Every year our grade school showed a movie in the auditorium before we went home for the Thanksgiving holiday. One year the film we saw was Jeremiah Johnson. A film based loosely on the life of John Liver-Eating Johnson.
In the film, Johnson, a wannabe mountain man, happens across a genuine Hawken rifle frozen in the hands of Hatchet Jack, who came out on the short end of the fight with a grizzly. The note attached to the rifle read something to the effect “it is a good rifle and it kilt the b’ar that kilt me.” From that time on, I not only wanted to be a mountain man, but I needed a Hawken rifle.
What is a Muzzleloader?
Muzzleloaders are any firearm that you load from the end of the muzzle where the projectile exits. It could be a rifle, a shotgun, or a pistol or a revolver. For our purposes here we will focus on rifles because they are a simple and easy way to enter the world of black powder shooting.
Types of Muzzleloading Rifles
There are many kinds of muzzleloading rifles available to shooters today. Let’s narrow our focus even more and group our guns into traditional and modern.
Traditional rifles are going to be something like Jeremiah Johnson’s Hawken rifle, a Kentucky long rifle, or something we may have seen in a movie about the American Revolution or Civil War. The rifles consist of three main parts: lock, stock, and barrel. Bet you didn’t know that common phrase comes to us from the world of muzzleloading, did you?
The lock is simply the mechanism that allows the hammer to be cocked under spring tension and then to be released when the trigger is pulled. The barrel is obviously the part of the rifle that contains the powder charge and projectile and serves to stabilize our projectile and send it on its way to the target. The stock ties our lock and barrel together and gives us a handy way to hold the rifle.
Modern or in-line rifles are basically the same as our traditional rifles with one small difference. The primer or cap is in a direct line to the powder charge and the barrel. This allows for a more direct priming flame to ignite our powder and also aids in cleaning and maintenance since everything is in a straight line.
Additionally, the in-line rifle also generates a bit more pressure and velocity because the breech seals tighter than a traditional rifle. On many inline rifles, there is also the option to use 209 shotgun primers to ignite the powder charge.
Loading the Muzzleloading Rifle
You will also now be violating a cardinal rule of firearm safety, “Never point the gun at something you don’t intend to shoot.”
You will necessarily have your hands and fingers over the end of the muzzle to load the rifle. Remember, a muzzleloader is not considered to be loaded until a percussion cap is placed on the nipple or a primer is inserted into the breach.
Loading the Muzzleloader
First, determine that the rifle is unloaded by dropping the ramrod down the barrel. At the point where the ramrod exits the muzzle place your thumbnail and mark that spot on the ramrod.
Pull the ramrod out of the barrel keeping your thumb in that spot and lay the ramrod along the side the of the barrel with your thumb resting on the muzzle.
If the end of your ramrod goes all the way to the breech your gun is unloaded and ready to charge. If the ramrod extends up past the muzzle, there is a charge or obstruction in the barrel that you need to address before loading your rifle.
Now, place your rifle on half-cock or full-cock, depending on the model. Place a percussion cap on the nipple. Point the rifle at the ground, preferably toward a leaf or grass and pull the trigger.
The cap should ignite and you should see the leaf or grass move. Do this twice. This does a couple of things: it helps dry any moisture or lubricant in the breech, the nipple, and the bore, and if the leaf moves it means the bore is clear and ready to load. Be sure to wear your hearing protection and safety glasses for this step.
Set your rifle up against a bench or sturdy object. You are ready to charge the rifle with powder. Black powder and black powder substitutes like Pyrodex are measured by volume, not weight. You must have a black powder measure to correctly measure your charge.
Also, purchase a powder horn or smaller container to pour the powder into the measure. Never pour directly from the bulk can.
Black powder is very volatile and subject to ignition from sparks or even static electricity, so you want to deal with the smallest amounts possible while loading your rifle. Pyrodex is less sensitive and less apt to absorb moisture. It’s also easier to clean and easier to store safely. For beginners, I highly recommend Pyrodex products.
Pour your powder into the powder measure. Be sure to double-check the charge on the measure. Now with your fingers only, pour the powder into the barrel. Tap the barrel a couple of times to be sure the powder goes all the way to the breech.
Next, we’ll seat our bullet. For a patched round ball, center a pre-lubed patch on the bore and place a round ball in the center of the patch.
If the ball has a sprue or flat spot from the bullet mold place the ball so the sprue is pointing up. Now use a short starter to start the ball into the barrel.
Once the ball is started take your ramrod and firmly drive the ball down the barrel. Use short, straight up and down strokes so you don’t pull or push the ramrod back and forth and risk bending or breaking the rod.
When the bullet is all the way down on the powder charge, tap the ramrod firmly to seat the ball tightly against the powder. Remove the ramrod. I’ve seen the results of not removing the ramrod—generally a short flight and a busted ramrod.
Now you are ready to place your percussion cap on the nipple. Use the tool supplied or recommended for your rifle so you do not handle the caps any more than necessary. Be sure the rifle is pointed downrange. Once you place the cap on the rifle it is considered loaded and ready to fire.
You have successfully loaded your rifle. You are now ready to shoot!
Shooting The Rifle
Just like any other rifle, the muzzleloading rifle is fired by simply moving the safety to “Fire” and squeezing the trigger. However, even with the most modern muzzleloaders, there’s lock-time, meaning the time it takes from the moment the trigger releases the sear to the time the powder charge is ignited and sends our bullet down the barrel.
A muzzleloader is slow compared to a modern bolt action rifle. Therefore, our technique must be very good in the trigger squeeze and follow through departments. With a traditional muzzleloader, you will very often hear the hammer hit the cap, hear the cap detonate and hear the charge ignite.
While still a short time in the big scheme of things, it is slow compared to our modern centerfire firearms. You must keep your sight picture as long as possible and keep your cheek welded to the stock until the rifle comes out of recoil.
Final Thoughts and Pointers
This article is meant to spark some interest in muzzleloading. If you have never fired a muzzleloader, attend a class or go with someone experienced until you understand the basics.
Use Pyrodex while you are learning. It is safer, easier to store and easier to clean than real black powder.
Muzzleloaders are not considered firearms by ATF. They’re considered antique firearms. This removes some of the regulations around them.
You can go to your favorite store or online outlet, choose the gun of your choice, pay and go home. No paperwork, no background checks, no waiting. That said, a few of the newer inlines do qualify as firearms due to their construction.
All you wannabe mountain men and women should get out there and give muzzleloading a try. You may find a new and challenging sport that will test your marksmanship skills and if you pursue wild game, you will find special seasons and tags that provide more time out in the field.
Do you have questions about muzzleloaders? Leave a comment below.