Hunting with a muzzleloader adds a different element to the hunt. Getting back to the basics (or at least closer to them) of where gun hunting originated is quite rewarding. Not only that but it also produces an added challenge beyond modern rifle hunting.
So, if you’re new to muzzleloaders and need a short primer to learn the basics in the grand scheme of all things muzzleloading, this is the post for you. And while there are many things you need to learn beyond what’s written here (gun safety, the finer points of muzzleloading, finding the right loads for your gun, shooting techniques, hunting tactics, etc.), this should be a great primer for you to begin your studies. And remember, always be careful and mindful of what you’re doing.
1. Have the Right Equipment
To begin, make sure you have everything you need in order to clean, load and shoot a muzzleloader. You’ll need the gun, ramrod, sabots, powder, primers or percussion caps and your gun-cleaning kit. Locate a target to line up your muzzleloader. A cardboard box will do if you don’t have anything else. You can also use a shooting bench to help keep the gun steady while sighting it in. And remember, always make sure you have a solid backdrop and know what is beyond your target.
Some muzzleloaders have traditional safeties like modern firearms. But some don’t. Always be careful regardless of the gun’s makeup and inner workings. But definitely be careful when shooting muzzleloaders that don’t have one. The best mentality to operate under — always act as if a firearm is loaded. Never point it at someone and keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction at all times. Read the entire owner’s manual to become familiar with your muzzleloader.
3. Check to See If the Gun Is Unloaded
Always leave a muzzleloader unloaded unless ready to fire (or hunt). It’s unsafe to store a loaded rifle and it’s especially hard on the barrel of a muzzleloader to do so. This will reduce the lifespan of the barrel and it won’t take long for you to notice corrosion and pitting. Furthermore, always check the muzzleloader to see if it’s loaded before going out to shoot or hunt. The dangers of double-loading this type of firearm is very real and can result in injury or death. Always pull the breech plug out and check to see if it’s already loaded before putting powder and a sabot into your muzzleloader.
As previously mentioned, failure to clean and protect a muzzleloader can lead to corrosion, pitting and other types of damage. Always inspect your gun before storing or using it. Clean it good before and after each use.
5. Measure and Insert the Powder
You can use loose powder or pellets. That said, make sure you always use black powder and not smokeless powder (accidental confusion of these two types of powder can lead to serious injury or death). Also, check your owner’s manual to see if your gun calls for loose powder or pellets. Sometimes, specific barrels may call for one or the other. Pay heed to what it says will work (or won’t work) for your particular barrel.
Next, determine how many grains of powder is right for your gun. Most muzzleloaders experience peak performance at approximately 100 grains of powder. That said, some will require more and some less — just make sure you never use more powder than is safe and that your particular muzzleloader calls for. Once you’ve inspected the firearm and are positive it isn’t loaded, reassemble the muzzleloader, measure out the appropriate amount of powder and insert it down into the barrel from the muzzle end (hence the term muzzleloader).
Once your powder is inserted, push the sabot down into the barrel with the pointed tip (smallest end) pointing outward. Continue to push the sabot down into the barrel until it is firmly seated against the powder (whether loose or pelleted). Be careful not to damage the sabot with the ramrod and always use the appropriate, designated tools to load your muzzleloader.
7. Lightly Tamp the Load
Some people advise against tamping the load (especially if using pelleted powder). They feel you risk breaking up the pellets which could lead to decreased accuracy. I’ve never had this trouble, but even so, I don’t tamp the load heavily. I lightly press downward once the sabot is seated to ensure that it is so.
Now that the gun is loaded for the first time, etch a line around your ramrod even with the muzzle of the barrel. This will serve as your “loaded line.” Each time you load the gun, make sure this line is even with the end of the barrel. This will serve as a secondary precaution (still always check before loading) that you haven’t double-loaded the firearm. Once this is done, pull the ramrod from the barrel and put it back in its sheath. If you ever change to a different amount of powder or a different sabot that changes the load depth, alter the load line on your ramrod accordingly and cover up the old line. If this can’t be done, get a new ramrod for your muzzleloader and mark it with the new line.
9. Point the Gun Downrange
Now, check to make sure the range is all clear and point the gun toward your target. If the gun has not been previously lined up, you may need to bore sight and start close to the target when you first begin shooting. Once ready, set the gun up in a gun vice, put the crosshairs on the bullseye and anchor it down.
Depending on what your muzzleloader calls for, insert either a percussion cap or primer. Never insert this until you’re ready to aim and fire. Doing so acts as another line of gun safety when shooting and hunting with muzzleloaders. Once this is done, close the breech and pull back the hammer. Now you’re ready to take the shot.
11. Pull the Trigger
This part might sound a bit rudimentary (as may much of this if you’re an experienced muzzleloader marksman), but there’s an art to pulling a trigger on a rifle of any kind. Once on target, slowly apply pressure until the gun goes off. Let the muzzle blast “surprise you.” This will help ensure you don’t pull your shot right or left. Once the shot goes off, put the safety back on (if it has one) and make sure the gun is pointed in a safe direction.
It’s important to clean the barrel with a slightly damp (with bore cleaner) swab between shots. This will help wipe away powder residue and other debris that can affect the accuracy of the firearm. However, don’t use a cloth that’s too damp or you can leave excess amounts of oil in the barrel which also can affect accuracy.
13. Determine What Load Works Best for Your Gun
It’s important to do your research. Find out what powder and load combination works best for your muzzleloader. That said, always be safe and never use powder or loads that aren’t cleared for the particular muzzleloader you’re using. Also, never use more than the maximum amount of powder that your muzzleloader safely calls for, either.
As previously stated, cleaning your firearm is essential — especially for black-powder rifles. This type of powder does not burn very cleanly and will leave large amounts of residue on the interior and exterior of the gun. Always check to make sure the gun is unloaded, take it apart, and clean all components before reassembling and storing the firearm.
15. Educate Yourself on All Things Muzzleloaders and Shooting
While this will serve as a good primer, there is still much to learn and know about shooting and hunting with a muzzleloader. Learn everything you need to about gun safety, hunter’s safety and different tactics you can use while hunting. The world of muzzleloader hunting is vast. Best get to experiencing it, eh?