There is something truly therapeutic about a day at the range.  Whether it is the paring of one’s focus from the myriad trappings of modern life down to the simple fundamentals of marksmanship or simply the act of being outside, a range day never ceases to exert a calming effect on me.  
After a long week of intense, out of town training, I was already primed for a trip to the 100 yard line . It took little encouragement from Scott to convince me to be up and ready for a 9AM departure time the following day.  To sweeten the deal to near diabetic levels, Scott had just purchased his first muzzleloading rifle.  As neither Scott nor I had ever shot (let alone hunted with) a muzzleloader, I was more than interested to experience this form of firearm.

Thompson/Center Northwest Explorer

The following day met us with fair skies and low winds.  Scott and I were accompanied to the range by his sons Kraig and Michael, as well as his son-in-law John.  John’s presence also served as a mentoring force, as he was the only one of us who was familiar with muzzleloading rifles.  Indeed, John owns the same model of muzzleloader as Scott had recently acquired.  Therein lies a good firearm altruism:  If you aren’t familiar with a specific model of rifle, allow yourself to be taught by someone who is.  Manuals are a weak crutch for hands-on experience.

Scott’s particular muzzleloader was a Thompson/Center Northwest Explorer (Model #8797).  This offering from T/C is specifically designed to comply with the unique muzzleloading requirements found in several of the northwestern states (Oregon et al).   It features a full length, checkered composite stock with a Monte Carlo type butt.  The standard stock comes in black, though Scott’s model included Realtree Hardwoods HD coloring. 

WeatherShield Finish

The finish on the barrel is T/C’s Weather Shield.   Resembling muted or brushed stainless in appearance, this finish is designed to resist rust and repel the moisture so often experienced in the Pacific Northwest.  The .50 caliber barrels are 28″ in length and feature 1-in-48″ twist rates. 

Exposed Breech Design

The Northwest Explorer’s exposed breech design uses No. 11 caps to initiate detonation on its powder charge.  This design is compatible, again, with the current muzzleloading hunting rules in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. 

Adjustable Rear Sights

Its rear sights were plain, black, adjustable, and impressive, in that they were nicer and appeared better machined than those I generally find on centerfire rifles.  I suspect this is, in part, due to the fact current rules do not allow optics on these rifles.  When open sights are the only option, they generally tend to be a bit better engineered. 

Front Sight

The Northwest Explorer’s front sight is secured to the end of the muzzle via a flathead screw.  The white bead is easy to pick up, though fiber optic sights are available and it would appear front sight replacement is as simple as turning a screw. 

After the requisite initial examination was concluded, it was time to get down to shooting.  With John’s help, Scott was walked through the individual loading steps.

Measuring Powder

First, seventy grains of Hodgdon Triple7 are meted out using a measure, then transferred to either the muzzle-up pointed weapon or stored in a speed loading device. 

Maxi-Hunter 275gr .50cal

The powder charge is followed into the bore by whatever projectile you chose to shoot.  Scott was using Maxi-Hunter .50 caliber, 275gr lead projectiles.  These feature lubricated belts which allow for easier loading and negate the use of a patch.

Seated Maxi

Once the projectiles is seated in the bore, it is pushed back into the powder charge using T/C’s full length aluminum ramrod.

Open Breech and No.11 cap

The breech is then opened and a No.11 percussion cap is placed on the nipple of the breech plug.  The breech is closed and the weapon is ready to fire.

Shooting the T/C Northwest Explorer

Ready for its first round downrange, we took the T/C Northwest Explorer to the twenty-five yard line.  With hammer cocked and forend supported, Scott pressed the trigger.  Through the cloud of blue-black smoke, we could see the hit.  More clearly, however, I immediately became aware of one aspect of muzzleloading which sometimes doesn’t make it into to the glossy magazine ads or smartly decorated shipping packages:  Shooting muzzleloading rifles is fun.  Lots of fun. 

My Turn with the T/C

The loading process was repeated several more times during the course of our range day, with each participant getting his turn at the trigger.  With each press of the trigger, the allure of muzzleloading became more apparent to me.  It is equal parts history, modern science, and unadulterated fun.  And with the features offered in the Thompson/Center Northwest Explorer, it also represents a viable, lawful, and alternative method by which hunters can harvest wild game. 

If you’ve ever been curious about muzzleloading in general or the T/C Northwest Explorer in particular, give them both a try.  I challenge you to get through your first trigger squeeze without cracking a smile.