Many years ago, blackpowder was a muzzleloader shooter’s propellant of choice because there weren’t any other choices. I recall many hunts where everyone in deer camp shot side-hammer rifles charged with blackpowder. My personal favorite was 70 grains of FFG and a tightly patched, pure lead ball in either a T/C Hawkens percussion or flintlock rifle. Out to 50 or 70 yards, I could consistently hit a coffee-can lid. I must be truthful, however, and admit I aimed at some big bucks with these long guns, but never was able to sneak close enough for a shot. Thankfully, many of my hunting companions eventually “made meat.”
Perhaps the reason I never shot a buck with my side-hammers was the advent of the Knight in-line rifle and Hodgdon’s wonderful blackpowder alternative called Pyrodex. The Knight Model MK85 in-line muzzleloader enabled the use of scopes, simplified cleaning and immediately set the standard for muzzleloader accuracy. While Pyrodex still required a degree of effort during cleaning, it was safer to transport and store than blackpowder, and it shot great in just about every in-line I tested. Using Pyrodex and in-line muzzleloaders, my success on big game skyrocketed.
So what should you put in your muzzleloader today? To help answer that question, I first talked to several people who work on the manufacturing side of muzzleloading propellants.
Bill Bagwell, a hunting and shooting consultant for Goex (the only North American source of blackpowder), recently gave me a thorough run-down of Goex’s products. He loves to test both muzzleloader and blackpowder cartridge rifles. So who is shooting real blackpowder today? Civil war reenactors, blackpowder cartridge silhouette competitors and anyone who wants to enjoy the smell and shooting experience of true muzzleloading. Bagwell’s particularly impressed with the Goex Express line of blackpowder. Essentially manufactured to tighter production standards, this powder provides the most uniform accuracy and velocity of any propellant he’s tested. He also shoots a lot of Pinnacle replica powder, which cleans with almost no effort.
I also talked to Chris Hodgdon to learn more about his company’s role—past and present—in muzzleloading. The world had been waiting for Pyrodex because many people who were buying the new-fangled in-lines wanted easier cleaning. Then, Hodgdon engineers had the brilliant idea of pelletizing Pyrodex for the popular .50 caliber barrels. The concept of preformed pellets that simply drop down the bore was an overnight success. Chris mentioned that Hodgdon has refined its propellant line with various pellet sizes, and it has also added Triple Seven Magnums, which were developed to satisfy hunters’ demands for flatter shooting and harder hitting loads. Few products have matched as well as in-line muzzleloaders, saboted bullets and Hodgdon’s pelleted propellants.
Next, I contacted Wendell Davenport from American Pioneer Products, manufacturer of Jim Shockey Gold and the American Pioneer line of muzzleloader propellants. Davenport explained that these propellants work best with fouled bores; he says swabbing between shots is not advised. Seating pressure on the bullet must be as uniform as possible, particularly with the company’s stick propellants. He explained that the Jim Shockey Gold product is manufactured to slightly finer tolerances for top-end performance, and also mentioned that American Pioneer powder is water soluble, making it extremely easy to clean up after a shooting session.
Finally, I discussed propellants with was Doug Phair of Western Powders in Montana. Phair’s company introduced a new propellant at the 2008 SHOT Show called Blackhorn 209. I recently visited the Western Powder facility and watched some shooting tests being conducted with this new powder. It provided excellent velocity readings as tested in their ballistic lab. Accuracy testing in a new T/C Triumph I brought along was excellent, considering the guys were forced to shoot in a blizzard that hit while we were on the range. Cleaning tests produced very uniform results—five cleaning patches and put the rifle away. We also looked down the bore after 20 shots and there was significantly less residue than I’ve ever seen after that much shooting.
After learning about these products from the propellant manufacturers, I talked to some end users—industry friends who burn a lot of powder each year through muzzleloaders. I asked them what their favorite “go to” hunting load was for their pet .50 caliber in-line rifle.
Gregg Ritz from Thompson/ Center hunts with three Pyrodex pellets and a 250-grain ShockWave saboted bullet. He likes the speed and simplicity of dumping a speed-loader and knowing the charge is uniform and reliable. Ritz’s buddy Ken French, retired general manager of T/C, prefers the same load—there must be something to that because these guys harvest a lot of game annually.
Kevin Renwick from Traditions Performance Firearms is a whitetail hunter who does a lot of treestand hunting. Renwick’s favorite load is 100 grains of loose Triple Seven powder and a 250- to 275-grain saboted bullet. Renwick shoots a lot at the range and knows his rifle’s ballistics like the back of his hand. He mentioned that pellets provide a “comfort thing,” but he still prefers loose powder for top accuracy.
Chad Schearer of Blackpowder Products, Inc. represents CVA’s line of muzzleloading products, and many of his hunts end up in the pages of hunting magazines or on outdoor TV shows. Schearer prefers 100 grains of loose American Pioneer powder and a 300-grain CVA SlickLoad saboted bullet. He uses speed-loaders and prefers to shoot with a fouled bore; he uses spit-patches between shots when firing at the range.
Mike Mattly does a lot of hunting for Knight Rifles—all over the world in fact. His favorite .50 caliber load consists of 110-120 grains of loose Triple Seven powder and a 285-grain Barnes SBT saboted bullet. Knight Rifles now offers these bullets with blue EZ Load sabots to make them easier to push down the barrel. Mattly says the loose Triple Seven powder gives him good accuracy and ignition, even in bad weather conditions. How good? His guns will consistently shoot 11/2-inch groups at 100 yards.
The last hunter I talked to was the originator of the sport of in-line hunting, Tony Knight. His favorite .50 caliber load consists of three Triple Seven pellets and a 220- to 250-grain saboted bullet. Knight stresses the importance of a uniform loading procedure, including always pushing your initial cleaning patch down the bore in short strokes rather than one single swipe. He says the short swipes prevent a buildup of residue on the front of the ramrod, and this makes for easier removal of the rod at the end of the stroke.
Muzzleloader hunters have never had it so good when it comes to choices of reliable, easy-to-clean propellants. The only real problem is determining which one is best for your rifle. So how do you do that? Simple—through diligent testing at the range, let your rifle decide. Some muzzleloaders shoot great with pellets, while others need granular powder for acceptable accuracy. Some guns prefer stout powder charges, while others prefer more “easy on the shoulder” charges for best accuracy. Take your time and determine the magic combination for your rifle. It will take a bit of effort, but once you find the best load, the buck of your dreams might become your reward.