Like many other red-blooded American hunters, my favorite movie growing up was “Jeremiah Johnson,” a 1972 film starring Robert Redford. If you haven’t seen it, you should. It’s a story of a man who leaves his life behind to become a mountain man. In the very beginning of the movie, as he steps off the boat and is getting ready to head off to begin his new life of outdoor adventure, the narrator says, “He was a young man, and ghostly stories about the tall hills didn’t scare him none. He was looking for a Hawken gun, .50 caliber or better. He settled for a .30, but damn it was a genuine Hawken.” A Hawken gun: I didn’t know what it was exactly, but being a young man of adventurous spirit, I immediately set out to imitate my hero and get my own mountain-man weapon. Although I didn’t manage to get my own Hawken, the search for one did set me down a path that led me to discover one of my favorite hunting weapons: the muzzleloader.
When I first started muzzleloader hunting, it was with an old caplock reproduction that was as close to a Hawken as I could get. It was unreliable and inconsistent, and it broke a lot. But I loved hunting with it. There was something so appealing in taking it out into the woods. Some connection I found with those early pioneers who first stalked the ridges and plains of the land in search of game.
Muzzleloaders then and now
Muzzleloaders represent the oldest firearm design in human history. Coming about in the early 17th century, muzzleloaders began as handheld cannons that fired from a lit fuse. Later, triggers were added that tilted a smoldering wick into a flash pan to fire the weapon. Then, in 1610, inventor and gunsmith Marin Le Bourgeois revolutionized the concept by designing the first true flintlock rifle, which he made for France’s King Louie XIII. The popularity of the weapon spread quickly through the military and eventually passed on to the citizenry, where they began to be utilized for hunting. Muzzleloaders shaped our culture as hunters, helping our ancestors to survive the new and hostile environment of an uncolonized America and making men like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett icons in the hunting world. This invention led to advancements in firearm technology and essentially led to hunting as we know and love it today.
After the flintlock came the caplock, a slightly more proficient design that removed the often-unreliable mechanism of striking flint to ignite priming powder and instead used a hammer that struck a blasting cap.
Some time after that, in-line muzzleloaders came about, which moved the trigger mechanism to the inside of the gun, directly behind the charge, enabling more flame to reach the powder and providing more protection for the caps, and therefore more reliability. Over the years of this evolution, muzzleloaders went from smoothbore rifles with overly complicated designs plagued with inaccuracy and mechanical failures to finely tuned and incredibly accurate firearms. Yet the design is still basically the same. Muzzleloaders are still prepared with a measure of powder and a projectile being loaded into the barrel, fired from a separate trigger component. It is in the muzzleloader’s adherence to their foundation of design that their appeal as hunting weapons truly lies.
Why you should give it a try
The popularity of hunting with a muzzleloader has risen dramatically in the past decade. This can likely be attributed to the number of technological updates made to the platform to improve reliability, as well as many states adding primitive weapons seasons—extending beyond traditional firearm and archery seasons—in which muzzleloaders are the primary weapon used. But the underlying appeal of muzzleloading surpasses all of that.
There is a purity to hunting with a muzzleloader. Unlike with more modern rifles where there is a reassurance in the technology and the mechanics of the weapon, the primitive aspects of a muzzleloader force the hunter to be more deliberate and confident in their hunting skill. No matter what modernizations the muzzleloader has undergone—from the addition of scopes, pre-measured powder pellets, and sabot rounds—you still only have one shot, and with only one shot, there are no second chances.
Everything you do in muzzleloader hunting is based on that initial shot. It requires you to load the weapon slowly and deliberately, making sure you have the right amount of powder and that you have the load set just right. You don’t want to waste it. Every aspect of muzzleloading, from loading the gun, to stalking the game, to finally touching the trigger, makes the hunting experience more significant and memorable.
Whether you choose a flintlock, caplock, or inline platform, there are dozens of different models of each available to the modern muzzleloading hunter. When first starting out it can seem overwhelming. But regardless of what make or model you go with, the function of the weapon remains the same. That’s the beauty of the muzzleloader: It’s timeless. It stands out as an icon of hunting history, enabling us to connect with our past.