Working Up Loads for .50 Caliber Inline Muzzleloaders

By Randy Wakeman

For decades, the dogma of "you've got to work up a load" with your smokepole has been perpetuated, or should I say perpetrated? Yes, it is certainly true that you do need to do your fair share of range work to find the combination that your specific gun likes, but it is not the endless fiddling with powder charges that has been rumored.

We have all heard that every gun is an individual, the result of cumulative tolerances, and this is as true today as ever. Propellants are commonly Pyrodex RS in powder or pellet form, Triple 7 FFg in powder form, or Triple 7 pellets.

Today's Triple 7 pellets and Pyrodex pellets are virtually interchangeable from a muzzle velocity standpoint; Pyrodex pellets have given me more uniform velocities than Triple 7 pellets and are also easier to ignite. Triple 7 pellets are less corrosive (though still corrosive) and require 209 shotshell primer ignition. Triple 7 pellets' residue can be hard and crunchy near some breechplugs, but less fouling is left in the barrel overall.

Personally, I've found powder work-up to be a simple task. When it comes to loose powder, Pyrodex and Triple 7 are both easy to ignite, but here Triple 7 has a clear muzzle velocity advantage. You'll pay dearly for the convenience of pellets, but that is an individual choice. As muzzleloading is a deer hunting driven market, I have little use for a bullet / powder combination that is not accurate with 100 grains of powder or 100 grains of the pellet equivalent. The goal is to quickly and humanely harvest animals, and if a projectile will not group with 100 grains of powder, I don't want it; I can do better.

Far more dramatic improvements can be had by changing bullets than moving powder charges to and fro a few grains at a time. Deer don't care how fast you miss them, so accuracy and terminal performance are paramount, trajectory comes last. Trajectory we can learn, and compensate for, but an inaccurate load or a poorly performing bullet we can not.

It is just a matter of listening to your gun and letting your group size tell you what it likes. In a very general sense, there are some trends that have become apparent.

Thompson Omega and Encore rifles seem to have slightly tighter bores than most. A 245 grain Barnes Spitfire, a 295 grain Powerbelt, or the 200 grain .40 / 50 Thompson Shockwaves usually make the short list.

Recent Knight Rifle barrels have been a bit larger in land to land dimension, so 348 grain Powerbelts, 250 grain Hornady SSTs, and 375 grain Buffalo SSBs are all contenders, as are the 250 grain .452" Hornady XTP bullets in short MMP sabots. Barnes .451 250 grain MZ Expanders also are well worth trying, as are the Winchester 260 grain Platinum Tips.

Austin & Halleck inlines have shown a preference for 375 grain Buffalo SSBs, and the 348 and 405 grain Powerbelts. Winchester Platinum Tips are also well worth trying.

The H & R Sidekick and H & R Huntsman seems to shoot most any of the above well. They are not particularly projectile-sensitive.

The Savage 10ML-II does well with 250 and 300 grain .452 Hornady XTPs in short, black MMP sabots. See the "THE SAVAGE 10ML-II SERIES MUZZLELOADERS" section on the Muzzleloader and Black Powder Information Page for more details.

With many other brands of rifles, especially the pellet gun priced imports, each barrel can be a brave new world, and there is no clear trend to cite. Nor should there be, as the land to land dimensions of the barrels can run the gamut from .498 inch to about .503 inch, a daunting task for the bullet makers.

The combination of pure lead saboted projectiles seems to help mask the lack of barrel quality better than most others, as the shortening / bellying out of lead combined with the elastomeric memory of current sabots can accommodate the widest variations in bore diameter. The bottom line is: to avoid frustration, don't fret about the powder charge all that much--but don't be afraid to change bullets until your gun tells you it likes what you are feeding it.

All these bullets, properly placed, are adept at dropping deer inside 150 yards with a 100 grain powder charge. For maximum expansion and internal damage on CXP2 class game, pure lead seems best.

For those who like shoot-through performance, jacketed bullets offer that with more consistency. Barnes Bullets fall into a unique category, as pass through performance is almost a certainty. When hitting bone, as in a shoulder shot, they are unlikely to open up. Barnes bullets need to hit soft tissue to quickly petal out, and that means heart-lung shot placement.

My experience points to the importance of bullet selection far more than powder selection. Worthy of note is the difference a sabot can make in the accuracy of the bullet it ensconces. A call to MMP Sabots can turn an inconsistent or inaccurate load into a stellar one; at least it has for me. Sabot selection is at least as important as the bullet selection itself. If the idea of "working up loads" has you a bit frustrated, don't be. The answer is often just a bullet change (or sabot change) away.

For a more complete discussion about working up loads, see "Working Up a Load for Your Muzzleloader" on the Muzzleloader Information Page.

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Copyright 2004, 2016 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.