Working Up a Load for Your Muzzleloader
The "old working up a load" talk that is parroted so often does very little to help the new in-line muzzleloading enthusiast. Perhaps that is why there is endless banter going back and forth regarding, "what shoots in the Remchester muzzleloader?"
Obviously, today's rifle manufacturers do a very poor job of suggesting what works well in their product. If recommendations are made, it is usually only the bullets they sell--whether they work well or not! In fact, there have been several instances where manufacturer recommendations of a given load have not resulted in anything that I would remotely call accuracy. Maybe this article will save you a little time and frustration; it is intended to do just that.
POWDER PREDICAMENT SOLVED, IN A HURRY
When using a modern, good quality, .50 caliber inline with a barrel rate of twist from 1:24 to 1:32, which comprises some 90% of the new inline market these days, there is only one powder charge with which I will personally bother. That is 100 grains of Hodgdon Triple Seven FFg. The reason is simple: it is the best all-around "black powder substitute" available today. The velocities are significantly better than black powder or Pyrodex (or Clear Shot, etc.), it is readily available, and it easily ignitable from #11 cap to 209 primer breechplugs.
I've found Triple Seven to be more consistent than the "also-ran" sulfur-less substitutes. Specifically the water sucking "American Pioneer" (a re-release of the old Clean Shot) and the overpriced and inconsistent Mag-Kor Black Mag3 (a re-release of the old Arco Black Mag3).
Taking sulfur out of the equation gives your barrel a little cushion from corrosion, though every propellant mentioned requires prompt cleaning of your front loader. They all can "work," that is not open to question, it is just that the gluconic acid powered Triple Seven works best for an accurate, full power hunting load, the only load in which I am interested.
An inline load combination will shoot, and shoot well, with 100 grains by volume of Triple Seven, or I don't want that combination. Heck, I may not want that inline, but we are a very long way from coming to that conclusion.
Most .50 caliber inline barrels can use that 100 grain volumetric load of Triple Seven. There is little point in my attempting to discover a bullet that groups with 70, 80, or 90 grains of Triple Seven. I want a hunting load without a built-in penalty of terminal velocity, terminal energy, trajectory, or all three. So, practically speaking, 100 grains by volume of Triple Seven is the only powder charge there is.
If I am not convinced that an inline has been fully tested with Triple Seven and my desired bullet weight, and proven safe, I have no use for that particular inline. There are so many fine quality inlines out there, at very affordable prices, that it is senseless for me to bother with any borderline rifle.
There may be no muzzleloading standards, but we all are blessed with the ability to decide for ourselves which muzzleloaders are well made and which are of dubious quality. I'm quite comfortable hunting with Knight, Austin & Halleck, Thompson, Savage, and NEF / H & R rifles.
SABOTED BULLETS REIGN SUPREME
I'm also usually going to shoot a saboted bullet, for the same reasons that I started with Triple 7 powder: superior terminal velocity, energy, and trajectory. Where the regulations require it, I'll shoot a bore-sized conical; likely a 348 grain or 405 grain Powerbelt so there is no messy lube, but only when required to by regulation, or I believe that there is no opportunity for anything but close range shots.
I freely admit that, in a strict sense, poking a large hole through the vital organs of a game animal will not allow it to live very long. Most all muzzleloading bullets can and have taken game, inclusive of hard cast or other non-expanding projectiles.
Expanding bullets do cause more damage in thin-skinned game, and are the obvious and humane choice in most instances. The saboted bullet weight will likely be 240 grains or heavier.
Lighter bullets can do the job, and have. But a heavier, longer bullet offers more cushion when used on larger animals, raking shots, and other less desirable angles. The increased sectional density can allow a bullet to punch through bones, when lighter bullets cannot. It is the Boy Scout's Motto all over again; you might not need the extra steam when less than ideal shots are the reality. But, since some game animals do not pose properly or play fair it just makes sense to be prepared. It follows the whole muzzleloading approach: one shot, make it a good one. Well, one bullet: better make it a good one as well.
This is the area where only the individual can find the specific projectile that groups best in his gun. There are trends, but no hard rules. There just cannot be, as all guns remain individuals due to (unavoidable) accumulated manufacturing tolerances. They may be more individualistic than we like them to be!
As Del Ramsey reminds me, just .001" difference in bore to saboted bullet fit can make all the difference in the world. Mr. Ramsey is right, it absolutely does. The only option is test and trial, let group size be your guide to accuracy. The rest is theory and speculation, neither of which insures good shot placement. Trajectory we can learn and adjust for, but inaccuracy we cannot.
Terminal performance is as important as accuracy. There is a fairly short list of bullets that have proven themselves, over time, to be good terminal performers. It only makes sense to focus on these options, as a few of the newer more gimmick-riddled projectiles break no new ground. The fundamentals of bullet performance have not changed recently, nor has the anatomy of game animals.
The most proven performers are the Barnes MZ-Expanders, Hornady XTP's, and swaged pure lead saboted projectiles available from a large number of sources, including Hunterman Custom Bullets, Buffalo Bullets, and the Canadian made PR Bullets. Other contenders are listed in the article, "The Best Muzzleloading Bullets for Deer Hunting," which can be found elsewhere on this site, but they are not among my first tier choices for the various reasons cited in that article.
Likely, you have heard the complaint that "sabots are hard to load." Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact of the matter is that Del Ramsey has taken great care with every improved polyethylene formulation he has released to keep sabots of a relatively soft durometer, while increasing strength. It just means that we have not taken the time to find the proper fit for our bore, and perhaps have fallen prey to some self-serving ad copy.
Are our feet too big, or are our shoes too tight? That seems an apt analogy, as "sabot" refers to a wooden shoe worn in some European countries. However, if we want the benefit of improved downrange performance, finding the saboted projectile that fits our rifle's bore is mandatory. Fortunately, it is a one-time process for a specific rifle.
From MMP sabots, the leader in the field, we have three basic sabots to select from when using the .451 to .452 diameter bullets. They are the short, classic "MMP sabot," and two longer petaled versions that are designated the "High Performance Series." The latter are the HPH 12 and the HPH 24, and feature "ring reinforced" bases. The sole reason to use the HPH 24 as opposed to the HPH 12 is that the HPH24's assembled outside diameter with a .451" bullet is about .003" smaller than the HPH12, giving you proper loading in tighter barrels.
Due to the high weight retention of Barnes pure copper bullets, heavy bullets are not as strongly indicated as they are with pure lead projectiles. The path for Barnes selection is rather easy: a tighter barrel will do well with the new, higher ballistic coefficient Spitfires. These come with a proprietary yellow MMP sabot and are available in 245 grain and 285 grain weights. You can just choose the one that groups the best. The 250 and 300 grain Barnes MZ-Expanders are supplied with the MMP HPH 12 sabot. If they do not load smoothly, substitution of the HPH 24 may be the solution you are looking for.
The same path applies to Hornady .452" diameter, 250 and 300 grain XTP bullets. Only the short MMP sabots are required to address the XTP's bearing surface properly. Yet, you may find that the HPH sabots give better groups in your rifle. Some have taken up the hobby of trimming down perfectly good sabots petals with toenail clippers. While it may provide for an interesting conversation piece, it has not revealed any accuracy advantage whatsoever in my test guns. Hornady "XTP Mag" .452 bullets are available as well in 240 grain and 300 grain weights. They generally have not been as accurate as the standard XTP versions, but your gun may view things differently.
When it comes to pure lead bullets, I side with the vast knowledge of Doc White and find that the somewhat heavier versions are generally better, both on paper and on game. Mark Lynch of Hunterman Boolets (email@example.com) will make any weight of bullet you wish. His 280 grain .451 spire point boat-tail hollow points have been universally good shooters.
At present, the 375 grain Buffalo SSB's (these come with an MMP black sabot designed to accommodate the boat tail) are Buffalo's most established and most popular saboted round. The lead bullets tend to be a bit more forgiving, in that they can load what would be "too easily" for jacketed bullets, yet still shoot accurately. This is due to the obturation upon initial setback, where the soft lead shortens and bellies upon firing.
I have hunted fairly extensively with the Canadian PR Bullets. These began as copies of the Buffalo SSB bullet, enhanced more recently with a copy of Hunterman Boolet's modified Keith Nose design. They have been good game getters. However, they are cursed with a couple of grievous marketing errors that can only be considered blatant lies. Though billed as "designed for pass-through performance," their Dead Centers failed to make it through to the hide on the last three wild boar, two caribou, and a number of whitetail.
They are beautifully made, and have been accurate in a number of my rifles. However, their stated ballistic coefficients have proven to be inflated by 50% or more in a disingenuous effort to sell more Canadian lead. The stated ballistics might be achievable on Mars, but absolutely not on this planet. This is a real pity, as it misleads the consumer not only as regards trajectory, but also about the energy remaining to harvest game. So it goes in the smoke-filled land of muzzleloading.
As you have likely surmised, there is no substitute for range work with your personal rifle. Whether your gun tells you Barnes, XTP, Hunterman or Buffalo, only the paper will reveal.
There are several myths that crop up now and then, one being the time-wasting nonsense of "reading sabots for accuracy." Whether a sabot loses one petal, two petals, all of them, or none of them is meaningless. The only way to read group size is by knocking holes in paper, as the sabot is designed to destroy itself. Once it carries the bullet out of your rifle's bore, it has done its job. Whether a sabot looks good thereafter is unimportant. You might find a great looking pile of sabots, but get scattergun type groups. Only accuracy reflects accuracy, and plastic sure does not fill the meat locker.
There is another legend, which is that shot placement is the single most important factor in cleanly harvesting game. That legend is true, which is why this little article was written, and also why I believe you'll find it well worth the time and effort to let your gun tell you what it likes to be fed. Good shooting!
Copyright 2005 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.