Getting Worked Up Over Black-powder Deer Rifles

By Jim Low | August 2, 1998
From Missouri Conservationist: Aug 1998

Have you ever wondered who would win a shooting match between Daniel Boone and an Olympic rifle champion? The modern shooter, with 200 years of technology on his side, would be a formidable opponent. On the other hand, the prospect of starving or losing one's scalp must have developed in pioneer marksmen a degree of concentration difficult to replicate at the shooting range. All things considered, I believe I'd put my money on ol' Dan'l.

Which makes me wonder why black-powder rifles aren't more popular with deer hunters. Muzzleloaders enjoy more days of hunting in Missouri, and the Conservation Department has liberalized regulations in recent years to allow the use of telescopic sights and cap and ball pistols. So why is it that modern firearms hunters outnumber muzzleloaders in Missouri 26 to one?

Some hunters don't want to bother with powder flasks and ramrods. That's OK. Muzzleloading isn't for everyone. But if you have shied away from black-powder rifles because you think they lack the accuracy or power for deer hunting, think again. These are superb hunting tools. To get the most from them, however, you must know the following secret: Every muzzleloader shoots differently.

Daniel Boone and his contemporaries knew this from experience. Gun makers then, as now, determined the size bullet that would fit the barrel, and they offered advice about the maximum load that could safely be fired with a particular gun. But it was up to the buyer to find just the right powder, primer and projectile needed to coax the best combination of power and accuracy out of that particular rifle. The process of finding that ideal combination was known as "working up a load."

In principle, working up a load is simple. You try different loads until you find one that works. In practice, however, it can be fairly complicated because there are hundreds of possible combinations of primers, powders and bullets. Changing one of these components can radically change the performance of a rifle. So one of the secrets of successfully working up a load is reducing the variables to a manageable number.

Priming is the easiest loading factor to nail down. For the sake of simplicity, we won't deal with flintlock rifles. Few hunters use them today, and the considerations are essentially the same as for caplocks. Today's percussion caps are reliable and consistent. Find one that ignites your powder every time, and stick with it.

Next is powder selection. Old-fashioned black powder (a mixture of charcoal, saltpeter and sulfur) is available from several manufacturers. Pyrodex, a modern black-powder substitute, is also available for muzzleloading. Either of these propellents will be safe and perform reliably when used properly. The staff of a good gun shop can explain the advantages and disadvantages of each and advise you about which powder granulation is best for your rifle. Again, choose a propellent and stick with it throughout the process of working up a load.

A note of caution about propellents: Designers make muzzle loading firearms for use only with black powder or propellents specifically made as substitutes for black powder. NEVER load a muzzleloader with modern propellents designed for modern firearms. Modern propellents have entirely different burning characteristics than black powder and can turn a muzzleloader into a bomb. If you have questions about suitable propellents, ask people at a gun shop or your gun's manufacturer.

You also have to decide whether you want to shoot round balls, as early pioneers did, or conical bullets. This choice likely will be dictated by your choice of rifle. Guns with barrels whose riflings have slow rates of twist-less than one turn in 48 inches of barrel-are made to shoot round balls. Some round-ball guns have riflings that take more than 72 inches of barrel to make a full turn.

Rifles with barrels that have faster rates of twist are made to shoot conical bullets. Those that make a full turn in less than 48 inches of barrel are considered fast. Some may complete a turn in 30 inches of barrel length or less.

Some rifles straddle the arbitrary division between slow and fast rates of twist. This follows the historical precedent set by the Hawken brothers, who made all their rifles with a 1:48-inch twist. Conical bullets and round balls both were in use at the time, and the Hawkens wanted their rifles to work passably well with either.

Owners of Hawken-type rifles should try both types of bullet to see which performs better. Either bullet can provide plenty of power for white-tailed deer, and either can be fired with excellent accuracy from rifles to which they are well-matched.

Choosing round balls means the shooter also has to select a patch material and lubricant for loading. Stick with the same patch material and lubricant when testing different bullets and powder charges.

With so many variables to consider, be methodical when range testing black-powder loads. Start by pre-labeling targets for the loads you plan to test. Mark each target with the date, distance, number of shots, type of primer, type and amount of powder, type and weight of bullet and, if you're shooting round balls, patch and lube type.

Shoot groups of at least three shots, using a sandbag or a bench rest for best shooting. Allow your rifle barrel to cool between shot groups. When shooting on a sunny day, shade your barrel from the sun. Hot barrels shoot differently than cool ones, and your barrel is not going to be hot when you draw a bead on a deer in November.

Barrel fouling also causes accuracy variations in muzzleloaders. The buildup of powder residue changes the fit of the bullet in the bore, affecting bullet velocity and accuracy. Again, this creates conditions that won't exist when you squeeze the trigger on a deer. To minimize the effect of bore fouling on your gun's performance when working up a load, it is important to clean the bore between shot groups. This can be done with cloth patches moistened slightly with water. Finish with dry patches so moisture doesn't affect your powder.

Before starting, check recommended maximum loading information in your gun's user manual. Begin your range test at 60 percent of the recommended maximum powder charge and work your way up to the maximum. For example, if the manufacturer of your rifle specifies a maximum load of 100 grains of powder for a 50-caliber rifle, you should shoot your first target with 60 grains. Clean the bore and shoot a new target with 70 grains of powder and so on until you finish the progression with three to five shots at a target with 100 grains of powder.

Save all your targets for comparison. With rifles smaller than .50 caliber, increase the powder charge in increments of five grains. For rifles .50 caliber and larger, go up in 10-grain increments.

If none of the powder/bullet combinations produces satisfactory accuracy, you may need to try a different bullet, patch material, lubricant or powder. If misfires are a problem, try a more powerful primer cap or a different nipple.

Muzzleloader hunters often fail to take into account tamping pressure. After pushing the bullet down on top of the powder, most shooters finish seating the bullet with several taps of the ramrod. This ensures that there is no gap between 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.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Assistant Editor - Charlotte Overby
Managing Editor - Jim Auckley
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Designer - Tracy Ritter
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer