Tony Dean Outdoors

Tony Dean ...
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Tony Dean Outdoors


Toby Bridges Continues to Push for scopes on Muzzleloaders

Editor's note: I have posted Toby Bridge's piece that follows here, only as a courtesy. I wish to advise my regular visitors to this site that I am opposed to legalizing scopes on muzzleloaders. Toby implies that the only people fighting this effort are outmoded game departments and traditional muzzleloader users. Not true. I own an inline and sincerely believe that adding a scope to my gun takes it well beyond what falls within the spirit of muzzleloading. I'm old enough to require glasses and can't see as well as I once did...but the day-glo sights on my muzzleloader have enabled me to bag a couple of whitetails. Adding a scope takes what is intended to be a somewhat primitive gun and turn it into the equivalent of a modern centerfire rifle. Toby can use a scope and hunt where it's legal, but I am opposed to his efforts to impose his will on South Dakota. I know of no organized group of traditional muzzleloader hunters in this state fighting his effort...and every single email I've received to date from a South Dakota hunter, has been in opposition to the use of scopes on muzzleloaders.

Tony Dean (Toby's article follows...and it is the last I'll use from him on this issue.

Do you hunt with a muzzle-loaded rifle? Chances are, if you do, that the rifle or rifles in your gun rack are of the modern in-line ignition design, and where legal the rifle you use to hunt deer, elk and other big game probably has a riflescope mounted on it. Easily 90-percent of all muzzleloading rifles sold annually in the U.S. are now of very modern design, built for an all new breed of muzzleloading hunter who has turned to the sport primarily to take advantage of the additional hunting offered by the special muzzleloader big game seasons.

And that has those shooters who prefer the older traditionally styled muzzleloaders of the past up in arms - again. Back during the mid 1980s, when the first successful modern in-line rifle designs began to show up on the market, those with historical interests in muzzleloading protested the new muzzle-loaded hunting rifles, which looked more like a modern center-fire than a 150 to 200 year old original. Now, with some of the more recent advances made in the performance and reliability of the newer in-line rifles, the anachronistic side of the sport is once again pushing for greater restrictions on the rifles used for hunts they claim were established to allow shooters and hunters to enjoy a historical experience.

Has muzzleloading gone too far too fast?

There is no denying that the sport has certainly changed since I bought my first muzzleloader back in 1964. Just before my 15th birthday that summer, I ordered one of the .45 caliber percussion "Kentucky Rifle" styled reproductions imported from Belgium by Dixie Gun Works, of Union City, Tennessee. The rifle cost me just about every penny I had saved from running an after-school trapline the previous winter, working evenings pumping gas at a nearby service station, and putting up hay for local farmers. The 40-inch barreled beauty set me back $99.50, plus $4.50 shipping.

And the Dixie "Kentucky" was a beauty. The long, slender octagonal barrel sported a rich deep blued finish, while the stock that went all the way to the muzzle had been stained a warm reddish brown and was nicely finished. But, most of all, I remembered the bright shiny brass buttplate, trigger guard, capbox and a few other parts. I also remember all the fun I had loading and shooting that rifle through the remainder of the summer and early fall as I refined the load I would hunt with during the first half of the split Illinois firearms deer season, which opened in mid November.

I was full of confidence as I headed out that opening morning. And why not? I could drill a soda can at 75-yards with every shot from the .45 caliber longrifle. Shortly after the sun poked up over a distant southern Illinois ridge, the moment of truth arrived when a handsome eight-pointer materialized from out of nowhere just 45 yards away. I can still hear the echo of the sear dropping into the full-cock notch of the lock as I thumbed the hammer back. But, somehow, the buck didn't hear the soft click, and slowly kept walking past as I followed him with the fixed open sights of the rifle.

Everything looked right, and I gently applied pressure to the trigger. Instantly, the deer was blocked from sight by a self-inflicted smoke screen, but I heard the soft lead ball drive home, and it hit exactly where my sights had been on the deer. Centered right behind the front shoulder, that buck ran just 80 yards and went down.

Forty years ago, my mother had thrown a fit when she saw a can of FFFg black powder sitting on a dresser in my bedroom and read the warning
- "Danger - Explosive". From that point on, the powder was banned from the house and was stored in the garage.

Back then, I could purchase the powder at a local gun shop for just $6.00 a pound. And with the 70-grain volume-measured charges I was loading into the .45 Dixie rifle, I got exactly 100 shots out of a can of powder. That is, provided I did not spill any while loading. Now, I was a pretty industrious 15-year-old, and instead of purchasing pre-cast .440" round balls, I bought a round ball mould for $9.95, used a friend's lead melting pot and cast my own projectiles for the muzzleloader. In fact, I even used old pillow ticking salvaged from homemade pillowcases for patching, and made my own patch lube from a mixture of lard and beeswax. I managed to get the cost of shooting that .45 caliber rifle down to less than 10-cents a shot. And I shot it a lot.

I had no idea of the ballistics produced by the load…or the importance of velocity and energy. Now, I realize that the 70-grain charge of FFFg I shot behind the patched 128-grain round ball was giving me a muzzle velocity of just over 1,900 feet per second (f.p.s.), with close to 1,040 foot pounds of energy (f.p.e). At 50 yards, this load would do good to retain 500 foot-pounds of knockdown power. Today, I would not even think about hunting deer-sized game with a .45 caliber and patched round ball load.

In stark contrast was the ultra-modern Knight "Long Range Hunter" I carried for most of my hunting during the 2006 seasons. The .50 caliber model variation of the company's popular DISC Extreme line was loaded with a 110-grain charge of Hodgdon Powder’s FFFg Triple Seven and a new saboted 260-grain polymer-tipped, spire-pointed bullet design from Harvester Muzzleloading - the copper-plated Scorpion PT Gold. So, what kind of ballistics does this load produce? Well, at the muzzle of the 26-inch barrel, the bullet exits at around 2,030 f.p.s. This translates into right at 2,380 f.p.e. And thanks to the high ballistic coefficient (.220) of this bullet, the load is still moving along at nearly 1,700 f.p.s. at 100 yards, retaining just over 1,600 foot-pounds of knockdown power. At 200 yards, the very aerodynamic spire-pointed bullet continues to fly at around 1,400 f.p.s., and will clobber a big whitetail buck with around 1,100 foot-pounds of game-taking energy.

Anyway, that is the kind of downrange performance I was counting on as I hunted for a good buck during a late muzzleloader hunt this past season. And to tap that kind of downrange performance, I had installed a new scope developed specifically for longer-range shooting with the modern in-line muzzleloaders and speedy saboted bullet loads. In addition to the primary crosshairs, this scope features three additional lower crossbar reticles. And with my load sighted "dead on" with the primary crosshairs, the first crossbar reticle would print the load only a little more than an inch high at 200 yards, while the second crossbar put the shot about an inch low at 225 yards and the third, and lowest, reticle kept hits within an inch of point-of-aim at 250 yards. On the fifth day of the hunt, following a three-day snowstorm, the rifle, load and scope accounted for one fine whitetail buck at 193 yards, taking the deer quickly and cleanly with one very well placed shot. (Note: The scope detailed is the new Leatherwood HPML scope.)

It is this kind of performance from a muzzle-loaded big game rifle that has lured hunters from the ranks of both modern firearms and archery hunters, and which made participation in the special muzzleloader only seasons through the 1990s the fastest growing segment of the shooting and hunting sports. What bothers traditionally minded shooters is that muzzleloading continues to be less and less a nostalgic interest, and more and more a bona fide hunting sport. And the vast majority of the estimated 3 1/2-million hunters who now turn to muzzleloading for at least some of their annual time in the field now want all the accuracy, velocity, energy and range that a muzzle-loaded rifle can muster. Whether or not there is smoke hanging in the air when the shot is taken has now even become a moot point.

Honest 200-yard big-game-taking performance from a muzzle-loaded rifle is not something that suddenly became reality with the introduction of the modern in-line rifles and saboted bullets of the past twenty or so years. Thanks to the development and refinement of two distinctly American shooting innovations, shooters and hunters of the 1840s and 1850s accomplished that. Those novel, new ideas were the elongated conical bullet and the telescopic rifle sight (a.k.a. riflescope).

Noted rifle makers of the period, such as William Billinghurst, Edwin Wesson and Morgan James, along with dozens of others, worked hard to develop longer and heavier bullet designs that extended the effective range of a rifle beyond a hundred yards - plus the rifles that would shoot those bullets with newfound accuracy. And to harness the range and accuracy of the rifles and loads, these same rifle makers became some of the World's first riflescope makers as well. And by the mid 1850s, long tube-type riflescopes of 6x to 20x had already become fairly commonplace on the hunting and target rifles of the time. Some of these early scoped rifles were fully capable of keeping long 300 to 500 grain .38 to .45 caliber bullets inside of 2 inches at 40 rods - which is 220 yards.

What the modern in-line rifles, hot new loads and modern telescopic sights have accomplished is to make it easier than ever for today's hunter to achieve this same degree of performance. In the forty years that I have enjoyed hunting with a muzzleloader, I've gone from a .45 caliber rifle to a .50 caliber - then from a long-barreled full-stock rifle to a much shorter half-stock rifle. And from shooting a patched round ball to hunting with harder-hitting "Maxi" style conical bullets. Then I made the switch to modern saboted bullets and the faster rate of rifling twist needed to insure top accuracy.

The more intent I became with pinpoint shot placement, the natural progression was from open sights to modern telescopic sights. And then I moved on to a modern in-line percussion ignition system. Plus, somewhere along the way I got away from traditional black powder and began shooting Hodgdon’s modern Pyrodex, and more recently the most advanced black powder substitute that has ever been available - Triple Seven. And while I've never been a real fan of pelletized powder, I have shot and hunted some with Pyrodex Pellets and Triple Seven Pellets. Heck, I have even stepped over to the dark side and played around with shooting smokeless powder loads in several muzzleloaders that were built for such powders. And let's not forget the move away from the old No. 11 percussion cap to using a much hotter No. 209 shot-shell primer for guaranteed ignition.

Whether you are part of the majority crowd that has embraced all of these changes, or part of the minority who feels that this old sport has gotten way too modern - muzzleloading has changed forever! And it is very doubtful that it will ever fully return to its old-fashioned ways.

Even so, I continue to enjoy loading and shooting a variety of traditionally styled muzzleloading rifles, a few of which I built myself. Now and then, I'll even pull a favored old side-hammer percussion hunting rifle out of retirement and fill one of the many doe tags I can now purchase. But when I put forth the effort to hang my tag on a really nice buck, a big bull elk, or any other trophy class big game animal, you can rest assured that I will be packing the fastest shooting, hardest hitting, most accurate and longest range muzzle-loaded big game rifle regulations will allow! I'll be hunting with the type of rifle and load now favored by 90-percent of all muzzleloading hunters.

Still, when I look at an ultra-modern muzzle-loaded hunting rifle like the No. 209 primer ignited .50 caliber Knight DISC Extreme I used to take my buck last winter, I can’t help but wonder…"Where can muzzleloading go from here?" Savage Arms is currently trying to establish a market for its "smokeless powder" muzzleloader. And with the hotter loads of Triple Seven in rifles like the DISC Extreme, hunters are already getting close to the velocities and energy levels produced by the smokeless powder loads shot out of the Savage Model 10ML II.
Now Connecticut Valley Arms has opened a whole new can of worms with the introduction of their "Electra" - the first electronic ignition muzzleloader.

While a bit more drawn out, muzzleloader hunting offers something of a parallel look at the same turmoil that bow-hunting went through thirty years ago - when the compound bow hit the market during the early 1970s. Purist of the sport at that time hated the mechanical contraptions, and loudly protested the legalization of what they did not consider to be a bow. However, it was the ease of mastering a bow that allowed the shooter to hold at full draw, at only a fraction of the pull weight of the bow that brought rapid growth to archery hunting. With that sudden growth, game departments responded with expanded bow-hunting opportunities. And by 1990, more than 95-percent of all new bows manufactured and sold were of the compound design. But, at about that same time, a renewed interest in traditional archery equipment began to win a few of the archers back. Today, the traditional archery market represents about 12 percent of all bow hunters. The same trend now shows signs of taking place in muzzleloading.

Between 1990 and 2000, the number of muzzleloading hunters in this country pretty much doubled. And it was the efficiency of the modern in-line rifles that appealed to the modern firearm hunter, as well as the bow hunter, looking to take advantage of the new muzzleloader big game seasons. To meet the growing demand for muzzleloader hunting opportunities, many game departments established new muzzleloader seasons, or extended the length of existing seasons, benefiting modern and traditional muzzleloader hunters alike.

While the modern in-line ignition rifle models remain the number one choice of today's muzzleloading hunter, among these new smokepolers there has also been something of a renewed interest in guns of traditional design. Even so, continued advancements in design pushes in-line performance to new levels. A couple of seasons back, Knight Rifles introduced its brand new (for inline rifles anyway) .52 caliber DISC Extreme rifle built with a "stemmed" breechplug for more efficient consumption of massive 150 grain charges of loose-grain Triple Seven. The rifle can get a huge 375-grain high ballistic coefficient all-copper spire-point bullet out of the muzzle at 1,940 f.p.s., with close to 3,100 f.p.e. At 200 yards, the load delivers the bullet with more than 2,200 foot pounds of retained energy.

So, where will in-line rifle technology end? How fast and how far can a muzzle-loaded projectile be pushed before the exaggerated performance crosses the line of acceptance? Keep in mind that the vastly improved muzzleloader performance hunters enjoy today was nothing more than a dream 20 years ago. Now, it is the norm. And as long as game departments depend on ever increasing harvests to keep deer and other big game population in balance with available habitat and range, new advances in muzzleloader performance surely lay ahead.
Don't lose sight of the fact that we now have a brand new generation of muzzleloading hunter out there. And even though many of these hunters have 10 to 15 years of experience with the modern in-line rifles and loads, many have never shot a muzzleloader of traditional styling, or a load of real black powder for that matter. And we are very likely talking about a majority percentage of all muzzleloading hunters in the country. They have the power to persuade game departments to legalize what they want, no matter how modern it may be.

But that has not kept the traditional side of muzzleloader hunting from pushing for more restrictive regulations to keep the sport "more traditional". Unfortunately, in their zest to convince state wildlife agencies and commissions that
the sport has gotten too modern, organized traditional muzzleloader shooting organizations and associations have often reverted to being less than truthful or factual when providing muzzleloader information to game departments.

Authentic traditional muzzleloading did not end with the development of the percussion cap about 1810, or widespread use of the fast-twist bullet shooting muzzle-loaded rifles of the 1840s, or the growing use of telescopic rifle sights by 1850. Those were all early improvements to make the muzzle-loaded rifle a more efficient arm - either for hunting, recreational shooting or defense. However, hardcore fans of the old flintlock ignition and patched round ball very often fail to provide that input to those who are responsible for establishing the muzzleloader seasons and regulating those hunts. In essence, the very restrictive muzzleloader regulations in place in a number of states have been pretty much based on lies.

The "no scopes" muzzleloader regulations still enforced by 14 state wildlife agencies are currently some of the most hotly contested restrictions. As a rule, hunters are becoming an older lot. The fact is, most of us are now over the age of 40, a time when the majority begins to suffer some from natural sight degeneration. And those hunters who have are fighting to get scopes legalized during the special muzzleloader hunting seasons, claiming regulations that prohibit them from using such a sighting aid are discriminatory. Apparently, the U.S. Department of the Interior agrees, and last fall launched an investigation of the wildlife agencies in Alaska, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin - where hunters may not use a telescopic sight during the muzzleloader seasons.

Each of the game departments in these states receive Federal financial assistance from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And for that agency to continue to provide that assistance would put it in violation of its own discrimination policy. The first line of that policy reads…"No person in the United States shall, on the grounds of race, color, national origin, age or disability be subjected to unlawful discrimination under any program or activity conducted by or which receives Federal financial assistance from the Department of Interior."

The 90-percent majority modern side of muzzleloading has really cared less about the rifles and loads used by the minority 10-percent traditional side of the sport. But it is growing weary of the never-ending efforts of traditional muzzleloader hunters to push for legislation that would eliminate all muzzleloader hunters from choosing the rifle, load and sight system that best fits their needs. Never before have big game hunters been so savvy when it comes to muzzleloader ballistics. And to counter the efforts of traditional hunters who want the modern rifles and loads banned, a growing number of modern muzzleloader shooters are now beginning to point out the inadequacies of the patched round ball when it comes to retaining sufficient energy for cleanly harvesting big game at even relatively short ranges.

Most deer hunting experts will agree that any rifle and load that cannot maintain 800 foot-pounds of energy at 100 yards should not be considered for hunting game the size of whitetails or mule deer. Any game department that would adopt such a requirement would effectively eliminate the use of the patched round ball during the muzzleloader seasons. Even when loaded with a 100-grain charge of FFFg black powder behind a patched 178-grain round ball, the widely used .50 caliber rifles drop below 800 foot-pounds of energy at less than 50 yards. The round ball loaded .45 caliber rifles and loads, which are legal for deer in most states, fall below that energy level at only about 30 yards.

Not surprisingly, those states with restrictions against the use of scopes during muzzleloader hunts also tend to be the most restrictive when it comes to other requirements as well, such as ignition systems, legal projectiles and types of powders permitted. It's as if they are trying to reinvent the wheel when it comes to modern day muzzleloader hunting. In many of the 36 states where hunters can now choose the rifle, load and sight system they hunt with during these special seasons, regulations weren't always as fair and equal to both sides of muzzleloading. In many, change came slowly and not without turmoil. However, muzzleloader hunting did not come to a horrific end with the adoption of liberal regulations that simply allowed hunters to choose as modern or as traditional a muzzle-loaded hunting rifle as they pleased. And in the vast majority of these states, interest and participation in these hunts grew. Smart game managers even learned to turn these seasons into viable game management tools.

So, where will muzzleloading go from here? Only time will tell.

Most of you reading this are professional outdoor communicators. And those of you who cover muzzleloader hunting very likely already know that when you write about one side or the other of the sport, sooner or later you are going to hear from the other side - often claiming some injustice. If you are like me, you've probably gotten use to it. One thing is for certain, muzzleloading can no longer be handled generically. There are two distinctly different sides, and the rift that exists between these two groups does not show any signs of fusing together in the foreseeable future. And that's a real shame for those of us who enjoy shooting and hunting with both traditional and modern muzzle-loaded guns.

Toby Bridges is the author of nine books on muzzleloading. His latest books are HIGH PERFORMANCE MUZZLELOADING BIG GAME RIFLES, published in September 2004 by Stoeger Publishing Company; and "MUZZLELOADER HUNTING -Then and Now", published in October 2005 by Woods n' Water Press. He is now working on his tenth book on the sport, to be titled the "COMPLETE MUZZLELOADER'S LOADING MANUAL", to be published by Stoeger Publishing in early 2008.

Tony Dean Outdoors

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