Muzzleloaders have changed drastically in the last two decades, offering hunters reliability and accuracy in well-crafted firearms. Barrels are machined to precise tolerances and ignition sources have essentially done away with misfires. Bullets and powders offer better velocities and energy than ever before, allowing shooters to stay on target at distances previously thought unachievable.
With all of the modern technologies to make muzzleloading easier and enable hunters to shoot farther, optics still play a great role in staying on target. Let’s face it, even with centerfire rifles, most hunters couldn’t shoot accurately beyond 100 yards without a good scope. Muzzleloaders were always thought of as short-range rifles, so many hunters never invested in high-quality optics. But poor-quality optics can rob hunters of the accuracy and distance their rifles can actually achieve.
Today, the better the riflescope on your muzzleloader, the farther you can shoot accurately and confidently. Although there is a wide range of powder and trajectory options for front stuffers, most hunters have chosen to simply use maximum or magnum loads. Using 150 grains of Pyrodex or Triple 7 powder and a 250-grain pistol bullet in a sabot is pretty standard. There are several variations of a magnum load, but most are compared to Pyrodex or Triple 7.
Optics companies recognized the majority of hunters were using magnum loads and designed optics to appeal to the masses. They developed reticles for a direct hold on target out to 250 or even 300 yards. The calculated bullet drop is built into the scope, and point of impact at 50-yard intervals are established with a reticle bar, dot or crosshair. That is, there is a point for 50-, 100-, 150-, 200- and 250-yard intervals, or even farther in the scope.
The range-specific scopes use the second focal plane for the reticles to work, meaning in most cases the scope must be on maximum power for the shooting systems to work.
The different products are extremely easy to use, and shooters simply need to sight in for 100 yards and the hold-over points in the scope will line up. It is strongly recommended that hunters test the point of impact at the different distances at the range before going hunting. Knowing exactly where your bullet will hit provides the confidence to make anyone a better shooter. With inevitable variations in powder and bullet options, it is always best to confirm all points of impact identified in a scope by testing at the range.
Several companies, including Bushnell, Nikon and Leupold, offer reticles for .50-caliber in-line guns with a direct hold to 250 yards or more. These easy-to-use scopes help shooters understand second focal plane reticles, making them less likely to make a mistake when purchasing optics.
When using a variable scope, the reticle in the first focal plane increases and decreases as you adjust the power setting. In the second focal plane, the reticle stays the same size as the image gets larger or smaller with changes to the power setting. The smaller reticle at a high setting allows for better accuracy, as the target remains more visible and isn’t covered by the reticle itself. This means the reticle covers more area on low power, and less area on high power. Point of impact can change at different power settings so most systems are designed to work at maximum power.
Bushnell was one of the first to identify the muzzleloader market and offer a product specific for in-line hunters. The Trophy XLT 3-9×40 comes with a DOA 250 reticle. The DOA stands for Dead On Accurate and provides hold-over aiming points. The scope features an etched glass reticle on the second focal plane with three dots below the main crosshair. You simply sight your scope dead on at 100 yards. The first dot under the crosshair will be dead on for 150 yards, the second at 200 yards and the third at 250 yards.
The DOA reticle also works to estimate the size of a deer’s antlers, with what it refers to as the Rack Bracket. The hash marks outside of each aiming point measure 17 inches, the average width of a whitetail’s ears. The full width of the bar running through the aiming point is 24 inches. When lining up on a deer it is easy to estimate its antler size with the reference marks.
Nikon’s Prostaff line of muzzleloader-specific scopes features the Bullet Drop Compensation (BDC) reticle that allows hunters to hold dead on at a variety of ranges. The BDC reticle features see-through ballistic circles for greater visibility of the target. The increased visibility offers an incredible advantage for long-range shooting, yet allows a normal sight picture for shorter-range shots where the crosshair itself is the aiming point. The circles will line up with most magnum loads for a 150-, 200-, 250- and 300-yard holdover. Nikon does offer its Spot On Ballistic Match Technology, which is a program where the shooter can enter the powder and bullet options to get the exact holdover for each circle in the reticle. The fine tuning will provide further accuracy for shooters.
The crosshair is sighted in for 100 yards and the circles line up for specific loads with the distance calculated on the Nikon website or on the iPhone app. It is a precise system for hunters that could face a shot from close range to the outer limits of modern muzzleloader capabilities.
Nikon does offer several options in its Prostaff line with different power settings and objective lenses as well as color, camouflage and finish. It also offers the BDC reticle in the Inline XR series of scopes.
Leupold’s UltimateSlam riflescope offers a Sabot Ballistics Reticle it refers to as a SA.B.R reticle. It offers a center ring with a crosshair running through it. The top of the ring, or circle, is dead on at 50 yards, the crosshair at 100 yards and the bottom of the ring at 150 yards. There are two dots under the ring used for a dead hold at 200 and 250 yards. The top of the post on the duplex reticle is the hold mark for a 300-yard shot.
This is a second focal plane scope, so the magnification setting does determine the point of impact. Hunters using maximum loads for a muzzleloader will simply set the scope to maximum power, but for shooters only using 100 grains of powder the scope can be set to a specific magnification to line up the holdover points. Leupold has made it easy and placed markers on the power adjustment ring indicating two or three pellet loads. The shooter simply adjusts the power setting to the load indicating 100 or 150 grains of powder. This scope can also be used with 12- and 20-gauge shotgun slugs for even more flexibility.
The center ring and circular aiming points are sized to correspond to three inches of target at their intended ranges, and Leupold claims one-inch accuracy with the system.
With some of the best-known names in optics offering outstanding scope options for muzzleloader enthusiasts, it can be tough to decide on the product that is right for you. They all offer waterproof, fog proof, multi-coated lenses with outstanding light transmission. They come with great warranties and different models and configurations. To make an informed decision, it is important to check out the different scopes and look at the reticles firsthand. Some will seem natural, while others could be confusing. Be sure to dial the power adjustment ring to maximum, or the power needed to line up the holdover points in each scope. Look at objects out to the distances you intend to shoot while hunting and see if the reticle is clear and provides good visibility of the target and if it seems like you could quickly and confidently know what aiming point to use when seconds count. Use it in low light and see if light transmission is sufficient and try to fog up the lens with steam or even your breath. Put them all to the test and then compare prices to get the best value for the money you have to spend.
Spring is the best time of year to outfit your favorite muzzleloader with a new scope. It gives you months to sight in, test and improve accuracy, and calibrate features to ensure you have a dead-on hold at different distances. You will be miles ahead of the hunters that try to change optics a week before deer season opens and hope they don’t have any issues. Preparing months in advance will allow you to shoot under different conditions. You will know how much windage to adjust for windy days, if you spent time shooting in similar conditions and identified the results on target. Shooting once a week, or even once a month, before the hunting season opens will drastically improve your form and accuracy. Heading into the field with confidence will enable most hunters to be more successful when a deer finally presents an opportunity.