by John Woolfolk
drawings by Dave Miller
Around the fire in most any hunting camp, one of the favorite topics of conversation is, "What's the best hunting rifle?" Because there are about as many opinions as there are hunters, this is a dangerous area in which to venture a written opinion. Be that as it may, I am going to tender a few thoughts and opinions on the subject in the hope that the new shooter will be aided in making his/her decision as to what they would like to buy for a first hunting rifle.
As you read, please keep this in mind: nothing I write came down from on high, written on stone tablets. All is derived from my observations and made up of my opinions, garnered from over a half-century of shooting and hunting. This means that you and I can disagree and neither of us be wrong. (Or right, for that matter!) We may simply have different "druthers" for different reasons.
The idea of this article came to me the other day when I dropped into a sporting goods store where a friend works. We got to chatting, and he suddenly reached up to the rack and took down a little, very spendy, single-shot cartridge rifle.
"What do you think of that little gem?" he asked "Wouldn't that be a nice rifle to carry?"
Trying to be diplomatic as possible, I told him that it certainly would be a nice one to carry, but I wasn't at all sure it would be worth a hoot to shoot. He looked a bit taken aback, and swinging the rifle up into an offhand position, told me that it had perfect balance and swung nicely. I felt like saying, "Yeh, it would make a great shotgun." But I simply commented that it was a bit light for my shaky old hands to hold steady and let it go at that.
As I snooped around the gun racks, I noted that virtually all of the muzzleloaders on display had many of the same drawbacks that the little single-shot exhibited: too light, too short, and wrong balance. Let me explain what I mean by these criticisms, and then go on to several other problems that seem to be creeping into the world of muzzleloading.
To become reasonably adept at shooting any rifle, a person must shoot it. To be more specific, you must shoot it with the loads that approximate those you will use for hunting, and you must shoot it over the ranges and under the circumstances that you will meet in the field. Targeting it at known ranges from a bench rest with a sand bag between you and the rifle's butt is of little value for anything except load development and sight-setting. Rarely have I seen deer in the wild where I had some kind of a marker that let me compute the exact range, and I have never shot one from a benchrest.
Every lightweight muzzleloader of large game caliber that I have shot has been a real kicker when loaded heavy. Even the macho types who claim that "a little recoil" doesn't bother them soon develop accuracy-destroying flinches when shooting such a gun. The same load in the same caliber is much less punishing in a piece weighing a couple pounds more.
At a recent event, a shooter was using one of those little .50 caliber carbines with the black "rubber" stock and a twenty-four-inch stainless steel barrel, sans under-rib. According to the literature, it weighs in at under six pounds. He, like my friend in the sporting goods store, was enamored with how easy it was to carry. The rifle that I shoot more than any other is a .40 caliber Southern Mountain flinter with a thirty-six-inch, 13/16" barrel and a very slim walnut stock. It weighs in at just under 6 3/4 pounds.
I noticed that he seemed curious about my rifle, so I asked if he would like to shoot it. He was eager to, so I loaded and handed the rifle to him. His first comment was, "Boy is this ever light!" He could not believe that it weighed close to a pound more than his carbine. His next comment was to the effect that the rifle held "so steady."
Here is one of life's little anomalies. A long, slim rifle will almost always seem lighter and both carry and hold on target easier than a shorter rifle of the same weight. The old-timers knew this. That is one reason why they made their rifles with long swamped (i.e.,tapered-and-flared) barrels. Long barrels carry easy and hold steady, and the swamping not only takes excess weight off, but puts what remains out where it does some good, at the front of the barrel. Look at your Siluetas Metalicas or Olympic Running Boar shooters. You don't see any little wispy barrels or rifles that balance just ahead of the trigger guard there. Sure, their rifles would be a real bear to carry in the woods. They often go to an extreme for accuracy. That does not mean that we need to go to the opposite extreme. Especially when it does not work well, or creates other problems. I advocate picking a rifle primarily on the basis of its shooting, rather than its carrying characteristics.
One of the other problems with short-barreled rifles is the limited sight radius. The shorter that is, the harder time you'll have shooting accurately with open sights. Sure, you can solve the problem with a telescopic sight, but if I remember correctly, only about half of the states allow optical sights during muzzleloader season; and by adding a scope, you have just nullified much of your attempt to cut the rifle's weight and have made it carry like a two-by-four. A good trade-off?
Another problem with many of our newer rifles lies with the bullets they are designed to shoot. The rubber-stocked rifle I mentioned has a 1:28" twist and rifling about .004" deep. This means that the rifle is meant for conical bullets. Now, there is nothing wrong with conicals. They hold their velocity much better than a round ball and wind-drift less too. When it comes to foot-pounds of energy, it is hard for a round ball to hold its own against the conical. Sounds like the way to go!
Unfortunately, there is a fly in the ointment. Load a six-pound rifle with a hundred grains of 2F black powder and a 180-grain patched .50 caliber round ball and you have the makings of an uncomfortable rifle to shoot. Now, pull that round ball and add a 300-grain conical and you have a load that approximates the old Sharps .45-100-330 Express load. Sharps rifles usually weighed in at 9 1/2 pounds or more. In a light rifle, that load is no fun.
Some folks say, "I don't shoot the thing enough to develop a flinch. I don't care if it kicks. I never notice recoil on a shot at game." To that person I'd say, "If you don't shoot a hard-kicking rifle enough to develop a flinch, you don't shoot it enough to develop the ability to shoot it accurately."
Lots of folks get away with very mediocre shooting because the average deer in the country is still shot at fifty yards or less, and the average elk is hit at under a hundred yards. You don't need to be a Sergeant York to be successful at most hunting. However, if you are content with only mediocre shooting, you are eventually going to run upon a situation where you miss, or worse yet, wound an animal because of your less-than-desirable shooting skill. Remember, Mr. Murphy's mad maxim is even more true for hunting than for the rest of life. The buck that you shoot right-under-the-belly-of, because you haven't practiced field-shooting enough to be accurate at that range is bound to be the biggest one you will ever see in your whole life!
This brings us to another problem that is creeping into muzzleloading hunting: the "long-range muzzleloader." Beyond a hundred yards, few people can estimate within ten percent of the correct range. By 150 yards, about half of the hunters are off by twenty percent or more, according to the tests I've seen. Add open sights, which take more skill and practice to use well, and you have the makings for wounded animals.
It is my firm belief that one reason muzzleloading hunters have an enviable success rate and low numbers of lost animals is because the majority have been aware that their rifles have limited effective range, and thus have seldom taken shots at distances beyond their capabilities. They have hunted their game rather than having simply taken shots of opportunity.
I was recently looking through a hunting magazine at the barber shop. It showed photos of a number of record animals taken with muzzleloaders. Most had been stalked to within archery range and dispatched quickly with one shot. Personally, I deplore the advertising of the "Long Range Muzzleloader." I think it is a carrion crow that will come home to roost, to our regret.
Then, there are other problems to think about. A friend who hunts during Ohio's rather chilly winters told me a tale of woe a couple of years ago. He was shooting a .44 magnum bullet encased in a plastic sabot from his muzzleloader. He got a clear shot at a big buck at close range in sub-zero weather. Putting his sights on the animal's neck he touched the set trigger only to have the bullet plow snow well below his point of aim. He couldn't believe that he had jerked the trigger, but could not account for such a miss by any other factor. Then he started to reload, only to find that the plastic sabots were brittle as glass at that low temperature. Not all sabots are made of this type of plastic, but if you use them, make sure this is not the case.
Then there is the fellow who took a "cinch shot" at a nice blacktail only to have his rifle give a very "hollow sounding" report and almost no recoil. His bullet had fallen out of the sabot, and thus out of the barrel. He was not a happy camper! The sabot and bullet must match properly.
A gunsmith friend showed me a .50 caliber half-stocked rifle of well known make that was brought in to him by a hunter. The barrel was bulged about four inches back from the muzzle, and there was a two-inch split starting at the front end. The hunter reported that he had loaded the rifle early in the morning and had carried it until he and his partner had taken a lunch break and mid-day nap. Then he had checked that the Maxi-Ball was on the powder, only to find that it had worked a few inches down the barrel. Seating it again, he set off for an afternoon hunt. Just after sundown, he had spotted a nice deer, aimed, and pulled the trigger. The rifle "sounded funny" and he missed. As he had started to reload, he'd spied the ruined barrel.
The cause of this near catastrophe seems to lie in the fact that lead is dead. It has no spring. Shove it into the barrel and it does not create tension to hold itself there as patched ball does. Given the differing coefficients of expansion of lead and steel, and the temperature changes that occur during a late fall hunt, it is easy to see why a rifle loaded with a bullet that is held in place by a lead/steel interface, and which is usually carried muzzle-down, could have the bullet work almost out of the barrel during an afternoon's hunt. The fact that the barrel didn't burst speaks well for the quality of steel in that barrel.
It may sound like I am dead set against using conicals in muzzleloaders but I'm not. Indeed, I have used Lee's .50 caliber "Traditional" Minie Ball in my Green River Leman. Using 90 grains of 2F with it, or 110 grains and a patched .498" ball, I get two loads that shoot to just about the same point of aim out to 125 yards. (My maximum range--seldom resorted to.) I find that both have shot through every animal that I have hit with them and leave identical wound channels. The difference? The Minie load kicks harder, and I feel the need to continually check to see that the bullet is still on the powder. To my way of thinking, conicals simply solve a problem I don't have.
Also, there is the problem of caliber. Which one is best? Just as there is no one best cartridge, there is no one best bore size in muzzleloaders. A lot depends upon just what you will use your rifle for. A .54 isn't a very good squirrel gun. A .36 is not the best choice for deer. What one needs is a load/projectile combination that will insure full penetration of the animals you are hunting, at the ranges at which you will be shooting. It doesn't really matter if the projectile is a round ball or conical. Forget foot pounds of energy. This is a concept that has little to do with killing power. Archers know this, but muzzleloaders seem to have trouble realizing that game is harvested by a rapid drop in blood pressure caused by bleeding. If you put a broadhead, conical, or ball through the mass of blood vessels in the heart region of an animal, it will die in a very short time. It is nice to have both entrance and exit holes too, just in case you have to track the animal a ways.
I have found a 95-grain, .40 caliber ball to be more than adequate on our coastal blacktails at brush-country ranges. While you can't tell the wound channel from that made by a .30-30, I'd be very hesitant to use it on big mulies in open country. For deer-sized animals I lean toward the increased mass of a .50 caliber or larger. I don't want my ball stopped by heavy bone.
So what would I recommend that a beginning muzzleloader do if he is in the market for a hunting rifle? Go to muzzleloader shoots or rendezvous and just look around, ask questions, and look interested. Almost for certain, you will soon have someone offering to let you shoot his rifle. Most black powder devotees are eager to be helpful to the newcomer. The flintlock shooters tend to be especially nice people. (Yeah, I'm a flinter, how did you guess?) Try as many types as you can. Be sure to shoot them off-hand, sitting, or kneeling. You learn little about the field attributes of a rifle at a bench.
Ask which rifles have a reputation for accuracy and dependability. (But don't rely on a single opinion.) Look around until you find a guy using one you like and tell him you're interested. He'll probably have you shooting it in no time. Once you have decided upon a particular rifle, ask about. There may be a good used one available at a reasonable price. Go to muzzleloading gun shows. Find out what the prices are. But don't believe anything told you by someone who is trying to sell you something!
And for Pete's sake, join a black powder club. There are all kinds of advantages to belonging - one of the biggest being the fact that you will shoot more, and thus you will become a better shot. We black powder shooters cannot afford to get a reputation as wounders of game.
You shoot an in-line and the local club only allows round ball rifles with open sights? It is easy to rig your rifle with "emergency sights" and in-lines will shoot round balls with moderate loads surprisingly well. You'll get a lot of practice, have fun, and meet new friends. What's to lose?
While there are a number of good, accurate, mass-production rifles on the market, unless you view a rifle simply as a tool with no more soul than a hammer or saw, you will eventually want to go to a custom or semi-custom rifle. One that fits your needs and esthetic peculiarities to a tee is a thing of beauty for a lifetime. It really doesn't matter whether it is a long, highly ornamented Pennsylvania fullstock, a short, beefy Plains Rifle, a plain, graceful Southern Mountain Rifle, or a fast-handling English Sporter (or even a plastic-stocked electronically-sighted, ceramic-barreled in-line...); it will be the rifle you have chosen. Not something the mysterious "they" claim you just have to get. Good shooting!
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