Muzzleloading Big Game Bullet Selection

As always, if there was one bullet that was the best for all occasions, you would think that that is what we would all be shooting-- but, calling any muzzleloading bullet "the best" is necessarily an unsophisticated answer to a sophisticated question.

For starters, I cannot begin to make the case that ANY .45 - 50 caliber bullet weighing from 250 to 300 grains in weight is not capable of killing not only deer-- but elk, moose, and bear as well. They all have, and with all the anecdotal evidence floating around, even the world's crappiest choice for an elk such as a 245 grain Powerbelt can sound good. But is it?

To make a good bullet choice, we have to accept that the best 25 yard bullet (and load) is not the best 200 yard bullet and load. A bullet that is ideal for "boiler room" or "honey hole" shots is likely unsuitable for going through the chest, breaking bones as in a double shoulder shot, much less an "Elmer Keith raking shot" or a rump shot. It holds true for deer, and if anything is even more important as the game gets bigger.

If we want to take only quadruped grass eater lung shots, and can contain ourselves from more demanding raking shots and the like, then a fairly fragile bullet is an excellent choice. We want quick expansion, and a large wound channel going through lungs. Great penetration in not all that important; we are avoiding large bones and also need only sufficient penetration to destroy lungs from the shorter distance of the side of the animal. Pure lead is a good choice, as what it does best is expand well at low to moderate velocities. The "polymer tips" you see on lead are worthless, and exist only to make bullets look pretty-the same as an "Aerotip" on a Powerbelt. It is about as necessary to initiate expansion with soft lead you can scratch with your thumbnail as a Nosler Ballistic Tip would be on a marshmallow. Lead remains a good choice for lung shots, and the heavier the bullets the better as game weight goes up-perhaps a 375 grain Buffalo SSB, or a relatively thin jacketed hollow point pistol bullet like the Hornady XTP.

That same choice can and has resulted in unrecovered animals if we hit bone at high velocity, or attempt through-the-chest or raking shots. A bullet that acts explosively when it touches bone is not a good choice for these applications at all. If we want the ability to take double shoulder shots or raking shots on larger game confidently, penetration cannot be compromised-and that means tougher bullets.

Now, we should consider longer, heavier bullets that do tremendous damage even without the "pancakey" pure lead expansion, as Dr. Martin Fackler has documented. An expanding bullet is better than one that does not, of course, but we absolutely cannot compromise on penetration. Our bullet must reach the vitals we need to quickly destroy, regardless of shoulder bones, multiple ribs, or chest plates that are in the way. Saboted bullets remain supreme as ranges increase, due to the abysmal trajectories of bore-sized projectiles. For a given grain weight, no .50 caliber projectile compares well at all with a five calibers smaller .45, that offers flatter trajectory, more retained terminal velocity and energy, and better sectional density requisite for better penetration.

A 300 grain .458 Barnes Original will not have the quick expansion of thin-jacketed hollow-point, but it does fly more efficiently, and its thirty-two thousandths thick jacket gives us the penetration needed to do the job on more demanding shots-the reason Fred Barnes developed them in the first place. It remains a popular choice on African plains game for this reason, and is ideal for moose, elk, and bear assuming proper shot placement.

Barnes MZ-Expanders in 300 gr. configuration offer an excellent compromise as the universal muzzleloading projectile, with one caveat. They expand down to 1000 fps on broadside shots that fill its nose with fluid, and are tough enough to offer the potential of 100% weight retention when asked to break big bones. The lone chink in the armor of the MZ-Expander is that, while clearly ballistically superior to bore sized projectiles, is that with its gaping hollow point, it is not the absolutely best flying bullet in the barn. Inside 150 yards, I can't say it matters much (or at all), but it flies similarly to the more fragile Hornady #4500 300 gr. .458 hollow point-just average in inline muzzleloading land today. The large copper petals scraping their way through an animal should retain enough appeal for those to reconsider the realistic ranges at which they personally intend to take an animal.

For better flight characteristics, both the Barnes Original Semi-Spitzer and the new Barnes XPB 275 grain .451 all-copper bullet gets you there. The toughness of either bullet is not in question, but you need 1400 fps terminal velocity to initiate expansion. As they are both long bullets, great wound cavities are still produced without the explosive expansion of the more frail bullets as the FBI Quantico reports have shown.

Most of it remains a compromise, and there still is no substitute for good shot placement. As a very vague rule of thumb, larger and tougher game requires larger, tougher bullets. Higher velocity muzzleloading rounds likewise call for tougher bullets. It makes sense to me to use a bullet that is tougher than it might have to be, heavier than it might have to be, higher velocity than it might have to be, and while we are at it-- more accurate than it might have to be as the game gets bigger, and tougher.


© December, 2005 by Randy Wakeman



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