Are Powder Pellets for Dummies?

By Randy Wakeman

Well, the answer is a bit of �yes and no.� There are considerations that the savvy muzzleloader should be aware of when using powder pellets and relying on pellets for consistent performance. As explored in other articles, there are pellets that are totally unacceptable in performance. Goex Pinnacle E-Z Loads are tapered, larger than bore size sticks, as are the sticks from American Pioneer that are marketed as �Sticks.� Also sold as �Jim Shockey�s Gold Sticks,� all three of these products are made by the same company, so they "stick" it to the customer regardless of the name on the bottle.

There are severe problems with the �sticks.� Poorly formed, all three have visible chunks missing out of them. As the American Pioneer / Shockey�s Gold company was found to have violated Hodgdon�s cylindrical pellet patent with their previous �Cleanshot� pellets, the �sticks� are tapered and are larger than the bores of most muzzleloaders. That helped American Pioneer / Shockey�s skirt the Hodgdon patent. Unfortunately, in the process the already erratic velocities got worse. The sticks tend to shave off a bit of themselves when you load them. As the most inconsistent muzzleloading propellant available today, it seems that Shockey�s Gold / American Pioneer powder sticks may be for dummies in all forms: the shaveomatic stick form just makes an inferior product worse.

From a cost per shot perspective, pellets make little sense. Triple Se7en Magnum pellets, in my area, sell for $25 or so for a box of fifty. Use two and you are looking at a dollar a shot. If you read the fine print on the Triple Se7en Magnum pellet box, you�ll find the weight is 4.5 ounces. At a sale price of about $90 per pound, it isn�t hard to understand why Hodgdon loves to sell them.

There is a built in product shelf-life issue with pellets. The little plastic packet of pellets is poorly sealed; I hesitate to call it sealed at all. Unfired Triple Se7en pellets, according to information from Federal Cartridge acquired during the development of their Fusion primers, unfired Triple Se7en pellets in humid environments can quickly absorb up to 30% moisture, resulting in decaying velocities as the water content increases. As the poorly packaged T7 pellets suck water, their ignition becomes more difficult. Bloopers, misfires and smoldering pellets limping out the barrel are what you may find with water-laden T7 pellets.

This has been made worse by weak, gimmicky primers designed to fight the nasty �Triple Se7en Crud Ring.� It is an issue with Remington primers and the weak �Triple Se7en� primers. With small bore rifle and pistol primers, misfires are a probability, if not a certainty. The hotter flame front of the Federal Fusion 209 primers (also sold as CCI muzzleloading primers) was designed to at least give ignition with T7 pellets in rugged hunting conditions where the Remington and Winchester Triple Se7en branded primers have become failboat ignition attempts.

It is not the primer alone, of course, but the efficiency of the breechplug that combine to give reliable ignition. Of late, Knight breechplugs have become filthier and less efficient, invariably splashing primer crud outside the breechplug. Currently, the Thompson interrupted thread breechplugs and the Savage 10ML-II breechplugs give the most reliable ignition with pellets.

Alhough dirty and more corrosive than the (still corrosive) Triple Se7en pellets, Pyrodex pellets are easier to ignite and more reliable with borderline ignition systems. No powder pellet allows the muzzleloading enthusiast to properly work up a load. As a generality, two 50 grain equivalent �preformed� charges tend to be more accurate than three pellet charges. They are useable, but hardly the best of breed.

In the zeal to sell $90 per pound �powders,� efficiency, accuracy and shelf life have all been compromised. Reliability has as well, which is really not a viable option on an important hunt. There are quantifiable reasons for all of these issues.

Where some opt to hold their noses and waste money on pellets, some severe problems have been recorded with three pellet loads, particularly Triple Se7en pellets. Fracturing and crushing of pellets is a common occurrence, resulting in huge pressure variations and wild accuracy fluctuations. Let�s take a look:

pressure graph

Warning: The above graph depicts 150 grain volumetric loading pressure traces measured under laboratory conditions via radial transducers. These loadings that MAY be in excess of manufacturer�s recommendations. The highest pressure load combinations depicted here are recommended and touted by many: Knight Rifles, Hornady, Thompson, and others. I do not suggest their use, for obvious reasons.

It should become apparent that the average peak pressures generated by 3 each, 50 grain volume Triple Se7en pellets may be erratic and perhaps dangerously high. A normal tamping of the sabot and powder (pellet column) can easily generate 40,000 PSI or more. With substantially crushed pellets, the pressures are way, way out of whack as compared to loose powder loads. A propellant so very sensitive to standard loading practices is one to stay away from, for obvious reasons. A 10,000 PSI jump based on seating a sabot is more than trivial.

This should call into question the peculiar notion that a pellet is a �preformed 50 grain volumetric blackpowder equivalent.� Nothing could be further from the truth: it is one of the most infamous whopperdoodles that can be found in muzzleloading today.

True blackpowder in laboratory tests does not begin to breech even 15,000 PSI MAP with reference loads. Yet, the �blackpowder equivalent� in Triple Se7en loads creates more than DOUBLE the peak pressure in the best case scenario, soaring past 275% of the blackpowder reference pressures if the pellets are tamped with the same projectile--to nearly 40,000 PSI. A load that develops more than double the maximum average peak pressure is no �equivalent.� In fact, a double pressure load would be characterized as reckless by most reloading manuals. Somehow, this type of nutball �equivalency� gets a free pass in muzzleloading. It shouldn�t. Does anyone think that double the pressure �blackpowder equivalent loads� just might help poorly made muzzleloaders fly apart in your hands?

Note that the Triple Se7en FFg loose powder is far more predictable, as is Blackhorn 209. The latter gives better velocities with lower peak pressure than T7 FFg. The gun companies that direct you to, "take three pellets and call me in the morning� had better have product that is appropriate for 40,000 psi MAP levels. Many do not.

So, yes, the case can indeed be made that pellets are for dummies, based on cost per shot, crud rings and radically high pressures in 150 grain �preformed charge� configurations. In the case of Shockey�s / American Pioneer, it is just bad propellant made worse.

Loose powder in not only provided in containers that are less prone to contamination: they are intrinsically more predictable, more reliable, more accurate and more economical. Let�s just say that loose powder is what savvy muzzleloaders use, for all the right reasons.

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Copyright 2008 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.