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The once and future king: the .50 caliber reigns supreme in the deer woods.

It was nearing the end of a very long, very cold December day. I was sitting on the side of a steep hill, discouraged and shivering in my wool coat and wishing it would get dark so I could go home. Off to my right a flicker of movement caught my eye, and as I turned to look, three deer came out of the spruces and into the logged-over area I was watching.

They were not exactly running, but they were clearly on a mission. I put the front sight bead on the shoulder of the biggest one and, remembering to keep the gun moving with the deer, I caressed the set trigger. The still, cold air failed to disperse the smoke until well after all the deer had run down the hill and into the safety of the spruce trees, but I knew finding their tracks in the snow would not be a problem.

It was a blood trail a blind man could follow, and at the end of it was my first deer with a muzzleloader. That was a long time ago, when we all hunted with sidelocks. In-lines were just a rumor and sabot was a French word that most hunters had never heard.

We used blackpowder and pure lead bullets, and we thought we knew it all. My gun of choice was a Thompson/Center Renegade in .54 caliber, loaded with a big, heavy Maxi-Ball bullet that would probably exit a mastodon. But that first deer and others that followed proved the wisdom of that choice. I always got an exit hole, I always had a blood trail and there was always a dead deer at the other end.

The "smallbore" guys, the wimps who couldn't handle the recoil, shot .50 caliber rifles, while .45 caliber guns were not even on the serious deer hunter's radar. Depending on their bullet choice, the guys shooting .50 calibers didn't always get an exit hole, which made it tough to find deer they hit.

Muzzleloader hunting has come a long way since then. In-lines are the norm, and sidelocks are rarely seen in the woods. Blackpowder has largely given way to substitutes, and most of the bullets we use now are complex, technical designs housed in a plastic sabot. A consequence of this is that the .50 caliber has emerged as the No. 1 bore diameter of choice for deer hunters.

When I started hunting with a muzzleloader, the .54 was chosen by shooters with some technical knowledge. We liked its bigger diameter, but that's because in the presabot days we didn't have bullets that gave reliable terminal performance. So we used bore diameter to compensate. Today's hunter has a large selection of high performance bullets that will expand and penetrate at muzzleloader velocities. These advances in bullet technology changed the face of muzzleloading and the concept of appropriate bore size.

Frankly, even in the days when the .54 was the choice of a lot of die-hard blackpowder hunters, the .50 caliber was actually more popular, so that caliber became the focus of all the technology and advancements in projectiles and propellants.

Certainly, propellant pellets have had nearly as large an impact on muzzleloader hunting as bullet and sabot advances. Some of that technology has spilled over into other bore sizes, but nothing even comes close to matching the .50 caliber in available options.

So where does that leave the other calibers? The signs are not good for the .54. Knight and Thompson/ Center no longer catalog a .54 caliber rifle. Traditions still offers the .54 in its Hawken Woodsman and Deer Hunter models.

Knight introduced the .52 caliber a few years ago. It was created primarily to take advantage of .470 diameter bullets, and its strength is in the Barnes/Knight bullet that it uses. I've hunted with it quite a bit, but the .52 has its flaws, and if I were buying a new gun just for deer hunting I would still opt for the .50 caliber (although I would look at the .52 for bear, elk and moose).

A few years back, the .45 caliber muzzleloader was the hottest ticket in town, but I never jumped on that bandwagon. I did hunt with the caliber and shot a few deer, and the .45's performance has improved as new bullets hit the market. But in my opinion the .45 caliber was still an attempt to turn a muzzleloader into something it was never meant to be; declining sales have proven me right.

Which brings us back to the .50 caliber muzzleloaders. There is no doubt that this bore sire has won the war. It outsells all the others combined, by a comfortable margin; it is where all the technology is directed; and it's where all the innovation is first seen emerging.

The .50 caliber has earned that leadership through performance. With today's outstanding bullets and propellants, it outperforms our old big bores in every respect.
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Title Annotation:Muzzleloading
Author:Towsley, Bryce
Publication:Petersen's Hunting
Date:Sep 15, 2005
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