Tools of the trade
I like every kind of hunting season but for me, the December muzzleloader season for deer is perhaps the most special.
It all started years ago when I purchased a secondhand Kentucky Rifle replica that couldn't shoot straight and ended up blowing a piece of percussion cap into my eyelid. As I drove myself to the doctor’s office on that memorable fall morning a couple of decades ago, I realized three important things: 1. always wear safety glasses while shooting 2. Cheap used firearms are being sold for a reason, and 3. I love muzzleloaders.
Through the years I’ve owned a variety of the charcoal-burners but have currently joined the cult of the in-line muzzleloader. I still love my Hawken-style reproductions but for hunting efficiency, it’s hard to beat the in-lines for ease of use, reliability and accuracy.
The main selling point of in-line muzzleloaders is their high degree of accuracy but just like anything else, the devil is in the details. Simply stuffing powder down the tube and seating the latest miracle bullet doesn’t guarantee that you can knock a gnat off a matchstick at 200 yards. Things aren’t quite so straightforward so I'll share of few of my own misadventures on the road to better muzzleloader accuracy.
The most commonly seen load among in-line muzzleloader shooters utilizes synthetic black powder, a shotgun primer for ignition and a sabot-clad rifle or pistol bullet as the payload. Let’s talk about this important trinity of in-line shooting.
All modern muzzleloaders will shoot either traditional black powder or one of the new “synthetic” types such as Pyrodex® accurately. However, sorry to disappoint, accuracy does not come from the powder itself but rather how the powder is measured and loaded.
Accuracy in any weapon is the result of consistency so when measuring black powder you must be as meticulous as humanly possibly. Measure your powder as if defusing a bomb, the same way, every single time!
One common debate is the accuracy of pre-made pellets versus loose powder. “They” commonly say that pellets are slightly less accurate than loose powder but I haven’t yet seen a definitive, non-biased test. Most hard-core shooters use loose powder but I’ve seen good groups with pellets. Your mileage may vary!
Another important factor is the size of the load. I know many people who automatically pour 150 grains of powder (typically the maximum load for most guns per the owner’s manual) and blithely assume that their shots are both powerful and accurate.
Powerful, yes, but accuracy is most likely lacking. The truth is that most rifles shoot best somewhere in the middle power band. Keep in mind that the venerable .45-70 cartridge was named due to its .45 caliber bullet and 70 grains of black powder. Uncounted deer, bear and even larger game have fallen for the .45-70 so your modern .50 caliber bullets and 80-125 grains of propellant should be fine for Indiana whitetail. My own current hunting gun shoots best at 95 grains behind a 250 grain bullet, certainly a “mediocre” load by some standards but none of the 5 deer I’ve shot with it stumbled more than 20 yards.
How you seat the bullet has a major effect on point of impact. As I had learned from other shooters, I would pack the charge extremely tight until the ramrod would “bounce” off the bullet. However, I eventually realized that this was deforming the round and undoubtedly impairing accuracy. Now, I just press down on the ramrod with forceful hand pressure until the charge is firmly packed. The key to consistent seating depth is to mark your ramrod in some way to know the charge has been properly loaded from shot to shot.
The use of shotgun primers for the in-line muzzleloader was a big jump in reliability and accuracy. Centerfire primers are more consistently manufactured and far hotter than percussion caps, resulting in more positive detonation of the powder. All brands we have tried are acceptable so long as you don’t mix and match manufacturers from shot to shot.
The introduction of the sabot (proper pronunciation: “sa-bow” as in “sabotage”) has greatly enhanced the accuracy of muzzle loading firearms. With a sabot, the plastic outer carrier allows use of a sub-caliber modern bullet to obtain higher velocities and better accuracy than a lead ball or conical.
I don’t get involved in the hyperventilated arguments about the perfect bullet/sabot combination because, after all, Indiana whitetails aren’t that tough of a target. In my book, bullet placement is far more important than bullet design or retained kinetic energy so I try various combinations of sabot, bullet and powder weight to determine which a particular gun prefers. This is perhaps the number one secret to wringing the best accuracy out of any weapons system. A poor shooting gun often becomes acceptable with change of ammunition while a good-shooting gun will often become great.
There is one more key to wringing the best accuracy out of your in-line: go to the range to work up your loads in July, not late November. Shooting a muzzleloader during foul weather is far more challenging than a cartridge firearm so resolve to hit the range during the warmer months, rather than a semi-desperate and often abbreviated effort right before the season.
So far, I’ve haven’t taken my own advice for the past 10 years but perhaps you’ll do better in the self-discipline category.