Muzzleloader Hunting Is A Never Ending Life Long Learning Experience

I was going through some old photos today, kind of looking for a topic for this blog. I've been so busy working on the NORTH AMERICAN MUZZLELOADER HUNTING website, I just haven't had the time to devote to the several blogs I also host. I apologize for that...and will do my best to get at least one new post on this blog every month...more when time permits.

Getting back to this photo. It sure does bring back some memories. I do have to confess, I can better remember this old cabin my hunting partner and I came across while looking for wild hogs in the Cumberland Mountains of east-central Tennessee than the hunt itself. From the dates on some old newspapers that had been slapped on the inside walls, using what looked like good ol' flour and water paste, tended to indicate that the last tennants vacated shortly after 1927. From what I could see from the terrain, and where this cabin was situated, my guess was that there was likely never a road for motor vehicles within four or five miles of this backwoods home site. Chances were very good that whoever hewed out those logs also hunted with a muzzleloading rifle. The cabin could have very easily been built in the late 1800's.

What made this photo really significant to me was that it is one of the earliest photos of me hunting with a muzzleloader. The shot was taken in November of 1972 - just ten years after I had ever shot a muzzle-loaded rifle, at the age of 13 years old. I loved it so much, two years later I purchased my first frontloader - a .45 caliber percussion Kentucky rifle. That fall, the rifle accounted for two eight-point bucks - and I was hooked on muzzleloader
hunting for life.

I'll confess that when the above photo was taken, I thought I pretty much knew everything there was to know about loading, shooting and hunting with a muzzleloader. After all, during that ten years since shooting a friend's original .36 caliber Billinghurst under-hammer rifle for the first time, I had definitely gotten in quite a bit of experience. During that period I had taken a half-dozen whitetails, a couple of mule deer, a pronghorn, a black bear, a half-dozen wild hogs, and a truck load of small game, upland birds and waterfowl with a variety of muzzle-loaded guns. Heck, I had even written and had published three or four magazine articles on hunting with a muzzleloader, plus my first book, of which I wrote about 75-percent - titled BLACK POWDER GUN DIGEST. (During that time, I had  served as a Marine Corps journalist as well.)

Man, was I ever wrong! 

Muzzleloading was a much simpler shooting sport in those days. The vast majority of guns were built for shooting the patched round ball...and if a rifle had a quality barrel, working up a hunting load pretty much meant slowly upping the powder charge until you reached a point where the rifle no longer shot with accuracy - then you took the charge the other way until it was grouping again. Most considered 100 yards as the maximum effective range of those few hunters ever bothered scoping a muzzleloader.

That rifle slung over my shoulder in the photo at the top of this post was the Thompson/Center Arms "Hawken"model, one of the first somewhat modern muzzle-loaded big game rifles. And for the 10 years following this hunt, I hunted with these half-stock rifles, or custom versions of them, more than with any other rifle model. And that was due to the T/C rifle's ability to shoot a heavier, harder-hitting conical bullet with reasonable accuracy. With a scope on one of these rifles, I found I could often group five shots inside of 4 inches at a hundred yards - and was tickled to do so.

In late 1985, I became acquainted with Tony Knight, and in February 1986 I began shooting and hunting with a Knight MK-85 in-line rifle - and my real muzzleloading education began. Muzzleloading as we know it today has evolved from that day forward...and since the mid 1980s, the only thing in this sport that has remained constant has been change. The photo shown here is of the very first whitetail buck I took with an in-line ignition rifle and saboted bullet.

On the morning that my old high school buddy Earl Barr and I found that rustic old cabin, if someone would have walked up to me and predicted that 40 years down the road I would be shooting a scoped Traditions break-open in-line rifle that utilized hot No. 209 primer ignition...and when loaded with a modern nitro-cellulose based black powder substitute and a plastic saboted polymer-tipped spire-point bullet, the rifle and load would be fully capable of consistently printing sub 1-inch 100 yard groups, I would have laughed. Then I would have gotten away from them as quickly as I could.

The load I shoot today (110 grains of Blackhorn 209) is fully capable of getting a saboted 300-grain bullet (Harvester Muzzleloading "Scorpion PT Gold") out of the muzzle of the .50 caliber VORTEK Ultra Light LDR that I shoot and hunt with most at 2,009 f.p.s., with right at 2,700 foot-pounds of energy. And thanks to the 3-9x scope (Leatherwood/Hi-Lux TB-ML model) on the rifle, it will indeed, with amazing regularity, group inside of an inch at 100 yards. And out at 200 yards, as often as not, I have found that I can keep groups at around 2 1/2 inches, and at that distance the bullet still hits with 1,500 f.p.e.

When I fully got into this game back in 1964, at age 15, with the purchase of my first rifle, a percussion .45 caliber Kentucky reproduction, the load I first shot and hunted with was good for about 1,900 f.p.s. - but the light 128-grain ball was generating just 1,025 foot-pounds of energy at the muzzle. And that load was actually dropping below the 800 f.p.e. considered to be minimum for deer at just 30 to 35 yards. Muzzleloader energies is something I did not really begin to comprehend until the early 1970s. The first whitetail I ever shot with the rifle, at 60 to 70 yards, went more than 200 yards before going down. The second buck I shot with the rifle, at about 45 yards, went more than a half-mile...and was nearly lost.

The .50 T/C "Hawken" in the above photo, stoked with 100-grains of FFFg black powder, would get a 370-grain soft lead "Maxi-Ball"bullet out of the 28-inch barrel at around 1,500 f.p.s., with 1,850 f.p.e. The bullet has a low b.c., and by the time it gets to 100 yards, it has slowed to just over 1,050 f.p.s., and hits with just over 900 f.p.e. At 150 yards, velocity drops to 920 f.p.s., with 690 f.p.e. The load drops below the needed 800 f.p.e. for deer sized game at about 115 to 120 yards.

My first .50 caliber sabot-shooting Knight MK-85, loaded with a 110-grain charge of Pyrodex "P", would launch a saboted 250-grain HornadyXTP JHP at 1,625 f.p.s., and generate close to 1,525 f.p.e. That bullet has a .147 b.c., and at 100 yards was still good for 1,250 f.p.s. and almost 870 f.p.e. At 150 yards, velocity is down to 1,075 f.p.s. and energy is down to around 640 f.p.e. The load drops below 800 f.p.e. at about 110 to 115 yards.

My muzzleloading education has spanned 46 years, and fortunately, I'm still learning.  One of the realities of muzzleloading today is that once your knowledge of muzzleloader hunting performance graduates you to the next level, it becomes increasingly harder to step back down to rifles and loads with far less efficiency, range, knockdown power or accuracy - except for maybe nostalgic reasons.  The Traditions .50 VORTEK Ultra Light LDR has proven to be one of the absolute finest performing No. 209 primer ignition in-line rifles I have ever shot and hunted with.  While I do intend to do some hunting with several other rifles during the coming fall hunting seasons...the performance of the Ultra Light LDR has already insured that it will be my primary hunting rifle in 2013.  Topped with one of the Hi-Lux 3-9x TB-ML multi-reticle scopes, using the proper long-range cross-bar for the range, the rifle and load shared earlier easily keeps ALL HITS in the kill zone at 200...225...250 yards - and with the knockdown power to insure the game will be laying very close to where it was standing when the shot was taken.

(To see how the VORTEK Ultra Light LDR fared in a 50 Consecutive Shot Test, go to )

Over on the NORTH AMERICAN MUZZLELOADER HUNTING website, I maintain between 125 and 150 articles, reports, and pages of data that shares what I've learned along the way. Likewise, in addition to this blog, I also host the North American Muzzleloader Hunting blog, the Harvester Muzzleloading Hunter blog, and the Blackhorn 209 Hunter blog - with lots of info there.

If you have travelled the same long road I've taken to get here, or have some great muzzleloader performance information that others can benefit from...please jump in on the comment sections of these blogs and share.

Toby Bridges

For A Look At Traditions's New "Hammerless" VORTEK StrikerFire Rifle Go To -