Are Sabots THAT Much Better than other Muzzleloading Projectiles?

By Randy Wakeman

This question comes up more often than I would have imagined. Before moving along, we have to accept that there is no such thing as a 250 grain muzzleloading projectile pushed by 100 grains of black powder that cannot kill a deer. At least to the best of my knowledge there is not. We harvest some 9,000,000 deer a year with a variety of hunting methods, and another estimated 2,000,000 deer are trashed each and every year by automobiles.

So it goes every year, and it is hard to construe the whacking of a deer as an extremely unusual or unique event. If we think so, we are just engaging in frivolous self-congratulation and are ignoring hundreds of millions of deer that have ended up in the meat locker. It is hard to build a totally ineffective 250 grain muzzleloading projectile of .44, .45, or .50 caliber, and no motivation for doing so.

One might think that at this stage of the game, with the huge body of evidence collected every year in the form of cleanly harvested game animals, there would be little room for dispute about muzzleloading reloads and bullet effectiveness. Alas, if only that were true. Most of our evidence is as far from clinical as could be imagined. Our information is more anecdotal than anything else, and the "hunting version" of an autopsy is a far cry from a scientific, medical look at terminal wounding ballistics.

It's not that we don't try-we think that the size of the hole in and perhaps out tells the story, which it doesn't. We like to think that firing into wet newspapers, soap, water, or ballistic gelatin as a "tissue simulant" can tell us can tell us the real story on terminal performance, but of course it cannot. All of these substances have no circulation, and no bones. They may give us an idea how well our bullet kills newspaper, or performs in a non-circulating boneless animal body fluid medium, but those aren't game animals, have no hides, and ignore how elastic game animals' bodies really are.

Just as we find it hard to accept that every rifle is an individual, we seem to find it difficult to accept that every game animal is an individual, and no two bullet wounds are identical. The best we can hope for is not absolutes, but trends and generalizations.

We also have a rough time accepting that "energy alone" does not kill animals, and there is no such thing as "knock-down." This physically impossible, for if the animal was truly "knocked down" by force alone the shooter would be knocked down the same way.

More recoil does not mean more lethality, or better wounding; it just means more recoil. There was a time when the size of the hole in the muzzle of a rifle was the primary factor in assessing its game getting ability, but those days are long gone. Few of us are shopping for a nice new .72 caliber rifle, rationally so.

Sabots have been around in muzzleloading for some time courtesy of Del Ramsey, and they get better all the time. They have had to, as Pyrodex is more energetic than black powder and Triple 7 even more so, burning at both higher combustion temperatures and pressures than black powder.

There is a limit as to what an unjacketed bullet can take without stripping from the rifling, and there is also a limit as to what jacketed bullets can take as well. Anti-tank guns use sabots, as the extreme tightness of the twist that would be required to stabilize these monstrous projectiles exceeds what jackets can withstand.

For today's muzzleloading hunter, there is no doubt that a saboted bullet can clearly outperform the bore-sized alternatives on a number of levels, and it most always does. The trajectory limitation of .50 caliber projectiles is clear, and the already loopy muzzleloading performance level is diminished dramatically by shooting larger, blunt, aerodynamically deficient projectiles.

A .40 to .50 caliber projectile in saboted form of equal weight and style gives you a huge benefit in trajectory making good shot placement that much easier. The bullet is not chewed up or deformed by the rifling, leaving the bore in pristine condition. Out of a muzzleloader, no jacket strength is compromised. Bullets of similar style and weight not only fly flatter, they retain more of their original muzzle velocity, which enables better expansion, better penetration, or both. Penetration, expansion, and precise shot placement all translate into faster and cleaner kills.

It is very easy for anyone to prove. Sight in a 245 grain Aerotip Powerbelt at 100 yards, then fire a group at 150 yards. Using the same charge of the same powder, fire a saboted 250 grain Barnes Spitfire TMZ the same way. The difference you see will astonish you. Sabots are exactly THAT much better.

With all this clear information, and ballistics that are easily verified by anyone, who in their right mind would settle for less? Why isn't 100% of the inline muzzleloading market shooting the best product for the job? Well, the fact of the matter is that many of us get our information from ad copy or the sweater behind the counter at the local chain store. Both may be tremendous, endless sources of bad information.

Part of the human condition is taking the path of least resistance, and most of us are a bit on the lazy side. Are our shoes too tight, or our feet too big? Can we blame a shoe manufacturer if we order the wrong size? I suppose we can, but of course we should not.

So it goes with today's muzzleloaders, where we have no universal standards. Knight, Savage, and Thompson have among the most consistent barrel bores. The Thompson's appear to run very close to .500 land to land, Savage 10ML-II's are close to .501, and Knight inline barrels are close to .502. That said, other muzzleloaders I've tested called ".50 caliber" have been from .497 to .508, yet still are called "fifty caliber."

Bullets can be .452 (Hornady), .451 (Barnes), .4515 (Sierra). These are the consistent ones; other "forty-fives" can be all over the map.

We have a one-time task ahead of us to enjoy the great benefits of saboted projectiles in our individual rifle. We must mate the individual geometry of our rifle's bore to the geometry of the bullet we wish to use, and no one can do it for us. We may luck out and have saboted bullets fit our barrels by fortuitous happenstance, but more likely to achieve easy loading coupled with the best accuracy we will need to experiment a bit. Muzzleloading is handloading, and we alone control the components.

MMP sabots offers a variety of sabots so our assembled outside diameter is where we need it. Aside from the dimensions of the bullets, the bearing surface of those bullets is also a factor. A shorter bearing surface bullet (a 250 Barnes MZ for example) will be easier to load than a 300 MZ Expander, all else being equal.

The benefits of saboted muzzleloading are huge, and there for anyone who seeks them. It does take a small amount of attention to detail for best results, as does all handloading.

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Copyright 2006 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.