Many states began offering special muzzleloading-only “primitive” hunting seasons in the 1960s and 70s. Hunters participating in muzzleloading season faced additional challenges including only having one shot, keeping their percussion caps and powder dry in wet weather, using “open” iron sights no matter the range to target, and reduced stopping power and range compared to modern centerfire rifles. Shooting cast lead round balls with a side hammer, percussion cap Civil-War-type rifle, these hunters had to get close and choose their shots carefully. The time taken meticulously loading their rifles was exceeded greatly by the time taken cleaning them after even a single shot, as the gunpowder used was so highly corrosive it seemed the barrels would start rusting before they even arrived home from the hunt.
Fast forward to the present day: muzzleloading season now sees hunters in the field with scoped bolt action rifles made from stainless steel and coated in hyper realistic designer camouflage. Loaded inside are compressed pellet powder charges and ballistic tipped hollowpoint bullets riding in plastic sabots. They’re no longer shooting true black powder but substitutes like Pyrodex, Triple Se7en, or American Pioneer. They have enough stopping power to take large or dangerous game like elk, moose, and bear, and those optics aren’t for laughs; 150 yard shots are no longer “tall tales.” What the heck happened? Technology happened.
Knight Firearms began the innovation when they pioneered an “inline” ignition design, which moved the #11 percussion cap from the side of the gun to the breech end of the barrel for more consistent ignition. Soon stainless steel “all weather” models with plastic stocks followed. Old school iron sights were replaced with fiber optic, high visibility adjustable sights, and rails to mount scopes. As powder charges got bigger and substitute powders became popular, the percussion cap was replaced with a 209 shotshell primer to help touch off the bigger loads. With robust ignition in place, the need to measure loose powder was then eliminated by the creation of pellet charges made of compressed powder. The pellets burn consistently every time, providing better accuracy. Although the powder and bullet still must be loaded from the front, the 209 primer can be held in place from the rear via a break-open action, as Thompson Center prefers, or via a small bolt-action. Eventually the 209 primer itself became specialized; now there are special muzzleloader-only 209s available which are not intended for use in shotshells at all! Finally, bullet technology moved from the 19th century to the 21st century. A wide variety of hollowpoint, ballistic tip, and saboted bullets were designed using state of the art technology to improve terminal ballistics. Now the muzzleloaders give up nothing to their centerfire brothers in terms of stopping power.
The Savage 10ML-II represents the current pinnacle of muzzleloader technology. It is the first mass-produced modern muzzleloader designed to use smokeless powder, making cleanup super easy and protecting its scope from the ravages of black powder’s corrosive smoke. Using smokeless powder doesn’t give the 10ML-II any advantages in range or stopping power because chamber pressure and velocity are roughly the same no matter which powder you are loading. It does offer an accuracy advantage, and smokeless powder is safer to store and handle than black powder. But don’t get them confused! It takes much less smokeless powder to reach the correct loading than black powder. Black powder is measured by volume and is pretty forgiving of measurement errors, but smokeless powder is measured by its weight and isn’t forgiving at all. Pouring a black powder volume of smokeless into the Savage will blow up the gun and likely send the shooter straight to the hospital.
The emergence and subsequent popularity of modern inline muzzleloaders has created a rift in the hunting community. Many old school black powder shooters with wooden-stocked replicas feel like the modern inline shooters are “cheating,” violating the spirit of the primitive hunting season and ignoring the history and tradition of the true muzzleloader. The inline hunters believe that their increased accuracy and power means they are taking game more humanely, increasing the popularity of the sport, and they think the old school guys need to get over themselves. At the end of the day, there are more than enough deer in the woods for both sides!