Ignite Your Powder Dreams

Good Muzzleloading Starts Here

Story and photographs by Mike Nesbitt
Mike Nesbitt Take two
Mike Nesbitt

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.

PHOTO 1 Mike Moran President of WSMA
Mike Moran went from the world of cowboy-action shooting to becoming the new president of the Washington State Muzzleloading Association in short order.

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.

Craig Brown (second from the right) with his“gang” of Boy Scouts on the trail.

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.

PHOTO 3 View of a flintlock on a Leman trade rifle
The flintlock can be described as a system of firearm ignition generally used between 1660 and 1850. The rifle seen here is a Leman, and it was considered a trade rifle. These were often swapped with Native Americans for goods.


PHOTO 4 Hawken Mountain Man Gun
This custom-built lightweight Hawken has a sidelock percussion with a copper cap on the nipple. The Hawken brothers of St. Louis were famous in the early to mid-1800s for building guns tailored to the mountain men of the time. These were generally heavier guns that were reinforced through the wrist with longer tangs and trigger guards, which helped keep the rifle from being damaged through hard use. 

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 instructor “caps” or primes the rifle once the student is in position and on target.

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


She Ain’t Shootin’ No Girlie Guns!

Story and photographs by Mike Nesbitt

Mike Nesbitt Take two
Mike Nesbitt

During my initial try at black-powder, cartridge-rifle silhouettes, the first person I met was Beth Morris. She was the match manager who greeted us, accepted our entry fees and also presented the awards after the shoot. Those tasks would keep any person well occupied; however, during the match was when she really got busy.

Beth is a real shooter: She uses Model 1874 Sharps rifles in “buffalo” calibers, and her stocks are decorated with entry stickers from her many competitions. Those stickers are the real marks of experience, but don’t let me suggest that Beth is the only woman to shoot in those matches, because there are several ladies who compete (and hunt) with black powder rifles. You can find ladies shooting in silhouette and long-range matches, as well as the famous Matthew Quigley buffalo rifle match in Montana this month. As a lady Sharps shooter Beth isn’t alone, but she is outstanding.

At a recent match, (left to right) Heather Ochoa, Beth and Diana Mitchell did some great shooting. Heather was the high scoring lady of the day.

The real start for Beth was when she pitched in to help her husband Steve with his bullet casting and reloading. Steve started competing in black powder cartridge rifle (BPCR) silhouette matches 15 years ago and had little time to prepare the ammo the way he wanted it. That’s when Beth learned how to cast bullets and, as she says, one thing led to another.

Beth Morris 4

Her next step was spotting for Steve while he was shooting. A spotter watches for bullet impacts to let the shooter know if any sight adjustments need to be made. Spotting, of course, is done with powerful scopes that can see the bullet’s impact from well over a quarter of a mile away.

Their first BPCR match was at the Powder River Sportsmen’s Club in Baker City, Ore., and both of them quickly got hooked on the sport. Beth’s boss at the time was also competing and they would have lengthy discussions at work about reloading, ballistics, reading and calling wind conditions, plus everything else related to long-range, black-powder-rifle shooting. Beth would then share this knowledge and expertise with Steve.

Beth then got involved in the testing and load development for Steve’s Sharps .45-70. Even though she had only shot a rifle once in her life previously, she started thinking about doing some of the shooting herself. So, after one of the matches she fired her first shot with a black-powder, single-shot Model 1874 Shiloh Sharps in .40-65. On her second shot she knocked down a pig silhouette at 300 meters and was hooked.

Beth Morris 8
Steve and Beth Morris are a black powder couple through and through.

Steve was certainly excited about Beth’s shooting
, although he might have been a little worried about the extra work it involved. She told him she would start shooting under two conditions: She wanted to do all her own bullet casting, reloading and load development so whatever she achieved would be her own accomplishments from start to finish. She depended on Steve’s support and advice, but she wanted to do the work. The second condition was that if she felt at any time her shooting adversely affected her husband’s enjoyment or ability to compete in the matches, she would quickly quit. Luckily, it turned out to be a great experience for both of them and something that they share a great passion for.

Beth Morris 1
Beth Morris with her Hartford model .45-70 equipped with a 30-inch heavy barrel, Montana Vintage Arms front sight and long-range Soule rear sight on the tang. She named it “Freebie” because her husband Steve won it in a drawing at an Idaho State Rifle Match.

Beth began looking for her first black-powder-cartridge rifle and decided on a .40-65 caliber Pedersoli Rolling Block from Dixie Gun Works. She shot in her first silhouette match with that rifle in September of 2002 and reached a score of seven hits out of the 40 targets. Frankly, that isn’t a bad start, and by December of the next year she was shooting in the NRA AAA Class, which generally means she was hitting 26 to 30 targets out of 40, almost a master-class shooter.

Beth Morris 2
Between relays, Beth cleans her rifle. Note the colored match entry stickers on the stock.

Now, Beth shoots three different .45-70 rifles, all Shiloh Sharps Model 1874s. Beth gives her rifles names, and that to me is revealing because it means she recognizes how each rifle can have a character of its own. We might say that people who name their guns know their guns the best.

Her first rifle is named “Freebie” because Steve won her (all of Beth’s rifles are ladies too) in a drawing at the Idaho State Match. She is a Hartford Model .45-70 with a 30-inch heavy barrel, Montana Vintage Arms front sight and long-range Soule rear sight on the tang. This rifle is also fitted with an MVA 23-inch 6-power scope with a 4 minute-of-angle aperture reticle. Freebie is Beth’s all-around gun for iron sights and scope classes, and she has helped her win several NRA national titles while setting several women’s records. Beth uses Freebie mainly for shooting with a scope, and has fired over 16,000 rounds through her.

Beth Morris 6
Beth squeezes off an offhand shot while Steve “spots” her shots through the scope.

Beth’s second rifle is called “The Ninety.” It started out as a .45-90 lightweight hunting rifle, but they sent the gun back to have it fitted with a heavy 30-inch barrel chambered in .45-70, half-round, half-octagon. With this gun, she also uses a Crossno .22-caliber barrel liner for practice, and with the liner she also competes in BPCR .22 long-range silhouette competitions. Those Crossno liners are accurate, and with that combination Beth won the “High Woman” award at the national matches in Raton, N.M., in both 2009 and 2010 as well as the Oregon State .22 Iron Sight Open Championship in 2013. Beth achieved her Master Class in .22 Long Range Silhouette competition with The Ninety in 2013.

“Surely” is the name of Beth’s third Sharps rifle, and it’s very special for several reasons. The only time the NRA Nationals, held at Whittington Center in Raton, ever awarded the Shiloh Sharps rifle trophy to a High Woman Champion was in 2008 when this rifle was presented to Beth Morris who used Surely for the competition.

Surely is a .45-70 Model 1874 No. 3 Sporting Rifle with a heavy 30-inch barrel. It is equipped with an MVA front sight and midrange Soule sight on the tang. Beth named this rifle Surely in honor of her mother, Shirley Merrin who passed away after a brave battle with cancer.

“My mom,” Beth says, “was the rock of our family and could always be counted on to support and encourage us. So my beautiful mother’s spirit now is part of that rifle.”

During her first silhouette match in 2002, Beth Morris scored seven hits out of the 40 targets. That wasn’t a bad start, and by December of the following year she was shooting in the NRA AAA Class, which means she was hitting 26 to 30 targets out of 40, almost a master-class shooter.

In 2009 Surely helped Beth achieve her highest finish at the Nationals in Raton. That year Beth finished 5th overall out of 182 shooters, and she won the AAA Class and was the high-scoring woman in both the scope and iron-sight classes.


2006 NRA National Woman Champion Scope
2008 NRA National Woman Champion Scope and Irons
2009 NRA National Woman Champion Scope and Irons, 1st AAA Class, 5th overall
2010 NRA National Woman Champion Scope and Irons, 6th AAA
2012 NRA National Woman Champion Scope and Irons
2014 NRA National Woman Champion Iron Sights
2013 Oregon State Long Range .22 Silhouette Iron Sight Champion (open)
2014 Oregon State Black Powder Cartridge Rifle Silhouette Scope Champion (open)
NRA National Record for Women in BPCR Iron Sights (coholder)
2 NRA Women’s Team Records in BPCR Iron Sights – 3 Woman Team
Numerous State awards in AAA class (Oregon, Idaho and Montana)
Numerous State High Woman awards (Oregon, Idaho and Montana)

All three of Beth’s rifles have added custom pistol grips that Steve makes out of black walnut. Those grips allow for more control, especially in offhand shooting. Steve also adjusts the trigger pulls on the set triggers of Beth’s Sharps rifles so that all three have a very similar light pull. That allows Beth to switch from one gun to another without any real difference in the feel of those rifles. She says she is very lucky to be married to her gunsmith.

Beth Morris is a Sharps shootin’ gal, for sure. She knows what she’s doin’ and more than a few guys ask her advice on loads and bullet styles, especially for black-powder-cartridge silhouette shooting and those shots out to 500 meters. We might say if you want to see how it is done, just watch Beth while she shoots her Sharps. ASJ
Beth is seen here with “Freebie,” one of her three Sharps .45/70 rifles.

Getting ready for the Quigley Shoot in Montana


Mike Nesbitt Take two
The author Mike Nesbitt tried his hand at the Matthew Quigley shoot for the first time in 2014 and will be back again this year shooting a heavier rifle chambered for the .44/90 Sharps cartridge.


Story by Mike Nesbitt

The annual Matthew Quigley Buffalo Rifle Match is really some doin’s! Hosted each June by the Forsyth Rifle & Pistol Club of Forsyth, Mont., it isn’t the longest distance match or the most “critically scored,” but nonetheless, there’s nothing else quite like it, and for a match like Quigley, it pays to be ready. (By not being critically scored I simply mean they count hits rather than 9’s, 10’s, or X’s. A hit is one point, and those are hard-to-get points.)

The road at Quigley. Traders and campers on the right, shooters on the left.

Quigley is a huge  event, very well attended by all types of shooters, and the inspiration for this long-range match, of course, came from Tom Selleck’s character in Quigley Down Under, the 1990 movie about an American sharpshooter who responds to an Australian’s help-wanted ad, but finds the job morally wrong. We can easily say that the shooting in these matches is almost as good as portrayed in the film.

The rifles used in the Quigley match can be any traditional single-shot or lever-action rifle with a caliber of .375 or larger. That means the good old .38-55 is just about the smallest cartridge you’ll see on the firing line. Bullets must be made of cast lead (gas checks are OK) and the powder charges can be black powder, black powder substitute, black powder/smokeless powder duplex loads or smokeless powder. Even though there are no restrictions for the powder used, Quigley is referred to as a black-powder shoot and most shooters actually use it.

One of the Quigley rules is that shooters must use the same rifle for all distances and targets. Those distances, include shooting offhand at the 350-yard target as well as a seated 805-yard shot over cross-sticks, among others.

Dakota Dick Savage takes an offhand shot at “the bucket.” All other targets are shot from the sitting position.
Two of the author’s favorite Sharps rifles; a heavy .44-90 (top) and a .44-77 (bottom).

Last year, I chose my C. Sharps Model ’74 chambered in .44-77. The 400-grain bullets worked very well for me, and the 70 grains of Olde Eynsford 2F sends those bullets out of my 28-inch barrel at about 1,370 feet per second. It shoots well enough to give me good scores at 200 yards and it is enjoyable enough to shoot from the shoulder. But 200-yard shooting won’t even get you started at Quigley, since the distances begin with offhand shooting at 350 yards. I needed some long-range experience very badly. In order to get just that, I entered into a few black-powder cartridge-rifle silhouette matches. That was a whole new world for me and very fun! Why I waited so long before trying the silhouettes, I don’t know, but I certainly learned a few lessons! With my newfound education on shooting silhouettes out to 500 yards and copious notes, I was ready to try Quigley, or at least I thought so.

The author tries a shot at the 350-yard “bucket” target while Don McDowell “spots” the shot through the scope.


It all seemed too soon when my partner Allen Cunniff and I drove into the Quigley camp. We were immediately met by “Dangerous” Don McDowell, who was our guide and took us under his wing. He showed us our camp area and then took us down to the firing line to sight in. He made sure we were registered and suggested that we shoot in his same group.


Sighting in can be done throughout the week preceding the actual match; however, once the match starts, that’s it! One reason is simply because the firing line is too busy. Highest compliments must be extended to the staff for the administration of this fine event. They run more than 600 shooters through the course of six targets in about six to eight hours. Each shooter is assigned to a group and those groups are broken down into squads for firing in relays. The target course is doubled, meaning there are two of each target. This allows 12 squads to be shooting at the same time. Hits are recorded by scorekeepers who have earphones and receive an electronic signal when the target is hit.

Nesbitt Using Crosssticks
The author takes a practice shot using cross-sticks with the .44/90.

All shots are taken from the sitting position using cross-sticks except for the bucket target, which is shot offhand. Eight shots are fired at each target, making Quigley a 48-shot match.

Each shooter has a spotter who watches for hits or misses and can suggest changes in sighting elevation or windage. McDowell was my spotter for every shot I fired. Getting at least one hit per target was a small goal that I had set for myself. That goal, I admit without shame, was not met. I just couldn’t get a hit on the bucket. Folks who were watching could see that my shots were close enough to show that I was trying. McDowell, who also shoots a Sharps .44-77, exclaimed, “If you were using a .45, you would have hit it!” As “Dakota” Dick Savage, a shooter who finished in the top 10 at Quigley in 2012, said in reference to getting scores that were lower than what was hoped for, “Well, that’s Quigley.”

The Buffalo target that sits at 805-yards is the farthest target in the Matthew Quigley Buffalo Shoot. Sometimes you can hear the bullets hitting the steel targets. But considering the bullet’s time in flight plus the speed of sound for the noise of the impact to get back to you, that impact won’t be heard until four to six seconds have passed.

Our group started with the large octagon, which means we didn’t take shots at the 805-yard buffalo, the furthest target, until last. This was the target I had looked forward to the most. My first shot, McDowell told me quietly, was right in line but just over its back. With that information, I dropped my rear sight down only about five minutes of angle, and fired again. That time, McDowell whispered, “Good hit, right in the white spot at about 1 o’clock.” My day had been made and I got two more hits on the buffalo with my following six shots.

Sometimes you can hear the bullets hitting the steel targets. But considering the bullet’s time in flight plus the speed of sound for the noise of the impact to get back to you, that impact won’t be heard until four to six seconds have passed. That seems like a very long time.

Ed Tilton. Two time (2013 – 2014) Matthew Quigley Buffalo shoot champion and first-ever back-to-back champion.

You can visit the Quigley match online at quigleymatch.com and read all of the details, including the individual scores. Last year over 600 buffalo-gun shooters gathered from 36 different states and three other countries. Ed Tilton from Columbia Falls, Mont., has won the last two shoots with a Model 1874 Shiloh Sharps chambered for the .45-90 cartridge. The record score was shot in 2004 by Al Loquasto with 46 hits out of the possible 48. The long-range course at Quigley has never been “aced.”

Don McDowell “Spots” while his wife Carol shoots at a long-range target. Several ladies shoot at Quigley.

For me, the whole experience was simply outstanding, including the obvious brotherhood between shooters. I was talking with Tilton after the match and compared scores, my 11 hits to his 45. He said that my scores would certainly climb and his could only go down, then we’ll meet somewhere in the middle. My personal goal is to get closer to the middle this year.

Mike Nesbitt Quigley Shoot
This year (June 2015), Nesbitt will use his heavy Sharps 74 in .44-90 for the competition. (BJ LANE)

I’m getting ready for Quigley again. This year I’ll use my heavy Sharps 74 in .44-90, shooting heavier bullets than my .44-77. The .44-90 weighs 13½ pounds and has an aperture front sight with a spirit-level which should have a better advantage over the silver-blade sight on my .44-77. I thought about using my Highwall in .40-70 SS, but to me Quigley is a Sharps shoot; in the movie, Selleck’s character uses a Sharps 1874 rifle chambered for the .45-110 cartridge with long-range sights.

The .44-90 will be used in some of our short-range matches before going to Quigley and maybe at some silhouettes matches too, although it’s too heavy for NRA rules. For ammo, I’ll take at least 100 rounds using 465-grain bullets over 90 grains of Olde Eynsford 1½ F.  This way, a lot of shots can be fired for sighting-in before the match gets started. I’m practicing my offhand shooting with this heavy rifle too, and with a good body-rest, it isn’t too heavy to hold.

June 20-21 will see the 24th gathering in southeast Montana, and getting ready for it is time and shots well spent. ASJ


Note: For other great images from BJ Lane on the Matthew Quigley shoot, you can visit them at bjlanesimages.com.

The .577 Snider Conversion

An American’s Invention That Was Used By The British Army

577calslugsThe 1860s were an interesting and exciting time in firearms development. Countries were transitioning from muzzleloaders to cartridge rifles. The American Civil War highlighted everything from muzzleloaders to Gatling guns. Many European countries utilized various conversions, including Great Britain, which used the Snider conversion


designed by an American, Jacob Snider. The military quickly saw the advantages of breech loader (a firearm loaded via a chamber from the rear) versus front loader models. Besides being faster to load, the ability to do so while in the prone position meant the shooter presented a much smaller target for enemy marksmen. The British brought out the P-53 Enfield rifle in 1853. It is a .58-caliber muzzle loader that shoots a hollow-base bullet weighing anywhere between 405 and 500 grains. It was popular in the American Civil War, second only to the Springfield. During the 1860s, many countries were experimenting with breechloading rifles, and Britain was no exception. Like many nations, its military wanted to use existing stocks of rifles to save money. Snider started working on the conversion in 1862, and by 1865 it was complete. But the original idea was rejected by the US in favor of the trapdoor design, so he sold it to Great Britain.

577calammoTHE WAY IT WORKED WAS, the rear of the barrel was cut out and a swinging breech block was installed. By the push of a button, the breech block would swing up, a cartridge could be inserted, and the block pushed back in place. Ejection was performed by the shooter, pulling out the empty


cartridge or by tipping the rifle over. There was no safety, which was common among rifles of that period. The rear sight is adjustable, though crude by today’s standards, and the front is a typical blade style.

sniderthrutimeTHE P-53 ENFIELD IS A LONG AFFAIR, although there was also a carbine made. One of my specimens, sporting an 18-inch barrel, is supposed to be an original carbine used in Canada by the Mounties. My other with a Snider conversion lacks the push button, which is found on later models. The system works well and is reliable, though it was a stopgap measure. The British gave it to many of their colonies, including those in Africa, India and Australia. It was loaded with buckshot and said to be popular with the Indian police for use in riot control.

Story & Photos by Bob Shell