There are many ignitions systems out there for sale these days, some dating back several hundred years. Usually the more modern the ignition system, the faster it will ignite the charge of black powder and the more reliable it will be in the field. However, all black powder guns can experience “hang fires.” This is when the propellant charge does not explode right away; instead, it burns a little and then explodes.
Some of the first muzzleloaders were matchlocks. Basically, a long smoldering cigarette was held in place by a clamp, and when you pulled the trigger, the burning end was pushed into the pan of loose powder, the powder would ignite, and the fire would go through a small hole in the barrel, setting off the main propellant charge of powder. As you might guess, these were not very good in damp weather.
The next step up the ladder was the wheel lock. Picture the striker on your lighter. This lock was wound up, and when the trigger was pulled, it spun against pyrite and sent a shower of sparks into the pan of loose powder. Again, not too good in damp weather, and the pyrites had to be changed every few shots.
While both of these ignition systems are available today from specialty gun makers, you most likely won’t find one in your local sporting goods store. They should be considered curiosities at best by the beginning muzzleloader.
The next big improvement was the flintlock. While the flintlock uses a pan of powder for ignition, it covers that pan with a piece of steel (the frizzen). The hammer holds a piece of flint in its jaws. When the trigger is pulled, the flint strikes the frizzen, flipping it forward off of the pan, while at the same time creating a shower of sparks that ignites the powder.
Flintlocks are still popular today since you don’t need anything to shoot them other than powder, a bullet, and a rock that will spark on steel. I know someone who makes his own black powder and bullets, and he claims his gun will keep shooting as long as the earth is made of rock. (Many rocks can be used to create the spark.)
Flintlocks are still a little problematic in wet weather, but if you take reasonable care of them while in the field, they should serve you well. The Kentucky Rifle is a prime example of a flintlock.
The caplock showed up in the early nineteenth century using a standard #11 cap to ignite the powder. The cap was placed on a hollow nipple, and when it was set off, the fire ran directly into the propellant charge. Most modern caplocks still use this ignition system. This closed system is much more water resistant, therefore much more reliable. The Hawken rifles carried by the mountain men were mostly caplocks.
Just before the Civil War, the musket cap was invented. This cap is larger and has a hotter spark for more reliable ignition. Most military arms of that era were fitted with nipples that require musket caps. The military wanted the most reliable ignition available. Even today you can replace your #11 nipple with one that takes musket caps.
In the mid 1980s they came out with inline muzzleloaders. These guns place the nipple directly behind the charge instead of to the side like all the other types. Today we have four basic types of inline guns. The earliest still used the #11 cap placed on an inline nipple, while most of the newest ones use a #209 shotgun primer for almost (yes I said almost) foolproof ignition.
The simplest is the break action. Picture a single shot shotgun, but when you break it open, instead of the chamber for your shotgun shell, there is a breach plug with a nipple. Just place you cap on it, close the action and you are good to go (after you have loaded it, of course).
The plunger type looks almost like a modern rifle. You pull back the bolt, exposing the nipple to place the cap. When you pull the trigger, a plunger comes forward and strikes the cap. These are the low-end models that you will see in a big-box store. (Although when I say low end, that is regarding price only, since most of them shoot very well.
A couple manufacturers make bolt-action muzzleloaders. These look just like any other big game rifle. The bolt is opened, the cap is placed, and the bolt is closed; it is then ready to fire.
The pivot action is the newest thing on the market. They are a simple design that is easier to clean (very important) and, as a result, have become very popular.
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