Why You Might Need a Tougher Muzzleloading Bullet

By Randy Wakeman

Inline muzzleloaders are the lion's share of the muzzleloading market. No other form of muzzleloader even ranks by comparison and the vast majority of inline hunters are shooting .45 caliber saboted bullets in .50 caliber rifles.

It all started with Tony Knight's MK-85 faster (at the time) 1:28 rate of twist barrels and Del Ramsey's MMP sabots. However, while saboted .45 caliber bullets offered better exterior ballistics than .50 caliber projectiles, the most popular hunting load has always been 90 to 100 grains by volume of loose propellant or 100 grains of pellets. It still is, for the most of the high-volume whitetail hunting states are in the East or Midwest and the vast majority of whitetail deer are taken inside 100 yards, year after year, regardless of firearm.

One hundred grains of black powder, Pyrodex, or Pyrodex pellets was the dominant load until 2002 or so, pushing a 250 grain or 300 grain saboted projectile. As published by Knight Rifles in 2002, here are the muzzle velocities (MV) with those 100 grain charges.

  • 250 grain Knight Red Hot (Barnes MZ-Expander) 1590 fps MV
  • 300 grain Knight Red Hot (Barnes MZ-Expander) 1478 fps MV

There has been good reason for the popularity of these loads. With an eight pound rifle and a 250 grain saboted bullet, recoil is a hefty 26.21 ft. lb. with blackpowder (close to 100 grains weight to 100 grains volume). Recoil is somewhat less with Pyrodex, for Pyrodex by bulk volumetric measure actually weighs about 30% less.

By nature, .50 caliber rifles are fairly heavy. Add a telescopic sight, mount and sling and it is easy to get them to nine or ten pounds, which makes them more or less acceptably comfortable to shoot with loads in this area. Much more fun for Dad and fun for Mom and the kids as well, 70 grains of Pyrodex by volume will take any deer on the planet inside 100 yards, as long as the bullet is put in the right place.

Even with a poor-flying 250 grain Hornady XTP pistol bullet, sighted in three inches high at 100 yards (124 yard zero), a 100 grain Pyrodex load has a six inch kill zone Maximum Point Blank Range of 145 yards. Pistol bullets, designed for 1000 to 1300 fps launch velocities, had no trouble with whitetail deer. However, there were problems with Class 3 animals.

Elk hunters complained to Tony Knight about the poor range and poor penetration of pistol bullets. Tony Knight used to make his own bullets for a time, back in the day, and his son Billy reminisced about when they finally decided to go with Barnes bullets. It turned out to be the best thing they ever did.

The most popular pistol bullets used in muzzleloaders has been the Hornady XTP .452 inch diameter, 250 grain jacketed hollow point. Considered a wide spectrum bullet, by pistol bullet standards, it is claimed to have a 800 fps to 1600 fps effective velocity range.

That velocity range has been shredded by hunting loads using 110 grains T7 loose powder, 110 grains Blackhorn 209, or two Triple Se7en Magnum pellets. All of these yield 2000 fps muzzle velocities, far beyond the design parameters of the bullet. It is no surprise that it does not work well at these higher velocities, for it is not designed to.

Pyrodex pellets gave rise to the three pellet load, resulting in 2013 fps with a 250 grain saboted bullet and 1904 fps with a 300 grain saboted bullet out of Knight Rifles. This posed no issue with Barnes all-copper bullets, but major league problems with pistol bullets, even on whitetail. Hit bone and the dreaded "grenade" or varmint bullet effect was not uncommon and the poor penetration on elk, bear and moose was found to be unacceptable. No one can fault a pistol bullet for being what it is, of course, but they were all too often used well beyond their design parameters.

The problem became even more pronounced with the success of Hodgdon's Triple Se7en. This 100 grain (by volume) powder charge was no longer a 1590 fps load. Contingent on barrel length and sabot/bore fit, 100 grains by volume of T7 FFg turned the 1590 fps MV load into 1925 fps or more. Blackhorn 209 does the same, only the maximum published charge from Hodgdon is 100 grains of T7, while Blackhorn 209 has published maximum charges of 120 grains by volume, raising the muzzle velocity to 2120 fps with 250 grain sabots.

Hodgdon introduced T7 Magnum pellets, so now the two pellet load wasn't 1590 fps any more, it was 2000 fps or a bit higher. Bullet problems with pistol bullets turned from a trickle to a geyser.

The Hornady XTP, a good pistol bullet, has a published G1 ballistic coefficient (BC) of .146. It is a great flyer if you compare it to the worst projectile form, a round ball, and perfectly adequate at handgun ranges. However, it is a miserable flyer compared to a spire point bullet, where the typical B.C. is upped to .20 or better for a .45 caliber, 250 grain bullet.

The terminal performance problem increased, for not only did the new 100 grain loads increase muzzle velocities by 335 fps or more, the more aerodynamically efficient spire point bullets meant higher impact velocities at all ranges, even without any increase in muzzle velocity.

With the success of the T/C Omega and three pellet, 2250 fps loads (published by Hornady) and the Savage 10ML-II that delivered 2300 to 2400 fps muzzle velocities, bullet disintegration became a huge problem. It still is and has been for the last decade. With loads of this caliber (pun intended), XTPs don't cut it, SSTs don't cut it and even the bonded core SST (marketed as Shockwaves) didn't work universally well.

However, the Barnes all-copper bullets always held up, as have the .032 inch jacketed Barnes Originals. The Parker Match Hunters boast even higher ballistic coefficients and a .028 inch thick jacket. Hornady has introduced their 250 grain Mono-Flex bullet, similar to the Hornady SST, but made of copper alloy. Federal has their new Trophy Copper muzzleloading bullet with what they call their B.O.R. Lock MZ System, a sabot-less (actually a non-discarding sabot design) that also uses a copper alloy bullet. It has taken the industry a long time to catch up with current high performance muzzleloader impact velocities, but it appears they finally have.

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Copyright 2014 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.