Muzzleloading Caliber Hype: .45 versus .50

By Randy Wakeman

Inline muzzleloading has seemingly fallen prey to the "when all else fails, add a caliber" syndrome that has afflicted centerfire rifle enthusiasts for years. In most cases a .45 caliber, 1:28 twist barreled inline muzzleloader offers no performance advantage at all--and is inferior in quantifiable ways. I'll mention just a few of them.

Fewer choices. The .45 caliber gives you less choice in rifles, bullets, and propellants. And, what is "available" may not be nearly as readily available should you "go .45."

More weight. Two of the most popular inlines made today, the Thompson/Center Omega and Encore, use identical non-tapered barrels for both .50 and .45 caliber versions. Thompson is not alone in this. Instead of a lighter, faster, handier gun in .45 caliber you get the same article with a smaller hole in the barrel. That means a heavier, nose-heavy gun; something most muzzleloaders do not want, much less need.

Fewer places to hunt. In states like Indiana and Illinois, minimum projectile size for whitetail remains .44 caliber. If you want to shoot saboted bullets in your .45 caliber muzzleloader, you are out of luck. In some states, elk hunting with your smokepole is limited to .50 caliber rifles and larger. Again, your .45 can't legally qualify.

There are other reasons that make the .45 caliber less than the ideal "first choice." Inefficient propellants like black powder and Pyrodex need barrel volume to fully burn heavier charges. In a .45 caliber, you necessarily have less of it. Those who enjoy burning the latest in propellants like Hodgdon's "Triple 7" pellets, have been using them in their .50 caliber muzzleloaders for some time now. If you are a .45 caliber shooter, you are still waiting.

There are other areas of concern, some subjective, some less so. .45 caliber rifles normally use loads that produce somewhat higher pressures due to less bore volume. This is reflected in the international C.I.P. published "maximum recommended service loads." This is also reflected in the Remington 700ML owner's manual that limits you to 90 grains of FFg black powder in .45 caliber, but 120 grains in .50 caliber.

With loading restrictions like that, there is little hope of a .45 caliber rifle delivering on its high velocity, flatter trajectory promises. All of this will come as little surprise to reloaders, who are well aware you cannot use a 12 gauge powder charge in 20 gauge hulls; nor can you blindly take a handgun powder and fill a .30-06 case with it. Just substituting wads in a shotshell load can dramatically alter pressure; there is no reason to think that a change of sabots in muzzleloading does not.

There are exceptions that may cause you to think differently, but they are rare. When the choice is bore-sized pure lead conicals, a White 98 .451 with a 1:20 twist barrel can handle heavier (460 grain) bullets well, and the smaller bore gives you a higher B.C. than is possible with the same bore-sized lead projectile in .50 caliber. When the choice is economical pure lead conicals, the .45 caliber can make more of the lead you are throwing. Already limited in velocity to 1400-1450 fps due to pure lead, longer bullets with a higher B.C. make plenty of sense. With guns that offer real benefit in size and weight to compliment the .45 caliber, such as the Thompson/Contender G2, the "lighter in the sling" and "faster handling" qualities may make enough difference for some to look at the .45 caliber inline as preferable, if the entire gun compliments the caliber, and hunting regulations allow it.

For the vast majority of inline muzzleloaders on the market today, however, the .45 caliber rifle remains a substandard caliber option with little or no real-world performance benefit--and plenty of potentially negative issues. With MMP BLUE .40 / 50 sabots, your .50 caliber in-line is already a .40 caliber bullet-placer with .soft-recoiling. missiles in 195, 200, 220 and 240 grain weights. This MMP sabot innovation has largely rendered the .45 caliber inline muzzleloading rifle obsolete even before it has gained a strong foothold on its second recent try.

After this original article was written, .45 caliber frontloader sales did indeed plummet off the radar. There is but one .45 caliber I've tested worthy of note: the Thompson Contender G2 .45. That rifle exemplifies what a good .45 can really offer in terms of form, convenience, and effectiveness. For the rest of the pack, that have largely just put smaller holes in the same old .50 caliber barrels, they have rightfully vanished from prominence.

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Copyright 2003, 2005 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.