March 05, 2019
Muzzleloading is a tinkerer’s dream. There’s virtually no end to the tweaks you can make in trying to boost the performance of any blackpowder rifle. Sadly, many of those changes are made on the fly by folks who have just missed deer or whose guns did nothing but snap caps during crunch time.
In a gun world now obsessed with sub-MOA groups punched by supersonic centerfire rounds ringing steel at 1200 meters, even the best smokepoles might seem like unruly stepchildren. But for killing deer under real-world conditions, they’re still quite capable. At least, they are if you develop loads that suit them, then replicate those component mixes and procedures each time you load.
Every gun is different — but every muzzleloader is really different. No matter how well a given load works in a buddy’s, it might not perform in yours. There’s no “one size fits all” load. Finding the best one can be an ongoing process.
We now have a vast array of propellants, bullets and primers, along with a wide range of solvents, lubricants and the like. Any of these can affect muzzleloader performance. Oh, and then we have issues resulting from the environmental conditions of the moment, to say nothing of those related to the human element.
What really matters most in muzzleloader performance? Let’s start with the variable the average hunter naturally focuses on: the gun itself. Most muzzleloaders now in use for deer are .50 caliber. And most are inherently accurate enough for big-game hunting, assuming they’re properly cleaned, are using 240-grain or larger saboted bullets of sound design and are stuffed with 90-150 grains of propellant. (Never, ever venture outside the range recommended for your make and model of rifle.)
Fed the right load and shot from a vise, nearly all these guns are capable of softball-sized groups at 100 yards. Some much tighter than that and much farther than that. So before concluding your rifle is a lemon, be sure you have it on the right diet and have addressed other likely causes of waywardness.
Of course, the process by which a muzzleloader is loaded is much different from that of a centerfire rifle or even a sabot-lobbing slug gun. Therein lie some of the reasons for ignition and accuracy issues.
Late-season weather further complicates matters. Cold, wind and moisture all are enemies of good shooting, especially with a muzzleloader. And adrenaline and fatigue have their own effects. That softball-sized spot you found easy to hit on the range can become much more elusive when superimposed on the vitals of a big buck encountered late on a cold, windy day over Christmas break.
Based simply on the loading procedure, it’s easy to see why centerfires usually outshoot muzzleloaders. Precise, automated indoor manufacturing results in every round of a box of factory centerfire ammuni- tion being all but identical. Each is so close to the one before and the one after it that within a given lot, performance differences can be hard to notice. The same can be said for how each cartridge gets positioned for ignition, and how the firing pin then strikes it. Everywhere in a centerfire rifle system, tolerances are pretty tight.
Compare this to how we assemble, insert and ignite the components that make muzzleloaders go off. For starters, we’re often loading outdoors. Several propellant pellets or an approximate measure of loose powder get fed into the muzzle, followed by a bullet/ball (with or without a sabot or patch). These get shoved down to the aft end of the barrel, using a ramrod, until we’re positive the load is correctly sure of that fact.) This is the muzzleloading version of loading a centerfire round in the factory or even reloading one at home with your own press.
If using an inline muzzleloader, the next step of course is to place a primer (often of #209 magnum size) so that when struck by the firing pin it will explode, throwing enough heat through the breech plug to ignite the powder charge. With a percussion-cap sidelock, the hammer slams the primer (typically a #11) onto a nipple covering the entrance to the barrel’s powder chamber. With a flintlock, for the percussion cap we substitute a bit of loose priming powder in the pan. It ignites from sparks caused by the flint’s striking of the frizzen, and that in turn ignites the main powder charge.
In short, little about the components or preparation of a blackpowder load is all that similar to what happens on the centerfire side. With blackpowder, we’ll always have at least minute variances.
Maybe you’ve chipped one pellet, so it contains a few less grains of powder than normal. Perhaps you don’t position the pellets or primer exactly right. Bullet/ball deformity, as well as inconsistency in how the sabot or patch is shoved down onto the propellant, also can occur. Then, there’s the matter of how clean the breech plug is or how much lubricant is in the barrel. So while the old advice to “keep your powder dry” is sound, it isn’t the only potential problem to obsess over.
If you’ve worked up a great load, there’s no reason to abandon it. But if you’re not in love with the ignition you’re getting, the groups you’re shooting or in the terminal performance of your bullet, get it all figured out before your next hunt.
Some brands of primers almost never go click. Some bullets tend to group tighter and expand more consistently upon impact. And some propellants burn better than others. For instance, Hodgdon’s new FireStar Triple Seven pellet has more surface area than standard pellets, for a quick, complete burn. That might not seem important, but how rapidly and fully the powder burns is a key factor in delivering the payload to the target.
Never assume a tweak will have a “logical” effect. You must check it. Some shooters think that if a 100-grain charge hits dead on at 75 yards, adding another 50-grain pellet will automatically yield at least as tight a group and hit higher. Well, I’ve seen 120-grain loads not only group looser than 90-grain loads but also hit lower, with no other change. Don’t ask me why.
So the details matter. Work up the right load for your gun, then try hard to turn yourself into a human reloading press on every shot. Yes, some uncertainty is part of the fun of muzzleloading — but that fun abruptly disappears when inaccuracy or failure to ignite lets a big buck get away.