Gear We Use: Best Muzzleloaders

Gear We Use: Best Muzzleloaders

Muzzleloaders appeal to gun hunters the same way recurve bows appeal to archers. There’s something rewarding about passing up modern technology to pursue game the way our ancestors did. Recurve bows have existed several thousand years longer than muzzleloaders, but you get the idea.

If you’re looking to step back to a time before self-contained cartridges revolutionized the hunting landscape, you’ve come to the right place. Several members of the MeatEater crew have filled tags during muzzleloading seasons, and we caught up with a few of them to get their pick for the best “smoke poles” in the business.

What We Look for in a Muzzleloader

The criteria for selecting a good muzzleloader are similar to those you’d use to pick a good hunting rifle. At the end of the day, you need a weapon that will reliably dispatch an animal at the distance you plan to hunt. Ideally, it also shouldn’t require taking out a second mortgage. Here’s what you’re looking for:

  1. Ease of Use
  2. Caliber
  3. Sighting System
  4. Cost

The Muzzleloaders We Use

What Makes a Good Muzzleloader

1. Ease of Use

As MeatEater’s Steven Rinella recently discovered during Pennsylvania’s traditional muzzleloader season, not all muzzleloaders are created equal. Flintlock and percussion cap rifles are significantly more finicky than modern inline muzzleloaders, especially in wet weather.

For those unfamiliar with these designs, flintlock and percussion cap muzzleloaders feature a "lock" affixed to the side of the firearm. Powder is ignited on the outside of the gun, whether by flint or by cap, which travels through the touch hole and ignites the main charge of powder in barrel.

Inline muzzleloaders feature a hammer on the rear of the firearm that ignites the primer, which lights the powder charge in the barrel. These muzzleloaders are easier to use for a variety of reasons. First, they’re less susceptible to moisture because the sealed breach keeps out water and the lack of priming powder means that hunters don’t have to worry about "keeping their powder dry."

Instead of loose powder for the main charge, hunters can also use pre-formed black powder substitute charges. These charges are pre-measured (usually in 50-grain increments) and can be inserted directly down the muzzle.

Finally, instead of using a patch, inline muzzleloaders are designed to shoot sabot and “PowerBelt” bullets. These bullets eliminate the need for a patch by using a plastic cup behind the bullet not unlike a shotshell wad. While flintlock rifles can use these bullets as well, an inline rifle is more likely to shoot them accurately.

For ease of use, inline muzzleloaders are definitely the way to go. But if you want to hunt a traditional muzzleloader season—or you just want an even greater challenge—flintlocks and percussion cap guns have taken their fair share of game, too.

2. Caliber

Just like cartridge guns, muzzleloaders come in a variety of calibers designed to target specific classes of game animals. Fifty-caliber guns are by far the most common. These are jack-of-all-trades rifles that can be used on anything from whitetail to elk to bears to moose. If you’re hoping to take advantage of your state’s early or late muzzleloader whitetail season, you’ll want to look for a .50-caliber gun. These are loaded with bullets usually in the 250-grain range that can be fired around 2,200 feet-per-second. Delivering over 2,600 foot-pounds of energy at the muzzle, they have enough juice to take down some of America’s largest big game animals.

Muzzleloaders can also be found in .45- and .54-caliber varieties. Forty-five caliber rifles can shoot flatter while .54-calibers can theoretically target larger game. But both cover similar ground as the .50, and there are fewer bullet options available. Thirty-two and .36-caliber guns can be used on smaller game, though these are often replica side-lock American long rifles.

3. Sighting System

Virtually all modern inline muzzleloaders come with receivers drilled and tapped for scope mounts. Many even come with a scope already in the box. Two hundred yards is the maximum range for most muzzleloader hunters, so you don’t need anything more powerful than the standard 3-9x scope common on many deer rifles. In all honesty, a 1-6x or 3x scope would be more than enough to get the job done.

If you’d rather forgo that modern convenience, you can also find many muzzleloaders with iron sights. Check out Brody Henderson’s “Field Notes” for a hot tip related to iron sights.

4. Cost

As with most things gun-related, you can spend as much or as little as you want on a muzzleloader. Traditions and CVA are the most common brands. They make a variety of inexpensive muzzleloading rifles in the $200 to $300 range as well as higher-end options in the $500 to $800 category. If you want to step up a notch, Knight is one of the most well-respected muzzleloader manufacturers, and they offer rifles in the $900 to $1,100 range. Pedersoli guns can be purchased for twice that figure, and custom guns can hit five digits.

Your choice depends on your budget, but most muzzleloader hunters in the deer woods are carting around rifles that cost them about $500 all-in.

Field notes from the MeatEater Crew


Triumph Muzzleloader
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Hawken Hunter Muzzleloader
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Davide Pedersoli
Hawken Muzzleloader
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Wolf Muzzleloader
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