I had been hunting the rolling, aspen-covered hills for two days, trying to close the distance to get a shot at a mule deer. Several times I’d been close, but I just couldn’t create the opportunity I needed to squeeze the trigger.
When I least expected it, walking back toward my truck, I jumped a small herd of deer in a slough bottom. They jumped to their feet and, not knowing what had spooked them, stood trying to locate the danger. It was the opportunity I’d been waiting for, so I shouldered my rifle and slowly squeezed the trigger. There was a fizzing sound and a faint pop, but there certainly wasn’t a bang. The deer didn’t wait around to let me figure it out and immediately headed for safer ground.
I was frustrated and ready to give up on smokepoles. At the time, I was shooting percussion caps and carried my brass capper in my shirt pocket. Climbing hills and working hard, I’d worked up a sweat, which moistened my caps. When I dropped the hammer on the cap, it fizzled and could not ignite the powder. I tried snapping several more caps, but the gun just wouldn’t fire. When I got back to the truck, I pulled the gun’s ignition components apart and found
them plugged up with a wet mass of unspent powder. I cleaned it up, reloaded my gun and managed to take a deer the next day by taking better care of my caps and powder.
To this day, I carry my caps, primers, speed loaders or measured powder in a resealable plastic bag or a vacuum-sealed envelope made with a FoodSaver. That’s the No. 1 thing on which I never take shortcuts to ensure my gun will go bang.
Anyone who has hunted seriously with a muzzleloader has experienced a misfire. They are inevitable and happen for several reasons, most of which are prevent- able. Some things can be out of your control, like a bad primer that won’t fire, but they are rare. Most of the time, misfires occur because we get lazy, complacent or forget why we should have a checklist for loading our guns, storing our supplies and knowing when to simply use a fresh load.
Cause and Effect
I recently flew deep into the Yukon wilderness to hunt moose with a muzzleloader and packed all my supplies in sealed FoodSaver bags. I made up several so I had extras in case I opened one and it somehow got wet. We hunted hard, traveling on a large lake, and when I finally called a bull to within range, my trusty Traditions Vortek LDR put my bullet right where I wanted it. There was no second-guessing my equipment, and I had just as much confidence as if I’d taken my favorite centerfire rifle and cartridges.
I might sound smart, knowing the way I packed for the trip, but I’d learned a hard lesson from a similar hunt six years earlier. I packed my powder and supplies in waterproof bags and loaded my rifle when I got to camp. I hunted hard for three days in weather that seemed to change every 10 minutes. It went from warm and sunny to pouring rain, and several times it snowed hard enough to turn the ground white. I had my optics covered, my muzzle sealed and was sure my powder was safe.
On the third evening, when we got back to camp, I decided to empty my gun and put in a fresh charge. With the drastic weather swings and dramatic temperature fluctuations, I just wanted to ensure everything was working. I pulled the breech plug and expected the powder pellets to fall into my hand when I shook the gun. To my shock, I found the Pyrodex pellets I’d loaded in my gun were wet, with the consistency of wet ash in a fireplace. I had to work to make sure there was no wet powder left in the barrel before I reloaded for the next day. If I had seen the moose of a lifetime, my gun would have misfired, leaving me heartbroken and empty-handed.
When you calculate the cost of a powder charge, you’ll soon determine that throwing one away every night to replace it with a fresh one is like buying the most economical insurance you can find. Not only that, it can tell you a lot about your gun and whether water has found its way to your charge. The visual check makes for extreme confidence when headed afield.
I water test most of my new muzzleloaders in a way that would horrify many gun owners. I load them, put a primer in place and then submerge the gun in water. I let it sit for one minute before taking it out, pouring the water from the barrel and trying to fire it at a target. Almost all modern muzzleloaders will fire, as they are designed to be as waterproof as possible. The primer seals the barrel from the breech end, and a tight fitting sabot and bullet seal the barrel from the muzzle end.
Go the Extra Mile
When I’m loading a gun on the first day of a hunt, my routine is simple. I start by snapping three caps before loading any powder. I aim the barrel at the ground and watch when I pull the trigger to see if the dirt or dry leaves move from the air movement caused by the percussion. Snapping caps tells me my gun is in good working order and the hammer will fall hard enough to make the primer go off.
If you haven’t cleaned you gun properly, it can easily corrode components, causing failures. Second, this routine ensures there is no moisture in the barrel or ignition system. The heat from the primer will dry or drive out any moisture. It also confirms there aren’t any obstructions in the nipple or breech. It’s easy to get fouling or debris stuck in the ignition area, meaning your spark will never get through to the powder. By watching the dirt or leaves, you will know for sure there are no obstructions, as they move when the cap is fired.
When handling any black powder or substitute, never let it touch your fingers or hands. Use a measure to collect and pour powder directly in the barrel or a pipe cleaner to handle pellets instead of using your fingers. Your skin has oils and moisture that immediately transfer to the powder, so hands off at all cost.
When hunting during rain, snow or even with heavy dew, seal your muzzle with electrical tape, a commercial muzzle cover or even a balloon. It won’t affect the flight of your bullet, but the extra protec- tion will ensure moisture can’t get down your barrel. When the hunt is done for the day, always empty and then reload the rifle, no matter what else you have to do. If you’re out in wet conditions, remember to tell yourself there are no shortcuts to success.
Babysitting your equipment is always worth the effort, and during a cold Alberta deer hunt, I was rewarded with a late-season buck because I paid attention to detail. It was miserably cold, with the wind chill pushing minus 50. I unloaded my Traditions muzzleloader every evening when I got in from hunting and stood the gun in the corner with the barrel facing down. With the breech plug out, air was allowed to circulate until the barrel was completely dry. I would not put the breech plug back until I checked and knew the barrel was the same temperature as the house. The next morning, I did not load until I reached the hunting area and stepped out into the cold. I then snapped three caps before loading the rifle.
I tried to hunt all day, but if I had to return to the vehicle to warm up or have lunch, I’d place my rifle in a soft-sided case and leave it in the back of the truck. The last thing I wanted was the barrel to warm up in the vehicle and cause frost to form on the barrel. Frost is moisture, and I know if moisture is present, the powder in my gun will find it. When I resumed hunting, I simply retrieved my gun from the case and headed back to my spot.
After seven consecutive days, I finally met up with a big-bodied buck sporting impressive antlers. When I cocked my gun and pulled the trigger, my bullet found its mark. If I had taken any shortcuts, it’s unlikely my gun would have gone bang.
End of Season Must-Do
All black-powder or substitutes come in containers to help prevent moisture from compromising your powder. It can provide a false sense of security, and you should go the extra mile and get a moisture-proof container to store your powder containers.
I use an MTM CaseGuard Dry Box, which has a rubber ring to ensure the lid seals tight. Leaving your powder canister on a shelf downstairs or out in a garage will leave you scratching your head in six months when you start to prepare for hunting season. The powder will draw moisture from the humidity in the local climate, and if you live on the coast or in areas with high humidity, your powder is doomed.
Keep your powder in the extra storage dry box so it will deliver the same energy the next year. When you take the powder out of storage, make sure to shake it gently, and turn the canister upside down several times to remix the powder. If any moisture sneaked in, it will affect the top layer, and shaking it will disperse and dilute the problem.
If you go to the range and find your gun isn’t shooting tight groups it once did, you likely have a batch of powder with moisture in it. It can happen in the store or in transit. Poor bullet groups can often be resolved with new, fresh powder. Don’t keep the bad stuff, thinking you can still use it. Get rid of it so you never confuse it with a canister of good powder.
Don’t leave speed loaders filled from season to season and expect they’ll work the same, either. If you have time, shoot the loads and replace them the day before you start your hunt the next season.
There is no magic to making your muzzleloader fire when you want it to. Don’t take shortcuts. Set up a routine, and stick to it. The results will be rewarding when a big buck finally steps into your sights and you make your gun go bang.