After sighting in a flintlock, confirm point of aim

Not to overstate the obvious, but hunting deer with a flintlock rifle presents challenges unlike any other sporting arm.

Not the least of those challenges is the simple act of firing the rifle at the range before going afield during Pennsylvania’s two-week statewide season, which begins Tuesday and continues through Saturday, Jan. 13.

No matter if shooting a historically accurate custom-build rifle with fixed iron sights or a commercially manufactured with adjustable sights, getting on target at the desired range can be easily accomplished when benching the rifle at the firing line. Ah, but that confidence often vanishes in a puff of white smoke when taking a shot — or shots — offhand.

In all likelihood, what is causing the problem is what has earned flintlock rifles the nickname of “flinchlocks.” Even experienced veteran shooters can develop the act of flinching when the pan powder goes off in a shower of sparks just inches from their face.

National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association Long Hunter Society director Dave Ehrig, who helped the Pennsylvania Game Commission write the original regulations for Pennsylvania’s flintlock season, has been hunting and shooting flintlock rifles for more than 40 years. Still, every year before the opening of flintlock deer season he follows the same steps at the range to make sure his rifle is “on.”

Those steps include following the same routine in loading and priming the rifle for every shot. Those steps begin, however, by becoming familiar with the pull of the trigger and dry-firing the rifle before ever priming the pan with powder.

Ehrig has step-by-step detailed instruction on loading, priming and sighting-in flintlock rifles in his book “Muzzleloader Hunting for Deer and Turkey,” which is available from For those who will be fine tuning before the opening of the flintlock season he provides a few reminders.

“Remember, they don’t call flintlocks ‘flinchlocks’ without good reason,” Ehrig said. “Most shooters aren’t even aware they are lifting their face off the stock when the pan ignites, much in the same way turkey hunters lift their head off the stock of a shotgun when shooting a turkey.

“In both situations that slight movement is going to cause the shot to be off target, with the load of shot from a turkey gun usually going high. With a flintlock the shot can go high, but is just as likely to be off target to the right or left and unfortunately can result in a wounded deer rather than a clean miss.

“In order to avoid the flinch when the flint hits the frizzen and sets off the flash of powder in the pan take a few practice shots dry-firing. This will all the shooter to concentrate simply on the act of squeezing the trigger and keep their point of aim on the target until the rifle fires.”

When sighted in at 50 yards for the six o’clock hold on the six-inch diameter single-bull target, the groups are also reasonably well centered in the 2.9-inch diameter bullseye at 25 yards. The balls are two to three inches above the line of sight at 75 yards, and group near the bottom of the single bull at 100 yards.

Raising the powder charge to 70 grains raises the 100-yard point of impact about two more inches. For shooting large game, or for primitive targets that are larger than a baseball, it is easy to allow for the ball’s being two or three inches above the line of sight, but it is very tricky to shoot small targets that are closer than 25 yards.

Although .45-caliber flintlocks are allowed by PGC regulations, Ehrig recommends hunting deer with .50- or .54-caliber rifles, which allow heavier loads of FFFg powder and have more energy at 50 yards. Both of these calibers are effective at 75 yards, but hunters should consider using a rest at this distance if using a .50 caliber and using a rest at a distance of 100 yards if using a .54 caliber.

“For target shooting the rule of thumb is loading with as many grains of powder as the caliber of the rifle,” Ehrig said. “For deer hunting more energy is needed, so increase the load and see where the shot hits.

“There is no need to double the charge from 50 grains to 100 grains or from 55 grains to 110 grains, but try a minimum charge of 70 grains in a .50 caliber and 90 gains in a .54. Just remember even in manufactured rifles there is likely to be differences between one rifle and another, so get out to the range.”

That is sound advice if for no other reason than taking the flinch out of flintlock season.