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Black powder and muzzleloading firearms are as American as apple pie. Since the colonial era, Americans have commonly shot and traded black powder muzzleloading firearms and this tradition continues today. While there have been a large array of muzzleloading and other black powder firearms used throughout American history, this post will focus primarily on “traditional” muzzleloader rifles. This pertains to single shot firearms that generally load a single, patched round ball from the muzzle and use black powder ignited by sparks generated by a flint or a percussion cap.
A Brief History of Muzzleloaders
The Kentucky Rifle, more acurately known as the American Long Rifle, remains one the most famous and widely used weapons of the 18thand 19th centuries. Popular alongside later half-stock percussion rifles (designed by the Hawken brothers), the Long Rifle was notably used by American riflemen during the American Revolution as well as during the War of 1812. A prominent weapon in the hands of Daniel Morgan’s and Andrew Jackson's riflemen, Kentucky Rifles were widely used by American settlers alongside smoothbore fowling pieces, muskets, and shotguns as the country expanded west. Different trends and regional styles developed in American gunmaking as time progressed, especially during the “Golden Age,” which lasted from the end of the American Revolution to the 1820s.
Due to the isolated nature of the frontier and its ever-present risk of violent confrontations with fellow settlers and Native Americans who competed for game and other resources in the area, firearms were essential for the country’s expansion. As Americans pushed further west, half-stock “Mountain” and “Plains” rifles became more popular, but full-stock Long Rifles were continually built and used as well. Regardless of the specifics of a rifle’s stock length and shape, or the particulars of their decoration, muzzleloading rifles continued to be mainstays within American society.
These firearms were not just hunting tools or weapons of war; shooting them was a pastime. Local communities held turkey shoots and other marksmanship contests as forms of entertainment and practice. Duels were frequently fought to settle political, personal, and romantic disputes using specialized dueling pistols, and pocket pistols like Henry Deringers were among some of the first concealed carry pistols designed for personal protection. Because of their portability, these pistols became increasingly popular for prospectors during the gold rushes of the mid-19th century. Cap and ball revolvers designed by Samuel Colt were also commonly used throughout this time as they could be fire repeatedly, offering more firepower than earlier designs.
With the advent of modern metallic cartridges and repeating rifles, many people suspected breech loading firearms would bring about a natural end to the use of muzzleloading firearms. While new technologies certainly made muzzleloading firearms less popular, there were literal tons of outdated muzzleloading rifle-muskets in surplus following the Civil War that were dumped into the market, remaining available at low costs for decades. Because of this, muzzleloaders were still actively used up to as recently as the 20thcentury, even as most large manufacturers switched to more modern designs. Hampered by an already over saturated market, muzzleloaders saw little advancement throughout the late 19th century. However, there were a few who continued to build and use traditional black powder firearms. Particularly in areas like Appalachia, building, hunting, and shooting muzzleloading firearms remains continuous to the present day.
Muzzleloaders: An American Tradition
With the centennial of the Civil War in the 1960s and the bicentennial of the American Revolution in the 1970s, muzzleloading firearms saw a resurgence in popularity for sport shooting, historical reenacting, and hunting. The hobby fluctuated in popularity over the following decades as trends in culture, new historical milestones, and new technologies emerged. Muzzleloaders have retained a sense of historical romance thanks to the famous early American figures, both real and fictional, associated with them. Names like Daniel Boone, Davey Crockett, and Hawkeye have contributed to these bursts of interest. Different eras of muzzleloaders have also led to different interconnected “camps” of muzzleloader shooters. Reading forums online or talking to people at gun shows, reenactments, and other events will quickly illuminate individuals and groups dedicated to specific fields within the hobby. Take the North South Skirmish Association for example; they are dedicated to competitive shooting of Civil War era firearms (both originals and reproductions) and even artillery. Another group, the Contemporary Longrifle Association, is specifically focused on preserving the art of building traditional American Long Rifles and other related items, preserving their heritage from the sweeping sands of time.
Thus, building these rifles by hand, remains a tradition that has been passed down by generations of American craftsmen for decades. Because of this tradition, and the community built around it, new hobbyists and collectors have access to expert opinions, advice, and hands-on instruction from some of the most renowned designers that have ever lived. These professionals can provide valuable insight into owning, collecting, and shooting muzzleloading firearms. Even during such a strange year, the muzzleloading community has been very active. In fact, some are reporting increased interest and sales, in part because of free time due to lockdowns and limitations on gatherings. With such gaping holes in modern society being exposed by the effects of the Coronavirus, people have experienced an awoken interest in survival and self-reliance, and muzzleloading rifles are certainly an excellent piece of equipment if interested in hunting and bushcraft.
Collecting Muzzleloader Firearms
For those interested in the sport or in collecting traditional black powder firearms, there are a variety of approaches available depending on some particular interests. Rock Island Auction Company Auctions and catalogs are a great way to get started as they provide an apt “feel” for the variety of both newly produced and antique firearms available in the market. The October 8th-10th Sporting & Collector Firearms Auction has an extensive selection of factory made and handcrafted 20thand 21st century black powder firearms. Including traditional flintlock and percussion rifles along with original antique rifles of various styles, this auction is not something to miss for neither the avid nor the unexperienced. One advantage of buying a handcrafted muzzleloading rifle or smoothbore long gun from this auction is that you don’t have to wait long to get it. Many of today’s traditional gunmakers have considerable wait times, or are not actively taking orders, but there are more than a dozen handcrafted contemporary muzzleloaders in this one auction alone. Online Auctions feature a variety of muzzleloading firearms, especially the more affordable “production guns” that are a great way to get into the sport. Premier Auctions are also great resources for original antique muzzleloaders spanning across centuries. From original early matchlock and wheellock firearms to flintlock muskets, rifles, and dueling pistols, these Premier Auctions usually include nice assortments of antique muzzleloaders by well-respected gunmakers.
Buying Your First Muzzleloader
Once you’ve purchased your first muzzleloader, you aren’t likely to stop there. Those of us who shoot black powder like to say that the smoke is addictive. I know I was hooked after my first shot.
Perhaps you’ll really enjoy hunting with a muzzleloader during your state’s special muzzleloading season and want or need specific firearms for other various game. Maybe you want a .50 caliber rifle for deer and something smaller for squirrels and rabbits. You’ll probably feel the need for a smoothbore fowling piece or a “smooth rifle” for turkeys. You can never go wrong with a nice pistol as a sidearm for practicing your dueling techniques. Who doesn’t love a nice brass barreled blunderbuss? Just the thing for home defense! If you get into historical reenacting, you might need a particular weapon for your persona and unit, such as a Brown Bess or Charleville musket for the American Revolution, or a Springfield Model 1861 or Pattern 1853 Enfield for the Civil War. Some collectors seek out rifles by particular craftsmen or from particular regions, while others only collect contemporary rifles that can actually be shot. Some prefer to only buy contemporary rifles based on originals, but others enjoy rifles with exceptional engravings, carvings, and inlays designed by modern craftsmen. Your collection can be whatever you want it to be!
How to Build Your Own Muzzleloader
If you pick up a nice muzzleloader from Rock Island Auction Company and enjoy shooting it, you should consider building one of your own, especially if you also enjoy doing wood and metal work. There are a variety of companies manufacturing kits and parts for rifles, fowling pieces, pistols, and muskets with varying price points and degrees of historical accuracy. Some kits already have most of the more difficult and time consuming work done by modern machinery and don’t need nearly as much metal and wood work. Although they still require hours of handwork and leave plenty of room for personal expression and experimentation, building your own muzzleloader can result in a very authentic and historically accurate firearm that can actually be used and shot.
With one or more “kit builds” under your belt, or if you are just particularly ambitious and confident, you can also do what is called a “plank build.” This essentially means you build a firearm from a blank plank of wood rather than something pre-carved. Some have even gone so far as to make and rifle their own barrels, build their own locks, and cast their own furniture. Even though most gunmakers in the past typically bought their parts, especially locks and barrels, this method can certainly add to the challenge and overall value of the firearm in the end. Most builders will start with some premade components, usually locks and barrels, while others will work together with other artisans for the engraving and other designs. The community aspect of a build can really make it something special. As I said before, one of the really interesting parts of muzzleloading is the community around it. No matter your project, you’ll always find others with experience and opinions that can help give guidance.
What Else Do I Need for My Muzzleloader?
Once you’ve got a muzzleloader, you’ll need black powder, round balls (or conical bullets of appropriate size depending on your firearm), flints or percussion caps, and patches (if you are shooting round balls, etc.). You are also going to need all the other accoutrements that go with a muzzleloader. Collecting and making these items can be a hobby in and of itself. Powder horns, in particular, can be pieces of art that are highly collectible. The originals can be worth hefty sums, and many modern “horners” produce beautiful examples. Other accessories you might want include are various loading and maintenance tools, shooting or “possibles” bags, traditional knives, a tomahawk or two, and maybe some attire to match the period of your firearm. If you pick up a muzzleloader from the upcoming Sporting & Collector Firearms Auction, you can make your own personalized accessories to go with it. Some projects like a loading block or a short starter can be easily done with minimal tools and materials at home and really add to the experience.
If you’ve read our blogs and watched our videos over the past few years, you’ve probably figured out that muzzleloaders are near and dear to my heart. These firearms, and the people who made and used them, are an important and tangible piece of our storied past. Contemporary American Long Rifles and other traditional muzzleloaders can be beautiful pieces of craftsmanship that are an absolute blast (yes, pun intended) to take out to the range. Loading and firing a muzzleloader uses technology that predates our country and allows for those wielding the firearm to step, for a moment, into the past. I hope this article has sparked your interest in muzzleloading firearms. Rock Island Auction Company has had the pleasure of working with a wide variety muzzleloading firearms from the colonial era to the present, and our Sporting and Collector Firearms Auction October 8th-10th has an excellent selection. So make sure to check it out because I can guarantee you that we will have some muzzleloaders that you won’t want to miss.
Hugh Lowther, the fifth Earl of Lonsdale, squandered a massive fortune through his generosity and out-sized reputation as a womanizer, horseman
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