by David LaPell
USA – -(Ammoland.com)- The .22 Long Rifle is the undisputed king of small game hunting when it comes to rifles, but did you ever stop and wonder what our ancestors did before the small rimfire round came along in 1887?
On the frontier, there were small bore muzzleloaders that were used long before cartridge arms were ever conceived and they served their owners well when it came to bringing home small game.
Most of these early black powder guns were flintlocks and are as old as this country and even older. The smaller calibers tended to be anywhere from .36 to .40 caliber and as those flintlock guns were converted to percussion. Those small bore rifles accounted for untold numbers of game for the stew pot and winter larders, only to be retired when loose powder was replaced by brass cartridges.
Over the years muzzleloading guns were relegated to closets and fireplace mantles, a mere curiosity and a reminder of a time that had gone by> Soon, perhaps with a longing for the past, recreational black powder firearms started becoming popular once more. They soon gave way to newer and more significant advances in black-powder technology, and today’s guns look nothing like those old flintlock and percussion rifles of old, except for the few replicas of small caliber guns.
While many small caliber muzzleloaders at one time came in a variety of calibers, most for the last couple of decades have been in .32 caliber. These require the use of a .310” roundball and a patch, very much like they did two centuries ago. They use only a small charge of powder, a fraction when compared to the larger calibers. While they lack the power to take down a whitetail deer and in most places are not legal to do so, they have more power than a .22 Long Rifle. A 40 grain lead roundball can take a squirrel or rabbit with no problem as long as the range is kept to a reasonable distance.
There are several options for .32 muzzleloaders, Traditions offers their Crockett, an excellent percussion rifle with double set triggers and a thirty-two-inch barrel. Pedersoli makes a series of .32 rifles, from their Pennsylvania and Kentucky rifles to their short Scout carbine in both flintlock and percussion persuasions, those wishing to try the small bore out are well served.
I first encountered the joys of a .32 muzzleloader when I inherited my Grandfather’s old CVA Squirrel rifle. This was a gun he built as a kit back well over thirty years ago, but as far as I know, he didn’t use it a lot. I remember when I got the gun I had to rebuild it and do a lot of repair work. It initially had double set triggers, but I could never get the second trigger to work, so I modified it to work off the single trigger. The lock was pretty beat up, and a few parts were missing that needed to be found, but it was fun to get it back into working order again.
Recently I took the old gun to the range to give it a work out. One of the drawbacks is that the rifles from that time from CVA were never of the greatest quality, but they worked, even though they were never up to the same standards of Pedersoli and higher quality Italian guns to come later.
One thing about shooting a .32 muzzleloader compared to the larger calibers is that you will find it is much harder to ram the ball home just because there is less surface area. I can tell you that if your gun has a wooden ramrod in that smaller caliber, then I suggest you replace it with a new .32″ Ramrod before you ever try to use it. I have seen a couple of them break and if you’re pushing down on it when it breaks, you can get hurt. One thing great about the CVA Squirrel Rifle, while undoubtedly not authentic, it has a metal ramrod, and I can say you would be better off having one. Even getting a fiberglass ramrod is much better than using one made from wood. The cost of that versus spending some time in the emergency room if a broken ramrod perforates your hand isn’t even a comparison.
If you have ever shot a muzzleloader using nothing more than a round ball and a patch before, you will know that the thickness of the patch in relation to the powder you’re using has to be balanced. I found that with the .310 round ball that a .010” patch works the best, even though most patches I see sold are .015-.018”. I also had to take .45 patches and trim them down a bit to use in a .32 rifle since you will have extra cloth to try and shove down with the ball.
The next thing that has to balance out between the patch and the round ball is the powder charge itself. If you have a patch that is too thin and a charge that is too hot from too much powder, then you will find your patches burned through. This will result in a loss of accuracy, and you end up just wasting powder. After some experimentation, I came up with a charge of ten grains of Hodgdon’s Triple 7 FFFG powder. When I used fifteen grains, I burned through the patches and accuracy went out the window.
At 25 yards the CVA can still hold it’s own, but unlike some of the larger calibers, I can tell you that the fouling starts to hit the .32 pretty hard after a few shots. Generally, with my larger guns like my .45 and .58 rifles, I can get well over a dozen rounds with Triple 7 before I need to think about cleaning it. After about ten yards with the .32 accuracy has suffered to the point where the group size is about the size of a baseball and gets bigger after every shot from then on.
So why would one want to even bother with a .32 muzzleloader when there are so many .22 cartridge rifles out there?
One is for the challenge. Hunting small game with a .22 LR is commonplace and with the top of the line rimfire rifles out there with a higher end scope is almost getting too comfortable. With a .32 squirrel rifle, your range is going to be shorter, in most cases 25 yards and it would be almost sacrilegious to put a scope on a traditional muzzleloader.
Another reason is that it seems these days the ammunition supply is linked to the political climate in this country. At any one time, it seems that a scare can empty the shelves of all calibers, especially rimfire rounds in a matter of days and then you are at the mercy of the law of supply and demand. With a .32 muzzleloader, often you can find .310 roundballs in boxes of one hundred, and it’s more than likely you won’t be having to fight anyone for them. If you are into casting your bullets or know at all about casting lead, molds are available and you can make your own. A pound of powder can give you thousands of shots, and a couple of hundred percussion caps or a few flints can keep you shooting for a very long time while others are busy trying to track down a box of .22 Long Rifle and you can hope you won’t be spending a fortune for it.
It’s not the most ideal solution, but if it comes to having a gun in your safe you can’t shoot at all, and a muzzleloader that while primitive, can be shot and used, it becomes a no brainer.
Small bore muzzleloaders at one time were used by families on the frontier to put food on the table in tough times until cartridge guns made them obsolete. It’s strange that now there could be a time when the .22 Long Rifle might be supplanted, albeit by way of a possible ammunition shortage. Where a gun that has been declared nearly extinct by a hundred years could prove useful again, and even if that time never comes, and here’s hoping it does not, having a .32 muzzleloader is fun to shoot. Also if just to have that connection to the past and to see how challenging hunting game with it can be.
About David LaPell
David LaPell has been a Corrections Officer with the local Sheriff's Department for thirteen years. A collector of antique and vintage firearms for over twenty years and an avid hunter. David has been writing articles about firearms, hunting and western history for ten years. In addition to having a passion for vintage guns, he is also a fan of old trucks and has written articles on those as well.