Effective Long Range Muzzleloading
The accuracy of a quality, well-tuned muzzleloading rifle using a carefully worked-up custom loads can be nothing short of amazing. By using a good range finder and an adjustable metallic or scope sight, many marksmen can extend their effective hunting range to 200 yards and even beyond.
The only way a hunter can confidently take game over 150 yards is to practice, becoming able to accurately estimate distance; knowing the trajectory of the projectile; using a relaxed and steady shooting position; and exercising complete control of the trigger with follow through on firing.
Despite a rainbow trajectory, more game is missed by hunters shooting over the animal, rather than below, reflecting poor range estimation and knowledge of projectile trajectory.
When I switched from centerfire rifles to muzzleloader, I discovered the unique problem of estimating distances between 100 and 250 yards, a non-critical range with centerfire cartridges, but vastly more important to a muzzleloader. Discussions with other hunters have confirmed the ordinary hunters’ weakness at range estimation.
The only way a hunter can confidently take game over 150 yards is to practice–
Effective hunting range is not a fixed distance determined by terminal ballistics or any mathematical formula. It is the range at which an individual hunter can confidently place a bullet in an animal, either killing it outright or incapacitating it for a finishing shot.
Only you can determine your effective range. It has nothing to do with what your buddy can do or anyone else can do. Muzzleloading hunting is an individual contest between the hunter and a worthy adversary. Know your own limitations, whether they be 50 yards or 200 yards, respect them and your quarry.
In 1991, I had a houseful of serious mule deer hunters for Utah’s Paunsaugunt muledeer hunt. Only one of the hunters, Larry Epping, had extensive muzzleloading hunting experience. He arrived with two first place slots in the Longhunter Society Big Game Record Book.
As luck would have it, the buck Larry sought avoided him and he never fired a shot. There wasn’t a “Keeper” buck taken that year, although more than half a dozen exceptional animals were missed – most at around 100 yards, most over-shot by the inexperienced muzzleloading hunters.
In contrast, John Williams hunted here during the 1989 muzzleloading season. John’s full-stocked Hawken replica with 32-inch .58 caliber Sharon barrel was custom built by John Shaw of Oregon . William’s time working out his hunting load could be measured in weeks rather than hours. He settled on a .020 pre-lubed patch, a .570 round ball and 130 grains of ffg Blackpowder. John dropped a massive 30-inch 4 point buck in it’s tracks with an angling chest shot at an honest 185 yards.
I have complete confidence in taking a standing deer to 175 yards-
I’ve watched John shoot. I believe John can put an almost unlimited number of round balls through anybody’s baseball hat at 200 yards. I know better than to put anything up for John to shoot unless I want a hole in it.
John told me he practiced at 100 yards until that was no challenge, then did the same at 125, 150 and 175 yards. He shot so much that he recognized the distances and the sight picture through his tang-mounted peep.
Cheryl, John’s wife, is no slouch, either. When she hunted here in 1990, she passed numerous times on a monster buck she pursued for 5 straight days. He was always beyond her 125 yard confidence range. On the sixth day, she shot an exceptionally heavy 8 x 7 mule deer buck at 165 long paces. Her first shot was a little far back, hitting the big buck in the liver rather than in the lungs. Although fatally hit, we took no chances and she dispatched the buck in fine style when we moved closer into her confidence range.
My .58 caliber Sile Hawken replica is a spike driver at 100 yards with Speer .570 round ball, a .010 pre-lubed patch and 100 to 120 grains Pyrodex. I have complete confidence in taking a standing deer to 175 yards with it, but have yet to have an occasion to shoot over 100 yards with this particular combo except at jack rabbits, targets and rocks.
A trophy outfitter’s nightmare hunted here in 1991. This hunter arrived an hour before daylight on opening morning with a brand new .54 caliber Knight MK-85 and all the accessories. Needless to say he didn’t go hunting that morning.
Mid-day was spent cleaning his new rifle. Then we sighted the gun in 2 inches high at 100 yards and he finished by placing 3 tight shots a couple of inches above the 100-yard bullseye. This novice took only one hunting shot; with me whispering in his ear, dropping a heavy 27-inch mulie at a good 150 yards with one shot high in the chest.
The epitome of hunting ethics should always be respect for the animal hunted and stalking to within the individual hunter’s confidence range.
The moral is if you are not going to practice and know your weapon, the next best thing is to be a good shot and have money enough to hire a competent muzzleloading guide.
I’ve heard reports from people I trust about kills made at 400 yards with a muzzleloader. My experiments with long range muzzleloading target shooting indicates that for the right
shooter, with the right muzzleloading rifle, a proven load and an accurate range finder, such kills are within the realm of possibility-but only for a very few hunters.
No one enjoys long shooting more than I do. And with several of my centerfire rifles utilizing range finding and trajectory compensating reticules, I’ve made some kills on deer and feral sheep at ranges best not put in print. But long range taking of game animals is a specialized skill. The hunter who attempts exceptionally long shots at game animals without having practiced and without a thorough knowledge of how a game animal reacts to long-range hits and without exceptional tracking skills is no ethical hunter!
The epitome of hunting ethics should always be respect for the animal hunted, always stalking to within the individual hunter’s confidence range. Sometimes because of terrain or stand location or Murphy’s Law, either a longer shot has to be taken or an exceptional animal passed. But, I can think of no time when a long shot is justified if there’s no way to follow up on the shot!
My best muzzleloading mule deer was taken in 1992. The buck appeared shortly after daylight, crossing a ridge below me. He was walking, quartering away. My weapon was my favorite, a .451 caliber White Super-91 firing a 460-grain SUPERSLUG sighted in 3 inches high at 100 yards with 80 grains of Pyrodex P.
This particular rifle and load will put 20 shots in one ragged hole at 100 yards, group under 3 inches at 150 yards and when mounted with a high-powered benchrest scope shoot minute of angle 5-shot groups at 200 yards. The buck was standing broadside at 225 yards and on a 30-degree downhill angle. I stayed on hair, high, and shot just over the top of his back. . . There are several important lessons for the long range muzzleloading hunter illustrated by this experience: First, understanding uphill/downhill correction with the muzzle loader is paramount! Whether shooting uphill or downhill always hold lower then normal. And when the angle is 30 degrees or more, the correct sight location will be closer to the bottom of the deer’s chest rather than the top of the back at any distance between 150 and 200 yards.
This particular (White Super 91) rifle and load has put 20 shots in one ragged hole off the bench at 100 yards-
Second, when I hit the buck on the second shot, my shooting position was rock steady, sitting, using crossed shooting sticks. I use the normal breathing, fire-on-exhale technique taught at Camp Perry and used by the best long-range competitive shooters.
Holding on the walking buck’s shoulder, I hit him behind the diaphragm, mid body height. Lesson! If you are going to shoot at a walking buck, even at 100 yards, you had better take a lead!
I didn’t feel excited and drew down on the third shot with even more concentration then on the second. I missed by about 75 yards. But that happens when you neglect to withdraw the ramrod before firing. Which proves that even older and experienced hunters can err when a good buck is at stake.
The finishing shot was taken at 100 yards, broadside through the lungs. This 4×4 buck will most likely be number three in the current muzzleloading record book.
A knowledgeable hunter who read my first draft asked the particulars of how this buck was recovered so easily. He felt the answer might help others who make a wounding hit.
Our stand that morning was located so that we had excellent visibility at all possible escape routes but one. It appeared that the buck had crossed over the near ridge and brushed-up, not 200 yards from where he had been hit.
Over the years – 41 years of deer hunting and 30+ years guiding deer hunters – I’ve learned that it is not a good idea to push a wounded buck. My hunting companion that morning, DeWitt Howell of North Carolina, stayed put while I took the ATV and made a huge semi-circle back to the house; quickly reloading my speed loaders and grabbing another ramrod.
Understanding lead is most important with a slow moving projectile—fired from a muzzleloader.
On returning, I parked 500 yards away from where we last saw the buck. I was well below and cross wind to where we felt the buck was brushed up. When DeWitt saw me leave the ATV, he started tracking the buck. I worked into position from below with the wind in my face. (Another general rule: Sick/hit animals will normally go down hill even when the wind is behind them.)
The buck had been left undisturbed for an hour and a half. We hoped to find him dead, but when he broke out below DeWitt, it was as if he had never been hit. He stopped broadside to me at about 100 yards, with his full attention on DeWitt. I dropped to the kneeling position with crossed sticks, drilling him through the lungs.
Lesson: By using the wind, giving the buck time to bed down and working in carefully and slowly, odds were good that either DeWitt or I would get in a finishing shot.
—always— visualize the path the bullet will take through the animal.
Back to leading a walking game animal. Understanding lead is most important with a slow moving projectile such as one fired from a muzzleloader. A buck walking at 3 mph broadside at 100 yards will travel about 14 inches by the time a muzzleloader projectile arrives at the animal. A perfect shot at a buck’s mid-shoulder when walking broadside at 100 yards will hit behind the diaphragm, possibly catching the liver, but most likely hitting in the paunch. I favor a hold on the very front of the walking animal’s shoulder at the 75 to 125 yard range. This will usually catch them right behind the shoulder.
Another suggestion is to visualize the path the bullet will take through the animal. On a quartering shot the proper hold will be into the shoulder, but bullet placement would be through the gut, up across the chest to hit the offside shoulder. The important point is not the bullet entry, but the path through the animal. Angling for the offside shoulder is always a good idea, and breaking down one shoulder is definitely a good idea when hunting an animal more dangerous than, or as speedy as, a deer.
A good rule of thumb in determining your own maximum effective range is to cut the confidence range of your favorite centerfire rifle in half. Let’s say you are an exceptional marksman capable of hitting a standing deer at 400 yards with your .270 Winchester . The drop with the .270 at 400 yards will be about 16 inches if sighted in 3 inches high at 100.
With my White .451 caliber in-line muzzleloader sighted in 2 inches high at 100 yards, 80 grains Pyrodex P and a 490-grain SUPERSLUG, drop at 200 yards is 18.5-inches – within a minute of angle of a flat shooting centerfire rifle at twice the distance.
A good rule of thumb in determining your own maximum effective range is to cut the confidence range of your favorite centerfire rifle in half.
You must also half the “distance of forgiveness” of a flat shooting centerfire rifle. For an example, at under 400 yards with a .270, you can misjudge distance by 50 yards and still expect a “boiler room” hit. With a muzzleloader, you must know the range within 25 yards between 100 and 200 yards and be more precise if the shooting distance is farther than 200 yards.
The sights on a rifle can also make a real difference at longer ranges. Many muzzleloaders come from the factory with only the crudest of open rear sights. Several manufacturers, such as Lyman, offer adjustable replacement sights that can be easily installed by the shooter. Some muzzleloader manufacturers also offer more accurate replacement sights.
scope sights are a distinct advantage over metallic sights.
A highly visible front sight is mandatory early in the morning and late in the evening. I had to pass a shot at a monster mule deer buck a few years ago in the last few minutes of legal shooting light at about 100 yards because I could not confidently place the bullet where I wanted it. Generally, a peep sight allows more accurate shooting where metallic sights are required.
I prefer a small aperture for my peep for target shooting and sighting in, and a large, light-allowing aperture for hunting. White supplies an adjustable iris screw-in peep aperture so that shots can be taken in almost any light by adjusting the aperture diameter.
Where allowed, scope sights are a distinct advantage over metallic sights. Not only can sighting-in and bullet placement be more precise with a scope, the natural light gathering quality permits shooting earlier or later than with metallic sights.
As for scope power, I use quality four or six power scopes rather than the high-powered variable scopes I favor for centerfire rifle hunting. (Ed.- I use variable 1-4X scopes for the same reason)
Using a good field rest will probably double your effective hunting range! Crossed shooting sticks have always been identified with the muzzleloading rifle, but many shooters use them incorrectly. Crossed shooting sticks need at least a four foot length to permit an acceptable, comfortable shooting position if the shot is to be uphill. The old buffalo hunters claimed that if the barrel was approximately three feet above the ground, the sound of the shot would not “roll” along the ground, allowing location of the sound source.
Make sure the rifle fore-end and not the barrel rests in the “V” formed by the shooting sticks. Because the sticks are touching the fore-end on the sides and not the bottom of the stock, there is not an impact change caused by”shooting away” from a hard rest.
The kneeling position I favor is the exact opposite of the conventional kneeling position and is twice as accurate. For a right handed shooter: the left knee goes on the ground – NOT THE RIGHT KNEE! The right knee is up and pointing at about a 90 degree angle to the line of fire. The right elbow is supported by the right knee, and the left hand grips the sticks – not the rifle. Height is adjusted by sliding the wrap on the sticks.
You will—find your muzzle loader more accurate with (a) less-than-maximum charge-
This position is so steady once the habit of placing the right knee on the ground is broken, that most hunters can shoot almost as well from the kneeling position with crossed sticks as they can from the bench.
Shooting sticks are as much a part of my hunting gear as my binoculars and rifle. I use them for walking sticks, snake catchers and to pick up my gloves from the saddle. Cost is under $5 and they are worth a hundred times more.
Every serious target shooter knows the advantage of follow through. When coaching, I have the students call their shots before looking through the spotting scope. Follow through is much more important with a black powder weapon than it is with a centerfire weapon- because of the slower ignition time. And if the state you hunt in allows only flintlock, follow through alone can make the difference between success and failure.
The long-range muzzle loading hunter has at least one more unique problem. When a slow moving muzzle loading projectile passes through the sonic barrier, more things happen then just an audible crack. (Note: The speed of sound is considered 1120 feet per second at 32 degrees fahrenheit at sea level.) When the projectile drops through the 1120 FPS area, it slows and takes a quick drop.
With a centerfire, the bullet will not drop through the sonic barrier at any practical range, but with the inefficient round ball, the barrier may be broken prior to 100 yards. The higher the ballistic coefficient of a projectile and the faster the velocity, the greater the distance to the “barrier”.
Perhaps the only way to get a predictable parabolic curve with a muzzleloading projectile is to start it out below the speed of sound.
-testing indicate(s) that (as) the projectile drops through-1120 FPS-, (it) slows and takes a quick drop.
With my .45 caliber White and its very efficient SUPERSLUG, the big drop occurs between 150 and 175 yards with my 80 grain load. Knowing this to be a critical distance, I always hedge my hold on the high side at this 25 yard interval. I’ve made an accurate range finder one of my most important long range muzzle loading accessories. So, if you think you have the urge to pop an animal with a front loader at any range beyond 75 yards, you’d better do some serious target work at 25 yard intervals from 50 yards on out to learn the little quirks.
My favorite muzzle loader is the White Model 91 in .45 caliber. It has all the options a serious hunter would want available from the factory. In combination with the White SUPERSLUG, it’s the most accurate front loader in my arsenal.
My out-of-the-box White shoots minute of angle groups and shoots better as the barrel gets dirtier. I’ve put over 20 rounds through it without any cleaning and it was shooting better at the end than it was at the beginning.
The White Model 91 has rather spoiled me. With its stainless steel barrel and nipple, cleaning is not a necessity after a few shots like it is with my other front loaders, even those with stainless steel inserts in the barrels. There have been times with the White when it has been fired two or three times a day from the house balcony at jack rabbits or coyotes and has gone 3 weeks between cleanings without a misfire or a hangfire. And since I know all the distances associated with my alfalfa fields and pasture from the house balcony, a high percentage of my long shots were successful kills.
Only you can determine your own confidence level and maximum effective range. Hunting and shooting is a lifetime study with thousands of variables. None of us know it all, but we can all benefit from other’s mistakes and studies. Hopefully we won’t make the same mistakes too many times.
Long range marksmanship will never replace hunting skills. But developing long range hunting marksmanship and using more efficient projectiles from quicker ignition muzzle loading firearms will allow the serious hunter to have a little more confidence in himself and his equipment when he or she faces that moment of truth.