Owning a muzzleloader can be an incredibly rewarding experience. Not only are they tons of fun to shoot, but for hunters, having a muzzleloader also gives you the advantage of being able to hunt in your state's special muzzleloader or primitive-weapons season. Still, if you're unfamiliar with this type of firearm, you'll probably find that the majority of today's modern muzzleloaders and black-powder rifles aren't quite what you're expecting.
These firearms have come a long way over the years, with many of them having very little in common with those used by famous American pioneersmen. Although original muzzleloaders were often limited to a maximum range of 200 yards at best, you can now find a range of different muzzleloading rifles that can easily allow you to take down targets at 500 yards or more.
Nonetheless, if you prefer the idea of something more traditional, you can also find a number of flintlock-style rifles. Unfortunately, the wide range of different styles means finding the best muzzleloader is anything but simple.
Tips for Buying the Best Muzzleloader
Due to the wide range of different calibers, styles and sizes, you'll need to put some careful thought into your purchase in order to get a muzzleloader that matches your needs. This is especially important if you plan on using the muzzleloader for hunting, as most states have some specific requirements during muzzleloading season. Some states like Pennsylvania have specially strict regulations, meaning its important to first consult your local hunting regulations in order to ensure that your chosen firearm is legal to use in your state.
Of course, this really only applies if you plan on using it during the special muzzleloader season. Otherwise, should you plan on using it during the normal rifle season, you're free to choose whichever firearm you wish. Due to the growing power and accuracy of today's modern muzzloaders, more and more hunters are choosing to go this route due to the increased challenges hunting with a muzzleloader provides.
Inline or Traditional Sidelock
Although the majority of modern muzzleloaders are of the inline variety, you can still find a number of more traditional sidelock-style rifles. This style generally doesn't offer quite the same level of performance as the best inline muzzleloader and isn't suitable for use with scopes or blackpowder substitutes, but they do offer a much more traditional look and feel.
As well, the regulations in some states prohibit the use of anything but a sidelock muzzleloader during the primitive weapons season, meaning they just might be your only choice depending on where you live/ plan on hunting.
Caliber is another important factor, both in terms of local regulations and what type of game you plan on hunting. Generally speaking, your best bet is .50-cal, both for improved versatility and power. Still, you can also find a range of .45-cal muzzleloaders that should be fine for deer-sized game. As well, you may be able to find even more powerful models, but most states prohibit hunting with anything higher than .50-cal.
You can also find a number of different barrel styles and materials. We generally recommend you go with a stainless steel barrel as they are much easier to clean and maintain. The twist rate of the barrel is also important, depending on what type of projectiles you plan on shooting.
As well, there's also a Savage muzzleloader that allows you to use smokeless black powder, although its production was discontinued in 2013 due to poor sales. Although using smokeless powder helps ensure your gun stays cleaner longer, there have been numerous reports of these weapons exploding and at least one lawsuit has been filed against the company. For this reason, you'd definitely be better off choosing one of these other firearms instead.
What are the Best Muzzleloaders?
In no particular order, here are 4 of the finest muzzleloaders money can buy:
The gold-standard in modern muzzleloaders, the Remington Model 700 Ultimate Muzzleloader easily outperforms every other muzzleloading rifle on the market. In fact, it is so advanced that it even outperforms some centerfire rifles. Unfortunately, this means that the majority of states prohibit its use during muzzleloader season.
One of the reasons that this muzzleloader is so good is its unique ignition system. Whereas all other muzzleloaders use either a musket cap or primer, the Model 700 uses a centerfire rifle casing that results in a more powerful, hotter ignition. This allows this rifle to safely and efficiently burn up to 200 grains of powder, compared to a maximum of 150 grains in any other muzzleloader.
The overall quality and design of the Model 700 makes it by far the best muzzleloader on the market and a fantastic choice for anyone who wishes to use a blackpowder rifle during their state's standard deer season.
The best-selling muzzleloader for much of the past decade, the CVA Optima is an excellent choice for its combination of accuracy, reliable performance and price. Considered by many to be the best muzzleloader for the money, the Optima is actually CVA's mid-level model.
However, the lower-priced CVA Wolf suffers from a few inherent design flaws that makes it not really worth the money. On the other hand, the Optima offers excellent performance and is super easy to use, making it a great choice for beginners and expert blackpowder marksmen.
Another one of the leading muzzleloader producers, Thompson-Center produces an outstanding range of blackpowder rifles, but the Encore Pro Hunter FX is easily amongst the best. Designed to withstand weather and corrosion due to its unique weather-shield coating, this rifle also helps to minimize recoil with its specially designed FlexTech stock.
It's also ambidextrous and easy to clean due to the easy-to-remove breech plug. Generally speaking, if you're looking for a truly outstanding muzzleloader and your state doesn't allow the use of the Remington Model 700, then the Encore Pro Hunter FX is probably your next best bet.
Although it may not be able to compare to any of the other muzzleloaders on our list in terms of performance, accuracy or distance, the Lyman Great Plains Rifle is the go-to choice for anyone looking for a traditional blackpowder experience and is available in your choice of percussion cap or flintlock. Should your state regulations leave you limited in terms of firearm options, the Lyman Great Plains Rifle is without a doubt one of your best choices.
On the other hand, if you can find an older Thompson-Center Hawken muzzleloader, it's also an outstanding choice as far as traditional muzzeloaders go. Sure, it may weigh quite a bit and its definitely not the cheapest, but the overall appearance and novelty factor of this firearm make it well worth the hassle.
History of Muzzleloaders
To show you just how far today's modern muzzleloaders have come, we thought it would be interesting to provide you with a brief historical overview. Basically, the only thing that modern muzzleloaders have with their historical counterparts is that you still have to load the gunpowder and projectile by hand through the muzzle—hence their name.
Still, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise to learn that muzzleloaders have undergone many design improvements over the years, considering the fact that they were originally developed in the early 17th century. In fact, the very first flintlock was created for French King Louis XVIII in 1610.
In the 1700s, the version of the long rifle known as the Pennsylvania Rifle or Kentucky Rifle began to gain in popularity with American settlers. Featuring a rifled-barrel, this rifle offered improved accuracy and greater distance than previous flintlock rifles. This style of muzzleloader is easily one of the most iconic, mainly due to its use in the American Revolution.
Another improvement then came in 1807, when a Scottish reverend by the name of Alexander Forsyth patented his invention of the first percussion-cap rifle. This invention allowed for improved firing times and helped to prevent issues with misfires due to wet gunpowder. The percussion-cap design then allowed Jean Samuel Pauley to invent the first inline muzzleloader the following year in 1808. However, this inline muzzleloader has very little to do with modern inline muzzleloaders, which tend to use a rifle or shotgun primer instead of a percussion cap.
From this point on, muzzleloading technology basically stayed the same until the 1980s, when Thompson-Center and Knight introduced pioneering new versions of the this traditional rifle. In this sense, Thompson-Center was especially important, as its original Encore muzzleloader incorporated a 209-shotgun primer to produce an even more powerful and accurate firearm.
Outfitting Your Muzzleloader with a Scope
Due to the increased range of modern muzzleloaders, many hunters are choosing to outfit their blackpowder rifles with a scope in order to take better advantage of this range. The majority of today's inline muzzleloaders are compatible with scopes, and by choosing a top-quality one, you can help ensure improved accuracy at greater distance. If this sounds like something you're interested in, you should definitely check out our guide to choosing the best muzzleloader scope.
A Note about Muzzleloader Powder
Generally speaking, the majority of muzzleloader shooters still tend to use traditional black powder. However, some of the more modern firearms are also compatible with various synthetic powder substitutes like Clean Shot, Triple-Seven or Pyrodex. Still, its important to check with your local gunsmith or read your owner's manual to ensure that this is true of your rifle. These synthetic powders generally provide a number of advantages over traditional black powder, mainly in that they usually ignite hotter or produce less smoke.
On the other hand, it's important to ensure that you never attempt to use smokeless powder in any muzzleloading rifle, as these can potentially cause your rifle to explode. Unfortunately, judging by the case of the aforementioned Savage muzzleloader, this seems to be true even in firearms supposedly designed for this purpose.
When using a synthetic powder substitute, you'll need to be aware of the fact that these may be harder to ignite. As well, the loading instructions may be slightly different for these powders, so its always a good idea to consult a professional before attempting to use them the first time.
The Pros and Cons of Hunting with a Muzzleloader
For most people who choose to hunt with a muzzleloader, the main draws are the increased challenge and more traditional hunting experience. There's nothing like setting out with your blackpowder rifle and testing your skills one-on-one against a deer the way people used to do for hundreds of years.
However, the limitations in terms of distance and accuracy means that you'll need to ensure you get closer to your target than you would need with a standard centerfire rifle. As well, you'll also need to make sure you put in plenty of time at the range before heading out into the field. The limitations in terms of reloading speed means its quite likely that you'll only be able to get off one shot before the animal spooks, so you'll need to make sure that that one shot counts.
While the increased challenge is definitely a major factor in many people's choice to purchase a muzzleloader, there are also just as many hunters who do so simply for the fact that it allows them to hunt during the primitive weapons season. Depending on where you live, this season can take place either before or after the standard rifle season. As well, some states actually have separate seasons for all muzzleloaders and flintlock-style rifles only.
At the end of the day, you really can't go wrong with a more traditional muzzleloader or one of today's many modern variants. As long as you make sure to put a bit of time and effort into your choice, you'll definitely find that hunting with the best muzzleloader is an absolute blast (no pun intended).