As I have written a couple of articles recently about archery hunting, it is not too early to start preparing for the other primitive weapon season if you plan to hunt with a muzzle loader. For me, hunting with a muzzle loader is my favorite way to pursue elk. It started when I built my own gun from a kit, which took months, and the satisfaction I felt from taking my first elk with that gun was greater than any other hunting accomplishment in my life. Plus, in my opinion, that .54 caliber muzzle loader is one of the most beautiful guns I have ever seen, of course I’m a little biased, but it truly is a beautiful gun.
An interesting piece of trivia comes from the making of muzzle loaders; in the old days a black smith would make the barrel, a wood smith would make the stock, and a silver smith would make the lock (the trigger mechanism). So you had to go to three different people to have a gun made. Once someone figured out that it would more be efficient to build the entire gun, the term “lock, stock, and barrel” came into being, meaning that you could get everything you needed from one supplier.
Aside from building a gun, muzzle loader hunting is challenging, even if you buy a pre-made muzzle loader. The main limitation is that you basically get one shot at an animal. Yes, there are gadgets available these days that help you reload quicker than in the old days, but nowhere near as quickly as with a rifle with any type of action. This challenge is somewhat offset by the fact that in most states you get to hunt in a primitive weapons season, which is generally during the peak of the rut in Colorado (mid-September), and tags are limited so there aren’t armies of rifle hunters in the mountains.
A muzzle loading rifle is such a different experience to hunt with, which makes it even more challenging. First of all, you don’t just carry extra bullets; you have to have black powder, a measuring device, a short ball starter, a long ram rod, cloth patches, round balls (or greased bullets), and either percussion caps or a flint-lock, depending on the type of gun you choose. Traditional muzzle loader hunters like me use a possibles bag to carry all of this gear just like those men that founded our great nation. This is more of the appeal of this type of hunting; you can make a lot of the gear you will use, which brings a whole new set of crafts and skills into the sport.
What is truly different with muzzle loader hunting than rifle hunting is that the hunter must put together these various components in order to get off a shot, where as a rifle hunter simply chambers another round. By the way, the term “round” when referring to a bullet originated from muzzle loaders as the ball (or bullet) was called a round, since it is a round ball of lead. For the muzzle loading hunter to prepare for a shot, he or she must first put the right amount of powder down the barrel, start a patch and ball (or greased bullet) part way down the barrel with the short ball starter, then complete setting the projectile with the ram rod. Once the bullet is seated in the barrel, the hunter then either places a firing cap on the nipple of the lock for a percussion cap gun, or pours fine powder into the flash pan for a flint lock gun. With either a percussion or flint lock gun, a spark is generated which must pass through a vent hole which ignites the powder behind the bullet.
Not only is that a lot to do, it also allows for a lot that can go wrong. If the cap or flint lock doesn’t fire, the powder won’t ignite. If the powder in the barrel is wet from rain or condensation, it won’t ignite. If you fire your gun and nothing happens, hold the gun pointing in a safe direction for 30 seconds or so, especially if the cap or flint sparked but the powder did not ignite. If the powder in your barrel is wet, that can end your day of hunting as you have to pull the ball out, which isn’t easy, and then flush out the wet powder with warm water.
I had this happen to me once on an elk hunt where it rained for three days straight. My gun didn’t fire as I pulled the trigger on a very nice bull at 20 yards. The firing cap made a loud bang, but nothing else happened. I had to go back to camp, use a ball-puller to get the bullet out, take the barrel off, take the nipple out, and clean it all out with warm water and cleaning solution, then dry it with many, many patches. It all worked, and I shot an elk the next day, but since then I put a piece of electrical tape over the end of my barrel when it rains or snows. I have seen things that look like balloons that are made specifically for this problem; in fact a balloon would probably work just as well.
As with any weapon, you need to be proficient with your shooting and learn your limitations, and this only comes from a great deal of practice. There aren’t a lot of different powders to choose from, basically just the size of the gun powder pellets (which range from Fg – the largest, FFg, FFFg, and FFFFg – the smallest). Pyrodex is a black powder substitute which burns as well as gun powder, but is not subject to some of the restrictions that black powder is.
There are a variety of projectiles available, from round lead balls to various types of bullets of varying weight. As you practice, you will have to find the right combination of size of powder, amount of powder, and the bullet you prefer. Once you find the right combination, practice until you can consistently put bullets in the kill zone at a range at which you are confident.
Scopes on a muzzle loader are not legal in most states, and they kind of defeat the theory of primitive weapons anyway, so you will be shooting with open sights. This is actually pretty easy if you sight your gun in at 50 yards and learn what the bullet drop is out to 100 yards. Most of your shots should not be longer than 100 yards until you become very proficient with a muzzle loader. I have been hunting with one for over 20 years and have never been faced with a shot in the field over 50 yards. Much like archery hunting, with muzzle loader hunting you use your skills to get close to the animal.
There is a lot more to learn about muzzle loader hunting, but once you get into it, it is a whole new realm of experience for the hunter or recreational shooter. For me, I like the challenge and the reminder of what mountain men experienced two hundred years ago. I sell a muzzle loader kit at a great price, you can see that by clicking here . I can also refer you to where to learn more about the sport and making your own gear, which is something I really enjoy. I am hoping that I will get a muzzle loader tag for elk this fall, I should. I will be sure to write about that hunt if I do.