Going long: how to squeeze every iota of accuracy from your muzzleloader to make that long-range shot.
IT'S ONLY NATURAL to sit around a camp fire and talk about just how far your rifle will sling lead. Shooters of every stripe answer the irresistible pull to extend their range as far as equipment and skill will allow, and muzzleloader hunters are no different. A few decades ago, iron sights and big bullets would have been limited to 80 or 100 yards in the best of conditions, patched round balls even less. Now a truckload of new rifles, bullets, propellants and optics have greatly extended the average Joe's range. But how far is too far?
No discussion of long-range shooting can go further without saying simply, if you do not practice and do your homework, do not bother. The end result will surely be missed shots or, worse, wounded game. There are absolutely no shortcuts, since the variables are, well, so variable. Just because your favorite "IV hero whacks critters at unheard--of ranges and your scope has fancy circles does not mean you can make long shots at will.
The process of developing a long-range load starts with the bullet since, most any rifle can be made to shoot accurately. I prefer sabot-clad, polymer-tipped bullets because they offer better ballistic coefficients, higher velocities and flatter trajectories. The exception, the first of many, might be rifles with oversized, out-of-spec bores. Full-diameter bullets like the Power Belt or Hornday FPB that obturate to engage the rifling will shoot more consistently than sabots in this case. Measuring bore diameters with a caliper or Hornday go/no-go gauge set can save some angst.
And speaking of powder, forego the ease of pellets for loose/granular powder's powers of customization and consistency. Here's where you'll maximize your rifle's accuracy potential. When going long, most shooters simply stuff 150 grains of whatever down the barrel, thinking speed is the key. Rarely have maximum charges produced maximum accuracy for me. Maximum loads are generally inefficient, seldom producing an equitable velocity increase for the increased blast and recoil. A more scientific measure with a chronograph has proven loose propellants produce lower standard deviations in side-by-side comparisons with pellets, and in any accuracy endeavor, consistency is the key. Picking a powder is a subject to be covered in a future column since there are so many new, good propellants now available.
I start with 100 grains of loose propellant, shoot five three-shot groups and come up with an average group size, increase my load by 10 grains and repeat the process until I find the rifle's sweet spot. Hardcore shooters might even try five-grain increments. It is a huge pain in the butt, but 10 or 15 grains can cut group sizes by half. Some ballistic voodoo determines whether this load or that sitting under a particular bullet provides the right amount of burn for the best pressure curve. The killer is that this magical charge weight varies, greatly at times, from rifle to rifle. If there were a shortcut, someone would have found it already.
After coming up with a good load I might swap out primers and shoot a few groups to see if there is any improvement. Primers are generally the last variable with which I experiment. Trying new powder/propellant/primer combinations is a great way to eat up the endless space between the last and first days of hunting season. If two loads are close at 100 yards, move the target board to 150 or 200 yards and reshoot. Results are generally crystal clear at extended ranges. It helps to keep notes on individual rifles and results. I chart the actual trajectory, not the one on the bullet box, by shooting groups starting at 50 yards out to my maximum effective range. Should you mount an optic with a fancy reticle, double-check aiming points against your real-world groups.
Some shooters even weigh charges on a grain scale (as opposed to volumetric measuring)--I once went to the trouble myself, but subsequent conversations with competition shooters convinced me the practice was unnecessary. The way you load a rifle is very important to consistency. The bullet must be seated in the same spot every time, so mark both your range and hunting ram rods. On the bench and in the field whenever possible, I run two patches between loads. A spit and then dry patch will help your barrel maintain a consistent degree of fouling, also critical to accuracy.
If a proven load suddenly goes sour, start checking components. Make sure your propellant was not exposed to moisture and that your primers are not corroded. One interesting problem I encountered twice last year was a dramatic change in sabot performance from lot to lot. It appears the manufacturing process can be highly variable at times. Collecting spent sabots and observing the degree of crush, petal shedding and engraving can tell you if they are performing consistently.
Assigned minimum energy levels for hunting are a bit misleading. A bullet can theoretically carry 10 tons of downrange energy, but if there is no expansion or yaw, so what? It is more important to know if a bullet is designed to perform at your maximum range. Power Belts, for example, will deform at very low impact velocities, while other more solidly constructed bullets could turn into solids. It helps that muzzleloader bullets are larger in diameter, but some expansion is critical.
Just how accurate can muzzleloaders get? It's not uncommon for a tuned rifle to deliver cloverleaf patterns at 100 yards. I would consider anything less than 1 1/2 inches above average. Personally, maximum effective range is determined by the ability to keep shots inside a five-inch circle shooting from rested field positions. There are animals with bigger vital areas, but that leaves me plenty of room for error. I have a couple of rifles that will accomplish that out to 250 yards, and that's about as far as I would shoot at a game animal. At that range conditions and my rest would have to be perfect, no matter how large the horns or antlers.
We've never had it better in terms of quality rifles with amazing barrels, bullets, propellants, rangefinders and scopes with reticles designed for muzzleloader hunting. These tools certainty enhance your abilities. However, it's irresponsible, immoral even, to pick up a rifle and start shooting game at distances never encountered on the practice range.
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|Date:||Sep 1, 2009|
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