The Benefits of Pure Lead, and Having a Ball Without Them

By Randy Wakeman

Conflicting information abounds in muzzleloading, which is only natural as the information presented by various manufacturers and manufacturer-sponsored shooters bears more than a casual resemblance to advertising copy. Pure lead projectiles have long been taken for granted, and the reasons for the inclusion of jacketed bullets in the first place have been ignored. Elemental lead has long been held as an ideal bullet material, as it is readily available, easily formable, extremely dense, uniform, and soft enough to expand inside of game animals.

Who Needs a Jacket?

Jackets were put on the bullets of cartridge guns primarily to protect the bullets from the damage inflicted by rifling, which can strip lead from soft lead bullets at velocities well below 1400 fps. Once "leading" occurs, accuracy is lost in a Mexican minute. Rifling grooves work best when they are not filled with lead.

Lead erosion, vaporization, and flames cutting at the base are known problems. Successful black powder, pure lead, round ball loads with muzzle velocities of over 2400 fps are well documented in the literature. However, cloth patches protected the pure lead balls used in these loads.

Referring to Lyman (Black powder Handbook and Reloading Manual, 2nd Edition) you can find a .32 caliber rifle load, a bit larger than the bores of the most popular centerfire hunting rifles, launching a its projectile at a surprising 2,488 fps muzzle velocity. Sadly, this speedy little wonder ball has a dismal ballistic coefficient of .043 and sheds its small amount of kinetic energy with astonishing aplomb. At 100 yards downrange, over 80% of its energy has vanished, leaving only a pathetic 111 ft. lbs.

Our mouse that roared is now a pipsqueak. A factory .22 Hornet cartridge, actually same bullet weight, has over four times that amount of energy left at 100 yards. Whatever level of big game animal you might feel a .22 Hornet is good for, our round ball is good for a lot less. Good for nothing seems an appropriate description.

Just how bad is a round ball, you might be wondering? A 545 grain, 75 caliber round ball launched by 120 grains of black powder has a more substantial 1432 ft. lbs. of energy at the muzzle. Great if a disgruntled caribou charges you, but many of us are forced to take animals beyond the end of our muzzles.

Hitting the target 4 inches high at 60 yards, we can hope to be on the paper at 100 yards. By 150 yards, the same 100 yard zeroed bullet hits 14.49 inches low, and at 200 yards 41.17 inches low, with less than the recommended 800 fps of energy recommended for harvesting deer-sized game.

Trivia buffs and varmint fans alike will delight in knowing that our round ball, after over 2 seconds of flight time, will hit with a calculated 300 foot pounds of energy at 500 yards. Naturally, we have cleverly, compensated for our coyote capable ball with a touch of holdover for the additional 588.62 inches of drop.

Those unhappy with the recoil generated by that load will likely find comfort in the .58 caliber, 566 grain, Lyman conical with 140 grains of Pyrodex RS. Our muzzle energy is now a whopping 2274 ft. lbs. and our lust for pain is satisfied. The energy to whack deer at 250 yards now exists.

Trajectory is sadly lacking, with a +/- 3 inch Maximum Point Blank Range of 129 yards. Despite our penchant for pain, the ballistic coefficient of .160 negates any long range gain. While pure lead has long been proven, the velocity-shedding round ball was a major handicap, universally declared obsolete with the bloody remains of some 3.5 million Americans who fell during the first major conflict to exploit aimed fire and conical shaped projectiles, the U.S. Civil War.

When The Sabot Fits, Wear It

In 1985, when Del Ramsey invented the modern muzzleloading sabot the velocity and windage limitations attributed to conical projectiles in muzzleloading rifles vanished, and the need to externally lubricate them went down the drain with the last Pine-Sol scented batch of "Bore Butter."

The hard to manage, loopy trajectory limitations of the bore-sized conical bullet vanished as well. Now, due to the greater ballistic coefficient per grain weight allowed by the smaller caliber, trajectory is considerably flattened.

Lead always meant dead, now it was possible for the average shooter to extend his effective range without beating his head. No one can shoot a modern saboted projectile through his muzzleloader today without a big "thank you" to Del Ramsey. That holds true whether the choice is jacketed pistol bullets, or pure lead offerings.

Jacketed Jabberwocky

Several potential problems with jacketed pistol bullets have manifested themselves. Used in the beginning merely because they were pre-existing, cheap, and available, jacketed pistol bullets were not designed for the higher muzzleloading velocities.

With a flat base that does not obturate, jackets that can separate, brittle skins of twenty percent bullet weight, thick petals on sabots that they can not tolerate, having cannelures of a sticky plate, and hard brittle cores, the lack of expansion has sealed their fate. The main problem with jackets on bullets is simply what they are not, and that is lead. Sorely needed with smokeless powder cartridge guns and high velocity center fire rounds, the need for jackets has been negated in muzzleloading applications by Del Ramsey's sophisticated sabotry.

Despite the lyrical exposition of possible jacket problems referenced in the paragraph above, dementedly disjointed prose, they are real issues. The accuracy of any given jacketed bullet speaks for itself.

Aside from the velocity and energy robbing low ballistic coefficients exhibited by many of these projectiles, naturally more pronounced at longer ranges, the issue of core separation persists. Detrimental and widely acknowledged as problematic is core separation from the jacket. Every major bullet manufacturers has attempted to address this one way or another in various bonding and framing schemes.

Mass is quickly lost when a core separates from its jacket, and penetration along with it. In a mass produced, work hardened bullet the jacket can split and peel way, flattening itself against the shank of the projectile. In the process the newly exposed core breaks off, spinning away from the rapidly rotating bullet. That leaves just 60% or less of its former mass to continue on inside the animal. This newly lightened bullet might be recovered just under the hide on the far side, but even if it exits little blood trail can be expected, as the bullet's retained expansion is minimal.

Lead Advantages

Pure lead maintains the uniformity and lack of brittleness (molecular cohesion) that has always made it an ideal bullet material. By swaging the lead, the hidden voids and uneven core problems of cast lead cores are gone. Swaged lead bullets can be more consistent in weight than cast counterparts. Pure lead, swaged, saboted bullets shorten and belly out upon firing, allowing the use of thicker petals than their non-jacketed counterparts, including double (duplex) sabots.

Smaller calibers employed for a given bullet weight offer dramatically higher ballistic coefficients. Muzzleloading bullet diameters are automatically smaller than bore-sized in sabot use. By reducing the bullet size to .357 - .40 caliber (still large in center-fire land) the flat trajectories are further and more dramatically improved.

The cold-forming process allows for lead bullets with easy to seat, ballistically superior boat tail or stepped bases. Contingent on sabot, the compression formed lead gives us the option of cylindrical belts, steps, or longer boat tails that allow the bullet to shed its sabot more quickly than possible with flat bases.

The shoulder busting .58 caliber, 566 grain Lyman conical mentioned above has a ballistic coefficient of .160. No known jacketed muzzleloading bullet has a ballistic coefficient of better than .240 in a 250 grain weight, and no jacketed bullet in common muzzleloading use today breaks the .300 level regardless of weight. Even the smaller caliber conicals of 460 grains or so do not exceed the .300 G1 ballistic coefficient threshold despite the inherent edge given to their ballistic calculations due their low muzzle velocity.

Some have historical interest in the arbitrary and ballyhooed John Taylor "Knock Out" value based on observations of charging African game. The KO value is found by multiplying bullet weight times caliber times muzzle velocity and then divided by the 7,000 grains in a pound.

Big Bore proponents feel the KO number has value for assessing the killing power of a specific load since it doesn't give as much value to velocity as does kinetic energy. Though the likelihood of being charged by "Afro-Bambi" seems remote to me, our 195 grain saboted load is deemed "good" by the Taylor KO value on deer and sheep out at 800 yards, on caribou and elk at 400 yards, and on moose to 300 yards. Had Mr. Taylor not been so distracted by his pachydermial pursuits, the possibility exists that he would have noted more difference between elk and reindeer.

In any case, for one who thinks that this load could be construed as insufficient for whitetail, the factory .30-30 Winchester 170 grain loads offer a lighter, smaller diameter bullet with 25 yards less point blank range and over 30% less energy on target at 225 yards. It is the consistency of pure lead, its expandability over a wide velocity range, and its inclination to remain in one contiguous 2x bore diameter expanded mushroom inside the body cavities of game animals that makes it a superior muzzleloader hunting projectile.

Lead Limitations

All bullets have limitations, and soft swaged lead has a few as well. Despite the new capabilities offered by sabots, muzzle velocities of 2150 fps are close to the velocity limit above which the lead itself can deform in flight due to nose pressure, contingent on specific lead projectile.

Soft lead requires more care in seating and handling. Nicking-up the base of a lead bullet is a proven prescription for a flyer. For African game, the soft lead that performs so superbly on medium size big game may need to be enhanced by soft jackets of .025" to .065" thickness that can flow with the bullet while giving the deep initial penetration indicated to get through thick, armored hide.

Parting Shots

"It is a fact of life that nobody needs a rifle. He wants a rifle, and he is happier wanting a good example than a poor one. And certainly nobody needs an armory full of rifles." - Jeff Cooper, 2003.

The thought provoking Mr. Cooper makes good points. The fact of the matter is that nobody needs a muzzleloader at all, much less an accurate one. No one really needs good muzzleloading bullets, much less the best. Need does not factor in to the equation at all. Satisfaction does, though, which is an individual thing. Some of us perhaps are too easily satisfied with equipment performance to suit others, but one's own vision of satisfaction will always remain just that. Nevertheless, anyone reading this far is not so easily satisfied, and perhaps more interested than most in exploring the potential of their muzzleloading terminal performance. Your entire hunt can come down to where you place a bullet, and what it is able to accomplish thereafter.

There's a lot I don't know. I can't predict how a specific bullet out of a specific gun at a specific velocity on a specific animal at a specific range will perform. We ask a lot from our bullets. We expect them to expand yet penetrate, yet most of us know that maximum expansion and maximum penetration cannot be found in the same package--the former always inhibits the latter. Whether a specific mass produced jacketed bullet might have casting voids or other problems is unknown unless you cut one apart, and then they aren't much good. It is also hard to say if a cheap jacketed bullet is the best choice in a .50 caliber inline. Most brands only offer two or three choices in bullet weight. You, your gun, and your game either accept that weight or not.

What I can say is that pure, swaged lead is the most homogenous, consistent muzzleloading projectile material available. It is also available with the highest drag-defying ballistic coefficients, and in by far the largest variety of bullet weights. At velocities up to 2150 fps or so on North American game animals there has never been anything to disprove that pure lead is the very best performer in terminal performance, and mountains of evidence to suggest that it truly is.

There has long been an unfortunate propensity for manufacturers to present guns and ammunition in terms of muzzle velocity and muzzle energy. The problem with that is that no game animal is shot right off your muzzle. What matters is the energy applied to your animal at the range you are bagging him. What your bullet might theoretically be doing before and after that point is meaningless.

If you have a passion for muzzleloading hunting, there is little excuse for not choosing the best performer in the one thing your trophy will definitely not see, the bullet that does all the work for us. No bullet material has been shown to be better than pure, swaged lead at relatively slow velocities, assuming heart lung shots on thin-skinned game.

To give this article perspective, there are a few things that should be added. If you prefer the anchoring "break the animal down" type shot--or raking shots--jacketed bullets can offer more penetration when breaking bones than soft lead can, as can the all-copper Barnes bullets (reviewed elsewhere).

Winchester Platinum Tips, and Hornady XTP's, two of the jacketed genre's best terminal performers have swaged cores. Your personal style is a factor in bullet selection as well, for if you want pass through performance and a heavy blood trail regardless of terminal entry angle, jacketed bullets like the two just mentioned (or Barnes bullets) may be the better choice for you, and your type of hunting.

If super high velocity loads are your preference, you may also want jacketed or all-copper projectiles that have no finite velocity limitation. Added to all this is the fundamental truth that a large caliber hole through the vital organs of a game animal do not allow it to live very long. Shot placement reigns supreme, as it always has, and listening to your gun and what it like to be fed remains paramount. If we miss what we are shooting at, all bullets tend to work equally well.

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Copyright 2004, 2012 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.