The Fairy Tale of Muzzleloading Hunting Accuracy

By Randy Wakeman

Three muzzleloading hunters head into the hunting woods on a windy day. One fellow has a gun that he has shot on paper, recording a one quarter inch group at 100 yards. Another has a rifle that shoots about an inch at 100 yards, and the last of our three amigos has a rifle that groups two inches consistently at 100 yards. They are all shooting the same load, a 250 grain bullet at 1800 fps with a static BC of .140. A decent buck steps out of the woods at 140 yards. Who has the field disadvantage and disadvantage?

Theoretically, there should be zero difference. More likely, the difference is not what we have been led to believe. The fellow that has impressed himself with the quarter inch group is at a huge disadvantage. He always shot his rifle from a bag and cradle at the range. Now, he has to take an off-hand shot, and you can believe that the point of impact is vastly different from his range work. Where it might be, precisely, is unknown, as he's never tried it or confirmed it.

Unfortunately, he never bothered to read the wind, either, which happens to be a crosswind blowing at 20 mph. He's thrilled with his paper target at home, but now he has no knowledge of what that wind is doing to his bullet. At 140 yards under these conditions, the wind drift alone is OVER eighteen inches. Gut shot or clean miss; on who can we blame this?

Our one inch shooter knows the wind; he also has shot offhand. So, he has a general idea of what his field accuracy is. But, there were other problems. Sadly, he forgot to confirm his rifle before the hunt that day. Maybe it was the loose scope bases; maybe it was the department store scope itself. Maybe it was the fact that he couldn't be bothered to start hunting with a fresh powder charge that day; the gun held a four-day old charge.

Due to some or perhaps all of these factors he is poorly equipped to execute the shot. As Jack O'Connor and some of the most experienced big game hunters "back in the day" have noted, the ayatollah of accuracy can be horrifically over-rated in big game hunting. And it often is.

When was the last time you witnessed a big game animal cleanly dropped and the successful hunter complained, upset that his bullet was one quarter of an inch to the left of where he wanted it? A half inch? An inch?

Maybe somewhere, somehow that comment has been made--it is just that I've never heard it, or heard of it. Obsession with accuracy for its own sake is not necessarily a bad thing. Those that fancy themselves as trophy winning bench rest shooters can't have too much of it. I didn't bother to tell David Tubb that he wastes too far too much time worrying about accuracy; certainly accuracy has its place.

However, accuracy obsession can obscure the reality of field performance. When big game animals are missed, they usually are not missed by a fraction of an inch or even a couple of inches, they are missed by a mile. A big game muzzleloading hunter can ill-afford a few "spotting shots." I'll do my best to touch on a few of the most bally-hooed subjects.


It is fundamentally obvious that our 'point of impact' changes from shot to shot. If it didn't, we would rarely have a group to measure at all--it would just be a hole. There has to be a point of impact shift form a group.

The list of what can cause a point of impact shift is endless. The way we shoulder our gun can do it, a recoil pad can do it, a change in forearm pressure on our stocks can do it, loading bullets with a different amount of ramrod pressure can do it, inconsistent projectiles by weight or dimension can do it. Shooting off sticks, a bipod, off-hand, or bag and cradle can do it. Inconsistent powder can do it; different ambient conditions (temperature, humidity, wind) can do it, shooting uphill or downhill can do it. Reticle float or parallax in our scopes can do it, loose or soft bases can do it, poorly installed or machined rings can do it. They way we feel can do it and the clothes we wear can do it. It is a cumulative event; I've not tried to list everything that goes into it. Cocking or canting a bullet during loading can certainly do it as well. You've all heard the term "unexplained flyers." Well, there is always an explanation, even though it may be difficult to discern at the time.


By listing all these variables, you might think I'm trying to make things sound more difficult than they really are, but I'm not. One of my favorite coffee cups stands a bit over three and one half inches tall. If we can manage to place a bullet into that size area on a big game animal, it is highly unlikely that we can drop him any faster with a more accurate shot.

Certainly, shot placement is important and deer don't care how fast you miss them. Deer are also generally not impressed by paper group sizes. The kill zone of even a moderately sized whitetail deer is about ten inches or so in diameter. Many ballistic programs take this into consideration; hence the "6 inch kill zone Maximum Point Blank Range" designation where the bullet will not go higher or lower than three inches from line of sight.

A 2 MOA muzzleloader is all the accuracy you can use to 200 yards. Few deer will get any deader or any "deader quicker" if you can achieve shot placement within six inches under field conditions. For larger game (elk, moose, etc.) the vital kill zone size increases substantially.


Accuracy has its benefits. It inspires confidence; something I believe is an important to hunting success. Naturally, when working up a load, shooting at paper is the only way to let your gun tell you what it likes to be fed. We would all prefer to shoot tighter groups than not.

Chuck Hawks, friendly proprietor of Guns & Shooting Online, has chastised me a bit for sending along representative groups and 'best of day' group pictures with most of the guns I test. "Why, Randy? It is presumed that most people have seen targets before!" Chuck commented. Well, Mr. Hawks does have a point, although it also has a bit to do with Chuck's continued efforts to keep his site simple, clean, informational, and fast loading.

What is far more important is what type of field accuracy an individual is able to achieve, out of his gun, under his conditions. A great deal of my shooting and testing has been done with my favorite muzzleloader, the Savage 10ML-II. I've studied the factory test targets for several years by now. The three shot groups direct from Savage in-plant shooting have ranged from .562 in to about 1.3 inches at 100 yards. The load, with rare exception, is 42 grains Vihtavuori N110, Winchester W209 primer, short "MMP sabot," and a .452", 250 grain Hornady XTP, although 42 grains of IMR SR-4759 is also used.

This is far more accuracy than you can use in most big game hunting situations, of course, and better than the "capable of 1.5 inch 100 yard accuracy" that Savage promises. Naturally, the folks at Savage are just shooting their generic load and not in the middle of working up a load for an individual rifle.

A pleasant fellow dialed up from Hawaii a few weeks back, he happens to be a dentist. He mentioned that both he and a friend has identical Savage 10ML-II's (plastic stock / Stainless) that shot 5-shot, 3/4 in. @ 100 yard groups with regularity (using the above 42 gr. N110 load, as a matter of fact). After reading a few of my articles, he wondered what he needed to "tweak," adjust, and change. Of course the answer was nothing at all. At some point we have to accept complete success, whether we are inclined to or not. If the groups were 1.25 in. @ 100 yards, the answer would naturally have been the same. Paper target accuracy is not unimportant, but it is often over-rated and distorted to the point where the ghost of Jack O'Connor might start to shiver a bit.

We should not try to fix what isn't broken.

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Copyright 2006 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.

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