Breaking Out of the Mold
American Rifleman – October Issue 2004
Breaking Out of the Mold
By: Bryce M. Towsley
This was all wrong! I had run across a mile of spongy tundra, laid face down in cold swamp water, waded through a waist deep arctic lake and walked for several miles. I earned this caribou, but now it looked like he would escape. He was feeding across the tundra well ahead of me and I was trying to close the gap, but the bull had spotted my guide coming in from a different location and was about to bolt, it was now or never. I was hunting with a muzzleloader and just a few years ago I would have watched him run off, but things have changed. My rangefinder was back in my pack at the boat and there was no time anyway. I took my best guess, settled into the crossed sticks, held a little for the wind and tickled the trigger. The bull collapsed before the sound of the bullet striking made it to my ears. I later check the range with a laser rangefinder and it was 264 yards.
I have never been an advocate of long range hunting with a muzzleloader, and in truth I sill am not. I think the essence of muzzle loading is getting close enough to smell their breath. But, my argument was shored up in the past by the fact that the equipment used for “long range” shooting was a poor approach. The lightweight pistol style bullets that were used in times past may go fast out of a muzzleloader, but they have poor external ballistics and horrible terminal ballistics. They would usually fail to penetrate and often result in a wounding loss. However, the technology has come a long way.
I was shooting the Knight Disc Extreme .52 Caliber rifle on that caribou hunt. It was charged with 150 grains of Hodgdon’s Triple Seven powder and Knight/ Barnes Red Hot 375- grain, .475-caliber bullet. This bullet exits the muzzle at about 2,000 feet per second and when it’s sighted 3.25 inches high at 100 yards, the impact is dead on at 160 yards and is 5.57 inches low at 200 yards. This is not in the same league as the newest super magnum rifle cartridge, but as muzzleloaders go it’s a far cry from round balls and flintlocks.
Like it or not, the trend in today’s muzzleloader bullets and propellants is to extending the range. That part is controversial and will likely remain that way no matter what happens. But, the trend is also to better performance, both from the propellants and from the bullets.
My favorite deer bullet in a muzzleloader has long been the Barnes MZ Expander. This solid copper bullet expands so wide my buddy described it as “driving a beer can through the deer.” But it almost always exits, leaving a path of destruction behind. By today’s standards, the criticism is that the bullet is not streamlined enough. Barnes has addressed that with the new Spit-Fire MX Expander bullets. These bullets feature a pointed nose and a boattail design. Currently there are two .50-caliber sabot (.451-inch) bullets, a 245-grain with a ballistic coefficient of .172 and a 285-grain with a BC of .200.
With three Pyrodex pellets (150-grains) the 285-grain bullet has a muzzle velocity of 2,069 feet per second. With a 125 yard zero, it is only 8.5-inches low at 200 yards. The Spit-Fire will expand at 900 feet per second and the owner of Barnes Bullets, Randy Brooks, says there is no muzzleloader fast enough to cause them to break up on impact. Randy shot an elk at very long range last fall. The bullet was going about 1,000 feet per second on impact and it expanded perfectly and penetrated to the hide on the far side.
The new Hornady Super Shock Tip Bullet is another sleek, pointed muzzleloader design that features a polymer tip that is patterned after the best long-range bullets for center-fire rifles. The jacket and core are mechanically locked together with Hornady’s Interlock technology to prevent separation after impact and to enhance weight retention. The polymer tip helps to initiate expansion through a wide window of impact velocities. The polymer tip also resists deforming on loading and keeps the bullet profile consistent. This is an aid in long range shooting as deformed bullets drop at a different rate and can cause vertical stringing.
The SST is available in .45 caliber, (40-caliber bullet) in 200-grain. In .50-caliber (.45-caliber bullet) it’s offered in 250-grain and 300-grain bullets. The 300-grain has a ballistic coefficient of .250. Using three Hodgdon Pyrodex pellets, the muzzle velocity is 2,130 feet per second from a Thompson Center Omega with a 28-inch barrel. With the gun zeroed 3-inches high at 100 yards, the bullet drops to 3-inches low at 200 yards. Considering a six-inch kill zone (which adds a little “insurance” on a whitetail) that means you can aim at the center of the deer’s chest at any range from zero to 200-yard and hit the kill zone.
New this year, Hornady is loading the bullet in their new Lock-N-Load Speed Sabot. This ingenious sabot has a “tail” that will hold up to three 50-grain Pyrodex or Triple Seven Pellets. This creates the ultimate “speed loader” as the bullet and propellant are locked together. Simply insert it in the bore and seat it as you would any bullet. The tail has a triangle shape that allows the ignition fire to reach the inside of the pellets. It’s fast, efficient and Hornady’s testing shows no effect on ignition or accuracy.
Thompson Center also sells this bullet under the name of Shock Wave and with it I shot several sub-inch, 100-yard, three shot groups with the Encore 209X50 rifle. TC actually reported groups as small as ½-inch in their testing. I have varmint rifles that won’t shoot that well. I used the 250-grain Shock Wave on a Kansas whitetail buck that had busted me and was “getting the hell out of Dodge” (actually we were hunting closer to Abilene.) The bullet caught him just in front of his hind quarters and angled up to stop under the hide on the neck. It penetrated 37-inches of whitetail, which is impressive considering how much it expanded. I also used the Thompson Center Shock Wave bullet on a big feral hog in Texas where it penetrated all the way through. Pigs are walking bullet traps, so that penetration was impressive.
Traditions has an interesting new bullet called the T-Shock. It’s a pointed, jacketed, lead core bullet. The interesting thing is a sealed hydraulic chamber in the tip that contains a small amount of FDA-approved oil. This chamber is said to exert pressure in all directions on impact to initiate expansion. Traditions says the bullet will retain 90% of its weight. It’s available in .45, .50 and .54 caliber sabots in a variety of weights.
Hodgdon’s Triple Seven is the news in propellants. It’s available in granular which has 15% more energy by volume than Pyrodex or black powder, or in pellets which are formulated to match the energy of 50-grains of black powder or the equivalent of Pyrodex. The best part is it cleans up with plain water without the rotten egg smell.
We will never turn muzzleloaders into modern rifles, nor should we. But, this technology is making them more efficient hunting guns and I can’t see the down side of that.
This article appeared in the October 2004 American Rifleman, and is reprinted here with the author’s permission.