Round Balls Are Effective on Close Range Big Game Animals

Patched round balls, even in .45-caliber can shoot well and kill well.

Patched round balls, even in .45-caliber can shoot well and kill well.

Not much has been written recently about the effectiveness of round-ball loads on deer and larger game. I was reminded of this fact last month when I used an original .45-caliber muzzleloading rifle that was made by Alonzo Selden in the 1860s-70s to take a 180 pound, 140-class Georgia deer on family property. The bullet clipped the upper shoulder, blasted a 3/4-inch hole through the spine, went through the off-side shoulder and was found imbedded in the flesh on the other side of the shoulder blade. This shot was taken at about 70 yards and used a load of 85 grains of FFg black powder, a .45-caliber Wonder Lube wad and a .451 round ball with a Bore Butter lubricated canvas patch.

Selden rifle and Young Blunderbuss took this GA deer with round-ball loads.

Selden rifle and Young Blunderbuss took this GA deer with round-ball loads.

Hole from .54-caliber round ball.

Hole from .54-caliber round ball.

As is usually the case with spine-shot animals, the deer went down in its tracks. Because none of the buck’s vital organs were hit, it continued to paw the ground in an attempt to get up. I had Young Blunderbuss as a back up gun loaded with 80 grains of Hodgdon’s Triple Seven and an un-patched .535 round ball. I approached the deer within 30 yards and gave it another shot through the back which penetrated the ribs, passed through the heart and exited the animal. The buck quickly died after the finishing shot.

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The present deer was not the first deer that I had killed with .440, .451 or .457 round balls shot from muzzleloading rifles or pistols. Counting up quickly, about 10 come to mind that were taken with various .45s as do about half that number shot with .50-caliber round-ball loads. Nowadays it is much more common to recommend the .50-caliber as the optimum round-ball deer-killing gun if you must use them on some hunts in a few states, and sales of .50-caliber guns far outnumber sales of .45-caliber muzzleloaders. This trend is also true of rifles designed to shoot elongate bullets. I have also taken deer and other game with .54 and .75-caliber round ball and belted-ball rifles. Logically the .58-caliber would fall in between these two ball sizes, but I have never done much with .58-caliber guns.

Back in the 1950-60s, .45-caliber round-ball rifles commonly bored for patched .440 and .445 round balls were the most common replica rifles that were available. These were mostly in traditional style guns including the Pennsylvania and Kentucky rifles, in Thompson/Center Arms’ Hawken and Senica as well as the Mowrey, which used a brass frame. These rifles were used for deer and black bear and even tried, not very successfully, on African plains game on Turner Kirkland’s trip to Africa. Kirkland was the founder of Dixie Gun Works and he as well as Val Forgett, the founder of Navy Arms Co., came to the decision that although the .45s had performed reasonably well on deer, that most of the muzzleloading-shooting public might have better success with .50-caliber rifles. Kirkland had already “bumped up” the common bore of his muzzleloaders from the .40-caliber, for which many original Tennessee muzzleloading deer rifles where bored, and offered/offers .40, .45 and .50 caliber traditionally-styled rifles in Dixie’s line. Other makers like CVA and Traditions steadily reduced the numbers of .45-caliber rifles that they offered and this trend continues today. CVA has now completely stopped making traditional muzzleloaders, Thompson/Center has only two models and of these three companies only Traditions continues to carry a reasonably complete line of traditional designs. Muzzleloaders that are more exacting replicas of historic firearms are sold by Davide Pedersoli through Dixie Gun Works and other firms.

To make their guns more versatile, Thompson/Center Arms and many other companies offered their guns with medium-twist 1:45-inch barrels. This means that the bullet makes one complete rotation in 45-inches, compared to a slow-twist barrel of 1:66-inches and a fast-twist barrel of 1:22 inches. The fast twist is designed to stabilize long bullets that may weigh 400 or 500 grains in .45 or .50 caliber. This twist is also used in black-powder cartridge guns such as the .45-70. Generally unappreciated is that if you load down to about 50 grains of black powder, these fast twist barrels will also shoot patched round balls with good accuracy. The 1:45 twist barrels would accurately shoot patched round balls using deer-killing charges of powder and also allow the stabilization of the Thompson/Center elongate MaxiBalls which were cast of harder lead and weighed three to four times more than the same-diameter round balls. I have taken much North American and some African game with the .370 grain .50-caliber Thompson/Center Arms MaxiBall.

Pure lead is advantageous in a muzzleloading projectile because it is deforms easily if you push it above about 1,000 fps. If it does not impact bone it will expand into a disc that is 50-75 percent larger than the original ball size. If it does impact bone, as did my last shot on that deer, it will not only expand but also shed some secondary fragments while also sending bone fragments into nearby tissues. This expansion reduces penetration, but increases shocking power. Hard-cast lead balls will penetrate deeper and are recommended for really big animals such as bison, caribou, moose, big bear, huge hogs, etc.

The take-away from this post is that round-ball rifles, including the .440s and .45s, will kill deer very well and provide less recoil. The recoil factor may be significant for younger or older shooters. The key is to use sufficient powder to kick velocities up to about the 1,000 fps. level to provide maximum bullet effectiveness. I have found that 85 grains of FFg works very well in .45 caliber rifles. For small deer you can get away with 60 grains if the shooter is recoil sensitive, but 70 grains adds a bit of insurance in case the deer is a little bigger than expected or a bit more penetration is required.

Barrel length is particularly significant in increasing velocities when light-weight bullets are fired with black-powder charges. More efficient powder utilization occurs if the shooter uses either a Wonder Wad, heavier bullet, a sabot or kicks the entire thing off with a more powerful primer. Another alternative with shorter-barreled guns is to use a more efficient granular powder such as Pyrodex RS or Hodgdon’s Triple Seven. Pelletized powders do not do particularly well in no. 11 percussion-cap-fired side-lock guns. In these guns, granular powders are the better choice. Black powder leaves more gunk in the barrel, but is the real deal so far as muzzleloading rifles go. Pyrodex RS is a bit easier to clean up and TripleSeven is the easiest of the three and gives less in-barrel residue. All of these powders are corrosive and these guns must be cleaned with a water or water-alcohol based solvent to dissolve the corrosive residues.

Nowhere is the need for more barrel length demonstrated than with muzzleloading pistols. Last year I finished off a wounded deer at 50-yards with rounds fired from a 1858 Remington .45-caliber revolver with a 5 1/2-inch barrel loaded with a chamber full of FFFg black powder. This load killed the 90-pound doe by passing through the ribs, both lungs and lodged in the opposite shoulder. This bullet did not expand. It was scared from its passage through bone, but did not upset as did the nearly-same-size ball shot from the Selden rifle. However, with the 12-inch barreled stainless steel version of the gun sold as Cabela’s Buffalo Revolver using a more energetic charge of Hodgdon’s TripleSeven, the ball develops nearly 500 ft./lbs. of energy and has killed a 150-pound hog as well as two others with four shots along with another 90-pound doe. I recovered one bullet from this pistol and it had expanded to about .50-caliber on soft tissue.

Surprising to many, side-lock flintlocks can successfully use pelletized powders if sufficient FFFFg priming powder is teased through the touch hole of the gun to insure that the pellets are ignited. The concept of pellet-shooting flintlocks was commercially investigated by Thompson/Center Arms with their Firestorm and by Traditions with their PA Hunter. Both of these guns are offered in .50-caliber and shoot either round balls or elongate bullets. Of the two, I find that the Traditions PA Hunter is the more reliable. I have extensively shot both the original flintlock Thompson/Center Hawken rifle and the newer Firestorm (for a year) and these coil-spring locks do not work as well as the leaf-spring versions. RLP (replacement) leaf-spring locks are available from L&R Lock Company (also sold by Dixie Arms) for Thompson/Center and Lyman coil-spring flintlocks. These locks require a small amount of stock fitting because of the replacement lock’s larger internal parts, but the result is that you can get more positive ignition and more shots per flint.
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12 thoughts on “Round Balls Are Effective on Close Range Big Game Animals

  1. Maybe I don’t know, but I own a nice collection of Remington 1858 revolvers (mentioned at the end of this article). But none are FORTY-FIVE caliber. They are marked .44 cal. The difference seems small, but here in WA state FORTY-FIVE is the MINIMUM for hunting big game and some others. Consequently, I need to use either a muzzle loader pistol or a .45 rifle (which I just purchased) to legally hunt.
    Am I wrong on this or are these guns also defined as “forty-fives”?

    • Dear Don,

      You are correct in that these are defined as .44 caliber, however this situation is not straight-forward as cartridge conversion cylinders are available for Pietta revolvers that shoot the .45 L.C. cartridge and the balls actually loaded are .451s or 457s in the case of the Ruger revolver. In practical matters, the game does not know the difference, but your law-enforcement official might get bent out of shape about it.

    • The typical .50-cal. sabot for .45-caliber bullets are for .457 to .454 diameter bullets. The usual 230 gr. .45 ACP bullet is smaller at .452. It will load and shoot but if the barrel is tilted downward the bullet may well fall from the barrel. What I have done in such cases is to use a lubed paper patch around the smaller bullet to hold it firmly in the barrel. The FMJ .45 ACP is a miserable bullet for most uses unless you happen to have a bucket of free bullets. The only thing it does well is function well in the .45 Colt auto and Thompson.

  2. So…as we all know, a .44 cap & ball revolver is a .45 and a .45 round ball rifle or single shot pistol takes a patched ball less than .45 caliber. I have a Euroarms Rogers & Spencer revolver that has .454 stamped on the side. What’s the official word on what’s legal to hunt with?

    • Dear Calvin,

      It depends on what state you are in, and to a degree how state officials individually view their own laws. Generally .44 caliber muzzleloaders are legal for deer. That caliber in a muzzleloading revolver may or may not be, depending on the state. In some states the same round ball caliber in a single-shot might be legal, but not in a revolver as it is a prohibited multi-shot arm, or prohibited because it does not meet a required energy threshold. You have to check both state laws and additional restrictions may apply on a given hunt. There is not universally accurate answer to your question unfortunately. Perhaps by logic their should be, but there is not.

  3. Doing a little more research (Idaho Fish & Game website), I find it’s illegal to use any sort of muzzle loading pistol on big game in the state of Idaho. So, like you said Hovey, it deepends on state regulations!

  4. It depends on the designation on the rifle. A .54 caliber rifle uses a .53 or .53 and a half caliber round ball. Likewise, a .50 caliber rifle uses a .49 or .495 caliber ball. So when the law says X caliber minimum, it refers to the designation on the rifle itself. There is no inclusion of revolvers that are somewhat backwards, ie: a 44 revolver takes a .45+ diameter ball.

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