The Muzzleloader Connection
A growing number of deer hunters want the increased challenge and link to the past that come from using these primitive firearms.
By Gary Clancy
When I hunt with a muzzleloader, I feel far more connected to the deer-hunting experience than when I tote my .30-06 or 12-gauge slug gun. The connection goes back a long way -- back to when I was just a skinny boy, devouring every book I could find about mountain men and their many adventures in what was to them a wild, new land. My boyhood friends had Mantle, Mays, and Unitas for idols. My heroes were Bridger, Boone, and Crockett.
It would make a nice story to say that all of my life I dreamt of someday hunting with a replica of Davy Crockett's "Ol Bess" -- his trusty muzzleloader rifle -- but that's not the way it happened. Like most young hunters in southern Minnesota, I started hunting deer with a shotgun loaded with slugs. Nobody I knew hunted with a muzzleloader.
Years later, I heard about a special muzzleloader-only hunt on the Fort McCoy military reservation near Sparta, Wis., and applied for a permit. When I drew a tag for the hunt, I asked the only person I knew who owned a muzzleloader if I could borrow his rifle.
John Carlin lent me his .50-caliber T/C Hawken rifle and outfitted me with powder, bullets, percussion caps, and tools -- along with a handmade buckskin pouch, called a possibles bag, to carry them in. John showed me how to pour a measured charge of powder down the barrel and how to "start" the bullet down the muzzle and push it with a hickory ramrod. When a notch he'd carved into his ramrod was even with the muzzle, the bullet was properly seated.
Next he showed me how to place a percussion cap on the nipple. To fire a muzzleloader, you squeeze the trigger to release the cocked hammer, which strikes the cap, sending a spark through the nipple and flash hole to ignite the packed powder charge. When the powder explodes, the pressure forces the bullet out the muzzle.
A modern rifle, on the other hand, fires a cartridge in which the bullet, powder, and primer (which replaces the old percussion cap) are all combined in a single brass casing.
Striding off into the pre-dawn blackness on a cold November morning, cradling the long, heavy-barreled rifle in the crook of my arm, I felt for the first time a connection to my boyhood heroes. Later that morning, as I slipped softly along an oak-studded ridge and spotted a buck and two does feeding on acorns, I felt the anxiety that comes from having only one shot. One cautious step at a time I crept closer to the deer. A muzzleloader is not a long-range tool. With open sights, I figured I was accurate out to about 75 yards. I judged the deer were 60 yards away when I straightened up slowly along the rough hide of a gnarly oak, cocked the hammer, tugged the rear set-trigger, and, as my breathing returned to some semblance of normal, let the sights settle behind the buck's near shoulder. When I touched the front trigger and the brass butt-plate shoved hard against my right shoulder, a cloud of white smoke erupted from the muzzle of the rifle, hanging forever in the breathless air. I couldn't see a thing. For a long moment, I wondered if the shot had been true. Then I could see through the thinning haze that the buck lay quietly in the leaves. "Making meat" is what the mountain men called it. The connection was complete.
During the more than quarter century that has passed since my first muzzleloader hunt, I have been fortunate to travel all over North America toting my front-stuffer. In the fall I usually hunt deer and sometimes elk, bear, and moose. In the spring it's turkeys, although I substitute a muzzleloader shotgun for the rifle. Sometimes I hunt special seasons, such as Minnesota's, set aside for those who wish to hunt with muzzleloaders only. But often I use my muzzleloader during general firearms seasons.
Hunters who view deer hunting competitively might ask why I choose to handicap myself with a single shot. Why sacrifice the longer range that high-velocity rifle cartridges provide? They miss the point. This is not a contest. I am not competing against other hunters and their more powerful, modern centerfire rifles. I'm simply hunting. It's a personal thing. And for me, the hunt is more challenging, fulfilling, exciting, meaningful, and memorable when I hunt with a muzzleloader.
A Bit of History
An English friar named Roger Bacon is often given credit for inventing black powder, but Bacon simply translated and copied down a recipe he found in Latin manuscripts. The year was 1242. China had been producing the substance for more than 200 years, and the inhabitants of Rome were watching awestruck as the fireworks made possible by this new explosive lit up their night sky.
It wasn't long before the British military discovered that by ramming some black powder down a hollow iron tube and then stuffing a 500-pound round stone on top of the powder, they could, with repeated firing, batter down the walls of enemy fortresses. The cannon was born.
From there, it was just a short step until foot soldiers were armed with what were called hand cannons, the forerunners of today's muzzleloader.
Advancements in muzzleloaders primarily have focused on the rifle's ignition system. A rifle that did not immediately fire when the trigger was pulled, while frustrating to a hunter, must have been downright unnerving in combat. The first ignition system, called a matchlock, no doubt caused some high anxiety. It was basically a smoldering wick, which was supposed to ignite the priming gunpowder, which rested on a small round pan near the hammer. When and if this charge exploded, it ignited the powder charge in the barrel that propelled the bullet.
The matchlock was followed by a variety of other devices designed to ignite the powder -- the wheel lock, snaphaunce, miquelet, flintlock, and finally, in the early 1800s, the percussion caplock, which is pretty much where developments in muzzleloaders came to a standstill. By the mid-1860s, weapons manufacturers had invented the self-contained cartridge, a more reliable and convenient device in which the powder and projectile were encased in a metal tube.
A New Era
More than 100 years later, a railroad man with a knack for building guns stepped out of his little shop in the hills of northern Missouri holding the first major advancement in muzzleloader rifles: the in-line percussion muzzleloader. William "Tony" Knight christened it the MK-85 -- after his daughter Michelle and the year 1985. The gun was loaded through the muzzle (like old-time muzzleloaders), but the percussion cap was positioned directly behind and in line with the powder charge. Since the spark had a short distance to travel, ignition was nearly foolproof. More than anything else, that is what the modern muzzleloading hunter wanted -- a gun that would fire when the trigger was pulled.
Knight's timing was perfect. Though previously reluctant, game managers by this time had begun granting the wishes of muzzleloading hunters requesting special seasons where they wouldn't have to compete with hunters toting modern firearms. Helping the muzzleloaders' case was game managers' recognition that the special season could be another tool for controlling a seemingly ever-expanding whitetail herd. State after state began announcing special muzzleloader seasons, most of which, like Minnesota's, are held after the general firearms season.
Since then, increasing numbers of deer hunters wanting to take advantage of the additional hunting opportunities have gone shopping for muzzleloaders. In Minnesota, for example, muzzleloading hunters have risen from just over 1,000 in 1977 to nearly 10,000 in 1998. Basically, they have two styles to choose from: the traditional sidehammer percussion caplock and the new in-line models. Some opt for the traditional look and feel of the sidehammer percussion caplock rifles. But most buy an in-line, which feels and looks much like the centerfire rifles they are used to firing. A scope can easily be mounted on the in-line. (Minnesota law prohibits scopes on muzzleloaders during the special muzzleloader season.) What's more, cleaning an in-line is a snap compared to the messy chore of swabbing out a sidehammer gun, which can be cleaned only from the muzzle. But mostly it's the promise of quick, dependable ignition that has would-be muzzleloading hunters lining up for in-lines.
Have We Gone Too Far?
Some claim that the recent improvements made in muzzleloader equipment -- such as in-line ignition, flatter-shooting conical and sabot bullets, and less-corrosive Pyrodex powder -- have transformed the muzzleloader into little more than a single-shot but otherwise modern rifle. Far from it. Put a single-shot centerfire rifle in my hands and I can still easily put six shots into a target in under a minute. With a muzzleloader, I can squeeze off just one round in that time. With the flat trajectory of a modern rifle, such as a .30-06, I can easily hit targets at 200, 300, even 400 yards. Given the rainbow trajectory of the best load I can concoct for my pet smokepole, I won't attempt a shot at anything longer than 150 yards.
The challenge of muzzleloading is to learn to do what the mountain men did so well -- to make one shot count. By learning that, the modern muzzleloading hunter makes a connection to the past.
Muzzleloader season opens Nov. 27. To learn more, contact the DNR Information Center, listed on page 57.
Gary Clancy is a free-lance writer from Byron. E-mail: Glclancy@aol.com.
The Muzzleloader Boom
Minnesota held its first special muzzleloader season in 1977. The season didn't make much of a dent in the deer herd. More than 1,000 hunters took part, but they killed only 32 deer.
From 1977 through 1993, only a few selected areas in a few state forests and wildlife management areas were open for the special season. But in 1994 the DNR allowed the special season throughout the state except for a small portion of extreme northeastern Minnesota. Last year 9,765 hunters participated.
As muzzleloading hunter numbers have grown, so has their proficiency. The success rate last year during the muzzleloader season was 32 percent, just a tad below the 35 percent rate of regular firearms season hunters.