A Beginner's Guide to Blackpowder

Almost 4 million hunters a year drop powder down their barrel, ram in a bullet, and accept the challenge of muzzleloading. The blackpowder business, as they love to say in the industry, is booming. One reason for the growth is that most states have special muzzleloader-only hunts. So picking up a smokepole can extend your season by weeks. There's also the lure of history. You can bring home venison with essentially the same rifle that Daniel Boone or Jim Bridger used. That's the great thing about muzzleloading-"you can be a mountain man with a Hawken caplock or a modern man with a scoped, superaccurate rifle using a nearly flawless ignition system. Or you can be some combination of the two, taking advantage of modern conveniences while still embracing the primitive challenge of the hunt. It's up to you. We're here to help you find your way among the piles of guns, bullets, powders, and other gear. Your first decision is the type of rifle. Some states only allow certain types of muzzleloaders during their primitive seasons, so check the regulations first. Daniel Boone carried a flintlock, as did soldiers on both sides in the American Revolution. It's the gun that is responsible for the phrase "keep your powder dry"-"anyone who has shot one in the rain knows why. Developed in the early 19th century, the percussion caplock has a faster lock time and greater reliability than its predecessor. The in-line was invented by gunsmith Tony Knight in the 1980s, and it does away with many of the frustrations of traditional designs.Field & Stream Online Editors
Flintlock
The flint hits the frizzen and sparks a smidgen of powder in the pan to fire the charge. It's also known as the "flinchlock" because there's often a lag between the hammer falling and the gun going off. It takes a steady hand to shoot one well.
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Caplock
The hammer strikes a copper cap containing pressure-sensitive powder, which ignites the charge. Easier to shoot than a flintlock, it is an excellent choice for the hunter who wants to keep touch with tradition and still "make meat."
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In-line
The spark from the cap travels a straight line to reach the powder from behind, increasing the rifle's dependability. A removable breech plug greatly simplifies cleaning. Many have fully enclosed, weatherproof actions.
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Knight Long Range Hunter
With a 27-inch fluted, stainless barrel and a target-style laminated stock, the Long Range Hunter is thoroughly modern. It's guaranteed to shoot three shots into 4 inches at 200 yards. $799; 641-856-2626; knightrifles.com Bonus Web Coverage: Blackpowder Game #2: "Split the Playing Card"
Shooters try to split a playing card edgewise. Says one competitor: "It's easier than "split the ball." You cover the card with the sights so you can't see it and shoot.
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Cabela's Blue Ridge Rifles
These rifles have 39-inch barrels, flint or percussion ignition, and double set triggers. Available in .32, .36, .45, .50, and .54 calibers for everything from small game to elk. $509, percussion; $539, flintlock; 800-237-4444; cabelas.com Bonus Web Coverage: Blackpowder Game #3: "Whiskey Cups"
Boatman Mike Fink of tall-tale fame and his friends played "whiskey cups," in which they shot cups of whiskey off one another's heads at 70 paces. The shooter tried to hit the cup; the other man tried not to flinch and spill if the shooter missed. Upset with his friend Will Carpenter (there was a woman involved), Fink deliberately shot him dead during a game, then said "Carpenter, you have spilled the whiskey." Some modern rendezvous hold "Mike Fink" events, with cups of water balanced atop balloons.
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CVA Optima Elite
This break-action design encloses the ignition system. It also accepts centerfire barrels, making it a great one-rifle battery for all seasons. Two-barrel .50 caliber-"centerfire combos begin at $545; 770-449-4687; cva.com Bonus Web Coverage: Blackpowder Game #4: "Barking Squirrels"
Squirrel barking, unlike cow-tipping, is no rural myth. To avoid ruining meat with a large round ball, you shoot the bark under a squirrel's chin as it lies flat on a branch. Woody shrapnel kills the squirrel, sometimes without leaving a mark.
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How to Load a Black Powder FirearmField & Stream Online Editors
Bullets & Powder
What you feed your rifle has a big effect on how you hunt Saboted Bullet
A plastic sabot lets you shoot a smaller bullet in a big-bore gun, resulting in higher velocities. Premium bullets loaded in sabots are devastating on game. A fast rifling twist of one turn in 28 inches helps separate the bullet from the sabot in flight. The .50 caliber works for all big game; the .45 provides flat trajectories for longer shots. 641-856-2626; knightrifles.com
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PowerBelt
Halfway between a conical and a saboted bullet, the PowerBelt is a full-bore projectile with a plastic base that expands to seal the bore, then pops off in flight. Unlike many saboted bullets, PowerBelts slide easily down a rifle's bore for fast loading. In .45, .50, and .54 calibers. 800-376-4010; powerbeltbullets.com
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Conical Bullet
About twice the weight of the same caliber round ball, a conical bullet hits much harder, shoots flatter, and loads easier. Thompson/Center's Maxi-Ball was the first example made for modern hunters. Conicals shoot best from a fast-twist barrel. Use .45s and .50s for deer; .50s and .54s for elk. 603-332-2394; tcarms.com
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Patched Round Ball
On paper, the round ball's ballistics are pathetic, but it kills far better than it should at ranges inside 100 yards. The cloth patch seals the bore and engages the rifling. In general, round balls shoot best from traditional-style rifles with a slow rate of rifling, about one turn in 60 inches. Use at least a .45 caliber for deer-size animals; .32, .36, and .40 are for small game. 308-382-1390; hornady.com
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Black Powder
For some, the rotten-egg stench of blackpowder smoke is the sweet smell of muzzleloading. A mixture of sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter, black powder comes in different granule sizes. FFg is the size for .50 calibers; FFFg is for smallbores. 318-382-9300; goexpowder.com Bonus Web Coverage: Keeping Your Powder Dry
Four tricks for solving muzzloadings biggest problem.
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Hodgdon Pyrodex
The first blackpowder substitute, Pyrodex burns much cleaner, but you still have to guard against fouling and rust. Pyrodex, especially in pellet form, requires hotter ignition, making it better suited to in-line rifles. 913-362-9455; hodgdon.com
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Triple Seven and American Pioneer
It's almost too good to be true. These blackpowder substitutes don't stink, foul, or rust a gun. Choose powder or pellets and clean it up with nothing more than a patch dipped in water. 913-362-9455; hodgdon.com. 888-756-7693; americanpioneerpowder.com
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No. 11 Cap and 209 Shotgun Primer
Caplocks traditionally use the No. 11 cap (above). Many current in-lines use a 209 shotgun primer (next slide); the hot ignition better fires the 150-grain powder charges. Some states, however, require percussion caps. Flintlocks use no primer at all, but a small amount of FFFFg powder in the pan. 866-286-7436; cci-ammunition.com. 800-243-9700; www.remington.com Bonus Web Coverage: Essential Accessories
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No. 11 Cap and 209 Shotgun Primer
Caplocks traditionally use the No. 11 cap (previous slide). Many current in-lines use a 209 shotgun primer (above); the hot ignition better fires the 150-grain powder charges. Some states, however, require percussion caps. Flintlocks use no primer at all, but a small amount of FFFFg powder in the pan. 866-286-7436; cci-ammunition.com. 800-243-9700; www.remington.com Bonus Web Coverage: Essential Accessories
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The Most Important Skill
Single men fill a bathtub with hot, soapy water to clean muzzleloaders. The rest of us use a bucket. Add a squirt of any dish detergent, then fill it up with hot water. Take the barrel off the gun and put it in the bucket. With a cleaning jag and patch on the ramrod, pump it up and down, drawing water into the barrel. Run dry patches down the bore until they come out clean, then use one lightly oiled patch to lube the bore. In-line guns with removable breech plugs can be cleaned from the breech just like a centerfire. With any type of rifle featuring a removable nipple, take it out, clean it, and dry it thoroughly. Finally, put a dry patch on the ramrod and run it down the barrel. Leave the ramrod in place and pop a cap. A burn on the patch proves the flash channel is clear.
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Bonus Web Coverage: The Best Blackpowder Movie Ever
Robert Redford played mountain man Jeremiah Johnson in the 1972 movie of the same name, set in the 1840s and gorgeously filmed in Utah. Based on the true story of a fur trapper who fought a one-man war against the Crow after they killed his family, the movie popularized blackpowder shooting and buskskinning and made the Hawken rifle a star. Thompson/Center's version of the Hawken came out shortly before the movie. It went on to sell over a million guns.
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Top Hunts
There are great ones in every state, but here are some classics: Colorado Elk
Colorado, with its wealth of public land, remains the top destination for do-it-yourself elk hunters. Nonresidents typically draw bull tags every other year and buy cow tags in off years. Colorado prohibits scopes, sabots, and pelletized powder. Iowa Late Blackpowder Season
The best time to bag one of Iowa's big whitetails is the late blackpowder season, which begins before Christmas and ends January 10. When the weather turns cold, deer lose their caution and pile into cornfields like hungry Canada geese. There are no restrictions on rifles. New Mexico Elk
This is paradise for the blackpowder elk hunter. The elevations are lower and the terrain is gentler than in many elk states, and the bulls are huge. Some units are set aside for archery and blackpowder only. Be patient and build up six or seven preference points for a tag in the famous Gila Wilderness. Oregon Antelope
Blackpowder seasons here are strictly old school: exposed-hammer rifles only, with no pelletized powder, sabots, scopes, or fiber optics allowed. Southeast Oregon produces some very big pronghorns, and the mid-September season lets you hunt them during the rut. There's lots of public land; the catch is limited tags. Pennsylvania Flintlock Season
Since 1974, the state has held a popular after-Christmas season for flintlocks only. Every year thousands of Pennsylvanians wish for a flintlock under the tree and fresh tracking snow on the mountains. Bonus Web Coverage: Blackpowder Records
The Longhunter book recognizes animals taken with any muzzleloader, traditional or inline.
Whitetail (Typical) 193 2/8, 1992, Chitek Lake, Saskatchewan. David Wilson, Gonic Arms .50 percussion
American Elk (Typical) 397 5/8, 1998, Socorro County NM, Richard Westwood, T/C .50 percussion
Mule Deer (Typical) 205 4/8. 1994. Summit County. Utah Mike Bowen Lyman .50 percussion rifle
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