50-Caliber Inline Muzzleloading Shoot-out: Buy The Savage
The stainless/laminate Savage 10MLBSS was the clear winner in this quartet of guns, shooting faster and more accurately than two Thompson Center offerings and one Knight ri?e.
Modern inline muzzleloading hunting has been one of the fastest-growing hunting and shooting sports of the last twenty years. It is easy to understand why; the current crop of high-performance 209 shotshell primer–fired inline muzzleloaders from reputable manufacturers offer big-game getting accuracy like never before, with improvements in ignition system, propellant, and projectiles completing the picture. It is easy to understand the appeal, for the better muzzleloaders may provide accuracy, shooting comfort, and low cost per shot as compared to many slug shotgun attempts. Here we compare four premium fifty-caliber hunting tools to see how they stack up in bang for the buck. The candidates are the Knight KP1 Magnum P1M-209-50/SN 50 Caliber, $640; the Savage 10ML-II Stainless Steel/Laminate Model 10MLBSS–II, $792; Thompson Encore Pro Hunter Stainless Steel/Black Composite No. 3976, $992; and the Thompson Triumph Carbon Steel "Weather Shield"/Camo No. 8512 50 caliber, $586.
Three of these rifles are hammer guns: designated "break-action" or variants; the Savage 10ML-II is distinguished by its being developed from the familiar Savage Arms short-action bolt-action rifle. Also, the Savage alone can use specifically designated moderate relative burn-rate smokeless powders such as Accurate Arms 5744, Hodgdon/IMR SR 4759, and Vihtavuori N110 as prescribed by Savage Arms. Neither Knight nor Thompson allow these propellants in their rifles. Knight inscribes "Black Powder Only" on the KP1, and Thompson marks its barrels "Black Powder or Pyrodex Only." Both the Knight KP1 and the Thompson Encore offer centerfire barrels for the frames, and are classed as "Form 4473" arms for this reason.
The Savage 10ML-II and the Thompson Triumph are dedicated muzzeloaders, and need no 4473, according to the BATFE. Neither Thompson nor Knight really mean what they say, of course. Blackpowder is seldom shot in today’s inlines. Modern synthetic compounds such as Triple Se7en, Blackhorn 209, and others are more commonly used, including pellets that aren’t "powder" at all, but solid cylinders.
We wanted to be as even-handed in our comparison as possible, so we elected to use Western Powders’ Blackhorn 209 blackpowder replica propellant along with both Barnes saboted bullets and Hornady’s new FPB bore-sized space-age version of the Minie Ball. So, that’s what we did.
Knight KP1 Magnum P1M-209-50/SN 50 Cal., $640
The recently introduced Knight Rifles KP1 is a modern version of the "Wurfflein breech loading Rifle" manufactured in the late 1800s by William Wurfflien out of Philadelphia with a patent date of June 24, 1884. It was, and is, an extremely clean-looking action with eye-catching lines. Knight’s KP1 weighed in at 8.25 pounds before the installation of a Burris Fullfield II 2-7x35mm ballistic reticle scope on Knight’s proprietary Talley integral bases and rings. It is a nice set-up if the scope you want to use fits. The Burris did, but just barely—with the hammer of the KP1 almost touching the eyeball of the scope, requiring the use of the Knight hammer spur (supplied) to cock the rifle. Fortunately, Knight has a Weaver style one-piece rail base that is far more accommodating for larger scopes, using the rings of your preference.
The two-piece camouflage-filmed plastic stock has metal sling eyes screwed in, and the 400 series stainless steel barrel is nicely "floated" off the forearm. The buttstock is finished off with a modest thickness and width Kick-Eez brand pad that was beautifully fitted. We appreciated the neutral balance of the rifle. The stock itself had no molded-in checkering, but did have enough slightly pebbled texture to keep it from being slippery.
The KP1 comes with a cheap ramrod that was close to worthless at the range, and it was complemented by a cheap-looking black-plastic ferrule that retains it. When the topic is muzzleloading, the ramrod is naturally used every single time you use your muzzleloader. It is an embarrassment that such clearly inadequate ramrods accompany otherwise solid rifles. For reasons unknown, the hammer is equipped with a "decocking safety," an odd little lever that resides as part of the hammer, and should be in the back "F" for fire position to use the gun. You cannot easily get to the little lever on a scoped KP1, anyway, and it serves no purpose that we could easily discern. As to the KP1 trigger itself, there is a lot of free travel before you get down to business, but that little quirk we found easy to adapt to. The trigger itself breaks at a clean 3.7 pounds. We found it far better than most other muzzleloader triggers, particularly when compared to the sloppy Spanish guns that have stunk up the inline muzzleloader market of late.
The KP1 comes with two breechplugs: one set-up for the cumbersome "Knight Red Full Plastic Jacket" that while once attempting to reduce some flaming/fouled scope finishes on older Knight models, really did nothing to help the KP1. It is a hassle that we don’t need. The second breechplug handily retains the 209 primer with a magnetic 209 holder; we liked that feature. We didn’t like all the extra void space in the breech area that was used for the plastic jacket plug, inclusive of a "jacket extractor" that doesn’t do its job.
At the range, we found the KP1 to be fun to shoot, offering moderate recoil and generally mild manners coupled with good handling. The tested KP1 performed erratically with the 350-grain Hornady FBP bullets, the combination of the Knight breechplug, Blackhorn 209, and conicals not being a good one for this rifle with erratic ignition. With Barnes TMZ 250 and Barnes TMZ 290 saboted bullets, it was a far better story. We had no problem keeping either bullet well within 2-inch groups. The 1:28 rate of twist Knight/Green Mountain barrel loaded smoothly and evenly with factory Barnes TMZ 250 bullets with a proprietary Barnes yellow sabot, and did as well with blue-saboted Knight-Barnes PBT 290 grain sabots.
Overall, we gave the KP1 a "B" for its good looks, balance, and impressive metalwork. We think it is a very good value, but we were also turned off a bit by the filthy breechplug attempts, the el cheapo ramrod and ferrules, and the odd "decocking safety." It is a solid gun for the money, and perhaps a better offering as a single-shot centerfire/rimfire combination where the breechplug confusion does not exist.
Savage 10MLBSS–II 50 caliber, $792
This is Savage’s laminated-stock stainless-steel version of its well-known "world’s first" factory smokeless or Pyrodex or blackpowder muzzleloader—in production for some seven years or so. The Savage weighed in at 8.8 pounds, about a half pound heavier than the other rifles, and also about a half pound heavier than Savage’s own synthetic stocked models. Though laminated stocks add weight, being formed by strips of wood glued with high pressure and heat—we appreciate that they are stronger than most hollow or semi-hollow plastic stocks, quieter, and more rigid.
On the 10ML-II, we loved the looks of the stock, the warmth of it, and the cut checkering. The Savage buttstock is finished off with just a hard rubber plate; no attempt at a recoil pad at all. We can’t say it needs it, particularly, as the felt recoil was similar to the Knight KP1 and T/C Pro-Hunter. With the "Savage 10ML" smokeless loads, felt recoil was actually the least of all rifles tested. No surprise, as propellant weight is a component of free recoil and the 10ML-II with its loads uses less than half the propellant by actual weight to net similar velocities. Nevertheless, as the Savage can burn Blackhorn 209 superbly as well as other muzzleloading propellants, we think that Savage would be serving their customers’ best interests by supplying a Kick-Eez or Limbsaver pad.
The Savage 10ML-II Accu-Trigger simply put the rest of the tested rifles to shame. From the factory, it broke at a crisp and clean 2.8 pounds, so we didn’t bother adjusting it.
The Savage uses a proprietary two-prong-ended tool to remove the breechplug. We consider this a glaring error by Savage, when a common hex-head on the breech plug would be so much handier. You shouldn’t have to hunt for a peculiar long tube and matching "wrench" just to take out the breechplug on a muzzleloader.
The patented Savage breechplug itself, however, is very clever. All flash holes open up with shooting; most muzzleloading hunters never notice. The 10ML-II has a replaceable flash hole dubbed a "vent-liner" that is designed to be replaced every box of primers (one hundred shots) giving you a new breechplug without having to buy the whole thing.
The familiar Savage rifle three-position safety is ambidextrous, and silent in the quiet hunting woods. We believe you can have your trophy in the dirt with the 10ML-II before you can pull back the hammer on hammer guns; much less wait for it to fall. The super-fast locktime, noticeable in the 10ML-II, makes it an easy rifle to shoot accurately.
As far as iron sights, the Savage, the Knight KP1, and the T/C Triumph all use essentially the same Williams Fire-Sights, which are adequate. The Thompson Pro-Hunter has what we feel is a quicker acquisition system with a wider rear ramp. In the ramrod department, the Savage ramrod was adequate, secured by a metal ferrule, clearly a step up from the Knight version, but not as good as the Pro-Hunter’s Power Rod. The Savage has an adequate field rod, particularly when used with the "Spinjag" as we used for all our testing.
The 10ML-II uses the same bases that all Savage round-receiver short-action Accu-Trigger rifles use. Weaver-type two-piece bases were installed by Savage on this rifle; we used Warne Maxima medium-height quick-release rings to mount a fresh Sightron SII Big Sky 3-12x42 scope on this rifle.
The Savage, using W209 primers and Blackhorn 209, cut several sub-MOA groups with the new 350-grain Hornady FPB bore-sized bullets—astoundingly good. We found it important to be careful aligning the bullet before seating it. Assuming no canting or cocking of the bullet, the Hornady FPB’s loaded smoothly and properly. The Savage alone gave great performance with the FPB’s. We attribute part of this to Savage’s 1:24 rate of twist and good barrel quality. However, the Barnes TMZ 250s also cut holes with the 10ML-II. When it comes to projectiles, regardless of hyperbole, it seems there is no substitute for geometry.
Savage is an innovative company, and we would like them to get with it with a hexhead on the breechplug, and pull a bit of weight from the stock by paneling out superfluous wood. Where the KP1 breech area filled full of gunk, the Savage 10ML-II was clean. After a hundred rounds, it was difficult to tell that the gun had ever been fired.
Thompson Encore Pro Hunter No. 3976, $992
The Thompson-Center Encore has established itself as a quality product over the years; it is presented as the flagship of the Thompson-Center muzzleloading line that was once a sidelock line. The tested Pro Hunter is the Encore with a facelift, as is the related heavily advertised Endeavor, which is substantially the same model with the addition of the hand-removable breechplug introduced on the T/C Triumph.
As supplied, the T/C Pro Hunter came at 7.9 pounds. We installed a Bushnell Elite 3200 3-9x40mm scope on a Thompson-supplied Weaver cross-slot rail, using Warne Maxima quick-release medium-height steel rings. It was a close fit; those looking to mount a larger profile scope might want to consider high rings for access to the hammer, particularly with gloved hands.
The trigger was instant, but heavy. Breaking at 5.5 pounds out of the box, it settled down to 4.4 pounds after several shooting sessions—easily the heaviest trigger of all tested muzzleloaders. We feel that for a thousand-dollar-MSRP rifle without scope, rings, or accessories, we should not have to look for trigger modifications from a gunsmith.
Older Encores have been plagued with Tupperware stocks, and the Pro Hunter addresses this with its "Flex-Tech" stock. With inserts of a softer durometer polymer on top of the comb area and on the grip, and the addition of a Limbsaver pad, it is an attractive and effective treatment. Touted as reducing "felt recoil by 43%" by Thompson (which is apparently the first company in the world to be able to calculate "felt" recoil), it is an improvement over the generally harsh-shooting factory Encores, yet nothing substantial we could feel when directly compared to the KP1 and Savage 10ML-II rifles.
The Pro Hunter gains the addition of some tasteful engraving accents, and a fluted barrel that is more cosmetic than functional. The Pro Hunter retains the old false muzzle idea that Thompson calls the "QLA" (Quick Load Accurizor). According to T/C, "The projectile is supported while the hunter or shooter is loading his rifle to assure the projectile is started exactly perpendicular with the rifling. The secret behind the QLA™ is only removing the rifling (.0005 of material) while maintaining the groove depth of the bore. Other ‘muzzle guiding systems’ only aid in starting your projectile; they do not work as a true false muzzle and cannot deliver the enhanced accuracy of the QLA™ design." Thompson needs to learn how to measure barrels; if the rifling is five ten thousandths deep, it wouldn’t work.
We found that the "QLA" steals usable barrel length, and if done in a manner perfectly concentric with the bore, has no effect on accuracy. If the counterbored QLA is not concentric, accuracy suffers. We have had examples where cutting off the QLA and recrowning the barrel solved frustrating accuracy issues. However, on this test rifle the QLA was properly done.
It didn’t help the accuracy with the 350-grain Hornady FBP bullets, this Pro Hunter just sprayed them. We did get very good accuracy with Barnes TMZ 250-grain sabots and Blackhorn 209 propellant, as well as 0.452-inch-diameter Hornady XTP bullets used with black three petal sabots procured direct from MMP, the premier sabot manufacturer in the world. With either sabot, we had no trouble keeping our shots within 2 MOA at 100 yards, with the occasional group shrinking to inch and a half or so. With trigger work, some fiddling with floating the barrel away from the forearm, and perhaps losing the QLA, we feel the accuracy could be improved. Nevertheless, the Encore Pro Hunter as supplied is more than adequate for most hunting applications, shooting almost as well as the Knight KP1 but lacking compared to the Savage 10ML-II out of the box.
Thompson uses an interrupted thread "Speed Breech" on the Pro Hunter that allows for removal of the breechplug with 90 degrees of rotation. The idea of hunters in the field competing to see who can remove their breechplugs the fastest is a strange one, indeed, but this breechplug can be removed with normal hand tools and keeps the action cleaner than the Knight attempt, to be sure.
The Pro Hunter, though bursting with marketing hyperbole and peculiar so-called benefits, does offer some valuable features. We found the iron sights on the Pro Hunter to be the easiest to use of the tested muzzleloaders, and the integral T-handle ramrod of the Pro Hunter is clearly the best factory ramrod. We liked the metal ramrod ferrules as well, and found the general stylistic treatment as pleasing to the eye. If money were no object, we would rate the Pro Hunter ahead of the Knight KP1, yet still find it lacking in performance compared to the Savage 10ML-II. Applying bang-for-the-dollar logic, the Encore falls behind the Knight KP1 in value.
Thompson Triumph No. 8512 50 caliber, $586
New for 2008, and the first truly new T/C muzzleloading offering in some time, the Triumph at first blush seemed promising. Weighing in at 7.3 pounds, it the lightest of the tested rifles. The Triumph’s trigger, in stark contrast to the Encore, was surprisingly good—breaking at 3.6 pounds. Lacking the initial free travel of the KP1 and the heaviness of the Encore, it finished second best to the Savage Accu-Trigger, and is perfectly acceptable as is.
The Triumph has the hand-removable "Speed Breech XT," which remained surprisingly clean during the shooting. The little nub of a hammer is well out of the way, making scope mounting a easy compared to most exposed-hammer guns. When we mounted a Burris Fullfield II 2-7x35mm ballistic reticle scope on the supplied T/C one-piece Weaver slotted rail, it was an eye-catching rifle. At the range, our opinions quickly changed.
The Triumph’s slippery, smooth stock was the most uncomfortable rifle of the four to shoot. The very small Sims pad included was not substantial enough to make the Triumph comfortable with high-performance loads. Though there are no clear muzzleloading barrel standards, we have found that T/C product’s tend to have smallish bores, in the area of .500 land to land, with Savage 10ML rifles around .501, and Knight product around .502. Even by "tight barreled Thompson" standards, this Triumph was tight. So tight, in fact, that a hydraulic press would be of benefit in loading this rifle. Our range rods were bending and begging for mercy trying to load the Hornady FPB bullets. Painful to load, the Triumph sprayed these bullets all over the place. At the same time, the harsh recoil made testing the Triumph more of a chore than fun.
The XTP and Barnes TMZ loads that did quite well in the T/C Pro Hunter were troublesome to load in the Triumph, and were hard to keep in the 3 MOA range. This Triumph was the least accurate rifle tested and the least pleasant to shoot, in our opinion.
The Triumph has a "toggle lock" action, one of the clumsiest actions we have seen in some time on a muzzleloader. It is counter-intuitive to open, we felt, and equally cumbersome to close the action. When you finally do close it, it makes a surprisingly loud snap that no one would want echoing through the woods from a tree stand. Though muzzleloading is based on the premise of "one shot and make it a good one," the ability for a follow-up shot is good to have. No such easy ability exists with the Triumph, in our estimation.
The Triumph, unlike the other rifles, has a carbon-steel barrel that is coated with silvery "Weather Shield." We view this as a cheap trick to pass off carbon-steel rifles as stainless, a nasty practice we have seen for years coming from Spain. Though Thompson has always used more suitable barrel materials than the CVA and Traditions pot-metal offerings, the corrosion resistance we seek is internal, not external, where any number of metal finishes (including bluing) are easily maintained.
Elsewhere, the molded stock on our Triumph was hollow and noisy. Despite the ultra clean "Speed Breech XT" and impressive trigger, the action was just so unhandy to operate we dubbed this the "World’s Clumsiest Muzzleloader.