In the mid-1980s, Missouri gunsmith Tony Knight designed and marketed his MK-85, in-line blackpowder rifle. Accurate and dependable, this percussion rifle was an immediate success. Other gun manufacturers quickly began marketing their own models, and in-line rifles now dominate the muzzleloader market.
In-line muzzleloaders are a dramatic departure from the traditional sidehammer muzzleloader. Both models load and shoot the same, but the in-line’s system of delivering fire to the powder is thought to be more efficient. In a sidehammer, the fire must round a corner to reach the powder, but the in-line delivers it in a short, straight line from the rear of the breech plug.
When I first considered deer hunting with a muzzleloader, I was curious about the practical differences between in-line and sidehammer designs. Was one a more efficient deer hunting tool than the other? Friends, knowledgeable about the world of blackpowder, helped answer this question.
They told me there is no difference in the ignition reliability, accuracy and range of in-line and sidehammer muzzleloaders. If cleaned and loaded properly, both will fire with every pull of the trigger. Both are as accurate as the skills of the shooter allows, and both can, with proper optics, have an effective range of about 125 yards.
With this information and a desire to carry a little history afield, I purchased a kit to build a replica of a .54-caliber Hawken halfstock rifle. The finished rifle was a joy to shoot and behold.
Swept up in the fun of muzzleloading, I soon bought parts to build another muzzleloading rifle and then another. Now, after 15 years of hunting with muzzleloaders and sending more than a thousand balls on their way toward game (most of them at squirrels), I have extensive experience concerning both in-line and traditional muzzleloading rifles. My friends were right. There is no difference.
In practically every article about hunting with muzzleloading firearms, you will find anecdotes about smokepoles failing to fire at the worst times.
It is true that flintlock ignition is complex and somewhat tricky, but percussion or caplock ignition is a different matter. Claims of frequent misfires from percussion muzzleloaders are either overstatements or reflect a failure to control the factors that affect percussion gun ignition.
Coaxing reliable ignition out of any percussion muzzleloader is simple. All you need are good percussion caps, snug fit of cap to nipple, a hammer that sharply and directly strikes the nipple, dry powder, proper loading sequence and a nipple, breech and barrel that are absolutely clean and free of oil. Of these variables, the last is probably most often responsible for complaints about muzzleloaders failing to fire.
Burnt blackpowder and its substitute, Pyrodex, are both highly corrosive. If not completely removed from the barrel, breech and nipple, both will quickly convert to caked fouling that can seal off the ignition port in the nipple, leaving no way for the flame from an exploding percussion cap to reach the main charge. If the ignition port is clogged, a muzzleloader won’t fire regardless of its design. That’s why muzzleloaders demand meticulous cleaning.
Most owners of traditional sidehammer muzzleloaders clean their firearms with the hot water method, which involves pumping a pan of scalding hot water through the barrel and breech with a cleaning jag and patch. The nipple is cleaned separately with pipe cleaners and oil-free commercial solvents.
Removing the breech of in-line muzzleloaders is easy, so they are usually cleaned by swabbing the barrel, breech and nipple in commercial solvents. The result of either system is the same. If a muzzleloader is absolutely clean and oil-free, it will fire without fail. The old saying, "Never let the sun set on a dirty muzzleloader," applies to all muzzleloading rifles.
When I first inquired about the accuracy of muzzleloaders, a friend told me, "They’ll shoot as straight as you can hold them." He was right. Once you work out the proper loading combination, the accuracy of any muzzleloader is comparable with modern rifles.
I built my first muzzleloading rifle for deer hunting. After sighting it in and discovering the rifle shot ragged, one-hole groups at 25 yards, my thoughts turned to squirrel hunting. I found that to be great fun, and now I hunt squirrels exclusively with my .54-caliber muzzleloading rifles. I limit all shots to the head and take between 50 and 100 squirrels a year. The same performance is possible with any in-line muzzleloader.
The range of both in-line and sidehammer rifles is limited by the chemical properties of blackpowder and Pyrodex. Both propellants burn less efficiently than smokeless powders.
Accordingly, muzzle velocities from muzzleloading rifles peak at about 2,000 feet per second. This limits the practical range of both in-line and sidehammer muzzleloading rifles to about 125 yards. They are lethal well beyond that range, but bullet trajectory much past 150 yards is measured in feet, not inches, making critical to estimate yardage.
In the 19th century, buffalo hunters routinely used muzzleloaders to kill buffalo at ranges well in excess of 200 yards. Those hunters, however, were masters at judging distances. Their livelihood depended on it, and, of course, their targets were considerably larger than white-tailed deer.
The one functional difference between in-line and traditional muzzleloading rifles is that in-line rifles are drilled and tapped for telescopic sights. Most sidehammer muzzleloaders are not. This gives these rifles different capabilities.
Place a quality telescopic sight on any muzzleloader, in-line or traditional, and you extend its effective range from 75 yards (with open sights) to 125 yards.
With open sights, position the front blade over the heart/lung area of a white-tailed deer standing 75 yards away, and the blade will all but cover the deer’s vitals.
From the same distance, the cross hairs of a telescopic sight cover only a fraction of the same area, making precise bullet placement easier.
For years, I only used telescopic sights when hunting deer. With a solid rest, any open shot at a deer standing broadside at 100 yards or less was easy.
When I switched to open sights, I quickly learned that any shot past 40 yards was a challenge. Because of these limitations, I decided that I would not attempt to take a deer beyond 75 yards.
Another advantage of telescopic sights is the quality of the sight picture. A high-quality telescopic sight gathers light and accentuates contrast, allowing good shot placement under low light conditions. On cloudy days, and during the first and last moments of legal shooting hours, open sights often prove insufficient to allow a well-placed shot. A good scope, on the other hand, allows a hunter to shoot confidently from the opening minutes of a hunt until day’s end.
If you hunt deer with an open-sight muzzleloader, select stand sites as if you were planning to bowhunt. Instead of hunting from spots that afford long visibility and long shots, hunt in overgrown travel corridors that deer use as they move from feeding and bedding areas. These areas offer only close shots, and they remove the temptation of taking long shots.
Where to Buy
Purchasing a high-quality, in-line muzzleloading rifle is easy. Most stores that offer hunting equipment sell in-line rifles. That isn’t the case for muzzleloaders of traditional design. Because of the popularity of in-line rifles, many major retailers no longer stock sidehammer muzzleloaders, but most will order them for a buyer on request.
A hunter interested in purchasing a muzzleloader of traditional design can buy a kit or a completed sidehammer rifle with adjustable sights and other modern modifications. Kits involve a little wood finishing and general assembly. You may prefer to build a sidehammer muzzleloader to historical specifications from scratch.
Many companies offer parts for building authentic replicas of muzzleloading rifles from scratch. If you want to build a U. S. 1792 contract flintlock like the ones Lewis and Clark carried during their expedition into the Louisiana Territory, parts are available, as are parts for a variety of other historic firearms.
This approach, however, involves considerable work and expense. Building a muzzleloader to historical specifications requires specific woodworking and metalworking skills. Inletting the stock to receive all metal parts must be finished by hand, and you must tap holes in metal to receive screws and lugs. Parts to complete a historically accurate replica of a muzzleloading rifle also are expensive, ranging from $400 to $600. The effort and expense, however, allow the owner to hold a piece of history, and once you’ve hunted with one of these firearms, you’ll find it was worth every ounce and hour of effort.
Learn from Others
The best way to learn about a sport is from someone who takes part in it. If you are new to muzzleloading and would like to contact veteran blackpowder buffs for help and advice, call your local conservation office for the names of local people and organizations that might help you get started.
Traditional muzzleloading firearms shooters are almost always willing to help anyone interested in muzzleloading. Living history or reenactment groups, will have members interested in both target shooting and hunting. Buckskinner or fur-trade era groups hold family events, called rendezvous, that feature tests of frontier skills. These are usually open to the public. Introduce yourself at an event and ask questions. It’s a great way to make friends.
Magazines for blackpowder enthusiasts contain ads for suppliers of just about anything you’d want, from rifles to costumes, in addition to tips and how-to info.