Designing For Accuracy
So far in my long muzzleloading career I have concentrated on hunting, designing muzzle loading rifles for big game, usually the bigger the better. Taking on big dangerous stuff that might stomp or bite has always been fascinating. Designing the guns to do it with, and building them, has held its own fascination as well. However, I am reminded that not everyone gets to hunt Cape Buffalo or Grizzly Bear and that the average American muzzle loading hunter goes after Whitetail and is happy with a 4 point if not a doe. The average American hunter also spends at least some time throwing bullets at varmints, paper targets and inanimate targets like tin cans. The lowly prairie dog here in the West is a common target, as well as ground squirrels, ‘ potguts’ and groundhogs in other parts of the country. All are small targets at the longer ranges and can challenge common muzzle loading equipment.
I started this search for ultimate muzzleloading accuracy back in the late 1980’s. By 1990 I had designed the Super-91 in 504 and 451 caliber. Both calibers had been very successful in the big game hunting marketplace and both were pretty accurate. The average shooter could get three inch groups at 100 yards with open sights by just following factory recommendations. If he added a scope he could squeeze the groups down a little. I saw numerous one inch groups and a few two inch 200 yard groups from avid shooters looking for the best of accuracy, mostly using slip fit bullets with Ballistic Coefficients in the .300-.350 range.
Of course, using those rifles in the field, as accurate as the inherently are, is another thing. The hurry , bustle, fear and fuss of field shooting blows those nice tight groups to pieces. But then big game targets are big enough that the bigger groups don’t matter much. A rifle and shooter holding within 6 inches at 100 yards is plenty good enough for an elk with a 30 in deep chest. Second shots with ultra fast reloading were also important. Substantial knock down power, the ability to penetrate through several organ systems without which the game could not live were like-wise essential. So it was that the White System was developed with fast loading heavy slip fit bullets that expand on the shot for superb accuracy, power and penetration on BIG game without needing in-the-field cleaning between shots.
I had noted that the 40 caliber bullets used in the old black powder target days had substantially higher BC’s than did the 45 or 50 caliber bullets. Some of the 40 caliber bullets approached a BC of .400, requiring tighter rifling twists in the 1-16 range. So this is what I tried next, a long 400 grain bullet in a 410 caliber bore with a 1-16 twist. The combination proved to be superbly and consistently accurate. Best of all, to my mind at the time, the long bullet retained substantial energy downrange, actually equaling the energy of a 451 caliber 460 rain bullet at 200 yards because of its superior BC. This is what became the 410 caliber rifles produced by White in later years. They were the most inherently accurate of the production rifles.
As the years went by, I tried even smaller calibers. I custom built rifles in .367 caliber for a 300 grain bullet, in .350 for a 275 grain bullet and a .330 for a 250 grain bullet. I kept the bullets long and heavy enough that BC’s were in the .350-.400 range, with appropriate twist for the caliber. All had shallow grooves of .035. All were impressive on big game, up to cow elk size. Whitetails were no problem at all, at any range up to 200 yards. I never got to try them at longer ranges than 200 simply because I could never find a whitetail that far away. Most were far closer. I even used the .330 rifle on a big cow elk sized Dubowski Sika deer, a nice buck that weighed 350 lbs on the hoof. The 250 grain bullet with 60 grains PyrodexP at 65 yards put the critter down without a problem, the bullet penetrating both lungs and blowing up the heart. The bullet did not go all the way through, but caught in the ribs on the far side.
These smaller calibers proved to be superbly accurate as well. Using a scope, groups in the 2 inch range at 100 yards under hunting conditions were common. They required cleaning more often than the larger calibers, it seems the smaller calibers always do, true in modern smokeless as well as black powder rifles. They consistently bettered the accuracy of the larger 451 and 504 calibers that I had previously developed.
This is a Doubouski Sika deer, the biggest of the four Sika varieties. At the time is was #1 SCI muzzleloader. I took the shot, using a .330 Super 91 with 270 grain Super-Slug over 60 grains of Pyrudex-P, at 65 yards. The bullet went nearly all the way through this 350 lb. animal, breaking ribs in and out, blew up the heart and lungs, surprising even me by its destructiveness. If a .330 will do this, the .367 should be even better on similar game.
The White philosophy of powerful, fast loading, no clean-between-shots shooting is not very important when shooting varmints, tin cans or paper targets. The only thing that matters is how close to the last bullet the next bullet lands. There is lots of time for cleaning between shots, meticulous loading and careful, precise shooting. All of the hard thought out, field proven techniques developed for big game count for nothing when seeking ultimate accuracy. The old timers knew this, too. They have been searching for accuracy ever since shooting was invented back in the 1500’s.
My search of shooting history revealed a few secrets that others in the past have passed down through time. One is that tighter fitting bullets shoot tighter groups. I had also found this to be true, with the limitation that if the bullet fit too tight, then deformation of the bullet nose caused by the pressure needed to load it with ramrod lessened accuracy. Another is that lubricated lead bullets shot every bit as well as those jacketed with paper or some other metal as long as the velocity of the bullet was kept below that magic velocity where leading of the bore started. Obviously, protecting the bullet with a paper or harder metal jacket allowed higher velocity than without, but higher velocity rarely meant better accuracy. A third secret was matching the twist of the rifling with the bullet, shorter bullets requiring a slower twist and steeper rifling requiring a longer bullet. Another was matching the depth of the rifling to the bullet, this factor mostly depending on what covering was used to protect the bullet-ie: round balls with cloth patches require deep rifling to hold the patch, shallow will not do. On the other hand, a long slip fit bullet will not expand enough on firing to fill that deep rifling, so a barrel used with such a bullet needs relatively shallow grooves. Anther was the use of a device to get the bullet through the first few inches at the muzzle without deformation of the bullet nose. Lastly a device to avoid contaminating the powder with moisture from a previous cleaning and to stack the powder consistently in the bore.
Of course, the powder used, the cap and the size of the touchhole has a lot to do with ultimate accuracy. Getting the powder to burn evenly and consistently from shot to shot means buying and using the best there is. As a matter of fact, black powder offers more consistent burning and pressures than any black powder substitute or smokeless powder. Swiss black powder is the best brand of the bunch, at last so far. Goex is giving them a run for their money with their new stuff.
The size of the touch-hole is important. Recent studies under controlled circumstances pretty well shows that the smaller the touch-hole, the more consistent the shot to shot accuracy. But the touch-hole can be too small. It appears that the best compromise is about .0320″. Once again, the old timers beat us to it. They knew that same thing and even went one step further, lining the nipple with platinum to prevent nipple blow-out. Platinum conducts heat better than any other known metal, so it burns out the slowest. Keep in mind that the blast back through the touch-hole is blow-torch hot, and takes a little metal with it with each shot. Platinum at least slows down that erosion, so produces the most consistent back blast.
Consistency is the name of the game. Doing every thing in as consistent a fashion as possible leads to the greatest accuracy. All of the historical techniques illustrated above are designed to do just that – load the rifle in as consistent a fashion as conceivably possible so that shot to shot variation is absolutely minimized.
All this came to a head with the advent of the National Manufacturer’s match at the Spring 2000 NMLRA shoot. All the manufacturers/importers in the country were invited to bring a team of shooters to the match, shooting off the shelf rifles. There were to be 4 members to a team, shooting a series of paper targets in the morning and a series of steel gongs in the afternoon. Scopes were allowed, otherwise the guns were supposed to be stock, off the shelf items. The winners got the glory, the manufacturer got to advertise that they won.
It soon became apparent that the shooters were hyper-tuning their rifles. They were allowed to tune to a limited degree under the rules, that is, tune them as much as you might normally do for the average hunt. But over the next several years, it became obvious that the tuning went far further than that with carefully picked special barrels, special bullets, priming systems, action and trigger jobs, target scopes with quick-adjustable triple turrets, etc. The manufacturers also seemed to come up with such great shooters. And they were great shooters, some of them prior champions. Nobody dared say anything about how they were compensated and in fact I don’t really know that anybody ever was, but there was sure a lot of professional pride. At any rate the competition was fierce. Sometimes it wasn’t fun. The one thing it taught was how great a difference there was between sighting settings for close up and settings at 125-150 yards. It also taught us about change in groups and sighting settings in different locations. It emphasized the need to verify sight settings in any new location before every hunt or target shoot.
By the fourth year (2005), it had become apparent that the White team of absolute amateurs shooting off the shelf rifles was competing against professionals with meticulously tuned guns and sighting systems. I decided that the solution to the problem was a new rifle. At about the same time, White was approached by a new shooting team (pictured below), who asked for the privilege of shooting the White system. They soon became an integral part of the design team, with a plethora of suggestions that enhanced the system. I was delighted to have the privilege of their assistance, experience and obvious expertise.
Thus was born the Varminter. The new rifle was based on the venerable W-series action. The team recommended a longer, heavier barrel both to enhance velocity and accuracy as well as balance. We agreed on a smaller more accurate caliber and chose .367 as the best, with shallow .035″ grooves and 1-15 twist. I had previously designed a thumbhole stock for the W-series rifles and it was enthusiastically adopted with the addition of an adjustable recoil pad. We stuck with the steel Warne Weaver size bases, With Warne Quick Detachable rings and Leupolds best triple turret target scope. The trigger was stock, made by Bold but adjusted for weight of pull and over-travel. The team recommended a straight-line starter and had the design right at hand. It fits both the muzzle and the bullet and does as much as possible to guarantee that the bullet enters the muzzle straight and without nose deformation.
The result was a heavier, extremely accurate rifle, meant for careful loading and accurate shooting at game (or targets) that rarely bite back. It makes maximum use of the White Muzzle loading System and shows just how accurate such a rifle can be.
The Varminter works on White Muzzle loading System principles with a few variations for the sake of supreme accuracy. The team designed a long, high BC 305 grain bullet in pure lead, cast .002 oversize then sized and lubed down to .001 oversize. This means that the .368 bullet fits the .367 bore quite tightly, at least at the muzzle. I designated the bullet as an Almost Slip-Fit, with tongue in cheek. This tightness of fit explains the rational behind the requirement for a straight line starter to get the bullet straight into the muzzle without nose deformation.
The team also pointed out that the barrel needs to be super clean for each shot for the best accuracy. It became their practice to clean the barrel with a moist patch followed by a dry patch between shots. They also declared that brushing the bore occasionally, like after each 5 shot string, helps to keep any lead fouling cleaned out as well.
Since the bore is potentially a little moist from the cleaning process, they recommended using a long tube to place the next charge of powder into the breech. The tube not only prevents getting the powder wet, but also stacks it in the breech in a consistent fashion for each shot. Consistent ramrod pressure on the bullet is also important, but they did not carry it so far as to use a weight measuring device.
Ignition was by #11 cap, utilizing a smaller than usual 30 thousanths touch-hole in a separate platinum lined nipple in a short non-standard modified White breechplug. 209’s are popular, but they are also too powerful to be accurate. Igniting the powder from the back end with the small blast from a #11 is much better than blow-torching it with a 209.
The team’s research showed that the best powder for outright accuracy is old fashioned 3fG black powder, simply because it is the most consistent with the smallest shot to shot velocity variation, even when volume measured. (they weighed each load) All of the more modern substitutes produce wider variations in velocity shot to shot than does any brand of Black powder. They admitted to liking Swiss black powder best as it is extremely consistent and very potent. Charges in the 35-55 grain range seem to work very well with the 305 grain bullet, with little difference in accuracy through the charge range. Almost any load in that range will shoot into an inch at a hundred yards.
A rifle with this much accuracy potential needs the best of scopes. My favorite scope of all I have tried for small game and target work is the Leupold Vari-X III 3.5-10 power with 40 mm adjustable objective and triple turret. The triple turret allows quick adjustments for range. Quality of image and durability are superb. The team agreed with the choice. They protect the barrel of the scope with black electrician’s tape and a card or aluminum insert extending out under the turrets so they don’t gum up with black powder residue.
They also protect the base of the bullet with a poly wad. Fiber wads, with and without grease were tried, but the poly wad, .125 thick, was found to be the best.
Thus was born the most consistently accurate muzzleloading rifle I have ever experienced. I have been able to shoot an occasional sub-MOA group using various White rifles, but have never before seen a muzzleloading rifle that will do it every time, group after group. The team grinned with anticipation. They were anxious to show how well they could do at the maunufacturer’s matches. The unique thing about the rifle is that although it is meant for shooting tiny targets at long range, paper targets being just as shootable as tiny critters, it is also big enough for small deer and antelope. The 300 grain bullet is heavy enough, the BC higher than any competing 300 grain bullet, which means excellent energy retention and penetration, and the accuracy good enough that you can pick a tiny spot and drill it. It is easily better than the time venerated 38-55. The unique thing is that you can apply any of the accuracy enhancing techniques listed above to any White rifle, or any other muzzleloading rifle, with similar results.
When the June 2006 Muzzle loading Manufacturer’s Match came up at Friendship, Indiana, the White team elected to use the new Varminter rather than last years .410 caliber Super 91. They had already worked up loads and adjusted their scopes for the various stages and ranges. The 5 man team held a shoot- off in May to see who would be on the team and who would be the alternate. The match they shot was identical to the Manufacturers Match. Steven Dick won the alternate position by shooting only 3 points lower than the other 4. He said he was having a bad day. I wonder how good he does when his day is good, as all the other team members are terrific shots.
WHITE RIFLES TEAM WINS THE 2006 MANUFACTURER’S MATCH
Now comes the question. What does all this mean to the average muzzleloading hunter, the guy who chases the wily whitetail , throws an occasional bullet at a ground dog and rarely at a paper target? Well, more than you might think. It means that if he adroitly chooses from among the performance enhancing techniques that resulted in such a superb, accurate rifle, that he can acquire the equipment and the skill to enhance his hunting. Rather than chase wounded game all day only to lose it, he harvests it cleanly every time. Rather than needing an extra or even more shots to put the game down, he does it with the first shot, simply because it is placed through the vitals so well that it destroys not one but two or three vital systems without which the animal cannot live more than a few seconds. Being able to consistently group his shots is a great confidence builder, it makes a hunter more careful about their shooting, rather than more careless. The careless hunter is the one who believes that hitting the animal , let alone hitting the vitals, is just luck anyway, so why try hard. It’s always better to try hard and promote success.
If I were going to hunt varmints, small targets at longer ranges, or maybe even antelope or deer at longer ranges, especially from a stand, I would build a gun just like the Varminter and load and use it just as the team did. I would cast the bullet carefully, size it .001 oversize, load it on top of Swiss FFFg black powder that was carefully placed and packed using a long tube, load the bullet using a muzzle fitted straight line starter and protect the base of the bullet with a poly wad, after having cleaned the barrel with a moist then at least one dry patch. I would use a #11 cap on a platinum lined nipple, if that is not affordable then at least a stainless nipple with a .030-.032 touch-hole. I would pick the touch-hole for every shot.
If I were going to hunt larger game, say whitetail or bigger, but not truly dangerous critters that bite and stomp, then I would forget about long loading tubes, cleaning between shots and an in line starter, but I would size that all important bullet .0001 to .0005 smaller than the land to land diameter of the bore, switch to Pyrodex P or 777 in appropriate charges, and light it off with a #11 or musket cap and a factory White nipple-breechplug. I would clean the gun after 5 shots or at the end of the day. If you have to use 5 shots to get your game, then the day has not been very successful.
If I am after big stuff, like moose or the big bears or African game, and want the most powerful, fastest loading and easiest handling, I would use a heavy factory bullet sized .001 smaller than the bore, Pyrodex or 777 in G or W-series rifles with a musket cap, or Blackhorn 209 and a 209 primer in a ThunderBolt. Ranges are closer with the big stuff, in fact you want to be as close as reasonable so you can poke that bullet into exactly the right spot and put the animal down before he can turn on you. Wounded will not do!
There is an obvious degradation of accuracy with each step of the schema above. But there is also a progressive rise in the size of the potential target. Not as much as you might think, because we are not talking about body size. We don’t shoot at bodies but at specific organ systems, and they are a lot smaller than most can imagine. The best target of all, in all game, no matter what size, is the dorsal aorta, the huge artery that arises from the top of the heart and curves downward, giving off branches to organs and limbs. It is thin and relatively fragile. Poke a hole in it and the high pressure of the blood in it will cause it to explode with an almost immediate drop in blood pressure and vital function. It is my constant target.