Getting Worked Up Over Black-powder Deer Rifles

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Published on: Aug. 2, 1998

Last revision: Nov. 1, 2010

the bullet and the powder charge. It's also a good way to be sure that the powder charge is packed with uniform pressure from shot to shot.

Make a routine-a ritual-of giving each load the same number of tamping strokes with the same pressure. Keep in mind that tamping too vigorously can deform a lead bullet, reducing its accuracy. Also be sure to use the same ramrod for working up a load and hunting.

If you are lucky, your muzzleloader will have a fairly wide range of powder charges that produce good accuracy. My son's .50 caliber Hawken shoots tight groups with a .490-caliber round ball powered by anywhere from 50 to 90 grains of Pyrodex RS. The heavy end of this range does not produce unpleasant recoil, so that's what he uses when deer hunting.

When you finish working up a hunting load for your "smokepole," you should be thoroughly familiar with its workings and confident in its ability to plant a hefty chunk of lead in the kill zone. After that, all that remains is to hone your shooting skills to the point where you can do justice to the accuracy of the load and your rifle. For that, the only thing better than practice is practice with other black-powder shooters. It's easy to organize an informal muzzleloader shooting league that meets once every week or two. Besides keeping your skills sharp, you'll get to trade loading tips and news about recent innovations. To learn more about muzzleloaders' activities, contact the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association, Box 67, Friendship, IN 47201.

If you are interested in more detailed information about black powder firearms, an excellent reference is The Complete Black Powder Manual, revised edition, by Sam Fadala, from DBI Books, Inc.

Concerned about whether your chosen load will have enough knock-down power?

You probably shouldn't be. Missouri's requirement that deer hunters use muzzleloaders of .40 caliber or larger is designed to ensure that legal black-powder weapons make clean kills. As long as the optimum load for accuracy in your muzzleloader is no less than two-thirds of the manufacturer's maximum load, you can rest assured that your bullets pack enough punch to drop a whitetail with a well-placed shot.

To find out exactly how much bang a particular load delivers to a buck, you will need a ballistic chronograph. This is a device that measures how fast your bullets are moving when they leave the muzzle. Many well-equipped shooting ranges have chronographs you can use to clock a load. You can buy a chronograph for less than $100. Ballistics charts found in a muzzleloader manual will tell you how much energy a bullet with a given muzzle velocity delivers at various distances downrange.

To get an idea of how muzzleloaders' knock-down power compares with that of modern deer rifles, consider the case of a .50-caliber in-line rifle tested with a chronograph. The maximum recommended powder charge was 150 grains of black powder. Bench testing showed that it delivered best accuracy (1-inch groups at 25 yards) when loaded with 100 grains of powder and a 302-grain, saboted lead bullet. This load yielded an average muzzle velocity of 1,579 feet per second. A ballistics table showed that the bullets would retain about 1,350 foot-pounds of energy at 50 yards, which is a little farther than the average shot for Missouri muzzleloader deer kills.

This performance is comparable to the .30-30 Winchester, the rifle caliber that probably has taken more Missouri deer than any other. Loaded with the heaviest factory load-a 170-grain slug-a .30-30 delivers 1,577 foot-pounds of energy at 50 yards. You can better that by stoking a muzzleloader with the full recommended maximum load, but it's a waste of powder. Like the .30-30, a .50-caliber muzzleloader with a moderate load is more than equal to the task.

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