Shooting The White Thunderbolt
The White ThunderBolt has been around now for a decade. I have personally used it on many hunts. I emphasize the ‘hunts’ simply because plinking and target shooting is just not the same as hunting big game, especially the kind that fights back.
I will admit to a flub of my own when I designed the gun. I’m always complaining about how mechanics try to tighten up the fit of parts so they are not loose. Normally I want parts loose enough to tolerate a good dose of sand or mud and still work well. The guys in the shops, bless ‘em, uniformly try to tighten those specs up, the very looseness seems to violate their ethics.
I pulled the same stunt with the original primer pocket on the rifle. I wanted it to be gas-proof so held the tolerances a bit too tight. The result was 209 primers sticking so tight they had to be drilled out after the third shot. Worked fine if you cleaned the pocket every shot with a Q-tip, but that sort of violates the quick repeat shot ethic. The solution was a bigger pocket, of course. It turns out that a common 1/4 inch drill fixes the problem, but a .250 reamer produces best results. Latest production specified a reamed .250 pocket. Now it takes about 15 shots on a dry Utah morning to start the fired primer sticking. A quick clean up with a Q-tip fixes the problem. Use those with a plastic stick- you can bend them to fit without removing the bolt.
Still, most of those who dislike it are trying to do things with it that it wasn’t designed to do. The commonest flub is shooting pellets (which it does right well) with slip fit bullets (with which pellets don’t do well) Sort of like trying to shoot a 300 mag in a 30-30. It doesn’t work, wasn’t designed to.
However, if you follow the directions it works quite well. I have tried all kinds of combinations in the rifle, with PowerPunch slip fit bullets, PowerStar sabots, Pyrodex pellets and loose Pyrodex Select, 777 powderand pellets and the new Blackhorn 209. As expected, the pellets shot best with the saboted PowerStar bullets. The slip fit PowerPunch bullets shot nice tight groups with Pyrodex Select and 2Fg 777 loose powder. Blackhorn 209 shot by far better with the sabots and not so well with the slip fit bullets, except that the heavier the bullet, the better it shot. None required cleaning between shots for best accuracy until barrel fouling got so bad that loading was impaired, except with Blackhorn 209 which didn’t seem to need cleaning at all.
The sabots shoot nice tight groups with Pyrodex Select, 2 Fg 777 powder, Pyrodex/777 pellets and Blackhorn 209, requiring occasional cleaning between shots (really just a quick swipe with a slightly moist patch followed by a dry one) to get best accuracy over long strings, except for the Blackhorn which didn’t need any attention at all. Cleaning only every fifth shot with Pyrodex or 777 loose powder opened up the groups only a little, adding only a half inch to group size. Since muzzleloading hunting is what it is, rarely requiring or giving the opportunity for more than just a few shots, It becomes obvious that the first three shots on a hunt are a shoo-in)
On the other hand, using slip fit PowerPunch bullets with Pyrodex/777 pellets or Blackhorn 209 (B209) opened groups up by factor of 4, although tighter, hand-lubed, over-size non-slip fit PowerPunch bullets shot better. It appears that the secret of combining Pellets or B209 and slip-fit PowerPunch bullets is to use slightly oversize, tighter, slower loading bullets that are not really slip fit. Since the really tight groups have been usually ragged one holers, about 1 ½ inches, 4-6 inch groups with true slip fit bullets at 100 yards using pellets or B209 isn’t so bad. That’s good enough for any whitetail from a tree stand and any elk inside 100 yards any time. It’s just not good enough.
Another problem turned out to be the seemingly superb breechplug design: short, with powder less than a ½ inch away from the primer. It turns out that the blast from the average trap and skeet 209 is way too potent for loads using slip fit bullets. It causes all kinds of problems with accuracy because it pushes the bullet down the bore before conflagration of the powder charge, enough so that accuracy is impacted. Randy Wakeman long ago pointed out that the Remington 209-4, made specifically for the 410 shotshell with only 4/10th of the power of a trap and skeet primer, works much better. Using the Rem 209-4 primer cut groups in my personal T-Bolt in half when shooting slip fit bullets. Remington dropped the 209-4 and substituted the ‘Kleanbore” 209 primer several years ago, so look for the ‘Kleanbore’ label when buying 209 primers for slip fit shooting. Also, Winchester has come out with a special lower power muzzleloading 209 which I have found to be excellent. I expect that other brands will eventually follow suit.
This problem does not exist with loads using saboted bullets, simply because they are are slightly overbore and are harder to load. That feature also makes them harder for the powder gases to move, so causes a modest raise in breech pressures on firing. This in turn causes quicker and better ignition when using pellets or B209. Especially B209 which is admitedly hard to ignite.
My answer to the slip-fit problem was a re-design of the breechplug, making the body of the heat treated GBQ steel plug solid instead of counter-bored. The touch-hole is still the same, .040, but expands to .080 after a quarter inch. This has the effect of cooling the blast from the 209 and works much better. It also teaches you why my competition started using 209’s in their overlong breechplugs: the plugs were so long that ignition suffered with ordinary #11 or musket caps. They had to go to the more powerful 209 to get good ignition. Anyway, the combination of new solid breechplug and Remington KleanBore or Winchester Muzzleloading 209 or weaker Trap & Skeet primer makes all the difference in the world when using pellets. However, with B209, use a more powerful Skeet or Trap primer, as you need all the fire you can get to light the stuff off. If you still have trouble, you can then try a magnum shotshell primer, but I’ve not found it needful so far..
Another problem with a 209 ignited muzzleloaders, no matter the factory hype about how clean they shoot, is blow-back fouling in the breech. The ThunderBolt offers the shooter the advantage of being able to adjust the pressure on the primer rim. Adjusting the breechplug so that the rim of the 209 primer is firmly pinched between the bolt face and the breechplug rim very effectively cuts down on the amount of blowback in the breech. At the end of most shooting sessions, there will be less than a fourth of the fouling usually seen when shooting a similar M98 Elite Hunter with a #11 cap. This fact has made the rifle very easy to clean up. When I used my experimental 336 Primer there was no blow-back at all. None!.
The technique of getting the 209 out of the pocket is easy enough. After the shot, just open the bolt and load the rifle. Don’t take the time to remove the spent 209. Load as usual, pushing the new bullet down on the new powder charge with a quick swoop of the ramrod, as usual. Pushing the new bullet down the barrel causes enough piston-like pressure to pop the primer out of the pocket, at least usually. If it doesn’t pop out then pry it out. Usually a fingernail works, at least until the primer pocket gets good and dirty.
If all this seems confusing and a great nuisance, please remember that 209 primers are made for shotguns, which have no need for accuracy, only for prompt and sure ignition. So shotshell primers are made with an oversupply of blast. Rifle and pistol primers are not. There is an accuracy element with them, so blast is limited to the great average that seems to works well in the greatest number of rifles and pistols. Also, many competitive shooters believe that relatively weak but sure ignition produces better accuracy, which is why 308 target cartridges are produced with small rifle primer pockets.
So here are the rules: If throwing saboted bullets, use loose powder or pellets or B209. If using slip- fit bullets, use only loose Pyrodex or 777 powder, or use the heaviest slip-fit bullets sized slightly oversize (no more than 1/1000″) with B209. If using loose Pyrodex or 777 powder, always use the larger granulations. Always use the lowest power 209 primer that you can buy with loose Pyrodex or 777. Always use ordinary power primers with pellets or B209. Pinch the 209 rim tightly between bolt face and breech plug.
Now to the shooting. Let’s say you have a brand new ThunderBolt in hand, ready for your first shot. Start your shooting session by first adjusting the breechplug, with an inert 209 in place, against the face of the bolt. Adjust it so the bolt turns down fairly tightly, about 15-20 lbs weight on the bolt seems to work. This will minimize the amount of blowback that you get from the primer pocket and keep your scope cleaner. If this seems a nuisance, I quickly learned to adjust the bolt and breechplug interface. The secret is having your breechplug tool in your shooting kit. I also am now in the habit of leaving the last fired primer in the breechplug, so that I have to remove it to clean it, but it’s always at hand to adjust the interface with when cleaning is done. Then the rifle is always ready for shooting. I never have to mess with it in the dark when starting a hunt.
Now, if you have not cleaned the rifle to dry in readiness to shoot, dump a squib of 20-30 grains loose powder into the barrel and fire it off to clean out all the oil from the last cleaning. (Be sure to do this with a new rifle, they come mighty greasy from the factory) If you only have pellets at hand, put down the smallest pellet you have and follow with a moist patch. Be SURE you fire it in a direction that will not start a fire as the pellet will sometimes come out of the barrel in pieces, like a roman candle. Now you are ready to load. Open the bolt before you load for safety’s sake. If you have only B209, pop off several primers after wiping the barrel clean. B209 will not ignite loose, so squib loads do not help. Do all you cam to make sure you have a dry breech without oil or water present, before you load.
If you are using loose Pyrodex or 777 powder, always use the heaviest grained powder of the brand you choose. It will burn slower and give better results, in general. I like Pyrodex Select. 2Fg. 777 comes next. I like Pyrodex because it is LESS hygroscopic than 777, that means on wet days you will have less mess at the breech and less chance of a wet load. It is also slightly more difficult to clean, but it’s also a bit less expensive. I really like B209. It is barely hygroscopic, not unlike smokeless, which of course it obviously mostly is. It is a great powder, something I predicted years ago. It takes a powerful primer and a tight bullet to ignite just right, but the T-Bolt provides ther features that make it work really well.
Remember that the short breechplug on the T-bolt produces a lot more flash than with other competing rifles. This means that the same charge of powder or pellet will produce startlingly faster velocities and higher pressures. Over loading is the commonest problem with the T-Bolt so be modest with your loads, at least initially.
In the fall of 2000 my son David used only 70 grains of Select and the 460 grain PowerPunch bullet in a 451 caliber T-Bolt on a big 6 point elk. The bullet hit hard enough at 80 yards to blow all the way through the chest, from side to side, on video. Velocity of that load is right at 1400 fps.
If you are using Pyrodex777 Pellets, or B209, it is always best to use a saboted bullet. Pellets do not function well with slip fit bullets like the PowerPunch unless they are tightly oversize- then they are not sliup-fit, of course. Pellets and B209 seem to need the back pressure that a harder loading sabot lends to the equation. You will find that 100 grains of Pyrodex Pellets (or similar load of 777 or B209) in a T-Bolt with a 504 caliber 435 grain 50/45-435 PowerStar is a stout, hard kicking load which if sighted in three inches high at 100 yards is only 10 inches low at 200 and is capable of killing any animal in North America.
If you use the same load under the 320 gain 50/45-320 PowerStar, velocities will increase by about 15- 20% and trajectory will flatten some. Sight that load in at 140 yards and it will be only 8 inches low at 200. Muzzle velocity is in the 15-1600 fps range with well over 2200 ft lbs at the muzzle and tremendous down range energy, better than 1200 ft lbs. left at 200 yards.
Your first few shots with the T-Bolt should release the fired primer easily, at most requiring a flick of the fingernail. Most will pop out when you push the next bullet down. Once you have shot 10 times or so, the primers will get progressively harder to remove, Once the effort requires more than just a simple flick of the fingernail, clean out the primer pocket. This is best done with plastic stick Q-tips. You can bend the plastic into an elbow so you can get the tip into the pocket with out removing the bolt. Whites cleaning solution is great for this, but frankly spit works just fine too. Don’t worry about the little bit of moisture you leave in the pocket if you are at the range, 209’s are well protected against moisture, and the next shot will burn it out. If you are hunting and want the pocket clean, always dry it. too.
The big error is a long shooting session before an important hunt, forget to clean out the pocket, then get a stuck primer after the first shot at game. No second shot available. ALWAYS clean out the primer pocket when you clean the rifle. Keep a few Q-tips in your kit for this purpose. Always carry at least one when you hunt.
Since the design of the T-Bolt enhances performance with 209’s and the available Black Powder substitutes, it’s best to start low and work up a load from below. Pellets leave you stuck with 80 grains, 100 grains, 130 grains or 150 grains, using combinations of the 50 and 30 grain pellets. Loose powder is usually more accurate. I usually start with 70-80 grains in a 504 caliber rifle and 60-70 in a 451, and work up.
Every rifle has its own character so don’t expect yours to act like mine except in a general way. Raising the powder charge by 5 grains at a time is fine (volume measure). Don’t be afraid to experiment with bullets. Although most T-Bolts shoot slip-fit bullets quite well with loose powder, some shoot Sabots better. I once worked with a T-bolt that a customer could not get to shoot. It shot 4 inch groups with 80 gr Select, the Rem 209-4 and a lubed and sized 460 gr PowerPunch. It shot the unlubed, over sized 460 gr PowerPunch only slightly better but shot both the 50/45-435 and 5-/45-320 saboted PowerStars into the same ragged hole at 117 yards. I guess that’s why we call guns with female names.
Also, it’s going to take about 200 shots to get the rifle tuned in. Normally, accuracy will slowly improve as you shoot those first 200 shots, so have fun with your shooting at first. Only get serious after the 200 shot break-in is over. It’s sometimes amazing how much groups will change in those first 200 shots.
I want you to notice one other thing. The cost of the White bullets you are shooting. White PowerPunch bullets are very nearly the least expensive quality bullet available. You can usually buy them for less than 50 cents apiece. The PowerStars don’t cost much more. In contrast, some bullets and sabots are double the price of White’s. I noted a beautifully packaged dozen of saboted bullets just the other day. They were obviously made by a quality maker, the packaging was very attractive, but the retail price was over $13, better than a buck a bullet. You don’t pay that much to shoot your ‘06. Add to that the cost of Pellets, which are the most expensive propellent, and 209 primers and it’s no wonder you don’t shoot much. It comes out at about $2 a shot. If you use White bullets and loose powder, you can cut that cost in half.
So, in summary, you are going to adjust the breechplug with 209 in place against the bolt face so you get minimal blow-back. You are going to use the 209 primer that matches your powder-bullet combination. You are going to use large grained powder, like Pyrodex Select, or 2fg 777, or B209 (as is) being preferred, you will prefer saboted bullets when using pellets or B209 and you are going to limit charges because the short breechplug enhances the performance of the 209. You can depend on the 209 blowing out of its pocket on loading the next round for the first ten shots or so. You are going to work up your loads from below, cautiously and carefully, and you are going to keep your primer pocket clean. We would love to have you use less expensive White bullets exclusively, but the T-Bolt will shoot others superbly well. Do all that, and the T-Bolt will offer you superlative performance at relatively low cost.
There have been many questions about the 336 primer. I have accumlulated a bunch of experience since first mentioning the concept. I have taken a number of big animals with it, including all those taken in Africa in 2004. I use the 336 exclusively now when I choose a T-Bolt for a hunt. It has too many advantages to disregard.
The 336 is nothing more than a S&W 32 Short case with small pistol primer. Of course, it can be reloaded, and with a magnum small pistol primer if wanted. The S&W 32 Short is readily available on the reloader’s market. It is a popular round with the Cowboy crowd for small pistols.
The 336 uses the same solid White breechplug as the 209, but drilled and reamed to .336 to proper depth and with the mouth slightly chamfered (beveled). Since the 32 S&W Short headspaces on the rim, chamber depth only needs to be long enough plus a few thousandths.
The primary advantage is the complete cleanliness of the action after shooting, one shot or any number. There is absolutely no blowback, either with black powder substitutes or smokeless.
A second advantage relates to accuracy. The amount of blowback with #11 cap, Musket cap or 209 is variable, has to be. This has to have an effect on accuracy. The blowback with the 336 is nil, so this particular factor is absent in the accuracy equation, This fact can only increase shot to shot accuracy.
A third advantage is that adjustment of the breechplug, to tightly fit the 209 primer, is not required. The 336 tolerates a looser fit. It works best if there is just a touch between bolt face, primer rim and breechplug, similar to that with a center fire rifle. The fit still has to be adjusted but is not near as critical.
A fourth advantage is that loading the rifle for a second fast shot is even easier, as the 336 always pops out easily when the next bullet is pushed down the barrel. All that is required is that the bolt be opened after the shot.
A fifth advantage is related. Loading the primer into the breech is even easier that with the 209, even if only fingers are used. Size makes the difference. The slightly larger and longer 336 is easier to handle than the 209. Of course, a tool to introduce the primer is best in both cases. 209 loaders are readily available on the market. The 336 could use a similar tool, although one is not in production yet. Frankly I have never had to use more than a single reload in any situation in which I have used the 336, but that is also true of the 209. Usually there is a single shot taken, then the rifle is reloaded and sits waiting to see if the reload might be needed.
A sixth advantage is that the 336 case can be reloaded, re-primed really. Many brands of primers in both regular and magnum power are available. I suspect even small rifle primers can be used although there might be a length difference in the two. RCBS makes a handy and inexpensive hand primer press that cost less than $30. It requires an RCBS shell head holder in the proper size, which costs less than $10. There is a magazine that will hold 50-60 primers. A hand squeeze loads the primer in the case and does it quickly and well. Of course, the previously fired primer has to be knocked out of the fired case before re-priming. This can be done on a press or with a simple punch and hammer. Cases fired with black powder or substitutes need washing and drying before re-priming.
All in all, the 336 makes the ThunderBolt into an exceptionally fine rifle. I think it’s the finest modern muzzleloading rifle that a hunter can possess.The only problem is that it might be slightly slower to reload than percussion cap or 209, but that is only if you forget to open the bolt and pop the spent 336 out of its pocket by loading the bullet down the barrel. Otherwise it is even faster. I have enjoyed exceptional success with it.
PS- By the way, if you are shooting modest loads of smokeless or B209 in your T-Bolt , the weak 209 primer rule is not necessarily true. Some smokeless powders are very hard to ignite and need all the power they can get. The high bulk slow burning powders are worst in this regard. I have tried some Accurate Arms 8700, a slow burning ball powder, and it needs a regular trap and skeet primer. Like pellets and B209, it also needs the back pressure that only a tighter fitting sabot can provide. It appears that as long as you stick to less than 1500 fps velocities with my big bullets, and use medium burning powders, adjusting the breechplug so the rim of the 209 is tightly pinched by the bolt to minimize blowback, you will enjoy safe residue free shooting. The Accurate arms manual has some excellent information on obsolete large caliber loads that can serve as a guide. The rule is: don’t violate the muzzleloading envelope! 1500-1800 fps is plenty with a heavy White bullet.
The best smokeless powder I have tried prior to the advent of B209 is 5744, a double base smokeless that is very forgiving of overpressure. It is widely used for low power loads in large cartridge cases where there will be loads of room. 32 grains, measured with a scale, not a measure, and the 45/40-350 saboted PowerStar bullet in a 451 caliber T-Bolt produces nearly 1600 FPS and terrific results down range. This is the load I used in Africa in 2004, taking 9 animals with 11 shots. The other two were wasted on a Kudu at the PH’s insistence. At the time, he did not trust the rifle or its shooter. In the 504 caliber, 35 grains with the 50/45-435 saboted PowerStar produce similar results.
When I used smokeless, I modified the White breechplug by drilling and threading for a Savage in-line touch-hole insert. They are inexpensive and easy to switch out. However, I have never changed mine out yet, on the two rifles I have modified, simply because I am careful to keep the loads modest, well within the usual muzzleloading 15-1600 FPS envelope. I have found little reason to violate it.
Of course, now that B209 is readily available, there is little reason to use smokeless powder of any kind. I have stopped playing with it, and I recommend that you do to. Stick to B209 and recommended loads and you will do marvelously well.
Just keep in mind that WhiteRifles LLC prohibits the use of smokeless (not B209) in any White rifle and you violate the guarantee on the rifle and assume all personal liability if you use smokeless. This means you pay for your own mistakes and those of the maker. For the time being, the prohibition against using smokeless in White rifles remains in place (for liability reasons), so you are on your own. I personally cannot recommend that you use smokeless in any form. Such use should be limited to those who are willing to take the risk. My recommendation: don’t use smokeless!