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Battle Of The In-lines New muzzleloaders face off at the range

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Though it might seem contradictory to use the adjective "innovative" when referring to muzzleloaders--after all, this is a technology that's supposed to be outdated--the 2003 crop of in-lines has broken some new ground.

In order to engineer in-line muzzleloaders that keep their caps sealed from the weather, manufacturers have turned to bolt actions, break-open single-shots and modified falling blocks. Another benefit of all but the bolt-action in-lines is that they're very easy to cap. The one bolt-action in this test, the DISC Extreme from Knight Rifles, uses a disc system to simplify the process.

Blowback is another problem facing in-lines. Because muzzleloader breeches need a fairly large hole to send the flame to the powder, when a muzzleloader is fired, gas and residue come back through the bolt face. Each of the in-lines in this test was designed to minimize this problem.

THE TESTING

We took four rifles to the range for a field test. All of them were .50-caliber and were fitted with nipples or breech plugs that use 209 shotgun primers. They were all scoped similarly.

The barrel length of each firearm was determined by inserting a ramrod from the muzzle to the breech, measuring the distance and then subtracting the length of the powder column and bullet (about 2 inches). A few varied slightly from manufacturers' numbers.

Five bullet styles ranging in weight from 240 to 350 grains were used in this test [see chart]. A charge of 100 grains (two 50-grain pellets) of Hodgdon's Triple Seven was used for all bullet weights.

Five-shot groups with each bullet were fired at 100 yards through an Oehler 35P chronograph. Shooting was done from a solid bench on competition front and rear rests. Accuracy and velocity are shown on the accompanying chart.

To evaluate accumulated blowback, each firearm was thoroughly cleaned prior to shooting. The barrels were swabbed between groups to see how much fouling built up in the action. A sheet of white paper was taped to the underside of the scopes to collect debris sent in that direction. In the chart on these pages the amount of internal (bolt, breechblock face or firing pin) and external (outside of the breech and on the scope) fouling is rated in three categories: Light, Moderate and Heavy. A Light rating was detectable, but only in negligible amounts. A Moderate rating had visible fouling but not enough to need cleaning after 25 rounds. A Heavy rating was a large buildup that could adversely affect the firing mechanism within 25 shots.

HOW THEY FARED

CONNECTICUT VALLEY ARMS

Mechanically, the Optima Pro 209 Break-Action is comparable to H&R's single-shots, but on the outside it wears a composite stock with a pistol grip like the T/C Contender. The deep grip is necessary with the Contender frame (it's a modified handgun), but there appears to be no reason for the grip on the Optima Pro.

The grip is a bit too large; as a result, I had a hard time getting even my large mitts around it. But once it was on my shoulder, I found that the Optima Pro shoulders and points reasonably well. After shooting, I liked that a simple pull on a lever pops the action open, exposing the nipple.

Externally, there was only moderate fouling, but internally there was substantial crud buildup around and inside the firing-pin hole. This is a problem because there's no way to clean the firing-pin hole. The rest of the gun's takedown procedure is simple. Remove the fore-end and the barrel simply drops out.

The rifle's heavy trigger made accuracy difficult. Most groups averaged between 3 and 5 inches at 100 yards. The Optima Pro did show a liking for 350-grain Power Belts, holding them to 2 1/2 inches. ($259.95-$319.95; 770-449-4687; www.cva.com)

KNIGHT RIFLES

The DISC Extreme uses a redesigned disc to hold the 209 shotgun primer. The disc is preloaded and dropped into an opening forward of the bolt. Closing the bolt pushes the disc forward where its stepped-shoulder design seals snugly into a recess in the breechplug. It takes a lot of thumb pressure to load the discs, but with the bolt closed, there is only a small opening for blowback to escape through. Internally, there was moderate buildup on the bolt face, but complete takedown for cleaning is simple.

The Disc Extreme had the shortest barrel tested; as a result, it registered lower velocities than other guns in this test. But it more than made up for its speed handicap with accuracy. It clearly preferred saboted bullets, turning in groups under 1 inch with 240- and 325-grain bullets. The Knight shoulders fast, feels good and points well. ($479.95-$999.95; 641-856-2626; www.knightrifles.com)

OUTDOOR LIFE EDITOR'S CHOICE 2003

THOMPSON/CENTER ARMS

The Omega has a pivoting breech design that separates its breech block from its trigger mechanism. Pressure on the guard drops the components down, revealing ample nipple access. Its receiver-to-stock lockup is via dual recoil lugs matched to cutouts in the stock. The stock is of classic proportions and does a good job of minimizing felt recoil.

After 25 rounds, the Omega showed negligible fouling inside and out. Slight traces around the 209's nipple were all I could detect. The Omega was the most accurate and cleanest of all rifles tested, rarely exceeding 2 1/2-inch groups with any bullet. My only criticism is that a spent primer could drop into the rifle's block assembly, and thereby disable the action until it's fished out. Other than that one gripe, the Omega had no major faults. In this group, it's the top pick. ($413.70-$524.40; 603-332-2394; www.tcarms.com)

WINCHESTER MUZZLELOADING

Put pressure on a flange on the Apex Magnum 209's trigger guard and its massive trigger and breech-block assembly pivots down as a single unit. Once it is lowered, access to the nipple is ample. Closed, the breechblock completely seals the ignition. After 25 rounds, there was minimal external fouling. A thin line of fouling could be seen above the breech on the scope. There was moderate internal buildup, but the action and trigger mechanism is easily accessed for cleaning.

The Apex's barrel has a centerfire-style recoil lug that is solidly matched to a recess in its stock. It's built for accuracy and proved it on the range. Several sub-1-inch groups were fired with 240-grain PRC bullets and 250-grain Power Belts. The 325-grain Buffalo Bullets consistently hovered around 1 1/2 inches; the 350-grain Power Belts, however, never shot groups smaller than 6 inches. As usual, you've got to figure out what each rifle likes. Predictably, the Apex's 29 1/2-inch barrel turned in the highest velocities. Its trigger is a bit heavy and its stock design has a lot of drop at the heel, which can amplify felt recoil; otherwise the Apex is highly recommended. ($344.95-$469.95; 877-892-7544; www.winchestermuzzleloading.com)

muzzleloaders

MANUFACTURER/MODEL Knight Rifles DISC Extreme

Muzzle Velocity (fps) PRC 240-GRAIN 1,818

Group Size @100 yd. PRC 240-GRAIN 0.95 in.

Muzzle Velocity (fps) POWER BELT 250-GRAIN 1,790

Group Size @100 yd. POWER BELT 250-GRAIN 2.2 in.

Muzzle Velocity (fps) WINCHESTER PARTITION GOLD 260-GRAIN 1,789

Group Size @100 yd. WINCHESTER PARTITION GOLD 260-GRAIN 1.6 in.

Muzzle Velocity (fps) BUFFALO BULLET 325-GRAIN 1,593

Group Size @100 yd. BUFFALO BULLET 325-GRAIN 0.95 in.

Muzzle Velocity (fps) POWER BELT 350-GRAIN 1,527

Group Size @100 yd. POWER BELT 350-GRAIN 3.1 in.

Barrel Length 25 1/2

Rate-of-twist 1:28

Weight w/o scope 7.5 lb.

Trigger pull as delivered 3.5 lb.

Retail price Model tested $549.95

Interior fouling Moderate

Exterior fouling Light

Caliber .50

Accuracy VG

Finish VG

Reliability VG

Cleaning ease G

Exterior cleanliness VG

Interior cleanliness G

Handling VG

Final Rating VG

Comments The DISC Extreme's accuracy and performance is very good. Takedown for cleaning was simple.

[MANUFACTURER/MODEL] Connecticut Valley Arms Optima Pro 209

[Muzzle Velocity (fps)] [PRC 240-GRAIN] 1,871

[Group Size @100 yd.] [PRC 240-GRAIN] 3 in.

[Muzzle Velocity (fps)] [POWER BELT 250-GRAIN] 1,853

[Group Size @100 yd.] [POWER BELT 250-GRAIN] 3.5 in.

[Muzzle Velocity (fps)] [WINCHESTER PARTITION GOLD 260-GRAIN] 1,848

[Group Size @100 yd.] [WINCHESTER PARTITION GOLD 260-GRAIN] 5 in.

[Muzzle Velocity (fps)] [BUFFALO BULLET 325-GRAIN] 1,641

[Group Size @100 yd.] [BUFFALO BULLET 325-GRAIN] 2.5 in.

[Muzzle Velocity (fps)] [POWER BELT 350-GRAIN] 1,579

[Group Size @100 yd.] [POWER BELT 350-GRAIN] 2 in.

[Barrel Length] 27 1/2

[Rate-of-twist] 1:28

[Weight w/o scope] 8.2 lb.

[Trigger pull as delivered] 5 lb.

[Retail price Model tested] $259.95

[Interior fouling] Heavy

[Exterior fouling] Moderate

[Caliber] .50

[Accuracy] F

[Finish] F

[Reliability] VG

[Cleaning ease] VG

[Exterior cleanliness] G

[Interior cleanliness] F

[Handling] F

[Final Rating] F

[Comments] The Optima's performance was fair. Its stock design and grip were unwieldy. It pointed well.

[MANUFACTURER/MODEL] Winchester Muzzleloading Apex Magnum 209

[Muzzle Velocity (fps)] [PRC 240-GRAIN] 1,902

[Group Size @100 yd.] [PRC 240-GRAIN] 0.9 in.

[Muzzle Velocity (fps)] [POWER BELT 250-GRAIN] 1,890

[Group Size @100 yd.] [POWER BELT 250-GRAIN] 0.95 in.

[Muzzle Velocity (fps)] [WINCHESTER PARTITION GOLD 260-GRAIN] 1,896

[Group Size @100 yd.] [WINCHESTER PARTITION GOLD 260-GRAIN] 1.7 in.

[Muzzle Velocity (fps)] [BUFFALO BULLET 325-GRAIN] 1,693

[Group Size @100 yd.] [BUFFALO BULLET 325-GRAIN] 1.5 in.

[Muzzle Velocity (fps)] [POWER BELT 350-GRAIN] 1,601

[Group Size @100 yd.] [POWER BELT 350-GRAIN] 6.5 in.

[Barrel Length] 29 1/2

[Rate-of-twist] 1:28

[Weight w/o scope] 8.5 lb.

[Trigger pull as delivered] 4.5 lb.

[Retail price Model tested] $344.95

[Interior fouling] Moderate

[Exterior fouling] Moderate

[Caliber] .50

[Accuracy] VG

[Finish] G

[Reliability] VG

[Cleaning ease] G

[Exterior cleanliness] G

[Interior cleanliness] G

[Handling] VG

[Final Rating] VG

[Comments] The Apex's fit and finish could be improved, but otherwise it is a good rifle at a reasonable price.

[MANUFACTURER/MODEL] EDITOR'S CHOICE Thompson/Center Arms Omega

[Muzzle Velocity (fps)] [PRC 240-GRAIN] 1,843

[Group Size @100 yd.] [PRC 240-GRAIN] 1.2 in.

[Muzzle Velocity (fps)] [POWER BELT 250-GRAIN] 1,822

[Group Size @100 yd.] [POWER BELT 250-GRAIN] 2.2 in.

[Muzzle Velocity (fps)] [WINCHESTER PARTITION GOLD 260-GRAIN] 1,810

[Group Size @100 yd.] [WINCHESTER PARTITION GOLD 260-GRAIN] 0.95 in.

[Muzzle Velocity (fps)] [BUFFALO BULLET 325-GRAIN] 1,608

[Group Size @100 yd.] [BUFFALO BULLET 325-GRAIN] 1.5 in.

[Muzzle Velocity (fps)] [POWER BELT 350-GRAIN] 1,540

[Group Size @100 yd.] [POWER BELT 350-GRAIN] 2.5 in.

[Barrel Length] 26 1/2

[Rate-of-twist] 1:28

[Weight w/o scope] 7.2 lb.

[Trigger pull as delivered] 3 lb.

[Retail price Model tested] $465.40

[Interior fouling] Light

[Exterior fouling] Light

[Caliber] .50

[Accuracy] E

[Finish] VG

[Reliability] VG

[Cleaning ease] VG

[Exterior cleanliness] VG

[Interior cleanliness] VG

[Handling] VG

[Final Rating] 89

[Comments] The Omega excelled in every category. It had the best finish and trigger and is the most accurate in-line in this test.

What the scores mean

Fair: 60-69 points Good: 70-79 points Very Good: 80-89 points Excellent: 90-100 points

In-Line Accessories

CARRY A SPARE Ever lose or break a ramrod? If you hunt with muzzleloaders long enough, you will. The aircraft-grade aluminum full-length replacement Power Rod from XS Sight Systems is a good spare. Its flip-up T-handle makes fast reloading a snap, even in a fouled bore. ($20 to $25, depending on length; 888-744-4880; www.expresssights.com)

KEEP YOUR POWDER DRY The Muzzleloader Dry Box from MTM is made to keep bullets, caps, powder and assorted tools organized, while sealing out powder-ruining moisture. The box measures 15 by 8.8 by 9.4 inches. ($14.67; 800-543-0548; www.mtmcase-gard.com)

MAKE THE SWITCH Scope or no scope? Some states allow them on muzzleloaders, some don't. Kansas has it both ways--scopes are not legal during the first half of the season but are permitted during the second. The fully adjustable, solid-steel, precision-machined XS Backup Ghost-Ring from XS Sight Systems makes the switch easy. Simply remove the scope and clamp the peep on the existing bases. Line it up with the firearm's front post and the combination is deadly accurate to 100 yards. ($65; 888-744-4880; www.expresssights.com)

A NEW SABOT The saboted, lead, polymer-tipped Dead Center bullets from Precision Rifle are available in weights ranging from 175 to 340 grains. These bullets are specifically designed for in-line bores and have the highest ballistic coefficient of any muzzleloader bullet. ($12.99 for a dozen; 877-828-5538; www.prbullet.com)

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