Many states, including Alabama, have special hunting seasons for muzzleloaders. Many hunters fail to take full advantage of these seasons due to a lack of confidence in the proper use of these firearms.
There are two main types of muzzleloading firearms — "traditional" (including side hammered cap lock and flintlock) and "in-line." One difference in these types is the degree of rifling in the barrel, commonly referred to as the "twist." Twist refers to the rifling in the barrel that causes the bullet to spin as it travels down the barrel. This rotation/spin stabilizes the bullet during flight for better accuracy. Traditional muzzleloaders have a slower twist rate, like 1:48, while more modern in-lines typically have a 1:28 twist. With a 1:48 twist, the bullet has to travel 48 inches to make one full rotation. Likewise, a bullet has to travel 28 inches to make one full rotation in a barrel with a 1:28 twist.
Bullet types and weights should be matched to the twist to produce optimum accuracy. Round lead balls with patches or conical lead bullets, commonly called "buffalo" bullets, shoot more accurately in barrels with a slow twist. In-line muzzleloaders with faster twist barrels tend to shoot lighter weight modern bullets more accurately. These include bullets seated in a plastic jacket, also called sabots. Others may be copper-jacketed rifle or handgun bullets. With both types of muzzleloaders, there are different weights, types and styles of bullets. Individual firearms have a tendency to shoot a certain bullet type more accurately than others. A trip to the firing range will help you determine which bullet shoots most accurately in your muzzleloader.
Just as there are varieties of bullet types, there are varieties of powder types. "Black" powder has been used for many years and is preferred by many traditionalists. Although effective, black powder has a tendency to readily absorb moisture, thus affecting ignition. It also is very caustic and can cause barrels to rust if they are not properly maintained.
In recent years, a number of black powder substitutes have been formulated to reduce these drawbacks. Some powders are also available in pellet form. These powders come in premeasured, highly compressed pellets that can be dropped directly into the barrel when loading. Powder charges are measured by volume, not by weight. Many traditional muzzleloaders are not designed to handle the magnum charges that some in-lines are capable of shooting. Accuracy in muzzleloaders is often improved by reducing the powder volume below the maximum recommended charge. Regardless of the type of powder used, shooters should never exceed the amount recommended by the firearm manufacturer.
The care and maintenance given to a muzzleloader also affects its reliability and accuracy. All powders leave a residue in the barrel that can greatly affect the next shot. This residue can affect the ignition rate of a powder charge that has been left in the barrel for an extended period. Powder residue may also cause barrels to rust, even in stainless steel muzzleloaders, if left unattended. Rust destroys accuracy by eroding the rifling in a barrel. Powder residue and fragments of lead, copper or plastic from sabots (referred to as fouling) left behind from previous bullets being fired through the barrel may also affect bullet accuracy. Fouling and powder residue should be kept to a minimum. A moistened cleaning patch should be swabbed down the barrel between shots to help reduce these problems. Additionally, swabbing with a moist patch will remove any hot embers that might remain in the barrel prior to reloading. Any cleaning solvents or oil residue left in the barrel, nipple or breech plug can be absorbed by the powder, causing a delayed shot (often referred to as a "hang fire") or even a misfire. Just prior to loading, swab the barrel with a dry cloth and then fire a couple of primers to burn any oil residue remaining in the barrel.
Muzzleloading firearms have progressed to become extremely reliable and efficient. Many improvements have been made in the firearms themselves. There also exists a greater variety of powders and bullets. In order for a hunter to become proficient with a muzzleloader, he should practice from a solid rest, and experiment with different bullet types and weights, along with powder types and volumes, following manufacturer specifications, before heading to the field to hunt.
Daniel G. Toole is a Wildlife Biologist with the Alabama Department of Conservations and Natural Resources Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries.