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Conical Bullet Big Game Performance
The current trend in big game muzzleloader hunting is toward the use of sabots and Powerbelt bullets. Advertisers talk of relatively high velocities exhibited by these projectiles when used with 150-grain powder charges and associate those velocities with improved performance. The buying public has bought into these claims hook, line, and sinker. The sabot has become so popular that it is often difficult to locate conicals from many local retailers. The problem is that this whole notion is highly misleading and in some situations can lead to some dangerous situations.
When I see advertisements where so-called “Big Name” muzzleloader hunters are going after African and Alaskan dangerous game with 260-grain pistol bullet sabots, I cringe. I know that three things took place during that hunt. First, the bullet placement was perfect. Second, they had to wait for the animal to bleed out before approaching it and probably had to track it for several hundred yards. Third, someone was standing behind that big name hunter with a big gun to save his ass if things turned sour. That someone sure wasn’t carrying another muzzleloader with a 260-grain pistol bullet sabot. You may call it hunting. I call it an irresponsible stunt.
As long as a muzzleloader hunter is pursuing deer, he is not going to experience extremely poor performance from a sabot. When the game is larger, the situation drastically changes. Lightweight bullets designed for handguns are much more prone to failure as the animal’s size and muscle structure increase. The whole misunderstanding comes from two commonly held performance fallacies. One is that velocity alone is a measure of a bullet’s ability to deliver trauma. The second is based upon a poor understanding of relatively slow black powder velocities and how to make of the most of that trait.
Many have trouble understanding why a heavy conical bullet is so effective on game when the velocities are relatively slow. Normally a conical is fired at a velocity of between 1,200 and 1,600 fps. While a light bullet may have higher velocity and therefore greater muzzle energy than a conical, it will also shed that energy much faster. The momentum of the heavier conical allows it to shed its energy much slower. That same momentum retention remains when the bullet strikes big game. A combination of bullet weight, diameter and velocity increases both penetration and trauma to an animal.
Many will cite the differences in velocity of smokeless powder rifles as a means of justifying higher velocities in muzzleloading, but the most velocity that can be expected from a black powder rifle is about 2,300 fps using a 240-grain projectile. The .30-30 Winchester generates more energy than a muzzleloader using projectiles of 300 grains or less. Black powder energy limits mean that if you want additional power to increase trauma to an animal you must fall back on bullet weight and diameter to get it.
Perhaps the least technical method of presenting this circumstance is to look back into the history of firearms and gain an understanding of why smokeless powder was so revolutionary to the development of big game firearms. Smokeless powder allowed hunters to use lighter projectiles with less recoil. Once the proper bullets were designed to work effectively at these higher velocities, smokeless powder caused a revolution in what men used to hunt big game.
The reason for the development of conicals was the inefficiency of the patched round ball muzzleloader. Round balls have some problems. They lose significant velocity and therefore impact energy after a relatively short distance. To counter this inefficiency, designers created very large caliber guns to shoot heavy charges of powder. Those enormous round balls remained highly effective close range game getters, but the fellows that were shooting them began to wonder who was taking the greater beating; the game in front of the gun or the shooter behind it. Big game black powder rifles weighting sixteen to twenty pounds were necessary to be able to survive the recoil. Smokeless powder not only reduced recoil with lighter projectiles but also allowed hunters to use much lighter, more manageable rifles.
A conical can be made as long (and therefore as heavy) as can be stabilized by the rifling. Early conicals were very short because they were used in round ball rifling patterns. Right now the maximum commercial .50 caliber conical that I know of is 600 grains. Normally, the faster the twist the longer a practical conical can be.
When muzzleloaders hunt elk, bear, or moose in the West with .50 or .54 caliber round balls they have to take extra precautions to close the range and go for exact shot placement. Many muzzleloader hunters on the plains made the transition from round ball to conical projectile without considering any other option. Round balls were used for a bit better accuracy potential for small and medium sized game on occasion, but for most hunting situations there simply wasn't enough accuracy advantage with round balls to counter the tremendous energy advantage of conicals.
Conicals also have some disadvantages. Recoil is greater. The more weight in the projectile, the more resistance to the powder charge, and the more recoil is experienced by the shooter. The same momentum advantage of a heavy conical is also translated into the resistance it takes to get it started down the rifle barrel. If a .50 or .54 caliber round ball is an unpleasant experience for a muzzleloader shooter familiar with light weight smokeless projectile rounds, a 425-grain conical matched with the same powder charge is down right disconcerting. Many whitetail hunters who were using 100-grain powder charges to propel .54 caliber round balls, for instance, backed off powder charges to the 85 grain range with heavy conicals. This actually increased energy performance and maintained a tolerable recoil level. Never mind what those old‑timers endured from their massive black powder loads and projectiles. They put up with a lot of other inconveniences that we wouldn't consider today and certainly didn't have access to chronographs to optimize loads.
Another argument against conicals involves the critical importance of loading them properly without distorting shape. Most conicals need to be carefully positioned in the muzzle before any force is placed upon them with a short starter. Because of the tight fit of traditionally designed conicals, initial force upon the conical is often extreme in order for the conical to imprint the rifling. Extra care needs to be taken to swab rifling frequently between shots to reduce loading resistance. Pounding away on a tight fitting conical with a short starter or ramrod will only distort shape and degrade accuracy. Another theory is that if a pure lead bullet is started crooked, even if only slightly, a small amount of lead will be shaved from the bullet by the rifling as it is pushed down the bore with the ramrod. Upon ignition, gases will force past the bullet and result in inaccuracy.
The fellow who invented the sabot loved hunting with a muzzleloader and happened to own a plastic injection factory. He didn't like the recoil he was experiencing with heavy loads when deer hunting with a round ball and was not impressed with the quality and consistency of early conicals. He wanted a bullet that was heavy enough to bring down a deer, was consistently uniform, and met high ballistic standards of expansion upon impact. He found that the .45 caliber pistol bullet was a good compromise. All he had to do was figure out a way to make his .45 bullet shoot accurately from a .50 caliber muzzleloader.
What he needed was a thick patch that would allow the rifling to put a spin upon the bullet. That is all a sabot is. It is a glorified plastic patch that is constructed to hold an undersized lead bullet in place until it can transfer the spin of the rifling to the bullet for accuracy and drop away milliseconds after leaving the muzzle. Another advantage of sabots is that they provide the opportunity of making a .50 caliber muzzleloader into a more flexible shooter. Just as a shooter can place a heavy .45 bullet in a .50 caliber muzzleloader for more down range energy than a round ball, he can also down load to a lighter .44 caliber bullet and less powder charge to make a .50 fairly practical for small game hunting. Sabots are also very forgiving for some twist ratios and gun designs. Sabots will help make an average rifle into a fairly decent shooter at the target range. Sabots have the potential of providing the best of both worlds for a muzzleloader. Modern “Easy Load” sabots load with one finger just like the original White “slip fit” conical did. This new easy loading sabot feature completely revolutionizes modern muzzleloader hunting.
Taking that into consideration you may ask, “Why not use a big game saboted / jacketed bullet in a muzzleloader for big game?” For instance, I experimented with using Hornady .458 510-grain Interbond bullets in a .50 caliber muzzleloader as a projectile for dangerous game. I used MMP .458 sabots. The projectile/sabot combination loaded well and was reasonably accurate but I could not get enough velocity, even with 150 grain charges for the bullet to expand as it would from a .458 Winchester Magnum smokeless cartridge load. I might add that the recoil was nothing less than wicked in a seven pound inline and a twelve pound inline double barrel. A 600-grain soft lead conical with less powder charge (120 grains) mushroomed more efficiently, penetrated just as well, was more accurate, and generated less recoil. The Interbond was simply not designed for black powder velocities.
Conicals can also be made in different lengths to allow for a wide variety of game hunting. But, a conical can only be made so short before it becomes unstable. Buffalo Bullet Ball-ets allow for a relatively light weight conical to be used in a big bore muzzleloader. White slip fit conicals allow a .50 caliber White muzzleloader to use 400, 460, 480, and 600 grain weights in the same gun. This gives the hunter a broad range of big game bullets to choose from, but a sabot load must be used for lighter game. I like the 400-grain for deer, the 460-grain for elk and the 600-grain for dangerous game. For coyotes and other small game I use a 240-grain Hornady in a sabot.
If I am going after big game with a muzzleloader I will invariably choose a conical over a sabot. In nearly 30 years of muzzleloading I have witnessed much more impressive kills and physical damage done by conicals than by any sabot. When I hunt deer with a sabot I don’t like to go less than 300 grains projectile weight. I also don’t generally shoot any .50 caliber powder charges over 120 grains. That is because I don’t buy into the velocity argument at all when it comes to muzzleloading. I believe in the concept of the “Balanced Load."
An effective muzzleloading rifle load is a balance of Accuracy + Knock-down Power + Rifle Management. What is the most accurate load that I can shoot from my rifle? How much contamination am I getting from fouling? Are there enough pounds of energy in that load to kill the animal efficiently? Can I comfortably manage the recoil generated by this load and will my rifle hold up under sustained shooting? A balanced load has the best accuracy possible, with as little fouling as possible, in a load that will take game humanely, with the most acceptable recoil. That is why I like a 400 grain conical with a 90 - 100 grain powder charge in a .50 caliber muzzleloader and a 425 - 430 grain conical with an 85 grain powder charge in a .54 caliber muzzleloader. Year in and year out these have proven to be a very versatile big game loads.
There have not been many new conicals placed on the market in the last decade. Thompson/Center still markets the Maxi-Ball for penetration and the Maxi-Hunter for expansion. As far as I know, White still markets a wide variety of conicals for its rifles including the Buckbuster, a slip fit conical for non-White .50 and .54 caliber muzzleloaders. Precision Rifle markets several good conicals. Buffalo Bullet also markets a number of fine conicals. The most commonly sold conical is the Hornady Great Plains bullet. I honestly haven’t seen much performance difference between the brands. Some conicals will load quite differently in different brands of rifles. The easier it is to load a bullet the better the accuracy potential, as long as the bullet is the right caliber.
Choose a conical that loads easily in you particular rifle, choose a weight of conical that is appropriate to the game you are hunting, develop the most consistent and accurate load, and practice at appropriate ranges. If you follow this advice, you won’t be nearly as impressed with sabot loads for game larger than an ordinary deer.
Copyright 2007, 2016 by Randy D. Smith. All rights reserved.