The first time I fired a muzzleloader rifle, it went off with a monstrous charge that knocked the gun from my hands and sent me sprawling flat on my back—nose bloodied, lip split, cheek cut and shoulder bruised. I was about 14 and the gun belonged to the father of my friend, J.C.As the name implies, a muzzleloader-style rifle is loaded by placing the powder, bullet and wadding into the muzzle. A rod is used to seat the load into the base of the barrel. There is a proper sequence for this, of course, and the size of bullet and amount of powder used depend on several factors, primarily what caliber of gun is being fired.
For 400 years, muzzleloader guns were charged by black powder, an ancient propellant that in its most basic form is made from sulfur, charcoal and potassium nitrate. It’s messy and smelly and worthless when wet and nearly so when only slightly damp, but it changed the way hunters fed their families and men waged war. It also produces a billowing cloud of smoke when fired. Today, there are several excellent black powder substitutes that are more dependable and burn cleaner than black powder (though they also produce the smoke) and are used by all but the most rigid muzzleloader traditionalists. But the legacy remains. Muzzleloader firearms are commonly referred to as “black powder,” regardless of the propellant used.
Many muzzleloaders are now designed “in-line” style, a revolution pioneered in the 1980s by Missouri gunsmith Tony Knight. His MK-82 (named for his daughter) helped spark a renewed interest in the ancient weapons. Most muzzleloader hunters prefer the in-line models, which resemble modern rifles in weight and design and produce surprisingly powerful ballistics and remarkable accuracy. Only a handful of hunters use the traditional-stylesidelock guns.
Regardless of style or design, compared with modern firearms, muzzleloaders are antiquated in every way, but they retain a following among Kentucky hunters, myself included. Maybe it’s the Daniel Boone effect. But so devoted are these folks that the Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources long ago set aside a handful of muzzleloader-only deer hunting days, including a weekend in mid-October and nine days in December. Muzzleloaders also can be used during the November modern firearm deer hunt. Last year, Kentucky hunters tagged 144,409 deer, and 15,642 of those were tagged by hunters wielding a muzzleloader.
For the state’s muzzleloader shooting fraternity, of which I am a member, the October black powder weekend is the unofficial opening of the state’s firearm deer season. This year’s early muzzleloader hunt is Oct. 18-19 in all zones.
My friend loaded the rifle, which was probably either a .50- or .54-caliber reproduction flintlock that his dad built from a kit, and then told me to fire it. Enamored by what had been a steady childhood diet of Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone-flavored TV shows, I foolishly agreed. He foolishly stood next to me while I cocked the hammer and pulled the trigger. The gun had two triggers. I pulled both. Nothing happened.It was a flintlock rifle. My friend suddenly remembered that he had to prime the pan, which involved placing some powder into a small metal piece that’s part of something called a frizzen. He probably knew less about priming the pan than he knew about loading the barrel but managed to get some powder into the pan and the frizzen closed.“I’ve seen my dad do it,” he said when I questioned his knowledge of the equipment.I again cocked the hammer and pulled a trigger. This time, the first trigger I pulled did the job. There was a small explosion that produced a billow of smoke so close to my face that it startled me, and then an instant later the gun erupted with a deafening roar and an enormous cloud of smoke. I have no idea how much powder my friend had poured down the barrel.I lay on the ground with blood running into my mouth from the busted nose and split lip, thinking how upset my mother was going to be when she found out I’d shot myself.
The smoke cleared and with it my head. My friend helped me to my feet, and we inspected the rifle, which had a dinged stock from having been dropped but was somehow otherwise undamaged. It was only then that I learned that my friend had taken the rifle without permission, which would have been an unpardonable sin in my home. We walked from the woods to his house in silence. When we arrived, his father was waiting. We had some explaining to do.When I got home, my father had just gotten off the phone. There was more explaining to do.