Tighten your groups and be ready when that late-season buck steps out at 200 yards
Late muzzleloader hunts are the last hurrah in a lot of whitetail country, and they can be a great opportunity to kill a good buck. Big deer powerhouses like Iowa and Ohio offer seasons into January. But you have to make the shot when it happens, and muzzleloaders don't always make that part of it easy.
I've been hunting with muzzleloaders since I was 9 years old (killed my first deer with a patched round ball, actually), for critters running the spectrum of whitetails and squirrels to antelope and elk. I've also tested and reviewed a lot of new muzzleloading products, and done some pretty crazy things in the name of purposely creating misfires and experimenting with accuracy. The good news is, getting most modern muzzleloaders to shoot well isn't difficult — but it helps to know these things.
1. Powders Aren't Equal
You don't have to be a handloader to know there are big differences in smokeless powders. Black powder substitutes are generally interchangeable, but individual rifles frequently shoot best with certain types of powders. For whitetail hunters shooting inside 100 yards with a scoped inline, pretty much any pair of 50-grain pelletized powders will work to push a 250-grain (+/-) muzzleloader bullet to about 1,700 fps with acceptable accuracy. Switch from one brand of powder to another (Triple 7 to Alliant Blue, for example), and you can expect velocity changes of 100 fps or even a little more.
In my experience — with dozens of different rifles — pushing a pelletized charge up to 150 grains frequently opens groups up, though you'll see velocity gains of around 400 fps.
If you really want to push performance, most guns shoot best with loose powder, and powders like Blackhorn 209 can give you a pretty good bump in velocity. Bottom line, the only way to see what your gun will do is to buy several powders and try them all on the range. If more power is your thing, use loose powder, start with a 100-grain charge, and work your way up in 10-grain increments until you find the perfect mix of accuracy and power for your gun.
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2. Primers Aren't Equal, Either
I once called a bull elk up to 30 yards and shot him broadside with my muzzleloader. I hit him square through the lungs, but when elk are standing and you're able to shoot again, you reload and do it. He was lumbering away slowly as I reloaded, and I fished a 209 primer out of my fanny pack. I closed the gun, cocked the hammer, leveled the open sights on his shoulder, and squeezed the trigger again. Snap.
The lump in my throat from that misfire could as well have been a hedge apple, dropped from the trees and swallowed whole. I broke open the gun, hoping a hang fire wouldn't blast the charge into the aspens before me, and fished a couple more primers out of my pack. Glancing at them, I noticed they were two different colors and two different brands: One was a true 209 shotgun primer, and the other was a primer that had been labeled as a muzzleloader primer. I loaded the shotgun primer, closed the gun again, and dropped the bull.
I'd been using Blackhorn 209 and the primers interchangeably, without realizing there was a difference. I only later learned that 209 muzzleloader primers aren't recommended for that powder because they're not as hot as true shotshell primers. I'd been using them on the range with no issues — but it almost cost me big-time in the woods.
3. And Neither Are Bullets
Not every muzzleloader bullet is a good one. Some are too soft for reliable penetration on even whitetail-sized game. With others, penetration isn't the issue, but they tend to punch clean holes without much expansion. Various sabot-bullet combos work, but not all sabots (or the bullets they're loaded with) are of equal size and weight.
Without naming brands, I've had the best results — both on the range and on game — with good, sized-to-bore .50-caliber copper bullets (as opposed to .45-caliber bullets with plastic sabots). Don't buy cheap bullets, and save your Christmas money to buy enough of them to find out what your gun likes best. This is the most important component of your setup.
4. Shoot 3 and Swab
If you're really trying to see what your gun will do at the range, you need to bring a cleaning kit with you. Muzzleloader gunk starts affecting accuracy after a few shots (and makes them difficult to load). When I'm on the range, I swab my barrel with a cleaning patch, followed by a dry patch, every three shots. I also remove the breech plug and scrub the chamber really good with a copper brush, since the fouling that accumulates there can keep bullets from seating properly — and nothing destroys a group like a loosely-seated bullet.
5. Know the Limits
Yes, it's a gun with a scope. But 200 yards is a long shot for a muzzleloader, particularly given that most hunters have never shot their guns past 100 yards. As mentioned above, most setups are clocking around 1,700 fps with the average 250-grain (or heavier) bullet. That heavy bullet carries the momentum needed to punch through a deer at a distance and do the job, but it might not expand much — and you certainly can't expect the hydrostatic shock and wound damage that you'd get from your .270. Many hunters rail on poor blood trails from muzzleloader hits, but they work just fine when the bullet hits the right spot. Centerfire rifles, though, they are not. Sail a bullet through the center of the rib cage, and you're probably in for a long night. Know your gun, and follow that front leg up to the sweet spot.
Do that, and your biggest problem will be making the deer jerky last to turkey season.
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