Muzzleloaders Get Their Big Chance

Muzzleloading Season
Guns & Recreation
Priming Horns?
Editing History
Craft Apprenticeship
Wallace Gusler Retires
This article was written for Virginia Wildlife Magazine and published in the September 1973 issue. The purpose was to announce and help explain the newly approved "Primitive Weapons Season."


VIRGINIA has become the 18th state to offer a special deer hunt in which muzzle loaders are the only firearms allowed. The Game Commission received numerous letters requesting such a season and petitions with nearly a thousand signatures were presented at the April meeting in Richmond. After studying the results of muzzle-loading hunting in other states, the Commission voted for a trial primitive weapons season in Virginia.

Interest in black powder shooting and hunting has increased tremendously in the last few years and several states now offer over twenty days of hunting for those willing to leave their cartridge guns at home. Over two thousand hunters have participated in some southern states, and more importantly this extra hunting has been provided without an appreciable increase in the game harvest.
With the number of hunters steadily increasing and the available hunting lands decreasing, the emphasis of game management has turned toward providing the highest quality hunting rather than the largest kill. A muzzle-loader season is a step in that direction, and this fall several hundred Virginians will enjoy a truly different hunting experience.

The six day, bucks only muzzle-loader hunt is limited, for this year, to three State-owned wildlife management areas. The Clinch Mountain Wildlife Management Area north of Saltville has 18,500 acres, most of which are above the 3,000 foot elevation mark. The Gathright Area in Bath County has 18,500 somewhat less rugged acres but the area's southern tip is closed due to the construction of the long disputed dam on the Jackson River. Largest of the three is the Goshen-Little North Mountain Area with its 32,200 acres stretching along the ridge from Route 60 west of Lexington to Route 252 west of Staunton.

Muzzle loaders will be hunting along with archers during the last week of bow season, November 9th thru 15th. Combined muzzle-loader and archery seasons have been adopted in seven other states and have been successful in every case because of the two groups' similar attitudes and hunting techniques. These combined seasons are usually designated as primitive weapons seasons.

The firearms used must be at least .45 caliber, and the single ball or conical bullet must be loaded from the muzzle. The powder charge has to be at least 50 grains (Avoir) of black powder. Rifled and smoothbore weapons are both legal, but muzzle-loaded pistols are not allowed.

A question that bothers many cartridge gun hunters is, "Why would anyone waste their time hunting with a weapon that became obsolete a century ago ?" A few 1 are too polite to ask, and others regard muzzle-loader hunting as a form of incurable insanity. This primitive hunt gives some an answer of their own when they try muzzle loading for the first time and like it.

A large part of the appeal of hunting with a flintlock or percussion rifle is in the added challenge of restricting yourself to a single shot with a relatively temperamental weapon which can give the deer an unexpected advantage over the hunter. Another appeal is the desire to experience a hunting situation similar to that faced by the men who settled this land two hundred years ago. Either of these could be reason enough to give muzzle loading a try, and most hunters have both the desire for a challenge and an interest in their heritage.

Muzzle-loaded firearms have been used for hunting in Virginia for over three hundred years. In the 17th and 18th centuries hunting provided meat for explorers and settler families. At the same time deer skins were a major export item, and the quest for these skins led the first white men across the mountains into Kentucky. The legendary use of the rifle in that western county of Virginia led to the practice of calling all long rifles "Kentucky Rifles."

By the end of the first quarter of the 19th century most of the big game in Virginia had been killed out or pushed westward. Muzzle-loading rifles evolved into the small-bored squirrel rifle form. West of the Mississippi, hunters continued to use large caliber plains rifles.
Even after the production of metallic cartridge firearms, muzzle loaders were often used for hunting because they were readily available and economical to use. Many modern-day hunters trace their interest in muzzle loaders to true stories their fathers or grandfathers told about hunting with the family long rifle.

In some cases the discovery of an antique rifle gathering dust in the attic has caused interest both in learning about the history of muzzle loaders and in shooting. These old rifles should not be used for hunting, even though they may be in safe firing condition, because they represent a segment of history and can never be replaced if damaged or destroyed in a hunting accident. Even target shooting will eventually ruin an original rifle. The present owner of an antique has a responsibility to future generations for its preservation. Buy a new muzzle loader to shoot and leave your original at home.

This brings us to the problem of selecting one of the new muzzle loaders now available in most gun shops. As in the selection of any hunting gun there will be differences of opinion among even the most experienced, but there are certain guidelines which most will agree upon.

Virginia's new season allows either rifles or smoothbores to be used. Rifling was developed in the 15th century and was used for deer hunting in central Europe before settlement began in America. Rifles spread to this country because they were well suited for hunting in the woods and by the third quarter of the 18th century they were used for most big-game hunting because accuracy was important.
Smoothbore sporting arms remained popular for small game and waterfowl hunting. A fowling piece, as muzzle-loading shotguns were called, can be loaded with a single patched ball but the accuracy will be considerably below that of a rifle.

Another type of smoothbore is the musket. Some people mistakenly call all muzzle loaders muskets or "musket loaders." A musket is a strictly military weapon designed, for tactics calling for rapid fire rather than accurate fire. A smoothbore musket can be loaded in one-half the time needed for loading a rifle, but has only one-fourth the range. They are not hunting guns. If you are shopping for a muzzle-loading firearm for hunting deer, a rifle is the obvious choice, as it was years ago.

A more difficult decision is choosing either a flintlock or percussion rifle. Advocates of either will often argue that their rifle is the only one worth considering. A wise choice can be made only by one who is familiar with both systems.

The flintlock is, of course, the older of the two ignition systems and it relies on sparks created when a moving flint strikes the steel frizzen to fire the priming powder. This priming charge is located in the pan, and the flash of its explosion travels through the touch hole to ignite the main charge in the barrel.

The percussion or caplock system replaced the flintlock after 1820. A percussion depends upon an explosive compound in a brass cap which detonates when struck by the hammer. The cap is struck while on a hollow anvil called a nipple, and flame travels down this tube into the powder charge.

It may appear obvious that since the percussion replaced the flint-lock it is the superior system. Indeed the caplock was an improvement when the standards of judgment were those of a man struggling to feed and protect his family. Today hunting with any muzzle loader is done as sport and for many the appeal of the flintlock is strong enough to outweigh any slight functional disadvantage.

A percussion is a bit easier to learn to shoot because the tendency to flinch is not as great as with a flintlock. ' The flash of priming powder will not burn a flintlock shooter, but it will startle a novice.

Since a percussion lock has fewer parts and will function with weak springs and unhardened parts, a serviceable caplock can be made more cheaply than an equally reliable flintlock. Very few factory-produced flintlocks are of good quality. A hunter looking for the lowest priced -serviceable muzzle loader should buy a good caplock. If a hunter wants to spend as much as the cost of a good modern rifle, he can purchase a serviceable flintlock.

The priming power in a flintlock is more exposed to moisture than the cap and powder in a percussion. However, this feature can become an advantage for the flintlock. The pan of priming powder can easily be inspected to determine its condition, whereas moisture in a percussion nipple goes undetected until firing is attempted.

Most shooters claim that percussions are faster firing, i.e., have a shorter lock time than flintlocks. Recent tests published in Black Powder Digest give the time from the start of the hammer fall until the ball leaves the muzzle as .022 seconds for an underhammer caplock and .055 seconds for a flintlock. Three hundredths of a second should not have much bearing in the selection of a hunting rifle.
When all these factors are considered and all local opinions heard, the selection of either a flintlock or percussion may well depend on the period of history the hunter finds most interesting. One new black powder shooter in Christiansburg said, after selecting a flintlock rifle, "If I'm going to do this I might as well go all the way." Whichever rifle is chosen it will have to be at least .45 caliber to be legal. Muzzle-loading hunting rifles are usually designed to fire a cloth-patched round ball, the diameter of which must be large enough to give a bullet weight comparable to that of a modern deer-rifle bullet. A .45 caliber lead ball weighs about 136 grains, and anything lighter would be too small. A .50 caliber ball weighing 187 grains is good for hunting and offers better wind-bucking ability on the target range.

If a hollow-based conical bullet is used, it can be selected to provide the desired bullet weight in any caliber. However, some slow-twist rifling will stabilize only the shorter conicals. These are highly recommended for any rifle under .50 caliber. Conicals should also be used in most Civil War period reproductions as they are designed for minie-ball use. These heavy, slow bullets should perform very well in brushy country.

The caliber of the rifle chosen will be a guide in deciding how much powder to use. At least 50 grains of black powder must be used. Most hunters like to work up to the heaviest load their rifle will safely handle without losing accuracy.

For a hunting load, in a round ball rifle, try one and one-half grains of FFg black powder for each caliber of the bore. The load for a .50 caliber would therefore be 75 grains of black powder. This load should be considered a light hunting load, and it is midway between a target load of one grain per caliber and a heavy hunting load of two grains per caliber.

The powder charge for a conical bullet depends on the weight and design 6f .the ballet, and literature with the mould or the experiences of another shooter with the same bullet would be the best guide.
There are many books and magazine articles on shooting a muzzle loader and these will provide detailed information beyond the scope of this article. A more enjoyable way to learn is to find people that shoot muzzle loaders and ask them to help you get started.

Learning to shoot a muzzle loader well under hunting conditions is not easy. Even experienced target shooters can become all thumbs when they try loading their rifle in the woods for the first time. After the zero and accuracy of a hunting rifle have been established, the shooting should be done from typical hunting positions, loading done from the bag, and horn worn while hunting.

Master your rifle before season, and one shot will be enough. Go into the woods unprepared and you will probably come out empty handed, feeling a bit foolish.

As you set out to enjoy this new muzzle-loading deer hunt, remember that the results of this year's season will be a major factor in deciding the fate of muzzle loading in Virginia. Several states boast of their muzzle loaders as among the best sportsmen in the state. Virginia can do the same if we do our part to make this season a success.