By Key Rippetoe
Loads must deliver 1-inch groups or less at 100 yards before they can be counted on at 200. Two inches off at 100 yards is 8 inches off at 200. That’s a miss.
It is an association that has been cast in stone for decades: muzzleloaders equal short range.
The fact that history records 500-, 800- and 1,000-yard muzzleloader matches as far back as the 1700s in England, France, Germany and the colonial United States seems to escape everyone, as we continue to believe that frontstuffers were never meant to go the distance.
Much of that came from the replica Hawken rifles that dominated the U.S. muzzleloading scene from the 1940s through the mid-80s. That all changed when an obscure Iowa railroad worker gave us the first commercially successful inline rifle in 1985.
With the inline craze came fast-twist barrels, telescopic sights and long saboted bullets. Such advancements made placing a bullet within a pie-plate-sized circle at 200 yards not just doable, but expected. It’s as easy as using a centerfire rifle. Before an inline user attempts a long shot at game, he needs to prepare for it and understand what’s going on in his rifle.
With a steady platform and an accurate load, hitting at long range is no problem for inline shooters who practice for it.
Don’t even think about taking a 200-yard shot if your rifle isn’t capable of placing three shots within 2 inches at 100 yards. One inch is much preferred. The reason is geometry, and it holds true for muzzleloaders as much as it does with centerfires. If the shot is 2 inches off the mark at 100 yards, it won’t be 4 inches off at 200, as some believe. It’s a non-linear progression. Two inches off at 100 is 8 inches off at 200. That’s a miss - or worse yet - a cripple.
You must spend the time to work up an accurate 100-yard load for your rifle before you start lobbing away at 200. Fortunately, muzzleloaders are pretty predictable. Most fast-twist .50-caliber barrels found in today’s muzzleloaders shoot best with a load of about 100 to 120 grains behind a well-designed saboted bullet in the 275- to 325-grain range. In spite of the hype, I have yet to find a 150-grain load that shoots with adequate long-range precision in any rifle.
Also critical for long-range accuracy is bullet choice. Here again, most any bullet will do if your shots are 100 yards or less, but to stretch ‘em out, you need quality. Choices are few, but fortunately, widely available: Buffalo’s SSB in 275, 325 or 375 grains, Power Belts in 290 to 300, Winchester Platinum Tip in 300 grains, or the latest entry, Hornady’s 300-grain SST in either the Hornady version or the Thompson/Center Shock Wave offering (same bullet, different packaging). All of these bullets have demonstrated the ability to shoot 1 inch or less at 100 yards from a bench in quality scoped rifles. In New Mexico, more elk, mule deer and antelope are dropped at long range with the 325 SSB over 120 grains of Pyrodex Triple Seven than any other load. The combination works.
As goes the trigger, so goes the group. You can’t shoot tight groups with hard, clunky triggers. Triggers must break clean at no more than 3 1/2 pounds to be dependable long-range performers, and here, your local gunsmith can be your best friend. A large part of the reason the T/C Encores have a reputation as tack drivers goes back to the superb trigger. If yours isn’t right, have it fixed or forget about shooting at long range.
The Three-Shot Group
Many of the groups you see advertised touting the virtues of various rifles are fired under near-lab conditions. Notably, every shot in the group is fired from a squeaky-clean barrel. They look impressive, but they don’t represent what happens in the real world. Squeaky-clean barrels do odd things, most rifles shoot best with a slightly fouled bore. One reduced-load fouler shot is the usual prep.
What your rifle does with the next two or three shots WITHOUT CLEANING is most indicative of what you can expect in the field. Fire the fouler, then two or three shots to determine the group, then clean and start again. Don’t quit experimenting until you have a load that will turn in a tight group under these conditions.
Anyone who hunts in open country fully understands why this is a must. If you take the long shot, and either drop the animal or miss clean, then all is well. But if you hit a tad off center, you must know precisely where that second shot will go, and you sure don’t have time to clean your bore. When you need a second shot with a muzzleloader, it’s because things got cheeky and at that point, precision is critical.
Pyrodex is the No. 1 propellant choice for hunters for that reason. It burns much cleaner, leaves less residue and allows you to fire that three-shot string without excessive crud buildup to affect accuracy and make reloading difficult. Beyond three shots, it gets tough, but for the first three, the fouler has little effect.
After you work the kinks out at 100 yards, the next step is a no-brainer. You must practice at 200. Hunters who don’t are just asking for trouble, and those who do develop a confidence that makes a big difference when that long shot presents itself. They know they can because they’ve done it. Yes, the long shots are doable, but not until you and your rifle are ready.
Reprinted from the September 2005 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine