Back in 1985 when muzzleloading visionary William "Tony" Knight introduced his revolutionary MK-85 in-line rifle system, it's doubtful that even he could have imagined where muzzleloader hunting was headed.
One thing is certain: During the two decades since Tony Knight founded Modern Muzzleloading, Inc. (a.k.a. Knight Rifles), the advances made in the design of modern in-line ignition rifles -- and the performance of muzzle-loaded components -- have slowed only long enough to look back a few times. Mostly, it's been a case of "accelerated metamorphosis" as companies raced to lead the pack with the hottest, fastest, hardest hitting, and most efficient muzzleloading products available.
Contrary to popular belief, Tony Knight did not invent the modern percussion in-line ignition system, but he did perfect it. During the early 1970s, Harrington & Richardson introduced a break-open in-line muzzleloader that the company dubbed the "Huntsman." At about the same time, a smaller operation known as Esopus Gun Works introduced an extremely modern looking in-line rifle called the "Pacer." Also, just a few years prior to Tony's introduction of the MK-85, Michigan Arms brought to market their "Wolverine" No. 209 primer ignition in-line design.
But what kept these rifles from enjoying the same success that made Knight Rifles a leading in-line rifle manufacturer by the mid-1990s?
AHEAD OF ITS TIME?
All the early in-line models lacked features needed to appeal to the growing number of muzzleloader hunters. Built with turn-in-48-inches-to-66- inches rifling twists, these were basically "patched round ball" rifles.
By the mid-1970s, muzzleloading had already begun to evolve from a "shooting" sport into a bona fide hunting sport. Those buying muzzle-loaded hunting rifles wanted something with more knockdown power than the ancient spheres of lead. They wanted to shoot a bullet!
Also, the design of a few of these rifles made it difficult to keep the actions free of corrosive fouling.
Knight Rifle's earliest MK-85 rifles were also rifled with a relatively slow turn-in-48-inches rifling twist. But through the summer of 1986, Tony Knight began testing with faster rates of twist to harness the accuracy and performance of yet another innovative new muzzleloader hunting product -- the saboted bullet.
In early 1987, the fledgling muzzleloader manufacturer switched to a snappier turn-in-32-inches twist. And in 1988, Knight moved to a still faster turn-in-28-inches twist that continues to be something of a standard for the in-line rifle industry.
The vastly improved performance of the Knight MK-85 with saboted bullets quickly caught the attention of serious big-game hunters. Prior to the refinement of the rifle and selection of saboted bullets, muzzleloader hunting was considered pretty much a 75- to 100-yard sport. By the fall of 1987, it had become an honest 150-yard hunting sport.
Making the MK-85 even more attractive to modern muzzleloader hunters, Knight's design allowed fast and easy removal of the firing mechanism and breech plug for cleaning the barrel all the way through. Also, the rifle was built with a double safety system that made it the safest rifle design ever produced.
By the early 1990s, Connecticut Valley Arms and Thompson/Center Arms realized that the in-line rifles' growing popularity was still in its infancy. These companies introduced in-line rifle models of their own.
Likewise, the sudden demand for modern muzzle-loaded rifles also led to the establishment of several new manufacturing companies -- namely, White Rifles and Gonic Arms.
As sales began to skyrocket, large modern firearm makers decided to jump into the game. By the end of the 1990s, Remington, Ruger and Marlin began marketing in-line ignition muzzleloaders. During this period, designs began to advance with bolt-action and break-open No. 209 primer ignition systems that made these muzzleloaders every bit as sure-fire as a centerfire rifle.
Every in-line rifle now manufactured comes with the receiver or barrel drilled and tapped for installation of scope bases. And where modern optics are legal, the majority of in-line rifle hunters are relying on them to fully tap the downrange performance of these serious hunting rifles. And they're not putting 2.5x4 scopes on these rifles. Most prefer 3x9 or 3.5x10 models.
Not all of the advances have been with the modern muzzle-loaded rifles. The technology of the components stuffed through the muzzle has more than kept pace with the changes to rifle designs. In 1996, due mainly to the growing use of in-line ignition models, Hodgdon Powder Company introduced its popular Pyrodex blackpowder substitute in easy-to-load, compressed pellet form.
Early pellets were offered only in 50-grain equivalent. To load a 100-grain charge meant that the muzzleloader hunter could quickly drop in two pellets, seat the projectile, slip a primer into the ignition system, and go hunting.
And it wasn't long before those hunters using hot No. 209 primers for ignition discovered a significant increase in velocity, energy and range by dropping in a third 50-grain pellet.
Today, practically every modern in-line rifle model is built to be compatible with such 150-grain pellet charges. Ten years ago, in-line rifles were shooting saboted 240- to 260-grain bullets at 1,600 to 1,700 feet per second. Velocities are now typically 1,900 to 2,000 fps.
SUPERB BULLET PERFORMANCE
When it comes to loading components, muzzleloader shooters and hunters now have quite a selection to choose from, especially with saboted bullets. More than a dozen companies now market pre-packaged bullets and sabots. The latest trend is very aerodynamic polymer-tipped spire points, with a high ballistic coefficient to produce flatter long-range trajectories, along with higher retained velocities and energy levels.
(The ballistic coefficient is a number that serves as an index for efficiency. It indicates a projectile's ability to overcome air resistance and maintain speed during flight. The larger its ballistic coefficient, the more efficient the projectile is.)
The jacketed hollow-point handgun bullets -- like the Hornady XTP -- that were first loaded and shot out of muzzleloading rifles with a plastic sabot, have a ballistic coefficient of around .150 to .180. Modern spire-point muzzleloader bullets typically have a ballistic coefficient of .210 to .260, while some of the more advanced saboted bullets now sport a ballistic coefficient of well over .300.
New loose-grain powders, such as Triple Seven and American Pioneer Powder, are now producing 2,000-plus-fps velocities with charges of only 110- to 120-grains. And thanks to cleaner burning "muzzleloading" No. 209 primers, some of these propellants allow hunters in the field to load and fire three, four or five shots without having to wipe the bore.
Plus, when it's time for clean-up after a session at the range or a successful day in the deer woods, the light fouling can be cleaned from the bore with nothing more than water.
And if the shooter can't get to the rifle that same day, it's no big deal. These powders have been formulated without corrosive sulfur.
With such startling improvements in both the rifles and what comes out of them, the modern muzzle-loaded big-game rifle's maximum effective range has "yarded" outward.
Just about any primer-ignited in-line .50 caliber muzzleloader stoked with a 100- or 110-grain charge of a hot blackpowder substitute behind a saboted 240- to 300-grain spire-pointed bullet now enjoys an effective range of at least 200 yards.
Depending on the powder, charge and bullet being shot, the rifles and loads are delivering 1,000 to 1,500 fps at that distance, for a clean, quick harvest of deer and other big game.
TO SOME, CHANGE IS HARD
For more than 20 years now, certain elements on the traditional side of muzzleloader hunting have fought the improvements being made on modern in-lines, mostly because of their contemporary appearance and their longer-range effectiveness.
During the late 1980s, as in-line rifles grew in popularity, some shooters still preferred authentic late-1700s- and early-1800s-styled flintlocks and percussion rifles. They claimed that modernization of muzzleloaders allowed during the special "muzzleloader only" or "primitive firearms" seasons would result in the loss of those hunting opportunities.
But in fact, the new rifles, better performing loads and the legalization of riflescopes during the muzzleloader seasons (in 36 states) has had directly the opposite effect.
Back when Tony Knight introduced his MK-85 in-line rifle, there were an estimated one million muzzleloader shooters in this country. Today, there are between 3.5 and 4 million shooters who own and hunt with muzzleloaders. The lure of shooting traditionally styled rifles of the past has had very little to do with this growth.
Muzzleloading has evolved into a true hunting sport. The vast majority of those who shoot a rifle of muzzle-loaded design do so because of the special muzzleloader big-game seasons, particularly for whitetails.
Corresponding with that growth in participation has been the expansion of muzzleloader hunting opportunities we now enjoy. Though a few states have held special muzzleloader seasons since the 1970s, most of such seasons now in place across North America have been established since the introduction of the modern in-line ignition rifles.
In many states, game managers have learned to rely on the muzzleloader harvest as a tool to help keep growing whitetail populations in check. In most states, hunters are not harvesting enough does, and smart deer managers welcome muzzleloader hunters with open arms.
Thanks to that need to increase the number of deer taken annually, it's unlikely that many deer managers will push for more restrictive muzzleloader regulations.
And who knows? Futuristic muzzleloaders like Savage Arms' smokeless powder Model 10ML II and CVA's new "Electra" electronic ignition models might even be given the chance to become popular!