Here’s another great guest post by John McAdams, owner of the Big Game Hunting Blog. In this post, John tackles a cool topic that I don’t have a lot of experience with. Muzzleloader hunting is very popular in the Midwest, yet I haven’t tried it yet. I learned a lot from the information he shares here, so I hope you’ll enjoy it.
I think that most hunters probably overlook muzzleloaders when they’re trying to find ways to expand their hunting opportunities. That’s really too bad because the muzzleloader hunting season is a great way to spend more time out in the woods pursuing big game with minimal competition from other hunters.
In this article I’ll go over some of the reasons why you should hunt with a muzzleloader as well as a couple of tips on how to get started.
Why You Should Hunt With a Muzzleloader
The details vary from state to state, but most areas offer a special muzzleloader hunting season. This usually means an extra week or two afield on top of the archery and rifle seasons.
In some places (like Georgia and Washington), the muzzleloader deer hunting season is after the bow season, but before the general rifle season. This can give muzzleloader hunters the opportunity to pursue deer that haven’t been subjected to a lot of hunting pressure yet.
In other states (like Minnesota and Texas), the muzzleloader season occurs after the general rifle season. Even then, those special seasons are still great because they can really help cut down on the number of other hunters in the woods at any given time. This is especially nice when hunting on public land.
For example, just 6% of deer hunters used a muzzleloader in the state of Washington in 2017. Those hunters had success rates comparable to archery and rifle hunters, but the big difference was that there weren’t nearly as many men and women out in the woods using a “smoke pole” as there were with a rifle (~77% of hunters) or even with a bow (~17% of deer hunters).
In that same vein, the much smaller pool of applicants can also make it easier to draw a special permit for a muzzleloader hunt in certain areas when compared to rifle or even archery hunts. Some states also offer more generous bag limits or fewer restrictions on what constitutes a “legal animal” during muzzleloader season.
It’s true that hunting with a muzzleloader does offer some challenges when compared to hunting with a centerfire rifle. In particular, a muzzleloader often has a relatively short effective range, is slow to reload, and produces a lot of smoke.
That being said, a modern inline muzzleloader is a very capable tool in the right hands. Especially when hunting in a state where scopes are legal to use, an inline muzzleloader is ballistically very similar to a cartridges like the .45-70. With an effective range of around 100-150 yards, this is a great choice for hunting deer-sized game animals.
True, no muzzleloader will ever be able to compare to a centerfire rifle when it comes to taking shots out past 200 yards. However, if we’re being honest with ourselves, the vast majority of all deer are taken within 150 yards.
Now that we’ve covered some of the benefits of hunting with a muzzleloader, here are a few tips on how to get started.
First we’ll start with the muzzleloader itself.
Muzzleloaders are usually described by their ignition: flintlock, sidelock, and inline muzzleloaders. Flintlocks and sidelocks are the oldest and most primitive models. Soldiers in the Revolutionary and Civil War as well as famous hunters like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett used muzzleloaders like these. In the right hands, they’re quite effective.
However, they’re also the most difficult to use. For this reason, I’d advise steering clear of these muzzleloaders at first unless you enjoy the challenge of using a primitive weapon, or want to hunt in an area with particularly restrictive regulations, like during the flintlock season in Pennsylvania.
Modern inline muzzleloaders are a completely different story though. There are lots of very capable and easy-to-use inline muzzleloaders made by companies like CVA, Knight, Thompson Center, and Traditions that are a great choice for those new to hunting with a muzzleloader.
These muzzleloaders are also usually very reasonably priced, with entry level rifles starting around $200. I personally use a CVA Optima (cover photo) and it has worked extremely well for me on many hunts.
Powder and Primers
There are several options to choose from when it comes to muzzleloader powder and primers. True black powder is by far the easiest to ignite, but it’s the most dirty and least efficient. Flintlock and sidelock muzzleloaders are restricted almost exclusively to using black powder.
Inline muzzleloaders can take advantage of some of the different black powder substitutes out there like Pyrodex, Hodgdon’s 777, or Blackhorn 209. Pyrodex and 777 are available as loose powder or pre-formed pellets. The loose powder is easier to ignite and produces slightly higher muzzle velocities. However, the pellets are much easier and faster to load. Blackhorn 209 is the cleanest burning and most efficient powder of the bunch, but it’s also the most difficult to ignite.
There are several different types of muzzleloader primers out there as well. #10, #11, and musket caps are designed for use on sidelock rifles and pistols. The biggest difference between them is their physical size, and individual muzzleloaders are designed to use a specific cap.
Some inline muzzleloaders can use #11 or musket caps, but the 209 primer is by far the most popular. It produces the hottest flame of the bunch and is ideal for igniting black powder substitutes, particularly Blackhorn 209.
We’ve come a long way from the plain old lead round balls hunters used back in the 1800s and muzzleloader hunters now have a staggering variety of muzzleloader bullets to choose from. There are lots of good choices out there, but when you’re first getting started, try to use bullets manufactured by the same company that produced your muzzleloader (e.g., PowerBelt bullets in a CVA, Traditions bullets in a Traditions muzzleloader, Thompson Center bullets in a Thompson Center muzzleloader, etc.).
I’ve had very good results with a wide variety of bullets out of my CVA Optima, but it definitely seems to prefer certain bullets like the 250 grain PowerBelt AeroLite and 250 grain Barnes T-EZ.
Just like learning how to use any new tool, there are a few challenges associated with getting started using a muzzleloader. However, there are some big advantages to hunting with a smoke pole. So, don’t be afraid of learning something new.