Thursday, June 9, 2011

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Toby Bridges

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Choosing A 200-Yard Muzzleloader

By Toby Bridges, North American Muzzleloader Hunting

Muzzleloaders have certainly come a long way in a few years. Thanks to the advanced primer ignition systems that form the heart of today’s in-line rifle designs, shooters and hunters have come to accept 2,000 fps muzzle velocities and 200-yard real-world effectiveness as the new norm. And to more easily achieve that level of performance, hunters are now turning to a new variety of energetic propelants and sleek new spire-pointed saboted bullets. Still, as hot as those powders and projectiles might be, it takes a special breed of muzzleloader to harness the power and accuracy of the new loading components.

Back when the first Knight MK-85 rifles hit the market during the mid-1980s, any talk of getting muzzleloader velocities to 2,000 fps, with a bullet that could retain upwards of 1,500 foot-pounds of energy at 200 yards, was purely futuristic. Maybe so, but the continued hand-in-hand evolution of in-line ignition muzzleloaders and the loads being shot out of them has turned what was once the future into the present.

During the past couple decades, we’ve seen a number of muzzleloading companies, or muzzle-loaded rifle models, come and go. But those with well built, accurate and sound designs have continued to ride the wave of new model development. The key to staying in business and prospering has been to deliver exactly what the present day muzzleloading hunter demands, and that has been greater and easier to obtain big game taking accuracy and knockdown power.

Today’s top selling in-line muzzleloaders all feature hot No. 209 primer ignition systems, pretty much making misfires a thing of the past. Generally speaking, 90-plus-percent of the rifles are now .50 caliber, capable of shooting hot 150-grain Pyrodex Pellet or Triple Seven Pellet powder charges (or the loose-grain equivalent of any number of hot new black powder substitutes). In addition, all of these guns can now get a saboted 240- to 260-grain bullet out of the muzzle at 2,000 f.p.s. — or faster.

Most of today’s advanced in-line rifles are fully capable of punching tight, 11/2-inch groups at 100 yards, regardless of whether that rifle retails for $300 or $800.

Truth is, given a little time to find a load the gun likes, it’s now hard to buy a modern .50 caliber muzzle-loaded rifle that cannot deliver acceptable game taking accuracy and punch out to 200 yards. Some just do it a bit better, with a little more ease and style.

One feature that a majority of today’s best selling in-line models currently tend to share is a “break-open” action. In fact, most of the leading manufacturers or importers of in-line rifles now offer several break-action models in their lines — usually including each of those companies’ top-selling model.

Muzzleloading rifles of this design are really nothing new. The old H&R “Huntsman” of the 1970s was simply a muzzle-loaded barrel on the same frame and action found on the company’s line of “Topper” break-open, breech-loaded, single-barrel shotguns. The original “Huntsman” was discontinued in about 1978, then reintroduced again 10 years ago, only to be discontinued again in 2009.

Break-action muzzleloaders owe their current popularity to the success of the Thompson/Center Arms “Encore” 209x.50 Magnum, which first hit the market in the mid to late 1990s.

It is a well-built muzzleloader, originally with a 26-inch barrel, that is noticeably shorter in overall length than other types of front-loaded big game rifles thanks to the tip-down action that brings the rear of the barrel right to the rear of the receiver. Plus, this muzzleloader offers something that no other muzzleloader offered 10 year ago — the flexibility to swap out the .50 caliber primer-ignition muzzleloader barrel for any one of more than a dozen center-fire barrels, or .17 HMR and .22 rimfire barrels, or even a 20-or 12-gauge breech-loaded shotgun barrel.

A couple of seasons back, T/C introduced an upgraded version of the Encore — the Pro Hunter. The .50 caliber muzzleloader barrel for this break-open single shot modular system is a 28-inch flutted barrel and comes with a new “Speed Breech” plug design that requires the breech plug to be turned only 90-degrees, using the T/C breech plug wrench, then it can be pulled from the rear of the barrel. The rifle is also built with a new and extremely tough “Flex Tech” composite stock.

In 2009, the company introduced an advanced version of the Pro Hunter, which has been dubbed the Encore Endeavor. At first glance, it looks to be the same rifle. But the company has done some revamping of the “Speed Breech XT” breech plug installed on this model — adding a knurled band at the rear, which they claim allows the shooter to turn it without the aid of a tool. T/C has also added what they call “Energy Burners” inside the Flex Tech stock. These are coil-type springs that are supposed to absorb a considerable amount of recoil. Plus, according to T/C they dampen the noise level of hefty magnum loads. All three versions of the Encore share the same great selection of accessory barrels available. Retail prices for the Encore 209x.50 Magnum start at about $650, while the fully decked out Pro Hunter and Endeavor models can top out at $1,000.

For the muzzleloading hunter not all that concerned about switching back and forth from .50 caliber front-stuffer to single-shot cartridge rifle or shotgun, there’s the T/C Triumph. This very avant-garde break open .50 caliber, introduced in 2008, comes in several blued/stainless configurations. Like the Encore Endeavor, it features the “Speed Breech XT” breech system that can be removed by hand. This rifle and all other T/C in-line rifles feature the turn-in-28 inches rifling twist that performs so well with modern saboted bullets.

The blued model of the Triumph rifle, with black composite butt and fore-end has a starting retail of around $500. Other models in the line include a new lower-priced .50 break open known as the Impact, with a starting retail price of well under $300. Then there is still the dropping block action Omega, starting at just over $400.

The mainstay of the Connecticut Valley Arms muzzleloader lineup for much of the past six or seven years has been the company’s various Optima break-open rifles — the Optima 209 Magnum, the Optima Pro and the Optima Elite. These have sold very well for CVA for several reasons; they tend to be accurate and reliable rifles, plus they are much more affordable than T/C’s break-open Encore models. The standard 26-inch barreled .50 caliber Optima 209 Magnum starts at around $270.

Several years back, CVA introduced the Elite verson of this break open, which utilizes a slightly different frame or receiver, allowing the use of interchangeable muzzleloader and center-fire cartridge barrels. With a blued 28-inch fluted .45 or .50 caliber barrel and receiver, and a black synthetic stock, the Elite models have a starting retail of about $350.
In 2009, CVA introduced an all-new break open model — the Apex. The receiver on this rifle is much sleeker and more streamlined than that of either the muzzleloader only Optima 209 Magnum or the interchangeable muzzleloader/cartridge breechloading Optima Elite.

But like the Elite, the new Apex can be bought with either a .45 or .50 caliber muzzleloader barrel (27-inch fluted), or in a wide range of centerfire rifle calibers. Other barrels can be purchased separately. This model is offered in stainless steel only, with choice of black or Realtree camouflage synthetic stock. Retail prices start at about $620.

This company also offers one other break-action muzzleloader — the Accura. Like the Optima 209 Magnum, this one is “muzzleloader only,” offered in choice of .45 or .50 caliber. The receiver of the Accura has nicer lines, and a 27-inch fluted barrel adds to the appearance of the rifle. Like all CVA-Bergara in-line muzzleloader barrels, these feature the popular turn-in-28 inches rate of rifling twist. The Accura comes in blued or stainless, with retail prices starting at about $400 and running up to $600.

Introduced just a few years ago, the Traditions break-action Pursuit model has been that company’s best-selling muzzleloader — and for the all the reasons why break open in-lines have been dominating the market. This rifle offers a longer barrel length in an overall shorter package. When open, the action gives the shooter plenty of room for slipping in a primer; when closed the primed ignition system is very protected from damp weather hunting conditions. And the easy access to the removable breech plug makes cleaning just that much easier and quicker.

The standard 26-inch barreled .50 caliber Pursuit model, with blue-black nickel metal finish and a black synthetic stock has a starting retail price of about $300. The same rifle with matte silver nickel finish retailed for about $400. On the other end of the feature and pricing spectrum is the Pursuit XLT with a Mossy Oak Treestand camouflage thumbhole stock, 28-inch fluted matte silver nickel finish barrel, and Projectile Alignment System at the muzzle — along with 360-degree porting to reduce muzzle jump when shooting magnum powder charges. That rifle retails for around $400.

New from Traditions is the revamped version of these .50 caliber rifles — the Pursuit II models. One feature that sets these apart from earlier Pursuit break-open muzzleloaders is an all new “Accelerator” quick remove breech plug. It takes just three complete rotations and its out, and when shooting with super clean burning new powders like Blackhorn 209, the breech plug can be removed by hand, requiring absolutely no tools. The new standard blued Pursuit II rifle also comes with a 28-inch tapered round barrel, with retail starting at $330. A fully decked out Pursuit II XLT with a new “soft touch” rubberized Mossy Oak Treestand camouflaged thumbhole stock and a 28-inch fluted and ported stainless steel barrel takes the suggested retail price up to $420.

In 2009, the company introduced an all new model - the .50 caliber Vortek. This break-action No. 209 primer ignition in-line rifle differs from the Pursuit II models thanks to a new receiver design and slightly changed stock lines. One feature that aids in keeping the trigger and inside the receiver more easily cleaned and maintained is a trigger assembly that can be easily removed by loosening a single screw. Most other features on the Vortek are pretty much the same as found on the Pursuit II models, including a fluted and ported 28-inch barrel, Projectile Alignment System, and Accelerator breech plug. Retail prices range from $400 to $500.

When Knight Rifles closed its doors in June 2009, the company was offering a wide range of models, including several break open models...the dropping block Revolution...and even one muzzleloader built with a very modified "Rolling Block" action. Many muzzleloading hunters felt these rifle were way over engineered...and for the most part too complicted to maintain and clean. Rifles like the KP1, the Revolution, the Shadow and the KRB7 have been credited with putting Knight Rifles out of business.

One Knight model that has enjoyed a strong following since its introduction in the late 1990s has been the DISC Extreme. This rifle is built for those shooters and hunters who prefer a rifle built with a rigid one-piece barrel and action - for those who feel that best accuracy comes from a bolt-action rifle design, even if it is muzzle-loaded.

And when the company began producing rifles again this spring (2011), under new ownership, it was no surprise that the complicatd designs mentioned above were eliminated, and the mainstay of new Knight Rifles production seems to be the tried and true 26-inch barreled DISC Extreme design - offered in .50 or .52 caliber, with models starting at $529. At the top of the DISC Extreme line is the 27-inch barreled accurized Long Range Hunter model, retailing for $799. This one is also offereed in .50 or .52 caliber.

My Long Range Hunter has been the No. 1 test rifle for North American Muzzleloader Hunting since 2005, and to date (6-4-11), the Green Mountain barrel of this muzzleloader has had 9,277 rounds fired through it...and it still keeps 'em inside of an inch at 100 yards (that is, when I'm up to it.)

Back when Knight Rifles shut down, I was in the middle of test shooting a new rifle model for them, one that is based on the DISC Extreme design, only this new model features a new bolt and breech plug that allows it to be fired WITHOUT having to use the red plastic DISC (a.k.a. Full Plastic Jacket) carrier for the No. 209 shotshell primer used for ignition. The good news is, Knight's new owners have put the rifle in production, dubbing it the "Mountaineer".

This is a serious magnum-powered muzzle-loaded big game rifle, built with the same attention that goes into a fine bolt-action center-fire. Some of the hot loads built around powders like Blackhorn 209, Triple Seven Magnums Pellets, and IMR White Hots Pellets are producing velocities approaching 2,200 fps — and energy levels topping 3,000 foot-pounds of knockdown power. And if a little primer fouling does get back into the bolt of this rifle, it takes all of about ten seconds to strip the bolt down for easy cleaning. Plus this rifle comes with a Timney-style target trigger that comes right off for easy cleaning and maintenance.

There are custom muzzleloader hunting rifles, built on center-fire bolt actions, that can produce the performance of the new Mountaineer, however they are generally priced at $1,500 to $3,000. Knight’s latest version of the well proven Extreme bolt-action comes with a nicely fluted 27-inch Green Mountain barrel, and with a generously contoured laminated stock. Starting retail is $739. (Note: Knight Rifles also still offers two models built around the original Knight plunger hammer design - the Bighorn and the Littlehorn. Currently, all Knight Rifles are offered in stainless steel only.)

Bolt-action models are the top sellers among modern center-fire cartridge rifles, since they are noted for top accuracy and reliability. It will be interesting to see if Knight Rifle’s new Mountaineer bolt-action high performance muzzleloading rifle leads the market back in that direction.