June 2006

.50-Caliber Muzzleloaders: The T/C Hawken Beats Lyman’s GP

The traditional lines on the Lyman Great Plains may woo some shooters, but Thompson Centerís Hawken had the edge in quality and versatility, and it came with a lifetime warranty.

traditional style hunting rifles

The two leading traditional-style rifles are the Thompson Center Hawken, $550, left, and the Lyman Great Plains, $435, right. The Hawken measures only 46 inches overall, a boon for the treestand hunter. At 50 inches OAL, the Great Plains Rifle is longer than the Hawken, but this does not affect how it handles or feels at your shoulder.

Nearly every state in the union has a special blackpowder hunting season. Such seasons, some of which are exclusive bp-only hunting periods, entice a lot of hunters to try their hand at muzzle loading. Some states specify that the rifles used must be side locks and shoot round balls. Other states allow in-line rifles that shoot sabots and often come with scopes. Each hunter has to decide for himself how he wants to limit himself. A round-ball shooter is limited to 100-yard shots, but a sabot shooter can reach out to 200 or even 250 yards. Also, a round-ball shooter, also known as a traditional-style shooter, carries a rifle similar to those our forefathers carried more than two centuries ago. Carrying a rifle like that lets the modern-day hunter relive history, and actually taking game with such a rifle is a real test of his hunting skills.

The two leading traditional-style rifles being sold today are the Lyman Great Plains, $435, and the Thompson Center Hawken, $550. Designed after rifles of the late 1800s, these .50-caliber rifles are well made, accurate, and would both perform well in the woods on a deer hunt or a fun day at the range. But we wondered if one model would be a better buy than the other, so we put them through a head-to-head evaluation at a private range outside of Lampasas, Texas.

How We Tested

Goex was our first choice because it is the “go-to” blackpowder propellant for experienced muzzleloader shooters. Swiss was used for its high velocities. Triple 7 is the leading blackpowder substitute, and the rest of the powders included Schuetzen, Pyrodex, Pioneer, and Pioneer Gold.

Since we had seven different powders to try, we decided to shoot a target load of 65 grains of FF powder. We took great care to make sure the barrels were treated alike between loadings and between the different powders so that the test could be as equal as possible. We had a few observations about the different powders. Even though this was a light load, Swiss powder pushed the round ball at velocities approaching 1700 fps. Considering the rifle can be loaded with charges larger than 125 grains, you can imagine the velocities you can obtain. The fairly new Pioneer Gold powder consistently produced lower velocities, but its claim to fame is that it is the cleanest-burning blackpowder substitute on the market. After four shots, the first patch down the barrel had very little residue. We did notice a little hesitation from the time the cap went off till the time the powder ignited with this particular powder. This was not a real problem, just an observation. So it is velocity or residue, you pick. Of course the old stand by Goex did well as usual.

In front of these powders we stuffed in Hornady .490 balls with pre-lubed patches, and we ignited the loads with factory nipples on both rifles and CCI caps. We shot both guns off a benchrest at a bull’s-eye target 75 yards downrange, chronographing the loads with a Chrony Master/Beta chronograph set 10 feet from the muzzle. Between each shot we ran a dry patch down the barrel. After each powder test, we removed the barrel from the stock, washed it with water, and then cleaned it with Traditions EZ clean. We then dried the barrel with clean patches and swabbed it with T/C Bore Butter.

Soapy water is still the best thing to clean a muzzleloader, followed by a light coat of oil or Bore Butter. We prefer Bore Butter by T/C since it is not a petroleum-based product. Oil and petroleum-based products react negatively with blackpowder, and even more so with black powder substitutes. So if you use oil make sure you get it all out of the barrel before you load.

We had consistent weather over our three-day test period, and here’s what we found:

Thompson/Center Hawken .50 Cal. Percussion, $550

The T/C Hawken first appeared in dealers showrooms in 1970. Since then the factory has produced more than 500,000 Hawkens, and over that span, the company has made few changes to the gun. The Hawkens come in both flint and percussion in either .45 or .50 caliber. The lock is a coil spring, which is more reliable and faster than leaf springs.

The rifle is on the short side for a traditional muzzleloader, measuring 46 inches overall, with a 28-inch barrel. This shorter OAL is good for the hunter, especially the treestand hunter, who often has to handle the gun in close quarters. The 13.5-inch length of pull fit us fine. Even with heavy winter clothing on, we believe most hunters can easily shoulder the Hawken. For offhand shots, we thought the gun felt well balanced, with its tipping point 22.5 inches from the muzzle, or just in front of the trigger guard. As far as sights go, we would have preferred the option of a buckhorn rear sight, but the modern adjustable sight worked fine. The trigger, which broke at 1 pound (set), was great, showing no creep, hesitation, or backlash.

Elsewhere on the gun, we didn’t like the brass trim, which is shiny in the field and needs attention to stay looking sharp. Our testers thought the blued steel parts and case-hardened lock were adequately finished, but the finish on the nicely-grained American walnut stock was too thin, and it showed scratches easily.

The gun comes with a brass patch box that was used to carry patches, caps, nipples and others small items. Today most people do not even use it, but it looks great. The rifle carries a threaded wooden ramrod that accepts 10x32 accessories.

The 28-inch barrel with a 1-in-48 inch twist is a compromise. It is too fast for a good round-ball barrel and a little slow for a conical-bullet barrel. However, it does shoot each pretty well. Our tests showed the Lyman outshot the Hawken, but not by a significant amount. So the barrel twist can prove to be a benefit by allowing the shooter to choose what they want to shoot out of the same barrel. The short length of the barrel, combined with the faster twist, did slow the velocities slightly.

As we noted before, the obvious modern sights look out of place on the gun. The manufacturer has gone to great lengths to make it look like a rifle from the 1800s, and they stick adjustable sights on it, with not even traditional sights as an option. In our view, that’s a cosmetic mistake that will turn off some traditional hunters. On the positive side, the Hawken’s hooked-breech design means that the shooter must push out only one barrel key to allow the barrel to unhook from the breech, making it very easy to clean. Also, though we used round balls for this test, this rifle can shoot conical bullets and the T/C Maxi-ball well.

When doing an evaluation of muzzleloaders, we feel the warranty deserves special scrutiny. Thompson Center has one of the best warranties in the industry. We did not experience any problem with this rifle, but we have dealt with T/C warranty department in the past and it was always a no-hassle experience with prompt service.

Lyman Great Plains Rifle .50 Cal. Percussion, $435

In 1979 Lyman came out with its muzzleloading line, including the Great Plains Rifle. This rifle is still being made by Investarms of Italy and imported by Lyman. Lyman could not tell us exactly how many have been sold since 1979, but they did say it was in the thousands.

Lyman, which is better known for reloading equipment, sells three other models of muzzleloaders: Deerstalker, Trade Rifle and Great Plains Hunter. The Hunter is the same as the Great Plains Rifle except it comes with a barrel with a 1-in-32 inch twist, made for sabots. The Great Plains Rifle comes in percussion and flint mechanisms in .50 and .54 calibers.

At 50 inches OAL, the Great Plains Rifle is longer than the Hawken, but this does not affect how it handles or feels at your shoulder. The 1-in-60-inch barrel twist stabilized a round ball very well, we thought. The 13-inch length of pull is standard and will fit most people. The set trigger was broke at about 2 pounds from the factory, which felt fine to us and helped us keep groups tight.

The wood is European walnut with a very dark stain and an oil type finish. The parts are dark blued, with the lock being case-hardened. The lock spring is also a coil spring. When our rifle arrived the stock was broken at the very tip of the toe. Also, the spring in the rear sight had been compressed so long it was useless. We called Lyman and reported the problems, but they refused to replace them, saying the break was due to shipping and suggested we stretch the spring. We explained there was no damage to the box indicating the crack occurred during shipping but still received the same answer. A little wood glue and dark walnut stain, it was good as new. The spring was replaced with one we had on hand.

The wood-to-metal fit was good enough, but it could have been better. The rest of the rifle was well made and finished. It also has a coil spring in the lock. It came with adjustable sights, but when we sighted it in, the sights would not adjust high enough to get on target, which we later found out is a common problem. We replaced the rear sight with the buckhorn sight which came with the rifle. We liked the traditional look the buckhorn gave the rifle anyway. It still shot way low. So after filing on the front sight, it was on paper and zeroed at 75 yards.

The barrel is kept in the stock by two barrel keys. The rear key is slightly longer, so you have to pay a little attention. They should go into the stock from the right. On this particular rifle they did not fit well, and after a few shots, needed to be hammered back into the stock. Not only being annoying, this problem can lead to poor accuracy.

Elsewhere, the barrel will not fall out as long as the ramrod is in place. The ramrod is wood and is threaded on one end to accept 10X32 accessories. The nipple is 6X75mm.

Both rifles come with adjustable double-set triggers. This means you pull the rear trigger and it sets the front trigger. You can skip this feature by just pulling the front trigger, but the trigger pull will be a lot harder. For the T/C it was 6.9 pounds unset and 1 pound set; the Lyman unset was in excess of 12 pounds unset and 2.1 pounds set. (Our digital scale only went to 12 pounds.)

A blackpowder shooter wants a rifle that is balanced. The point of balance on each of these two rifles is almost exactly in the middle of each rifle. This helps eliminate the barrel heaviness that you find on some blackpowder rifles.

The accuracy figures were for the best three out of four shots. This allowed for one flyer or shooters error. We were happy with the performance of the two rifles. Each one performed well enough to be carried on a deer hunt next season. The Lyman was a little more accurate, but definitely not a run away.

Gun Test Recommends

• Lyman Great Plains Rifle Percussion, $435. Buy It. This is an attractive rifle that will appeal to traditional-style shooters who shoot round balls. With a 1-in-60-inch barrel twist, it will shoot round balls very well. The wood-to-metal fit is adequate, and it is well finished. Also, it will save you a little money over the T/C.

• Thompson/Center Hawken .50 Cal. Percussion, $550. Our Pick. A well-made rifle with very good wood-to-metal fit. The blueing is deep and the metal well polished. While the barrel twist is in the middle of the road at 1-48 inch, this feature offers the round ball and bullet shooter the versatility of using one rifle, one barrel. All of this, combined with one of the best factory warranties in the industry, impressed us.

Accuracy & Chronograph Data

Thompson/Center Hawken .50 Cal. Percussion, $550

Lyman Great Plains Rifle .50 Cal. Percussion, $435