Black powder deer hunting tempts more and more modern rifle shooters every year as many states offer a totally separate muzzleloader season for whitetail buck and doe for those confident enough to play Daniel Boone. Often this includes game tags that are separate from the regular season tags, meaning these hunters could potentially add an extra deer or two to the freezer.
Some states like Virginia even allow sportsmen to hunt with muzzleloaders during the regular season without even purchasing a license. These seasons tend to be short though, maybe a week or two, so you might get out for only a couple of days tops, which begs the question, why should you spend a fortune on a gun for such a short period of time? Simple. Don’t spend a fortune.
If it’s not broke (and you are)…
The theory behind the muzzleloader has not changed since the 1500s—take a measured powder charge, follow this with a projectile, ram it all home with a ramrod, make fire—but what has changed is the ignition system used for igniting that powder. In fact, it was not uncommon for gunsmiths in the 1800s to simply swap out the action on “out of date” long guns, like say replace an old flintlock style action with a newer percussion cap action, in order to retain the barrel sights, stock and forearm.
What this tells me is that, though there certainly may be a healthy offering of ultra-modern sporting muzzleloaders on the market today that borrow all manner of features from the treasury of 21st century gun bells and whistles, the older black powder designs still performed the same job—putting lead on target—and probably just as well. And as is the case with most anything that’s old and not rare, usually these guns can be bought at bargain prices.
Indeed, with the invention of inline muzzleloaders for hunting, I have noticed a lot of the old percussion or sidelock guns getting kicked to the curb. These rifles are just as capable of taking the deer as the newer guns, most gun shops cannot give them away and no one seems to pay attention to them.
Used percussion and sidelock guns only cost around $100 for a beginner (or just someone looking for a good gun to complement their existing inventory). These guns are worth their weight in gold.
When my nephew wanted to get into muzzleloading, I found for him a Traditions Panther .50 caliber rifle, which was a percussion gun but had a modern synthetic stock and decent open sights. The shop owner was upset because he could not sell it so I got it for $50. With some Thompson Center Maxi-ball bullets and the right powder charge, it cut one-inch groups at 25 yards. Guns like this are everywhere.
Black powder ammo
Before brass casings made individual, all-in-one cartridges, conventional shooters had to task themselves with the messy process of assembling the various components of their load—the powder, the wadding, the projectile and the powder—on scene. You are likely going to have to do the same thing (and there is a cost associated with each part).
Whereas in years past, riflemen would “measure” and pour approximate amounts of loose propellant pellets to set their charge, today most muzzleloaders use very precisely weighed out charges (never applied to the gun directly from the horn) or less commonly, pre-weighed paper cartridges full of either black powder or Pyrodex by Hodgdon, a substitute that is less reactive and provides more energy with less density than traditional black powder.
Some modern inline muzzleloaders like the Savage 10ML-II can handle smokeless powder, but that’s a different article entirely because this is a budget article and we’re talking about sidelock models.
One-pound canister of either black powder or substitute usually costs between $20 to $30 and you can buy some here. There’s 7,000 grains in a pound of powder so if you load for a .50 caliber muzzleloader (a big bore capable of killing any North American land animal) at 45-50 grains (a “mild” load), you’ll end up getting about 150 loads of powder out of one canister.
The next component to consider (well last piece of ammo component to consider) is the projectile. The most common muzzleloading projectile is a solid lead ball though most anything will fire and over the years black powder shooters have loaded their guns with loose shot, Minié ball (a type of ammo cast with spin-stabilizing grooves along the tail), Sabot plugs (often plastic projectiles that are smaller than the bore diameter thus the gun must be held in a specific position to fire) and even jacketed bullets.
Accordingly bullets can vary greatly in price from top of the line, pre-lubricated, copper jacketed conical bullets selling for about $20 for a pack of 15 to large game, sabot plugs for $9 for 50 to basic lead balls with 100 usually going for less than $20. And of course you could always cast your own bullets.
Most percussion muzzeloaders out there are copied off of a traditional style of gun like a Hawken or at least the rifling is which means they have a twist set up more for a roundball than a modern sabot. However Thompson Center makes their own line of bullets like the Maxi-ball which I have used in several older guns including my 30-plus year old Thompson Center Seneca. They are heavier than a roundball, perform much better and put those old traditional guns on even footing performance-wise with any high price inline.
Primers and patches
But that’s not your final ammo cost either, because, depending on the style of your muzzleloader (Minié ball rifles are one exception), you also might need to buy patches or wads to wrap your projectile in (wrapping your ball ammo in cloth will help the rifling catch and the bullet to spin in flight thus increasing accuracy). Luckily, these are dirt cheap and a bag of 100 is usually around $3. These also come in a bunch of styles, like circular or square, and materials, so experiment and see which one works the best.
Also, depending on the style of your gun, you may have to buy primers, as well. These are also cheap, selling for around $7 for 100.
Though there is a lot of accessorizing (or costuming) associated with black powder shooting (and re-enacting), the “other stuff” you’ll need to start black powder hunting is pretty much the same as hunting with a repeating rifle. There is however one item that isn’t expensive that you do want to get (and get a good quality one) and that is a waterproof ammo pouch.
Just like modern smokeless powder ammunition, black powder does not play well with water. Keeping your primers and powder dry is essential and sometimes not an easy task in the dewy forest you may find be hunting in, so make sure whatever system you use is a) very water resistant and b) easily accessible with all of your loading components in one spot though not in the same pocket (which can lead to a negligent discharge even though your gun isn’t loaded).
In the field
When I first started hunting with a muzzleloading rifle, the laws only allowed for traditional guns and a patched round ball for a projectile and no scopes. Today, it seems anything goes during black powder season, but some of us refuse to give up the old ways.
One gun I use is a Euro Arms replica of an 1853 Enfield musketoon in .577 caliber. This gun has a short barrel and is a joy to shoot with only a modest charge of 55-60 grains necessary to take mid-sized game animals like deer.
Even though the technology behind this gun dates back to the Civil War, it packs a lot of punch when using a 475 grain Minie ball and is accurate out to one hundred yards. I have competed in black powder matches with it in the past and have a silver medal for shooting offhand at 100-yards with it. I purchased this gun for a little less than $300, because the shop owner had the gun in his inventory for three years. That is half the cost of some new inline rifles.
The first season I took the musketoon out deer hunting proved its merit too. I was still-hunting when I jumped two does. One headed for the next county but the other stopped on a hill a hundred yards from me to get a last look. I took aim and dropped her in her tracks. The heavy Minie ball, a piece of technology literally from another era of hunting technology, broke her neck and cut her windpipe, killing her instantly.
So if you want to get into muzzleloading, whether it is for an extra opportunity to get some meat in the freezer or to just play Daniel Boone, don’t overlook those older percussion muzzleloader on the rack. I guarantee they are cheaper than a new inline and will the job every bit as well.
This article originally ran on Guns.com as “Getting into Black Powder Hunting (on a Budget)” on March 5, 2012 and has been edited for content.