A muzzleloader is any firearm into which the projectile and usually the propellant charge is loaded from the muzzle of the gun (i.e. from the forward, open end of the gun's barrel). This is distinct from the more popular modern design of breech-loading firearms.
Modern muzzleloading firearms range from reproductions of sidelock, flintlock and percussion long guns, to in-line rifles that use modern inventions such as a closed breech, sealed primer and fast rifling to allow for considerable accuracy at long ranges. Mortars are a type of short-range artillery that are muzzle-loaded.
Muzzleloading can apply to anything from cannons to pistols but in modern parlance the term most commonly applies to black powder small arms. It usually, but not always, involves the use of a loose propellant (i.e. gun powder) and projectile, as well as a separate method of ignition or priming.
In general, the sequence of loading is to put in:
- Gunpowder, by pouring in loose powder, inserting a pre-measured bag or paper packet of gunpowder (called a cartridge) or by inserting (the less desirable) solid propellant pellets. The gunpowder used is typically blackpowder or blackpowder substitutes like Pyrodex.
- Wadding, made from felt, cloth or card. In shotguns, this is placed in when the ball becomes difficult to press into the barrel (in small arms). In rifles firing round ball, a lubricated patch of fabric is wrapped around the base of the ball which grips the rifling and imparts spin to the ball. In Minie rifles, no patch is used as the projectile has a base which expands to grip the rifling.
On most notably naval cannons, the wadding at the end of the barrel not only served the purpose of creating a better seal around the shot, but to also act as a plug, to stop the shot rolling out due to the swaying of the ship.
- The projectile, most typically a solid lead ball, loose shot, a Minie bullet or a jacketed modern bullet in a plastic sabot .
Since the projectiles and wads are generally tight-fitting, a ramrod is used to push the wadding and projectile down to ensure they are firmly seated on the propellant charge. During Napoleon's time a round ball and pre-measured powder charge were wrapped in a paper casing. After a shot the user would tear the end of the paper tube off and fill the flash pan. Next he would pour the remaining powder into the barrel followed by the ball encased in the paper wrapping. The butt of the gun was then hit on the ground and the ball would slide to the breach. A trained marksman could fire up to 3 rounds per minute.
When aiming for ultimate accuracy, muzzle-loaders are usually cleaned ("swabbed") before reloading, so that there is no residue left in the barrel to reduce accuracy, though in competitions run by the international governing body, the MLAIC, this is prohibited. However, in small arms muzzleloading rifles, swabbing is only done after every 5-10 shots. If cleaned after every shot, the barrel will not break in for hundreds of shots. Large caliber muzzle-loaders such as cannons are always swabbed between shots to prevent accidents caused by live sparks igniting the fresh charge of powder as it is being loaded.
Muzzleloading is the term used to describe the sport, or pastime of firing muzzleloading guns. Muzzleloading guns, both antique and reproduction, are used for target shooting, hunting, historical re-enactment and historical research. The sport originated in the United States in the 1930s, just as the last original users and makers of muzzleloading arms were dying out. The sport received a tremendous boost in the 1960s and 1970s, and a flourishing industry manufacturing working reproductions of historic firearms now exists in the United States and Europe, particularly in northern Italy near Gardone.
The American National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association holds two national tournaments a year at Friendship, Indiana.
 See also
- Breech-loading firearms
- Antique Guns
- Caplock mechanism
- Black powder
- Rifled Muzzle Loader