During a recent trip through some Midwestern states there were two hot topics of conversation: deer season, and what to hunt with during deer season.
Deer season talk was fully expected, but the large number of hunters who were choosing muzzleloaders as their firestick of choice was a bit of a surprise.
Muzzleloaders are sometimes classified as “primitive weapons,” but their true capability may change your thinking about this classification. Those of you who are not in-tune with current muzzleloading activity may not be aware of the advancements in modern muzzleloading technology. Pellitized Pyrodex, shot shell primers and streamlined bullets, instead of round balls, have all combined to create a formidable hunting rifle system. Performance advancements have been substantial, and the demand for retailers to carry muzzleloading gear is higher than a mountain lion treed by a pack of hounds.
Bullet technology for muzzleloaders has really taken off in recent years and the debate about which bullet is best for the deer hunter continues to rage. As a retailer to shooting public, it may be most wise to stock a variety of bullets for your customers, and it is also wise to stay up to date about advancements in the ML field.
Keeping a variety of bullets in stock will allow your knowledgeable customers to buy one box of each for testing and evaluation. Once they determine what their individual rifle likes best, they will be able to return and buy one consistent lot of the bullets that their rifle shoots most accurately. Guiding your deer hunting customers into one load, with one bullet type, one velocity, and one trajectory and wind deflection pattern will allow them to achieve better performance in the field.
Simple is better because there will be less information that shooters will have to remember when calculating their shot.
You may be tasked with explaining sabot versus bore size projectiles to your muzzleloading customers. There are plenty proponents for each, so it is best to give your customers an accurate overview of information on both, then they can make their own informed decision. Saboted bullets will provide a better trajectory pattern because the smaller diameter bullets are more streamlined and have a higher ballistic coefficient. In other words, the saboted bullets will shoot flatter and require less elevation compensation to intersect the target at a given distance.
One question you may want to ask your customers is “what is your expected shot distance?” If the hunt is going to be in a dense brush hunting area, and the shooting distance is expected to be less than 100 yards, then they may not need the improved trajectory pattern of the saboted bullet. If they don’t, it will let them avoid one of the most common complaints that arises when using bullets with a plastic sleeve: plastic fouling — known as plastic “scrub” — left in the bore. This plastic fouling can make loading follow up bullets in the bore rather difficult, as well as harm accuracy. Choosing bore size bullets without the sabot or thoroughly testing saboted bullet loads will minimize this problem.
For shooters who do choose saboted bullets, Thompson Center makes a product called “Bore-Butter” to minimize plastic fouling.
The rifling twist rate of your customer’s rifle will have substantial influence on what bullet is ultimately chosen. Most in-line muzzleloaders are generally going to come with rifling twist rates from 1 turn in 24 inches out to 1 turn in 28 inches, and some rifles tighten the twist down to 1 turn in 20 inches. This factor alone will weed out some bullets that simply don’t shoot well enough in the accuracy department.
How good is good enough when it comes to modern muzzleloader accuracy? If you are not printing under two inch groups at 100 yards, you are not there yet. There are many bullet types and weights designed for muzzleloading these days, so test and evaluate until you find the right load for the rifle in question. If you don’t find a magic bullet to cure your accuracy issues, maybe the bullet is not the problem.
Basic marksmanship issues could be the root of inaccuracy. Go the extra mile to help your customer. Go to the range with him and test the rifle and loads. Scope the rifle up with a high-powered optic just to demonstrate the mechanical accuracy of the shooting system. Explain accurate firing techniques to him and give him some marksmanship pointers.
If your time at the range with your customer reveals proper mechanical accuracy but less than stellar marksmanship skills, then sign him up for a firearm safety and marksmanship class. Once he sees his performance improve, he will know you had his best interest in mind.
If it is not a marksmanship issue, maybe there is a problem with the overall rifle and ammunition combination. When it comes to shooting saboted bullets in a muzzleloader, a loose sabot to bore fit can create accuracy problems. Measure the bore of the barrel and the skirt of the sabot to see if they are compatible. Recover fired sabots and inspect them to see if you are getting even rifling impressions all the way around the sabot. If not, there may be a bore to sabot fit problem, or the operator’s loading procedure may be off center. To help with the loading sequence, use a ram that has a concave face and is compatible with the convex bullet nose. Bullet nose designs on ML bullets can vary widely, so you may need a variety of rams. If it seems to be a dimensional problem with the sabot, try some variations in sabot dimensions until on-target accuracy improves.
Once you have the rifle shooting accurately with multiple bullets, you will need to choose the best bullet for your intended target. If deer are the only quarry, no problem, simply choose an expanding, aerodynamic projectile. However, if you clients hunt a variety of big game, large thick-skinned game at close range will obviously require a different bullet that thin-skinned game at distance, so choose your projectiles carefully. And yes, muzzleloaders can strike at distance. In the hands of a skilled and knowledgeable marksman, the ML is capable of hits at over 500 yards.
Muzzleloader bullets, like those from Parker Productions, have a velocity range from 2250 fps to 3000 fps, with ballistic coefficients from .384 to .453, so they certainly have the capability to shoot at long distances. For hunters wanting the toughest bullets for big game, the Barnes solid copper bullets may be the way to go. For an all around deer bullet, Nosler has brought out its Ballistic Tip design in a ML bullet. It is designed for aerodynamic flight and balanced expansion at ML velocities.
Shooters who want to try a very popular and well-respected ML bullet should look at the Powerbelt line of bullets. It comes in three tip designs; Aero Tip, hollow point, and flat point, as well as a pure lead series and they run from 175 to 444 grains. These bullets are designed for standard and magnum muzzleloader velocities.
Always in the hunt to improve ammunition, Federal has brought out a BOR Lock MZ bullet. This is a non-sabot bullet design that is easy to load, and reportedly scrubs fouling from the bore. This bullet has a polymer cup that is permanently attached to the base of the bullet. Upon firing, the polymer cup slides forward and over the ramps to engage the barrel’s rifling. The resulting gas seal optimizes accuracy and velocity.
This bullet also comes with a polymer tip to improve the ballistic coefficient, trajectory, and minimizes wind deflection.
Just what kind of ballistics can we expect out of a modern ML rifle? Here is an example using a 300 grain Whitetail Medicine bullet: At 2300 FPS, with a 200-yard zero, the bullet will print 4 inches high at 100 yards, and 17 inches low at 300 yards. At 500 yards you can expect to be 114 inches low. In terms of wind deflection with a 10 MPH crosswind, you can expect 8.5 inches of deflection at your 200 yard zero distance. All things considered, not bad for a so-called “Primitive Weapon.”