by Hank Strong
Drop-in barrels offer dramatic improvements for modern sidelock muzzle loading rifles.
During the nineteen seventies a modern version of the Hawken rifle was introduced by Thompson Center. The rifle quickly caught the public's eye and soon became a best seller. The basic design of the brass trimmed rifle was copied by other manufacturers and a variety of Hawken style rifles were offered for sale. Though it only bears a slight resemblance to a real Hawken it had won a place in the hearts of thousands of muzzleloading enthusiasts. Thompson Center Hawken rifles sold well till the nineteen eighties when Tony Knight reintroduced the inline muzzleloader.
The introduction of the inline muzzleloader also created a myth; that it delivered better accuracy than a sidelock rifle, which isn't true. Most Hawken style rifles have a 1-48" twist or 1-66" twist. The 1-48" twist was one of many twists used by the Hawken Brothers during the fur trade era for their rifles. The 1-48" twist will shoot conicals and patched round ball with a fair degree of accuracy. While the 1-66" twist is designed to shoot a patched round ball accurately.
As early as the eighteen forties gun makers knew that a fast twist bore was needed to stabilize a conical bullet for long range accuracy. Most muzzleloaders built before the introduction of the modern inlines were designed to shoot round ball, not conicals or sabots. However, all the inlines have a fast twist bore designed specifically to shoot conicals and sabots accurately. The twist varies among manufactures from 1-38" to 1-20" with each company believing they have the best twist for accuracy.
Where does that leave those who like the look, and pure simplicity of sidelock rifles from the past? Nevertheless, want the superb accuracy and the knock down power that a conical or sabot will deliver at a hundred yards. Fortunately several companies have recognized a market for a fast twist drop in replacement barrel for side lock rifles.
Thompson Center doesn't offer a fast twist drop in barrel for their Hawken through normal distribution. However, an excellent barrel can be purchased through their custom shop Fox Ridge Outfitters (1-800-243-4570) in .50 caliber for three of their side lock rifles. They offer a 1-38" twist barrel for their Hawken. A barrel with a fast 1-20" twist is available for the Tree Hawk, while a 1-38" twist can be purchased for the White Mountain Carbine.
Modern Muzzle Loading has taken over distribution of the Long Range Hunter barrel manufactured by Green Mountain Rifle Barrel Company. The bore design is identical to the Knight Rifle; narrow lands, wide groves with a 1-28" twist and rifling .005 to .006 deep. The narrow lands help to reduce bullet stress as it travels down the bore, while the 1-28" twist is excellent for stabilizing conicals or sabots. The barrel comes in .50 caliber and choice of two lengths, 28 or 21 inches. This year it is available in stainless steel. Designed as a replacement for rifles with a snail ignition it delivers excellent accuracy at 100 yards.
Several years ago Lyman (1-800-22-LYMAN) introduced a side lock carbine named the Custom Deerstalker Carbine. It has a stepped barrel with a 1-24" twist, lands and groves of equal width and cut rifling .003-.004 deep. The barrel is now available as a drop in replacement for their Trade rifle, Deer Stalker and with a little work by a gunsmith it can be fitted into their percussion Great Plains Rifle.
Connecticut Valley Arms (1-800-251-9412) or C.V.A. does not market a drop in replacement barrel as an over the counter item. In my conversations with Randy Jernigan and Dave Meredith of C.V.A. they said some of their new barrels with a 1-32" twist will fit into certain models of their older rifles. If you have one of C.V.A.'s older rifles with the 1-48" twist, give Randy or Dave a call and discuss it with them. You may be able to purchase one of their new barrels this fall as a replacement. It's an accurate 100 yard barrel that will shoot a variety of sabots and conicals. C.V.A.'s barrels have eight lands and groves of equal widths with rifling .008-010 deep.
Or you may want to consider ordering a replacement barrel from a custom barrel maker. Jerry Cunningham of Orion Rifle Barrel Co. (RR2 137 Cobler Village Road, Kalispell, MT 59901) offers barrels in a variety of lengths and calibers with fast twist rifling .006-.008 deep.
Mark de Haas of de Haas Barrels, (RR 3 Box 77 Ridgeway, MO 64481, 1-816-872-6308) makes one of the finest fast twist barrels available. They are built to your specifications and Mark will be happy to advise you on the best twist to use with your bullet selection. I have one of his barrels that is one inch across the flats with a 1-20" twist that is 24 inches long. The cut rifling is .005-.006 deep with narrow lands and wide groves. His barrels aren't cheap, and you will have to place an order and wait. Don't quibble over the price or the waiting period, Mark is a true craftsman who builds high quality barrels for the discriminating shooter.
Bullet selection is just as important with a muzzleloader as it is with a center-fire rifle. As the twist in the bore is increased so should the length of the bullet for the best accuracy. A good rule of thumb to follow with the fast twist bores, is to use .45 caliber bullets in a long petal sabot from Modern Muzzle Loading or Harvestor for the best accuracy. However, Thompson Center rifles with a 1-38" twist are an exception. Sabot bullets that weigh between 240 and 300 grains in Muzzleloading Magnum sabots are the best.
The .50 caliber rifle is probably the best all round caliber for the hunter. It delivers the best accuracy with a wider selection of conicals and sabot bullets than any caliber rifle available to a hunter. The introduction of the sabot allows the .50 caliber rifle to shoot a well designed .45 caliber bullet that is inherently more accurate than any of the big bore conicals.
It's not the ignition system that determines 100 yard accuracy but the bore design, bullet design and loading procedures. During the eighteen seventies numerous long range shooting matches were held in American and abroad between muzzleloading side lock and black powder cartridge rifles. They demonstrated that a muzzleloading side lock could hold it's own against a cartridge rifle. So, why not buy a new fast twist barrel for that side lock or Hawken before you retire it. It can deliver the accuracy you want and will cost less than purchasing a new rifle.