Long Range Muzzleloader Hunting

By Randy Wakeman


As a rule, the less anyone knows the more bemused he is by the complicated. This was the comment from Jack O’Connor, expressing disdain for gimmicky, busy scope reticles in his book, The Hunting Rifle, from 1970. Mr. O’Connor could barely contain his contempt for bracketing reticles in scopes, noting that animals come in different sizes and that they must pose with the proper presentation and the hunter must have his scope in a rocky-steady, vice-like grip to allow for any proper measurement. Mr. O’Connor went on to discuss his general contempt for long range hunters that left as much game in the field as they brought in and the tremendous ignorance of the uneducated, inexperienced hunter who put his faith in factory charts and trajectory tables.

Mr. O’Connor debunked the peculiar notions of “knock-down power,” shock, velocity and bore size as being definitive of anything. He joked of the velocity worshippers and also had fun with the “pounds-feet” aficionados who felt that bullet weight was everything. O’Connor felt that any shot that required hold-over was likely reckless, unnecessary and unsportsmanlike.

Mr. O’Connor’s feelings on the matter were also memorialized his 1967 masterpiece, The Art of Hunting Big Game in North America, one of the most comprehensive and well-written books ever published on the subject. In Chapter 21 of this epic tome, Jack O’Connor laid down some rules about long-range hunting. Among them are the following:

A long-range shot should never be taken if there is a reasonable chance of getting closer. A long-range shot should never be taken if the rifleman feels doubtful of his ability to make a good, solid, well-placed hit. A long range shot should never be taken if the hunter cannot get into a solid position, such as prone with sling or from a solid rest. A long range shot should never be taken at an unwounded, running animal. A long-range shot should never be taken if the animal can get out of sight so quickly that it would be difficult to ascertain the effect of the shot. A long-range shot should not be taken if the range is so great that a hold on the top of the shoulders will not drop a bullet into the chest cavity.

Jack O’Connor, after writing his set of rules, went on to say that likely some folks would find them a bit on the conservative side, but he felt that anyone with respect for what they were hunting would well appreciate it would help eliminate unnecessary wounding losses, leaving wounded animals in misery to die several days afterwards with coyotes ripping the living flesh from their bodies after they became too weak to elude them. For the most part, Jack O’Connor was completely right. The human animal standing upright may be a jumpy, nervous, unsteady concoction of nerves. Mr. O’Connor found even the best of hunters to be horrible at estimating range and had no problem soundly and loudly criticizing both himself and his wife, Eleanor, for some poor judgment exhibited in their earlier hunting days.

It is with a healthy respect for the magnificent animals we hunt and an omnipresent sense of duty to do our homework before we go afield that the discussion of what long-range hunting is from a practical sense and what we might want to consider before we throw out a bullet that cannot be called back. Things have improved for us in recent years, though, so we can be a bit more precise at longer ranges than Jack O’Connor could. The practicality and popularity of the laser rangefinder has played the most important role of all.

For starters, let’s look at what basic, .50 caliber inline muzzleloading trajectory is. A .45 caliber, 250 grain projectile out of an inline muzzleloader will typically have about 1800 fps at the muzzle with 100 grains of propellant by volume, or two pellets. The static ballistic coefficient is in the area of .190 for a 250 grain saboted projectile. These numbers are far from absolutes, just very rough guides. One individual rifle may have significantly more or less velocity, and not all propellants give the same velocities. Barometric pressure, scope height, and temperature all change things, so the following numbers are broad generalizations, not absolutes.

We are using deer hunting as an example, as it is the most common application. Most calculations for effective point black range use a six inch kill zone as the basis, though contingent on body size the actual kill zone of a deer may be nine or ten inches. Deer hardly stop and freeze perfectly broadside at known ranges, though, so any angle of the deer can only reduce our chances at completely confident double-lung, double shoulder and perfect shot placement.

Sighted in three inches high at 100 yards under standard conditions with 1.5 inch scope height, our 6 inch kill maximum point blank range for this load is about 167 yards. When using a center of the body hold, there is no point in the flight path of our bullet where the point of impact will exceed three inches high or three inches low from our point of aim.

Wind very quickly becomes a factor. At just 150 yards, a 10mph breeze can move our bullet over seven and one half inches. Though gravity is a known quantity, the precise effect of wind drift on our bullet from muzzle to target on any single shot can only be estimated. The solution to doping the wind is straightforward; we need to go out and shoot in the wind at range to become more aware of what it does. Jack O’Connor liked the self-imposed restriction of a top of the shoulder hold, meaning in this case a 210 yard shot, which drops 11.67 inches into the chest. Now, we need to be even more aware of the wind, as that 10 mph crosswind can move our bullet 15.23 inches, larger than the kill zone of most deer itself. We are still assuming a perfectly stationary animal, which is not always the case.

While there are opinions galore, the complete confidence of an individual to place a bullet where it counts is no opinion at all. We either know it, or we do not. Under ideal conditions with a good, stable shooting position, 210 yards for a trajectory of this type is the outer limit of an O’Connor-esque ethical shot. We can improve things, though.

We are changing things by using a heavier bullet, the 290 grain Barnes Spitfire T-EZ flatbase, with a published B.C. of .223. Further, we are going to up the velocity by using 110 grains by volume of Blackhorn 209 to about 1950 fps. A good chronograph shows what we are getting out of our specific rifle. Now, we have substantially more to work with.

Our 6 inch kill zone MPBR is now 184 yards. Top of the shoulder range, ala O’Connor, is 230 yards (11.57 in. drop from P.O.A). Wind remains a major factor, but a bit less so. Even though we have swarms of referees that can’t always tell if a football made it across the goal line, we are now hunting at more than two times the length of a football field, at a range when no one I know could possibly tell the difference between a button buck and a doe. Under ideal conditions with a steady rest, the perfect broadside shot that we are completely confident of making poses no problem. Add in wind, animal movement, a less than perfect rest, or something other than that picturebook completely broadside shot and the experienced hunter adapts accordingly.

Why not farther? Well, that is the responsibility of the individual. As Jack O’Connor observed and wrote repeatedly, the fascination with busy reticles, phony ballistic coefficients and mythical muzzle velocities increases in concert with the hunter’s lack of field experience. While a common question is “how far can you shoot a muzzleloader” is a common one, no one seems to ask “how far can you shoot a .458 Win. Mag.?” .458 Win. Mags. are not popular deer rifles, target guns, or varmint rifles, a trend that is unlikely to change anytime soon. The only reason to ask such a question, again as noted by Jack O’Connor, is that we have never bothered to shoot our rifles adequately in the first place, otherwise we would already know what our personal parameters are without asking a piece of wire with blobs on it to advise us.

Depending on our tolerance for recoil and the how well our rifle will continue to group with as velocity increases, we can smooth out our trajectories a bit more. Loading a Barnes Original .458 300 grain Semi-Spitzer to 2200 fps with its .286 ballistic coefficient gets well beyond the abuse level (now 35 ft. pounds with a 10 pound rifle) of many shooters and scopes. Nevertheless, it yields a MPBR of 211 yards, and has a 10.42 inch top of the shoulder drop at 260 yards.

What about these 500 yard muzzleloaders? Well, you can never say never. However, this same stout-recoil 2200 fps load has about 106 inches of drop at 500 yards, even after being sighted in 3 inches high at 100 yards. Our 10 mph cross-wind blows the bullet over four feet, a calculated 49.22 inches. It means a hold-over of close to nine feet and four feet of wind compensation for every 10 mph of cross-wind.

To show you how wacky things can get, I’ll relate the story of a fellow that felt the need to inform me of his 500 yard shot on a doe. All I could say was, “Well, I’m you got it.” He went on to tell me how easy it was with the “new muzzleloaders.” Naturally, this tremendous ease has eluded me all these years, so I asked what type of groups he was getting at 500 yards. He then told me that he hadn’t shot at 500 yards, but it wasn’t important because modern bullets didn’t drop that much.

I asked him what the load he was using was, and though he couldn’t recall the exact bullet or sabot, he said it was a “magnum load” of three pellets. I also asked what rangefinder he had used when he informed me they weren’t necessary because he was good at estimating range. He told me the deer “looked” like it was 500 yards away and it had to be at least that as his buddy who was also incredible at estimating range thought it was at least 600 yards. These two experts with their finely hone senses of range were 100 yards off in their personal guesses. I asked where he sighted his gun at; the reply was dead-on at 100 yards. I was afraid to ask if that range was equally expertly estimated. I asked where he held on his doe and he told me, “on the back.” I told him he was a very lucky fellow and suggested he might want to invest in a rangefinder and some rangetime.

He apparently became a bit annoyed with my questions. The fact of the matter is that if he was using anything close to what he recalled as his load, he would not have had more than 2200 fps muzzle velocity with a 250 grain bullet on the best day ever. Zeroed at 100 yards, the bullet would have hit over 150 inches low at 500 yards, some twelve and one half feet below the point he was aiming at. Fired from any conventional sitting position, the bullet would have hit the ground at least a couple of hundred yards in front of the animal. Never let rudimentary exterior ballistics get in the way of a good story.

Assuming two Minute of Arc field accuracy at 500 yards adds yet another 10.46 inches of variability to the mix, added to the great unknown we cannot know that is precise wind drift for a single shot we have never taken before. If you add up nine feet of holdover, four feet of wind drift, and another foot of shooter / rifle error, you’ll quickly see that promises of easy 500 yard muzzleloading are best left to the purview of intoxicated marketing departments and a couple of shameless custom or semi-custom builders that would never let physics or a few miserable gut-shot animals get in the way of their relentless search for smarmy pseudo-performance money.

Still, responsible hunters that do their homework have it better than ever before. Not knowing the range is no excuse, as we have rangefinders like the Leupold RX-1000 that reveal stadia wires, brisket brackers and silhouette cut-outs to be the horrid game cripplers they always were. Knowing the range is a huge advantage. Developments like the Savage Accu-Trigger make trigger control and turtle-slow locktime far less of a factor than they once were.

Under ideal conditions with a steady rest, the 225 yard and 250 yard clean taking of deer-sized game is well within reach to the proficient, well-practiced muzzleloader. This is no small trick, for it wasn’t all that long ago that a clean 100 yard bag of a whitetail with a muzzleloader was considered exemplary.

The knowledgeable muzzleloader knows that any change in ambient conditions cuts down the confident game-taking range rapidly. The knowledgeable muzzleloader knows that the better the hunter is, the shorter the shots tend to be. The ethical hunter well understands and appreciates that a wounding loss is the greatest failure a sportsman can have and that there is little distinction in displayed incompetence level between a missed animal and a gut-shot.

As it turns out, Jack O’Connor’s observations were right on target: solid guidelines from a successful hunter with vast experience. Long range muzzleloading can be efficient and clean, if we do our homework and have the wisdom to show the restraint that is the mark of a mature, seasoned hunter. The satisfaction of a superbly clean kill always beats the hollow, gut-wrenching, aching, haunting feeling of wasting a game animal we claim to respect. Basic respect for big game animals does not discourage longer ranges, but it does dictate awareness, and restricts our shots to those we know we can make with absolute certitude.




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Copyright 2009, 2012 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.


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