Now that you have figured out that you want to get into the blackpowder sport, there is still plenty to cover. The most complicated being the style of firearm you wish to have and the bullets they may fire. Style is a matter of personal tastes more or less. Ignition is also a preference but is also driven by experience in these sort of weapons. All this raw information must be sorted by you to make the informed decision about what you will carry into the field as a new black powder shooter.
Flintlock, caplock, and in-line modern muzzleloaders are the most common encountered and used today. Older kinds, like matchlocks, snaphances, and wheellocks are still with us but are quite expensive as they are normally made on a custom basis rather than in factory.
Flintlock guns are encountered as factory guns today by makers like Pedersoli, Lyman, and others which puts them on the table for the new shooter who wants to get started right away. The high point of the flintlock is with those that are custom made by individual craftsmen that can be made to fit the shooter in every single way from tastes to feel to shoot-ability.
Flintlock smoothbores and muskets are versatile like today’s shotgun. Rifles like the Jager style and Pennsylvania Long Rifle were the charming sniper weapons of their day and perform well today. Flintlock pistols enjoy less press but are by far my favorite to make and are just as handy as their bigger cousins. Flintlock guns need not be direct copies of the past though.
Modern shooters are easy to knock the flintlock as prone to failure but like modern guns, the majority of failure is operator error. Flintlocks will take any game and compete in just about any sport category. Not to mention, they are real head turners at the range. A particular downside for the new shooter is that the flash of the priming powder going off when the gun is fired is easy to make a new shooter flinch. Ignoring the flash is done by practice. The flintlock uses lead ball ammunition, primarily. See how flintlocks work here.
Percussion Cap/ Caplock
Pedersoli, Traditions, Lyman, and many other companies field percussion cap guns. One of the famous is the old Hawken style rifle of the Mountain Man era that experienced a resurgence of popularity with the release of Jeremiah Johnson in the 1970s. My first muzzleloader was a Traditions Hawken that takes a percussion cap. This type of gun is had as a factory model or a custom and doesn’t need to be a copy of a past firearm. They do not need to be single shot either with percussion cap revolvers available and popular once again.
The percussion system is attractive because its more waterproof and less user dependent than the flintlock. It also has the benefit to use blackpowder substitutes like Pyrodex and Triple 777 that are found at local stores. It is also nice that it appeals to many traditionalists too and do things just as good as the old flintlock. An added benefit is that many of today’s percussion rifles will also shoot a lead bullet as well as lead ball ammunition for increased range and power. Many percussion cap guns hold their own in target competitions out to 1000 yards.
The concept of having an ignition source at the breech is not a new concept but arguably in line muzzleloaders are the most popular today. In line rifles feature percussion cap, primer, or even electric ignition systems but are loaded from the front like their predecessors. These guns were created as a response to special muzzleloading hunting seasons created for traditionalists. While its rare to find a scope on a percussion cap gun, its easy with in line guns. They are much like modern sporting rifles and pistols except they feature a ramrod. To the traditionalists, they have no soul. But to the person wanting extra chances to bag big game only, its the way to go. These guns are normally available in only 45 or 50 caliber and cater to the big game hunting crowd shooting jacketed bullets and sabot bullets with ease. Rifles like these are available from companies like Thompson Center, Savage, and CVA.
The lead round ball was the choice for four hundred years but it is probably the most inefficient projectile ever created. The problem is the ballistic coefficient. Compared, even to smaller caliber modern bullets, the lead ball is not long. This means it cannot resist wind drift and it loses energy quickly. In fact, a round ball might lose 40 percent of its initial muzzle velocity at just 100 yards. This means, the bigger ball your gun shoots, the better for larger game and distant targets. This same concept applies even to modern day shotguns. The small lead balls in shot lose energy quickly. Yet, I shoot lead ball ammunition more than anything else. Why? They are lightweight and I can cast alot of them. Even if you buy them, a hundred of these nice pills might set you back $10-20 depending on caliber. Not only that, they are very effective despite what ballistics tell us. Killing at long range was done with the lead ball, historically. Year after year, my buck skinning friends bring home game downed with the old lead ball. In rifles, a slightly undersized lead ball to the bore is pushed downbore and made a tight fit thanks to a greased cloth patch. The rifling never contacts the lead ball. In smoothbore guns, the cloth patch may be used or a lead ball close to bore size may be used with wadding on top to prevent the ball from coming forward. Naturally, a number of small balls may be used in the smooth bore too for your shotgun needs.
Minie Ball and Conical Bullets
They have a familiar cone shape and are quite modern indeed. They can be cast or bought just like any other bullet but have the advantage over the lead ball of having a higher ballistic coefficient. It beats the wind and keeps its velocity better. The Minie Ball of American Civil War fame made long range shooting practical. The Minie has many immitators and many can even be found in modern cartridges. These conical projectiles need no cloth patch and expand to grip the rifling as it travels through the barrel. It can do just about anything the lead ball can do, only better. About the only thing it cannot do well is small game hunting. Even small bore pills pack too much weight and could damage edibles. Some flintlocks may use these but these are right at home with many percussion rifles and even in line guns. But it needs a fast twist barrel to stabilize and shoot accurately. When looking for a gun that shoots a Minie or Conical well, the barrel should be specified at 1:48 twist or faster. Thats 1 revolution per 48 inches. Lead ball ammo does best in slow twist barrels like 1:66.
Sabot bullets are nothing new but in the world of muzzle loading rifles, they are at home in the modern in line gun and some percussion cap guns. It features a plastic sleeve around an undersized bullet. The sleeve imparts spin on the projectile and is best used in fast twist barrels around 1:24 twist. Trying to shoot these from a 1:66 barrel resulted in bullets that hit sideways.
The muzzleloader is still the ultimate in versatility and there are flavors of gun, bullet, and even powder to suit your tastes and needs. Stay tuned for the next installment: Calibers and Myths.