Muzzleloading Big Game Bullet Selection

By Randy Wakeman

As always, if there were one bullet that was the best for all occasions, you would think that is what we would all be shooting. But, calling any muzzleloading bullet "the best" is an unsophisticated answer to a sophisticated question.

For starters, I cannot begin to make the case that ANY .45 - .50 caliber bullet weighing from 250 to 300 grains in weight is not capable of killing not only deer, but elk, moose, and bear as well. They all have, and with all the anecdotal evidence floating around, even the world's worst choice for an elk, such as a 245 grain Powerbelt, can sound good. But is it?

To make a good bullet choice, we have to accept that the best 25 yard bullet (and load) is not the best 200 yard bullet and load. A bullet that is ideal for "boiler room" shots is likely unsuitable for breaking bones as in a double shoulder shot, much less an "Elmer Keith raking shot" or a rump shot. It holds true for deer, and is even more important as the game gets bigger.

If we want to take only herbivorous quadruped lung shots, and can restrain ourselves from more taking demanding raking shots and the like, then a fairly fragile bullet is an excellent choice. We want quick expansion, and a large wound channel going through the lungs. Great penetration is not all that important. We are avoiding large bones and also need only sufficient penetration to destroy lungs from the side of the animal.

Pure lead is a good choice for heart/lung shots, as what it does best is expand well at low to moderate velocities. The "polymer tips" you see on lead are worthless, and exist only to make bullets look pretty. The same goes for an "Aerotip" on a Powerbelt. It is unnecessary to initiate expansion with soft lead, as you can scratch lead bullets with your thumbnail. Lead remains a good choice for lung shots, and the heavier the bullets the better as game weight goes up. Perhaps a 375 grain Buffalo SSB or a relatively thinly jacketed hollow point pistol bullet like the Hornady XTP.

That same choice can and has resulted in unrecovered animals if we hit bone at high velocity, or attempt through-the-shoulder or raking shots. A bullet that acts explosively when it touches bone is not a good choice for these applications.

If we want the ability to confidently take double shoulder shots or raking shots on larger game, penetration cannot be compromised, and that means tougher bullets. In such cases we should consider longer, heavier bullets that do tremendous damage even without the "pancakey" expansion of pure lead.

An expanding bullet is better than one that does not expand, of course, but we cannot compromise on penetration. Our bullet must reach the vitals we need to destroy, regardless of shoulder bones, multiple ribs, or chest plates that are in the way.

Saboted bullets remain supreme as ranges increase, due to the abysmal trajectories of bore-sized projectiles. For a given grain weight, no .50 caliber projectile compares well with a five calibers smaller .45. The latter offers flatter trajectory, more retained terminal velocity and energy, and better sectional density, a requisite for increased penetration.

A 300 grain .458 Barnes Original will not have the quick expansion of a thinly jacketed hollow point, but it does fly more efficiently, and its thirty-two thousandths thick jacket gives us the penetration needed to do the job on more demanding shots. That is the reason that Fred Barnes developed them in the first place. It remains a popular choice on African plains game for this reason, and is ideal for moose, elk, and bear with proper shot placement.

Barnes MZ-Expanders in 300 grain configuration offer an excellent compromise as the universal muzzleloading projectile, with one caveat. They expand down to 1000 fps on broadside shots that fill its nose with fluid, and are tough enough to offer the potential of 100% weight retention when asked to break big bones. The lone chink in the armor of the MZ-Expander is its relatively low ballistic coefficient. While clearly superior to bore sized projectiles, with its gaping hollow point it is not the most streamlined bullet in the barn.

Inside 150 yards, I can't say it matters much (or at all), but it flies similarly to the more fragile Hornady (#4500) 300 grain .458 hollow point, just average in inline muzzleloading land today. The large copper petals scraping their way through an animal should retain enough appeal for those to reconsider the realistic ranges at which they intend to take an animal.

For better flight characteristics, both the Barnes Original Semi-Spitzer and the new Barnes XPB 275 grain .451 all-copper bullet gets you there. The toughness of either bullet is not in question, but you need 1400 fps terminal velocity to initiate expansion. As they are both long bullets, substantial wound cavities are still produced without the explosive expansion of the more frail bullets.

There are still a couple of areas where sabots are not allowed, to the detriment of the clean harvesting of game by muzzleloader. In that case, it makes sense to use the longer, heavier conicals to attempt to regain some of the section density lost by going bore-sized. That would indicate a 460 grain "No Excuses" conical, or even the 444 grain Flat-Nose Powerbelt conical.

Bullet selection remains a compromise, and there still is no substitute for good shot placement. As a rough rule of thumb, larger and tougher game requires larger, tougher bullets. Higher velocity muzzleloading rounds likewise call for tougher bullets. It makes sense to me to use a bullet that is tougher than it might have to be, heavier than it might have to be, higher velocity than it might have to be, and while we are at it, more accurate than it might have to be.

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Copyright 2005 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.