Tips for selecting a muzzleloader
Those new to the world of muzzleloading rifles may be a bit confused about exactly what to buy for practical hunting purposes. One choice shooters face is whether to buy a flintlock of percussion rifle.
Traditional flintlock rifles will allow Pennsylvania hunters to hunt in both the fall, antlerless deer season and the late winter "primitive weapons" season. Percussion rifles are permitted only during the fall season.
So with that thought in mind, we'll center this article around flintlock ignition rifles, however, much of what we'll discuss will also apply to percussion rifles.
Flintlock rifles were in use for a much longer period of time than percussion arms and today, flintlock rifles are legitimate and effective hunting arms. Of course, what type of rifle the shooter ultimately buys is their prerogative. However, a few considerations are: removable barrels, rate of twist, caliber, and choice of projectile.
By removable barrels I mean barrels that may easily be removed from the stock for Cleaning a muzzleloading rifle barrel is somewhat different than cleaning a smokeless powder cartridge rifle (yes, I am aware that the smokeless powder cartridge has been around for sometime now). Being able to remove the barrel quickly and easily is a definite plus when it comes to cleaning chores.
Rate of twist is a subject that also deserves consideration. The majority of rifles offered today have a 1-48 twist. In other words, the rifling in the barrel will make one complete turn every 48 inches. Since most barrels are about 26 to 28 inches in length, the rifling does not quite make a complete turn.
The 1-48 twist was a standard incorporated by the original Hawken rifles made in the 1800s in St. Louis. This twist rate is often regarded as a compromise twist, meaning that it will deliver adequate accuracy with either patched round balls or lead conical bullets. If you're shooting some of the modern copper jacketed conical bullets you will want a much faster rate of twist, something like 1-28. Mail-order firms like Cabelas offer extra barrels for their own brand of rifles and some others. Shooters may purchase a extra barrel with a faster twist rate for modern conical shooting.
If the word "tradition" strikes a chord in your heart, you might be a "roundball purist," and limit your shooting and hunting strictly to patched lead roundballs. In that case a 1-48 twist will work, but better accuracy is obtained with a slower 1-66 twist rate. Years ago I bought a Cabelas Hawken style flintlock, slightly used but in great condition, for less than $100. It has a 1-48 twist. For the past decade or more I have been well satisfied with this rifle as a hunting and shooting arm, using patched roundball projectiles.
Certainly caliber is an important consideration. Here in the Keystone state the minimum muzzleloading rifle caliber allowed by law is .44. Muzzleloading rifles are most commonly offered in three or four calibers: .45; .50; .54 and occasionally in .58 caliber. The .50 and .54 calibers seem to dominate the market, although a good buy in a .45 caliber arm should not be passed up. The .45 caliber offers the advantage of relatively higher velocity.
The .50 and .54 calibers can and do offer somewhat more punch and to some degree extend the rifle's effective range.
One arm the round-ball purist might consider is Lyman's Great Plains Rifle. This is a true roundball rifle with a 1-166 twist and is a very accurate rifle. This rifle should not be confused with the Lyman Great Plains Hunter which is fitted with a 1-28 twist barrel for shooting jacketed conicals.
If you can have but one muzzleloading rifle and want to hunt both the fall and late winter seasons then your only choice is a flintlock rifle capable of handling patched roundballs. This means a 1-48 or the slower 1-66 twist rates.
The "ideal" muzzleloading rifle is a subject of much debate. Admittedly, much of what is written here is personal opinion, however, that personal opinion is shared by many experienced smokepole shooters. My preference for flintlock ignition rifles and patched round ball projectiles boils down to one simple word -- TRADITION -- stubborn tradition at that. Have fun and keep your powder dry.