I feel confident that the benefits of owning a muzzle-loader are fairly well known by now. Aside from being wicked fun to shoot, they afford many of us with less than prime hunting locations additional opportunities to fill our tags. Certainly, laws vary by state, but typically you can find a stand alone muzzle-loading season, or in some cases a “primitive weapons” season that may or may not encompass muzzle-loaders, crossbows and maybe even slingshots.
But what many people may not know, or forget, is that while the modern muzzle-loader resembles and performs similarly to most standard shotgun and slug setups, their performance is highly variable depending upon a variety of factors.
One of the most common causes for accuracy variation is simply having a dirty barrel. While this can cause problems even in standard rifles, it is especially problematic for muzzle-loaders. First and foremost, the propellant used is clean by historical standards, but is still leaves a significant residue compared to a standard rifle cartridge. Additionally, because of the reduced projectile velocity, there is more of a relative slowing effect from any resistance within the barrel.
Furthermore, the barrel’s rifling does not engage as fully as necessary to spin the round for the greatest potential accuracy. This is an especially pertinent problem when using plastic jacketed sabots.
Another common cause for variability in accuracy is humidity. You may have noticed that your box of propellant charges comes with a small pipe cleaner or other such simple wire utensil. The moisture on your hands can compromise the integrity of the propellant and begin to break down the bonds holding the granules together. While it probably won’t effect your accuracy when target shooting since the unfired propellant remains in the gun for a relatively short length of time, it can certainly be a problem after hours in the deer stand. Be sure to use the provided utensil and resist the urge to load the charges using your bare hands. Additionally, be sure to store your propellant appropriately.
Finally, and perhaps more common than one might think, many accuracy issues come from simply not familiarizing one’s self with the firearm. While initially fun to shoot, the novelty of loading and firing a new muzzle-loader can quickly wear off when experimenting with many round and charge combinations at a variety of distances to properly get a feel for the gun and it’s ballistics characteristics depending upon load combination.
Certainly the benefits of an additional opportunity to fill your tag when hunting pressure is relatively low are for-nought without a reliable and predictably firing rifle at your side. Take care to clean the barrel and breach plug after every 2-3 firings at most, keep your propellant dry, and invest the time in familiarizing yourself with your firearm and you’ll be well on your way to putting meat in the icebox the same way our ancestors did when there were few other options.