It’s just something that I’d avoided for years.
Heck, I had enough gear and other crap to keep straight and a lot to learn in a variety of shooting disciplines. Why would I want to throw in another variable like muzzleloaders?
Seriously — measuring propellant, tamping bullets, cleaning, range time, more cleaning … it seemed like the shooting equivalent of fly tying (no, maybe that’s reloading, but that’s a whole different story).
For years I watched the muzzleloader-only seasons slip by me. I bought the stamp for sure, but opted for my compound bow to stay in the deer woods.
But that all changed about a year ago with my first ever muzzleloader hunt down in Oklahoma, thanks to the experts at Thompson Center. After that trip — where I racked up a nice buck, a doe, a pig and a turkey using a muzzleloader — I’m a changed man.
Muzzleloader hunting is so much easier these days thanks to well-made firearms, clean burning propellants and deadly bullets that it’s a mystery to me why I waited so long to get into that side of the sport. So turn your skeptical customers into believers and I guarantee you’ll have loyal hunters and a whole new category of firearms gear and accessories to sell.
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Let’s face it, when muzzleloading first came on the hunting scene, it was a sport reserved for old-schoolers and re-enactors. Pull out your powder horn, ready that flint and get a face full of smoke and soot for that 50 yard shot. Heck, if you didn’t wear leathers and a coon skin cap, you weren’t cool.
But a lot has changed since the halcyon days of muzzleloading flintlocks and the modern, inline front-loader rifles offered by folks like Thompson Center, Traditions and CVA are so well made and accurate, they can throw 50 caliber chunks of lead dead-center at 200 yards easy. The newer break-action models make it easy to put in a primer, and have either a hammer like my Thompson Center Encore Pro Hunter or a striker, like the Traditions Vortek we tried out.
These things are every bit as high tech as their bolt-action kin — if not more so. With many states designating muzzleloader only seasons, companies have stepped up to the plate to make operating these rifles super easy. Just load the propellant, tamp down the bullet, insert the primer and boom … dead deer.
“A decade ago I would grimace when it was time to shoot or hunt with a high-maintenance muzzleloader,” says longtime trophy hunter and outdoor writer Bob Robb. “Today, though, shooting the new modern muzzleloader is a joy. They’re accurate, easy to clean, fun — and a great way to make meat.”
The Encore Pro Hunter is a perfect option for newbie hunters or experienced muzzleloaders who want a do-all rifle. The gun features a versatile pivoting handle power rod that makes loading easy, a swing hammer to accommodate right- and left-handed shooters and the all-important Speed Breech XT. This really helps with unloading the muzzleloader (in the past you had to shoot the thing to unload it) and also with cleaning, an ever-present routine with this dirty-burning sport.
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The Encore Pro Hunter is super accurate and is actually a very soft shooting gun. The stock features Flex-Tech technology that in combination with a Limbsaver pad reduces felt recoil by 43 percent. Let me tell you, when you’re just starting to throw a .50 caliber slug out of a 26-inch barrel with 120 grains of gun powder, the fear of recoil will make you pause. But the Encore Pro Hunter’s buttstock has some kind of pixie dust or unicorn horn powder that all but eliminates the shoulder punching blast.
Traditions is another company whose muzzleloader we’ve tested. The Vortek StikerFire is an amazingly light rifle with a 30-inch barrel that drives a .50 caliber bullet right where you aim it. The 6.8 pound weight comes at a cost, though; the Vortek gives shooters a beating, so be prepared when you’re sighting in several shots at the range.
The Vortek excels with its ease of use and smooth shooting trigger. The TAC2 trigger system is a two-stage, competition-style trigger set to two pounds, so there’s not a lot of room for newbies like me to anticipate the punishing recoil. The gun is sleek, sexy and low-profile and did I forget to mention light as a feather? Not a bad option if you’re humping in a distance to bag that big buck.
One advantage to the Encore Pro Hunter, though, is that is does come with open sights, the Vortek is made for scopes only.
While muzzleloaders are easier than ever to shoot, clean and carry around, they can’t be as effective without high-quality and high-tech stuff to shoot out of them. Over the last few years, bullet companies have stepped up to the plate with designs that make for an efficient powder burn, better accuracy and a cleaner bore. Most modern muzzleloader bullets feature a plastic sabot that helps seat the bullet against the powder and traps most of the gas from the ignition, making for a better shot.
Some states have ruled saboted muzzleloader bullets as illegal for hunting during that specific season, figuring using that kind of ammo makes a muzzleloader too much like a rifle. So make sure you know the hunting laws were your shop is located, so you can maneuver your customers to the right choice.
One of the most high-tech bullets we’ve used — and one that is legal in states that ban sabots — is the Federal B.O.R. Lock MZ. It’s hard to say which has more 21st Century features — the rifle itself, or these bullets.
Made with four different components, the B.O.R. Lock MZ features a 50 caliber, 270 grain Trophy Copper, hollow-point bullet at its core. Tipped with a polymer insert to aid in aerodynamics and expansion, the B.O.R. Lock MZ is seated in a polymer base cup that’s attached directly to the bullet and is further resting on a fiberglass-reinforced base. The long and the short of it is that this system not only allows for the most efficient burn, but it also helps clean the bore as it travels down the rifling. That’s a big plus if you’re on a multi-tag hunt where cleaning between shots may not be so convenient.
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The other thing that’s made muzzleloader hunting so darned easy (and fun, and successful) is the introduction of clean burning, convenient propellants to load into them. Pyrodex pellets are popular and make muzzleloader hunting more approachable so shooters don’t have to mess with loose powder and can accurately measure grains in tightly-packed units.
But it’s also a lot easier to use straight up powdered propellant these days by carrying small plastic, pre-measured vials in your pocket or pack. The advantage of this system is that you can very specifically tailor your load for the most optimum shot at distance, bullet weight and conditions, whereas with pellets, it’s an all or nothing proposition.
We used the ever-popular Blackhorn 209 propellant for our hunt tests, and this clean burning powder gave superior performance. I’m no expert, but it seemed to work just fine when the hammer dropped, and it was easy to measure and load — even for followup shots.
And it’s important to add that most of these inline muzzleloader rifles use 209 primers, the same ones used for shotgun shells, so it’s likely you’re already carrying these at your gun shop, and customers have an easy time loading them into the breech. The powdered propellants and Pyrodex pellets ignite just fine using these common primers.
Like I said before, the whole idea of all the gadgets and gizmos that go along with muzzleloading sort of intimidated me. Ask anyone and they’ll tell you I never shy away from more gear, but all the powders, bullets, measuring devices and the cleaning regimen just seemed like too much for a hunter like me with a short attention span.
But when it came down to it, I was wrong. Now look, it’s important to get a little bit of extra instruction on a muzzleloader, so make sure to take a little time to help show your customer how to measure propellant, load and clean a new inline.
I was lucky enough to spend a week at the Chain Ranch in north central Oklahoma hunting deer, turkey and pigs with my Thompson Center Encore Pro Hunter. The one thing I noticed about muzzleloader hunting that you might want to make your customers aware of, is that the big bullet doesn’t always punch through its target, and sometimes blood trails can be sparse. I nailed a 10 point buck at about 210 yards and had a hell of a time finding it with zero blood trail to track. Same with a doe I nailed. Fortunately that deer dropped close to the shot.
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Otherwise, just one hunt with a modern, inline muzzleloader utterly changed my outlook. The gear wasn’t as intimidating as I’d thought — just carry a few vials of pre-measured powder, a couple bullets and primers and you’re good to go. You could easily reload in a low-profile tree stand or a tight blind and wait out the rest of the hunt to fill your next tag. Even for an incoming hen turkey.
It only takes a couple times to get the hang of hunting with a modern muzzleloader, but once your customers do, they’ll be hooked for life.