Maine’s muzzleloader season, which begins Monday, offers unsuccessful deer hunters one last chance at securing some venison. While some folks, unexpectedly finding themselves with an unfilled tag, will be dashing off to the local sporting goods store in search of a new front-end loader and all the truck that goes with it, the slightly more prepared ones will be dusting their as yet unused smoke pole and rifling through drawers for the various and sundry components. If you find yourself in either category, there’s a few things you might want to know.

Unlike a conventional rifle, where the bullet, powder, primer and case are all one integrated unit, muzzleloader ammo consists of separate components. As the firearm’s name implies, powder, wad and bullet are loaded down the barrel through the muzzle – in that order. The primer is then manually attached to the nipple or breech plug, depending on whether you have a side-lock or in-line percussion system. There’s much to know about each component.

Let’s start with powder. In the old days hunters used black powder, which was susceptible to moisture and burned “dirty,” requiring a good deal of cleanup after each shot. Today we have a variety of synthetic propellents that are more moisture resistant and cleaner burning. You also have the option of loose powder or formed pellets, each having its pros and cons.

Formed pellets eliminate the need for measuring and careful pouring down the muzzle. Simply drop in two or three – depending on pellet size and your personal load preference – down the muzzle and follow up with a bullet (more on those in a bit).

Powder must be measured, which requires a powder measure and the ability to determine the proper amount. It’s best to do this in advance and store your powder loads in individual air-tight containers. Though it’s a bit more work, it allows shooters to fine-tune their loads. This can be fairly important as a difference of five or 10 grains can affect the accuracy of your gun.

Using loose powder also offers another advantage. It packs firmly inside the breech, leaving no air space between the powder and the bore. Pellets do not, and the empty space becomes increasingly filled with burned powder with each successive shot. Eventually a lip or fire ring of burned powder builds up just above the pellets and below the bullet, preventing the bullet from seating firmly on your pellets. The larger this space becomes, the less accurate the gun. If you do use pellets, this can be avoided by cleaning the barrel between each shot.

Now for the bullets. My first muzzleloader was a .56 caliber smoothbore with a side hammer ignition system. It shot a patched round ball that was accurate out to about 75 yards on a good day. We’ve come a long way since then.

Most folks now shoot muzzleloading rifles with in-line ignition systems and modern bullets. Initially, rifle hunters used larger diameter lead bullets that fit snugly in the bore and had to be lubed with bore butter. Now, most use smaller copper-jacketed bullets that sit inside a synthetic wad or sabot.

The sabot serves several purposes. First, it eliminates the need for a bore lubricant. Second, it seats more firmly into the rifling that makes the bullet spin, increasing accuracy. Third, it allows for a smaller, lighter bullet, which provides flatter trajectory over distance. If you take the time to tinker with proper bullet-load combinations, it’s possible to tweak your in-line muzzleloader into shooting accurately to 200 yards.

Last but not least is the primer. While older models used a cap that fit over a nipple, newer, in-line ignitions use what for all intents and purposes is the same primer used to make shotshells. You place it in the breech plug, close the breech and your gun is ready to fire. Because it’s self-contained, the primer is waterproof, and the action of most in-lines also close to create a moisture-proof seal. All the same, I’d take extra precautions to keep both ends of the barrel dry.

That’s all there is to it. Get all that done and you’re ready to go … to the range. Muzzleloaders can be very fickle. Practice with different load combinations, varying amounts of powder or pellets and different bullet types until you find one that your gun likes best. Then you can go afield.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and registered Maine guide who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:

[email protected]