The Best Deer Hunting Muzzleloading
(Photo courtesy Ian McMurchy of Regina, Saskatchewan.
The yellow designates the high shoulder / spine area, the pink the
lungs, and the red the heart.)
The search for the "best" deer hunting
muzzleloading bullet continues, and as evidenced by the many bullet
debates that twaddle on with a cacophony of shrill discord-- consensus
will likely never be reached. We all too often fall into the same
trap; that of giving far too much credence to our own personal experiences.
No single man's lifetime experiences are enough to bear close scrutiny,
though the efforts should be applauded. Famous poacher John Taylor
concocted his "Knock-Out" values based on his observations
of non-expanding bullets on charging African game-with laughable
results when applied to North American game. Feisty Elmer Keith
('Heck, Was He Really All There') has given great contributions
to the art of pistol hunting, the significance of which is beyond
dispute. However, Mr. Keith's personal disdain for Jack O'Connor
clouded his judgment when evaluating the .270 Winchester and .30-30
cartridges-- finding them woefully inadequate to harvest deer with.
By personally characterizing the .270 as a gopher gun, the other
more significant contributions of Mr. Keith have become tainted.
In the same way, the overzealous claims of bullet manufacturers
and gun manufacturers have left the muzzleloading world with a peculiar
mix of myth, misinformation, and hyperbole.
While the North American deer populations dwindled
to under 400,000 head in the early 1920's, today North America can
brag as being the home of some 36,000,000 animals. Millions are
harvested annually; the biology of deer family animals has not changed
in the time anyone reading this has been alive. Few muzzleloaders
have in-depth knowledge of anatomy as does Dr. Gary B. "Doc"
White, or have the time or inclination to define terminal wounding
from a scientific viewpoint as has Dr. Martin L. Fackler. However,
there are some trends that can be easily spotted in game-getting,
so obvious that I am compelled to comment on them myself.
There are three fundamental considerations in
muzzleloading projectile bullet selection: accuracy, terminal performance,
and trajectory. No one bullet stands alone in all categories, for
if that was the case that is what we would all be shooting. In muzzleloading
bullet and load development, while I'm not a believer in the "Beware
the Man with One Gun," I do believe that "Beware the Man
with One Bullet" is more germane to muzzleloading. One bullet
is all we can use in most cases. One bullet is what most inline
rifles show a preference for, and one load gives us a lot more time
to become familiar with trajectory of that load. Most muzzleloaders
today shoot only seven times a year-- that isn't range sessions;
that is shots per year. Observations like that should surprise few,
as muzzleloading is a deer hunting driven sport--and scant few deer
hunters pound shotgun slugs into paper relentlessly, or undertake
the same discipline with their 300 WinMags, for example. For those
interested enough to read these introductory comments, I will attempt
to at least touch on the three stated basic areas.
I define accuracy as the ability to accurately place
a bullet in field conditions. This necessarily means that trajectory
is included, as resistance to drop and windage are forms of accuracy.
That co-mingles the "accuracy" criteria a bit. While it
is true that deer don't care how fast you miss them, muzzle velocity
and ballistic coefficient are the only primary values in trajectory.
With deflagrating (fast-burning) propellants a huge velocity penalty
is paid by using heavier bullets; this is partially compensated
for by the better ballistic coefficients of longer, heavier bullet
of the same configuration leading to a compromise situation from
the start. This means saboted bullets are clearly the best trajectory
choice; there can be no serious dispute about that. Saboted projectiles
are smaller than bore-sized, and the resultant smaller caliber automatically
gives those better ballistic coefficients and sectional density.
I'm not suggesting that bore-sized projectiles are not effective
game-getters when used within their limits-- but, they are severely ballistically challenged when compared to saboted projectiles of
Accuracy is something that listening to your gun
can tell you and you alone. Inline muzzleloaders are generally 1:24
to 1:28 rate of twist barrels. Forty-five caliber projectiles in
.50 caliber projectiles have been the gold standard in inline muzzleloading
projectiles for years, now. While .429 (.44 cal.) and smaller projectiles can be accurate, and I've found many of them to be accurate--
the higher performance powder charges limit them. The reason is
fairly straightforward; the polyethylene sabot functions as a gasket,
and as in most any gasketing application you can find-- the thinner
gasket, the better. Del Ramsey's current blends of MMP sabots have
improved to the point where now .40 caliber projectiles (and .429
caliber) can be used where just a few years ago they could not be;
however the material limitation of being able to be loaded from
the muzzle is a very real barrier to the very strong, stiff elastomeric
compounds as used in "Accelerator" cartridge rounds, or
saboted shotshell slugs. Moreover, the surface area of the base
of the bullet subjects the sabot to less thrust per square inch.
It is for this reason that rounded corner, flat base bullets can
take hotter charges while maintaining accuracy. Concave or "dished"
base bullets do not generally fare well-- and boat tail bullets
also inflict more punishment on a smaller sabot thrust area.
The most accurate (by weight) projectiles are swaged
lead, the Barnes Expander, then jacketed pistol bullets, in that
order. Sorting pistol bullets by weight can close the gap to the
point where group size variances by weight are not discernable out
to 200 yards. Cannelures are a known ballistic crippler, so smooth
projectiles are better assuming all else is equal. To add to the
mess, all else is rarely equal.
There are always exceptions that prove the rule,
but a recognizable trend of proven saboted bullets is actually rather
small: the Barnes MZ-Expanders, the Hornady XTP series, and lead
saboted bullets. Winchester Platinum Tips and Winchester Partition
Gold bullets deserve special mention because they are so well designed
and tested, the limitation at present being that only one grain
weight (260 gr.) is available from Olin Corporation for today's
muzzleloading enthusiast. They have not been the most accurate in
any rifle I've ever tested though, but have qualified for all the
field accuracy you can use in some of them. What is hyped and what
sells is not always the best choice, and the overlooked Winchester
Platinum Tip bullets display that quite clearly, as well as a bit
This is an area that the vitriol can really start
to flow. We ask a lot of our bullets, and we seem to want the same
type of subjective terminal performance at all ranges regardless
of whether we are breaking an animal down (smashing though shoulders)
or going for the more generous "honey hole" area. For
starters, it should be self evident that a relatively large hole
in the vital organs of deer sized game does not allow it to live
very long. With good shot placement, even hard cast or other non-expanding
bullets get the job done as a .45 caliber hole through the vitals
produces huge wounds. At the same time, while necessary to reach
the goodies in well-armored African game, expanding bullets do produce
more devastating permanent wound cavities in deer-family game with
little question. This results in a universally accepted quicker,
cleaner harvest, fewer steps taken by game, and easier recovery
of that game. The laser beam effect remains, though a .45 caliber
laser is admittedly a big one. As Dr. Fackler has proven, the yaw
that always happens when a bullet enters the body cavity crushes
and destroys a tremendous amount of tissue. The longer the bullet,
the more crushing can be expected. 300 grain bullets provide that,
and are superior to their 250 grain counterparts assuming they hold
Ian McMurchy's bullet collection, partially displayed
in his beautifully produced, "Modern Muzzleloading for Today's
Whitetails" [Krause Publications, ISBN: 0-87341-951-0, ©
2000 by Ian McMurchy] gives beautiful examples of recovered bullets.
As noted by Mr. McMurchy, the explosive effects and resultant hydrodynamic
shock produced by high velocity center fire rounds that can instantly
overwhelm the central nervous system of a deer are not as predominant
in muzzleloading applications. Unfortunately, the ad-copy brags
about muzzle velocity and energy are misguiding; that is of course,
you seek to shoot your animal from the muzzle. Velocity and energy
on target is what counts, muzzle ballistics are just a starting
point, and a poor one at that. If you really care to know
what you are popping a game animal with, you need to sail a bullet
over a chronograph at that range. The rest is speculative, though
certainly an accurate ballistic coefficient and accuracy muzzle
velocity make it an educated guess.
The questions posed again and again are this: do
"button head," or mushrooming bullets take deer more humanely,
more quickly than limited (advertised as 'controlled') expansion
bullets? Does a bullet that stays in an animal kill more quickly
than one that exits? The answer based on ballistic laboratory data
is, "NOT EXACTLY." The quick expanders expend energy before
vital organs are contacted, that means very little. Necessarily,
the more frontal area expansion is prevalent, the less penetration
is possible. Also, the velocity retained when passing through the
animal drops as well-resulting in less collateral damage. A necessarily
vague answer is that some expansion is better than none, but inadequate
penetration due to premature expansion can be problematic based
on shot placement and banging big bones as well. Compromise is indicated,
and we sure have a lot of room to move in that regard.
Based on the evidence seen first hand, the current
literature, and continuing trends-- I believe that if a proven expanding
bullet is employed (Hornady XTP) a 300 gr. arena bullet will clearly
harvest where lighter bullets cannot due to the better sectional
density. Indicated for large Russian boars and elk, it remains optional
but recommended on lighter deer versus the 250 arena. With the Barnes
Expander line, the 245 gr. Spitfire (if accurate in your gun) by
virtue of fabulous weight retention and limited expansion is a preferred
choice. With pure lead sabots, I bow to the wizardry of Doc White,
and find the 285, 325, and 375 gr. offerings by Mark Lynch (Hunterman
Boolets) and Ron Dahlitz (Buffalo Bullets) give both excellent expansion,
and have enough sectional density to drive the bullet on though
where the lightweights stop.
TRAJECTORY / BALLISTIC COEFFICIENT
Already touched upon, trajectory is a form of accuracy,
though some have not viewed it in that way. BC is the last stop
on the bullet trail in frontloader city, as no relatively heavy,
large caliber projectile can fly that flat. As my friend Chuck Hill
has noted in his rather extensive chronograph work, anything over
a G1 value of .20 is a bonus.
Many ballistic coefficients are insidious, smarmy
lies perpetrated only to sell bullets, just as the chronographs
have clearly proven the Precision Rifle Dead Center bullets to be.
A real pity, but so few muzzleloader check their own BC's., or use
chronographs, it is easy to get away with false advertising. Sierra
leads the way in accurate ballistic coefficients, one of the few
companies that do not use static BC's. Olin-Winchester does their
homework, using their own in-house Doppler radar range. Hornady
get somewhere close, but their methodology remains unknown. Barnes
BC's are as spot-on as 200 yard average BC's can be, and Buffalo
Bullets has actually paid to have some of their BC's independently
recorded. Belief in a bad BC can cause you to take a shot you otherwise
would not, and would have you think that you are taking your animal
with more energy on target than you really are. A conservative BC
can cause no harm, by contrast.
Ballistic coefficient can give you a lot of things
for free. Free trajectory, free retained energy on animal, free
expansion or penetration, and by free- - I mean all with the same
initial muzzle velocity, recoil, and powder charge.
Lead bullets shorten and belly out upon firing (obturate).
This gives a large, clear muzzle velocity loss vs. jacketed or Barnes
copper bullets with the same propellant charge, same weight bullet.
Thin jacketed bullets may do the same, but to a much lesser degree.
Barnes bullets give the very best muzzle velocities, as they do
not obturate measurably at all.
Pure lead bullets are relatively easy to load, and
their easy obturation (while costing velocity) makes them forgiving
to the variances found in today's muzzleloading rifle barrels. They
are also fragile; and need extraordinary care in handling to remain
looking like bullets. Finally, they have a finite velocity ceiling
of 2100 fps or so. Beyond that, they distort in flight.
Jacketed pistol bullets are economical; the bulk
purchase of loose Hornady XTPs (for example) allows you to obtain
current formulation sabots direct from MMP. They remain looking
like bullets with little care.
Barnes Bullets come with MMP sabots as a matter
of course (so do Buffalo SSBs), so no sabot shopping is normally
required. Sabot to barrel fit is critical with Barnes bullets, that
slight interference fit is all the difference in the world between
a 1" group and an 8" spray. The 245 Spitfires work well
in most Thompson's, the 250 or 300 Expander MZ examples seem better
fitting in most Knights, Savages, etc.
With relatively light charges and when the ranges
are short, your options increase tremendously. For example, the
vast number of .429 pistol bullets and lightweight bullets have
been shown to effective inside 100 yards with moderate charges,
the ranges where most deer are taken. Bore-sized conicals, despite
their limitations, also have done well inside 100 yards. The 348
gr. swaged lead copper plated Powerbelt is one of the best of the
conical breed by having no cannelures, lubrication issues, or velocity
limitations like the 1300 - 1350 fps ceiling of lubed lead conicals.
Despite ballistically very poor, heavy conicals also do well inside
100 yards. You don't need 460 grains to take a deer, but the sheer
mass of the bullet covers its other defects (casting variations,
hidden voids to name a couple) well. While workable, I believe we
can do better, particularly when longer ranges are a possibility.
Substantial documented data shows that we have. It should be apparent
that the preferences expressed here are based on high-powered loads,
suitable for long range, less than ideal shots, and are bullets
equally at home on moose, elk, and boar as they are on deer only.
Beware the Man with One Bullet. The better bullets tested are listed
For those who appreciate flat shooting, accurate
bullets that can handle raking shots and really rough rides, the
Barnes Spitfire 245 and the Barnes Spitfire 285 are preferred choices,
if you gun "likes" them. Thompson rifles show that they
do, it is a good possibility on current Knight Rifle production,
but can be hit or miss on many other brands. They can well tolerate
high velocities. For the Savage 10ML-II, the .45 / 50 300 gr. Barnes
MZ Expander continues to impress.
The medium-weight saboted match-grade lead bullets
as custom made by Mark Lynch of HunterMan Boolets in Michigan are
beautifully handcrafted; Mark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mark can make his saboted .451 pure lead and his specialty alloy
2S ogive spitzer boat tail projectiles resplendent with MMP sabots
in any weight you designate, and I can personally attest to the
quality of the product, and Mark's fine customer service. The .451
260 gr. and 280 gr. Hunterman Spire Specials are particularly forgiving
in a wide variety of rifles. Mark's specialty alloy versions increase
MV and remove the inherent velocity limitations of pure lead.
Buffalo Bullet's updated swaged lead 285, 325,
and 375 SSBs .451 / 50 are popularly priced, and well worth a try.
They automatically come with MMP sabots as well. An interview with
Ron Dahlitz appears elsewhere on this site: Ron can be reached at
In the mass-produced pistol bullet line, the
Hornady .452 250 gr. XTP is a proven winner, combined with the MMP
short black sabots. The .452 300 gr. Hornady XTP exceeds the 250's
terminal effectiveness in the majority of scenarios, and is a clear
choice for those wanting pass-through performance or for tougher
game in addition to deer only.
Personal preferences are just that. My personal
"Numero Uno" at present is the Barnes .451 / 50 300 gr.
MZ Expander, for cited reasons. Its G1 BC value of .207 is realistic,
and as the most proven Barnes muzzleloading bullet, it opens up
down to 1000 fps. In terms of overall performance, it has yet to
be equaled in my view. The Barnes Original 300 grain .45-70 bullets,
(.458 diameter) married to MMP orange sabots have given astonishing
accuracy, and are the flattest shooters I've used to date. It is
Barnes Originals that will go on future hunts when longer ranges
are anticipated. Coverage of the Barnes muzzleloading bullets appears
elsewhere on this site. All these bullets have the capabilities
to comport to your personal paradigm of high performance in-line
game-getting satisfaction. As always, let your gun tell you what
it likes to be fed. It knows far better than anything else what
combination suits it the very best.