Some years back, certain folks thought it would be great fun to dress like Dan’l Boone or Dave Crockett in buckskins and rat’coon hats and shoot muzzle loading rifles for sport. Thinking them harmless, many states, including Texas, gave them their very own muzzle loading deer hunting season. Of course, the joke was sort of on the erstwhile retro pioneers, as this season came after the archery and regular rifle hunting seasons had come to an end, so that the loud, smoke belching muzzle loaders wouldn’t scare all the deer out of the state before the regular rifle hunters – who pay most of the bills for game management – got a chance to try their own luck. Still, if what many believe is true – that deer can read the hunting regulations and season dates printed in magazines and the newspaper – there is always a chance Bambi and his kinfolks will think they are safe in this late season (and they could be right!), and lolly-gag around waiting to be shot by someone with a weapon that only fires a single shot, takes a long time to reload, has somewhat limited range and accuracy compared to a modern scope sighted center fire rifle, and fills the woods with acrid smoke every time it is fired.
This attitude has proven to be wrong, not because of the skill and dedication of the hunter who chooses to participate in this aspect of the sport, but due to the skill and dedication of the manufacturers of modern muzzle loading rifles. Few ML hunters use the black powder flintlock rifles shooting round lead balls wrapped in a cloth patch propelled by black powder poured loosely down the barrel and ignited – hopefully – by a spark from a piece of flint striking on a plate of steel. Instead, the market developed the “modern in-line muzzle loader”. This weapon can shoot a common round ball, but more likely will be used with a copper jacketed bullet, often a hollow point or polymer-tipped like the Barnes TTSX bullets, and usually encased in a plastic sabot, like the best of shotgun slugs are these days. Instead of loose black powder, most ML shooters use a pelletized “black powder substitute”, like the Pyrodex brand. Weighing and measuring are not required, the pellets are pre-weighed and need only to be dropped down the barrel in the proper amount, in front of the bullet. The bullet must still be pushed down the muzzle with a ram rod, but there are lubricants to make this easier as well as protecting the barrel. Flint and steel are no longer used to ignite the charge, but rather a #209 shotgun cartridge primer is inserted into a small recess in the breech end of the barrel and “fires” the charge. Realistically, this is a “hand-loaded” modern rifle cartridge, without the brass cartridge case. The newer powders do not smoke or foul the barrel as much as black powder, and a scope sighted inline ML can be effective at ranges past 200 yards. The major hold-over from the Boone and Crockett days is that the barrel must be cleaned much more regularly than with a smokeless center fire rifle, and the action will need more attention to prevent corrosion.
Most of these modern muzzle loaders are break open guns, which allow easy access for placing and removing the primer and cleaning the priming “hole”. The best also have removable breech plugs, which are unscrewed to be thoroughly cleaned and allow better cleaning of the barrel when they are out. There are also “falling block” type actions, which have many of the same benefits as the break open guns. After this, things can get kind of interesting. Some companies produce bolt action muzzle loaders – Remington even offers a ML version of it’s popular model 700. Savage was making a bolt action muzzle loader that was fired with smokeless powder, but it may have been discontinued. Thompson Center, H&R, and some others produce muzzle loading barrels for guns like the popular Encore, which allows it to be used as a center fire or rim fire rifle, a shotgun, or a muzzle loader, simply by changing barrels. It struck me that a double barreled muzzle loader, while surely heavy, should be popular for hunters due to having an available quick second shot? A quick Google search came up with two that are on the market – there might be more. CVA makes a side-by-side, but it is a flintlock. Traditions makes an over-under inline muzzleloader in .50 that looks really sweet, except for the price tag that runs from $1,500 to close to $2,000. My “inquiring” mind has wondered about a muzzle loading version of a European 3-barreled “drilling”, with three .50 barrels? Or possibly twin .50’s, with a smaller caliber barrel beneath? Such a rifle would be heavy, of course, but for a stand hunter using a rest, it would definitely increase firepower! For those who already have a center fire version of one of the break-open, multi-barrel platforms, adding a muzzle loading barrel is the easiest and most economical way to give muzzle loading a try.
A couple of years ago I started getting seriously curious about modern muzzle loading. Going that route not only would give me another gun to play with, but in Brazoria County the ML Only season begins at the end of the general rifle season and runs until January 20 – an additional 13 days of deer hunting in which antlerless deer are fair game without a special permit. Of course, if a lucky hunter fills all his tags in the archery and the general rifle seasons, he cannot shoot extra deer in muzzle loader only season. On the other hand, nothing that I know of limits using a muzzle loader to only in the muzzle loader only season, it should be just as legal in the general rifle deer season.
Some of the better quality break open guns are fairly expensive, although deals can be found occasionally on used ones. The very cheapest imports have a reputation for not being really safe. For my venture into muzzle loading I decided to take a sort of different path. I have owned a Mossberg Model 500 12 gauge pump shotgun for many, many years. It has killed pickup bed loads of squirrels, quite a few rabbits, and one deer my brother nailed on the run at 75 yards in the East Texas woods shooting #1 buckshot. I bought a slug barrel for this gun some years back, but have yet to actually hunt or shoot anything with it except targets. When I found that this already versatile gun could be fitted with a muzzle loader barrel, I was very interested. My initial queries to Mossberg were made two years ago, but I got no response – I think they may have discontinued the barrel. When I started looking at muzzle loaders this year, I gave them another shot, and was told they did indeed still make the barrel, and would sell me one direct. The price was less than a used break open ML. The barrel is a 24” .50 caliber, which can shoot .50 bullets, or .45 bullets in sabots. It comes with open sights that I found unsuitable for my aging eyes, instead of the excellent integral Weaver style scope base that is standard on the slug barrel, but I found a mount that screws to the side of the receiver to create a one piece base raised high enough to sight under it and use the open sights, if you can see that well. I mounted a Nikon Inline 3×9 scope in camo finish to get the most out of the gun. To get my eye in line with the scope at such a height, I had already replaced the factory butt stock with a composite unit with adjustable LOP and with an adjustable cheek piece. I still need more height than the cheek piece allows, but am using a pad until I can reconfigure the stock.
When I replaced the original barrel with the slug barrel, I had problems and ended up paying a gunsmith to straighten it out. Simply put, I have trouble reading the directions, instead of plunging right into a project. The Mossberg people said I could call them and they’d walk me through it, but I found if I read the manual and left the action half open while seating the barrel, I could see the notches the “fingers” on the end of the chamber have to slide into. After that, basically no problem. This is good, because being able to easily remove the barrel is essential for conversions from shotgun to slug gun to ML rifle, and also for proper cleaning. The Mossberg barrel does not have a removable breech plug, so a thorough cleaning requires removing the barrel. With a little practice, this is easy. The conversion to a muzzle loader is pretty slick. The pump action opens the receiver so the primer can be placed, or removed. A special end cap with a hole in it replaces the magazine cap, allowing the ram rod included with the barrel to be stored under the barrel, and partly inside the now unused shotgun magazine. It is a bit harder to place the primer than in a break open gun, but with the proper primer tool, it is no big deal.
My muzzle loader, while a bit unconventional looking, is now ready to shoot, and to sight in. That next step will come very soon, and will be reported on here. This has been a slow deer season for me, so maybe the extra time will bring me luck? I am also eager to try the .50 muzzle loader on a big hog – should do a heck of a job!
Contact the Maverick Arms division of Mossberg located in Eagle Pass, Texas, by the way:
Santa Hernandez – SHernandez@maverickarms.com.