In Search of the True Story Behind the Savage 10ML-II:
An Interview with Henry Ball, Smokeless Pioneer

By Randy Wakeman

Henry Ball and Randy Wakeman
Henry Ball (left) and Randy Wakeman.

Although some folks think that using smokeless powder as a black powder substitute in a muzzleloader is somehow "new" (in a modern sense), it is really older than most people might think. Savage Arm's 10ML series of muzzleloaders is now entering its sixth consecutive year of production; I'm continually amazed at how many people either are not aware of it, or just don't seem to be able to understand the reasoning behind it.

So, to get the full story of why, how and when, I tracked down the man most responsible for its development to his mysterious lair in Greensboro, North Carolina. Rather than speculate, it seemed reasonable to get the real story from the individual who knows more about it than anybody else, Mr. Henry Ball.

RW: First of all, Mr. Ball, thank you for taking the time to consent to this interview. For starters, let me ask about your background in terms of machining, riflesmithing, shooting, and hunting?

HB: I've been an FFL and a riflesmith for over forty years. I built my very first custom rifle at age eighteen. I've been an avid reloader for over fifty years. My machining credentials go back over forty years, and started with over 8400 hours of formal training. I've specialized in tool, die and fixture making. I've served as a machining instructor for college graduates along the way for a six-year tenure, and have also been involved in electronics, hydraulics, pneumatics, and CNC machining implementation over these many years. NC State Champion in wood crafting for two consecutive years, and once received a National Championship Achievement Award presented in Dearborn, Michigan. I also served as a pattern maker for a large foundry for several years, naturally concentrating on metallurgy. I currently hold six firearms-related patents. I've been shooting and hunting for sixty years, and it is fair to say that my passion for hunting exceeds most everything else. I've shot and hunted with, for the most part, wildcat cartridges and rifles of my own custom design and construction for the last thirty years.

RW: When exactly did your efforts start to turn to smokeless muzzleloading, and why? What was the goal?

HB: It didn't originally focus on smokeless muzzleloading, exactly. Back in 1990, Bill and I became frustrated with the current state of muzzleloading equipment. Our muzzleloaders, fired with Pyrodex, destroyed themselves within three years or so, despite the best care we could give them.

An accident that put me in the hospital, and could have easily cost a close friend his life was pinpointed down to a corroded, weakened bolster drum screw in a Lyman sidelock. That gave us further motivation to say, "Never again, there has got to be a better way." With the poor quality, extruded metals used in many muzzleloaders and Pyrodex devouring and eating our rifles away from shot one, we looked to stronger barrel materials, a stronger action, and closer tolerances. We wanted muzzleloaders to last a lifetime, and finally came to the conclusion that it was necessary to eliminate the source of all the problematic corrosion and wear in the first place: black powder, and more specifically, Pyrodex RS.

RW: So, would I would be correct in saying that the inspiration for using smokeless powder in a muzzleloader was based on safety and product life, and ballistics were a secondary, lucky bonus?

HB: Yes. Rifle life and hunter safety was the first order of business. That out of the way, we were naturally able to put our further efforts into making our rifles as effective and humane as possible for the harvesting of game. Ensuring that our custom muzzleloaders had sufficient accuracy and kinetic energy to quickly anchor and take our game under the most demanding conditions imaginable then became the new top priority, but only after rifle safety and longevity concerns were fully addressed.

I'd like to make it clear that my son, William, an expert riflesmith and many-time NC State Sniper Champion in both pistol and rifle, was every bit as responsible for the development of modern smokeless muzzleloading as I was. Bill was involved every step of the way. He's made me quite proud, in every way a father can possibly be proud of his son-- in far more ways than I can possibly convey here.

RW: How did the current Savage breechplug design come to be, and what are its advantages?

HB: What is called a ventliner is just a replaceable flash hole, part of the "lifetime gun" parameters I designed into the gun. My testing proved to me that a solid breechplug, regardless of suitable material, would eventually erode. The easily replaceable flash hole screw keeps a 10ML-II like new with annual replacement. The current breechplug is identical in both functionality and strength to my original breechplug designs.

The metal to metal flanged portion protects the threads from carbon fouling and provides a positive stop, and the unthreaded portion ensures a barrier between the primary powder charge and the breechplug threads we want to protect. The threaded portion exceeds all SAE, ASTM, and AISI standards by offering thread pitch engagement area exceeding the strength of the parent metal, in this case that is AISI 41L40, heat-treated to a minimum of 35 Rockwell "C" scale.

RW: So many people are completely comfortable with the .22 rimfires and centerfire shotguns that we all grew up with, which are of course smokeless powder powered, as they have been for over 100 years. Yet, these very same people now suddenly seem bewildered about using smokeless powder as a black powder substitute in a muzzleloader. Why do you think that is?

HB: It is just a lack of education and awareness. This has been helped along, in large measure, by the propaganda put out by companies that are not capable of producing high quality rifles, and so-called "black powder substitute" manufacturers that see safe, clean, and simple smokeless muzzleloading as a massive threat to their companies' finances.

If your company's primary income was from rifles made to no, or low, quality standards, or you sold Pyrodex or Triple Seven pellets at a hugely profitable $60 a pound, trying to squash competition is just a reality of doing business. We should all know better, but the people giving out muzzleloading information have done so in a way that serves only one clear interest: their own bank accounts.

There is no fundamental difference in functionality between a plastic shotshell wad and a sabot. Our muzzleloaders shoot the very same bullets as the very best "other" muzzleloaders ever made, at the same velocities. We are safer, cleaner, and our guns last longer, but the hunting experience is the same. The limitation of just one shot and relatively heavy, large caliber projectiles remains the same. Our guns just don't need immediate maintenance, do not use propellants that destroy equipment, and we put no toxic clouds of smoke in the air to cloud vision and that can (and has) reduced the chance of game recovery.

RW: What is it that the new muzzleloading buyer should understand when comparing the Savage 10ML-II versus, let's say, a decent Knight or Thompson muzzleloader?

HB: I would hope the prospective buyer understands that the 10ML-II can do absolutely everything any other muzzleloader can do, and a whole lot more. It offers them unprecedented safety, accuracy, and lack of immediate maintenance. It is built to a higher, better standard in terms of barrel quality, action strength, weatherproofing, trigger quality, safety, and knockdown power.

The Savage 10ML-II is just a superior hunting tool. The closer you look, the more you know, the better the 10ML-II gets. It is an affordable muzzleloader, yet offers the new consumer more quality, more safety, and more versatility than any muzzleloader available today. It is designed to last several lifetimes. I should know, as I designed it that way. My grandchildren are shooting 10ML-II's right now. When I'm gone, they will still be enjoying them just as they are today.

RW: What is your favorite load for the Savage 10ML-II?

HB: It remains 45 grains of Accurate Arms 5744, pushing a .452 inch, 300 grain Hornady XTP, using the short black MMP sabot from Del Ramsey. The muzzle velocity is in the mid-2100 fps area.

RW: That is a Maximum Point Blank Range of around 185 yards or so, assuming a six inch kill zone. What happened to all the 300 yard brags and hyperbole that we hear about?

HB: No matter what you do with a relatively heavy, large caliber, low ballistic coefficient projectile, the trajectory degrades very quickly past 250 yards. This load is accurate, temperature insensitive, and lethal. Most shooters do not put in the practice time required for all the long range stuff you hear about, and cannot properly use wind management, which is far more likely to be ignored than vertical trajectory. Personally, my longest kill with a muzzleloader is at about 240 yards, and that is cracking about 4 inches of Kentucky windage above the animal�s back. That�s why I practice on groundhogs at 500 yards with my center fires. It makes taking a deer at that range a piece of cake.

Muzzleloaders, including mine, are short range weapons. The load described is absolutely devastating on deer out to past 325 yards. It is just that very, very few people will put in the substantial practice time to thoroughly learn their trajectory to ensure proper bullet placement at extended ranges. Learning your gun with a supremely accurate load with excellent terminal bullet performance is critical. Trying to move a large heavy bullet at super-high velocity in a muzzleloading application is no substitute, nor remotely as important as thoroughly learning your gun. Any unknowledgeable hunter can just try to burn more powder. A true marksman knows the capabilities of his hunting tool at all ranges before the trigger is ever pulled on a game animal, for he has done his homework and has the self-discipline to know when not to take a shot. After all, nobody �makes you� shoot at a deer.

RW: Certainly, I�ve shot that very same, identical load, and it is a very soft-recoiling combination. Is it fair to say that you are not a fan of high recoil?

HB: If you are dumb, you�ve gotta be tough. That is one of the beautiful things about the 10ML-II: you need not punish yourself or your equipment to have a superbly lethal, yet humane load. That�s why the Savage is such a great choice for those with a pacemaker, touch of bursitis in their shoulder, the young, and the fairer sex as well. There is room for all of us in the hunting and shooting world, and a gun that is pleasant to shoot just makes more people feel more welcome. Recoil, or the anticipation of recoil, has proven to be a great detriment to the casual shooter in their ability to accurately place bullets. The Savage 10ML-II neatly addresses this issue, and now we can cleanly take game with better shot placement as a result.

RW: What do you feel is the most important thing that game departments should take into consideration about the Savage 10ML-II?

HB: I would hope that they take into consideration the same attributes a knowledgeable muzzleloading buyer looks at: safety and humane game management. Any game department that takes a close look will understand that the hunting experience of "you get one shot, it better be a good one" is inherently a safe approach.

Use of the Savage 10ML-II keeps their hunters equipped with the safest, most effective equipment available. Use of the Savage is the most ethical, humane way to manage game populations during a muzzleloading season available today. Hunters have safer, better equipment, more animals are humanely taken, and properly recovered.

Corrosive propellants have nothing to do with the song of the woods, or our personal hunting experiences. Game animals lost due to poor equipment or lack of visibility serves no one's best interests. We all want healthy game herds that our grandchildren and great grandchildren can enjoy. The 10ML-II is the safest, surest way to maintain healthy game animals in the muzzleloading environment, with an absolute minimum of crippled or lost animals. Everyone benefits.

Most game departments have a difficult task, and that is pleasing all of the people all of the time. Even areas that don't understand the rich tradition of hunting in these United States have constituents that quickly change their political posturing when more deer are killed by automobiles than hunters. Insurance companies lobby for extended seasons, and deer actually cause more human fatalities than any other animal in the U. S. today. Hooves through the windshield are not a good thing, and excessive deer population densities cost farmers millions in terms of crop damage.

We have already seen the disease problems, such chronic wasting disease, where deer populations have hit over 48 deer per square mile in the Madison, Wisconsin area. The horrible deer eradication programs and the miserable, lingering deaths of these animals is something no sportsman can view without a deep sense of dismay. Tuberculosis in deer, though reportedly affecting about 2% of the Michigan herds, has manifested itself as a 25% infection rate in coyotes. Now, with some areas having overly thick population densities, bovine tuberculosis is on the rise. No one could possibly want strong, healthy deer populations more than the hunter. We all want the same thing, if for different motivations.

Getting back to the Savage 10ML-II, I would hope that DNR departments view the product the same way I designed it: as a safer, more effective, more humane short range weapon. DNR officials are good people, usually wearing a lot of hats. None of us are infallible, of course. Like all of us, they can fall prey to the self-serving propaganda loudly spouted by those companies who care far more about protecting their own interests than the best interests of the hunter or game populations. Most DNR departments have been able to see through this literal smokescreen.

Sadly, a couple still have not. The Delaware Department of Fish and Wildlife published their regulations based on recommendations from, and I quote: "Connecticut Valley Arms, a manufacturer of muzzleloader rifles, provided information for this release to address concerns of the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers Institute, a product research and safety group."

They should really be embarrassed about a major league screw-up like this one. CVA, as those in the industry know, is no manufacturer of muzzleloaders. The CVA brand rifle falls into a class of the most dangerous, poorly made muzzleloaders ever inflicted on American sportsmen. There were so many successful personal injury suits against CVA branded guns that the company quickly ended up in bankruptcy. All that really exists is a brand name; there is no such thing as a CVA manufacturing plant.

RW: On the topic of muzzleloading safety, I believe you know the problems associated with extruded barrels as found on CVA, Winchester, and Traditions branded muzzleloaders, and that a lot of people have been getting hurt. Should consumers be concerned about these soft CVA / Traditions barrels, that have sub-10,000 PSI proofed barrels (700 kilopounds per centimeter squared), when used as directed by the respective owners manuals that tell the new owner to pull the trigger on 25,000 to 27,000 PSI three pellet loads?

HB: We should all be very concerned, if not downright alarmed. The sub-standard CVA branded product on the market right now is from an import company that calls itself "Blackpowder Products, Inc.," which is totally Spanish owned and operated. They have no testing facilities in the United States, and import their "Cheap Charlie" muzzleloaders, built to no stated or known standards, branded as "CVA" and "Winchester Muzzleloading" rifles. A new generation of hunters is at great risk, if you believe all the graphic emergency room reports. It is this type of sub-standard, dangerous product made from soft "extruded" steel that caused me and my son to build muzzleloaders that are crafted like real modern rifles, not tinker-toys.

Now these CVA clowns have had the audacity to present and misrepresent themselves as "researchers for SAAMI." They aren't even members of SAAMI, but Savage Arms is. There is only one muzzleloader made, proofed, and tested in accordance with SAAMI standards today. It happens to be the Savage 10ML-II. You can believe, based on my 40 years of riflesmithing, machining, and metallurgical expertise that I would not make a lousy .22 rimfire out of the soft, cheap metal they use to build their muzzleloaders. Worse yet, they tout the use of 3 pellet so-called "magnum" loads that can produce upwards of 25,000 PSI out of these monstrosities.

It may be good for personal injury lawyers, but it sure isn't good for my fellow muzzleloading enthusiasts. In my opinion, CVA, Winchester Muzzleloading, and Traditions branded guns are not fit to be sold, much less fired.

I designed the Savage 10ML-II from the beginning to make muzzleloading a better, safer sport. I will not allow my family or friends to be put needlessly at risk with sub-standard imported equipment of dubious quality. There are only two fundamental factors concerning metal strength; that is yield and tensile. The cheap Spanish stuff just mentioned should be relegated to BB guns.

Now, there are other quality muzzleloading manufacturers out there, to be sure--Thompson/Center and Knight are among them. Savage Arms deserves great credit, they have gone where no firearms company has gone before. They have elevated the art of gunmaking. Take the 10ML-II's 100% proof-tested barrels, ALL barreled actions are proofed to SAAMI centerfire standards. No muzzleloading company has ever devoted this type of attention to their rifles-- but Savage does. They didn't have to, they chose to. Savage's own Accu-Trigger is another innovation that makes the 10ML-II safer. SAAMI calls for a six-inch off-safe drop test standard. Well, the Accu-Trigger 10ML-II can withstand a drop of over twenty feet in cocked, safety off position without firing. Now you know why Savage makes me proud as well. Try that with any other muzzleloader ever made. Better yet--DON'T.

I can, however, prove that the Savage 10ML-II is the strongest, safest frontloader ever made. My son and I have developed it to be just that, starting 15 years ago. I shoot a 10ML-II with great pride, and great confidence. I will not allow my loved ones to settle for anything less. Those I care for the most shoot only Savage 10ML-II's, not strictly because I designed it, but because it is the safest muzzleloader available today, at any price. If there was a better, safer muzzleloading tool than the Savage 10ML-II that is what they would be shooting, regardless of brand. There is not.

RW: Why do you think that people assume that propellants like Triple 7, or Pyrodex or Triple 7 pellets have anything at all to do with blackpowder?

HB: Carefully crafted and heavily funded marketing. Apparently, it has worked. Of course, Triple Seven is not even remotely related to blackpowder in composition, actual weight, or performance.

Nitrocellulose-based smokeless powder was the first and best blackpowder substitute. Anyone who bothers to check it out knows that; the use of smokeless powder goes back over a hundred years. That's why you see "drams equivalent" still printed on today's shotshell boxes. That is "drams equivalent" to black powder, nothing else. The .45-70 Government service cartridge, dating back to 1871 or so, was naturally a blackpowder cartridge from the get-go: that "-70" indicates 70 grains of blackpowder. For at least the last eighty years, it has been available from most top ammunition manufacturers loaded with smokeless powder. How obvious can it be that smokeless powder is a blackpowder substitute?

Synthetic propellants like Triple 7 have only existed for a couple of years. Smokeless powder, as a blackpowder substitute, has them beat by a hundred years, with relentless testing over decades resulting in hard data that proves it is safer to handle, store, and use than blackpowder.

The most important quality of the Savage 10ML-II recommended smokeless propellants is obvious: they don't corrode, pit, and weaken a gun's barrel or action. As a bonus, they don't poison the air, restrict a hunter's visibility, and are more economical to use.

RW: Two different senior ballisticians asked me point blank if "muzzleloader shooters are just plain stupid?" The basis for that question was the obvious fact that no propellant can be deemed a "100 grains maximum charge" without taking into consideration the weight of the projectile. Certainly, 100 grains of Triple 7 FFg pushing a 200 grain bullet produces dramatically lower pressure than when shooting a projectile that weighs 50% or 100% more. Most of us just don't seem to care. Why is that?

HB: The general muzzleloader shooter has fallen prey to ad copy and the lack of easily accessible basic interior ballistics information. They are not dumb, but have been misguided and misled. Many of the current muzzleloading manufacturers and synthetic blackpowder substitute manufacturers, while raking in all the cash from the new interest in muzzleloading, have shirked their responsibility to properly educate the consumer about the proper use of their products. It is a shame; I find them derelict in their duty.

RW: Whom do you admire the most in the art of gun making, both past and present?

HB: John Moses Browning, without question, stands alone as the greatest innovator and influential firearms inventor we have ever had. I have a special affection for "Carbine" Williams (David Marshall 'Marsh' Williams), and Dr. Richard Gatling. These men changed the world.

More recently, Roy E. Weatherby, and P.O. Ackley deserve great credit along with Bill Ruger. In the field of muzzleloading, Tony Knight stands at the top of my list, single-handedly bringing muzzleloading out of the dark ages to a far greater extent than any other individual. We stand on the great contributions of all these fine men, and owe them all a debt of gratitude far beyond our ability to properly reward them.

RW: What advice do you have for the brand new muzzleloading enthusiast?

HB: Well, I hope that those entering the sport take the time to become intimately familiar with their weapons. And put in enough practice with them to attain a reasonable understanding of their weapons' trajectory and accuracy limitations, and their potential.

Listen to your gun, it will tell you what it likes to be fed. Deer don't care how fast you miss them, and nothing beats day in, day out accuracy and optimum shot placement.

By all means, use a scope unless regulations prohibit it. It allows more humane shooting at all ranges, when iron sights can mean misses. Or, worse yet, iron sights can result in crippled and lost game. Naturally, the more scouting that can be done pre-hunt, the more likely your time in the woods will be successful.

Shorty Sizemore, Henry Ball, Kevin Moore
The meat locker filled, Henry Ball (center) relaxes after a
hard day of hunting flanked by two of his closest compadres--
Shorty Sizemore (on the left), and Kevin Moore.

Personally, at this stage of my career, I most enjoy the camaraderie, the fellowship, and the time in the woods enjoying the nature that the good Lord has given us. Watching, learning, experiencing the outdoors gives me great comfort. It relaxes me, clears my mind, and takes me away from noise and nonsense of our daily life. It rejuvenates me, and reminds me of all the things we have to be thankful for. It is an appreciation of nature, and a special joy that I have tried to pass along to as many friends as possible. It is something that we can enjoy with and pass along to our children, and grandchildren. Hunting and time in the pines is to be cherished, savored, shared, and always treasured.

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