I am new at using a muzzleloader, and was excited to go hunting with my new .50 caliber Hawken Woodsman percussion cap muzzleloader that I received for my birthday last year (a year ago next Tuesday to be precise – not that I’m looking for attention 🙂 )
The gun sat in the box it came in all last winter and spring. I was waiting for a chance to get it out and learn how to use it when a friend of mine had some time to teach me. It wasn’t until mid-July on the last day of an event where he was the range master when we finally had a chance for some range time.
Jim is an excellent instructor. He talks through and demonstrates the steps to prepare and load the gun with great attention to detail, patiently answers questions without judgement, and shows meticulous care in ensuring safety at all times. He teaches muzzleloading to all sorts of students throughout the year at school days reenactments and other events, so I knew I was in good hands. He also writes a blog, if you want some instruction of your own, go to this page to learn more.
At the range that day, Jim explained everything and watched closely as I followed his instructions. First I learned how to check that the chamber as well as the channel from the prime to the powder is clear, then how to measure and load the powder, place the patch and ball and use the bullet starter and ramrod to push the ball and patch into the barrel and finally how to determine that the ball is properly seated. He then explained the trigger system and the difference between half-cock and full-cock. My gun has a hare trigger and a regular trigger that you squeeze to fire, and Jim explained the difference and when to use one or the other.
The purpose of that first session was for me to learn the basics of loading and firing, which I did a few times until Jim was satisfied that I understood the process. Then I got to learn how to clean the gun.
Black powder and their substitutes are highly corrosive, so it is imperative to clean the gun thoroughly after each use. I think this is why many hunters and gun enthusiasts are apprehensive about the sport of muzzleloading. But I have quickly learned that the time it takes to properly care for the gun is well worth the fun of firing the gun and experiencing the satisfying smoke that it creates. Jim shared with me his “magic cleaning solution” recipe and gave me some advice about how to make cleaning patches, and took me through the steps of cleaning, watching me work while he enjoyed an after-range beer (the cost of the afternoon’s lesson was a 12 pack of Nordeast).
A couple weeks later I had another chance for a lesson, and Jim took me to a shooting range to sight in my new gun to get ready for the upcoming deer season. He brought along a couple of his muzzleloaders, both flintlocks, to sight in for hunting, and we spent the morning happily firing off a couple dozen rounds apiece, somewhere along the way adjusting the sight on my gun until I felt capable of shooting a deer if one ventured close enough. So I was ready.
A couple days before the gun opener, I took out my muzzleloader and the .30.30 that my partner, John, had recently acquired and gave them a working over with some gun oil, and doing a last minute check of the muzzleloader, removing the screw from the nipple and poking a pipe cleaner inside to remove any excess moisture that may have been present. All set. Or so I thought.
I took the muzzleloader out the first two days of hunting, and never saw a deer. On Thanksgiving day, John and I hunted on the Burnett County Forest and I decided to used the .30.30. I fired it once at a running deer but missed and hit a tree (seems I like shooting trees). John shot a deer that day. I used the muzzleloader again Friday but again never saw a deer. Saturday was rainy, and so I opted to take the .30.30, and that day I shot a nice doe. Sunday I was back out with the muzzleloader but no deer.
There was a chance that I could maybe get out again during the 10-day muzzleloading season, so I decided to keep the ball loaded (once you put the ball down the barrel, as long as you remove the cap it is considered “unloaded” and you are allowed to transport the weapon in a vehicle). My plan was that if didn’t get a chance to fire it at a deer, then I’d bark a squirrel with it (see my blog Hunting at Wildwood Glen).
I did not get the chance to hunt again, opting instead to spend my time processing the two deer we had harvested during the regular gun season. So this past weekend I went to my land, taking along the muzzleloader with the intention of unloading it by firing at a squirrel if I saw one. I walked around in the woods awhile but there were no squirrels out and about that day, probably because my German Shepherds were along. So I decided to discharge at a target with a picture of a squirrel on it instead. I placed a cap, aimed, and pulled the trigger. The cap popped, but the gun did not fire. I loaded another cap. Same thing.
Turns out, I had been hunting with a gun that I could not fire, because I had neglected to replace the screw on the nipple when I did the last-minute cleaning. That tiny little screw seems so insignificant, but it is an integral piece of the overall firing system. Its job is to direct the spark from the cap through the channel and into the chamber. If not present, most often the spark never reaches the powder to alight and send the ball down the barrel. In other words, it won’t go boom.
I was slightly embarrassed but really more amused. I was quick to text my mentor to share my “fopah”, and he was even more amused than I was. I will chock it up to a good lesson learned. I hope that sharing my mistake can help others to avoid making the same error. From what I understand, there are plenty more potential mistakes to be made, so I have a lot to look forward to.