Hunting Modern South Africa with Powder and Ball
NEW E-Book from Randy D. Smith - NOW AVAILABLE

High Performance Muzzleloading Bullets

By Randy D. Smith

The right bullet can make a world of difference in accuracy, knockdown power, and most importantly, confidence in your muzzleloader. These are some recommendations for superior hunting bullet performance.

With "only one shot between me and perdition," as an old time mountain man was quoted as saying, the proper choice of a projectile can be crucial to a muzzleloading hunter's success and confidence. Humanely putting down and quickly recovering game should be the primary goals when developing any muzzleloading combination of gun, propellant charge and bullet.

A muzzleloading projectile has three roles to fulfill. It must follow a reasonably consistent trajectory from the gun so that shot placement is reliable. The projectile must be able to penetrate to do damage to internal bones and organs. And the projectile should be designed to expand to create the greatest amount of shock to the system yet be able to retain most of its original weight as it travels through bone and organs.

Patched Round Balls

Pure lead patched round balls will meet all of these standards within limited ranges. Round balls exhibit excellent characteristics of shocking effect, expansion and accuracy. Round balls do not retain energy well over long distances and are not flexible options for a wide variety of game and shooting conditions. The best round balls are consistent in diameter and weight, without parting lines, sprue marks or air voids. Brands such as Hornady, Speer and Buffalo meet high standards of round ball manufacturing.

Here's a tip: Pre-lubed round ball patches treated with Natural Lube or Wonder Lube provide significant bore maintenance, load integrity, and accuracy advantages over dry or "spit-soaked" patches in muzzleloading rifles.

"Swaged" Conicals and Bullets

Excellent bullet designs are best met by meeting strict standards of uniformity, density and design. The best projectiles meet high dual standards of expansion and coherence upon impact. On the soft tissue, thin-skinned game inherent to North America the best muzzleloading projectiles are either pure lead "swaged" bullets or soft lead core metal-jacketed bullets in sabots. Pure lead and jacketed bullets will meet all critical standards if matched to the weight and size of the animal.

Swaged bullets are the result of an expensive manufacturing process where pure lead cores are compressed under pressures in excess of 35,000 pounds per square inch. Under such pressure, solid lead becomes a sort of putty that flows to fill a die cavity with the excess expelled through bleed ports. Swaged lead bullets must be carefully packaged to prevent damage during shipping and handling. Care must also be taken during the loading process of a muzzleloader to prevent distortion of the projectile and loss of accuracy.

The main advantage of a heavy lead conical over any other type of muzzleloading projectile is that it retains substantial energy over longer distances and will deliver superior expansion at the lower velocities typical of muzzleloading rifles. At 1,000 feet per second, for instance, a heavy conical can still deliver substantial energy and expand properly. Many jacketed bullets will not properly expand at low velocities.

Whenever possible a hunter should closely observe the animal's reaction to the shot, examine the bullet, and investigate the path of the bullet through the body. Did the animal noticeably stagger or even collapse from the projectile's impact? Did the bullet expand and properly shed its energy? How did the projectile react to contact with heavy bone structure and, just as importantly, soft internal organs? I believe that a muzzleloading hunter will be most consistently pleased with the performance of swaged lead conicals and heavy lead sabots on deer or larger sized game.

You may have read or heard rhetoric about the advantages of "shooting through" big game with certain projectiles. I want my muzzleloading projectile to expend its energy within the animal and not be wasting any retained energy sawing down brush or punching holes in the dirt on the other side. I am happiest when I find my expanded muzzleloading projectile lodged against the skin on the far side from the entry wound.

I am a big fan of White's (marketed by Split Fire Inc) Power Punch conicals. These are long, heavy, swaged lead projectiles that transmit a tremendous amount of energy with moderate powder charges. Fifty caliber offerings range from 400 to massive 600-grain weights. Power Punch conicals are among my first picks for big game hunting.

One of the leaders in the manufacture and design of swaged pre-lubricated muzzleloading bullets is Buffalo Bullet Company. Industry insiders will tell you that all Buffalo products consistently meet the highest standards of uniformity, excellence and packaging. Offering a wide range of products in caliber options from .36 to .58 caliber, Buffalo Bullets have provided solid dependability since the company was founded in 1981.

Try Buffalo's Ball-et for deer hunting in .50 through .58 caliber. The Ball-et is a light conical that exhibits more energy characteristics than a round ball, is easier to load than a sabot, and can meet higher velocities than conicals. It is perfect for close range deer hunting where sabots may not be legal and a hunter wants better performance than a round ball provides without the recoil of extremely heavy conicals. I have had several guns produce their best 50 - 70 yard groups using Ball-ets.

If you are trying to pick a "best projectile" for a muzzleloader, try Buffalo's economical Variety Pack containing conicals, sabots and lubricated patched round balls in .50 or .54 caliber. I have also experienced excellent field performance from Buffalo's heavy weight hollow point, hollow base conicals in .50, .54 and .58 caliber. My favorites are the .50 caliber 385-grain, .54 caliber 425-grain, and .58 caliber 525-grain offerings.

A fairly recent market entry for high quality swaged projectiles is Precision Rifle (PR) Custom Muzzleloader Bullets. Precision Rifle will custom make a swaged bullet of almost any configuration. Precision Rifle's innovative approaches to bullet design should change the minds of a lot of hunters who use jacketed hollow point bullets. Of special note is a new .54 caliber Keith Nose that performed magnificently on a recent Canadian bear hunting trek. The company markets an Ultimate Semi-Spitzer Conical in 300 to 450 grain weights.

These bullets are also marketed by Traditions Performance Muzzleloading in a variety of .50 and .54 caliber sabots including a Boattail Semi-Spitzer Hollow Point, Boattail Keith Nose, Boattail Hollow Point, Keith Nose Hollow Point, and Polymer Tipped Boattail. The company also markets an excellent Hollow Point, Hollow Base Conical and conventional Sabot with Jacketed Bullet in several weights.

Hornady's swaged Great Plains Bullet is a conical that has enjoyed an excellent reputation over the years for dependability and accuracy. It is available in six weights from a 385-grain, .50 caliber hollow point to a 460-grain .54 caliber flat point. The Great Plains is also available in .45 caliber and a 525-grain .58 caliber conical. The Great Plains Bullet is well known for a bearing surface design which matches well in a wide variety of muzzleloaders and a smaller base diameter design to ease starting and alignment of the bullet with the barrel during loading.

TIP: When first starting a conical in the bore, give it a slight twist to help set the base firmly and evenly before using your short starter.

Thompson/Center's cast conicals, Maxi-Ball for penetration and Maxi-Hunter for expansion, have proven to be excellent for hunting throughout North America. I have consistently gained my best Thompson/Center gun testing results using Thompson/Center projectiles. For exceptionally large and potentially dangerous game I have experienced superior performance from the 555-grain .58 caliber Maxi-Ball. Both projectiles are pretreated with Natural Lube 1000 Bore Butter, one of the best muzzleloading bullet lubricants on the market.


Because of the similar velocities generated by conventional handguns and muzzleloaders, it didn't take long for muzzleloading enthusiasts to realize the dramatic potential of jacketed pistol bullets as muzzleloading projectiles. Jacketed pistol bullets of .44 and .45 caliber when enclosed in .50 or .54 caliber plastic sabots, retain energy almost as well as conicals, do not exhibit nearly the recoil levels of heavy projectiles, and normally produce flatter trajectories.

Sabots are also highly forgiving of bore size and variances between rifle brands or individual rifles of the same brand. A good sabot can help an average rifle shoot tighter groups over longer distances. Sabots are also more flexible for hunting everything from rabbits and varmints, to deer, and even elk sized game. A .44 or .45 caliber pistol bullet, however, cannot deliver the kind of shock effect or wound channels associated with heavy conicals. Still, for most muzzleloading situations a sabot provides good performance.

TIP: When working up sabot loads, don't forget to examine the fired plastic sabot itself. It should be intact and the petals blossomed. If it is unusually distorted you either need to back off on your propellant charge or obtain more substantial sabots that are designed for heavier loads.

Solid performance can be gained from Hornady's XTP (Extreme Terminal Performance) bullet in a wide variety of guns for a number of roles. I have used XTP's in 180-grain configuration for coyotes and long range varminting, 220 and 240 grain for American pronghorn hunting, 260 and 300 grain for whitetail and mule deer. The 300-grain XTP is accurate, possesses superior expansion and penetration characteristics, and is highly versatile in a variety of guns.

When Thompson/Center had to develop a new sabot to stand up under the pressures created by the Magnum muzzleloader loads of 150 grains of propellant it chose the XTP as the bullet for its new Mag Express Sabots. Mag Express Sabots have longer petals and a deeper cup than standard to help meet the increased pressures generated by Magnum loads. The XTP is also marketed in T/C's Break-O-Way sabots. Break-O-Way sabots have a three piece design encompassing two sabot "halves" locked in place by a woven wool "doughnut" pre-lubed with Natural Lube 1000 + Bore Butter, inducing an almost instantaneous separation of the sabot from the bullet for superior accuracy.

Swift Bullet Company is packaging its highly regarded A-frame bullet in new A-Frame Black Powder Sabots for .50 and .54 caliber muzzleloaders. Super Glide sabots are featured in 240 and 300 grain .44 caliber hollow point A-Frame bullets for .50 caliber and 265 and 325 grain hollow points for .54 caliber muzzleloaders. Swift bullets are famous for deep penetration, reliable expansion and superior weight retention.

The Nosler Partition is considered one of the bullets of choice for big game hunting around the world. It features a soft lead core divided into two sections surrounded by a thin fully tapered metal jacket for controlled expansion, superior mushrooming, and weight retention. A 240-grain Nosler Partition provided superior accuracy in recent tests of an Austin & Halleck rifle producing 1 3/4-inch groups at 100 yards from a bench rest.

Several firms market the Barnes X-Bullet. The X-Bullet is an all copper hollow point offering superior penetration and excellent shock/energy transfer at velocities as low as 1000 fps. It is available in 250 and 300 grains for .50 caliber and 275 and 325 grains for .54 caliber rifles. Many hunters believe the Barnes bullet to be a good sabot round for deer, elk, and bear hunting.

Newer rounds to enter the sabot market are the Polycarbonate Tipped bullets such as the Thompson/Center PTX Bullet and the Traditions Silver Lightning. The Polycarbonate tip improves ballistic coefficient and prevents deformation during loading. A tapered jacket with 8 serrations vents bullet deformation for fast expansion on initial contact. The Polycarbonate post continues expansion in the lead core as the bullet drives deeper. The core and jacket are interlocked to prevent separation. This bullet is also recommended for Magnum muzzleloading loads for penetration and controlled expansion at higher velocities.

Muzzleloading with black powder or Pyrodex is a low velocity undertaking because of the relatively low energy generated by these propellants. Muzzleloading enthusiasts should always be wary of ultra-high velocity loads or penetration bullet claims.

A summary of performance expectations for all of these projectiles is that for most large game muzzleloading situations at ranges out to 150 yards, a hunter can expect the best overall bullet expansion performance and energy retention from swaged lead conicals and sabots. Jacketed pistol sabots (240 to 300 grains) will serve for lighter game up to mule deer and elk size at ranges out to 120 yards. Round balls in .50 and .54 caliber are good deer sized game performers out to 70 or 80 yards. For larger game consider .58 caliber or larger round balls out to 70 yards. For potentially dangerous game, go for heavy conicals in weights above 485 grains. Staying within these limits and ranges insures a solidly performing muzzleloading rifle capable of confidently taking any big game animal in the world.

Back to Muzzleloader Information

Copyright 2003, 2014 by Randy D. Smith and/or All rights reserved.