August 25th, 2012
Muzzleloader Regulations Debated

I built my first muzzleloader in 1989. With that Kentucky rifle, I learned to measure powder, start the round ball with a patch and smell the sulfur bloom of blackpowder smoke. Since that time, I’ve owned and shot several Kentucky and Hawken rifles similar to those carried by the mountain men and pioneers.

For me, the muzzleloader was a link to the day when all was wilderness between St. Louis, Missouri and the Oregon Territory.

The decade of the 1990s brought change to the ranks of the muzzleloading fraternity and it wasn’t long before I tried one of the new in-lines.

Barrels were rifled with a faster twist to allow them to shoot modern bullets carried in plastic sabots. Fiber-optics replaced buckhorn sights, or shooters opted away from open sights altogether and installed scopes. Instead of using the primitive flintlock or No. 11 percussion cap ignition, manufacturers began trying more certain methods to ignite the muzzleloader powder charge.

From a vocal group of hunters, rose a cry against the modern muzzleloaders and a division grew to pit those who embraced new technology against those who were concerned with preserving an element of history.

Before the dust settled, many states had adopted restrictions against modern muzzleloaders that included a prohibition on the use of rifle scopes atop muzzleloading rifles in special ‘muzzleloader-only‘ hunts. In many cases, game departments liked the fact that muzzleloading rifles were limited in effectiveness because hunters and harvests were easier to manage in some sensitive big game populations.

The state of Oregon surveyed hunters then adopted regulations to reflect the attitude of Oregonians. One of the restrictions was against optical sights.

But rifle scopes have been in use since the 1830s. By the 1850s, long, tubular brass scopes were offered for sale by a number of rifle makers and eyeglass manufacturers. Today, some people are asking the question, if we restrict muzzleloading hunters to technology available prior to 1860, why can’t they use a rifle scope?

The trouble is that, as a hunter gets older, the eyesight begins to fade. It becomes difficult to align the sights. Either the hunter passes or takes a marginal shot and risks wounding, and losing, the animal.

The North American Muzzleloader Hunting Association (NAMHA) believes that muzzleloader hunters should be allowed, in states like Oregon, the option of using an optical sight.

On July 16, NAMHA filed a civil rights complaint of discrimination with the Secretary of the Interior against the game departments of 15 states, including Oregon, that do not permit the use of sight-correcting magnifying rifle scopes during the special muzzleloader seasons.

In the letter of complaint to Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne, which was filed July 16, 2006, NAMHA founder, Toby Bridges, pointed out, “If modern firearms hunters in these states are given the right to hunt with a magnifying telescopic rifle sight (scope), then the muzzleloading hunter has the right to use the same sighting aid during a season established for muzzle-loaded guns. For these states to deny that right is a clear cut case of discrimination – due to age, due to sight disability and due to segregation.

A July 27th response from the Department of the Interior stated, “We have accepted your complaint for investigation under the authority of section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Section 504 prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs or activities receiving Federal financial assistance. Title II of the ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs and activities conducted by public entities whether or not they receive Federal financial assistance. Each of the 15 Wildlife Agencies is subject to the nondiscrimination requirements of both of these Federal laws. Under separate cover, we have asked the FWS (Fish & Wildlife Service) to investigate your complaint.” That response came from Sharon D. Eller, Director, Office of Civil Rights.

The difference in effective range between a traditional muzzleloader and a scoped, modern muzzleloader is, when I’m shooting them anyway, about 75 yards. Most hunters will not take a shot with a modern muzzleloader beyond a distance of about 175 yards.

The perception is that a modern muzzleloading rifle, when equipped with the latest advancements in technology, is equivalent to a single-shot .30-30. This is not an inaccurate comparison, but NAMHA’s complaint only addresses the optics issue and not such things as pelletized powders, plastic sabots and 209 shotgun primers.

I can see the viewpoint of each side of the argument. One group wants to preserve the historical elements and challenge, while the other is more concerned about using equipment that employs modern technology to take game in a humane fashion. But those who honor history cannot make the case against rifle scopes.

ODFW will also take a position. It is possible that, if forced to lift restrictions on equipment, the agency will opt to do away with muzzleloader hunts altogether. Instead of special seasons, those who hunt with muzzleloading rifles of any sort would have to use them in the center-fire seasons. In that case, no one wins.

NAMHA wants us to take another look at our muzzleloader regulations. Perhaps, with the Department of the Interior investigating, we don’t have a choice. Is it possible that there is a compromise that will satisfy NAMHA, the Department of the Interior’s Office of Civil Rights, ODFW and Oregon hunters while emphasizing tradition? I think so.

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