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Long Range Hunting

Hank Strong

"Any load's accuracy depends upon more than where the hammer is located. Sidelock rifles demonstrated that they were just as accurate as the inlines and in some instances more so."

A great deal has been written about the long range accuracy of the inline muzzle loader. Some information is correct; some misleading. Most information published about inlines is misunderstood because very little ballistic information is published. So, when the question is asked "What is the effective hunting range for a muzzle loader?" It is difficult to answer because there are so many variables involved in long range shooting. For example, the shooter's knowledge of ballistics and ability to apply it when shooting are extremely important. The caliber of rifle and how the barrel is bedded in the stock affects accuracy, the twist and the bullet desgin. While different ignition systems can influence accuracy; the difference in accuracy between a sidelock and a inline is minimal. Loading techniques affect accuracy more than where the hammer is located.

The twist is probably, the most important consideration, and it's the most misunderstood factor. Sabot bullets and conicals require a fast twist for the bullet to be stabilized for long range accuracy. A bullet's design determines how much energy it will carry and its accuracy at long range. In the last few years manufactures have started developing muzzle loading bullets for long range hunting.

After several long discussions my friend Hank Stone, I decided to find out what is an acceptable range for a muzzle loader. First, we developed standards that would ensure a clean kill. Then we developed a shooting schedules at 150, 200 and 300 yards. We used a Pack 1 choreograph and recorded each shot on a log sheet. At the end of a day's shooting the data was run through a ballistics' computer program. We used "Quick Target", which enabled us to evaluate our shooting and develop a better understanding of ballistics and the long range capabilities of a muzzle loaders we were testing. While the log book made it possible for us to separate loading problems from shooting errors and wind deflection.


Long range hunting for muzzle loaders is anything past 100 yards. Hitting big game past 100 yards is one thing. Effectively harvesting an animal is something else. Our tests clearly demonstrat that it was possible to place a shot at 150, 200 or 300 yards accurately. However, a bullet has to have enough energy to create a deadly wound channel. The question is; "How much energy is necessary?" Our research revealed that when a muzzle loading bullet delivered 800 or more f.p.e. (foot pounds of energy) it would generate hydrostatic shock upon impact and good expansion. We tested the loads by setting up milk jugs filled with water at 100, 150, and 200 yards to check the bullet's ability to penetrate and expand. Our research disclosed that 17" of water was roughly the equivalent of 12" of body tissue. The water filed containers more closely duplicated body tissue than other materials. When a bullet was able to penetrate three jugs in a line and destroy the first two to three jugs abreast of each other it was considered effective for whitetail.

We discovered that sabot bullets had to weigh at least 270 grains, and have a ballistic coefficient (B.C.) of at least .206 with a muzzle velocity of 1500 f.p.s. or more. Conicals had to weigh at least 410 grains and have a B.C. of .190 with a muzzle velocity of 1225 f.p.s. or more. Generally, we had to use high powder charges of 90 grains or higher to deliver 800 f.p.e. at 200 or 300 yards. These standards greatly narrowed our rifle and bullet selection.


The venerable .45 caliber rifle, with a fast twist barrel, proved to be the most accurate and effective rifle available for hunting. It delivered the best accuracy of all the calibers with as much or more energy shooting 340 to 470 grain bullets. However, very few .45 caliber rifles are manufactured. Most western states require hunters to use a .50 or .54 caliber rifle for hunting big game. So, we were relegated to shooting rifles that were not as effective as the .45 caliber rifle.

The .50 caliber rifles can deliver good accuracy when they are loaded with a .45 sabot bullet. However, since the sabot bullets generally weigh less than most .45 cal. conicals a higher powder charge is normally used in a .50 cal. rifle. This enables the bullet to have a high energy level upon impact. Another problem with using a .50 caliber rifle is that most of the bores are designed to shoot both sabots and conical bullets. This means that their accuracy past 100 yards varies from rifle to rifle. The best accuracy past 75 yards was obtained with rifles having a twist of 1-20" to 1- 32." As the distance to the target was lengthen, the rifles with the faster twist produced the best groups with sabot bullets. Overall, the .50 caliber rifle's accuracy was superior to the .54 and .58 caliber rifles past 50 yards. None of the .54 or .58 caliber conicals generated a significant increase in energy or expansion to warrant choosing them over a .45 or .50 caliber rifle bullets.


Time did not allow us to shoot every bullet available today. We selected a cross section of bullets from the 250 bullets now available. Muzzle loading bullets are divided into five categories, round ball, cast rifle, pistol, muzzle loading sabot bullets and conicals. The round ball was eliminated from the shooting because the energy level past 75 yards is too low.


We found that shooting a muzzle loader at 200 yards is like shooting a center-fire rife at 300 or 400 yards. We did not realize how difficult it would be to read the wind past 100 yards when we started shooting. Wind flags solved the problem. We took 1/4" by 3' metal rods and taped strips of cloth 3" wide by 36" long to the top of the rod. The flags were then driven into the ground every 25 yards out to 200 yards. They quickly showed wind direction and speed down range. We watched bullets pass through dead calm areas then abruptly enter a space where the wind was quartering in at 20-30 m.p.h.. Then fly through another space where the wind had changed directions and speed! The crosswinds made shooting a muzzle loader at long range a nightmare! However, as our ability to read the wind improved, and with a little help from a lap top computer the groups shrank. Basically four things determine the group size, the caliber of rifle, type of bullet, powder charge and bore design. Most groups were not very impressive when you consider we were shooting under ideal conditions, when compared to a hunter. But they were better than we expected.

Initially elevation wasn't a problem, because we were shooting at known distances. That problem reared its ugly head when we decided to place a target at random past 100 yards! We found it difficult to estimate range correctly, the wind's effect on the bullet's flight and the amount of elevation that was necessary to place the shot in the kill zone. After three days of shooting we were stumped.


We decided to conduct a test with ten hunters to see if others had the same problem. They were asked to estimate the range to the targets placed at random out to 200 yards. A bystander was selected to place the targets. Only two of the ten participants accurately estimated the range! This was a very humbling experience for yours truly, because I failed the test. The two men who passed had one thing in common, they were avid golfers! They had trained themselves while playing golf to estimate ranges. Now we had the answer to a problem that had plagued our shooting almost from the start. The toughest aspects of long range shooting with a muzzle loader is accurately estimating the distance to the target and reading the wind. In addition the hunter has to develop a working knowledge of ballistics to be able to apply the right elevation and windage to place the shot accurately.


In the real world of hunting, shots are taken at odd angles. The kill zone becomes a moving ellipse at 75-200 yards with 5-15 m.p.h. winds. While we could not duplicate hunting conditions at the range, we believed we had devised a realistic test for two hunters. Five deer size targets were set up at random from 50 to 200 yards. Most displayed the deer at odd angles from the firing line, only one presented a broadside view. Two shooters were selected and presented with this scenario. They were going on a hunt and their "Trophy" shot would be somewhere between 50-200 yards. They could zero their rifle with any of the bullets mentioned in the article for their hunt. Ballistics' tables were available for them on each bullet. Before zeroing the rifle, a short class was given on how to read the wind. They were taught how to properly load a muzzle loader for the best accuracy. Since most bullets are packaged in lots of 20, each "hunter" would be allowed 10 shots to zero their rifle and 10 for the course of fire. If they wished they could take two shots at each target. But they only had two minutes to read the wind, aim, shoot and reload for the second shot. Only one target at a time would be raised into the shooting position. They could use any position for shooting. Shooting sticks and slings were allowed and they must shoot at one target in the offhand position. Finally, each "hunter" would shoot the course separately and they could not coach or help each other.

At the conclusion of the test we found that none of the targets past 150 yards had a hit in the kill zone. The two hits at 150 yards would have maimed the animal. Both hunters had clean kills out to 125 yards. The shooters encountered several problems. Since they were not familiar with the trajectory of the loads, and could not estimate the range correctly they missed their target. Both had difficulty in estimating the wind's effect on the bullet. Neither hunter understood how to use the ballistic chart. None of the second shots were in the kill zone. Conversely, when we took two hunters and spent two days teaching them to shoot past 100 yards they were able to place all their shots in the kill zone out to a 150 yards. One was able to place his shots in the kill zone at 200 yards.


After shooting over 700 shots at targets out to 300 yards we found that most hunters do not possess the right shooting skills for long range shooting with a muzzle loader. The shooting taught us that there are rifles and bullets that can deliver the accuracy, if the hunter has the time, money, determination and skill. Any load's accuracy depends upon more than where then were the hammer is located. Sidelock rifles demonstrated that they were just as accurate as the inlines and in some instances more so. We found that a rifle zeroed for 125 yards generally allowed the hunter to aim dead on out to 150 yards. Most sabot bullets will rise 2 to 3 inches at 75 yards, while the conical rises 4 to 5 inches. The sabot bullets would drop 2.5 to 3.5 inches below line of sight at 150 yards, while the conicals dropped 4 to 5 inches. All of the shooting was conducted off a benchrest using an Uncle Buds Bull Bag, or Lohman Sight Vise. Over 250 shots were fired passed 100 yards. The groups averaged 2.7" at 150 yards; 4.9" at 200 yards and 5.5" at 300 yards. While the groups look respectable the problem is wind drift. A 10 m.p.h. wind at 200 yards can move a muzzle loading bullet from 9" to 17" versus 2.8" for a .30 caliber 168 grain Nosler Ballistic Tip.

When we started shooting the heavy hunting loads the barrels heated up, and the groups started to widened. Pyrodex generated the highest muzzle velocities, and the hottest barrels. When the barrels were allowed to cool between shots, the groups tighten. This problem is unique to conicals and sabots because it is not as pronounced when you are shooting roundball. Goex and Elephant Black powders reduced our problems considerably because they don't generate as much heat.

Realistically, the average hunter can develop the skills for taking game out to 15O yards; provided the rifle is zeroed for 125 yards and the components are matched. However, the hunter must hone his shooting skills and learn more than just the basics of shooting, and muzzle loading. So, before you rush out and decide to become the Quiggly of muzzle loading, consider all the problems we had with range estimation and reading the wind down range. While, it's not out of the question, its just beyond the grasp of most hunters because they lack the resources. Till next time may all your shots be 10X!


The following rifles and barrels were used for our testing:

Green Mountain Rifle Barrel Company's L.R.H. .50 caliber drop in barrel 1-28"
Knight's .50 and .54 caliber MK-85 1-28"
de Hass's .50 caliber drop in replacement barrel for Thompson Center Rifles1-20"
White's .50 caliber "G" Series1- 24"
Peifer .50 caliber rifle 1-28"
Ruger .50 caliber rifle 1-28"
CVA Apollo .50 caliber 1-32"
Cabela's .54 caliber Rolling Block 1-24"
Lyman Deer Stalker Carbine .50 caliber 1-24"
Thompson-Center White Mountain Carbine .54 caliber 1-48"
Thompson-Center Big Bore .58 caliber 1-48"
Traditions Buckskinner Carbine 1-20"
Gonic rifles .45 and .50 cal
(both rifle performed beautifully at the extend ranges)

Knight .45 cal
White .45 cal
Overall The .45 caliber rifles were the best rifles for long range shooting.

all the barrels with a fast twist grouped between 3-6" at 200 yards. The 1-48" twist did not group well past 50 yards, especially the .54 caliber rifles with a 1-48" twist.


Four different brands of scopes were used during the tests, Burris, Leupold, Pentax, and Simmons "A" Tec. All of the scopes were variable power that had an object lens of 40 to 50mm. While a 3 to 5 power scope is excellent to hunt with we found that the best long range accuracy was obtained with the high powered more expensive scopes. They enabled to us to clearly define the target and get the same sight picture with each succeeding shot. All of the scopes held up well under the heavy pounding. True, some of the scopes cost as much or more then rifle, but quality optics can mean the difference between a 1 or 6 inch group.


Two Ballistic Computer Programs were used in the research. Drop Kick Ballistics and Quick Target from US International Defense Technologies of Knoxville, TN . 37940. Quick Target is by far the finest ballistic program I have come across and we tested nine different programs. All the charts and most of the research was done using Quick Target. Some of the loads featured with the article exceed the maximum suggested load from some gun companies. Be sure and check with the manufacturer before duplicating any of these loads.


Often referred to as the muzzle loader's Magnum bullet. As a rule these bullets aren't as accurate as the sabot bullets and don't expand as well on whitetail as other bullets. However, the sectional density of most conicals is higher then most sabot pistol bullet. But they do not deliver a significant higher increase in energy over sabot bullets. The chief advantage they offer is they can penetrate better, expand more and shed weight as they penetrate creating a large wound channel. They are best suited for big game like Elk, Moose or Brown Bear at under 125 yards.


The 300 grain pistol bullet is accurate and popular with most hunters. They have a flatter trajectory than a conical, less recoil and good knock down power on deer out to 150 yards when pushed by 100- 150 grains of powder. However, black bear, and elk hunting should be taken at under 100 yards with these bullets. Generally they don't expand well unless they hit bone because they are made from a lead alloy.


Any cast 45-70 bullet that weighs between 320 and 390 grains can be resized and should be used with a long petal sabot from either Modern Muzzle loading or Harvestor for a .50 or .54 caliber rifle. We selected two bullets from Lyman's catalogue that were originally designed for the venerable 45-70. When used a heavy powder charge that duplicate and some instances exceed the performance of the black powder cartridge 45-70 rifle. Cast bullets should be molded from pure lead then resized to .450 to insure they are round and fit the inside of the sabot. These bullets have a high sectional density and are generally accurate out to 150 yards.


This group of bullets is relatively new and unique because they are designed specifically for use in a muzzle loading rifle. These sabot bullets are swaged from pure lead, except for Barnes Expander, which is manufactured from copper. Most of them replicate 45-70 bullets from the last century and weight between 300 to 435 grains. They are the latest evolution in muzzle loading bullet development. Several of these bullets are spitzer boattail bullets with shallow hollow points. These are without question the most accurate group of muzzle loading bullets and the best for hunting when pushed with a heavy powder charge. They have a high sectional density for good penetration and expand well on big game.