Muzzleloader Buyer's Guide

Everyone step right up and get In-Line. With modern advancements, the in-line muzzleloader blurs the line between the so-called primitive black- powder firearm and today’s smokeless cartridge rifles.

Let me start out by saying that I love hunting with an in-line muzzleloader. The biggest and most important reason is the fun factor. If you’re not having fun, why do it? My first experience with an in-line was a low-end model that was accurate to about 75-100 yards. It was a .50 caliber and came with a box of 300-grain lead conical bullets. I spent more time making water jugs and old pumpkins explode than anything else, and it was fun. I later stepped up to a fancier in-line, also a .50 caliber and it is a tack driver. The first time I shot it, I had my 7mm Rem. Mag. along. At 100 to 150 yards, the only difference between the two as far as performance was the size of the hole left in the target. To call that firearm primitive is misleading, and I smile now just thinking about it.

Shopping for an in-line muzzleloader
So what do I want?
You’ve seen the vast market of in-lines and have that one overwhelming question. But really that leads to a series of other questions.

1. What will you being doing with your gun? Will you be hunting and if so, what will you be hunting and where? You need to take a look at what each type of in-line will do and how it does it. Make sure that the gun will accomplish what you expect but also know its limitations. Some states have different laws regarding in-lines and muzzleloaders in general. Know the laws of your state, province, or intended hunting area before you purchase.

2. What kind of performance do you want from your new gun? Do you want to shoot short or long distances? One of the current buzzwords in in-lines is "magnum." To achieve magnum status, an in-line has to be able to handle a powder charge of 150 grains of propellant (powder). Know what you want the gun to do and be realistic.

3. How much do you want to spend? Here’s the real question. Do you want the economy car or the loaded Mustang? Both do the job, just in different fashion. In-lines are like rifles in this respect. You generally get better fit and finish with higher end guns. The most important thing to do is look them over and decide what your price range is for what you want.

A Very Short History of the In-line
In-line muzzleloader technology has progressed at an amazing rate. When Tony Knight created the first modern In-line production model in 1985, it took the market by storm. Here was a muzzleloader that didn’t look like a muzzleloader at all. In fact, it looked more like a modern centerfire rifle.

The concept was simple. Move the nipple and ignition system behind the powder charge so that the spark from the cap goes in a direct line (in-line) to the powder charge. The result in theory is a more efficient ignition of the power. The first production in-lines used the same #11 ignition caps that were found on the side hammer models popular at the time.

The idea of the in-line wasn’t new though. The basic concept has been around since the 1800’s. Why it took so long for the idea to make it into the market is unknown. With the introduction of that first Knight rifle, many other companies soon followed with their own versions and a willing public readily accepted most.

CVA Buckhorn 209 Magnum Rifle
Plunger-Style Guns
Plunger guns have nothing to do with plumbing issues. A plunger-style gun is the simplest form of in-line muzzleloader and was the first to hit the market. The design is this: the nipple sits in the breech with a percussion cap on, the plunger rides on a spring mechanism and is controlled by the trigger. The trigger releases the plunger, which then slides forward and strikes the cap and igniting the powder charge, firing the gun.

These are your basic in-line muzzleloaders. They are generally simple in form and design so they tend to be at the lower end of the price spectrum as far as muzzleloaders go. Does this have any negative meaning? By all means, definitely not. They shoot well, are somewhat easy to clean and come in many variations to suit your needs. Are there some limitations? Yes. Depending on the model, cleaning the gun, which is a frequent necessity, can be a pain. Usually, you have to remove the plunger to reach the breach plug and that can involve any number of steps. They tend to have an open breech, which can allow moisture to enter the chamber leading to misfires or hang fires. A hang fire is one of the scary aspects about muzzleloader usage and can happen with any design conceivably. When a hang fire occurs, the ignition cap goes off and the spark does ignite the powder but for some reason, usually moisture, that powder charge slow burns, causing the gun to fire on a delay. You can obviously see how that can be dangerous. Another problem with an open breech design is blow back. Blow back occurs when the burning powder blows back through the nipple causing a flash that can damage scopes.

Open breech/plunger style in-lines were and still are very good designs. Until the advent of using 209-shotshell primers to ignite pellet powder loads, most hunters found the open breech/plunger style in-line to be perfectly adequate.

Generally these rifles are not expensive to manufacture and as newer, more advanced designs came along they tended to become the entry level, lower priced models. Most of them have been converted to the much hotter 209 primer, but don’t underestimate a #11 percussion system. Its only weakness is that it does not ignite pellet loads as readily and the 209 system was developed to address that shortcoming.

CVA HunterBolt 209 Magnum
Bolt Action In-lines
The bolt action is familiar to shooters who already have and like bolt-action conventional rifles. The striker of the bolt is a bit quicker than many of the plunger style in-lines, the bolt can be closed over the nipple and provide some additional protection of the nipple/cap from condensation in some models. Most of the major muzzleloader companies have produced bolt-action in-lines. The major advantage is that you can slip the bolt from the rifle to remove the breech plug without totally disassembling the rifle. That can be a real advantage if a load has become fouled in some way and you need to fix it quickly.

At the same time that bolt actions were becoming popular, pellet loads came out. They are handy if a bit more difficult to ignite. The use of 209 shotgun primers solved that. Companies quickly converted to the 209-primer ignition system, and bolt actions already in production were the easiest and cheapest means. The 209 primer has a problem that is easily addressed by a bolt-action system. The 209 primer does not fit tightly over a nipple and is insecure in a conventional plunger rifle. The 209 primer needs to be held in place rather than just slipped over a nipple. Most of the bolt rifles can be closed tightly enough that the primer has little freedom of movement. Some manufacturers use a plastic sleeve to hold the primer on the breech. This creates a waterproof ignition connection.

There are some distinct advantages to bolt action in-lines. Many are based upon proven and successful designs. Bolt-action muzzleloaders tend to be very good rifles. They are quite stable shooting platforms with excellent triggers and generally good ergonomics. They usually have good stock designs that make them very comfortable.

The disadvantage to a bolt-action muzzleloader is weight. The gun becomes rather awkward and unbalanced when the barrel length gets over 24 inches, as many of them do. If you like the design, a little practice can overcome the disadvantage of a gun that is a little top-heavy. I have shot several bolt-action muzzleloaders and found them to be accurate and definitely fun.

CVA Optima Pro
Break Action In-Lines
A break action rifle does exactly what it sounds like. With the flick of a switch or lever, the action drops down and exposes the breech. Think of that first single-shot shotgun you had as a kid. The concept is the same. Load the gun from the muzzle, break the action, prime the breech, re-seat the breech into the action, pull back the hammer, and BANG!

What bought about the development of the break action? The answer goes to when the concept of magnum loads was introduced to the public. With the advent of 50 grain Pyrodex Pellets, designers realized how easy it was to quickly charge an in-line with three pellets or 150-grain charges sparked by 209 primers. More powder means more force behind the bullet and therefore increased velocity. To gain the full advantage of magnum powder charges barrel length increased to 26" and beyond. The problem with a bolt action or plunger style in-line is that as barrel length increases the rifles become bulky and difficult to manage. The break-action design changes the center of gravity for the gun and allows for a longer barrel on a package that is still balanced.

Break-action muzzleloaders use substantial metal frames, which adds weight but also makes for a very durable rifle. The added weight also tends to break up some extra felt recoil.

Thompson Center Omega
Pivot Action or Drop Action In-lines
An entirely different breed of muzzleloader is the drop action, or pivot action in-line. They do not use a plunger or bolt-action configuration and are shorter in overall length while having a longer barrel, which improves velocity at the same time, improving balance and handling. The drop action also addresses many of the concerns associated with 209 primers. The scope contamination problem is solved if you hunt in an area where scope use is legal. It is also much easier to clean because it does not possess all the nooks and crannies of a bolt or plunger design. With the action pivoted forward, the breech is exposed and easily accessible for cleaning. Drop/pivot actions depend heavily upon aluminum and polymers for many of their critical parts making them lighter and easy to carry.

Pivot action designs have become popular fast, resulting in great jumps in technology as many manufacturers have some type of pivot action model for you to choose from. For those of you looking for a new gun, these are high quality, easy-to-shoot tack drivers that clean easily.

The Bottom Line
So you have a basic understanding of the options and history you have to choose from. There are many options for you as far as what type of gun to buy, what the advantages of each are, and the characteristics of each. Regardless of the type, you still have to clean the gun regularly. You still have to see what works best with the gun you choose as far as powder charge, type and the bullet type. Make sure you’re in compliance with the local game laws too. Above all, be safe and have fun. I’ve got a smile on my face as I write this and plan to go home tonight and shoot my muzzleloader. You should too.

Cabela’s Dead Center Sabots
Muzzleloader Glossary
There are many terms that go hand and hand with muzzleloaders and some are a bit obscure. To aid you in making the right muzzleloader selection, the following is a list of terms you may run across in your search. Plus there are several things you may be interested in that will help you make your decisions about what you plan to use your muzzleloader for.

Sabot – Pronounced "Sabow" (derived from the French word for shoe), is a plastic cup or "shoe" that allows a smaller bullet to be loaded into a given caliber. Sabots have many advantages, such as, lighter bullets for increased velocity, longer bullets for the same weight for better sectional density and ballistic coefficient and the ability to use bullets made of materials other than soft, pure lead.

Black Powder – The traditional muzzleloader propellant. It is graded in coarseness and is rated from FFFFg (super fine) to Fg (extremely coarse) FFFFg is used as flash powder in the pans of flintlock rifles and Fg is used as cannon powder. FFg and FFFg are commonly used in rifles and pistols. All traditional black powder is extremely corrosive and must be thoroughly cleaned out of any firearm after use.

Pyrodex® – a black powder substitute that produces similar results to black powder but without as much barrel residue and smoke. It still is corrosive, and like black powder, needs to be cleaned from equipment thoroughly after use.

Pyrodex® Pellets – Same basic component as Pyrodex but pressed into pre-formed pellets. They are available in several caliber and grain denominations.

Hodgdon Triple-7 Powder and Pellets
Clean Shot – Clean Shot, is a non-corrosive, black powder substitute that leaves less residue in the barrel.

Triple-Seven – A clean burning, black powder substitute that produces less smoke and is less corrosive than other offerings. Available in powder form, or in pressed pellets.

Conical Bullet – A term used for elongated lead muzzleloader bullets that are the diameter of the bore. A few examples are; Buffalo Bullets, T/C Maxi-Hunter and the Hornady Great Plains.

Round Ball – Spherical in shape, these bullets are cast from pure lead and are undersized for the given bore as they are designed to be used with a cloth patch.

Patch – Primarily made from pure cotton, patches are placed between the Round Ball and the barrel to provide a tight seal and to engage the rifling. Patches vary in thickness to match different diameter balls and so shooters can fine-tune a given load.

Patch Puller – A wire adapter that fits on the end of the ramrod to retrieve a patch from the bore of a rifle.

Bullet Puller – A screw like adapter that attaches on the end of the ramrod to remove either a ball that was loaded without powder, or to unload a loaded gun that has misfired.

Twist Rate – Twist rate refers to the rifling inside the barrel-specifically how many inches of barrel it takes for the bullet to make a complete rotation. It is expressed in a ratio, such as 1:48 (one turn for 48 inches of barrel). The longer the bullet, the "quicker" the twist needs to be to stabilize it for optimum accuracy. For example round balls work best with 1:66 while longer sabots and maxi bullets work best with quicker rates like 1:28.

Williams Firesights
Fiber Optic Sights – Used for many applications such as archery sights, modern rifles, pistols, shotguns and muzzleloaders. They incorporate colored fiber optic rods, which gather light for a better sight picture in low light.

Muzzleloader Scopes – Several manufacturers produce scope models specifically designed for the rigors a muzzleloader can dish out. In many cases, a better choice for your use.

Ramrod – A rod comprised of steel, brass, wood, fiberglass or plastic that is used for cleaning and loading a muzzleloader. It has a threaded end that allows the use of attachments such as bullet and patch puller and cleaning jag and a coned end that is used to seat the bullet.

Short Starter – A short version or a ramrod. Usually six to nine inches long, the short starter is usually affixed to a round handle and is used to start the bullet down the bore.

Breech Plug – The breech plug screws into the breech end on the barrel. On a traditional rifle (percussion or flint) it is fixed, while on an in-line it is removable and allows easy straight through cleaning.

Nipple – The part that the percussion of musket caps is placed on. In the center of the nipple there is a small flash hole that allows the spark from the cap to transfer to the main charge.

#11 cap – This is the standard percussion cap found on most muzzleloading rifles. It has been in use since the early 1800’s.

Musket Cap – A form of percussion cap that dates back to the civil war era. It is characterized by large flanges and an overall greater size that the standard #11 percussion cap. It has a greater volume of spark as well as a higher burn rate, making it a favorite among hunters.

Powder Measure
209 Shotshell Primer – Mainly used for modern shotshells; but some recent muzzleloaders have incorporated their use for in-line ignition systems. They are hotter and have more spark than either musket caps or standard percussion caps. This translates to a more positive ignition in wetter climates and when using magnum powder charges.

Exposed Nipple – A legal definition referring to the status of the nipple to the elements. Some rifles can be changed from exposed to non-exposed with a plastic insert, thereby allowing it to conform to specific state regulations.

Black Powder Cartridge Rifle – Different from a muzzleloader in that this rifle loads from the breech and fires a cartridge loaded with black powder. Not legal for use in muzzleloader-only seasons.

QLS – Thompson Centers Quick Load System utilizes an oversized, non-rifled muzzle (1 inch in depth) to facilitate in the starting of bullets. Not only does this system make the process easier, but also it increases accuracy, as well as there is little chance of canting the bullet upon loading.

Powder Measure – A volumetric measuring device (usually adjustable) for measuring charges of black powder (or black powder substitute).

Possibles Bag – A traditional bag meant for storing anything that might "possibly" be needed while black-powder hunting: bullets, patches, jags, caps, tools, spare nipples (or flints) powder, measurer, cleaning solvent, bullet lube and nipple pick.