Jon and Kurt Snyder – the chairman of the Grays Harbor chapter of the WWA – made our group a foursome. In addition to his duck hunting knowledge, Kurt was a huge help because it was he who put out the decoys and doubled as our retriever for getting our birds out of the water.
Ironically, neither Jon nor Kurt likes black powder shooting with muzzleloaders, and neither Mike nor I consider ourselves duck hunters. In other words, we were going to need their help to collect a couple of ducks, and they were more than glad to provide it.
MY “DUCK GUN” OF CHOICE was actually a short-barreled “canoe gun” in 20 gauge with the 20-inch barrel. From my point of view, it shoots with the best of the flintlock smoothbores. And, since I’ve used it in several rifle matches where it served me well enough to give me some rather good scores, this was the only gun that I even considered for my duck adventure.
Although Mike is well aware of my faith and trust in short-barreled guns, when he got the kit to make his Northwest gun, he chose one with a 36-inch barrel. I suppose the longer barrel must add some advantages, although I’ve yet to discover what those might be. But despite the difference in length, both of our guns use cylinder bore barrels with no choke at all, so we knew the shot patterns would most likely be very similar. Mike also selected a 20 gauge because that is probably the best all-around bore size for a Northwest gun.
This hunt took place on a cold winter’s day on Medicine Creek, which is at the high end of the Nisqually River delta, in Washington’s southernmost Puget Sound. And though Jon and Kurt had some established duck blinds in the area, Mike and I took up positions behind a log and some brush beside the slow-moving creek. Less than half a dozen decoys were anchored in the water near us. We were to hunker down to remain out of sight (always good advice), and were told in no uncertain terms that when the ducks came in, they’d be coming in fast.
Our flintlocks were loaded with steel air-rifle BBs. Jon had been very specific about what size of birdshot we might use in our 20-gauge guns. The birdshot, of course, must be steel, and Jon suggested that we use large shot so kills could be counted on; we wanted no wounded birds getting away. He recommended No. 2s or larger.
Since those BBs were most likely harder than the barrels of our guns, due consideration had to be made to put together loads just for duck hunting. First, we’d pour 75 grains of black powder down our guns’ barrels. The granulation of powder I used was Olde Eynsford 2F. Then came the same volume of BBs, contained in 20-gauge Remington Power Pistons. And because the amount of BBs more than ﬁlled the Power Pistons, we generally used Wonder Wads as overshot cards to give the bore a bit of lubricant ahead of the BBs.
OUR GUIDES GOT US INTO POSITION after we had loaded our guns. Jon headed out to other parts of the area to scare up some ducks, while Kurt remained with us, primarily as our “retriever.” Kurt was a very good hunting guide. He was able to identify ducks that were coming toward us when they still looked like black dots to Mike and me. We’ll both be eager to hunt with the “Jon and Kurt team” again.
Then some more ducks came in, and these followed a flight plan more to our liking. But all too quickly Mike and I were looking at each other holding empty flintlocks, and no ducks had even broken formation! Clean misses! In fact, very clean misses.
Finally the spell was broken. A ﬂight of half a dozen ducks approached, and I picked out one I’d try for. They got into our desired range and I stood up to take my shot. When I rose, the duck swung sharply to its left, my right, but I had guessed that would happen and kept up plus a little ahead of it with my gun. When my ﬂintlock spoke, the duck took some hard hits and for a moment seemed to stop midair. Then it was lifeless and simply tumbled down to the water. The ﬁrst duck of the hunt was mine, but I certainly didn’t take it with my ﬁrst shot.
There was no time to gloat, so I simply reloaded. My gun had just received its fresh load when Mike’s gun roared. When I stood up to see what was going on, there was a wounded duck in the water ahead of us and my gun was quickly unloaded in order to end any miseries the duck might have felt. That was Mike’s ﬁrst duck; he had taken it out of the air and all claims to it were his.
Later, we ﬁnally had some moments to reﬂect on our successful shots. The image of the duck I killed almost stopping in the air actually looked like an easy shot. That was the type of shot we had come to that spot for. In fact, it looked so easy that I have no idea why I couldn’t do it again.
Suddenly a lone duck ﬂew our way and Mike stood up to take the shot. It was a very good shot at a fast-ﬂying bird, and although the duck was hit hard, its speed and momentum carried it through the air to crash behind us. That was Mike’s second duck and it looked like our day of hunting was over. That’s also when the pictures you see here were taken, and in some of them you can see the long shadows that accompany late afternoon photography.
IT WAS AFTER THE PHOTOS were taken that Kurt noticed a dead pintail hen. At ﬁrst it was thought that the hen had been killed by other hunters who were there the day before but the duck wasn’t frozen. It was still warm and, in fact, it showed a single wound to the breast made by a BB, so it was clearly one of ours. It must have taken the hit, perhaps like a heart shot, but continued ﬂying until over or behind us before it reached the ground. Mike suggested that I take it because that would give us each two birds for the hunt. I appreciated the gesture, and claiming the pintail really added to my day.
Mike and I decided that additional ﬂintlock hunts would be a good thing, perhaps for grouse or rabbits next time. Different kinds of game offers challenges of another sort, and you’re never too young to learn. We also agreed to do more practice shooting with our ﬂintlocks using birdshot on ﬂying, running, and bouncing targets simply to be a bit better the next time we take those guns aﬁeld. ASJ
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My shooting was done using a .512-inch-diameter round ball wrapped in a .015-inch patch. The bore is tapered – just a mere .003 inch within the 35-inch length – but it is easily felt both when loading a patched round ball and when cleaning the gun. That ball-and-patch combination is relatively easy to start at the muzzle, and ramming the patched ball down to rest on the powder actually gets easier as the ball is pushed further down the
bore. At least part of the reason for that is because the tapered bores have their tightest diameters at their muzzles.
These barrels can be straight octagon up to 1 3/8 inches in width for any length out to 48 inches. FCI also offers straight tapered barrels to those same dimensions. Swamped, octagon and round barrels are also available out to 48 inches as well. Smoothbore barrels are made out to 48 inches. Burton also makes a 1 1/8-inch light bench barrel with a false muzzle, and pistol barrels too.
Burton’s barrels are made from 12L14 steel, and several calibers are standard. These include bore sizes of .30, .32, .36, .38, .40, .44, .45, .47, .48, .50, .52, .54, .58, .60 and .62 calibers. What drew my attention to his barrels is his offering of the .52 caliber, and that is what I ordered: a 35-inch barrel that is 1 inch wide with a twist rate of one turn in 66 inches, and having ﬂat bottom grooves. All barrels come with a straight or tapered tang breech plugs and the riﬂing is cut with seven grooves. Twist rates can be from one turn in 21 inches to straight riﬂed, so the buyer has the choice of just about any rate of twist desired.
SQUARE-BOTTOM RIFLING GROOVES are cut to a depth of .010 to .012 inch, while round bottom grooves are cut to .015 to .016 inch. All riﬂed barrels have seven grooves, and typical twists are 1 in 48, 1 in 57, 1 in 66, and 1 in 72 inches. But by using a sine bar riﬂing machine, Burton can cut twists from straight to as fast as one turn in 21 inches.
In addition, he hand laps and shoots all custom barrels before shipping them. My .52-caliber barrel came with a test target that was ﬁred from sandbags at 30 yards with 70 grains of FFFg under a patched .512-inch round ball. In order to shoot the new barrels, Burton temporarily breeches them to an in-line “action” and glues sights to the barrel. All evidence of the sights and the breeching are removed before the barrel receives the breech plug the customer has requested.
When it was time to sight-in my new riﬂe the day was wet and rainy, but I just wore my hat with the “Montana peak” and went shooting. For the initial shots, I posted a target at 25 yards and ﬁled down the front sight to raise the point of impact on the target. The load used for these close-range tests was 50 grains of GOEX FFFg under the .512inch cast ball wrapped in a Bridgers Best .015-inch lubricated patch.
With the sight ﬁled so the riﬂe was hitting center, I posted a pistol target for a ﬁve-shot group, and this turned out very well indeed. Those ﬁve shots, by the way, were ﬁred using the Pushing Daisies patches from October Country, cut from .015-inch ticking and lubed with Bumblin’ Bear Grease. Both are very good patches, especially for hunting. In case you are wondering, I consider both Bridgers Best and October Country patches to be equally good.
All things considered, the Burton barrel with the tapered bore loads easily and shoots very well. The small amount of shooting I’ve done with this riﬂe probably hasn’t done the barrel any real harm, but more shooting will certainly be done – and sooner than later.
Prices for Burton Barrels vary, but all are very reasonable, starting at $185 for a breeched straight riﬂe barrel, such as mine. Prices do not include shipping, and Burton asks for 50 percent of the barrel’s cost when an order is placed, with the remainder due when the barrel is received. Delivery is generally made in three to six months, as no barrels are kept in stock. All barrels are for black powder only.
To learn more about Burton gun barrels, or to place an order, visit fcibarrels.com, or call (606) 780-7709. ASJ
When loading a round ball, a patch must be used in order for the ball to be accurate and prevent blow by, which would rob the shooter of power and accuracy. You can buy precut patches or experiment with your own. An old sheet makes good patch material because it is both tough and consistent in thickness. The patch should be placed on the muzzle, then the ball seated on top of it. It should have some resistance to seating but not an excessive amount, as you might end up with a ball stuck halfway down the barrel. There are signs that help to indicate if you are using the proper amount of patching. You can usually find the fired patches on the ground, especially if you are shooting a number of rounds. If the patch shows rifling marks without excessive tearing, then it is probably the right size. If there are no markings from the rifling, then this might indicate that the patch should be a little larger. If you do get a bullet stuck in the barrel, you can pull it out with a bullet-removing screw.
However, this can be quite a chore.
You should always use a measuring device to pour the powder into the barrel – never do it from a flask containing a large amount of powder. If there is a live spark from a previous firing, this will cause an explosion. Pouring a small amount of powder down the barrel will help minimize the harm if there still happens to be a smoldering cinder. This does happen – to the careless! There are adjustable measures made just for this operation. This practice is especially necessary if you are shooting patched balls, because some of the cloth might stay lurking in the barrel and can cause mischief. You can swab between shots to avoid that problem, but don’t count on this to thoroughly rid your barrel of hazards.
I knew a guy who participated in reenactments. He was on a crew that was operating a cannon with a 2-inch bore. His job was to swab the barrel then push the bag of powder down afterwards. The bag of powder weighed 1 pound. One time after the team fired, he swabbed and then shoved the powder down the barrel, instantly losing most of his right hand. There was still a cinder in the barrel from the previous bag, and when he pushed the powder down, it went off. The long rod with a disc he was using to push the powder down was the same diameter as the barrel. When the canon went off, the disc removed most of his hand because it became a projectile. Safety requires methodical steps and preparation.
Once the powder is in, you can seat the bullet. Initially, there will be a little resistance, but it shouldn’t be excessive. If it is, find out why before attempting to push it the bullet in too deep. A bullet stuck in the barrel is a pain to remove, although it can be done usually with a corkscrew-type device.
After you get your round started, follow through using your long rod to seat it. The bullet must be tight against the powder. If there is no resistance from the bullet going down the barrel, it might move forward creating some airspace, so be wary of that. This could destroy the gun and cause injury.
I knew someone who destroyed a .45-caliber that way. He required medical attention caused by splinters lodged into his forearm. If you are unsure, flick the rod against the load a couple of times. If the rod bounces, then it is ready to go. You can mark the rod with a piece of tape if desired for future loading once you establish your load.
Sometimes people forget to put the powder in first. This is a pain, but it can be resolved. Just take off the nipple and work some powder into the barrel. You should put at least 15 to 20 grains to have enough to shoot the ball completely out the barrel. Make sure that the projectile exits before trying a regular load. Compressed air can also be used to push the ball out. There are two types of people who shoot muzzleloaders: those who forgot to put the powder in and those who will in the future.
Just in case you bump or drop your gun, it is not a good idea to prime before you load. With a flintlock, just prime the pan and you are ready to go. For this article we will stick with conventional muzzleloaders as opposed to inlines.
BACK TO THE POWDER
If you are new to this game, you might wonder how much powder to use. Ideally, a new shooter would spend some time with an experienced blackpowder user. There are also books that can help. Blackpowder doesn’t produce as much velocity as the smokeless variety, no matter how much you use. At some point the powder just won’t burn and will simply come out the end of the barrel. You can put an old sheet on the ground in front of the gun to determine if you have too much powder. This test can be very informative.
In my .50-caliber Hawkins, I use 90 grains of FFG black with a 370-grain maxi ball. My velocities run almost 1,300 feet per second, and the load is very consistent and accurate. I have tried more powder but the gain was negligible, thus wasn’t worth the extra powder. If you are shooting a .45-caliber with a ball, 70 grains is a good starting point. If you are using a .58-caliber rifle with Minié balls, then 60 grains is a good place to start. I find that lighter loads in these guns generally produce better accuracy.
Just like reloading, you might experiment with your gun to see which combination works best. There are several brands of powder out there, so if you like to experiment, try what is available in your area. If you order online, be prepared to pay a hefty hazardous material fee, so ordering a large quantity helps cut costs. I order it by 25-pound cases. There are also fees for just smokeless powder and primers, but not loaded ammo.
The round ball is the basic, most widely used bullet and has some advantages. It is often very light for the caliber, which reduces the amount of powder needed for workable velocities. Another advantage is it reduces recoil. Properly loaded it is very accurate and is used for all types of target shooting. For hunting, it’s OK for certain types of deer, but might lack the penetration for large, heavy-boned game, especially past 100 yards. Due to its low density, it doesn’t carry or penetrate well. However, a .36-caliber ball makes a splendid small-game round. There you have the basics of muzzleloading blackpowder. Stayed tuned for part III of What Is black Powder, where we cover tricks of the trade. ASJ
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.
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If there are any readers out there who want to try muzzleloading, let me recommend a good rifle: the Lyman Great Plains. There are less expensive rifles, but my suggestion is to start with a good one. I know a lot of black-powder shooters who have these rifles and stay with them. They are available in .50- and .54-caliber and right- or left-handed models, and they are very dependable. For new shooters I also recommend starting with a percussion version simply because the flintlocks take more training and they are, let’s say, harder to get used to. ASJ
Getting started in muzzle-loading can be a little tricky because we can only be as good as our instructors. Finding proper help sometimes can leave a new shooter on the short end of the stick. The big problem is that new shooters probably won’t know if they are being taught or shown the right stuff or not.
The very best way to get started down the right trail with muzzleloading is to find a good club and look into their activities. If those activities interest you, that’s a great start because you’ll be surrounded by a gang of shooters who share your interest. Black powder clubs are easier to find than you think. Ranges or sportsmen’s clubs in your area should steer you in the right direction.
I met an experienced cowboy-action shooter named Mike Moran who suddenly got very interested in the primitive side of muzzleloading. It’s considered primitive because we use traditionally styled muzzleloaders and not the more modern styled guns, and we still like camping in lean-tos and tepees, as well as wearing buckskins at our events. These folks are referred to as “buckskinners.”
Moran thought such doin’s were worth a try, so he bought a rifle kit, put it together and then signed up as a shooter for the rendezvous of the Paul Bunyan Plainsmen near Puyallup, Wash. (In the 1800s, American fur traders periodically met at designated places to be reunited with friends and family during weeklong gatherings called rendezvous, during which the traders would camp out, practice their shooting and throwing skills and enjoy one another’s company.) Once registered, Moran asked if someone could give him some help or guidance and he was directed to join a group of shooters that I was guiding and scoring.
Since Moran introduced himself to me the day before a shoot, I was ready for him when we got to the firing line the next morning. Moran didn’t score very highly at that event; one of the reasons was that he had not sighted-in his brand new rifle.
Moran did afterwards, and his scores have made a steady rise since that day. In fact, he recently outshot me. He has now graduated so far that he uses a flintlock rifle (a bit more difficult to use over a percussion), teaches other beginners how to shoot muzzleloaders and is now the new president of the Washington State Muzzleloading Association, which is an organization dedicated to providing shooting experience and prizes to young shooters.
The Boy Scouts of America is another group that promotes muzzleloading for young shooters, and a couple of our local groups here in western Washington are Troop 310 from Rochester and Troop 141 from Tenino. Craig Brown, a range-safety officer and instructor, personally guides these groups of youngsters, along with some volunteer assistance, through wooded trails where the scouts get a chance to shoot muzzleloading rifles at hanging steel targets. Among the activities these scouts enjoy include attending the annual Rain-de-voo (Western Shooting Journal, April 2014) of the Puget Sound Free Trappers, a subgroup of the Capital City Rifle and Pistol Club in Littlerock, Wash., each year.
While out on these trail hikes, Brown makes sure that the muzzleloaders are never primed (or capped) until the boys are on the firing line and in a firing position. He is the only one in the group who actually has percussion caps, which, of course, are necessary for firing. When a scout is in position, Brown caps the rifle, which prepares the already-loaded gun for firing. This process allows him to work with just one shooter at a time, making the activity very safe.
The scouts shoot on the Puget Sound Free Trappers’ range and the club is in favor of the training and experience the scouts receive, so the boys are allowed to camp and shoot there for free. If the scouts pay anything at all, I would guess it is just enough to cover the costs of the powder, ball and percussion caps.
My own start into muzzleloading might be worth telling about. I was in my midteens and working part-time in Ed Hilton’s gun shop. Ed had an original “Kentucky rifle” in .40 caliber, a flintlock that had been converted to percussion long before I ever saw it. This was in the late 1950s, and at certain times when there were no customers in the shop, one of us would ask, “Who is buying the Cokes?” With that as a cue, Ed would get the old rifle and the horn and bag, plus a paper target, and step outside where the target was posted on a large stump. Ed did all of the loading and we’d each take just one shot. The shooter with the hit farthest from center had to buy.
At that time a bottle of pop from a machine that kept the bottles hanging by their necks while cooled in cold water was just 10 cents. The Cokes, and yes, Nesbitt’s Orange, were all very chilling and quite refreshing. Those dimes were more treasured than dollars are today, and buying the pops, which I usually did, took all of the money I had, but I never missed the opportunity to shoot that old rifle.
If you would like to know more about the Washington State Muzzleloading Association, you can visit them at wamuzzleloaders.com. ASJ
Posted in Black Powder Tagged with: Black Powder, Boy Scouts Of America, Captial City Rifle and Pistol Club, Craig Brown, Ed Hilton, Flintlock, Kentucky Rifle, Mike Moran, Mike Nesbitt, Muzzleloader, Paul Bunyan Plainsmen, Puget Sound Free Trappers, Puyallup, Troop 141, Troop 310, WA, Washington State Muzzleloaders