European professional hunters, called jaegers, developed short and powerful flintlock rifles to use against Russian Boars, which grew up to 600 pounds and could be very aggressive. These rifles typically had sling swivels and if you have ever been fortunate to handle an original, you will be surprised at how ‘modern’ they feel. In America, there were no wild boar and conditions favored a lighter .45 to .50 caliber rifle that could be used on black bears and white tailed deer or even smaller bore ‘squirrel rifles’. The sling swivels came off and the barrels got longer as the American ‘long rifle’ developed. In the early 1800s, trappers in the west began to encounter grizzly bears, requiring more powerful rifles, and the ‘Plains Rifle’, initially flintlock and then caplock and typically around .54 caliber with a 33-36 inch long barrel, was developed. On the European continent the basic jaeger rifle style continued, including the Baker rifle used by the British army and their variant ‘English style’ of early 19th century muzzleloader exemplified by the ‘Mortimer rifle’ produced by Pedersoli. By mid-19th century, Minie bullets came into use by the military and elongated bullets also began to be used in hunting. In the last third of the 19th century, the muzzleloading era came to an end with the development of the self-contained cartridge. Therefore, somewhat arbitrarily, most traditional muzzleloaders draw the line between traditional muzzleloaders and modern firearms at about 1840.
A traditional muzzleloader uses only blackpowder, is either a flintlock or percussion lock or earlier system, has only open ‘iron sights’, a wooden stock, and fires a patched round ball and, if smoothbore, shot of various sizes. Correct ‘style’ of guns from a certain period is hard to judge. Surviving guns from, say the 18th century, have a reason for this survival, they had been set aside and not used much. Generally, I feel that this is because they were more expensive versions of the common working guns of the period and that these working guns were quickly worn out. Within broad limits, therefore, style is not important to me. For example, if a ‘Hawken’ plains rifle has shiny brass fittings instead of iron, that’s fine by me as long as it passes my ‘squint test’ otherwise. You may feel differently about this.
When hunting, reloading in the field is from a bag of some sort. You need a short starter, a powder and primer source, powder measure, a ball puller and cleaning jag (yes, bad things do happen in the field), spare balls, flints or caps, and patching material, a screw driver, a nipple wrench if you use a caplock, maybe a ‘loading block’, and finally, a patch knife of some sort. Continue on below for more or go to the ‘Gun Cleaning’ section.
Traditional Muzzleloading Ballistics for Deer-sized Game
For deer or black bears with heart-lungs shots, 800 ft-lbs of energy is generally accepted as adequate to harvest that animal efficiently. Using my ‘Ballistics Explorer’ software, (and, again, I have no commercial interest in this - it’s what I bought years ago) let’s compare three round balls ranging from .45 to .58 caliber. Let’s have them all leave the muzzle at 2300 ft/sec, which is about as fast as a patched round ball can go.
Round ball size
‘Knock Out Value’
Another way to look at the effectiveness of a bullet for hunting, besides energy, is it’s ‘knock out power’, popularized by ‘Pondoro’ Taylor. His original formula uses velocity, the mass of the bullet and the caliber to get a number that Taylor felt reflected it’s effectiveness for killing big game. The original calculation’s major deficiency, and it is crucial, is that it doesn’t take into effect the bullet’s shape. In the table below using Taylor’s original formula, the .58 caliber round ball is equal in effectiveness to the .375 H&H magnum, which is obviously absurd. Even Taylor acknowledged that the calculation wasn’t fully satisfactory and an ‘improved’ version replacing ‘caliber’ with the bullet’s sectional density was developed. The table below has both calculations for the round balls used above, for comparison’s sake.
Traditional Sights and Older Eyes
Peep sights apparently were not used for hunting until the late 1800s, but ‘diopters’, with a tiny hole to sight through, were commonly used in target matches since the cross bow-era. So, as we get older and our eye’s power to accommodate decreases, I feel that a tang peep sight is perfectly acceptable, at least with an early-style ‘Transitional’ American long rifle, any jaeger rifle, or any post-1800 rifle. For what it’s worth, below is a picture of an early 18th century French flintlock target rifle from Grenoble that apparently was fitted with an original ‘tube’ peep sight!
Traditional Firearms are Short-Range Guns
Kindly Lower Your Expectations
Because of their open iron sights, accurate shooting is only possible at relatively close range. ‘Close’ varies with shooters, but target matches show that under hunting conditions, 100 yards is about the limit for a traditional muzzleloading rifle, even with an improvised rest, and closer is much better. Round balls of sufficient diameter are very effective within these ranges. Elongated bullets carry their energy better over long distances but have no advantage under 100 yards, are definitely not traditional, and become difficult to load down a fouled barrel. For .50 caliber or larger balls, at these ranges elongated bullets have absolutely NO advantage over patched round balls and I feel are impractical because they require a clean bore to load safely.
Bullet placement is all-important in humanely killing an animal. Using a traditional muzzle loader’s round ball, the only shot at a game animal that should be attempted is into the animal’s heart-lung area. A white tailed deer’s heart-lung area is about 9 to 10 inches in diameter, an elk or caribou’s 15 inches while a moose has a heart-lung area of about 21 inches. Shots at any animal should only be attempted when the hunter is sure of a killing shot, that’s only ethical hunting.
I have always believed that .54 caliber is the optimal round ball for deer-sized game .
The .45 caliber ball drops to 800 ft-lbs at 47 yards, the .50 at 78 yards and the .58 at 139 yards. A traditional .45 caliber ball weighs 130 grains, which I feel is of border-line effectiveness for humane kills. Yes, I know a lot of deer have been killed with .45 caliber round balls, in good hands. I just feel that for the usual hunter, a 45 caliber gun needs an elongated bullet for optimal performance. I have an old Lyman Black Powder Handbook published in 1975. In it, a 230 grain bullet from a 32 inch long barrel can go about 1750 ft/sec at a maximal pressure of 15,200 CUP. Let’s graph that against our .45 caliber round ball going 2300 ft/sec.
With a bullet with enough velocity, the .45 then becomes sufficient for hunting deer-sized game up to about 65 yards. Unless the barrel has a fast twist, accuracy probably will suffer, recoil will definitely increase, and keeping the bore free from fouling will become very important for fast reloading while hunting. Hammering a bullet down the barrel is NOT a fast way to reload.