I think we can probably agree that archery equipment and modern firearms get the lion’s share of attention when it comes to the most popular weapon platforms for hunting big game. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with hunting with a bow or a rifle, but they’re also not the only effective weapon options that big game hunters should consider. Hunting with a muzzleloader is another great option for anyone looking to expand their hunting opportunities — including backcountry hunting opportunities.
Most people don’t fully appreciate that hunting with a muzzleloader can offer a number of different advantages. While some people do still enjoy hunting with a traditional flintlock or percussion cap muzzleloader, hunters are not limited to using those rifles and have the option of using modern inline muzzleloaders. These more modern types of muzzleloaders are far more accurate, powerful, and reliable than most people think. They also have a much longer effective range than their traditional counterparts.
Photo via CVA Muzzleloaders
With all that in mind, this article is the first in a two-part series about hunting with a muzzleloader.
In this article, I’ll go over some of the advantages of hunting with a muzzleloader and why you should consider going afield with one. In the next article, I’ll cover how to get started hunting with a muzzleloader as well as some specific gear recommendations.
Additional Seasons & Increased Bag Limits
First, hunting with a muzzleloader creates additional hunting opportunities. While it’s not always the case, those additional opportunities can sometimes result in increased bag limits, the ability to hunt in areas where modern firearms are not allowed, and/or fewer restrictions on what constitutes a legal animal as well.
The exact details vary depending on exactly where you’re hunting though.
In some states, a dedicated muzzleloader begins prior to the rifle season, allowing hunters with a muzzleloader to beat the pressure of the more popular firearms season. In other states, there are extended season later in the year specifically for muzzleloaders.
In other states, hunting with a muzzleloader doesn’t result in more time afield (quantity), but that state’s muzzleloader season occurs during better times of year (quality) to hunt to hunt certain species.
For instance, Arizona has a few muzzleloader elk hunts during the rut in September. Those tags are generally not easy to draw. However, they can often offer a fantastic opportunity to hunt bugling elk that’s normally restricted to archery hunters or rifle hunters who draw even harder to get early rifle tags. Colorado is another state that offers muzzleloader elk hunts in September.
Using a muzzleloader can also allow you to access certain areas where hunters are not permitted to use modern firearms — New Mexico’s Unit 15 demonstrates this well. That unit encompasses the northern portion of the Gila National Forest and has some really good elk hunting.
However, the unit has no rifle season for deer or elk. Fortunately, Unit 15 does have a couple of archery and muzzleloader seasons that provide some excellent opportunities for hunters.
Less Hunting Pressure
Having fewer encounters with other hunters while you’re afield is almost always a good thing, especially when you’re hunting on public land. The good news is that, compared to bow and rifle hunters, very few people hunt with a muzzleloader. So, you’re almost guaranteed to have less competition while you’re out in the woods if you hunt during a dedicated muzzleloader season.
This advantage is especially apparent in states like Washington, which has a lot of over the counter hunting licenses and tags. In 2018, just 6% of the deer hunters in Washington used a muzzleloader, while about 77% of hunters used modern firearms and 17% hunted with a bow. Interestingly enough, muzzleloader hunters had success rates comparable to, or slightly higher than, rifle and bow hunters in the state.
Those numbers jive with my personal experiences hunting with a muzzleloader on public land in Washington. I typically hunted a pretty large tract of National Forest Service land that was absolutely full of deer. That area was a very popular destination during rifle season, but I’d normally only see a couple of other hunters there during muzzleloader season.
Hunting with a muzzleloader is a nice way to get away from the crowds.
Limited & Controlled Tags Can Be Easier to Draw
The smaller number of muzzleloader hunters generally translates into a much smaller pool of applicants for drawn hunts. Just as you’d probably think, this can make it easier to draw a special permit for a muzzleloader hunt in many areas when compared to rifle or archery hunts.
Nothing is guaranteed in life, and muzzleloader tags in premium units still aren’t exactly easy to get. Though there are some real hidden gems out there for muzzleloader hunters who look hard enough.
Do some research with a service like goHunt and you’ll probably find some muzzleloader hunts that offer a mix of decent drawing odds and a reasonable chance of success. At the very least, hunting with a muzzleloader might give you some options that allow you to hit the woods and hunt instead of staying home and wishing you’d drawn a tag.
Muzzleloaders Are Very Effective
Most hunters who aren’t familiar with modern muzzleloaders probably picture as muzzleloader as something akin to what Davy Crockett or Daniel Boone used centuries ago. Some hunters, especially those who hunt during the Pennsylvania flintlock season, do still hunt with more primitive muzzleloaders and can be very successful.
However, modern inline muzzleloaders are extremely capable and effective tools in the right hands.
Advances in powder, bullet, and rifle manufacturing technology in recent decades have resulted in improved performance with modern muzzleloaders. Specifically, newer muzzleloaders offer more reliable ignition, increased external ballistics, excellent accuracy, and outstanding terminal performance.
In states where it is legal, hunters can also use a scope on their muzzleloader. This doesn’t really make it more accurate, but a good muzzleloader scope can really help facilitate better shooting during low light conditions and at longer range.
It’s important to note that longer range is a relative term though.
A typical hunter using an inline muzzleloader with a scope, a modern propellant like Blackhorn 209, and a well-designed conical bullet will probably be able to consistently hit a target at longer range than that same hunter using a flintlock musket with iron sights, a patched round ball, and black powder.
There are exceptions (which we’ll get into with the next article in this series), but a typical muzzleloader probably has a maximum effective range of around 150, maybe 200 yards. If we’re being honest with ourselves, the vast majority of all deer are taken within 150 yards in many places of the US, making muzzleloaders a viable option for those “typical” shot distances.
So, while a modern inline muzzleloader with a scope on a muzzleloader can’t compete with a long-range precision rifle, it’s still very capable and will work extremely well for the majority of hunters.
They do still have limitations though, which brings me to my next point.
Muzzleloaders Are Challenging and Fun
Most muzzleloaders usually fire a hefty 250-350 grain bullet of .45 or .50 caliber at a moderate velocity of 1,500-2,000 feet per second. There are exceptions of course, but that is typical of a hunting load these days.
If you’re thinking those ballistics sound more or less comparable to bigger bore rifles like the .45-70 Government, then you’re right.
Those loads hit really hard at short to moderate range and are extremely effective on game like deer, feral hogs, black bear, and even elk. However, those big, heavy bullets aren’t moving very fast and usually aren’t very aerodynamic, so they begin to have a big drop in trajectory and energy at ranges past 150-200 yards.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s certainly possible to make hits at longer range with a muzzleloader, but it’s extremely important to precisely determine the range and apply the right amount of holdover when doing so.
Also keep in mind that it takes time to reload a muzzleloader for follow-up shots, so you really need to make your shots count with a muzzleloader. After all, you might not get chance to take a second shot if you miss the first one!
That makes it very important to close the distance as much as possible before shooting.
As many bow hunters will tell you, getting close to a deer or elk is a big part of the fun associated with archery hunting. While it’s not usually necessary to get quite as close with a muzzleloader as with a bow, taking a shot at 300+ yards is simply not an option with most muzzleloaders.
Because of the reduced range, hunting with a muzzleloader may require advanced woodsmanship skills and stalking abilities, compared to hunters that use a center-fire rifle and can ethically make shots on game at longer range. Yes, it’s a little more difficult, but that just adds to the satisfaction you’ll get when it all comes together.
Additionally, while there are some common standard loads that will work pretty well for most hunters, muzzleloaders are also well suited to hunters who enjoy tinkering. Just like working up a custom handload for a rifle or tuning a bow, there is a lot of room for experimenting with different muzzleloader loads. In fact, the nature of shooting and loading a muzzleloader potentially makes that experimentation process even easier.
There are countless different muzzleloader bullets out there that will produce varying results with different amounts and kinds of powder. Don’t like how the 250 grain PowerBelt AeroLite shoots with 2 50 grain Triple Seven pellets in your rifle? Try 100 grains of loose Triple Seven instead. Or maybe switch over to a 270 grain PowerBelt Platinum with 120 grains of Blackhorn 209.
The possibilities here are practically endless and a persistent hunter should be able to work up a load that delivers the exact performance they’re looking for.
There are challenges associated with learning any new tool. That said, muzzleloaders offer some very real advantages to hunters that really make them worth considering.
I do realize that entering the muzzleloader world for the first time can be really intimidating though. After all, I was once in your shoes.
So, if you’re interested in taking up hunting with a muzzleloader but don’t know where to start, make sure you check out the next article in this series — How To Start Hunting With A Muzzleloader — where I provide some specific muzzleloader gear recommendations to help you get off on the right foot.