Taking up the challenge of a blackpowder hunt can do far more than simply giving you additional time in the field each year. It also can provide a graduate-level course in all the hunting arts and link you to history, provided you choose a true primitive-style muzzleloader. This thinking may run counter to the market’s current tastes, which seem to tilt toward in-line rifles that resemble modern bolt-action rifles. These in-line products, in our view, provide no link to history. Their scopes make it unnecessary to get really close to the game, and thus remove much of the challenge of the primitive muzzleloader hunt. As a result, modern in-line rifles are now outlawed in some states’ blackpowder seasons because they don’t conform to the original concept of hunting with a “primitive weapon.”
Moreover, cost is another reason to go traditional. The hunter can buy a new primitive-looking weapon, install an aperture sight, and take to the woods with a thoroughly effective blackpowder rifle. Still, when you see these inexpensive muzzleloading rifles at gun shows and gun shops—with their plastic stocks, simple locks, and low price tags—you must wonder if they are worth the money.
We decided to find out, so we bought a plastic-stocked CVA (Connecticut Valley Arms, Inc.) Bobcat and tested it against a CVA Frontier, which has a maple stock and a slightly longer barrel, and a Thompson/Center Hawken, all in .50 caliber.
Muzzleloading rifles can be quite powerful, but we believe that deer-hunting power with round-ball muzzleloaders begins at .45 caliber, and we think the .50 is a much better minimum. Modern sabots permit the shooting of heavier bullets for a given caliber than when using balls, but there’s nothing feeble or ineffective about a .50 with round lead ball and a healthy charge of powder. The all-around load for our three .50’s consisted of 80 grains of FFg GOEX black behind a pre-lubricated patch of 0.015-inch thickness (CVA Slick Load Patches) and a Speer swaged lead ball of 0.495-inch diameter, having a weight of 183 grains. We used both CCI and the new, slightly hotter, Remington percussion caps, and came to prefer the Remington. This load gave a tight fit in all three rifles that was tolerable on the range, but we’d have liked a looser fit for optimum field use. Swaged lead balls are available in 0.495- and 0.490-inch diameter, and patches in a great variety of thicknesses, so finding an easy-loading charge in any of these guns should be easy, and fun to boot.
We describe below how the load performed in our test guns, and we examined other aspects of each products’ function as well. When the smoke cleared, we preferred the lightweight, low-maintenance CVA Bobcat, $126, over the comely, but heavy, T/C Hawken, $448. We also saw some advantages to the CVA Frontier, $100, if you can find it discounted new or slightly used at a store or gun show.
Our Recommendation: We came to like the $126 CVA Bobcat a lot. It is very light, very accurate with any good ball load, and has a carefree plastic stock.
This lightweight number was made in Spain, and was so marked on top of its nicely blued and well-crowned octagonal barrel. The barrel was 26 inches long and 15/16 inch across the flats. The Bobcat had an enlarged trigger guard with a single trigger, and a weight of only 5.4 pounds. The trigger guard allowed us to shoot it while wearing gloves. The barrel’s twist rate was 1 in 48 inches. The straight-hand black-plastic stock was held to the barrel with a single cross pin. There was no rib under the barrel, and that helped keep the weight down. The rear sight had a very odd buckhorn configuration that gave poor elevation reference for the front brass blade. Adjustments were made by drifting for windage, or by filing for elevation. The CVA Bobcat’s single trigger was satisfactory, but not outstanding, in our view. The CVA Bobcat shot extremely well. Our best round-ball group with the Bobcat was three shots into 1.5 inches at 100 yards, and all groups were under 4 inches. However, the saboted XTP Hornady bullet shot only 7-inch groups, indicating that either more testing is needed to get better groups or that the rifle’s twist rate works much better with round ball than with the heavier saboted .44-caliber pistol bullets.
The first shot out of the Bobcat told us that this rifle had a significant flaw. The surface of the black plastic stock where it contacts the face was very rough, like sandpaper. This had to be fixed, so we wrapped the stock with soft paper toweling to cushion the roughness.
The plastic-stocked Bobcat handled the same as the wood-stocked CVA. The balance point was right under the rear sight on both rifles. Both were equally lively, yet the Bobcat weighed a lot less. This was not without its price, however. It kicked like Billy-be-damned with anything approaching a hunting load. The fix was to sight it in with heavy hunting loads and use light loads for practice.
Early caplocks and flintlocks can be decorative, and many owners choose to display them. The plastic-stocked CVA muzzleloader just didn’t cut it for this purpose. However, there was some nice engraving on the Bobcat’s blued lockplate and hammer that added to its stark appearance. So what purpose does the unsightly plastic stock serve? That part of the stock closest to the nipple gets a great deal of powder charring. If this is not attended to, the wood will turn permanently black and eventually erode, and here the plastic stock helps. Plastic stocks can also be durable yet light, and are easy to maintain.
Long ago, mountain men realized that shiny, brass-mounted rifles advertised their location to hostile eyes. Instead, they preferred rifles that had iron mountings finished in dull brown, and dull-finished stocks that didn’t reflect sunlight. The dull-finished black-plastic stock of the CVA Bobcat was the darkest, dullest rifle in this test. In our view, this finish makes as much sense today as when these rifles were first built.
Our Recommendation: Because the CVA Bobcat was able to do anything the T/C Hawken could do (except look lovely), we can’t justify the T/C’s $448 price. The T/C is not four times better than the CVA Bobcat.
The .50-caliber T/C’s barrel was 28 inches long, and it measured 15/16 inch across the flats. It weighed 8.5 pounds, 3 pounds more than the CVA Bobcat. The T/C Hawken had a coil mainspring inside its lockplate instead of the leaf spring in the other locks. However, inside the lock of the T/C, two of the screws holding in the lock’s guts were loose and, because of that, the hammer didn’t always fall all the way down to strike the nipple. Tightening the screws fixed the problem. Our test T/C Hawken’s set trigger had a heavy pull initially, but we adjusted it to our liking. The barrel was held to the stock just like the CVAs. A hook breech engaged the rear tang, and a single cross pin secured it to the forend.
The T/C didn’t like our round-ball load. Where the other rifles cut one hole at 20 yards, the T/C couldn’t put three shots within 3 inches of each other. To our joy the T/C shot like a house afire with sabots. It grouped a saboted Hornady 240-grain jacketed XTP bullet, propelled by 70 grains of FFg GOEX, into consistent 4-inch groups at 100 yards. That’s all anyone needs for a close-range hunting rifle.
The Thompson/Center Hawken was an eye-catching rifle with its brass mounts and shiny stock of decent American walnut. There was a cheekpiece on one side of the black walnut buttstock and a brass patchbox on the other side, along with a brass cross pin, escutcheons, forend tip, boss for the lock screw, trigger guard, buttplate, ramrod tip, and even the two thimbles for the ramrod. Shined up, all the T/C’s brass fittings gleamed like gold mirrors. The glossy stock was nicely finished and offered a pleasant background for the brass fittings. The lockplate and hammer had cast-in engraving and case coloring. The barrel was nicely polished and blued and had a good crown. This all made the T/C Hawken look lovely hanging on the wall, which is perhaps one reason for its long-term success. None of it, however, helps the hunter keep a low profile in the field.
The heft of the T/C Hawken provided steadiness in the field, where it is almost always fired offhand. This helped soften the recoil of heavy loads, too, and with all this weight there is no reason not to use a heavy hunting load. Recoil of our standard ball load in the heavy Thompson/Center rifle was insignificant. We fired that rifle with a 100-grain charge, and again there was negligible recoil.
The rifle had a pleasant feel to it, and the sights gave one of the best and fastest-acquired sight pictures we’ve seen on any rifle. It had a fully adjustable rear sight with wide-angle V mated to a bead front.
Our Recommendation: Since this model is no longer a catalog item, they have to be found new or nearly new on the back shelves of retail stores or at gun shows. The effort may be worth it, however: Ours was only $100, and it was a lot of gun for the money.
The CVA Frontier we tested had a 28-inch barrel that measured 15/16 inch across the flats, an oil-finished stock of decent maple, clean and simple brass furniture, and the same 1:48-inch twist of the Bobcat. This rifle had appropriate engraving on the lockplate and hammer, both of which were nicely case-colored. It had a convenient screw-adjustable rear sight with a flat top and square notch that was mated nicely with a brass front blade. The CVA Frontier weighed 7 pounds. The CVA Frontier had a set trigger that required adjustment before it worked to our satisfaction.
The CVA Frontier felt just right with the test load, and we shot it with a load of 100 grains of FFFg and thought the resulting recoil was still tolerable. The Frontier gave us 12-inch 100-yard groups with round balls. This wasn’t good enough, in our opinion, so we tried cleaning the bore thoroughly. The resulting clean-barrel accuracy improved, but after half a dozen shots it went downhill again. Then we tried fire-lapping the bore and got easier loading and again improved accuracy over more shots, so it seems that more fire-lapping is in order. The CVA Frontier didn’t like sabots much, giving us 18-inch patterns for our efforts.
This rifle looked like it was made a century ago, and it got a lot of respect for its understated elegance. We would hang this one on the wall and never polish the brass.
Gun Tests Recommends
After we shot and thoroughly examined these .50-caliber muzzleloaders, we formed distinct opinions about their function, value, and pride of ownership. To wit:
CVA Bobcat, $126. This gun is light, so you can pack it all day, is accurate with any good ball load, and has a carefree stock and simple trigger mechanism. It’s not a showboat like the T/C Hawken, but it is a robust rifle that ought to give many years of service. Buy it.
T/C Hawken, $448. The T/C Hawken costs too much for what it delivers in terms of real-world application, unless you must have its cosmetics or ability to handle heavy loads. Otherwise, we think it’s overpriced.
CVA Frontier, $100. You will have to hunt to find this gun in retail outlets, but we believe the effort may be worth it. The Frontier shot well enough with our round-ball charge, and it looked plenty good enough to hang on the wall. Anyone wanting a good muzzleloader with a wood stock would do well to consider a discounted-new or even a good, used CVA Frontier.