Muzzleloader Hunting: A Beginner's Guide

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One shot. Close range. 1830’s technology. Big bull elk. Bugling. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? It’s muzzleloader hunting.

Each year more hunters are discovering the thrill of muzzleloader hunting. There are several advantages to a muzzleloader hunt over traditional rifle hunting. In the Western states in particular, there are special muzzleloader seasons that traditionally coincide with the peak of the elk rut. Licenses are limited, so there are few hunters in the woods. Depending on the location and the skill of the caller, bulls can be bugled in to close ranges. All in all, it makes for a very exciting hunt.

However, there is a learning curve to becoming a proficient muzzleloader hunter, and chances are, you’ll make every mistake in the book at least once. You’ll see some mighty fine bulls get away from a situation where it would be “meat in the pot” with a high-powered scoped rifle.

For those who are unfamiliar with muzzleloaders, allow me to explain. Muzzleloaders are the weapons that Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone carried afield with them during their bear hunts, Indian fights, and battles. Today there are two basic types of muzzleloaders used for hunting—primitive and in-line. Both are based upon the premise that the shooter pours powder down the end of the gunbarrel, then rams a slug or ball down on top of it to load the gun.

Primitive muzzleloader aficionados must choose between either a flintlock or a caplock ignition system. A flintlock is the more primitive technology, popular from the time of the Revolutionary War through the early 1800’s. The hammer of the gun holds a piece of flint wrapped in fine leather. Below the hammer is a frizzen, a swinging metal plate. Below the frizzen is the pan, into which the shooter pours a small amount of fine black powder. When the shooter pulls the trigger, the hammer strikes the frizzen, the frizzen folds back, and sparks are showered into the black powder in the pan. The ignited powder in the pan shoots a tongue of flame into the barrel of the gun via a small port. In turn, this flame ignites the black powder that has been poured into the barrel. The powder explodes, forcing the ball that has been seated on top of it to shoot out the barrel.

This process sounds cumbersome, and it is. Ignition is not instantaneous. Flintlock shooters have to hold steady for a second or more while an explosion occurs under their eyes. The possibility for error is very real.

The more modern of the primitive technologies is the caplock design. Caplock muzzleloaders use the same basic concept of funneling flame into a port in the barrel, but the ignition is accomplished through a small nipple seated under the gun’s hammer. A small copper cap with a tiny bit of nitroglycerine is placed atop the nipple. When the hammer falls, the cap shoots a tiny spurt of flame through the nipple and into the port in the barrel, igniting the powder inside and shooting the ball out the barrel. Ignition is much more rapid than the flintlock.

In the last decade or two, several companies have noticed the resurgence of muzzleloading popularity. In response, they have crafted rifles that adhere to many states’ definitions of muzzleloader technology, i.e., a ball is rammed down the barrel and it can only be loaded with one round at a time. However, these are not primitive weapons. There are various ignition systems to discharge the load in the barrel, including shotgun primers and specially manufactured discs that are loaded directly behind the charge in the barrel. These are called “in-line” muzzleloaders. These rifles look more like high-powered rifles with a ramrod than something Daniel Boone might have carried on a bear hunt. Many in-line shooters use pelletized powder that can be dropped into the barrel in 50-grain increments and saboted copper-jacketed bullets that are built much like a high-powered rifle bullet with a plastic sleeve to allow ramming it down the barrel. Many of them are mounted with scopes and other optical sights.

Muzzleloader calibers range from old .36 and .40 caliber flintlock squirrel rifles to .68 caliber muskets used for warfare. Most flintlock and caplock guns today are .50 or .54 caliber, with an occasional .58 caliber rifle. The minimum size elk rifle is .50 caliber, and .54 certainly hits harder. The biggest in-line muzzleloaders are .50 caliber, with the occasional .45 caliber rifle used for deer and smaller game.

So, if you’re going muzzleloader hunting, you must make an immediate decision: is your goal simply to be in the woods with fewer people around, or would you like to stalk an animal with the additional challenge of carrying a rifle based on 1830’s technology? If your goal is to maximize your chances with the best available technology, then get your hands on an in-line muzzleloader. If the mystique of hunting like Jeremiah Johnson or John Colter appeals to you, then look into buying a caplock or flintlock rifle.

Whichever route you take, shooting a muzzleloader demands practice and patience. If you choose an in-line rifle, thinking that you can accurately shoot an animal out to 175 or 200 yards using pelletized powder, saboted bullets, and a scope, think again. First, you’re still obligated to use iron sights. Few riflemen these days are skilled enough to consistently hit targets at 200 yards with iron sights, and scopes are illegal in most Western states. Secondly, the data provided by the rifle manufacturers that suggest an 11-inch bullet drop at 200 yards are using saboted bullets and pelletized powder, both of which are illegal in most Western states. Thirdly, even if you can hit the kill zone on an elk at 200 yards with black powder and iron sights, the bullet will have lost much of its down-range energy and the chances of only wounding the elk are great. Combine that with a minimum 20-second reloading time (if you’re fast and your hands aren’t shaking with buck fever) and you’ve got a lose/lose situation. An elk can cover a tremendous amount of territory in 20 seconds, and I HATE tracking wounded elk. I recommend limiting your shots to a maximum range of 100 yards, no matter what rifle you’re carrying. After all, the whole point of muzzleloader hunting is to be more skilful hunter and to stalk within closer ranges.

Personally, I like to imagine myself hunting the same way as the old-time mountain men, so I hunt with a caplock Hawken. When I’m hunting with this rifle, I know that I must have my game plan organized down to the finest detail. I sight in my rifle until can I put three shots in a Skoal can at 100 yards. I clean the barrel meticulously to rid it of the corrosive black powder fouling. I prepare my powder flask and possibles bag with measures of powder and bullets. I practice speed loading at the range so that I can get off a quick (twenty second!) follow-up shot. Before setting out to hunt, I load my rifle meticulously and check my gear. Then I prepare myself mentally to pass up any shot that isn’t a clear shot at a standing animal at a maximum range of 100 yards. Most of the time, I’ll even pass up the 100-yard shots in favor of a 60-yard or even 20-yard shot.

I’ve hunted on and off with a caplock since 1979, so I’ve learned a few tricks with it. First of all, elk hunters must use a heavy slug. There are three basic kinds of bullets to use in a muzzleloader: the above-mentioned plastic-sleeved sabots, lead slugs, and lead round balls. Round balls are loaded by seating the ball on top of a greased patch of cloth on the muzzle, then ramming it home with the ramrod. Slugs are coated with grease, started down the muzzle, and then rammed home. The problem with round balls is that they’re usually significantly lighter than a Minie-type slug, and don’t travel as far or hit as hard. While round balls may be fine for whitetail hunting, I wouldn’t shoot them at elk. I knew an elk hunter who shot a bull five times in the ribcage with round balls before it finally died—after many miles of tracking. A typical .50-caliber round ball weighs 150 grains, while a typical buffalo bullet or Minie-type slug weighs 350-380 grains. I’ve shot a pile of elk using Thompson-Center 370-grain Maxi-ball slugs, and they each went down like they had been hit by a truck.

Keep in mind, however, that certain muzzleloader barrels are cut with a slow twist for shooting round balls, and others are rifled with a fast twist for shooting slugs. Make sure that you research the rifle and match it with the appropriate hunting load before you purchase so that your rifle is most accurate for the type of shooting you plan to do.

Most rifles have a “sweet spot” where they shoot very accurately with a certain load. Loading a rifle with more powder may indeed generate more muzzle velocity and knockdown power, but it may also cause it to lose its accuracy. For my caplock, I’ve learned that 90 grains of powder makes it shoot very accurately up to 100 yards and it still kicks pretty darned hard. It develops plenty of energy at that rate to dump an elk with one shot. The maximum load for most muzzleloaders is 120 grains of powder, though the experts say that black powder doesn’t explode like smokeless powder and you really can put a lot of powder in a gun with no adverse consequences. I still wouldn’t recommend it, though. Please note, however, that any amount of smokeless powder will explode almost any muzzleloader because of the high pressures generated.

Whenever a system is unsealed—like a primitive muzzleloader—there is the potential for leakage. This September it rained like there was no tomorrow in the Colorado high country, and it seems that the weather hits every year during muzzleloader season. Several times in my muzzleloading career I have come upon a great shooting opportunity only to learn that my powder was wet—after I pulled the trigger and heard only the “snap!” of the cap igniting. Hunters can prevent their powder getting wet by covering the muzzle of the rifle with plastic wrap secured by a rubber band, and also by sealing the nipple’s connection to the breech of the gun with modeling putty.

If you think the possibility exists that your powder may have gotten wet, there are still ways to make the rifle go off. With a nipple wrench, you can remove the nipple, dig out a few grains of wet powder, replace it with a few grains of dry powder, and away you go again. If it won’t make a difference in your hunting, fire the gun. If it won’t fire, try several caps until it goes off. In humid places like Alabama, hunters all fire their rifles at the end of each day of hunting. Towards sunset, you can hear a ragged salute of gunfire as each hunter discharges his load.

On an elk hunt, the excitement is in getting close to the game. A rutting bull usually has only one thing on his mind, and when a big bull responds to a bugle with a challenge of his own, well…it just doesn’t get more exciting than that. Armed like one of the mountain men of the 1830’s, knowing that you’ve got just one chance to put a killing shot in him, knowing that you’ve got to be patient and wait for the ideal shot, it makes hunting with a high-powered rifle seem just a little unfair.

Gary Hubbell, a Colorado native lives in Marble, Colorado. He guides elk, deer, and upland bird hunts, as well as flyfishing and summer pack trips. His articles and photos have appeared in Outdoor Life, Bugle, Outside, Newsweek, Forbes, and Heartland USA, among others.


Good info for new black

Good info for new black powder hunters.   I have to take exception on one thing though.   I have shot my last 5 white tail deer with my flint lock .45 rifle.   I don't have to wait for it to go off, it fires just as fast or faster than my cap lock.   A good flint lock will normally fire just as fast as a cap lock and there are fewer hang fires with a flint.  People interested in any of these black powder firearms should go to the National Muzzle loader Rifle Association's web site at NMLRA.Org.  I have used cap locks, in lines, and now my flint lock to take deer.   It is a personal choice for me to use the flint lock now.   Keep in mind that I had over 3000 shots through that rifle when I took my first deer with it on January 1, 2010.  Muzzle Blast magazine ran my article, " First Flintlock Deer" in their July 2011 issue if you are interested.  My load is 60 grains of 3F behind a .451 round ball, and a wonder lube cloth patch.  They have all dropped within 50 yards.  Give it a try, whatever gun you want to use and enjoy the trip back in time.


Retired2hunt's picture

  Gary - a very informative


Gary - a very informative article for especially the novice - ME!  I plan to venture out more on my hunting in 2012 and muzzleloading season is one aspect I plan to take advantage of.  I own a 54 caliber so I do have the power for taking down an elk.  I have shot it many times and think I have that sweet spot of an ammo and poweder measure.  I just need to secure the tag and then get out there.  Great article and thanks as you (even with an article that is 8 years in the past) have sparked a desire that I will see through for next year's season!


jim boyd's picture

I purchased an in line

I purchased an in line muzzleloader a few years ago and have hunted with it some and have never taken a deer with it.

When I purchased it, I sighted it in and "got it close" and let it go at that.

Since that time - I have really worked on my shooting skills and this summer, I got the old front loaded out and gave it whirl...

That thing is deadly accurate!

In the south we are allowed to use scopes on these rifles.... I was getting 3" groups at 100 yards and there are times I do not do much better than that with a centerfire (although I know I should).

I think in most western states, scopes are not allowed - so if I ever was fortunate enough to get out there for a muzzloader hunt - off would have to come the scope and some range time with open sights would be in order.

I will put that off for a few years and just stick to the east coast with the front stuffer... I need to bank at least one deer over there first.

I am in SC and we do not have a muzzleloader season so it is hard for me to convince myself to put the centerfire away and use the black powder rifle.

Great article - good read!

Big Muzzleloader fan

Thanks for adding this article to the reading list. I love muzzle loaders.  I like the tradition behind them.  This article is dead on.  I could read more of these article all the time.  Just like lever actions I like the tradional type firearms and hunting methods.

CVC's picture

Lots of good information and

Lots of good information and perfect for someone like me who is just now thinking about a muzzle loader.  Not looking to take advantage of different seasons, but for the added challeng and just because a smoke pole is cool to shoot.

jaybe's picture

Great Article!

Thanks for this article. Lots of good tips, safety precautions and miscellaneous thoughts.

Anyone thinking about getting into muzzleloading will get a lot of good information here.

Good pictures, too!


GeorgeMcGinn's picture

Great Article -

I am a traditionalist when it comes to hunting with blackpowder. I use only what was available during the time of the mountain men. I built my own CVA Mountain Rife and Mountain Pistol, both .50 caliber, and I also built my own capote out of a genuine Hudson Bay blanket.

I've been hunting blackpowder since 1979, and I have only used my .30-06 for competition shooting (highpowered silouhette shooting). I recently sold it because all I shoot is blackpowder. I am currently building a side-by-side 12-gauge shotgun, also in the CVA Mountain series. I can't wait to shoot my first duck with it.

One day I would love to come out west and hunt elk, maybe even Grizzly Bear, especially once I have the 12-gauge completed. I can shoot slugs.

I am really dismayed about the selection of guns out there today. Why are they making blackpowder guns that look like a modern rifle? Is it because it take too much care in shooting a gun design of the 1800's? 

Besides bow-hunting, blackpowder hunters are more sportsman-like than those who use conventional highpower rifles. We have to tend to our guns more, keep them very clean (I can't see some of my friends hooking a hose to a washed out milk container with warm soapy water and running it to clean their guns). Come up with homemade fixes, and due to distance limitations, we take great care in pulling that trigger. I'm a better shot with my muzzleloader than I am with a conventional weapon. Knowing you only have one shot makes you think about pulling that trigger!

I lived in New York where I shot deer and black bear with my muzzleloader. I even shot boar too in Pennsylvania. That's when I decided to use a pistol as backup. Had one charge me, even though it was a kill shot. The pistol shot hit him directly in the head, stopping him cold. When we opened him up, my shot got both lungs and part of his heart, and he still had enough to charge me. 

However, now I live in Florida, and those who hunt blackpowder do not seem to be that special breed. And hunting when it's 80 degrees just doesn't seem right. It has to be snowing out.

Now that both our daughters moved out to Colorado, I now have an excuse to go hunting for the big game I have dreamed about. The kids are skiers, so is my wife, so I won't be missed on the slopes.

So Gary, let's keep in touch. Because when we decide to go and visit (we plan a year ahead) I may be interested in your guiding and outfitting services. (The Web site on your link goes to a directory page - do you have a Web site?)

George McGinn
Keep your powder dry 

CVC's picture

Great post except when you

Great post except when you disparage other hunters who do not share your passion.  It is unfortunate that in times when hunters are under attack by non-hunters some hunters feel the need to attack their own for simply having a different approach.

To generalize and say non-ML hunters who use high power rifles are not as sportsman-like is unfounded and counter-productive.  Hunt the way you want and let others, provided it is legal and ethical hunt the way they want without criticizing them.  United we stand....

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