Getting Worked Up Over Black-powder Deer Rifles

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Published on: Aug. 2, 1998

Last revision: Nov. 1, 2010

Have you ever wondered who would win a shooting match between Daniel Boone and an Olympic rifle champion? The modern shooter, with 200 years of technology on his side, would be a formidable opponent. On the other hand, the prospect of starving or losing one's scalp must have developed in pioneer marksmen a degree of concentration difficult to replicate at the shooting range. All things considered, I believe I'd put my money on ol' Dan'l.

Which makes me wonder why black-powder rifles aren't more popular with deer hunters. Muzzleloaders enjoy more days of hunting in Missouri, and the Conservation Department has liberalized regulations in recent years to allow the use of telescopic sights and cap and ball pistols. So why is it that modern firearms hunters outnumber muzzleloaders in Missouri 26 to one?

Some hunters don't want to bother with powder flasks and ramrods. That's OK. Muzzleloading isn't for everyone. But if you have shied away from black-powder rifles because you think they lack the accuracy or power for deer hunting, think again. These are superb hunting tools. To get the most from them, however, you must know the following secret: Every muzzleloader shoots differently.

Daniel Boone and his contemporaries knew this from experience. Gun makers then, as now, determined the size bullet that would fit the barrel, and they offered advice about the maximum load that could safely be fired with a particular gun. But it was up to the buyer to find just the right powder, primer and projectile needed to coax the best combination of power and accuracy out of that particular rifle. The process of finding that ideal combination was known as "working up a load."

In principle, working up a load is simple. You try different loads until you find one that works. In practice, however, it can be fairly complicated because there are hundreds of possible combinations of primers, powders and bullets. Changing one of these components can radically change the performance of a rifle. So one of the secrets of successfully working up a load is reducing the variables to a manageable number.

Priming is the easiest loading factor to nail down. For the sake of simplicity, we won't deal with flintlock rifles. Few hunters use them today, and the considerations are essentially the same as for caplocks. Today's percussion caps are reliable and consistent. Find one that ignites your powder every time, and stick with it.

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