To know where to go with in-lines means knowing what they are and where they’ve been. Muzzleloaders have been around since the 1500’s, but it wasn’t until as recent as the 1980’s when the advances in design and technology have propelled their adoption rate and into the mainstream hunter’s closet.
What is an in-line muzzleloader?
I’ll categorize muzzleloaders into two groups: Primitive and In-Line. When you think of primitive, think of Davy Crockett, round balls, and pie-plate groups at 50 yards.
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When you think of In-Line, think of a modern-looking rifle, saboted bullets, and sub 1-inch groups at 100 yards.
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Primitive muzzleloaders include flintlocks and caplocks, also known as sidelocks. Again, we won’t be covering those types of rifles. In-line muzzleloaders get their name because the ignition is “IN-LINE” with the powder. Much like a rifle cartridge, minus the cartridge. The main advantages to this design are:
- Faster ignition (ie. lock time)
- More reliable ignition
- Weather resistance
There are several types of in-line muzzleloaders that have come and gone over the years but the concept remains the same… put the fire behind the powder and go BOOM.
The types of actions can be broken down into four types that dominate the market: Bolt Action, Plunger, Break Action, and Drop Action. Break Action muzzys are at this time the most popular style on the market with a growing number of drop actions cropping up in the marketplace.
Bolt Action – Designed after a traditional bolt action rifle, these in-lines are designed to have an opening at the top of the action so a primer can be inserted into the breech plug. With the bolt closed it is fairly weather-proof. When the bolt is released, the primer will have to be removed manually in most cases.
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Plunger Style Action – These designs are necessary in some parts of the US where stringent muzzleloader laws require an open breech system like that on the CVA Buckhorn. They are very simple in that the nipple sits in the breech with a percussion cap on it and the spring-loaded plunger is controlled by the trigger. Trigger pulled, plunger flies forward, percussion cap ignites.
Break Action – Break actions have become popular in the past 10 years. Think of that Harrington & Richardson single shot you had as a kid. Same concept only most are released using the trigger guard. With the action open, the shooter inserts a primer into the breech plug and closes the barrel to the action. The advantages of the break action are easier access to the primer / breech plug, nearly weather-proof, and less blow back on the scope. Russell Lynch, of Lynch Outdoors and Max Muzzleloader, took a loaded CVA Accura and dunked it in a pool, pulled it out and fired it. I’d say that’s pretty darn weather-proof compared to the flint-locks sending sparks to a pan of black powder.
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Drop Action – Drop actions are cool in the fact the action drops down at the press of a button. Hit the button, put the primer in, slide the action back up and you’re in business. Drop actions are typically shorter in overall length but have longer barrels, equaling higher velocities and tack driver performance and have reduced blow back over plunger and bolt action types making them easier to clean. Drop actions are gaining in popularity due to these benefits.
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The original inline design was conceptualized as far back as 1808. Jean Samuel Pauley patented a system in which the cock of the sidelock was replaced by a cylindrical hammer driven by a coil spring. His system was then expanded upon by Johann Nicolaus von Dreyse who developed the Dreyse Needle gun that was adopted by the German military in 1871.
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Luck have it, metal cartridges started becoming widespread in the 1860’s, which sent muzzleloader innovation back to the stone age for about 100 years.
Fast forward to the 1960’s….
The 60’s and 70’s were the era of reproduction sidelocks with companies like Navy Arms, CVA, and Thompson Center delivering the goods to participants in the every growing Rendezvous events across the country.
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Rendezvous and frontier reenactments gave muzzleloading the shot in the arm it needed and reinvigorated the sport.
History came full circle in 1969 when 10-Ring Precision out of San Antonio, Texas created the pull-cock in-line. Improving on the 1808 Pauley design, the pull-cock featured a safety on the pull-cock shaft, coil spring, modern Timney style trigger, and wide cutout for access to the nipple. Manufacturers for years to come would utilize the same design principals as the pull-cock. 10-Ring Precision used a modern rifle stock on the pull-cock which resulted in a low adoption rate by traditionalists – who were the majority of the market at the time. The pull-cock design is even found on rifles today, such as the Crickett .22’s that many kids start out with.
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In 1970 Harrington and Richardson came out with the first break-action muzzleloader coined the “Huntsman”. Another muzzy ahead of it’s time, the Huntsman was marketed as a 12 gauge muzzleloading shotgun with .45 and .58 caliber versions following in 1971. It was designed to use no. 11 percussion caps but many converted them to use musket caps and later, 209 primers. The breech plug on the earlier models was a push-in style breech plug secured by a neoprene o-ring. Closing the breech was the only thing preventing the breech plug from putting a breech plug-sized hole in the shooter’s head. To remove it the shooter would shove the breech plug out using the ramrod. Later versions included threaded breech plugs.
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In 1974, Pennsylvania held its first “muzzleloader only” deer season. The cost was $3.25 and 65 deer were taken over three days. Although late in the season, it provided muzzy hunters the opportunity to hunt less pressured deer. Since then most states have instituted muzzleloader only hunts.
Up until 1975 the propellant of choice was straight up black powder, mainly because that’s pretty much all there was. Black powder works well, but it has some disadvantages.
- It’s highly explosive, making it a pain in the ass to ship resulting in an expensive hobby and a volatile substance to have around the house.
- It eats barrels due to its fouling and corrosive nature.
- It soaks up water like a sponge which limits its shelf-life and causes inconsistent velocities – resulting in inconsistent groups.
Daniel Pawlak and Michael Levenson set out to change all of that. In 1975 they unveiled Pyrodex. Pyrodex was the first black powder substitute. By volume it is as powerful as black powder but by weight it is 30% more powerful, which means it’s 30% more dense equaling more shots per volume. While it duplicates black powder in the chemical composition of charcoal, sulfer, and potassium nitrate, it has other ingredients that cause it to foul less. It also can be shipped as a smokeless powder which brings down the cost and increasing distribution. Pyrodex also requires a higher temperatures to ignite, making it safer.
Ironically, Dan Pawlak was killed in a factory explosion in 1977.
Michigan Arms introduces the “Wolverine”. The Wolverine made muzzy history with a hammer with an annular cutout for the trigger sear and a firing chamber to accelerate combustion.
1985 – 1987
By 1985 about 1 million Americans were active in muzzleloading.
That year the grandfather of modern muzzleloading, Tony Knight, developed the MK-85. [singlepic id=3 w=320 h=240 float=right] The MK-85 was the first mass produced in-line muzzleloader to hit the market. Featuring a 1:48 inch twist and no. 11 percussion cap ignition it was still a round baller’s rifle but it greatly reduced the learning curve for loading, firing, and cleaning a muzzleloader. The firing mechanism and breech were removable, making for easy clean up.
In 1987 Knight began selling rifles with 1:32 inch twists. He found they resulted in better accuracy using something foreign to muzzys – a saboted bullet.
In 1988 those twists in the MK-85 got more aggressive, moving to a 1:28 inch twist. 1:28 inch twist barrels are today’s industry standard.
On September 20th, 1990, Henry Ball, a machinist, was shooting his sidelock when the lock failed and sent a screw through his arm up to his elbow. He had to have surgery to have it removed. At that point he became dedicated to making a safe and reliable muzzleloader. He’ll work on prototypes for the next 9 years.
Thompson / Center and CVA were the two largest competitors to Knight at this time, although they still marketed largely to the reproduction crowd. TC first dove into the in-line market with the TC Scout – differentiating itself from Knight by using a hammer action instead of the plunger style used in the MK-85. CVA introduced the Blazer, also with a hammer-style action.
Seeing the success of the Knight line of rifles, major gun manufacturers like Remington, Ruger, and Winchester jumped on the muzzy bandwagon. Most of them were re-hashed versions of their bolt action rifles that failed to capture the hearts of the modern muzzleloader.
One day in the early 90’s several chemists from Hodgdon were sitting at the bar wondering how they can get consumers to pay triple the price for Pyrodex. A eureka moment occurred when they thought of compressing the powder into pellets! In 1996 Pyrodex pellets were born; igniting a firestorm of inconsistent velocities and overpriced loads for years to come! Pellets became very popular for beginning and experienced shooters alike due to their convenience, but their disadvantages far outweigh their advantages. More to come on that topic.
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In the late 90’s TC released the Encore, an interchangeable barrel rifle that found its way into muzzleloading’s virtual hall-of-fame. The Encore was never designed as a muzzleloader. First and foremost, it was a rifle designed for the .300 Win. Mag and 7mm crowd. It had a strong break-action frame, quality trigger (due to it’s rifle-shooting target market) and high-quality barrels. It also was one of the first to use 209 primers which have become a muzzy staple.
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Remember our friend Henry Ball? His prototyping resulted in a smokeless muzzleloader and produced them on a small scale. He presented his prototype to Knight, Weatherby, Remington, and Ruger. All passed on his idea. Then at the 1999 SHOT Show Toby Bridges presented Henry’s smoke(less) pole to Ron Coburn, President of Savage Arms. Ron was so enamored with the idea that he sent a short-action Savage to Henry to perform his modifications. After testing, and testing, and more testing, a star was born – the Savage ML. 1900 were produced in February of 2000.
The Savage ML was the first muzzleloader to shoot both black powder (and substitutes) and smokeless powder. With a sealed action and barrel and action tested to 129,000 PSI (most black powder rifles are tested to 25,000 PSI), the Savage ML was the safest and strongest muzzleloader to hit the market, as well as being the cheapest to shoot (43 grains of smokeless vs. 100 grains of 777 makes a pound of powder go a lot further).
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TC unveils the Omega – a short (overall) long-barreled drop action front-stuffer. Increased velocities and accuracy help drive the drop-action market.
Hodgdon (the makers of Pyrodex) created Triple Seven (777, Triple 7, or Triple Se7en). Triple Seven did not have the chemical make up of black powder. Instead of a wood-carbon 777 uses a sugar-based carbon as the fuel. Being less dense per volume than black powder it left behind 50% less fouling. It is also more energetic, resulting in higher velocities by volume than black powder or Pyrodex. “Cleans up with water!” claims made for easier clean up.
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CVA introduces the Electra – featuring a sealed breech with an electronic ignition powered by a 9v battery. So radical, sales were poor despite amazing accuracy and few reported problems. If you peruse the forums there were slews of people talking about how it would short out and fire without pulling the trigger. All those claims came out of fear and not based on any evidence. Remington created an electronic ignition rifle called the EtronX three years earlier that was met with similar criticism. I guess the shooting masses just aren’t ready for batteries in their guns…that is until the storm troopers start out-shooting them at the range with their lasers.
While the Electra didn’t take the industry by storm it did open people’s eyes to the issue of 209 primer deflection and its side affect of diminished accuracy.
Click here to see the video of the Electra in action.
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Blackhorn 209 hits the market. Blackhorn 209 set the muzzleloading world on its ear by delivering on these promises:
- Higher velocities by volume compared to black powder or other substitutes
- Very low fouling – reports of 30+ shots without swabbing between shots (however, I do not recommend this).
- Resistance to humidity and temperatures result in consistent velocities and unlimited shelf life.
- Uniform size means uniform accuracy down to the last grain in the bottle. Other substitutes have deviations in the size of the grains causing you to shoot powder closer to FFFG out of a FFG bottle as you get near the bottom.
- Doesn’t crush. This also relates to accuracy. When you seat your bullet on 777 you’ll get a crush factor – meaning some of the granules will smash under the pressure. Unless you can measure the torque when you ram the bullet down the throat of your muzzy you’ll have some inconsistencies in the crush-rate. Blackhorn doesn’t crush – push the bullet down and it hits a brick wall.
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This is by no means a comprehensive list of in-line history; the contributors to the sport are numerous and the models of muzzys developed over the past 30 years would require a book to cover. In the past decade alone the number of models of muzzleloaders on the market has given the consumer a plethora of options to choose from. Entry level guns can be found for as little as $125 or you can get a custom job for as much as $3600. Since Tony Knight created the first Mk-85 in 1985, over 3 million people have picked up muzzleloading as a sport and it’s popularity continues to grow.