Muzzleloading Sniper: A Visit with Master Sergeant William C. Ball

Michelle & Bill Ball, shortly after Michelle bagged her first deer.

Multiple year North Carolina State Sniper Champion in rifle and pistol, husband, father, expert gunsmith, rifle designer, expert stock maker, muzzleloading aficionado Bill Ball is off to serve his nation with pride in Iraq in a few weeks. Over the years, Bill has worked hard and long to attain a level of both firearms knowledge and shooting skills that few ever have. He is also the son of Henry Ball, and the person I believe Henry is most proud of, rightfully so. Join me as I try to learn more of Bill Ball's vast personal experiences and accomplishments.

RW: Bill, thank you for taking the time to consent to this interview, I know that you have a lot of things on your mind at once these days. For starters, when did you build your first gun, and when did you realize that you had a passion for firearms?

WCB: I did my first custom job at the age of 14. It was a Ruger M77, in .250-3000 Savage. It was a reblue and restock job. The buffing and bluing was pretty much standard. The stock was a Fajen, AA fancy Aristocrat style. I still have it, and one of these days plan on reshaping and refinishing that stock.

I cannot remember not having a passion for firearms. I grew up, literally, in a gun shop. I can remember sitting in the shop watching Henry and other gunsmiths do their thing, when I was 7 or 8 years old. I just watched, listened, and absorbed as much as I possibly could. It's hard to learn anything when you are busy yapping.

RW: Bill, for the record, just how many shooting championships have you won? Which event was the most memorable, or gave you the most satisfaction?

WCB: You're lucky, as I am in the process of packing up and emptying my office of all my personal belongings and other things, for deployment to Iraq. In my office I have 13 first place trophies, medallions, and plaques, 3 second place trophies and plaques, and 8 third place trophies and plaques. These are for national, regional, and state, military Combat Rifle, Combat Pistol, and Sniper matches. I have several more at home, that are from civilian High Power matches, benchrest matches, and combat service rifle matches.

The most memorable and most satisfying, would have to be the 9th place finish at the 1999 National Sniper matches at Camp Robinson, AR. What makes this particular match so memorable, was not the shooting aspect of the much, which my partner SSG Kevin Griffin and I did very well, but the physically demanding stalks, long night land navigation courses, and high level of the skill of the competitors. There were teams from 3 different branches of the US Armed Forces and international teams as well. In 2001 we did better, with a 6th place finish. But it is the 1999, match that sticks out in my mind the most. Sniper matches are totally something different. In most other matches, you must shoot well, very well, to be competitive. In Sniper matches, not only do you have to shoot very well, but you must do so dog-tired, hungry, so thirsty you can't even spit, shaking from the cold chills (even in 90 degree weather) because you are on the verge of heat exhaustion and possibly heat stroke, because you ran out of water 2 hours ago, and stopped sweating one hour ago. You have to shoot well, even after a grueling 3 hour, 1000 meter stalk, that leaves your elbows, knees, and even your nose, skinned up and bloody.

There is one civilian sniper match that sticks out, because they would not let me shoot the 20"x 36" pop up targets that the other competitors were shooting, instead I had to shoot 6"x 9" steel plates all the way out to 600yds. They said I had to shoot those targets because the rifle I was shooting was not a .308 Win, but a .257 B&B Mag (which pushes a 100gr Nosler Ballistic Tip 4,020 FPS) and would not knock over the pop up silhouette targets. Everyone else was shooting .22-250's and .308 Win's. But that was alright, because I just blew 1" holes through their steel plates out to 300yds and out to 600yds I shot the plates off the welded on chains. I wrecked havoc on their range, tore up the targets, took their trophy, and left laughing.

RW: As the co-inventor of smokeless muzzleloading, when was it that you first got involved? There had to be plenty of time to actually get work done while your Dad was busy eating ice cream with maraschino cherries! What was the first smokeless muzzleloader you experimented with?

WCB: I was involved immediately. After the bolster drum screw blew out of the old sidelock and lodged in Henry's arm, we started almost immediately contemplating the design of a stronger and safer muzzleloader design. At first we didn't think about shooting smokeless powder in our design. But as the idea and design progressed, the realization came that this design would be more than strong enough to handle smokeless powder charges. We looked at the root cause of the problem, the corrosive powder that began to eat and disintegrate the steel from the first shot. I concluded that no matter how
advanced, how strong, or how safe the design was, eventually it would deteriorate into a rusted heap of junk, just by the corrosive nature of the propellant. Only the utmost meticulous care would slow down the rapid deterioration, but not stop it completely. To design and build a muzzleloader that would last a lifetime, it had to shoot smokeless powder, period.

There were many conversations, some productive and some heated, as to the actual designs that were to be incorporated. To keep it somewhat on the smallish side, I persuaded Henry to use the Mauser Mini-Mark X actions, for the first couple of smokeless. The barrel was a no-brainer; it had to be 4140 CM minimum. We started with the .50 cal, because of the availability of adequate components for the time 1990-1991. One the of the biggest design problems and caused the most heated arguments, was the breech plug design and 209 primer carrier. We knew that we wanted to use the 209 primer exclusively. What we had to do was come up with a carrier for the 209 primer. I must have used up most of a legal pad, sketching various designs for what would become know as the "percussion module". The angle on the nose of the module, matched closely the angle of the shoulder in the module chamber. If the module was .002" longer in headspace, then even though the bolt maybe hard to close, it created a tight gas seal, to prevent any blowback.

Those Mini-Mark X guns were the first smokeless muzzleloaders I had any experience with. Once they were built, we had to come up with and devise some type of loading data, since there was none for smokeless powder muzzleloading. We decided that since we were going to use saboted pistol bullets, that we would use .20ga slug shotgun load data (had to start somewhere). This is why in the early days, we used magnum shotgun and handgun powders, like 2400, 4756, 571, and 540. Let me be honest, the first shot behind the butt of that Mini-Mk X with smokeless powder, the pucker factor was a little high. Once we got down to load development and testing, we were very pleased to find that performance, velocity wise was greater than we had expected. Recoil was very mild and accuracy was acceptable. We were getting 1,900 FPS maybe a tad more, with 300gr XTPs and 1.5" accuracy. We knew we were onto something.

I then started brain storming again, and decided to build one from a #2 Remington Rolling Block action. To this day that is still my favorite smokeless muzzleloader. About this time as well we realized that the sabot was the weak link in the performance of our smokeless muzzleloaders. So we started thinking of ways to eliminate the weak link. We concluded that a .458 bore and slightly tweaked .452 300gr XTPs, just might work. So we added a .45 cal barrel to the Mini-Mk X's and built my rolling block in .45 cal as well. This also worked out better than we could have hoped for. Performance and accuracy was virtually the same. However, we could shoot rapid strings, even in hot weather, with little if any adverse effect on accuracy. More smokeless muzzleloaders were built, on Sako actions, Remington 700 and 788 actions, Ruger 77 and #1 actions, Martini-Enfields, and even Winchester 94 actions.

RW: What constantly surprises me is that even though the Ball-patented Savage 10ML muzzleloader has been commercially available for some six years now, some people do not understand how easy it is-or haven't heard of it. What would you like hunters and game departments to realize about the benefits of smokeless muzzleloading?

WCB: I would like for hunters and game departments, regardless of whether they have heard of the Savage 10ML-II or not, regardless of whether they have any experience with the Savage 10ML-II or not, to understand that it is clean, simple, and safe. There are too many that think that it is overly complicated and dangerous. In fact, I have found that most people who think they are having problems with their 10ML-II are having self-inflicted problems. They tend to think that smokeless muzzleloading is very complicated and achieve paralysis by over-analysis. Some run into problems because they try to over-achieve performance out of their 10ML-II. They are trying get super hypervelocity
out of their 10ML-II, often at the expense of accuracy. Regardless of whether you shoot a 250gr, a 300gr, or something in-between, if you keep the velocity in the 2,100-2,300 FPS range you'll get decent accuracy. The game departments are beginning to realize, that since the introduction of Triple Seven powder, that there are many conventional in-muzzleloaders, like Knight, T/C, and couple others out there, that can achieve this same level of performance. Therefore, there is no credibility to the argument that smokeless powder gives one an unfair advantage in performance. The way I see it, the best thing to happen to pro-smokeless muzzleloading crowd, is the introduction of Triple Seven powder.

RW: When you train others, or observe others shoot-what are the most common errors you see being made that can be easily corrected?

WCB: From what I have observed, the main thing is that they just don't shoot enough to become proficient and intimately knowledgeable with the weapon and its performance capabilities. They shoot a few shots just before the season opens to zero and to knock some of the rust off, then off to the fields they go. Even then they shoot off the bench, with some sort of rest. They never think to shoot in field positions, like sitting, kneeling, prone, or even off hand. Many either don't know or pay attention to the fundamentals, of cheek weld, sight picture, breathing, and trigger control. Flinching or anticipation of the shot is another common problem I see quite a bit. I am a firm believer in that it matters not the quantity of rounds one sends down range, it is the quality of the rounds sent downrange. Only perfect practice of the basic fundamentals will produce great marksmanship.

RW: When it comes to selecting a bullet for deer-family game animals, what attributes are most important to you?

WCB: When look at selecting a bullet for deer size game; I look for a combination of good expansion and penetration. I want to expend as much kinetic energy as possible in the game, with enough penetration to ensure the bullet get to the all the vital organs. If I get complete pass through, that's just a bonus. As long as it gets to the off side, that is good enough for me.

RW: When it comes to shot placement on big game, what is your preferred spot?

WCB: I use the high shoulder shot exclusively. Very seldom do I have any game run when hit with a high shoulder shot. About 90% of the time they are dropped in their tracks. No need for blood trailing, because they are laying in their blood trail.

RW (smiling): When did you first realize that you were a better shot than your Dad?

WCB: I would not say I am a better shot than my dad, I just have better eyes. As of a couple years ago I have 20/10 vision. I also have more competition shooting experience, under lots of pressure and such. Also my reflexes are quicker. Give Henry enough time to get settled in for a shot, he is quite deadly.

RW: When a new hunter first gets his new Savage 10ML-II, what tips can you share that will help him get comfortable and up to speed in no time?

WCB: The best advice I can give a new 10ML-II owner is, don't over-complicate it. Stick with what is a proven performer, like 5744 powder, MMP sabots, Federal or Win. 209 primers and XTP or SST bullets. Don't start to think that just because you are shooting smokeless powder, that you are going to shoot 2,600 FPS. The 10ML-II performs best in the 2,100-2,200 FPS range. In warm weather, allow the barrel to cool between shots. The sabot is the weak link, granted they are better and tougher than they were a few years ago, but rammed down a hot barrel they will become soft and pliable, and will shred or blow. Also use a good strong set of base mounts and rings. While the recoil is not excessive, it is quick. Scopes will sometimes slide in the rings. Use a quality scope. The sharpness of the recoil can be as hard on scopes as brutal recoil is.

RW: Bill, would it be fair to say is all you need is Accurate Arms 5744, a Lee 3.1 or 3.4cc smokeless powder dipper, a Winchester 209 primer, an MMP short black .45 / 50 sabot, and a .452 Hornady 250 or 300 grain XTP, and for the vast majority of all Savage 10ML-II's out there, you are just good to go? I've dropped my last four big game animals with the same load, except subbing in Barnes 300 gr. MZ-Expanders-- and, I couldn't be more pleased.

WCB: That would be a fair statement. 5744 has been my favorite for some time
now. Of course, I have tried many other powders, but it seems that I always
come back to 5744. There are powders that give higher velocities, that deliver as good accuracy, and that are almost as easy to ignite, but there are none that is as forgiving, as easy to find the right charge, and easy to get to shoot well right from the start than 5744. One doesn't need high tech electronic scale, balance scales, or anything like that. Savage includes all you need with 10ML-II in the accessory packet, the 3.4cc powder dipper. Oh yeah, you can get a little tighter groups with actual weighed charges versus the dipped, but you'll only tell that difference off the bench, not in the field. Dipped charges with the 3.4cc dipper will vary a couple or so tenths of a grain, but so what. Run them through a
chronograph and you'll only get about 30 FPS deviations or less, from shot to shot, versus weighed charges which will give about 10 FPS deviation. Most centerfire hand loaders would love to have that minimal deviation. The 3.4cc dipper drops about 44.7 grains of 5744 plus or minus a tenth or two. The 3.1cc dipper drops about 42.5 grains plus or minus a tenth or two. However with 5744, one really won't see any significant difference in group size even with half-grain variations in charges.

The best load data I could give to a brand new 10ML-II owner, is 5744 powder
with the 3.4cc dipper, the MMP short finger "MMP sabot," the 250gr or 300gr XTP bullet, and Federal or Win. 209 primers. If the 3.4cc dipper of 5744 doesn't deliver acceptable accuracy drop down to the 3.1cc dipper and give it a go. Between the two you should find a real decent, accurate hunting load.

RW: Smokeless muzzleloading has its detractors, primarily companies that stand to lose a lot of market share when their guns are directly compared to the 10ML-II. A few individuals seem bewildered by smokeless powder, in common use for over 100 years, when they are using "Triple 7" and other D.O.T. propellants classified as 'smokeless powders,' even though they are recently developed, have little in common with organic blackpowder, and in the case of pellets-are not powder at all! What gives?

WCB: I hear it all the time, "If I want to shoot smokeless out of a rifle, I'll pick up my centerfire .300 Win Mag." These people are just ignorant of the capabilities, advantages, and limitations of using smokeless powder in the 10ML-II. Like I said the introduction of Triple Seven is the best thing that could have happened to smokeless muzzleloading. The performance advantage that smokeless powder muzzleloaders like the 10ML-II once had has been erased. Any high quality muzzleloader like Knight, T/C, and a couple others, which can safely handle 120-150 grains of Triple Seven, can achieve 2,100+ FPS. So now, that leaves the very few remaining naysayers with just no basis to claim that the 10ML-II has an unfair advantage. Those who are knowledgeable and have experience with the 10ML-II naturally know what the 10ML-II has to offer.

RW: That includes Del Ramsey of MMP, Accurate Arms Power Company, Barnes Bullets, and host of other industry experts who shoot the 10ML-II, not the least of which is Savage CEO Ron Coburn. What should people understand about the strength and safety of the Savage 10ML-II?

WCB: People should understand that the 10ML-II is ABSOLUTELY the strongest safest muzzleloader produced today. Keep the loads within the Savage recommendations and this muzzleloader will give you and likely your children a lifetime of hunting and shooting enjoyment. Don't get caught up in the super extreme hyper-velocity babble and such. For goodness sake, stay away from the duplexing and triplexing-- the very dangerous "mixing of powder" craziness that a few are out there peddling. No one in their right mind could and should be using or recommending such loads. The top ballisticians in the world, the top barrel manufacturers, and all the powder and bullet manufacturers, strictly advise everyone not to do this. Yet, there are a few individuals to whom these warnings fall upon deaf ears. We can only hope that they come to their senses before they hurt themselves or someone else.

RW: Bill, to be fair, there are no more than a half dozen people I've ever heard of that are that sea slug stupid. Take the suggested respective manufacturers of the loads cited above. Hornady Bullets does not condone it, nor does Barnes Bullets. Accurate Arms Powder Company forbids it; so does MMP sabots and Winchester-Olin. Savage Arms clearly warns against it, so does your father, and now you are doing so yet again. Nothing is idiot proof-there will always be a few people that have difficulty handling hot coffee, and these same airheads will shoot four or five or six Triple Seven 50 gr. equiv. pellets in a Thompson or a Knight. Reloading manuals and manufacturer's recommendations exist to keep people safe; and innocent bystanders safe as well. The imbecility quotient is not 10ML-II specific, they are always a few morbid mentalists that think they are excluded from basic chemistry and physics. What do you see for the future of modern muzzleloading?

WCB: I see a very bright future for muzzleloading in general, smokeless muzzleloading in particular. The naysayers are growing fewer in numbers every day. I truly believe that the 10ML-II has proven not only itself to be an extremely safe and strong muzzleloader, but it has proved to the world that the smokeless powder concept is viable and has a place in the world of muzzleloaders. One true thing is that today's new muzzleloader hunter and shooter could care less about is nostalgia. They don't want to run around in the woods dressed in buckskins, toting their great-great-granddad's' flintlock. Today's new muzzleloader hunter and shooter want the most performance, the most user friendly, and the maintenance free muzzleloader they can get. The 10ML-II fills their wants and needs completely. Today we are seeing a tremendous growth in smokeless powder muzzleloading. SMI has been around for years and still going strong, Savage is on track for a record year with the 10ML-II, New Ultra Light Arms has introduced a smokeless muzzleloader, and the new kid on the block "Swing-Lock" muzzleloader is up and going. Without a doubt, the future of the muzzleloading sport is smokeless muzzleloading.

RW: It wasn't all that long ago that all inlines were considered radical, and that Thompson would void a warranty if you used a sabot. Pellets were dismissed as the end of muzzleloading. The better game departments have embraced the idea of the Savage 10ML-II with smokeless powder; I am surrounded by them-Wisconsin, Missouri, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio, and my home State of Illinois. The increased visibility due to the lack of smoke filling the air makes for faster, more ethical game recovery-and diminished visibility is a valid safety concern. I use a scope whenever possible, because I want to see what I'm shooting at-and behind what I'm shooting at, on both sides of what I'm shooting at. Naturally, before I pull the trigger, but also after. One shot, one kill is of course the goal-but, that is not always the case in the field, as we have all seen. If there ever is to be a coupe de' grace or follow-up shot, it just makes good sense to do this in a high-visibility scenario. The Savage 10ML-II affords today's hunter that opportunity. Bill, do you agree?

WCB: I agree. I truly like being able to see the game's reaction to the shot. The vast majority of the time with a high shoulder shot, I may not see the actual impact of the shot, but I do recover quickly enough to see the reaction half a second after impact, which is the game hitting the ground. Even in those few instances where the game may not hit the ground, I can still see the reaction and effect of the shot. If the game leaves or attempts to leave the spot of the shot, I can see where and which direction it is headed. This aids recovery of game that leaves ones line of sight dramatically. Back when I was shooting Pyrodex, this was not the case in many instances. Luckily I am very good on a blood trail, and haven't lost many to the "wood gods" in my 30+ years of big game hunting.

Then when you get into a safety aspect of being able to use a scope, by being able to see what you are actually shooting at, what is around what you are shooting at, and what is beyond what you are shooting at, it just makes good sense. If using BP, Pyrodex, or T7, a quick follow-up shot is difficult, even if using a scope.

RW: Bill, before you ship out for your tour of duty overseas, are there any other parting comments you'd like to express?

WCB: The only thing I can think of is for my fellow Savage 10ML-II and
smokeless powder muzzleloader shooters. Please keep it safe, simple, and
clean. And count me in on the 2007 Crossville Pig Hunt!!!!!

RW: Bill, thanks for all your efforts. You are in! Meanwhile, we wish you Godspeed.



© 2005 by Randy Wakeman

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