Hunting with a flintlock muzzleloader is the epitome of firearms hunting traditions. Creeping along a ridge top in the late fall, looking for a deer carrying the style of rifle which fought and tamed the American wilderness — that’s a challenge accepted by few hunters. Those who choose to carry the flint and steel revel in the challenge and the near spiritual connection to their guns. For nearly 200 years, the flintlock ruled the world. It toppled empires, conquered continents, killed food and crippled men. Most famously, the state of Pennsylvania holds a three-week traditional flintlock season after Christmas each year. Many of the traditional flintlock enthusiasts are still based in the Appalachian stretch in what were some of our earliest states.
Choosing Your Rifle
Hunting with a flintlock rifle is known as the sport for those who tinker. Picking the right flintlock rifle is much like picking up a bow or a fly rod. An easy place to start? Research guns from Hawken or Traditions. The nuances of each gun take time to learn. You must truly learn the personality of your gun and find what works for it. There are three popular and readily available calibers from which to choose .45, .50 and .54. Starting with a .50-caliber is a recommended starting caliber by experienced hunters since it gives you the range and power needed to learn.
When picking out a flintlock rifle, make sure it is balanced and not front heavy. One advantage to buying a brand-name gun is that it will have faster rifling. That translates to increased accuracy. A longer rifle as seen in reenactments is not essential, but is more traditional, which is a draw for many and can be a style of gun to grow into.
Another aspect of buying a flintlock is purchasing a gun with a quality lock. Hunters looking to get started with a flintlock need to be sure to avoid a cheap lock. Low quality runs the risk of being unreliable when shot. A gun that won’t consistently spark is useless.
Picking the right ammunition for your flintlock can easily be determined by understanding the twist rate of your barrel. There are two common choices familiar to everyone — saboted and round ball. While traditionalists choose round balls, many of today’s modern flintlock muzzleloaders will shoot saboted rounds, which is a reliable place to start.
An easy way to take into consideration what ammunition to choose is to remember the faster the twist rate of the rifling in your barrel, the faster the stabilization. If you intend on shooting heavier grain weight ammunition, make sure to pick a gun with a fast twist rate. If you intend on shooting a lighter grain bullet, a slower twist rate will help stabilize the bullet better. Too fast of a twist rate will destabilize the bullet.
It’s also important to understand the powder-grading system. Graded on a scale of coarseness, Fg is a coarse, high-grain powder. FFg is a medium-grain powder and FFFg and FFFFg are fine-grain powders. Higher grain powder is poured into the barrel, while fine grain powders sit in the flash pan. The finer the grain of powder, the faster it burns. Finding the right amount of powder to use in your flash pan and barrel depends on what you discover about the gun on the range. Range time is perhaps more critical than with any other firearm since you will need to find what powder level shoots best for each grain with your ammunition choice. And remember, don’t tightly pack the powder since each grain of powder has to burn one at a time. The flash must be able to reach the charge through the touch hole quickly.
Flintlock rifles are the most accident-prone options available. That makes safety a priority during use. Understanding the system is key to their use and staying safe. The is especially important with the lock. As seen in the movies, the flint piece is cocked back and when it strikes the steel frizzen, it ignites powder, which burns in the flash pan. This ignites powder in the touch hole, which fires the gun. There are stories of guns going off just by accidentally bumping the lock, even when not in the cocked position. Be careful and aware at all times.
Flintlock hunters will carry what is called a calf’s knee. It is nothing more than a small leather cap to go over the frizzen as a safety precaution. Moisture is the enemy of blackpowder and late muzzleloader seasons typically coincide with winter and ominous weather. One way to create a solid seal of protection with a calf’s knee is to soak it in Snow Seal and then heat it with a hair dryer. Repeat this process three or four times before the season to not only increase the lifespan and to protect from moisture but also to increase the ability to grip the metal and wood of the gun and create a superior, sealed barrier.
Keeping the flint sharp and the frizzen from being weakened demands attention to detail. Watch the tip of your flint to make sure it is not cracked or dull. Typical flint should last several seasons, depending on how much you shoot. When it does begin to lose its edge, it is less likely to produce sparks on the steel. You can replace the flint with a fresh piece or fix the flint if you have the right tools.
Always sight in a flintlock from a bench rest to find the best accuracy. Then, practice shooting off-hand. Flintlock rifles are known to be effective 50- to 75-yard guns, but experienced shooters can stretch the distance to 100 yards or so.
Those wishing to stay with tradition and hunt with a classic round ball need to understand there may not be an immediate blood trail. That’s why it is important to get a complete pass through. Following through on the shot is critical due to the short time delay from the trigger pull. Hunters with flintlock experience highly recommend hunting with a shooting stick since any flinch can result in a bad shot, too.
The traditional muzzleloading community is small, yet faithful. The passion of those who choose the flint and steel is one of unbridled enthusiasm. Scattered across the country, these hunters have a special connection to the wild. And they know what it truly means to lay the hammer down on a whitetail.