It's been five years or so since Shep McKenney said the magic words that got me into black powder shooting. "It's a cheap date," he said. "The guns are cheap, the bullets are cheap and $10 worth of gunpowder will last the rest of your life."

I went straight home, dug out an old catalogue and ordered my first (and still only) muzzleloader--a 50-caliber CVA Sierra Stalker. I think the whole package of gun, ramrod and all the little gadgets and tools that came by return mail was under $150. Then it was a matter of finding a store that stocked black powder and percussion caps and I was off on a new hobby.

Talk about a bargain! I've had more success with that gun than anything else in my humble deer hunting arsenal. It's accurate, simple, handsome with its varnished wooden stock and a blast (literally) to shoot. As other hunters opted for muzzleloaders, black powder seasons were extended in both Maryland and Virginia. Today, a diehard can hunt deer three or four weeks with a muzzleloader, starting Oct. 21 in Maryland with late seasons running to New Year's in both states.

What makes these old-fashioned, low-tech firearms appealing? For starters, they're spectacular. When you shoot a black powder charge from a muzzleloader, as I did at target practice the other day, the noise is deafening and a great plume of sulfurous blue smoke puffs out with the bullet. If winds are calm, it's four or five seconds before the stinky pall dissipates and you can see how you did.

Surprise, surprise, the bullet went true. Fifty yards away there's a neat, round hole in the paper target near the bull's-eye. These guns with their heavy, rifled barrels are quite accurate--far better than modern, smooth-bore shotguns with slug barrels that shoot "punkin' ball" loads.

But with muzzleloaders it's a happy surprise just to hear them boom, since sometimes they don't. Maybe the powder was damp or the touch-hole was blocked with grease or the percussion cap misfired. No one who hunts with old-fashioned black powder is without a story of deer that got away when the gun went poof.

Naturally, our brightest techno-weenies are working on that. In the last few years muzzleloader technology has advanced at a feverish pace. The latest black powder guns now employ in-line percussion caps that are shielded from the wind and weather, fiberglass stocks, telescopic scopes that extend range 150 yards and modern powders that don't smoke.

Ain't life grand? The land that gave you Burger King's Junior Whopper has now come up with a "modern" primitive weapon. Well, I wouldn't take one if they gave them away. And you can keep your smokeless powder, too. If I wanted a clean sport, I'd go swimming.

The Sierra Stalker came with adjustable iron sights and some rough recommendations on powder loads and bullet sizes. Over the years I settled on 70 grains of black powder to push a 385-grain conical bullet greased with something called "bore butter." So far (knock wood) I haven't lost a deer.

My self-imposed maximum range is 50 yards but all my shots have been much closer--15 to 20 yards. At that range you hardly need even iron sights, but it's comforting to have them and important each year before the season comes to recheck for accuracy. Jim Clay, a black powder man from Winchester, Va., says all gun sights suffer "closet creep" over the summer. Several of us gathered at George Hughes's deer-infested woodlot on the Eastern Shore last weekend to sight-in our muzzleloaders and shotguns. Hughes is very particular about who gets to hunt there. "Too many people missed deer last year. The ones who came today to sight-in will get the best tree stands on opening day. The others can stay in the shack and see what runs by."

Bob Simmons, who organizes stand assignments at Hughes's place, and Terry Sirois, a hard-core hunter, assembled sand bags, targets, gun mounts, bench, spotting scope and other gear for a proper sighting-in. I wound up having to move my rear sight left three clicks to rectify closet creep. It took a half-dozen shots to sort out, including the requisite misfire (clogged touch hole), but otherwise the old Stalker was right on.

Afterward I swabbed out the barrel with Simmons's homemade formula for muzzleloader cleaner--equal parts Windex, rubbing alcohol and hydrogen peroxide--then ran a patch down the barrel with a light coat of machine oil. That gun ought to be ready now for opening day, but you never know.

Will it go BOOOM! Or poof? It's a muzzleloader, quirky as ever, and only time will tell.

Muzzleloader season for deer opens Oct. 21 in Maryland and Nov. 1 in Virginia. Need a place to sight-in? Clark Brothers Gun Shop in Warrenton has an excellent outdoor range available free to anyone who purchases equipment there. Also, Fairfax Rod & Gun Club in Manassas generally has sighting-in days in October, though this year some ranges are closed for repairs and final arrangements have not been made. Call 703-368-6333.

In Maryland, Cresap Rifle Club on Linganore Road in Frederick is open to the public on weekends for sighting-in. Call 301-662-6669.

For down-to-earth Internet information on buying and using muzzleloaders, check out a Web site put together by black powder advocate Carl Semencic, who offers helpful, practical tips on his home page ( semencic/blkpwdr.htm).