Hunting with muzzleloaders is popular enough that most states have special or separate seasons for hunters using them. The rules for those seasons vary, so if you are setting up a hunt, even near home, do a little homework to see which guns, calibers, sights and styles of ignition are favored during those times.
In my home state of Washington, the ignition must be exposed, which means an in-line rifle that has an enclosed percussion nipple and cap are not allowed. Also, Washington does not allow scopes on muzzleloaders when used during the muzzleloading seasons. Scoped muzzleloaders can only be used during modern-rifle seasons because they are using modern sights. Washington also has a minimum bore size of .40 caliber for deer and .50 caliber for elk.
My personal choices for muzzleloaders and smoothbores are the old-looking percussions and flintlocks that follow traditional styling. Others may favor the newer in-line rifles, which are often shorter and lighter, as well as easier to carry. I won’t argue with that. What I will say is whichever style of rifle or smoothbore you prefer, do a few things to get that gun ready before heading out on the hunt, even before sighting it in.
I’m going to be very basic about this because one year, during a muzzleloading season, we saw a new hunter beside his car trying to load a brand-new in-line rifle. The box that the gun came in was on the hood of the car, and his friends were trying to help by reading the printed instructions out loud. I don’t know how things went for that group, but in my opinion, that wasn’t the best way to start.
Before taking that first shot, you should be well equipped with all of the extras you will need. Yes, powder, patches and balls or elongated bullets, plus flints or percussion caps fall into that basket, but that’s simply the ammunition, and those things are usually, I hope, already established. Some things that are often not considered are cleaning patches, black-powder solvents, and a cleaning rod or jag for the ramrod. While those things are often not given the priority they deserve, they are actually the things that are needed first. The reason is that almost any new rifle will come with oils in the barrel and in the breech of the gun. This should be wiped out before anything else! Yes, those oils will probably be burned out with the first few shots – that is, if the gun will fire. But the oil in the breech area can completely block the flash channel – that important link between the spark of ignition and the main powder charge. If the flash channel is blocked the gun will not fire. A very easy way to clear the flash channel on a percussion is to simply snap a cap or two, but be sure your gun isn’t loaded before doing so. This can be especially true if you have purchased a used muzzleloader. They are often put away while still loaded. Sounds elementary, but most accidents are.
It is a good idea to snap the first cap while aiming the rifle in a safe direction. Then snap a second cap with the gun’s muzzle close to the ground so you can watch for movement in the blades of grass, or even just in the dust as the blast of the cap comes through the barrel. Seeing something move near the gun’s muzzle is a good indication that the flash channel is clear.
On a flintlock you clear the short flash channel with a flash-hole pick. I often do that both before and after the gun is loaded. Just poke the pick through the hole and after the gun is loaded you should feel powder grains moving or crumbling as you push the pick through. With that done you know the spark from the flash pan can reach the main powder charge. In fact, do that with a flintlock any time you think it is a good idea.
In addition to wiping out the bore, swab it with a good black-powder lubricant, such as Wonder Lube. That will help break in the new barrel. You should use a natural oil rather than a petroleum product, in my opinion.
Now you should be ready to sight in your rifle. Many of the custom-made muzzleloading rifles come with rear sights which are not yet notched. Cutting the notch is left to the buyer. The reason is that each shooter prefers a different size or even style of notch. If each shooter cuts their own notch, everyone ends up satisfied.
Cutting the notch isn’t a problem, and it is certainly a small job. I prefer a narrow V-style notch and cut in it with a small knife file. While the shape and width of the sighting notch is up to each shooter, the way it is cut into the rear sight is worthy of a little discussion. I almost always cut those notches from the back of the sight with the file at an angle so the notch will be deepest at the front. When the eye looks through the notch, you will only want to see the silhouette of the sight.
You might ask me if I had done all of those things before getting my first deer with a muzzleloading rifle. Well, yes, I did. It was a fine whitetail buck taken at 125 yards on a cold snowy November afternoon, using a .54-caliber Hawken-style rifle loaded with 120 grains of FFg under the patched round ball. The .526-inch ball simply tore all of the “plumbing” from the top of the heart. Let me add that I had already been shooting for a couple of years at monthly matches and rendezvous. I will also say that I had some very good teachers, members of the Cascade Mountain Men, a muzzleloading club that is still flourishing and more than ready to accept more new members. You can visit them at cascademountainmen.com.
For those thinking about getting a muzzleloading rifle, I will quickly recommend the Lyman Great Plains Rifle. The Lyman GPR is one of the most authentic muzzleloaders on the market and it comes in either .50 or .54 caliber, with a flintlock or percussion ignition, and is available in a right- or left-handed model. I know a lot of shooters who use the Lyman GPR and they perform very well.
Now, if you take these steps before taking that first shot, you’ll be off to a good start. That good start, of course, is the real beginning and foundation for a successful hunt. ASJ
Editor’s note: For more information about the Lyman Great Plains Rifle, visit Lyman’s web site at lymanproducts.com.