Interview with "Doc" White, Part Four:
Doc White offers us an overview of where muzzleloading has been in times past, and where it is headed in the years to come.
RW: I'll confess to being a bit bewildered with the frivolous debate of "In-Line versus Traditional Muzzleloaders," especially when many of the guns characterized as somehow "traditional" are best defined as "non-replicas." I personally find more tradition present in your White 98 with heavy conical and percussion cap use than some so-called traditional pieces. Knowing that you hardly have limited yourself to one action type or firearm design, just what are your thoughts on all this?
DOC: I was in the middle of it all, on the other side to start with, back in the '70s. It all started when T/C brought out its Hawken, which didn't look at all like a Hawken, and which fired Maxi balls. We all thought it was awful.
It was awful and still is, from a purely traditionalist viewpoint. It became very popular and profitable and nowadays when you say "Hawken" that's the gun you think of and that sidelock makers copy. It had a compromise 1-48 twist originally, to accommodate both round balls and the Maxi balls. This eventually brought Del Ramsey to think up sabots for pistol bullets, following Butler Creek's lead in developing a sabot for round balls. I can't remember what they called that little jewel. That intensified the fire, with modern hunters looking for technological improvement and traditionalists decrying what everyone else saw as improved performance.
Of course, everyone had forgotten Col. Forsyth's little book, written in India in the 1860s, that explained why big round balls were superior to slugs. He was right, still is, but he advocated 8 gauge (.83 caliber) rifles throwing 2 ounce (870 grain) balls.
Fact is that such a rifle is almost flat to 100 yards, with 2 inches of apogee if sighted at 100, and dropping to about 20 inches at 200, with far better than 1000 ft. lbs. of energy left. Its TKO factor is of course enormous because of its mere outside diameter.
He shot sambar (Asian deer) and tiger with it, advocating shots to the head at ranges of less than 100 yards, but used it on elephant too. He said it didn't kick much, certainly not noticeable when shooting game. That aside, the saboted pistol bullet added to the traditionalists' argument that the original spirit of "primitive" muzzleloading was being violated, the argument being that a primitive season should remain primitive.
Well, we both know it doesn't work that way, as in bow hunting, so away we go. When Tony Knight came out with an in-line action sabot shooting muzzleloader (the M85) in 1987 or so, that put the icing on the cake. Some states made laws against sabots, in-lines and scopes; oddly enough, mostly in the West. States in the East, where the shots are far closer, didn't seem to care. Truth was, they had been in the game longer and the rule making process was more quickly violated, precluding the traditionalists making an argument, except in Pennsylvania where flintlocks reigned until just last year.
Now a true traditionalist doesn't shoot a machine made gun, it has to be hand done, just like the stitching on his clothes. But for the majority, the fact that modern sidelocks, just like in-lines, are made utilizing modern industrial techniques, and are wax cast, sintered, cup cutter carved, CNC machined, machine inletted, sanded, and finished, could matter less. In fact, modern in-lines and sidelocks are made on the same machines for the most part and are all the more closely related by that fact.
Anyway, the whole argument is stupid, there's more than enough room for both sides. Fact is, amongst the majority of traditionalists I know, when hunting season comes they either take themselves to a private location where more modern hunters can't penetrate, or get out an in-line and go hunting in camo. Many cross over the line, using a sidelock with a fast twist, long bullet barrel. Of course, that's what Sir John Whitworth advocated in the 1850s. His "Sporting Rifle" was exactly that, a sidelock and elegant as hell, with a fast twist, long bullet barrel capable of shooting circles around its competition. That's one reason I admire the guy so much: he started it all.
Of course, no one at a modern Rendezvous shoots an original rifle. We used to, I took Jim Bridger's last Hawken to Rendezvous at Fort Bridger in the 1970s and nobody thought a thing of it. It is a .52 caliber and a good shooter as well. It's now in the Montana State Historical Museum in Helena, MT. We had it at Green River Rifle Works for a few years while we made replicas for them.
That all ended when the original arms increased in value to the point that most rarely dared to use one of them. So the traditionalists' argument is not only full of holes, it is specious and silly.
No modern shooter argues about a 30-30 cartridge vs. a 300 Winchester Magnum round--at least in the sense of sidelock vs. in-line. There is a difference, of course, but only in how you use it. That should be true in a comparison of the side-lock's slow rate of twist, roundball shooting rifles and the faster twist, longer bullet shooting in-line rifles as well.
RW: The trend has been towards lighter, faster saboted projectiles over the last fifteen years with larger powder charges, and the small bullet propensity seems yet to run its full course. Yet, free recoil formulas reveal (and my shoulder tells me) that a 460 grain PowerPunch conical propelled by 75 grains of Triple 7 is quite a manageable load in a White 98, and an economical load at that. Why the misconception, and why have the heavy conicals fallen from grace? Also, what are the pros and cons of cast pure lead conicals versus the swaged (compression formed) offerings?
DOC: It's pretty obvious that the same mindset that led to big cased small bulleted "magnum" rounds is being applied to muzzleloading. Problem is that the velocities are just not there. Even the fastest only mimic the .30-30, and that's with smokeless powder.
The companies are taking advantage of demand, being perfectly willing to supply the market with $2 shots, to the great benefit of their bank accounts. This, of course, will come to an end because some enterprising company will try to snatch market share away from the biggies with cheaper and more effective ammo. It will have to be both cheaper and more effective to capture the bigger share. This will result in a price war that will bring the cost of shooting a muzzleloader with factory suggested loadings down to that of shooting a .30-06. It will take some time but it is inevitable.
Someone else will invent a smokeless powder, cheap to produce, that will mimic BP substitutes enough to volume load and perform in a similar fashion. That will cut costs too. Or someone will invent a touch-hole liner that is good for 1000's of shots.
Take a look at history to see how it's going to go, as we are just reproducing the history of the early cartridge revolution with our modern muzzleloaders. Most forget that it took a generation for the new Winchester 94 and its .30-30 cartridge to replace the very effective and greatly beloved .45-70 with a 300 grain bullet at near 1700 FPS, as it was loaded right up into the 1920's. That was a black powder load, by the way.
Do the ballistics look familiar? They should. Just as the early single shot long bullet cartridges of the buffalo days gave way to the shorter bullet repeaters of the late 19th Century, which eventually gave way to the far more efficient smokeless rifle, so also will the long heavy muzzleloading bullet eventually give way to the shorter but still quite heavy bullet which will eventually give way to an even smaller but higher velocity bullet powered by "muzzleloading smokeless," if I can call it that. Just as now, this does not condemn the heavy bullet round to oblivion; it reserves it for the toughest, heaviest and deadliest game. It will keep its niche with the wise and knowing.
The difference between cast and swaged are that cast can be softer than swaged with any given formula simply because it is not compressed. Cast will hold more lube because you can't swage in deep cannelures, at least not usually. Cast always varies more in weight, roundness, concentricity and diameter than swaged, swaged always being more uniform.
However, there's not a smidgen of evidence that, at least in black powder rifles, that one is better than the other. The (too many) vague components of black powder shooting more than compensate for the difference in the bullets. My advice is to use the bullet that shoots best in your rifle for the purpose you that you have in mind. Don't consider where it came from or how it came to be. There is no romance in missing.
RW: What do you appreciate about "modern muzzleloaders," and what do you least appreciate about them from the perspective of design, quality, and performance?
DOC: What I like best is that they look, feel and in some respects act like modern rifles, which makes them user friendly for the newest of muzzleloading shooters. Many are ergonomically sound, some superbly so, i.e., the M98. A few are functionally elegant. A few are of astounding high quality and are made to high QC standards. The good ones have made muzzleloading affordable for even the poorest of Americans. We now pay hundreds for quality, where 25 years ago it would have cost four times that. I remember selling reproductions of Bridger's Hawken for $1500 in 1980.
What I don't like it is that most do not match the qualities enumerated above. Most are designed as and manufactured as toys. Much is pure junk, capable only of frightening off a new and unknowing shooter. They get tossed into the garbage and the shooter swears off buying another. They serve only to scare new shooters away.
The hype surrounding their capabilities is overblown beyond belief. Worst, the professional gun writers have adopted the BS promulgated by the manufacturers, PR people, and rag editors (or should I call them ad dollar collectors?) to promote this manure to an unsuspecting and innocent public who have long been accustomed to reasonable performance from even the cheapest of modern guns. The variation in calibers, use of non-GBQ steels, lack of proof, poor quality control, etc., only adds to this sorry mess. But, on a brighter note, it was worse 5 years ago. Competition is making them better. May it continue to be so!
RW: What is your primary objection to 209 primers? Their use seems to be driven by availability and the rising popularity of pelletized powder. It is hard to fault the ammunition makers, as they construct them to make their shotshells go bang.
DOC: My objection is not the primer, but the fact that it must fit into a hole rather than fit onto a nipple. The engineering principle is simple; anything confined within a space is stronger than a similar thing unconfined.
In this case, the weaker is preferable, as I want the priming device to disappear automatically so I can re-prime with the least inconvenience. #11 caps do this fairly well with substantial hunting loads, musket caps are made of heavier metal so aren't so good, and 209's are awful. Mostly they stick in the primer pocket and have to be physically removed, an act that takes several seconds, time enough for a whitetail to make another 100 yards.
My time studies of average unpracticed shooters show that 209 primed White rifles using slip fit bullets take almost half again more time from shot to shot as does a #11 primed rifle. This is not true of other brands, but only because they load slowly anyway, so the relative time is less.
I will always choose an M98 over a T-bolt for risky hunting for this very reason. The T-bolt takes on the average an extra 10 seconds of loading time over the M98 with #11 cap, which makes my average time 30 instead of 20 seconds from shot to shot.
RW: I've incurred the wrath of CVA (BPI) and Traditions (and their owners) for asking how their sub-10,000 PSI House of Eibar proofed, soft extruded barrels should be considered safe with the 25,000+ PSI three-pellet loads they recommend in their owner's manuals. It seems they have set aside C.I.P. standards, the House of Eibar proof marks, and Hodgdon Powder Company rules all in one fell swoop. Yet, they have failed to answer if their barrels have ever been tested to even 20,000 or 25,000 PSI, and have handled the entire question with a semblance of panic and confusion. It would take a remarkable level of imbecility to pressure a tire, propane tank, piece of hose, or any vessel to over two and a half times its marked pressure rating. What is your feeling about all of this?
DOC: One of the big problems in the muzzleloading industry is the lack of standardization that exists in the modern gun industry. That standardization is the lone factor that has made modern guns so predictable and trustworthy. We have been downright spoiled by that fact. It has also worked to the benefit of the manufacturers, because the customer knows that he can trust the products of even obscure makers, whch makes for easy sales.
Standardization in muzzleloading would have a similar effect, but it would present some problems to certain manufacturers. They would have to step up to the quality control home plate, but I think they would hit a homer if they did. The current situation is chaotic and confused, to say the least, somewhat akin to the teen years of human life; maturity approaches but at a distance. Thus the panic and distress, and thus the hate mail rather than a measured, responsible approach.
The question of extruded steel barrels is another matter. Douglas used extruded steel for their round ball barrels for years, extruding just the blanks then drilling, reaming and rifling as usual.
The steel was quite brittle; screwing in a breechplug would sometimes crack the barrel. They finally desisted after several lawsuits. Yes, their barrels were accurate and enjoyed a great reputation. Those that have survived for years are probably going to survive for centuries. Still, unless the technology of extrusion and annealing has changed, and as far as I know it has not, the question will eventually be answered in the same fashion (in the courts), since average pressures using modern sabots, rather than round balls, have about doubled.
RW: On the subject of barrels, I was surprised when a major muzzleloading manufacturer related their allowable rifling depth tolerances to me: it is .0035" to .006". I was further taken aback to learn that these "tolerances" are not just from barrel to barrel, but they are allowable tolerances in the very SAME barrel! Doc, you has mentioned in one of our conversations that realm of windage, not quite coincidentally, is the range that saboted projectiles can seal. Muzzleloading bullet specialists have additionally verified this. It seems that, for lack of a better term, many muzzleloading companies can "get away" with this type of slop as sabots have a bit of memory, and tolerate the rough ride though a barrel like this. Yet, pure lead conicals do not have this ability. It seems that White rifles' barrel tolerances, and their proficiency at throwing conicals into the same hole where other manufacturers' rifles fail, is far more than just rate of twist, GBQ steel, and barrel rigidity-but is contingent on your rifling tolerances as well. Is this the case?
DOC: It is obvious to me that the invention of the sabot was a Godsend to the muzzleloading companies. They could continue their sloppy ways selling junk at high prices and profitability and still get decent results. It's been a Godsend to the average hunter as well, because he can minimize his gun purchase expense and get a good enough result to get him into the field, which is where he wants to be anyway. What he doesn't recognize is the high cost per shot, but then he doesn't shoot the rifle but 2-3 times a year anyway (I mean shots) so relative expense is low.
After all who expects to really kill a deer with one of those things? Just seeing the deer and getting an occasional shot, even if missed, seems to be enough. Am I being a little caustic this morning? The sabot is nothing more than a substitute for the classic cloth patch, so allows a lot of variation in barrel dimensions. Lead bullets allow less. Of course, anyone who makes a barrel that will shoot lead bullets well can also make a barrel that shoots sabots superbly, granted the correct twist and bullet BC.
RW: The clear trend in muzzleloading at the moment seems to be towards sealed action guns, at least externally sealed action guns that have leave no caustic residue on scopes, and do not scald faces despite 209 primer use. It also seems that many consumers are willing to give up quality in triggers and barrels in order to have blowback-free guns. Is that your impression as well? Do you care to comment on one of your designs that will eclipse what is currently available?
DOC: The perception that "sealed action" guns really seal the action against blowback and weather is of course false, as is in the case of the Omega and Winchester Apex models.
I have been designing and have about 3/4ths made a sealed action that drops both block and hammer on the same hinge pin, that locks up well enough to take 40000 PSI (at least I think that maximum-tests will have to prove it later. Works on the inter-link principle just like a 1911 Colt auto) Trigger is simple but adjustable for depth of engagement, lever is the trigger guard, and action totally enclosed by the stock on the present model but can be made as a two piece stock, too, uses naked 209 primer in T-Bolt breechplug at present. I have designed a plastic cartridge-like affair that will carry the primer of your choice, or at least that is manufacturable in any primer configuration that you can imagine, that is reloadable and feed-able from a magazine. Does it look like a 38 S&W with a pointy nose? Yup! It should be usable in both the next iteration of the T-Bolt and the new "Alpha." sealed breech rifle. It would really be nice if the industry could settle on some sort of standard that fit all rifles. We will eventually be forced to that just because the common hunter will demand it. Give it a decade.
RW: I was appalled to learn of the many people in the industry that are not hunters or shooters, and have surprisingly little knowledge of what they are peddling. It seems they are just moving boxes, and it could just as well be boxes of garden tools as it is muzzleloading rifles. Has that been your experience with some companies as well?
DOC: Since the bottom line is all that matters to most, of course you have the box movers in the industry. How can we avoid it when there is so much money waiting to be spent out there? I prefer the upper end, thank you. We move boxes too, but we know what is in the boxes and can afford to guarantee results because the quality is so high. We get a few guns back, but not very many!
RW: The Savage 10-ML "Smokeless Muzzleloader," developed by North Carolina's Henry Ball, has received renewed interest. The low cost per shot, mild recoil, and lack of corrosive fouling holds great appeal for many. It is subject to the same performance limitation of the polyethylene sabot as any other inline. What are your thoughts of the future of "smokeless muzzleloading"? After all, smokeless powder has been the most popular "blackpowder substitute" devised, and today's shotshells are still sold today labeled in "drams equivalent" of blackpowder.
DOC: The onslaught of smokeless muzzleloading is inevitable and only awaits the development of sabots that will stand up to the pressures and heat, a powder that is relatively bulky and safe to use in volume loaded format and the widespread acceptance of smokeless muzzleloading by state game departments. The issue is not target shooting, but hunting, which is where the numbers are--something I've been trying to tell the NMLRA for years. Once hunters widely recognize that state game departments don't care about the propellant, smokeless muzzleloading will blossom. Surely it must be evident that my T-Bolt was designed with smokeless in mind, at least eventually.
Parts 1, 2, 3 and 5 of Randy Wakeman's series of interviews with "Doc" White can be found on the Muzzleloader Information Page.
Copyright 2004 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.