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The .45 Caliber Big Game Muzzleloader -
Can't, Won't, Can Do's and a Surprise or Two
If you're interested in hunting with muzzleloading rifles you have, no doubt, read the ads espousing the extreme performance capabilities of the high velocity, .45 caliber in-line. Some of the claims are pretty impressive and can be quite alluring.
Projectile velocities of over 2,300 feet per second from 26" and 28" stainless steel fluted barrels driven by massive powder charges and ignited perfectly by hot 209 ignition systems quicken our heart rates and stir our imaginations to visualize those two hundred yard shots that strike down elusive trophy bucks. Our palms sweat as we fill out the order for this 21st Century space age marvel that will totally counteract the handicaps placed upon us by black powder propellants and ramrods.
Finally, we can take advantage of primitive firearms hunting seasons with a rifle that will rival many fine smokeless powder models. Our handicap has been surmounted and it is only a question of time before a fine 12-point will fall before us as though struck by Lucifer's hammer. Woe unto the forest creature that blunders into our sights!
And so we dream. And so, the email comes rolling in to my computer during and after the hunting season. But the accounts I read are often far from the dream and the questions cry out for resolution:
"I can't get my rifle to settle down. Groups are all over the place. I read about 2" 150 yard groups and I'm lucky to get a 12" group at 100. What is wrong with this rifle?"
"I made a perfect heart/lung shot on this half-grown fawn and it ran nearly two hundred yards before going down. When I dug out my bullet rather than a classic mushroom the thing looked like a piece of old beer can and retained less than two-thirds of its original weight. As near as I can tell the only bone structure it hit was a rib."
"I know I hit that buck dead center from a hundred yards. He didn't flinch or even jump. He ran off into the woods. We followed his blood trail for a while and then it just dried up. We lost the buck of a lifetime and I know my shot was good."
I suppose we've all had these things happen to us even when we weren't hunting with black powder rifles. But each season it seems that I get more and more complaints like this from black powder hunters along with requests for advice on how to correct them.
Most of these come from hunters who, upon reflection, have some fairly common characteristics. They are new to muzzleloading and know very few others with much experience. They bought into the high velocity claims and their rifles were configured just like the article or the guy on television said. They didn't shop around but bought the first rifle that struck their fancy, often through the mail or at a discount store. (I just love to listen to XXX-Mart shooting and hunting experts, don't you?). They ran fewer than twenty rounds through the rifle before opening day and many fewer than ten. Some guys went to the field having never loaded or fired a muzzleloader before. "It can't be that different from a regular rifle, can it?"
Some of these failures can be easily explained. The hunter didn't take the time to become proficient with his rifle. How many bow hunters go out on a hunt without spending several hours on the range learning to shoot it? Wait, maybe I shouldn't ask that question either.
As much as you might be told otherwise, a black powder rifle is different from a modern rifle. You need to learn the capabilities of black powder muzzleloaders and you need to learn what that gun is capable of in your hands. Most of all, you need to learn that the act of muzzleloading changes many aspects of what can be done with a rifle, the projectile it uses, and they way a load is configured.
Nearly thirty years ago, when I first started out with black powder rifles, we had a different perception of the sport. We knew and expected that it would be different. We went out with stinking, dirty, black powder, patched round lead balls, and tiny No.11 percussion caps to see if our imported "junker" side hammer replicas would even fire, let alone hit anything. If we had a rifle that we understood, that went off ninety percent of the time when we pulled the trigger, and if the cheap lock or trigger mechanism didn't fall off after a hundred shots, we thought we had a pretty good gun. If a guy made a hundred yard deer shot with one he was either lucky or a liar. Take your pick, there were plenty of both.
I got into .45 caliber muzzleloading back then. It was my third muzzleloader as I remember. The rifle is still in my gun case for all to admire because I paid a fortune for it. At least it seemed so at the time. It is a beautiful work of the gun maker's art; a side hammer, double trigger, Ohio replica with tiger stripe maple half stock, iron furniture, a 37" A.A. Large octagon barrel and primitive iron buckhorn and blade sights. I wanted a .50 caliber but when I saw that it had a Bill Large barrel and realized that the pawn shop guy had no idea of what he had, I jumped at it. I kept piling guns on the counter until the guy said enough and made the trade.
With a 70 grain charge of FFg and patched .440 ball it can still shoot a two-inch 80-yard group and a one-hole 50 yard group. As nearly as I can remember I harvested a dozen whitetails, one mulie, and as many coyotes with it. My closest shot was less than thirty yards and my longest, the mule deer, was nearly 150. No, in this case I'm not a liar. It must be the other alternative. It has deep 1:66" rifling and is strictly a round ball shooter. And, it has one other characteristic. I never had a single deer except that mule deer drop dead from the shot. All of them ran. Some ran thirty yards, some fifty yards, some nearly 100 and there was never an exit hole.
What about that mule deer? The ball hit her spine in the neck and she dropped like she was pole-axed. Perfect shot placement, huh? I was aiming at the heart.
A big round ball rifle back then was a .54 caliber and it did exhibit more "knock-down power" if the shot placement was good. But the deer still ran and there was seldom an exit hole. Later, the in-line rifle pretty much eclipsed the side hammer, round ball gun. It had a more modern feel, shot heavy conicals and some early sabots much better because of the rifling and nearly killed the sales of .45 and .54 caliber rifles.
It didn't take long for most of us to learn that with a good .50 caliber in-line we could, with some alterations in projectiles and powder charges, hunt anything from bunnies to Kodiak bears. It was fairly simple to figure it out. Go out with a powder charge of 60 to 80 grains of Pyrodex RS and a 180 to 240 grain pistol bullet in a sabot and you could hunt rabbits to coyotes, antelopes to small feral hogs with no problem.
If you wanted to take deer you could move up to 85-100 grains of Pyrodex RS or Select and, perhaps, a 300 grain pistol bullet in a sabot or a 380 to 425 grain conical and you could go after any deer, most black bears, and elk at close range and expect to come home with a trophy. Most guys quit there and didn't worry about anything much larger with black powder.
A few of us went after elk, moose or larger game, often with a .58 caliber or .54 caliber loaded with 550 to 600 grain conicals with powder charges of 120 grains, and got along pretty well if we got close enough. There were also people like Dr. Gary White of White Rifles who figured out that a properly configured .50 with a "slip-fit" conical up to 600 grains would not only load easily but provide devastating game performance. A .50 would do it all. It was about that time that I got my first White muzzleloader, and I never looked back.
What about the .45 Ohio? I kept it for rendezvous shoots and reenactment activities but gave up on it for serious deer hunting. It can do the trick, but a .50 is much better. It's more of a wall hanger now; a beautiful example of the gun maker's craft and a collector's item because of the Bill Large barrel.
With the advent of Pyrodex Pellets someone got the idea that he could load three fifty grain pellets very easily and increase velocity enough to use the concept as a means of selling more muzzleloaders. Never mind that the rifles weren't nearly as accurate; that barrels clogged up with powder debris so much that you needed to swab after every shot to even load it; that many very good muzzleloader projectiles couldn't and didn't stand up to the charge, or that the recoil was enough to shake teeth fillings loose.
There were enough claims of near miracle performance that such things were conveniently overlooked. They just weren't mentioned. Sort of a gentlemen's agreement, I guess. A few of the liars and the lucky made some 200 yard shots and the race was on to convince buyers that their company had the most up-to-date muzzleloaders with the hottest ignition systems and the highest velocities.
"Well, feller, I'll tell you what. Just step right up to the counter here and I'll sell you this "Magnum" muzzleloader (near 7mm-06 performance, as I remember) and you can kill anything on this or any other continent with a 240-grain pistol bullet. See there. I even have a photo of a Cape buffalo beside it so you can remember what a devastating killer you just bought."
The whole scam worked so well and sales were so good that some other company got the idea that if a high velocity .50 sold so well what about a high velocity .45? After all, with a lighter bullet in a smaller caliber you could claim greater velocity, greater penetration, less recoil, and a flatter trajectory. And, you could add that the old time bison hunters went from .50's to .45's and enjoyed superior performance. It all looked so good on paper that these companies even began convincing themselves of how wonderful the new high velocity .45's were.
There's only one problem with the whole notion. It looks good on paper but it doesn't work so well in the woods. Cheap high velocity projectiles that are little more than tin plated lead don't penetrate nearly was well as a heavier, slower projectile. A polymer tipped soft lead, so-called extended range bullet of 180 or 215 grains housed in a .45 caliber sabot will kill a deer but it won't do it nearly as well as a .45 caliber extended length conical at nearly 1/3 less velocity.
Funny things begin happening with high-velocity, light weight bullets. Exactly the same things that were mentioned in the e-mails I cited earlier. Erratic groups, poor penetration, bullet fragmentation and more wounded game at long range are the results of using too light a projectile with too great a powder charge. What will work? What can you do if you already have a .45 caliber muzzleloader and are not happy with the performance?
My advice is to go with heavier, slower loads and to get closer. Try a 285-grain Hornady Great Plains conical with 80 grains of Pyrodex RS, Select, or Triple Seven. Try a 255-grain T/C Maxi-Hunter or, a 315 or 360-grain Cabela's X-tended Range Polymer Tip Conical with similar powder charges. If you want a real thumper try a Montana Precision Cast Conical in anything from 300 to 500 grains. (If it will load easily in your muzzleloader.) I prefer a 320-grain PowerStar sabot or a 380, 430, or 460-grain White PowerPunch conical in a White Thunderbolt .451 rifle.
What you will begin to achieve and appreciate is the concept of a "balanced load." Without getting into a lot of numbers, a balanced load is the proper relative relationship between projectile weight, projectile design, projectile velocity and load manageability. It translates into a load that is accurate, does not have unusual recoil, and is an effective killer at extended range. It is also a load that is truly similar to those .45 caliber loads of the early bison hunters which won out over the .50 caliber bullets; that is, long conicals with similar powder charges that were lethal at long range and very accurate. A balanced load uses the increased sectional density of a heavier projectile to increase penetration rather than just velocity. The stress on a long-for-caliber, heavy projectile is not nearly as great, so bullet performance is much more consistent on the target range and in game.
And lastly don't try a shot unless you can shoot a pie plate group at the range you are attempting. Is there such a thing as a 200 yard muzzleloader? Yes, in the hands of that one-in-a-hundred shooter. For those of us who practice regularly at the range it is a 120 yard muzzleloader, and for the vast majority of weekend hunters it is a 75 to 100 yard rifle. And that's all right because most whitetails are taken inside of 70 yards anyway.
I believe my White Thunderbolt is a perfect example of an effective .45 caliber muzzleloader. I believe that because of what I have seen in the field and not what I have read. The Thunderbolt is a bolt-action, 209 primer ignition rifle with 1:24" rifling. Mine has a 24" barrel but standard is a 26" version. It is .451 caliber and works on a "slip fit" bullet principal. A slightly undersized "enhanced lead" conical is loaded. Tolerances are precise and the powder charge expands the bullet into the rifling. It is exactly the same principal that was utilized in hundreds of thousands of Civil War vintage muzzleloading muskets shooting mini-balls.
The company promotes the fact that the rifle can be easily loaded with finger pressure only and no need for a short starter. But to my way of thinking it is the ability to allow a very long, heavy projectile to be easily loaded that is the real advantage of the system. Remember when I said that at least one of the longer .45 caliber bullets should be considered if it loads easily in your muzzleloader? Many long projectiles will fit too tightly in the bore and you will end up having to hammer the slug down the barrel. The bullet will become distorted and may even swell at the bore. Accuracy will not be good and loading time will be impractical for hunting.
Those old time buffalo hunters were using breech loaders to gain the advantage of a long, heavy conical. Unless you use a "slip fit" bullet a long projectile won't work as well in a muzzleloader.
I have taken feral hogs in Texas weighing from 200 to 350 pounds using the 380 grain PowerPunch at ranges out to 80 yards. All of these hogs have gone down immediately. I've taken whitetail and mule deer out to 120 yards using the 460 grain PowerPunch. One whitetail buck was shot in the rump from 90 yards. The bullet ranged through his entire length and exited his right front shoulder. He dropped in his tracks. My powder charge on all occasions was between 70 and 80 grains of Pyrodex RS or Select. Don't try that with your Whoop-de-do, high velocity, 180 grain hollow point pistol bullet!
For coyotes I load the 320-grain PowerStar sabot with 70 grains of RS. I've taken two at an average range of 50 yards using a Lohman electronic caller to lure them in. Both were chest shots and both dogs dropped dead instantly. Your 180 grain hollow point might, and I cautiously say might, be able to do that. Really, you'd be better off to use a 200-grain pistol bullet on this size animal and even then only with the Hornady XTP, Thompson/Center PTX, or another premium quality jacketed bullet.
The Thunderbolt will group for me from a rest inside three inches at 100 yards and I have printed one-hole groups at 80 using 70 grains of propellant and the 380 grain projectile. The rifle is equipped with Lyman receiver sights because my eyes aren't what they used to be, but I have no intention of putting a scope on it. Kansas and Colorado muzzleloader season regulations do not allow scope usage most of the time anyway, and I hunt special seasons with this rifle a lot.
Because it has a 209 ignition system the Thunderbolt will shoot pellets and sulfur free powders with virtually no misfires or hangfires. At present there seems to be only three systems on the muzzleloader market that will properly use the 209 shotshell primer: the drop or swing down action, the break action, and the bolt action.
It was the bolt action that first utilized the 209 primer to enhance the reliability of Pyrodex Pellets. Several manufacturers of bolt action rifles used off-the-shelf components for their muzzleloader designs. Remington, Ruger, Savage, and Austin & Halleck are examples of good rifles that use this approach.
Knight and White, neither of which manufactures anything but muzzleloaders, designed their own bolt action rifles. While action length on the conversions will range from 2 1/2 to a whopping 3 1/2 inches because of the original cartridge-length actions used the Knight and White rifles are much more compact. The White breech opening is only 1 1/2 inches, long enough to allow easy access of a capper while maintaining the feel of a big game rifle.
Some of the bolts on the imports are the size of .22's, on which I suspect they were based. Bolt action in-lines with the heft and feel of a big game rifle are easier to hold on target and handle recoil better.
I prefer the White to the Knight for two reasons. The back-up striker safety is a slip and lock system, much quicker, less awkward, and just as safe as the Knight screw out system. The White also does not use a plastic collar for containment of the 209 primer. But either the White or the Knight is head and shoulders above the others for convenience and compact muzzleloader design. Both of these bolt guns are much better constructed than the plastic-action drop blocks and break action imports. The exception is the T/C Encore, a solid break-action muzzleloader made in the U.S.A.
Only the White has the slip fit bullet loading system and only the White can fully utilize long-for-caliber .45 conicals to full advantage. Only the White can take full advantage of a .45 caliber muzzleloader design that will consistently take big game of elk or larger size.
In fact the .451 slip fit system is so good that it will rival the performance of any .50, .52, .54 or .58 caliber design on the market. The only reason I don't take the White to Colorado for elk season is the state regulation limit of .50 caliber. In other states hunters have successfully taken elk with the .451 White for years and openly boasted about the performance. A number of hunters have successfully taken African plains game with their .451 White rifles. Honestly, would you really trust your Whiz-bang, high velocity .45 muzzleloader for an African safari?
Don't bother to reply, I know the answer.
Copyright 2004 by Randy D. Smith. All rights reserved.