I’ve been hunting off and on with muzzleloading rifles for nearly 35 years. It all began back in the early 1980s when some friends and I decided to build our own muzzleloaders from a popular Hawken replica kit, loading them with the first generation of Pyrodex and heavy lead conical Buffalo Bullets and using a #11 percussion cap.
The reason was pragmatic. Several Western states were just beginning to offer muzzleloader-only seasons for mule deer and elk during the rut, and we wanted to take advantage of them. We’d do whatever it took to hunt the rut, be it hunt with a bow, rifle, muzzleloader, bazooka, whatever was legal and gave us a seasonal advantage.
Those old muzzleloaders were a nightmare. You had to use primitive iron sights, and when fired — often there was a hangfire, or if a bit of moisture entered the system, no ignition at all — the effective range was maybe 75 yards.
That all changed in 1985 when entrepreneur and big-game hunter Tony Knight introduced his MK-85 inline-design muzzleloader. This changed the entire course of blackpowder hunting and redefined “primitive” arms seasons in a way that is still debated. Essentially, Knight’s creation took the less-reliable sidelock configuration of the blackpowder rifles that were in use back then and created an ignition system that launched a spark straight from primer to powder for a faster, much more reliable “boom.”
The MK-85 (named after daughter Michelle’s initials) was the very first commercially made inline rifle designed to take advantage of the new crop of muzzleloader-only hunting seasons, and it quickly became a monster success. Soon several other companies began offering similar rifles, and improvements quickly followed. From the open breech design of the MK-85 and its followers using #11 percussion caps soon came a closed-breech system using the much hotter 209 shotshell primer, which can more consistently ignite modern propellants. Closed-breech systems include bolt-action rifles, but these are more difficult to clean than the break-open action style that soon followed.
Break-open actions are the most popular design used today. Today companies like Ashland Gun Innovations, CVA , Knight, LHR Sporting Arms, Lyman, Thompson/Center and Traditions are building the most accurate and reliable muzzleloading rifles ever made. Top one with a quality riflescope — either a conventional model or one designed with ballistic bars or circles that make holdover out to distances of 250 yards or more quite doable — and you have a serious big-game hunting machine. And compared to the “old days,” when it took an act of Congress to get a muzzleloader clean and keep it rust-free, today’s rifles are easy to clean and maintain.
Improvements in propellants from organic blackpowder have also made modern muzzleloaders more accurate and user-friendly. The first was Pyrodex — and later, Pyrodex RS and Select, followed by Triple Se7en. Others soon came along, including American Pioneer/Shockey’s Gold, Blackhorn 209, and Alliant Black MZ. Most come in granular form, but many come in a pelletized version with pellets varying from 20 to 50 grains each. IMR, best known for centerfire rifle powders, sells IMR White Hot pellets for modern inline muzzleloaders.
Then there are bullets. A far cry from solid lead round balls and conical slugs, modern muzzleloader bullets have been designed expressly for use in today’s high-performance rifles. The biggest innovation in both accuracy and performance was the introduction of a sabot, a plastic cup that holds a .45-caliber bullet tightly against the lands and grooves of a .50-caliber rifle barrel (by far the most popular caliber shot today is .50-caliber.) Sabots tend to leave a nasty residue in the barrel that needs to be scrubbed out regularly for optimum accuracy. Some modern bullets, notably the CVA PowerBelt and Federal Premium Trophy Copper Muzzleloader Bullets with B.O.R. Lock MZ System match the size of the bore, and thus do not require sabots. I’ve shot both types a fair amount with excellent accuracy and terminal performance results.
When the MK-85 first appeared, Tony Knight and I had many heated discussions about why his rifles, which had similar ballistics to a .30-30 lever-action rifle, should be considered a “primitive” weapon and not a single-shot rifle — a debate that has not completely ended. Because of the increased efficiency of modern inlines — consistently killing deer at 200 yards and beyond is not uncommon for dedicated hunters who take the time to work up accurate loads and practice a lot — some states have put restrictions on what is legal in their states. Some do not allow closed-breech ignition systems, the use of 209-type primers, sabots or scope sights, for example. Some allow an either/or choice between using a muzzleloader or a shotgun with slugs during their firearms season. You have to know the law before you head afield.
A decade ago I would grimace when it was time to shoot or hunt with a high-maintenance muzzleloader. Today, though, shooting the new modern muzzleloader is a joy. They’re accurate, easy to clean, fun — and a great way to make meat.
In that regard, I guess some things never change.