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Whether a traditional flintlock or a caplock, a musket or muzzleloading rifle is a classic hunting weapon, offering the sportsman increased challenge and connection to the past. However, a muzzleloader also requires patience and dedication to wield effectively.
Muzzleloading firearms fall into two categories: smoothbore muskets and rifles. From the Kentucky long rifle and Hawken rifle to the modern Remington or Thompson/Center, the muzzleloader has played an integral role in American history.
In a muzzleloader, the loading procedure is relatively simple. Pour a quantity of blackpowder from a horn or flask into a measure — pour the powder from the measure down the barrel. Then, place a patch on the muzzle with a ball or bullet and insert with a starter. Finally, insert the ramrod into the muzzle and seat the bullet on the powder charge. If the weapon has a modern caplock design, place a percussion cap on the nipple.
A primitive weapon, many hunters find the one-shot challenge enticing. You need to fire from a close distance, compared with rifles firing centerfire cartridge ammunition, and your first shot must count. The reloading process is time consuming, and if you miss, the game animal you’re pursuing is likely to escape before you’re able to fire a follow-up shot.
Closing the distance requires its own skillset, which you’ll have to cultivate through practice in the field. You’ll also often have to make effective use of camouflage and other equipment to mask your approach.
Muzzleloader Hunting Tips
Once you have a muzzleloader that you’re satisfied with, you should follow a few muzzleloader hunting tips to achieve the best results when you’re in the field.
Handle with Care
How you handle and transport your muzzleloader can significantly affect whether your weapon remains ready when you need it. Depending on the type of ammunition you’re using — e.g., a lead ball vs. a saboted projectile — your muzzleloader may be more or less susceptible to sudden impact. You don’t want your ammunition to be loosened from the barrel.
Swabbing the Barrel
Some shooters choose to swab the barrel between shots using a patch soaked in alcohol, oil, or a cleaning solvent between shots, reducing fouling and ensuring consistency between shots. Whether you find this necessary is up to you, but some types of muzzleloading ammunition can cause more fouling than others, especially if the plastic sabot leaves residue.
Consistency is Everything
Your priority when attempting to maximize the accuracy potential of your muzzleloader should be consistency. When you’re loading your gun, try to ensure that you’re applying equal pressure to the projectile and propellant charge during the seating phase when using the ramrod from one shot to another.
Consistency includes using the same balls, bullets, and powder charges from range to field. If you zero your rifle for one load, then switch to another while hunting, your accuracy may suffer.
When you insert the ramrod into the barrel to pack a ball or bullet and powder, use a pen, pencil, or masking tape to mark the ramrod when you have achieved the correct seating depth. This mark will help you seat the ammunition to the same depth every time.
The distances at which you expect to shoot in the field should inform your range practice. For example, if you expect to shoot a deer at 100 yards, you should practice hitting targets consistently at the same distance.
The type of ammunition, ambient weather conditions, and temperature should also be consistent for the best results. Inconsistencies can cause the point of impact to shift from one shot to another. As a result, if you zeroed your rifle at 60°F and you’re planning to hunt at 20–32°F, you should test your ammunition loads at colder temperatures to verify the point of impact.
Keep Your Weapon Dry
You should always strive to keep your muzzleloader and your ammunition dry. Modern metallic cartridge ammunition protects the powder propellant, to some degree, against the ingress of moisture. Muzzleloading firearms do not have that luxury, so it’s imperative that you keep your powder dry. If you carry your muzzleloader with the muzzle up, consider keeping the muzzle covered to prevent rainwater from entering the barrel.
Be Careful With Lubricants
Lubricating the bore when firing patched lead balls is one thing, but if you’re firing modern ammunition, such as saboted bullets, avoid using lubricating oils inside the barrel. That can adversely affect the accuracy of your weapon.
Apply the Fundamentals
To achieve accurate shots, you must apply the fundamentals of marksmanship consistently. These are hold or steady position, aiming — sight alignment and sight picture — breath control, and trigger control. Everything you do must be consistent from shot to shot — that’s the foundation of accuracy insofar as the shooter is concerned.
One of the fundamental principles of marksmanship is follow-through: continuing to practice the other fundamentals, such as trigger control and breath control, until after the shot has been fired. While fundamentals are essential to accurate shooting in centerfire rifles, it’s even more important in muzzleloaders.
A muzzleloading firearm tends to undergo slower ignition than a rifle firing metallic cartridge ammunition. As a result, if you do not follow-through, or assume that percussion-cap detonation equates to propellant ignition, you may inadvertently move the barrel and miss your shot.
Cleaning Your Muzzleloader
One of the most critical muzzleloader hunting tips concerns weapon maintenance. While cleaning and lubrication are necessary components of routine maintenance, they’re all the more important regarding blackpowder weapons. Blackpowder is hygroscopic and promotes rust; therefore, you should always clean the barrel of your muzzleloader after every range session or hunting trip. Invest in a cleaning kit and use it frequently.
The Bottom Line
Muzzleloading rifles are considered primitive hunting weapons, but they’re simple and highly efficient when used by a trained marksman. Apply the fundamentals consistently, check that your equipment and ammunition are consistent, and practice regularly — and you’ll have a formidable weapon with which to take deer, elk, bear, and other game.