How Do I Set Up My New Muzzleloader?

By Dennis Gayness


    With all the different powders, bullets and sabots on the market today, how do I set up my new or even older muzzleloader without spending a fortune?

    This is an honest question that the average hunter should be asking.  The modern inline muzzleloaders have the best of technology with fancy breech plugs, waterproof primer systems and highly advanced, accurate barrels.  With all these advances in the gun comes the latest and greatest with the muzzleloading accessories each year.  This leaves the average hunter with his head spinning.  Here is a simple approach to setting up a new muzzleloader or re-establishing your confidence in your existing muzzleloader.

   The number one question have to ask yourself is; which type of hunting do I do?  Do I have a greater opportunity for shooting long range shots 200, 250 or even greater distance shots; or are most of my shot opportunities close ranges 20 yards out to 100 or 150 yards? 

   Answering this question will help you determine a starting point for choosing your bullets and powder loads based on your needs and then you can make adjustments based on what your gun likes.

    If you are long range hunter who has opportunities for shooting across fields, cutovers and mountain ridges then you should consider a lighter bullet with higher powder charges for faster bullet speeds and straighter trajectories for more accurate shooting at long ranges.  But then people argue that at longer ranges I need more bullet weight for energy, yes, but at longer ranges shot placement is more important for harvesting your game.  Energy does not do you a bit of good if you cannot place the bullet in the right spot. 

    If you are a close range hunter you can choose a heavier bullet with lighter loads.  Once you have decided the type of hunting you mainly do with your muzzleloader you can start the process of buying bullets, sabots and powder to test in your muzzleloader.

    Sabotted bullets, non-sabots, Powerbelt, Hornady, FPB, Bloodline, and the list goes on, how do I choose? 

    Here is a starting point; use a micrometer to measure the diameter of your barrel.  When you buy your muzzleloader have your gun shop measure the bore diameter. 

   Why do this?  Every barrel is slightly different, even the same model guns from the same manufacturer.  This is why you have to find the bullet-powder combination that your gun likes.  There are slight variations, .001’s of an inch between bores, this results in some bullets fitting tight or fitting loose.  If you measure your bore you can eliminate some of the cost in trying bullets that are too tight or too loose. 

    When Hornady first brought the true .50 cal FPB bullets to the market the forums were flooded with comments about how bad they were because they were “too tight to fit in my barrel”.  Well yeah, your barrel was on the small bore side!

     If your .50 caliber bore is on the wide side say 0.498” or greater  you should consider larger diameter or heavier bullets that are .452 diameter with a thicker sabot or .458 with a moderate sabot up to the full size true non-sabotted .50 cal bullets.  If on the small side then choose a smaller diameter bullet and sabot. 

    This being said, you can mix and match based on the your type hunting, for example if long range is  your thing and you have a wide bore, choose a lighter bullet but a thicker sabot.  The trick here is that when you load your bullet you want a snug fit to where it is tight to start the bullet and then a steady even push to the breech.  The sabot or the bullet has to engage the rifling but there needs to be a minute amount of space for the bullet and sabot to expand when the powder is ignited. 

    When choosing a powder you should decide if you want to spend the time measuring your loose powder loads or simply use pellets.  The benefit of loose powder is being able to finely adjust your loads.  Pellets allow a much simpler and faster way to load.

    There are a few different powders and pellets on the market today, I am not advocating any particular brand or style, the one thing I would suggest is if you are hunting with a few other people consistently and all of you are muzzleloader hunting then get together and try to use the same powders, that way if something goes wrong in the field at least someone will have the same powder!  Plus if you test your guns together you can split the cost and try different things including bullets until you all find what is right for your gun. 

     I mentioned making fine adjustments to your powder, consider this question, how accurate do I need to be?  I have been researching this topic for several years now and the forums are full of people talking about shooting their guns at the range and being upset that they cannot get less than 1” groups at 100 yards. 

     When you shoot a deer at 100 yards in the shoulder does he care whether it is 1” high, low, left or right of center?  I don’t think so.  The average hunter needs only to be able to put the bullet consistently in a milk jug or pie plate at 100 yards.      

     You can spend a large sum of money and even greater amount of time with considerable frustration trying to find the right load that will shoot to that level of accuracy.  If you hunt with an open sight gun you may never get that accurate, I have an open site gun and I personally cannot shoot well enough even if the gun was set up to do so. 

    Set up and sight in your gun until you are confident and comfortable making shots that you are most likely to encounter while hunting.  Buy a life size deer target and after sighting in your gun, set up the target in a hunting situation and see if you can make the kill shot with three shots in a row.

   Now back to the set up.  Once you have chosen your bullet, sabot powder combination then choose a starting point.  Start either on the high 150 Grains or low side 90 grains of powder (this will depend on the manufacturer limits of your gun).  Higher powder loads have more recoil.  Choose your load and make three shots at the target, field cleaning after each shot.  Look for consistency.

    I use some type of rest or shooting bench for this to help reduce human error.  If you do not get a consistent group try a different.  Continue this until you get a consistent three shot group.  If you are shooting at 50 yards and you get a three to four inch group then you have a decent load.  Do not adjust your sights until you have a consistent load. 

    Find your load first then adjust your sights for that load.  This will save you time, frustration and money.  Adjust your sights for the type of shooting you will do.  Once the sighting in is completed; set up your hunting shot with a life size deer target and see if you can “make the shot”.  Confidence in your equipment helps ensure confidence in yourself.


   Muzzleloading can be fun by reconnecting the hunter with his equipment; do not let it overwhelm you.  Ask your local guns shop for help, just make sure you ask the right questions.  

   One other tip, always clean your muzzleloader after shooting.  For long term storage, I leave my breech plug, this ensure no possibility for corrosion and seizing of breech plug during storage.  We see this every year at the store.  Inevitably, we will have a large number of muzzleloaders brought to the store during October because the breech plugs are ceased up from not being properly cleaned and then stored all year! 

   Enjoy the season, try something new and most of all share the experience!