precisely to be effective.
So, it doesn’t matter what a muzzleloading rifle looks like, what action it has or what bullet it shoots. The difference is that it shoots one bullet at a time, uses Black Powder or substitute, (even smokeless), loads slow down the muzzle and has a trajectory like a rainbow compared to modern centerfire stuff. (even the Savage with smokeless shoots only as well as early cartridge arms- with Black Powder or BP subs, it shoots only as well as any other muzzleloader)
Let’s recognize that the common limitation of muzzleloading arms is not the action, or the barrel, or the bullet, but is Black Powder or its substitutes and the fact that it has to be loaded one shot at a time down the muzzle. That, after all, is the definition of a muzzleloader.
Let me make a few predictions
I made some predictions in the first edition of this book, in 1990. Let’s review and see how close I came to the mark.
I said; “As muzzleloading bullets get longer, and they will get longer as muzzleloading hunters search for enhanced ballistics, calibers will get smaller.” Well, I was right about the calibers getting smaller but the smaller bullets have turned out to be pistol bullets in sabots. I was wrong when I said, “It won’t take long for hunters to catch on that smaller diameter elongated bullets like the White SUPER-SLUGS hit harder downrange with a lot less kick than do heavier, shorter and fatter bullets. Take a look at the ballistics of the White .410 caliber bullets. Compare their ballistics with any .50 caliber bullet you want.” Hunters have not caught on, at least for the bigger part. Only the smarter ones.
Granted, most hunters have been taken in by those who claim high velocity with short pistol bullets, but sooner or later they will come to their senses when they realize how poorly those short pistol bullets perform at 200 yards or so. And how poorly they penetrate and kill when they do. The same thing happened with early cartridge rifles and elongated bullets. I expect it will follow the same pattern again. Some smart manufacturers are already producing longer small caliber bullets for use in sabots. 300 grain 44 and 45 caliber bullets for 50 caliber sabots are common.
I claimed, “Most states will continue to favor muzzleloading hunting as a means of game, habitat and hunter control. Muzzleloading guns have the right combination of slow reloading, limited range and rainbow trajectories to foster management of game, hunter and habitat, yet have plenty of killing power for humane kills. The muzzleloading rifle is a superb wildlife management tool.” This has turned out to be true. There are more and more muzzleloading hunting opportunities across the nation every year.
“Muzzleloading shotgunning will play an increasingly larger role as hunters learn that muzzleloading shotguns shoot every bit as well as modern ones,although they are slower to reload. They’re just a lot more fun and challenging. Hunting turkey with a muzzleloader will get an especial amount of attention. Who needs more than one shot on a turkey anyway.” True, but only slowly taking place.
“New and better materials will result in a quality of muzzleloader never before imagined. Authentically styled, wood-finished fiber and composite stocks will bring the fine quality rifles and shotguns of yesteryear into everyone’s home. Everybody will be able to afford a ‘Manton’ reproduction.” Hasn’t happened yet. The muzzleloading hunting market could care less about authentically styled guns.
“Muzzleloading propellants will continue to improve. Black Powder will gradually improve to the superb stuff produced at its peak in the 1860’s while new nontraditional propellants will take over a substantial share of the market. The new propellants will be less corrosive, will ship like smokeless powders, and will still smoke enough to keep us traditionalists happy. Eventually, someone will develop a smokeless powder that will resolve most if not all of the problems of Black Powder.” Hodgdens 777, Pyrodex, Clearshot and Cleanshot and others have all come onto the market since that prediction, but all are more corrosive than common black powder because of the chlorates most contain.. The smokeless substitute still goes begging. Blackhorn 209 is a good try in the right direction but its high ignition temperature takes a lot of fire to get it lit. That’s why it’s called 209- takes one to light it off. A lower ignition temperature would be a great help. It also has to be compressed to make it function just right, requiring a tight fitting bullet, which means difficult loading. It does not work well at all with slip-fit bullets unless they are tight. Is there such a thing as a semi-slip-fit bullet?
“Muzzleloading barrel quality will continue to improve. Demands by hunters for high quality barrels with uniform dimensions and minimum manufacturing deviation will result in adoption of barrel standards by the industry. White has already recognized this coming move by adoption of a three figure measurement of land-to-land diameters, rather than the two figure measurement used by others. This raises the accuracy of barrel dimension listing by a factor of ten.” Barrel quality is certainly better, in general, than it was 20 years ago, but the industry has yet to develop any standards. A shooter still has to search to find just the right diameter bullet for his particular barrel.
“As a result of the above changes in barrel standards, bullet manufacturers will be able to produce bullets of a similar standard; three figures rather than just two. The buyer will know what diameter bullet he is buying to the nearest thousandth of an inch by just reading the label, not by having to chance a purchase hoping that barrel and bullet will fit.” Nope, sorry, not true yet, but it sure would be nice if it ever happens.
“Better sighting arrangements will be promoted by more game departments as they come to realize that allowing the use of optical sights does not harm their game herds. Research will show that scope-equipped muzzleloading hunters kill their selected game with less wounding loss than iron-sighted hunters. Fears about extending the ranges at which muzzleloading kills are feasible will come to naught as game departments realize that the rainbow-like trajectory of muzzleloading bullets and hunter estimated range are the limiting factors, not the scope.” Some Western states have finally allowed scopes, almost all Eastern states do. It appears that states that manage excess game allow scopes while those that are more sparsly populated do not. They ignore the fact that long range shots taken with open sighted rifles wound far more game than shots taken with better sighting equipment. Scopes minimize wounding loss.
“The safety, reliability, dependability and durability of muzzleloaders will continue to improve as hunters demand better arms. This demand will be driven by their hard earned dollars and the market will respond appropriately. The flimsier guns on today’s store shelves will eventually be replaced by arms as good as their modern cartridge contemporaries. Muzzleloaders will cease to be ‘toys’ and will come to be regarded as serious hunting arms, deserving of best effort manufacturing and usage.” True! The over the counter arms currently offered are far better than those of a decade or two ago. The customer is finally beginning to get what he deserves.
“Muzzleloading bullets will continue to improve, with better aerodynamic shapes, controlled expansion, and improved down range performance. Better sabots are on the way as well, with better materials that shed less plastic in the barrel while loading much easier than in the past.” Obviously true, getting better all the time. Manufacturers have finally recognized that muzzleloading is a lucrative niche market deserving their best efforts.
“Muzzleloading will become so popular that eventually everyone who owns more than one gun will also own a muzzleloader. And he will shoot it, use it and hunt with it rather than just admire it.” Need I say more?
“Even though the major muzzle-loading market will be hunter driven, there will be more opportunities for the traditionalists among us than ever before. As always, there will soon be a resurgence of interest in things traditional as hunters attracted into muzzleloading because of another hunting season get caught up in the Rendezvous game and learn traditional ways. Shooting contests for modern in-line muzzleloaders won’t be far behind.” Admittedly, there are fewer small traditional shoots and rendezvous than there used to be, but a substantial number of big ones remain and they are bigger than ever. However, traditionalists are aging. One can see it by attending a few rendezvous. There are lots of gray heads and few young ones present. The membership of the National Muzzleloading Rifle Association has fallen to 17000, from a top of 25000 in 1990.. It appears that traditionalism is slowly dying out, a sad affair. Shooting contests for more modern muzzleloaders haven’t happened yet, although I still expect it to come about.
Times are changing, both for the traditionalists and the muzzleloading hunter. I’m still tickled to be a part of it. Having seen muzzleloading develope like it has is like a dream come true. It’s great to be a part of history. Let’s all be sure that the mark we leave is a good one.
‘ Doc’ White
Here I am with a smallish Dall sheep, shot with the first Leman rifle from Green River Rifleworks, (which I designed), in 1972, on the Chistochina drainage of southwestern Alaska. We used to hunt Dalls for the meat. They are delicious, even better than Impalla.