Until the mid to late 1800s, all firearms were muzzle-loaders, which, as
the name implies, had to be loaded singly by pushing the components – powder, patch and projectile – down the barrel from the muzzle.
This loading process made them slow to get ready to shoot again, compared to how the process was accelerated with the advent of metallic cartridges.
In recent history, muzzle-loaders have enjoyed a resurgence in popularity – partly because of nostalgia, but mostly due to the creation of special hunting seasons for these “primitive weapons,” as they have been described in hunting regulations.
Originally these firearms were short-range tools using roughly measured, free-poured powder charges. They shot round balls, which did not rate high on the external- or terminal-ballistics charts. They were also flint-locks, which were prone to failure during rainy weather because the flash-powder in the pan was exposed to the elements prior to firing.
The popularity of these firearms raised the interest of the powder-makers and gun designers – to the extent that modern-designed muzzle-loaders can often be distinguished only by the ramrod that hangs along the bottom of the barrel.
These come in bolt-action and break-action. These are known as “in-line muzzle-loaders” because the projectile, propellant and primer are in a straight line behind one another, while older designs have the primer located on a nipple on top of the barrel and not in line with the other components.
The modern in-line system is much more efficient and dependable. Many modern in-line guns use a high-intensity shotgun primer to provide a super-hot flash to ignite the powder. Even in these modern guns the firing components (except the primer) are loaded from the muzzle.
Faster loading is achieved through practice and the use of loading tubes that contain the propellant and the projectile for each individual shot.
Modern propellants are high-energy and come in powder form or in pellets of a measured weight. The powdered form is available either in true black powder (gunpowder) or a substitute such as Pyrodex. The pellets come in 50-grain-volume equivalents and are usually used two or three at a time, depending on the purpose of the shot being taken and the amount of recoil to be dealt with.
These guns are available in a few calibres, with .45 and .50 being the most common. There is a great variety of bullets available to suit the shooter’s needs and budget: jacketed, all-copper or all-lead, coming in weights ranging from 250 to 350 or more grains.
Of course, premium bullets should be used for hunting. Saboted bullets are common and are usually very accurate in a quality, well-maintained gun. Sabots are plastic calibre-sized sleeves surrounding the bullet, which is smaller in diameter than the gun size. The sabot separates from the bullet, after leaving the muzzle, but starts the bullet accurately on its path.
If the shooter follows maintenance procedures, these guns are extremely accurate thanks to the consistency of the powder charge, primer flash and bullet design. Along with accuracy, these heavy, well-designed bullets are extremely effective at 200 or more yards.