KEMPTON – Hunters who participate in Pennsylvania's antlerless muzzleloader hunt, which this year opens Saturday, Oct. 17, and concludes, Saturday, Oct. 24, have the option of using any and all types of muzzleloaders.

Unlike the post-Christmas muzzleloader deer season, which is limited to flintlock rifles, the Pennsylvania Game Commission allows the use of flintlock, traditional percussion and in-line ignition rifles for the October hunt. According to one of Pennsylvania's leading authorities on muzzleloaders – from building them to hunting and competitive shooting – it is best to become familiar with one rifle and use it for all seasons.

So says Chuck Dixon, who has been fascinated with muzzleloader rifles since he began shooting antiques during the 1950s in his native Ohio. That was a lifetime ago for the founder of Dixon Muzzleloader Shop, which is the largest walk-in muzzleloader retail outlet in the United States.

When the muzzleloader crazy swept the country around the time of the national bi-centennial in 1976, Dixon was already an authority on the firearms, having – literally – written the book on building modern-day versions of those produced during the Golden Age of the 1700s in his adopted Pennsylvania. Today, Dixon's "The Art of Building the Pennsylvania Longrifle" remains the ultimate handbook and how-to manual for those looking to build a rifle from scratch.

It also makes fascinating reading for those whose only interest in muzzleloaders is using them during the Pennsylvania antlerless season and the post-Christmas flintlock season. Such casual shooters can benefit the most from Dixon's advice, which is given as someone who is interested in sharing his knowledge – not a merchant trying to make a sale.

His lifelong interest in selling people on the enjoyment that can be had by participating in all aspects of muzzleloading that led to his induction into the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association Blackpowder Hall of Fame. One of the things Dixon stresses to those who are new to shooting and hunting with muzzleloaders is to become comfortable with one rifle and learn to shoot it well.

For that reason, he recommends that Pennsylvania hunters learn to shoot a flintlock rifle. That way, the same rifle can be used in the post-Christmas season as well as the upcoming antlerless season.

"Too often, those who are new to muzzleloading have the misconception that percussion ignitions are fool-proof and are always more reliable than a flintlock," Dixon said. "That's simply not the case, and that includes in-line models, which simply aren't necessary for the majority of hunting situations and conditions encountered in Pennsylvania.

"With percussion rifles, it is important to make sure the area under the nipple – as well as the nipple itself – doesn't become clogged, and that moisture doesn't collect inside the copper percussion cap. Most of the problems with in-lines come from improper cleaning and loading with the propellants that are recommend for them, which – unlike blackpowder – have a relatively short shelf life.

"Because of a lot of misinformation, those new to muzzleloading are overly concerned about ignition problems with a flintlock, but most of those are caused by human error, rather than the lock itself. Most ignition problems are avoidable by using a sharp flint, keeping the touchhole clear, keeping dry priming powder in the pan and using as little priming powder as possible to prevent a delay or hangfire."

For all-around hunting use, Dixon recommends a .50-caliber muzzleloader such as the Lyman Deerstalker or Thompson/Center Arms Hawken. Rifles such as this are equipped with adjustable sights for hunting, and some models are equipped with fiber-optic sights.

Because muzzleloading rifles are not intended to make long-distance shots, adjustable scopes are counter productive because there are few opportunities to make an ethical shot longer than the 75-80 yards. Peep sights will help increase accuracy, and while fiber-optic sights help in lowlight conditions, care must be taken to prevent damaging them.

Most muzzleloaders designed for hunting now have a 1-in-48 barrel twist, which allows the use of both patched roundballs and conical bullets. As energy, rather than velocity, and shot placement are the most important considerations when hunting with muzzleloaders.

As a result, roundballs are still a better choice than bullets for most situations, but sabots should never be used in a flintlock rifle. Not enough heat is produced by a flintlock ignition to melt the plastic collar on sabots, which leads to fowling and inaccuracy.

So, while there are many choices of rifles to use in the antlerless muzzleloader season, Dixon believes the best choice for newcomers to the sport remains a flintlock.