A muzzleloader is any firearm into which the projectile and usually the propellant charge is loaded from the muzzle of the gun (from the open end of the gun’s barrel). This is distinct from the more popular modern designs of breech-loading firearms. The term “muzzleloader” may also apply to the marksman who specializes in the shooting of muzzle loading firearms. The term of art includes rifled muzzleloaders and smoothbore muzzleloaders. Hand held rifles were well-developed by the 1740s. A recognizable form of the muzzleloader is the Kentucky Rifle, which was actually developed in Pennsylvania. The American Long rifle evolved from the German Jager rifle.
Muzzle loading can apply to anything from cannons to pistols but in modern parlance the term most commonly applies to black powder small arms similar in the main to the weapons used. It usually, but not always, involves the use of a loose propellant (gunpowder) and projectile, as well as, a separate method of ignition or priming.
The sequence of loading is to put in gunpowder by pouring in a measured amount of loose powder, inserting a premeasured bag or paper packet of gunpowder (a cartridge) or by inserting solid propellant pellets. The gunpowder used is typically black powder or black powder substitutes like Pyrodex. Wadding is made from felt, paper, cloth or card and has several different uses. In shotguns, a card wad or other secure wadding is used between the powder and the shot charge to prevent pellets from dropping into the powder charge and on top of the shot charge to hold it in place in the barrel. In smooth bore muskets and most rifles used prior to cartridges being introduced in the mid to late 19th century, wadding was used primarily to hold the powder in place.
For most of the time muzzleloaders were in use, a round ball and premeasured powder charge were usually carried in a paper wrapping. The rifleman would bite off the end of the paper cartridge with his teeth and pour the powder into the barrel followed by the ball encased in the paper wrapping. The projectiles and wads were then pushed down into the breech with a ramrod until they are firmly seated on the propellant charge. Priming powder was usually carried in a separate container and poured into the priming pan and the lock was pushed down to hold the priming powder in place. The projectile or shot charge was placed in the barrel and a ramrod was used to firmly pack everything into the breech. Then either a priming charge was placed in the priming pan or percussion cap was placed on the nipple and the hammer was then cocked to make the firearm ready to fire.
Muzzle loading firearms generally use round balls, cylindrical conical projectiles and shot charges. In some types of rifles firing round ball, a lubricated patch of fabric is wrapped around a ball which is slightly smaller than the barrel diameter. In other types of round ball firing rifles, a ramrod and hammer is used to force the round ball down through the rifling. When fired, either the lead ball or the wrapping grips the rifling and imparts spin to the ball which gives improved accuracy. The Minie ball replaced the round ball in most firearms in the 1830s and 1840s. It has a hollow base which expands to grip the rifling. The combination of the spinning Minie ball and the consistent velocity provided by the improved seal gave far better accuracy than the smoothbore muzzleloaders that it replaced.