With Texas’ black powder hunting season opening soon, I think a few bits of advice to novice shooter of muzzleloading rifles would be in order.


Many hunters take up black powder to enjoy some extra time afield, but these arms are different, and the rules of operation are often misunderstood.


Rule 1 – The owner’s manual was written by lawyers, not shooters.

The company engineers advised the lawyers regarding the operating pressures and mechanism of the gun, but the numbers in the book are designed to protect THEM and not you.


Rule 2 – Every rifle is a rule unto itself, and the only way to get the most from YOUR gun is to learn to load it correctly.

Since I started shooting black powder long before the introduction of modern rifles with in-line ignition, 209 primers, and plastic stocks, I have a Traditions .50 caliber sidehammer half-stock plains rifle. This is a pretty good rifle. Plenty accurate for my needs.

Traditions Hawken Woodsman

One day I was enjoying a bit of fall target practice when I started learning a lot of new carnal verbs from a few benches down. I looked over to see a visibly upset young man with a pile of packing material at his feet loading his obviously brand new rifle, and cursing a blue streak. Being a curious sort, I wandered down to see what all the fuss was about.


When I inquired about his frustration, he told me “I can’t hit the target with this $#$%%$!! thing.”

He was at the 50 yard target, and I know he’d fired several rounds, but nothing was on the paper, so I asked him what load he was using.

“120 grains of powder and this TC Maxi,” came the answer.

I looked at the bullet he was showing me and suggested he back the powder charge off to 80 grains.

“But the book says 120!” he insisted.

I asked him to please humor me and try an 80 grain charge.


The 80 grain charge was tried and he was on the paper. I told him to start his sighting in process over beginning with 70 grains of powder and work up in 10 grain increments to 120 grains. Shoot 3 shots are each increment and to wipe out his bore with a wet patch between every three shots. I also wrote down the names of my favorite books on black powder shooting that I have listed below.


So what was the problem?

He was trying to drive his bullet too fast.


Black powder is not very efficient, so the way to increase power was to burn more powder or increase the size of the projectile. You have two options for increasing the size of the bullet.

  1. Increase the diameter (caliber).
  2. Increate the length.


Rule 3 – Bullets are stabilized by gyroscopic motion, and the force of the spin is a combination of forward velocity combined with the twist of the rifling.


A longer bullet requires a faster twist of rifling than a short bullet.

Spherical round balls work best with slow twist rifling.


Failure to spin the bullet at the appropriate rate means the bullet will not fly straight, and accuracy will be affected. In a cartridge weapon the shooter has very little influence over the rate his projectile rotates unless the ammunition is handloaded. In muzzleloading EVERY round is handloaded, so the shooter must pay attention.


Most firearms have a range of bullet shapes and velocities that will deliver good accuracy, and muzzleloaders are the same. The trick is finding the sweet spot.


When you first start out sighting in a muzzleloader use the manufacturer recommended projectile and the lowest manufacturer recommended powder charge. Shoot a string to get a group. The goal is to get the bullets hitting as close together as possible. We are not worried about getting the group on the bullseye until we have identified the charge and bullet combination that gives us smallest group.

Make sure to swab the bore with a wet patch after every three shots followed by a couple of dry patches. Increase the powder charge by 10 grains between each string until you get to the maximum manufacturer recommended charge.


Somewhere in the middle you should see a load where the group rapidly shrinks in size. That load will be your best load combination.  Now you can start adjusting the sights to get the group on the bull.


Please consider reading the following books. They have been a huge help in my muzzleloading education.

Lyman Black Powder Loading Manual


The Complete Black Powder Handbook


The Muzzleloading Caplock Rifle