Long Range Muzzleloading
The scene was a bit unusual. There was a bit of the new, the old and the blue. The new were the Remington and Sharps breechloaders used by the Americans, the old were the Rigby muzzleloaders with Medford rifling used by the Irish team. The blue was the haze of black powder smoke generated by this much heralded contest on Long Island at the then new Creedmore range in 1868.
To no one’s surprise, the Irish team’s muzzleloaders almost won the 800 yard match. After all, hadn’t the English been playing this long range, “small bore” game for the past 15 years, ever since long range shooting had taken England by storm. By the time breechloaders finally assumed command of long range shooting in the 1870’s, a group larger than 18 inches without a fair percentage of shots in the x-ring at 800 yards wouldn’t even place.
The Search for Accuracy
The search for accuracy was not new to the world. Matches for smoothbore guns were popular long before the Germans developed rifling in the 1500’s. Although rifling caught on slowly in the military, sportsmen in England and on the Continent quickly adopted it for both hunting and target.
By the early 1700’s, a firm tradition of shooting excellence had been established by target shooters and sportsmen hunting all kinds of game from the moors of Scotland to the wilds of Africa. Rifling went to America in the same century where it became standard in the then new “Kentucky” rifle of the 1740’s. This rifle was famed for its accuracy even in its own day. When Tim Murphy knocked General Frazier off his horse during the American revolution with a near 300 yard shot, he was only epitomizing the long range shooting of his day. How-ever, for the greater part, truly good long range shooting, as we moderns know it, was a distinctly unusual circumstance in the days of round balls and patches
This chart amply demonstrates why round balls are such poor long range projectiles. It also demonstrates why common round balls have such devastating short range effects. You can see the a .50 caliber, 180 grain ball driven by 150 gr. FFg black powder leaves the muzzle at velocities in excess of 1800 ft. sec. Note that the powder charge required is about 70% of the weight of the ball.
The relatively high velocity of the round ball develops relatively high energy, which when combined with its relatively large diameter, makes horrific wounds at short range. However, you can readily see that velocity and energy rapidly fall off. The common round ball will lose more than half its initial velocity in the first 100 yards and nearly a third again in the second hundred.
The Search for energy
Charts #3 & 4 demonstrate that if the much larger .69 caliber round ball is used then long range performance is greatly enhanced. Bigger balls have effectively higher Ballistic Coefficients, fly flatter and retain energy better than smaller balls. English & Continental sportsmen took advantage of this fact in the later percussion era, shooting heavy balls with very large amounts of powder from slow twist barrels at big African and Indian game.
When the Englishman Sir Albert Gore went to the mountains of the American West in the 1840’s, he took several double barreled rifles of 10 and 12 bore. He regarded his 16 bore (.67 cal), rifle as a lightweight. He shot literally thousands of head of game and expressed his contempt for the puny smaller caliber rifles of the American frontiersmen.
.69 caliber ball weighs 480 gr. and can be pushed to 1800 FPS with 3400 plus ft. lbs. of energy at the muzzle. Trajectory is quite flat out to 140-150 yards and energy at 200 yards is still better than 1000 ft. lbs. The cost is the 200-250 grains of black powder that it takes to get a ball that heavy to go that fast. And the recoil is enormous.
The problem with such heavy loads is that few shooters will put up with them. They just plain kick too hard.
Most modern day American round ball shooting is done with .45-.54 caliber rifles. These are truly lightweights when compared with Gore’s 10 bore, (.77 caliber), rifle. They make pretty poor long range projectiles now, as they did in Tim Murphy’s day.
The Minie Ball
This situation changed when Minie, Pritchett and Burton developed the elongated, hollow-based ‘Minie’ ball in the 1840’s.
Charts #7 & 8 show that the Minie flies further, faster and flatter than does a round ball of the same weight at the same initial velocity. And it does so with less powder, an important item to a longhunter or supply sergeant. Note that while both bullets weigh about 480 gr., the round ball measures .69 caliber and requires 110 grains of black powder, (includes priming for the flintlock- about 10 grains), to achieve 1100 fps at the muzzle while the elongated Minie mikes .58 caliber and needs only 60 grains.
The Minie is also substantially ahead of the round ball in both velocity and energy at 200 yards with 900 ft. lbs. of retained energy where the round ball retains only 690 ft. lbs. The Minie was indeed revolutionary. It changed the face of warfare. Where before the majority of wounds in war were caused by edged weapons, the Minie and aimed fire caused over 97% of wounds in our Civil War.
The Long Bullet Revolution
Whitworth’s work in the 1850’s had first hinted of it, but I first learned just how good a long bullet in a muzzleloader could shoot in the 1960’s. I also learned that the long bullets hit hard at hunting ranges. I used round cross sections and multiple lubricant filled channelures, as well as modern button rifled barrels, sizing the bullet to just barely slide down the lands of the barrel. This practice voided the big bugaboo of muzzleloading; ie-deforming the nose of the bullet while trying to pound it into the rifling.
I rebarreled my first ‘smallbore’ .451 rifle in 1966. This was a side by side double originally made in England by John Hayton. It was regulated for the .458 caliber, 475 grain bullet cast from an original Lyman mold for the 45-100 winchester, #457121, sized to .450.
I was shooting the predecessor of the SuperSlug but didn’t call it that then. It was loaded over 80 gr. FFg black powder.
I and fellow hunter Ben Guild walked into a herd of moose in the Chistochina drainage of Alaska in 1973. The big herd bull looked like a leafless tree when first seen, antlers flung to the sky. His rack was about 60 inches wide with big palms and 15 points to a side.
I took the shot at 70 yards, the bullet taking the bull on the point of the left shoulder, then coursing back through both lungs and the great vessels, through the diaphragm and gut, coming to rest against the skin of the right flank. The bull ran about 30 yards and keeled over. The bullet had expanded to .70 caliber and lost only 4 grains weight despite taking out the big bones of the shoulder. I still prize that bullet.
Seventeen years and many rifles later, I brought a refined version of this bullet-barrel combination to market as the White Super-91. This was the first commercial use of the White Muzzleloading System.
Charts #11 & 12 (above), show the ballistics of the moose killing bullet. The load fires at 1175 ft. sec., not much by modern standards but a much better killer than anyone can ever imagine who has not had the experience of using it. Note that the 475 gr. bullet maintains its velocity and energy for a good distance. It still retains over 1080 ft. lbs. of energy at 200 yards, more than enough for moose or elk even by modern standards.
It easily betters the long range performance of the hard kicking .69 caliber round ball. (Please refer back to charts #3-4). Another advantage is that it uses much less powder for similar long range energies, loads lot faster and kicks a whole bunch less as well.
Now look in charts #13 & 14 at the direct descendent of the moose killer, the modern-day White SuperSlug (now the PowerPunch), weighing 490 gr. in .450 caliber. The powder charge has been kicked up to contemporary levels and bullet path curves charted with 80, 100 and 120 grains of P Pyrodex. All loads are sighted in at 125 yards.
Please note that the point-blank range (the range at which no bullet varies more than four inches from line of sight), is fairly close to 150 yards with any of the three charges. This means that any deer sized or larger animal can be taken with confidence with a mid-chest hold at any range up to nearly 150 yards with any of the three loads.
Charts #15 & 16 demonstrate the difference between the current PowerPunch with a hunting load of 120 gr. P Pyrodex, the 58 caliber Minie ball with the standard military load of 60 gr. FFg black powder and a 50 caliber round ball at top velocities, (125 gr. FFg black powder).
The PowerPunch obviously has the edge in both trajectory and energy. This indicates that an enterprising shooter can take advantage of the longer bullets superior flight characteristics to make good hits at extended muzzleloading ranges.
Even though the White bullet has obvious advantages, the limitation on long bullet shooting is obviously the relatively steep trajectory of the bullet as it passes beyond point blank range. Just for com-parison, chart #17 illustrates my favorite 300 magnum with 180 gr. spitzer boat-tail bullet at 3000 ft. sec. I sight this one in at 250 yards.
Note that the point blank range of the .300 is a distant 300 plus yards, while the same 17 inch drop that you saw with the 490 SuperSlug with 120 gr. Pyrodex at 200 yards is equaled by the 300 magnum way out there beyond 450 yards.
Obviously, the difficulty of a 200 yard shot with the SuperSlug is similar to that of a 400 yard shot with the 300 Magnum. An ethical modern hunter won’t risk a 400 yard shot at precious big game unless the circumstances are just right with the game still, steady double rests, no wind, hunter rested and calm, rifle well sighted in, correct ammunition, lots of practice, etc. Neither should we with a 200 yard muzzleloading shot. Even then we should be shooting the finest and most accurate of muzzleloaders.
Also obviously, if the distance isn’t known, there’s a greater chance of missing, or worse, making a bad hit. Good field shooting with a muzzlelaoder, even with superior ones like White’s, boils down to knowing the trajectory of the bullet and recognizing the distance to the game. Certainly a modern aid like a range finder is useful. But the most useful thing is lots of practice. There often isn’t time to use the range finder.
Make it a personal goal to spend at least 200 and preferably 300 shots practicing for a hunt. Shoot at all distances, from short to very long. Engage in contests with other similar minded shooters, attempting to strike targets at unknown distances without the aid of a range finder, and try to do it very precisely.
Practice of this sort will not only make you a better shot, it will make you a “lucky” shooter. You will be able to make shots, as a matter of course, that before were flat impossible.
White Saboted Bullets
In 1994, the then new White Super-Sabot, which shoots the White PowerStar bullet, was patented. This is a true rifle bullet: long, boat-tailed and spitzer-nosed with a hollow point. It’s currently available in .50 caliber with .45 caliber bullets weighing 320 and 435 gr. (50/45-320 and 50/45-435), and in 45 caliber with a 40 caliber bullet weighing 350 gr. (45/40-350).
Charts #19 & 20 show the performance of both the 45/40-350 Shooting Star with 110 gr. P Pyrodex and the 50/45-435 grain Shooting Star with 120 grains P Pyrodex over a 250 yard range. Note that the mid-range trajectory is about three inches while point blank range is right at 160 yds. Drop below line of sight is only 14 inches for the 45/40-350 and only 15 inches for the 50/45-435 at 200 yards.
David White, who did the ballistic work for this book, used the 45/40-350 SuperSaboted ShootingStar (now PowerStar), bullet with 110 grains of P Pyrodex to take a good 4 point mule deer in Southern Utah during the 1994 season. He held just at the top of the back at 225 yards and blew up the buck’s heart. The buck went over in a cloud of dust, legs in the air.
The saboted PowerStar hollow point bullet has proven to be deadly on smaller big game animals yet still penetrates well. The price to pay is that it loads somewhat more stiffly than White’s SuperSlugs as there is a slight interference fit.
Despite the mild stiffness of loading, the PowerStar is a superb bullet in either caliber. It is strikingly effective on big game. My best shot with it was a 220 yarder on a big bull caribou in NorthWest Canada, using a White Super Safari in .504 caliber. The bulllet was the 50/45-435 and the load 120 grains of Arco. I had the rifle sighted in at 125 yards, held across the top of his back and blew up his heart. I figure the bullet fell about 20 inches getting to the bull.
All Things Considered
With all thing considered, I can’t recommend shooting any big game past the distance at which a bullet falls more then 15-20 inches from line of sight. That’s on big animals and under optimal conditions. Each of us has his own limitations, depending on his experience and ability. If you don’t have the opportunity to practice much, or if you are just beginning, then I suggest that you stick with a lesser drop and a far shorter maximum range.
At any rate, twenty inches with a modern 300 Magnum means a maximum distance of close to 500 yards. With the White PowerPunch or saboted PowerStar and a maximum load, twenty inches means a little over 200 yards. With a 50 caliber round ball, or an inexperienced shooter with little practice, it means a whole lot less.
This limitation correlates pretty well with the iron sights that are often mandated by law in muzzleloading seasons. Most shooters can’t see well enough beyond 200 yards when using iron sights to have any reasonable expectation of making a good kill beyond that range. And this rule includes any modern or muzzleloading rifle.
Also, if the game is smaller, then the maximum range should also be less. If the rifle is less accurate, then the maximum range should be less. If the sighting gear allowed is more primitive, as compared to a modern scope, then the range should be likewise limited.
Adding a scope to a muzzleloader makes a real difference in how well a hunter can shoot. The planar view that the scope presents removes a lot of variables that blind a shooter without it. It makes the image a lot sharper as well as bringing it closer to the eye. The post or cross hairs also are much better defined than any iron rear sight can be. Always choose a scope, even a low power or no power one, when allowed by law. Eyes just see a lot better with glass in front of them. The use of a scope adds about fifty yards to most everyone’s shooting. The use of a rest for the rifle can add a lot of yards as well. So can a moments relaxation: be cool and calm about your shooting.
Don’t shoot at anything much beyond 100 yards if it’s moving. At anything approaching or a little beyond 200 yards, the animal has to be stock still and in such a position that multiple organ systems can be destroyed by the bullet on the way through. There will be less expansion of the bullet at extended ranges because of less residual energy, thus shot placement becomes relatively much more important.
The Animal Is Not A Target
Generally speaking, the longer the bullet the better the sectional density and ballistic coefficient, the better the performance at long range. However, there is a limitation to this theory. You have to remember that a game animal is not a target. It moves around, it runs away, maybe even it charges. It has various thickness of hide and heaviness of bone. Its toughness under stress can be enormously variable and very high.
Also, most hunters are going to end up with a personal maximum range of less than 200 yards. If this is the case, then the shooter might be able to take advantage of bullets with slightly less Ballistic Coefficient but higher muzzle velocities, in order to extend point blank range and lessen bullet drop within the self imposed long range limit. The point is that somewhat shorter bullets can be pushed at higher initial velocities with similar powder charges.
Chart # 21- showing paths of the White 450/ 460, the 450/490 and the 450/520 PowerPunch, all fired with 100 grains Pyrodex P. The 460 grain bullet has the flattest trajectory, the 520 the steepest.
Note that velocity drop is only a little different, while energy shows a greater variation, from 1220 ft. lbs. for the lighter 45/460 up to 1360 ft. lbs. for the heavier 45/520. The heavier bullet has the advantage in terms of energy.
Note that point blank range is the reverse-the shorter bullets have a slight advantage. (Really not all that much worse for the heavier bullets.) The real difference in bullet performance comes at 200 yards. Note that bullet drop at 200 yards varies from 15-19 inches, a difference of four inches in favor of the lighter bullet.
Obviously, a lighter bullet fired with the same powder charge as a heavier one will produce a slightly flatter trajectory and a little less bullet drop but somewhat less energy.
Now, let’s extend the sight-in distance to 150 yards, (chart #23) and see what happens. Remember that the flattest curve is the lightest bullet. Point blank range is within 10 yards for all three loads-with a modest advantage for the lighter bullet.
Midrange trajectory is significantly better, with the lighter bullet rising only 5 inches vs 7 inches for the heaviest. At 200 yards the lighter bullet drops only 10.5 inches vs the heaviest bullet’s 13. Just remember that the stipulated advantages come at the sacrifice of energy.
The modest advantages of a somewhat lighter bullet are apparent. For less than 200 yard shooting on lighter big game, where penetration and energy are not totally important, a Ballistic Coefficient (BC) of about .26 seems to be about the best choice. This must be why the best seller out of White’s .503 caliber bullets is the 480 gr. ‘Colorado Special’ with a BC of .25.
.This is interesting, because back in the 70’s, Colorado intentionally legislated what they intended to be a bone-a-fide limitation on long bullet shooters during muzzleloading big game seasons. They required elk hunters to shoot a bullet no longer than twice its diameter. ( BC is about .25). What they did was hand the long bullet shooters the best of less than 200 yard bullet criteria. Sounds like Congress trying to ‘fix’ something.
I used the ‘Colorado Special” in a White Super 91 for elk in New Mexico in the fall of ‘94. I was shooting a modest load of 100 gr. of ARCO powder, one of the then new less-corrosive black powder re-placements. I lucked into a big six point at 140 yards. The bull was facing me while looking downhill at the guide. I put t he bead at the V of his neck and hit just to the right of point of aim. The 480 gr. bullet penetrated the right lung, broke up the big vessels above the heart, busted up the liver and traversed the gut to lie in the pelvis.
The bull stumbled downhill to the edge of a steep, ugly ravine full of blowdown timber. He stopped there a second, just long enough for me to get in a second shot through the heart and into the off shoulder. I hoped that the bull would collapse where he was. Naturally, he tipped forward into the blowdown and we spent the night getting him out of it.
Shakes and Stupids
Lastly, a responsible hunter must factor in what’s going to happen to him when the bull of the woods walks out of the timber. The one that makes the juices boil and hands shake and eyes water and induces a stupor of mind and judgement and reflexes that blows his much practiced ability to shreds.
‘ Course I’ve never had this happen to me, ‘specially the time Sgt. Barnes and I went Dall sheep hunting in 1968. I had an original .62 caliber round ball double-gun by Novotny of Vienna, the kind of antique rifle we would never take on a hunt nowadays.
We spotted a ram with full curl asleep on a ridge. I won the toss and carefully stalked to a hundred yards. I rested the rifle over my hat on a rock for steady aim. But the sun got in my eyes and blinded me and the sweat ran off my face in streams. My muscles got crampy and I couldn’t get settled or comfortable at all. My breath came in short gasps.
I put the front bead on his heart, started to pull the set trigger, when it occurred to me that I was going to shoot low. I raised the front sight to his spine, pulled trigger and hit over his back, rocks spraying all over the place.
The sheep jerked awake, leaped to his feet and ran off, turning this way and that in confusion. I realized that if I calmly waited, I would have a sure second shot with the other barrel as soon as he stopped. So I jerked off the second barrel while he was on the run. Missed his butt by six yards.
He dashed behind a cliff. I could see that he would come out in plain view in just about the time it would take to load one barrel so I hurridly loaded both, and was putting on the caps when he looked over the ridge at me, stared a short minute then disappeared.
Now, you can see that I’m always calm, never a “shake or a stupid,” while I hunt. I’ve never understood why Sgt. Barnes grabbed away my Novotny rifle while I was screaming and stomping and frothing at the mouth after that sheep left the country.
Factor in the “shakes and stupids.” Don’t forget fatigue, hunger, bugs, weather, anxiety, the heart pill you forgot, the guide hollaring in your ear, the roar as “Old Ephriam” charges, the cramp in your gut when you realize that you’r about to get stomped. I’ll bet you’ll find your maximum range not so far after all.
‘ Doc’ White