When it comes to muzzleloaders, I confess to having been a traditionalist. In many ways I still am because I do favor the firearms of the old days, the flintlocks and side-lock percussion guns, over the new bolt-action inline guns with scopes. In my mind there must be something of the pioneer spirit involved in a muzzleloader hunt.
This doesn't mean that I'm not a fan of convenience and safety, however. The gun I tried was a .50-caliber Connecticut Valley Arms (CVA) Optima, a muzzleloader that has a break-open breech like a double-barreled shotgun. When a lever under the trigger guard is pulled, the gun folds open, exposing the primer seat in the breech of the barrel. It's made to use a #209 shotgun primer.
Before the primer is seated, however, the gun must be loaded the old-fashioned way ... sort of. In place of pouring a measured amount of black powder or Pyrodex down the front of the barrel and ramming a patched round lead ball or conical down the tube, I slipped in two pellets of Hodgdon Triple 7. Each pellet contained 50 grains of propellant that, when ignited by the primer in the breech, sent a projectile out of the barrel at lethal speeds. In this case my projectile was a 245-grain Powerbelt Aerotip, a jacketed conical bullet with a polymer tip, like a Nosler Ballistic Tip in a modern firearm. The Powerbelt bullet sat on an integrated plastic seat that took the place of a sabot or patch between the bullet and the powder. All in all, it was a pretty modern setup.
The Optima is fired by closing the gun's breech after priming it and manually cocking the hammer as one would on a side-lock percussion gun. The hammer moves forward when the trigger is pulled and ignites the primer. A small spark from the primer travels in a straight line through a tiny hole and into the propellant on the other side of the breech plug. With almost no delay at all, the projectile flies out of the barrel and toward the target with amazing accuracy.
Using the combination of components I mentioned, my sight-in session the night before the hunt was brief. At 50 yards, with open sights, I had two holes nearly touching each other in the target just west of the bull's-eye. Like any muzzleloader, the Optima has to be cleaned every few shots or performance and accuracy are affected. I cleaned the gun before the hunt and found Triple 7 to be the cleanest-burning muzzleloader propellant I've tried to date. I was able to clean the Optima in less than half the time it took when I last cleaned Pyrodex out of my Traditions Deer Hunter caplock.
The picture testifies to the success of my deer hunt, which lasted all of 40 minutes. It was a windy day and I knew where the deer would be on the land I was hunting. My tag was for an antlerless whitetail only, and with the temperature falling fast, I was determined to take the first deer I had a decent shot at. As I stalked through the woods I saw movement about 100 yards ahead. A quick check with my Bushnell rangefinder confirmed two does were present. I slowly crept to within 40 yards, raised the Optima, cocked the hammer and waited for the correct presentation. Compensating for the slight left-shooting tendency of the gun, I aimed and fired. The Powerbelt flew with the precision of a guided missile ahead of a huge cloud of white smoke. The doe folded and fell dead where she stood. It was a righteous stalk with flawless firearm and bullet performance and a swift humane kill. Just the way it should be.
If you'd like to try an Optima, be warned, it is a bit heavier than a modern rifle, but most muzzleloaders are. Triple 7 is now my propellant of choice, and I can't say enough good things about Powerbelt bullets.
I'll still hunt with my old side-lock percussion gun for the nostalgia of the experience, but count on seeing me in the field again with my Optima for more optimal performances.
Click here to view CVA Optima Pro 209 Magnum Thumbhole Rifle
Click here to view Hodgdon Triple-7 Powder and Pellets