Muzzleloaders take aim: Certification class offers participants portal to the past

Posted: Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Fog hovered over the Kachemak Bay Gun Club's rifle range. Lines of rubber tires marked distance increments down the lightly grassed ground. The rows lead back to piles of their counterparts on a third mound -- to absorb the bullet's impact.

Sarah Leibold and instructor Nancy Finney ready their rifles at the muzzleloading class Saturday before last.

Sarah Leibold picked her target and raised her firearm. The rifle's shot sounded like a high-powered firecracker, even through ear covers.

Gray smoke bloomed out of her muzzle-loading rifle.

Leibold was participating in a Department of Fish and Game muzzleloading certification class. The all-day class, which took place late last month, covered the cleaning procedures, safety protocols and hunting regulations associated with black powder rifles.

The class cost $20, and allows successful students to participate in muzzle loading-only hunts around the country. Once participants pass a shooting, cleaning and safety test, they're certified for life.

Department-organized classes only instruct would-be hunters with modern in-line rifles provided by the state. Shooters cannot bring their own firearms for liability reasons, according to the Fish and Game website.

Before using a rifle for the first time, class instructor Tom Hagberg said that it needs to be cleaned with alcohol to wash away the storage grease, or it won't fire. Unlike other firearms, Hagberg said that the weapons need to be rinsed after each shooting venture. Residual black powder can damage the rifle's insides and cause jams.

"They never showed Daniel Boone doing it, but he sure did," according to Hagberg.

First, participants used a brass rod to check if the rifle is loaded. Hagberg recommended brass because stainless steel emits sparks, which can ignite the rifle's load.

"We're working with black powder here," he said.

The instructor said that the muzzleloaders should be pointed in a safe direction at all times.

Each part of the rifle is cleaned with cotton patches coated in lubricant. After reassembly, the hunter capped the rifle's nipple to see if the cleaning had done its job.

Each filled a plastic measurement container with volatile powder, and poured it down the barrel. Next, a bullet is placed on top of a patch, knocked into barrel, and then pushed it down to the bottom with a range rod. Finney said that the bullet should be wedged in as far as it can go to eliminate air pockets, which can limit accuracy.

"Powder, patch, bullet," Hagberg repeated as he taught the class.

Traditional muzzleloaders have wooden stocks. The material takes in water during wet weather. This can causes warping and alters a shot's point of impact, the instructors said. In-line rifles can have metal or plastic stocks, which are less affected by moisture.

Steel is also more resistant to the corrosive properties of black powder, the instructors said. Many traditional models also use flintlock-like cocks, unlike current rifles.

The instructors said that muzzle loading hunters need to get closer to their quarries than other hunters, but not necessarily as close as bow-hunters who prefer a maximum 50-yard distance.

"I've heard of hunters shooting dear at 300 yards, but accuracy at 100 yards is average," Finney said.

Participant Sandy Crane said that watching hunting shows sparked his interest in muzzleloading. He believes that the hunting required more cunning, because, like archers, the average shot is close to 50 to 60 yards from the quarry.

Leibold said that her boss is a member of the muzzle-loading club in Homer. He talked her into taking the course. She has fired air rifles and the occasional shotgun in the past, but has never hunted. She may start, though, because her muzzle-loading certificate opens hunting opportunities in all 50 states.

"I just like guns," she said with a smile.

Tony Cella can be reached at

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