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Planning for a Muzzleloader Safari in South Africa
Old "Lonesome Dove" Gus said just before he cashed in his chips, "It’s been quite a party." I can make the same claim about a South African safari, and I haven’t even left yet.
A little over a year ago I received an invitation to go on a muzzleloader safari in South Africa. I have spent the entire time deciding what I wanted to take as my primary and backup rifles, testing projectiles and propellants, and developing strategies to get my equipment over there. I thought that you might enjoy reading about the trials, tribulations, schemes, and disasters I went through to decide what rifles and loads I am taking.
The invitation was good timing because I was preparing to go within the coming two years anyway. The difference was that I had planned to take conventional rifles. My primary rifle was going to be a Ruger #1B .338 Winchester Magnum for plains game and a Ruger Model 77 .458 Winchester Magnum.
The invitation, when it came, completely changed my plans because it came from my friend, Dr. Gary "Doc" White, the man who developed the White Muzzleloading System. The emphasis suddenly shifted to hunting plains game with muzzleloaders.
I do not consider muzzleloader hunting in Africa as some kind of "stunt." It is certainly as legitimate as bow hunting and a properly configured muzzleloader is a formidable hunting instrument.
Of course, a muzzleloader is not in the same league as the Rugers I had purchased specifically to hunt Alaska and Africa. I purchased these rifles used at what I considered bargain prices and intended to become thoroughly familiar with them. The .338 Magnum No. 1 and the .458 Winchester Magnum Model 77 were chosen for their configurations and the strengths of the cartridges. Neither is a rifle that I intend to part with. You never know what might come up. I may get a chance to go back and I consider this to be a perfect rifle combination for me. I can shoot both of them pretty well.
A major factor influencing my muzzleloader decisions came from experiences gained during a Florida Indian River Buffalo hunt, where I had acted as the backup shooter for Doc. Doc took a world record class 2,300 pound bull using a White .50 caliber muzzleloader shooting 140 grains of Pyrodex P and a 600-grain soft lead Power Punch conical.
His shot was from 88 yards. The bullet penetrated just behind the heart and lodged against the ribs on the opposite side. The bull retreated into thick palmettos and myrtles with his fellows. Our professional hunter, carrying a Rigby 470 Nitro Express double, led us into the thick stuff to try and locate him. To make a long story short, we did not find him that night, but the potentially dangerous experience convinced me that if I was ever in a situation like that again with a muzzleloader, I wanted a double barrel or at least a massive single barrel with excellent short-range stopping power.
South African import regulations allow the hunter to bring in two rifles. My muzzleloader challenge was to decide upon a first rifle for most of my shooting and a heavy second for potentially dangerous situations. Since I am a strong supporter of the White Shooting System, I fully expected that my primary rifle would be a .504 caliber White but, at the time, I had no firm plans for the second.
I believe that it is important to explain some critical influencing factors that color many of my opinions because many readers may disagree with me. After years of hunting game in all categories I have become a proponent of big bore heavy projectile muzzleloaders. I believe these to be more effective on dangerous game than so-called "magnum" loads that depend upon heavy powder charges and lighter weight bullets at higher velocity to generate kinetic energy. I like 375 - 600 grain conicals shot from .50, .54 or .58 caliber muzzleloader rifles.
However, there are some high performance sabots worth looking into. A much harder projectile can be fired with a sabot load. Since penetration is often linked to projectile hardness and mass, these loads should not be ruled out if they are of significant weight.
I am not interested in hunting dangerous game with any projectile that weighs less than 400 grains and would much prefer something over 500 grains. I do not believe that energy comparisons give proper credit to heavy big bore slugs when discussions are centered on muzzleloaders.
Black powder can only generate so much velocity and beyond that the only practical way to increase hitting power is to add weight and diameter to the projectile. While the "magnum" sabot loads work reasonably well on light boned deer and possibly even elk, they have not exhibited the shock characteristics of heavy projectiles that I like to see. As Jim Carmichel once wrote about dangerous games' reaction to a shot, "I like to see the animal go all loose." From my observations of all sizes of game shot with muzzleloaders, heavy conicals do a much better job of creating this effect.
I also wanted a muzzleloader design that could be reloaded quickly. My goal was within twenty seconds. That is an easy proposition if a hunter is using a "slip fit" loading design such as a White conical in a White rifle. It is practically impossible with many muzzleloader designs, especially with tight fitting sabots. I am also a firm believer that any powder charge over 120 grains in a 24" barrel .50 caliber muzzleloader is over bore capacity. From that point on, realistic power enhancement comes from additional projectile mass.
I strongly believe that a hunter must find a "balanced load" for whatever game is being pursued. Balancing a load matches rifle barrel length, barrel twist, powder charge and projectile design to provide maximum effectiveness (killing power) without overpowering the shooter with excessive recoil or losing accuracy.
A correctly "balanced load" may be different for each individual shooter. Some can effectively manage more recoil than others, and there are great differences in shooting expertise and hunting skill. And, just as important, a certain size animal can only be killed so dead.
Just as it doesn’t make sense to hunt Texas whitetail deer with a .458 Lott or elk with a .223 Remington centerfire rifle, neither do many of the so-called whitetail muzzleloader "magnum" loads currently being promoted. A muzzleloader hunter should strive to find the best load for the size of game that he is hunting, and within parameters that allow him to be able to shoot that load at the best practical accuracy level.
The vast majority of muzzleloader loads and rifles are designed for North American deer hunters. Rifle and load expectations for heavier African game should be substantially different and common deer loads are inadequate.
October Country of Hayden, Idaho has experience with traditional big bore, side hammer guns of .62 caliber to 4 bore. These have proven to be very effective against dangerous game including grizzly bear, lion and Cape buffalo. These heavy guns are direct descendants of the old school of big game muzzleloaders. Company owner, John Shorb, has some interesting and valid opinions regarding dangerous game muzzleloaders:
"My opinion is that when one is dealing with big, bad animals, one cannot have too much firepower at hand. I constantly refer back to Sir Samuel White Baker's quote on the subject. 'There is no more fatal policy in hunting dangerous game than contempt of the animal, exhibited by a selection of weapons of inferior caliber. Common sense should be the guide, and surely it requires no extraordinary intelligence to understand that a big animal requires a big bullet, and that a big bullet requires a corresponding charge of powder.' " (Wild Beasts and Their Ways: Reminiscences of Europe, Asia, Africa, and America London: Macmillan, 1891.)
"Now, old Baker sounded to be a bit pompous, and he was definitely imperious, but the guy killed more big critters in a year than we will ever see in a lifetime. So, he knew what he was talking about."
"Bullet weight is a fine thing, but frontal diameter is also important. I do not think that having a .50 caliber bullet that is two to three diameters long is nearly as effective as having a round ball of that same weight. Figure out the Taylor knockout value for yourself, using your own ballistics. Our .72 cal rifle has been chronographed at 2,026 fps using Hodgdon Triple Seven. So, the formula goes diameter x weight x velocity divided by 7000. So .715 x 555 x 2026 = 803967.45 divided by 7000 = 114.8. This number tells you how hard the projectile hits. That is a more telling ballistic formula than merely figuring out muzzle energy. As I recall, the above scenario equates out to just short of 5,000 pounds. Pretty potent in its own right."
On one African hunt an October Country 8-bore rifle took a 545 pound male lion using an 835 grain round ball and a 300 grain Fg black powder charge. The massive ball went completely though the animal front to back. This is an extremely heavy load and I'm sure it produces significant recoil in a fourteen-pound muzzleloader. But, again, this is the stuff that was used in 19th Century Africa and the kind of black powder firepower demanded to produce the energy needed to take down dangerous game. Some common recommended loads for various October Country models follow.
October Country strongly states that these loads are maximum for their guns and should not be tried unless the rifle is designed to handle such.
These are impressive figures but there is a point of diminishing returns involved here as well. Having witnessed the performance of 530, 600, and 555-grain muzzleloader projectiles on large game I am convinced that I can hunt plains game with these rounds and enjoy excellent performance. Even lion could be taken within the proper parameters. Frankly, while I would consider some dangerous game hunts with a muzzleloader, I’d certainly want my tracker to be carrying my .458 and my PH to be carrying his favorite backup rifle as well. Again, muzzleloader hunting isn’t a stunt but it should be a reasonably limited undertaking.
Modern smokeless powder loads are no more powerful than the old time black powder loads. Smokeless powder gives the shooter more velocity and a lower trajectory curve. You can shooter farther, straighter, more often using a lighter rifle and still retain significant bullet energy with smokeless powder.
For black powder to accomplish the same level of performance, the shooter must use massive loads that can translate into unacceptable recoil levels and extremely heavy rifles to manage those loads. The only way to use black powder loads to their best potential is to get closer. While the average modern big game hunter may consider a shot at 150 or 250 yards, most black powder shooters are not proficient beyond 120 yards and most heavy loads lose a significant proportion of energy at that range.
I like to get close with a muzzleloader (80 yards is good, 50 is better) and do the most damage I can with the most powerful load I can comfortably shoot. I do not want a load that is so heavy that it causes me to flinch, fear pulling the trigger, or does not exhibit dependable shot to shot accuracy.
I want my heavy load fired from a rifle that can stand up to repeated usage (again a strong case for the best rifle you can afford) and with a stock design and overall weight to absorb heavy recoil. An over-loaded rifle is just as impractical as an under-loaded one if you can't shoot it properly. I prefer a rifle that weighs at least ten pounds to help manage recoil.
October Country offered an 8 bore double rifle that weighed fourteen pounds. Their 8 bore single weighs about the same and their 4 bore weighs nearly eighteen.
Most modern in-lines are designed for deer hunters and seldom weigh over eight pounds; many are closer to six. Still, a well-designed in-line can manage some pretty hefty loads. Look for rifles with stock designs that transfer recoil straight back into the shoulder and with designs that do not mount the scope too near the eye.
My preference is for a musket cap ignition because caps are not as prone to stick in the breech as a 209 shot shell primer and transfer just as much fire to the powder charge. There are some rifles on the market that manage 209 primers quite effectively and the primers are easily extracted. The Knight DISC Extreme, Thompson/Center Encore and Austin & Halleck in-lines are prime examples.
Choosing a Double
Chances were that the double might never be used but I was committed to taking one. The South African plains game hunt would probably be pretty tame compared to even Capstick’s time. I will take my game with a single shot and if a really hairy situation develops the professional hunter will take over with his modern gun. In the back of my mind, however, there is that evening in Florida when we were searching for the wounded buffalo in the myrtle thickets.
Events could have been far different. We might have been charged at close quarters by a truly deadly animal. A double might not have made a significant difference and then again it might have been the deciding factor between success and tragedy. I also vividly recall some of the brush and foliage I’ve had to crawl through looking for wounded game in North America. I know I am engaging in a lot of "what ifs" and conjecture. I wanted to at least test a double in the field even if it was the relatively inexpensive Cabela’s Kodiak.
I e-mailed Joe Arterburn, the media contact person at Cabela’s, about testing their Kodiak Double Express Rifle and perhaps taking it with me to Africa. I’ve written a lot about Cabela’s products over the years and have faith in their judgment and their upper end products. I told Joe I wanted either a .58 or the .72 caliber. Joe immediately emailed me suggesting that I talk to Jerry Bramer, Cabela’s resident "black powder guru." Bramer felt that I should take a .50 caliber instead.
I telephoned Bramer and had a nice talk with him. Bramer’s logic was simple. The .50 caliber had better choices of projectiles, better performing projectiles, better accuracy, and better range. In fact he was going to Africa himself to hunt before I would. He was taking a Winchester, 209 ignition, .50 caliber in-line and planning on using a new Power Belt dangerous game bullet.
Power Belts are a relatively new projectile design that uses a snap-on plastic base instead of a sabot to engage the rifling when the muzzleloader is fired. I had no experience with them but knew that they were the latest industry innovation. The company had developed a 420-grain and 530-grain steel tip dangerous game bullet. After the Florida hunt, the 530-grain projectile sounded interesting.
I considered Jerry’s arguments through the night. On the one hand, his logic made perfect sense. On the other, my desire to go with a .72 using a 535-grain round ball at short range had equally strong merit. John Shorb’s big bore arguments carried a lot of influence as well. Jerry wanted an all-purpose rifle (his Winchester) and I wanted a special purpose gun as backup to the all-purpose White.
I emailed Joe and told him that I would go with a .50. The major reason was that I could possibly use White’s 600-grain Power Punch or the 530-grain Power Belt in it. Another was that the Kodiak .72 caliber was not capable of withstanding the heavy powder charges to match Shorb’s loads. I would have the mass of the projectile but not the powder charge. The Kodiak was simply not capable of meeting that standard.
White does not produce any projectile for a caliber larger than .50. Since I would be hunting with White products, I felt that it would be judicious to concentrate on their muzzle-loading system, and I also have tremendous faith in the 600-grain Power Punch. I knew what the Power Punch could do from several hunting experiences. I also knew that Doc had taken several big game animals with the 600 in Africa and Alaska.
I had my reservations. The Kodiak has a barrel twist of 1:48" which is not the best for long conical accuracy, especially in .50 caliber. White uses a fast twist rate of 1:24" to stabilize the bullet and the current industry favorite is 1:28".
Another challenge is the fact that the Pedersoli’s barrels are regulated to a point of aim at seventy-five yards. The company doesn’t state what the powder charge and projectile weight is for that regulation. My guess was that it was a low powder charge of seventy or eighty grains with a patched round ball of 177 grains, or the regulation might be done with lasers with no shooting involved.
Either would not be relevant to my proposed load of 120 – 140 grains of powder and a 600-grain conical. Long-distance accuracy is really not an issue, however. I planned to use this gun only in special circumstances at ranges of less than eighty yards, and probably less than fifty.
If I could manage three or four inch groups with both barrels of the Kodiak at seventy-five yards using the Power Punch projectile with a powder charge in the neighborhood of 120 -140 grains, I could produce more close-range power than a .375 H & H, according to John "Pondoro" Taylor’s TKO formula for big game rifles.
Taylor was an African professional hunter and poacher who killed literally thousands of game animals during his professional hunting years. His books are something of a standard on big game rifles of the first half of the 20th Century.
Taylor made an attempt to generate a formula that would predict what the performance of a given bullet at a certain velocity might be, attempting to correlate the relative numbers of his formula with observed results in African game. He called it the TKO or Taylor-Knock-Out Formula. Used correctly, it will generally predict, in relative terms, how well a load will do. The weakness of the formula is that it does not take penetration ability into consideration as much as I would like to see. And like most formulas, it is construed to suit the writer’s opinion.
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 600-grain Power Punch (divide 600 by 7000, times velocity of 1,400 fps times the caliber of .504) produces an index number of 56. But, this is close range power and of course the .375 H & H has the long range advantage of trajectory and fast repeat shots. Still, for the conditions I was planning, I could gain significant power from a double barrel muzzleloader using the .50 caliber White load, certainly enough to be worthy of dangerous game pursuit.
Another major influence was that no matter what projectile I choose for a .58 or any caliber other than a .50, I would be in the field with two different calibers to manage. By going with the White .503 caliber Power Punch bullets in 460, 480 and 600-grain weights I would have a proven bullet design that would easily work in either rifle on a moment’s notice. There would be much less confusion, the same or similar powder charges, and the faster loading characteristics of the White projectiles even though they were not designed for a Pedersoli gun.
White produces one .50 caliber projectile for competitive rifles but it is only 445 grains, not as heavy as I wanted to use for this purpose. If I could get the 600-grain to work with the Kodiak reasonably well in the field and at the target range, I had a nearly perfect back-up rifle for any White. Whether I used the 460 or 480-grain projectile in my all-purpose rifle depended on my field tests and could be influenced by any new projectile that White wanted to test.
I chose not to debate the people at Cabela’s. If I hadn’t wanted their advice I wouldn’t have asked for it. I would go to the field and see what the Kodiak would do. I found it humorous, however, that my monster big bore .72 caliber, musket cap ignition, dangerous game "thumper" had suddenly become a rather mundane off-the-shelf side hammer .50 using plain #11 caps.
If I were designing a double barrel muzzleloader for dangerous game, it would be an in-line using 209 shotshell primer or musket cap ignition and a fast twist barrel. If I was designing the Pedersoli to suit me, I would go to a synthetic stock, a fast twist barrel, and musket cap ignition. But those rifles did not exist as mass production models and I didn’t have the resources to have one custom made.
I wondered what "Pondoro" would have done. Really, I know what he would have done because of what he did so many times in his career. He was a poor boy and a working stiff, just like me. He took what was available and made the best of it. So would I.
Experience has convinced me of one trait of #11 percussion caps. They are notoriously prone to misfires and hang-fires no matter how fastidious the management of the gun. Even the so-called magnum caps generate nowhere near the positive ignition traits of the musket cap or the 209 shot shell primer. Certainly, in a situation where I need a dependable backup gun, I have little faith in a #11 percussion cap system. The #11 cap and nipple system has one advantage in that it has moisture resistance quality because of the tight fit upon the nipple. But that one feature does not override the musket cap’s increased fire generation. After 1850 virtually no military or dangerous game muzzleloader was designed with a #11 percussion cap system until the advent of muzzle-loading replicas in the late 1960s.
When the Kodiak arrived I was impressed with the overall fit and finish of the rifle. It is a handsome, compact, double trigger, side hammer unit with decent open sights, a much more substantial European walnut stock than my Cabela’s shotgun, and nice, muzzle heavy balance. It has two percussion hammers that strike a direct line (rather than the more primitive drum and bolster) #11 percussion system.
It had two sets of identical fold down "Express" rear sights placed one in front of the other. Since the forward rear sight (farthest from the shooter’s eye) was not elevated it took some shooting to appreciate the purpose of the second set. I realized that the sights could be set for each individual barrel. Setting the rear sight for the right barrel and the front sight for the left, I could develop some long range flexibility with both barrels while still having short range capability for both barrels using the only rear sight.
It isn’t a bad system once you think about it, certainly an innovative concept for an inexpensive double rifle. For a second longer range shot if the right barrel was already discharged, it would only take seconds to fold down the front sight (closest to the shooter’s eye) and bring the rear sight (farther from the shooter’s eye) into action. This two sight system allows both barrels to be employed for fast short range shots and still manages fairly precise long range shooting from the left barrel.
The Kodiak had weaknesses as a dangerous game muzzleloader. The first was its inexpensive wooden ramrod. I immediately purchased a rugged CVA fiberglass replacement rod, as I had no intention of trusting the original.
My second concern was that it was designed for #11 percussion caps. Misfires and hang-fires were often enough to be unacceptable for my purposes. After much experimentation I found that the only propellant that would consistently ignite in this gun was FFg black powder. The problem was that taking black powder to South Africa was proving to be very difficult. There was a real possibility that the only propellant I would be able to take were Pyrodex pellets or Triple 7 pellets.
My next concern involved the highly conservative maximum powder loads recommended in the owner’s manuals. I wanted to load the gun with 110 to 120 grains of propellant, nearly 40% greater than the recommended maximum load.
Early examination of the bore and bullet fit also indicated that I would have unacceptable difficulty loading the 600-grain White Power Punch because of a tight bore fit and the extended length of the conical. There was simply too much bullet projecting above the muzzle crown to expect to take the impact of a short starter and still remain properly aligned. Problems could develop with stuck or swelled projectiles that not only hurt accuracy but also have the potential of rendering the rifle totally useless for backup shots when they are needed most.
The Kodiak’s steel butt plate is attractive but it was too short for my physic, exaggerated recoil and tended to shift that recoil into my upper arm. The first load was a 435-grain Buffalo Spitzer sabot with a 120-grain powder charge. The result was unpleasant and painful in spite of a 9 ½ pound rifle weight. I carried some handsome upper arm bruises around for several weeks after that shooting session.
I tried a Cabela’s Kick Killer large size lace-on recoil pad. It fit well and completely changed the length of pull and feel of the double. The rear sights came to the eye much more naturally, the added length enhanced my ability to focus on the sights and I was able to tolerate much heavier powder charges. The pad greatly improved the gun’s handling and shooting characteristics for me. I was able to work back up to 120-grain charges of FFg with much better recoil management.
After some searching I was able to locate some 1/4X28 thread Mountain State Manufacturing musket cap nipples that fit the Kodiak well enough to make them work with only minor adjustments to the hammer angles. This alteration created a double that could handle every propellant I cared to shove down it.
When the Power Belt dangerous game bullets arrived it took only one trip to the range to realize that this ground breaking design addressed many concerns I had regarding the Kodiak. The big, black bullet with copper colored band was easy to load in the Kodiak as well as my White rifles, grouped just as well as the Power Punch bullet and was designed to penetrate as well as any projectile on the market. The Power Belt projectiles matched with the added dependability of musket cap nipples gave the Kodiak the potential of being a formidable close-range dangerous game rifle.
At this stage my gun plans took a dramatic turn. I was offered a White prototype .504 caliber double from Doc. Using right handed version of the White Lightning breech action and left handed breech action of the Model 97 White Whitetail .50 caliber carbine, Doc made a double rifle with 22" barrels in a 1:24" twist pattern. It weighs ten pounds and is fitted to a handsome Claro walnut stock with a 14" length of pull. The rifle was equipped double triggers, Williams fiber optic open sights, and #11 percussion nipples. Being a prototype the rifle had cosmetic flaws but it immediately eclipsed the Kodiak and all other doubles that I had considered. Original drill and tap holes for sights were plugged but still visible. There was no secondary safety common to all White models (but the side hammer Kodiak has no secondary safety either).
Here was a practical, affordable, heavy load, dangerous game inline muzzleloader that simply overshadowed the competition. I was impressed with the double from the first but made some changes as I tested it. I ordered a set of musket cap nipples to insure more consistent ignition. Secondly, I blackened the rear fiber optic rear sight to improve the definition of my sight picture. This single act tightened my 50 yard groups by two inches and 100 yard offhand groups by four inches. My eyes simply do not handle the "shimmer" of fiber optic open sights very well.
More importantly the double handled and loaded the 600-grain Power Punch projectile just like any other White rifle using powder charges of 120 and 140 grains with excellent recoil traits. It handled the 530-grain Power Belts equally as well. Recoil management was superior to any muzzle-loading rifle that I tested. Not only was the recoil manageable, the heavy double actually felt good to shoot. This put me back on track with the idea of being able to carry two weights of the same "slip fit" projectile that would easily load in either rifle. Heavy load accuracy was superior to the Kodiak and the White can be field stripped with a breech wrench in case of a loading mistake or ignition failure. The White was everything I had been looking for in a backup double. I did have some problems with welds coming loose after several shooting sessions and had to return the White for repair but that is typical for a prototype design. It came back to me a few weeks later, fully functional and ready for action.
In fairness, the Kodiak was never designed for what I was attempting. But with the changes I made in the recoil pad, musket cap ignition, and load development, I would have used it as my primary back up had the White not become available. I still own it and intend to use it on many hunts.
I had several in-lines that would work as my primary hunting rifle for African plains game. My Ruger 77/50RS has musket cap ignition and a compact Burris 4X scope. It is light, accurate and features Ruger’s excellent bolt design. This is a first-rate rifle for packing and stalking but I have never been able to shoot it as accurately as many heavier rifles and the recoil with heavy loads can be excessive. It does very well with moderate deer loads of 90 grains of propellant matched with the 300-grain XTP sabot.
My Austin & Halleck Model 320 is a much heavier, more robust design, excellent for long range work. It has an extremely dependable 209 ignition system and a nearly indestructible Mossy Oak camouflage pattern composite stock. It is equipped with a 3-9X 32mm Bushnell Banner scope. While long-range accuracy is good the A & H is awkward in tight quarters and too bulky for my taste. I like to use 100-grain Pyrodex pellet loads matched with the 375-grain Buffalo sabot in this rifle.
My Marlin ML54 is a stainless, composite stock .54 caliber with a Thompson/Center 1/4X28 thread musket cap nipple designed for in-lines. It is the best .54 caliber rifle I’ve owned. It does very well at close range with Precision Rifle’s 530-grain Ultimate 1 conical and 85 grains of Pyrodex RS. Equipped with standard open sights, I use this compact 22" barrel rifle for heavy brush whitetail hunting during the early deer season when scopes are not allowed, and for feral hogs. The Marlin, because of its caliber, is more suited to be a close range backup rather than a long range plains game rifle.
The final choice came down to a .451 caliber White Thunder Bolt or a .504 caliber White Thunder Bolt Super Safari both of which can easily manage a 460-grain conical. I purchased the .451 Thunder Bolt when the model first came out as a test rifle because I had never used a White System rifle of that caliber in the field. It is equipped with Lyman peep sights. The 209 ignition system and the bolt action design of the gun are excellent. I like the heft of the Thunder Bolt for managing recoil and for sighting stability. I also enjoy hunting with the smaller caliber because I get a lot of knock down punch and long-range accuracy with relatively low powder charges of 70 grains of Pyrodex. The .451 Thunder Bolt is normally the first rifle I reach for during big game muzzleloader–only hunting seasons.
But all things considered, I ordered a new set of Warne scope bases and rings for the Thunderbolt Super Safari because of its ability to handle both the 530-grain Power Belt and the 600-grain Power Punch conical. The rifle had been proven in the field a number of times. It has a virtually indestructible full-length Bell & Carlson composite stock that manages heavy recoil better than any rifle or shotgun I have ever used. It remains one of the most accurate muzzleloading rifles I have ever shot. I have made my best and longest big game shots with it.
It weighs in at nearly nine pounds including the scope and has excellent balance for being such a heavy rifle. Carrying it over long distances can be a challenge yet it has a nice barrel heavy balance for aiming. It matched the caliber of the White double so any projectile I have on the hunt will work in either rifle.
Most of all, I trusted it. I feel that I could take on any animal in North America with that rifle without fear of an ignition failure.
Confidence is paramount and having a good idea of how a rifle will function in the field is the single most important consideration for evaluation of any muzzleloader. I wanted to get it set up with a scope early to work on my field loads. More than anything else I needed to improve my long range shooting and run several hundred rounds through the rifle at distances beyond 120 yards.
Shortly before leaving I shot several 100-yard two inch groups and 120-yard five inch groups using a load of 120 grains of Pyrodex RS and the 435-grain Buffalo sabot. I could get nearly identical performance from the same sabot and 100 grain Triple 7 pellet charges.
These were not bench rest groups but simply informal shooting from a three-point elbow rest position. In spite of all the hype in the media, this is pretty respectable performance for any hunting in-line. About the only time I will bench rest a rifle is to zero the scope. Most of my target practice is off-hand, from a three-point sitting position or from an elbow rest. I am a hunter, not a target shooter.
I have to concentrate on my trigger control when shooting the Thunder Bolt as the recoil from this load is still significant. There is slight creep in the trigger and it is easy for me to pull a shot because of flinching. My best groups occur when actual ignition is a surprise from slowly increasing pressure on the trigger. But I’ve found that when shooting anything heavier than my 30-06’s that I have to concentrate to keep from flinching.
This should be a major consideration for anyone considering a heavy rifle or muzzleloader. If you can’t control the rifle recoil you are gaining nothing from the increased power. It is certainly a credible argument against the current fashion of shooting 150-grain charges of propellant in a 6 pound muzzleloader. Many hunters are just fooling themselves with that charge.
I originally mounted a Bausch & Lomb 4200 1.5 – 6X scope, but changed to a Weaver Grand Slam 1.5 – 5X because of its shorter length and longer eye relief. With heavy loads the Bausch & Lomb was occasionally striking the bridge of my glasses. These are the best scopes I own and both provide outstanding visual clarity.
The Other Stuff
As I mentioned earlier, getting bulk powder to South Africa is a major problem. Current concerns with international terrorism have created a situation where transporting muzzleloader loads can be difficult and expensive. To further complicate matters, airline regulations are written for cartridge rifles and do not even mention muzzleloaders. It is also difficult for a foreigner to learn about South African black powder sources or purchase regulations.
I tried to locate a South African Pyrodex source with no luck. Pyrodex is not marketed in South Africa. I attempted to arrange for purchase of black powder in South Africa with equally frustrating results. South African dealers would not even discuss the matter over the Internet, probably for good reason. I researched the strategy of having my powder shipped ahead to the outfitter but felt that a $300 hazardous shipping charge for a couple of pounds was unreasonable.
The usual advice I received was that I should place the powder in shotgun and/or rifle cartridges and transport them with me on the airlines. But I don’t like the idea of attempting to "sneak" loads past customs, especially after 9/11. I had visions of being led away in handcuffs by some airport security personnel who had no appreciation for muzzleloaders. The other advice was that those hunters who took Pyrodex pellets in an unopened sealed container had not been challenged in the U.S. or South Africa.
Using Pyrodex pellets seemed a reasonable compromise except that I have not been especially happy with conical performance using them. I can get passable accuracy using 100 grains of Triple 7 pellets and 130 grains of Pyrodex pellets if I load an over-powder wad. I get much better results with pellets by loading a sabot. My sabot of choice is the .50 caliber 435-grain Buffalo boat tail spitzer. It should do quite well on plains game with 100-grain pellet charges of Triple 7.
Eventually I worked up Pyrodex RS powder cartridges packaged in rubber waterproof tubes in plastic twenty-round boxes. I labeled them as Muzzleloader Cartridges and had them professionally wrapped. I placed them in a double locked ammunition case along with my 209 primers and musket caps as well as including a box of Triple 7 pellets. I also placed packaged 460 and 600-grain Power Punch conicals, 530-grain Power Belt dangerous game bullets and 435-grain Buffalo Sabots in my gun case. What powder loads are accepted by customs will dictate which bullets I use in South Africa.
I also packed all my cleaning and maintenance supplies in a lockable plastic box with padlock. One thing is for certain. I should be able to tell future hunters what will and won’t work for a South African hunt. I don’t even want to guess what strategy would work for some of the other African nations. Nobody writes very much about this problem and I hesitate to speculate how they get their powder over there. I am banking on a strategy of up front declaration rather than deception. It suits me better. More about this subject later.
For what I spent researching and developing muzzleloaders for South Africa I could have bought a Blaser R93 Synthetic in .375 H & H Magnum. But then again, the idea of stalking the bush veldt with a muzzleloader is the chance of a lifetime for someone like me. I’ll be joining a unique fraternity of muzzleloader enthusiasts. It will be exciting to see if I am up to the challenge and I may well not be. I may wish several times over that I’d taken the Rugers after all, but then again, isn’t that uncertainty the real attraction of big game sport hunting? We shall see.
Copyright 2004 by Randy D. Smith. All rights reserved.