The Best Muzzleloading Bullet for Deer Hunting

By Randy Wakeman


Vital areas in deer
Photo courtesy Ian McMurchy of Regina, Saskatchewan.
The yellow designates the high shoulder/spine area,
the pink the lungs, and the red the heart.

The search for the "best" deer hunting muzzleloading bullet continues and, as evidenced by the many bullet debates that twaddle on with a cacophony of shrill discord, consensus will likely never be reached. We all too often fall into the trap of giving far too much credence to our own personal experiences.

No single man's experiences are enough to bear close scrutiny, though the efforts should be applauded. Famous poacher John Taylor concocted his "Knock-Out" values based on his observations of non-expanding ("solid") bullets on charging African game--with laughable results when applied to North American game.

Feisty Elmer Keith ("Heck, Was He Really All There?") made significant contributions to the sport of handgun hunting, which is beyond dispute. However, Mr. Keith's personal dislike for Jack O'Connor clouded his judgment when evaluating the .270 Winchester and .30-30 rifle cartridges. Keith found them woefully inadequate for harvesting deer, despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary. By personally characterizing the .270 as a gopher gun, Mr. Keith's more worthwhile contributions have become tainted. In the same way, the overzealous claims of bullet manufacturers (PR Bullet) and gun manufacturers (the not-so-super.45s) have left the muzzleloading world with a peculiar mix of myth, misinformation, and hyperbole.

While the North American deer populations dwindled to less than 400,000 head in the early 1920's, today North America can brag about being the home of some 36,000,000 animals. Millions are harvested annually.

The biology of deer family animals has not changed in the time anyone reading this has been alive. Few muzzleloader hunters have an in-depth knowledge of anatomy as does Dr. Gary B. "Doc" White, or have the time or inclination to define terminal wounding from a scientific viewpoint as has Dr. Martin L. Fackler. However, there are some trends that can be easily spotted in game getting. So obvious are these that I am compelled to comment on them.

There are three fundamental considerations in muzzleloading bullet selection: accuracy, terminal performance, and trajectory. No one bullet stands alone in all categories. If that were the case, that is the bullet we would all be shooting.

While I'm not a believer in the adage "Beware the Man with One Gun," I do believe that "Beware the Man with One Bullet" is more germane to muzzleloading. In most cases, one bullet is all we can use. One bullet is what most inline rifles show a preference for, and one load gives us a more time to become familiar with trajectory of that load. Most muzzleloaders today shoot only seven times a year. That isn't seven range sessions; that is seven shots per year!

Observations like that should surprise few, as muzzleloading is a deer hunting driven sport, and scant few deer hunters relentlessly pound shotgun slugs into paper, or undertake the same discipline with their 300 Winchester Magnums. For those interested enough to have read these introductory comments, I will attempt to at least touch on the basic areas.

ACCURACY

I define accuracy as the ability to accurately place a bullet under field conditions. This necessarily means that trajectory is included, as resistance to drop and windage impact accuracy. That co-mingles the "accuracy" criteria a bit. While it is true that deer don't care how fast you miss them, muzzle velocity and ballistic coefficient are the primary values in trajectory.

With deflagrating (fast-burning) propellants a huge velocity penalty is paid by using heavier bullets. This is partially compensated for by the better ballistic coefficient of a longer, heavier bullet of the same configuration.

Consequently, saboted bullets of any given weight are clearly the best trajectory choice; there can be no serious dispute about that. Saboted projectiles are smaller than bore-size, and the smaller caliber automatically gives those bullets better ballistic coefficients (and also sectional density). I'm not suggesting that bore-sized projectiles are not effective game-getters when used within their limits, but they are ballistically challenged when compared to saboted projectiles of the same weight.

Accuracy is something that listening to your gun can tell you about. Inline muzzleloaders generally come with 1:24" to 1:28" twist barrels. Forty-five caliber (.452") projectiles in .50 caliber sabots have been the gold standard of inline muzzleloading projectiles for years. While .44 cal. (.429") and smaller projectiles can be accurate, and I've found many of them to be accurate, the higher performance powder charges limit them. The reason is fairly straightforward; the polyethylene sabot functions as a gasket. And, as in most any gasketing application you can find, the thinner the gasket the better. The Pyrodex manual that has automatically labeled all of the .429 / 50 combinations as "less accurate" has been proven false for years, however.

Del Ramsey's current MMP sabots have improved to the point where now .400 and .429 caliber projectiles can be used where just a few years ago they could not be. However, muzzleloading sabots and projectiles must be capable of being loaded from the muzzle. This is a very real barrier to the use of strong, stiff elastomeric compounds such as those used in "Accelerator" centerfire cartridge rounds or saboted shotgun slugs.

The most accurate (by weight) projectiles are (1) swaged lead, (2) the Barnes Expander, then (3) jacketed pistol bullets, in that order. Sorting pistol bullets by weight can close the gap to the point where group size variances are not discernable out to 200 yards. Cannelures are a known ballistic crippler, so smooth projectiles are better, assuming that all else is equal. Unfortunately, all else is rarely equal.

There are always exceptions that prove the rule, but a recognizable trend of proven saboted bullets is actually rather small: the Barnes MZ-Expanders, the Hornady XTP series, and lead saboted bullets. Winchester Platinum Tips and Winchester Partition Gold bullets deserve special mention because they are so well designed and tested. The limitation at present being that only one weight (260 grains) is available from Olin Corporation. What is hyped and what sells is not always the best choice and, sadly, the overlooked Winchester Platinum Tip bullets demonstrate that quite clearly.

TERMINAL PERFORMANCE

This is an area that the vitriol can really start to flow. We ask a lot of our bullets, and we seem to want the same type of terminal performance at all ranges, regardless of whether we are breaking an animal down (smashing though shoulders) or going for the more generous heart/lung area.

For starters, it should be self evident that a relatively large hole in the vital organs of deer sized game does not allow it to live very long. With good shot placement even hard cast or other non-expanding bullets get the job done, as a .45 caliber hole through the vitals produces a large wound. At the same time, without question, expanding bullets do produce more devastating wound cavities in deer-family game. This results in a quicker, more humane harvest, fewer steps taken by game, and thus easier recovery of said game.

Ian McMurchy's bullet collection, partially displayed in his beautifully produced, "Modern Muzzleloading for Today's Whitetails" (Krause Publications, ISBN: 0-87341-951-0, © 2000 by Ian McMurchy) gives beautiful examples of recovered bullets. As noted by Mr. McMurchy, the explosive effects and resultant hydrodynamic shock produced by center fire rifle rounds that can instantly overwhelm the central nervous system of a deer are not as predominant in muzzleloading applications. (It is generally accepted that a MV over 2400 fps is required for such an effect.) Unfortunately, the ad-copy brags about muzzleloader muzzle velocity and energy are misleading.

Velocity and energy on target is what counts, muzzle ballistics are just a starting point. If you really care to know what you are popping a game animal with, you need to sail a bullet over a chronograph at that range. The rest is speculative, though certainly an accurate ballistic coefficient and accurate muzzle velocity make it a very educated guess.

The questions posed again and again are these: do quick expanding (or "mushrooming") bullets take deer more faster and more humanely than limited (advertised as "controlled") expansion bullets? Does a bullet that stays in an animal kill more quickly than one that exits?

The answer, based on ballistic laboratory data, is "not exactly." Necessarily, the more frontal area expansion is prevalent, the less penetration is possible. Also, the velocity retained when passing through the animal drops, resulting in less collateral damage. The quick expanders may expend too much energy before vital organs are contacted.

A necessarily vague answer is that some expansion is better than none, but inadequate penetration due to premature expansion is counter productive. Of course, shot placement and the actual track of the bullet through the animal are crucial. Banging big bones, for instance, can dramatically affect bullet performance. Compromise is indicated, and we sure have a lot of room to move in that regard.

Based on the evidence seen first hand, the current literature, and continuing trends, I believe that if a proven expanding bullet is employed (Hornady XTP) a 300 grain bullet will cleanly harvest where lighter bullets cannot, due to the better sectional density (and thus penetration) of the heavier bullet. 300 grain bullets are indicated for large Russian boars and elk. On lighter game such as deer it remains a toss up versus the 240-250 grain bullets.

With the Barnes Expander line, the 245 grain Spitfire (if accurate in your gun) is a preferred choice by virtue of fabulous weight retention and limited expansion.

With pure lead sabots, I bow to the wizardry of Doc White, and find the 285, 325, and 375 grain offerings by Mark Lynch (Hunterman Boolets) and Ron Dahlitz (Buffalo Bullets) give both excellent expansion and adequate sectional density to drive the bullet on though where the lightweights may stop.

TRAJECTORY / BALLISTIC COEFFICIENT

Already touched upon, trajectory is a form of accuracy, although some have not viewed it in that way. BC is the last stop on the bullet trail in Frontloader City, as no relatively heavy, large caliber projectile can fly that flat. As my friend Chuck Hill has noted in his rather extensive chronograph work, anything over a G1 value of .20 is a bonus.

Many ballistic coefficients are insidious, smarmy lies perpetrated only to sell bullets, as the chronographs have clearly proven. A real pity, but so few muzzleloader check their own BC's or use chronographs it is easy to get away with false advertising.

Sierra leads the way in accurate ballistic coefficients, one of the few companies that does not use static BC's. Olin-Winchester does their homework, using their own in-house Doppler radar range. Hornady get somewhere close, but their methodology remains unknown.

Barnes BC's are as spot-on as 200 yard average BC's can be, and Buffalo Bullets has actually paid to have some of their BC's independently recorded. Belief in a bad BC can cause you to take a shot you otherwise would not, and would have you think that you are taking your animal with more energy on target than you really are. By contrast, a conservative BC can cause little harm.

Superior ballistic coefficient gives you a lot of things for free, and by free I mean all with the same initial muzzle velocity. These include flatter trajectory, greater retained energy on target, and more expansion or penetration.

ANCILLARY CONSIDERATIONS

Lead bullets shorten and belly out upon firing (obturate). This gives a large, clear muzzle velocity loss vs. jacketed or Barnes copper bullets with the same propellant charge, same weight bullet. Thinly jacketed bullets do the same, but to a much lesser degree. Barnes bullets give the very best muzzle velocities, as they do not measurably obturate at all.

Pure lead bullets are relatively easy to load, and their easy obduration (while costing velocity) makes them forgiving about the variances found in today's muzzleloading rifle barrels. They are also fragile and need extra care in handling to remain looking like bullets. Finally, they have a finite velocity ceiling of about 2100 fps. Beyond that, they distort in flight.

Jacketed pistol bullets are economical. The bulk purchase of Hornady XTPs, for example, allows you to obtain current formulation sabots direct from MMP. They remain looking like bullets with little care or special handling.

Barnes Bullets come with MMP sabots as a matter of course (so do Buffalo SSBs), so no sabot shopping is normally required. Sabot to barrel fit is critical with Barnes bullets; that slight interference fit is the difference between a 1" group and an 8" spray. The 245 grain Spitfires work well in most Thompson's. The 250 or 300 Expander MZ bullets seem to better fit most Knights, Savages, etc.

CONCLUSIONS

With relatively light charges and when the range is short, your options increase tremendously. For example, the vast number of .429 pistol bullets and lightweight bullets have been shown to be effective inside of 100 yards with moderate charges. These are the ranges at which most deer are taken.

Bore-sized conicals, despite their limitations, have also done well inside 100 yards. The 348 grain swaged lead, copper plated Powerbelt is one of the best of the conical breed. It has no cannelures, lubrication issues, or velocity limitations like the 1300-1350 fps ceiling of lubed lead conicals.

Despite their ballistic inferiority, heavy conicals also do well inside 100 yards. You don't need 460 grains to take a deer, but the sheer mass of the bullet covers its other defects (casting variations and hidden voids to name a couple).

While satisfactory, I believe that we can do better, particularly when longer ranges are a possibility. Substantial documented data shows that we have.

The preferences expressed here are based on high-powered loads, suitable for long range, less than ideal shots, and are bullets equally at home on moose, elk, boar and deer. Beware the Man with One Bullet. The better bullets tested are listed below.

For those who appreciate flat shooting, accurate bullets that can handle raking shots and really rough rides, the Barnes Spitfire 245 and the Barnes Spitfire 285 are preferred choices, if your gun likes them. Thompson rifles usually do, it is a good possibility on current Knight Rifle production, but can be hit or miss on many other brands. Spitfires can tolerate high velocities. For the Savage 10ML-II the .45/50, 300 grain Barnes MZ Expander continues to impress.

The medium-weight saboted match-grade lead bullets as custom made by Mark Lynch of HunterMan Boolets in Michigan are beautifully handcrafted. Mark can make his .451 pure lead and his special alloy 2S ogive spitzer boat tail bullets in any weight you designate, and supply them with MMP sabots. I can personally attest to the quality of the product, and Mark's fine customer service. The .451 260 grain and 280 grain HunterMan Spire Specials are particularly forgiving in a wide variety of rifles. Mark's specialty alloy versions increase allowable MV and avoid the velocity limitations of pure lead bullets. You can e-mail Mark at hunter280man@msn.com.

Buffalo Bullet's updated, swaged lead .451/50 285, 325, and 375 grain SSBs are popularly priced, and well worth a try. They automatically come with MMP sabots. An interview with Ron Dahlitz appears elsewhere on this site. Ron can be reached at 800-423-8069.

In the mass-produced pistol bullet line, the Hornady .452, 250 grain XTP is a proven winner, combined with the MMP short black sabots. The .452, 300 grain Hornady XTP exceeds the 250's terminal effectiveness in the majority of scenarios, and is a clear choice for those wanting pass-through performance or for tougher game in addition to deer.

Personal preferences are just that. My personal "Numero Uno" at present is the Barnes .451/50, 300 grain MZ Expander, for the reasons already cited. Its G1 BC value of .207 is realistic, and it opens up down to 1000 fps. It is the most proven Barnes muzzleloading bullet. In terms of overall performance, it has yet to be equaled. Coverage of the Barnes muzzleloading bullets appears elsewhere on the Muzzleloader Page of Guns and Shooting Online.

All of these bullets have the capabilities to comport to your personal paradigm of high performance game-getting satisfaction. As always, let your gun tell you what it likes to be fed. It knows what combination suits it best.

It is impossible to categorically state which bullet your individual gun will group best with. With the wide variances in barrel to barrel tolerances, there is no way to tell for certain without pulling the trigger. As my friend, sabot guru Del Ramsey recently reminded me, just a .001 inch difference in a rifle’s land to land dimension can change its ability to fire a given sabot combination accurately, so shooting is the only way to discover the best accuracy at your intended hunting range.

I like “free” terminal energy and velocity; saboted projectiles automatically give you that by virtue of the smaller caliber and resultant higher ballistic coefficient for a bullet of the same weight. Saboted bullets automatically give you better sectional densities for equal weight bullets. These can power through game when a bullet of inferior section density cannot. Faster bullets that penetrate deeper in game, and the speed of that penetration through game, have been shown to cause larger permanent wound cavities and more ancillary damage.

There really is no such thing as a “hard to load” saboted bullet. The dumb old sabot has no idea what precise rifle bore it will be loaded into, anymore than a pair of shoes knows what feet it will fit the best. Hence, the time-consuming but requisite experimentation in projectile combination selection can pay big dividends for you. I also like the “free” muzzle velocity increase shown in Barnes bullets. However, I’m the first to state that if a Barnes bullet does not shoot well in your gun, move along, and don't look back. The Hunterman and Buffalo swaged lead, Winchester Platinum Tip and Partition Gold, and Hornady XTP bullets all have their virtues as well, which is why they have been cited here.

An accurate 200 yard load is always an accurate 100 yard load, but the reverse is not necessarily the case. Long distance range work can help you quickly separate the wheat from the chaff. By taking the time to err on the side of long range accuracy, high ballistic efficiency, sectional density, you have a distinct edge in the field. Now, that all-important bullet placement is easier, and the better terminal energy and performance allows you to cleanly harvest game. You need not search anew for a different load for larger deer family animals, boar, or black bear. Your search for the best performing deer hunting muzzleloading bullet in your rifle has automatically given you the best all-around thin-skinned North American game bullet as well.

sectioned bullets

Photograph courtesy of Chuck Hill.
The bullets depicted, from the left, are the now discontinued Thompson .45 caliber 250 gr. PTX, the .429 300 gr. Hornady XTP, the .429 300 gr. Swift A-Frame, the .451 260 gr. Winchester-Olin Partition Gold, .45 245 gr. Barnes Spitfire, the .45 300 gr. Hornady SST, the .45 250 gr. Hydra-Con (Traditions TShock) , the .45 260 gr. Winchester-Olin Platinum Tip, the 260 gr. .45 Rainier, and the .451 250 gr. Barnes MZ-Expander.

Experience has shown that the .44 caliber (.429) bullets have been wrongfully characterized by the Pyrodex manual as "automatically inaccurate." In fact, many of the .429 diameter bullets when housed in current formulation MMP sabots are extremely accurate full-powered hunting combinations. When shooting extremely high-pressure loads, the nod goes to the .451-452 diameter bullets and .458 bullets in the stronger "HPH" series MMP sabots, but primarily because the ringed base sabot design is not available for the smaller calibers. The Hornady SST has been seen to exhibit very poor terminal performance; the touted "Inter-lock" design is not evidenced in the dissected bullets. The "TShock" (aka Parker Hydra-Con bullets) brag of a internal sealed air chamber that is claimed to do something. Not easily discerned in the photo the TShock appears more sizzle than steak; these repackaged Hydra-Cons giving generally poor accuracy as well. The Rainier bullet has no jacket to speak of, thin copper plating is the only way to describe their "jacket."

The toughest expanding muzzleloading bullets you can use are the Barnes all-copper bullets, and the exemplary Partition Gold and A-Frame designs. Of the above bullets, I prefer the Barnes bullets and the superbly engineered Winchester Platinum Tips. I have also found the .452 Hornady XTP bullets to be quite accurate with remarkably outstanding terminal performance; their only possible drawback being their slightly lower ballistic coefficients.




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Copyright 2005, 2012 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.


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