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The .54 Caliber Muzzleloader

By Randy D. Smith


Randy Smith
Randy D. Smith

In this day of high-performance muzzleloaders--new long-range .45's, magnum loads, and smokeless powder muzzleloaders--the .54 seems to be fading into the sunset. Recent statistics indicate that .50 and .45 caliber rifles represent a major proportion of the new muzzleloader market. Clearly the .54 has seen better days but is it the dinosaur that some seem to think? Many dedicated .54 caliber shooters would be saddened that the caliber is getting such bad press because it is an excellent choice for big game and all-purpose hunting. It is still a popular choice in the Rocky Mountains for elk and dangerous game where the knock down traits of large conicals have not gone out of style. I keep a .54 around for just such situations.

More than anything else the sabot and so-called "magnum" loads played a big part in the declining popularity of the .54. Shooting a .45 caliber pistol bullet in a thick plastic sabot seems to rob some of the accuracy potential of the .54 and can be difficult to load. Heavy .50 caliber conicals also seem to make the .54 redundant. In spite of this the .54 remains a popular choice for western big game elk and mule deer hunting and for good reason. I am convinced that there are several positive traits unique to the .54 caliber muzzleloader. Not only is it a good choice for hunting but also, in many situations it can be a superior choice.

The .54 is capable of excellent accuracy with a wide variety of projectiles. I chose four .54 caliber rifles to test accuracy potential with a wide variety of loads. An out-of-production Marlin MLS-54 was chosen for its somewhat unique 1:28" .54 caliber rifling. I converted the rifle to musket cap ignition using a standard 1/2 X 28 thread Thompson/Center in-line musket cap nipple. My second choice was a Traditions Evolution bolt action 209 primer rifle with the more conventional 1:48" rifling. Both were brand new rifles with stainless steel barrels, composite stocks and standard open sights. My third rifle was an inexpensive Traditions Springfield Hawken side hammer with #11 percussion cap ignition, 1:48" rifling, and primitive open sights. My last was a Cabela's Sporterized Hawken Hunter carbine with #11 percussion cap ignition, 1:24" rifling, a short 21" barrel and adjustable steel open sights.

For propellants I used Pyrodex RS powder, Goex FFFg, and Pyrodex 60-grain .54 caliber pellets. Both inline rifles were equipped with Harris bipods and shot off of a solid rest at a seventy yard target. A wiping patch was run only after three rounds. No one runs a wiping rod after each shot when hunting in the field. I chose a seventy yard target distance because it is the maximum range that I can fire consistently with open sights. I did not mount the rifles with a scope because most state special season hunts in the western United State mandate open or iron sights only. For a .50 caliber comparison rifle, I chose a Traditions Pursuit with 1:28" twist and Williams WGRS peep sight.

The .54 is the superior round ball hunter. The .54 caliber is an excellent choice for a hunter who uses a patched round ball load. Several side hammer round ball guns are available in .54 caliber including the excellent Lyman Deerslayer, Traditions Woodsman, Cabela's Sporterized Hawken and several other traditional "Hawken" style rifles. With 1:48" rifling an inline such as the Traditions Evolution .54 effectively handles everything from round ball and conical to sabot loads. I don't believe there is any case for .50 caliber superiority over a .54 when shooting patched round balls. At 100 yards a .54 caliber round ball from a 28" barrel will deliver over 520 Ft./lbs. of energy with a 110 grain powder charge, nearly 32 more pounds of energy than a .50 caliber round ball. Several seasons of harvesting deer with a .54 caliber convince me that it is more lethal than .50 caliber round balls.

In this world of fashionable "Magnum" in-line rifles we tend to forget the performance capabilities of "primitive" muzzleloaders. As an example of the performance capability of the side hammer round ball rifle I loaded a Traditions Springfield Hawken with 85 grains of Goex FFFg black powder and fired two, seventy yard groups with Buffalo 220-grain patched round balls and the Buffalo 338-grain Maxi Ball-et. I knew from past experience that this load would do very well. The patched round ball group was two inches and the Maxi Ball-et group was slightly over two inches. I have no idea of how many deer I have taken with this round ball load over the last 25 years but the number is significant. In practical whitetail hunting situations this degree of accuracy, dependability, light recoil, and terminal performance makes such a rifle and load combination an excellent choice.

The .54 is an excellent choice for large and dangerous game. Hunting moose, elk, bear, feral hogs and big mule deer demands the game taking performance of heavy projectiles. While it is common to read of hunters taking these animals with .50 caliber rifles using sabots as light as 240 grains I personally believe that such tactics are bordering on the edge of practical muzzleloader performance capability and game taking efficiency is greatly enhanced by using a heavier projectile.

Using the "Pondoro" Taylor TKO formula (which tends to favor bullet weight in contrast to bullet speed) I will attempt to provide a truer picture of the .54's potential. The formula takes the bullet weight in pounds, that's weight in grains divided by 7000, times velocity in feet per second, times caliber in thousandths of an inch. This produces an index value that can be related to other values to reflect killing power. For example, a .375 Magnum, considered the premier all-purpose African hunting round, throwing a 300-grain bullet (divide by 7,000), times velocity of 2,560 feet per second times caliber of .375 produces an index number of 41.

The 425-grain Buffalo bullet (divide 425 by 7000, times velocity of 1,370 fps times the caliber of .540) produces an index number of 44. But, this is close range power and of course the .375 H & H has the long range advantage of trajectory and fast repeat shots. At 100 yards, however, the 425-grain load still has a TKO quotient of 32, well within the power range of a 150-grain .30-06.

Is the TKO theory credible? I believe that it is up to a point. It does not take penetration into consideration as much as I think it should and it does not provide a good representation of the characteristics of modern bullet construction. Still it does provide a reasonable measurement of the power of slow moving muzzleloader projectiles in relation to modern loads. I do not, for instance, believe that a 425-grain .54 caliber lead bullet is the equal of a .375 H & H on big game. Yet, I would not be afraid to go after big game with a 425-grain .54 caliber lead bullet and believe that the TKO theory gives me a credible idea of what the load can do in relation to other black powder loads and a reasonable estimation of how it relates to many modern cartridge loads.

The .54 makes more efficient use of Pyrodex pellet loads with less recoil than the "magnum" .50 caliber loads. No .50 caliber inline rifle manufactured today has demonstrated that it can effectively combust 150 grains of Pyrodex pellets to the benefit of the shooter. Some of the heavily advertised "Magnum" rifles that I have tested have been wildly inaccurate at this level. Additionally, no .50 caliber inline offered today has been shown to be more accurate with 150 grain loads. The magnum .50 caliber shooter pays a price of heavy recoil, increased barrel contamination, degenerated accuracy, and high pressures. No .50 caliber inline can effectively utilize more than around 130 volumetric grains of blackpowder or Pyrodex. All muzzleloaders that I've tested lose their accuracy edge above 120 grains.

For the whitetail hunter, a 90-grain powder charge behind a 240-250 grain bullet will drop any deer cleanly out to 150 yards with proper shot placement. Experienced big game hunters know that 110 to 120 grains of powder with suitable projectiles accomplish the same task. During a recent South African safari my standard .50 caliber load was either 120 grains of Pyrodex RS or 100 grains of Triple 7 pellets. Some exhaustive field testing convinced me that these were the most accurate loads using 435-grain Buffalo SSB's in one rifle and 600-grain Power Punch conicals in another. I also achieved good accuracy with the 530-grain Powerbelt Dangerous Game bullet but the need to use it did not arise. I never felt that I was under gunned on any game up to 800 pounds.

Want a so-called "Magnum" muzzleloader? A 425-grain conical (using an over powder wad) with a 120-grain Pyrodex Pellet charge will have a muzzle velocity of around 1,530 feet per second and 2,210 foot/pounds of muzzle energy. At one hundred yards the load will retain over 1,200 foot/pounds of energy. During my testing both the Marlin and the Traditions Evolution shot very well using 120 grain pellet charges. I loaded the 338-grain Maxi Ball-et in the in-lines using 120 grain charges at 70 yards. The Evolution shot them very well making a ragged one-hole group and the Marlin turned in a respectable group of two inches as well.

Next I shot the in-lines at 70 yards with the 425-grain Buffalo bullet and 120 grains of propellant. The Evolution did not do nearly as well with a five-inch group. The Marlin turned in a slightly better grouping of four inches. Neither group is really all that good but I'll bet I can take woods whitetails day in and day out with either rifle.

I switched to 240-grain .44 caliber Hornady SWC hollow points in Hornady sabots using the same powder charges in the same rifles. This is one of my favorite target rounds but at lower powder charges of 90 - 100 grains. My 120-grain charge groups widened to nearly seven inches with both rifles. I might add here that I have not tested a single .50 caliber rifle that will do any better at this range with a 150-grain pellet charge. The powder charge is simply too heavy for consistent accuracy with the sabot loads I have tested.

I know a Traditions .54 with 1:48" twist will group 425-grain Buffalo bullets inside of two inches at that range with a powder charge of 85 grains of Pyrodex RS because I've done it for years with a number of .54 caliber Traditions rifles. That has been my favorite .54 caliber deer hunting load for nearly twenty years. However, the performance of the Maxi Ball-et was surprisingly effective and I used it in this rifle during whitetail deer season.

The short barreled Cabela's Hawken Hunter did very well with 85 grains of FFg and the 425-grain Buffalo and the 425-grain Hornady Great Plains. I had several one and two inch groups at 70 yards with both from this rifle. The 1:24" twist rate really does seem to be an excellent heavy conical choice for a .54 caliber carbine. This is a very underrated muzzleloader and it is capable of challenging any similarly equipped inline.

Examined from this perspective a .54 caliber muzzleloader is performing at practical accuracy and performance limits with 120-grain charges of Pyrodex Pellets, FFg black powder or Pyrodex RS. You have one shot; it needs to be a good one. Anything inaccurate just won't do.

The .54 has practical flexibility for both large and small game. Loading the Evolution with a 100-grain charge of Goex FFFg with a 300-grain Hornady XTP in a Hornady white sabot I shot it against the Traditions .50 caliber Pursuit Pro with the same load in an MMP green sabot. My group sizes were identical at slightly over two inches. Although the thicker .54 sabot loads a bit harder the rifles performed comparably at reasonable powder charge levels.

Returning to the Hornady 240-grain SWC hollow point and a single 60-grain pellet charge or a 70 grain charge of Goex FFFg the Evolution easily managed under two-inch seventy-yard groups. I enjoyed nearly identical performance from the 225-grain Buffalo sabot with these powder charges with this rifle. Either of these would make excellent small game and varmint loads. Projectiles of this weight class are especially effective for coyote hunting. They do little hide damage and a properly hit coyote usually drops in his tracks.

The .54 has the authority to put large deer and elk down in excellent fashion out to 120 yards using open sights. I wouldn't hesitate to head for Colorado after elk or black bear with the same gun and load, especially for a horseback hunt where a carbine works quite well from a saddle scabbard.

Conical shooters will find that such excellent .54 caliber big game projectiles as the 425-grain Hornady Great Plains, 425-grain Buffalo Bullet, 360-grain T/C Maxi-Hunter, 430-grain T/C Maxi-Ball, 430-grain White Powerpunch and 450-grain Precision Rifle Ultimate I are readily available and provide solid performance. These heavy projectiles do a lot of tissue and bone damage as well as creating wounds that bleed freely. Large deer are often knocked to the ground by the impact of a good hit and blood trailing of game that does not go down immediately is often easier than a sabot wound. Too many sabot loads to mention are available for the .54 and the Pyrodex Pellet is marketed in a 60-grain .54 caliber configuration.

I feel that the real strength of the .54, however, is its ability to fully utilize the shock traits of heavy lead slugs at moderate velocities. Certainly, you shouldn't pass up a good used or new .54 caliber gun if you enjoy big game hunting with a muzzleloader. The common industry standard of a 1:48" twist in .54 caliber is highly versatile at moderate powder charges, handling patched round ball, conical and sabot in good order. When using .44 or .45 caliber pistol bullets in sabots an accuracy comparison against a .50 with moderate loads is insignificant. A .54 allows a shorter conical to be of the same mass of a longer .50 caliber conical. This can be important in states such as Colorado where maximum projectile length in relation to the caliber is mandated for special seasons. I see no difference in conical accuracy or range between the .50 and .54 using light or heavy loads. If game regulations limit you to patched round balls then the .54 should be a major consideration.

Current advertising campaigns for Magnum .50 caliber muzzleloaders boast of 200-yard performance but how many of you have ever taken a whitetail at such ranges, especially with a muzzleloader? Now ask yourself how many whitetails have you taken inside of 70 yards. At practical whitetail hunting ranges a .54 caliber muzzleloader shooting a big conical is a devastating performer and will compete quite favorably against the .50 caliber rifle. Certainly a strong argument can be made regarding the superiority of massive bullets and moderate powder charges as opposed to heavy powder charges and light weight bullets in states such as Colorado where sabots are illegal for muzzleloader season. Don't count out the .54 caliber muzzleloader for black powder hunting. It provides a lot of performance with few disadvantages.

After my testing I sold or returned all the rifles except the Traditions Evolution. I removed the rear fiber optic sight and replaced it with a Williams WGRS with receiver sight with a Buckbuster (3/8" outside diameter with .150 inner diameter) aperture peep and a Trekker front sight guard to protect the fiber optic blade from limb damage. The Trekker sight guard had no detrimental effect upon balance or handling qualities. I worked up a load of two 60-grain Pyrodex .54 caliber pellets and Buffalo 338-grain Maxi-Ballets. This load in this rifle and sight configuration will shoot offhand MOA fifty yard and two-inch eighty yard groups. I don't need any better for woods whitetail, elk, bear and hog hunting and the power of the load is impressive.

I took a farm tag buck of average size (87 lbs. of processed meat) at 60 yards. I had only seconds to get on him and make the shot. The Maxi-ballet broke his left front shoulder, blew out his heart and lungs, and left a golf ball exit hole on the far side. He faltered and fell within two feet of impact. That is the kind of performance I have come to expect from a properly configured .54 caliber muzzleloader in the right hunting conditions.




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