Hunting Modern South Africa with Powder and Ball
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Big Game with Muzzleloaders

By Randy D. Smith

Going after big game with a muzzleloading firearm is practical and rewarding as long as the hunter remains aware of certain responsibilities to the game. As with a smokeless powder firearm, it is the hunter's responsibility to choose a projectile and firearm that can generate enough power to cleanly and humanely kill the animal if the bullet is placed in the proper location. For elk, moose, and bear a general rule is to have at least 1,000 lbs. per square inch of energy generated from a muzzleloading firearm to effectively take the animal. Such energy figures are difficult to develop under normal shooting conditions. Energy is directly related to the weight of the projectile and the amount of power used to propel it. In other words, the greater the powder charge and the greater the size of the projectile, the more energy is generated by a black powder firearm.

That statement in and of itself, however, is misleading. The length of the barrel and the amount of recoil enter into the equation as very real factors. Depending on the length of the barrel, only so much powder will prove effective at driving a projectile. Load beyond that limit and un-ignited powder is simply blown out of the muzzle, increasing recoil but not the bullet's velocity or energy. The biggest load is never the most effective load.

Another factor that impacts accurate shooting is recoil. It is of prime consideration that a shooter can manage the recoil that the load will create. Felt recoil is the product of the size and power of the bullet/powder load versus the weight of the gun. Believe me, a 600 grain projectile powered by a 140 - 150 grain powder charge coming out of a 6 pound muzzleloader is not a shooting experience for the meek. Such loads can cause uncontrollable flinching by the shooter and ruin marksmanship. Read some of the old time journals of African market hunters who used black powder guns to take elephant, rhino, hippo and Cape buffalo and the effect such loads had upon them. These men used powder charges that were literally measured by the fist-full in such calibers as 4, 6 and 8 bore. To help control the recoil, their guns weighed between 16 and 22 pounds. These were hunters who literally would not take a shot until they were no more than 40 paces from their quarry. They used substantial loads at short distances to kill such massive beasts.

Of course, in North America, we do not hunt such animals. The moose or grizzly bear are the largest creatures anyone is going to encounter. For this work there are generally three muzzleloading calibers (.50, .54 and .58) available on the over-the-counter market. Heavy conicals are available from manufacturers for all of these calibers. There are also sabots available that would allow a .50 caliber projectile to be fired from a .54 caliber rifle. Why would you want to do this? The answer lies in whether you want a soft pure-lead projectile designed for expansion or a hardened projectile that is designed to penetrate with minimum expansion. In the later case, a muzzleloader would need to use a sabot to help preserve the rifling of his firearm.

When I am elk hunting, I do not concern myself with questions of expansion versus penetration. I know that a well placed shot from a .50 caliber rifle shooting a 260 to 300 grain pistol bullet in a sabot in front of a 100 to 120 grain powder charge will kill any elk on earth. A 385 to 480 grain conical in a .50 or .54 with a 100 to 120 grain powder charge will also kill very effectively. A 525 to 556 grain conical in a .58 with a powder charge of 70 to 100 grains will hammer the largest elk. I like the proven expansion and penetration qualities of these loads and I can live with the recoil.

Don't believe arguments that you cannot use too much powder in modern muzzleloading firearms. Or any rationale that supports the idea that the bigger the conical, the better. That is poppy-cock. An effective muzzleloading rifle load is a balance of Accuracy + Knock-down Power + Rifle Management. What is the most accurate load you can shoot in your rifle? Are there enough pounds of energy in that load to kill the animal efficiently? Can you and your rifle comfortably manage the recoil generated by this load?

Don't get caught up in what I call the "macho-factor" of muzzleloading; those guys who always load the heaviest loads, challenge the maximum credible muzzleloading ranges, and make sure everyone else knows about it. Just as with modern smokeless loads, there are a wide variety of muzzleloading rifle loads that are capable to killing elk, moose or bear. Go for the load that you and your rifle perform best with, i.e., the best group on paper at a specified yardage within specific game killing load ranges. Go to the range and test you accuracy, making fine adjustments in powder charges until you shoot your best group. That will be the best big game load for you, your gun, and as a result, the game you are hunting.

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Copyright 2003 by Randy D. Smith and/or All rights reserved.