In-lines & whitetails: a rifle that's as adaptable as the quarry.
For most hunters today, the place where deer rifles start and end is with in-line ignition rifles. This can be a traditional in-line, bolt action or even something like Cabela's Rolling Block rifle or Thompson/Center's Encore or Omega. The common theme is the firing mechanism is in line with and behind the powder charge.
It seems, at least for now, the controversy that once followed these guns has faded away. For a while, the loyal opposition argued ad nauseum about the "unfair advantages" of the in-line over the so-called "traditional" muzzleloaders.
They ignored that the in-line design has been around for years, as exemplified by Jean Samuel Pauley's in-line system of 1812. The Germans had an in-line flintlock design as early as 1738. So I failed to understand their argument that a sidelock is more "traditional."
Sure, the in-line has some advantages. Faster lock time is one. More positive ignition is another. Both contribute to reliability and accuracy. But if you are careful about the details, any muzzleloader is reliable, and the accuracy advantage over any other quality muzzleloader for the average shooter under hunting conditions is about nil.
Scopes are a little easier to mount on in-lines, but they can be mounted on any muzzleloader with only a little more trouble, and no scope in the world will make a rifle shoot any better; they only make it easier to aim.
In-lines are still primitive firearms that load from the muzzle, using the same blackpowder or equivalent and firing the same bullets that are used in other muzzleloaders. They are still slow to load, subject to the whims and fancy of the weather, and their bullet trajectories still drop like a stone when compared to modern centerfires.
Forget all the hype: There is no magic in an in-line that suddenly turns it into a flat shooting, tack driving, long-range hunting rifle. The parts important to shooting--the barrel, projectile, powder and loading system--remain and perform basically the same as any muzzleloader.
In-lines are popular because they look and feel like the guns we have used all our lives and because they perform well. The performance is due primarily to quality manufacturing processes and good triggers more than anything inherent to the design.
Most in-lines also use fast-twist barrels designed for sabot bullets, which add even more to their reputation for accuracy and performance, as sabot hunting bullets are tougher to screw up when loading the rifle. Coupled with the increased ignition performance, you can start to understand why so many hunters choose in-line guns.
The travel of the bolt in most in-line guns is relatively short and quick when compared to the long hammer fall of a sidelock gun. Consequently, the lock time (the time between when the trigger is pulled and the gun fires) of an in-line is faster than with sidelocks.
In-lines have another advantage in that the fire from the ignition system has a straight line of travel to reach the back of the powder column. This is not only slightly faster but uses less of the ignition's power to reach the powder column and so has a hotter flame remaining to light the powder. With a sidelock ignition, the fire comes in to the side of the powder column and, in many designs, only after making a turn or two through the ignition channel, which consumes energy.
The in line's straight shot to the powder, which results in more positive ignition and a cleaner burn. When using Pyrodex, which has a much higher ignition temperature than blackpowder, it can prevent those annoying hang-fires (when you can clearly hear the cap go off before the gun fires) so common to sidelocks. Plus, this rear ignition is necessary to shoot most propellant pellets.
One problem with some in-lines is that with the tight tolerances between the holt and receiver--combined with a relatively weak hammer strike--any retarding of bolt movement can result in misfires. In-lines with open-receiver designs can fall prey to snow, ice, dirt, debris or powder fouling buildup in the receiver. Knowledgeable in-line hunters keep their guns cleaned and properly lubricated, and in the field they're careful to keep the action free from debris.
The bottom line is that there is a clear choice for whitetail hunting: When it comes to white smoke and whitetails, the in line muzzleloader is hard to beat.