Choosing Bullets for Muzzleloaders

E-mail Double guns with bullets on kudu hide

Round balls in 12-gauge and .50-caliber were used in the double-barreled muzzleloading rifles on the L. and R., and a skirted PowerBelt was used in the middle gun.

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  Outside of putting the bullet in the right place, the next most important thing is that the bullet  is of appropriate size, weight and design to destroy sufficient tissue to quickly kill the animal.  Muzzleloading bullets come in four basic designs, round balls, elongated bullets, saboted projectiles and skirted bullets.

 Traditionalist can rightly claim that patched round balls of sufficient diameter can kill any of the world’s game. The trick is that they not only be large enough but also sufficiently hard for penetration on large species like bison, Cape buffalo, elephant and the like. I have hit, but failed to kill, with round balls that were too soft to penetrate deep enough in heavy animals because the bullets deformed into rounded discs.

  For deer and average-sized hogs, .50-caliber patched round balls do well with about 100 grains of FFg black powder equivalent. Moving up to elk and big boars a .54-caliber is appropriate. For big African species the 8 and 4 gauges are,  and always were, recommended  while 12-gauge balls could be used for things like zebra and wildebeest.

E-mail .54-caliber MaxiBall used to shoot a European boar.

.54-caliber fired and unfired T/C MaxiBall from boar

 Bullets with their longer length allow more bullet weight for the 1:45-1:22 twists barrels that are designed to use them, which includes all in-line and many side-lock rifles.  I have shot more Thompson/Center MaxiBalls in .50 and .54 calibers than any other type of elongate projectile. These bullets work best if they hit bone before they go through the lungs in order to insure expansion. I have lost game with high-lung shots that hit the animals, but did not yield good blood trails.

 Saboted bullets use a plastic cup between the bullet and the barrel. This cup has to have an appropriate composition to stand the heat and pressure generated by the powder charge in order to give good accuracy. Also, they require that the barrel be whipped every few shoots to keep the plastic residue from gumming up the barrel. One quick follow-up shot can be managed, but if you shoot more than three or four times, you need to clean the barrel to be able to force another bullet down the bore.

  I like the Barnes type solid copper bullets when used with sabots. These will expand even on small animals, and the solid copper bases continue to drive through the animals.   I have also had success with Thompson/Centers’ Shock Wave spire pointed .50-caliber, 250 grain sabots on deer-sized game using both 100 and 150-grain charges.

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Fired and recovered bullets from Cape buffalo and ostrich

  In most modern designed rifled muzzleloaders I use the PowerBelt bullets. I like the .50-caliber, 295 grain weight for deer and used 444 and 530 grain .50-caliber PowerBelts in Africa on ostrich and Cape buffalo.   Power belts bullets are made of copper plated pure lead, except for their now-discontinued steel tipped Safari bullets that I used on Cape buffalo.

  This bullet has the plastic skirt common to all PowerBelts, a pure lead midsection to engage the rifling and a steel point. The pure lead 444 grain bullet expanded to about 70 caliber and remained in the body of an ostrich. Although of heavy weight, this bullet would not have done the job on a buffalo.   

 No bullet will compensate for poor shot placement, but choosing an appropriate bullet for the gun and game will help insure success. For recommendations on inexpensive muzzleloading outfits see other articles in this blog and my book, Backyard deer hunting:Converting deer to dinner for pennies per pound.

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3 thoughts on “Choosing Bullets for Muzzleloaders

  1. Pingback: Index of First 150 Post, New Intern « Backyard deer hunting

    • I have been shooting a variety of blackpowder guns since the 1970s and do not often use cartridge firearms. Frequently every piece of big game I shoot is with a different gun and/or different bullet. While true that if you can get almost anything out of the gun at close range it will kill game, some bullets do work better in some situations and guns than others.

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