Extended Range Muzzeloading
By Jim Carr, Rokslide Member
This is Part II of Jim Carr's series on improving your muzzleloader's accuracy and range. Part I is here
I am always trying to maximize my potential in the field. After shooting my 50 caliber Knight Bighorn with the Williams peep, I found that the drop was so steep that doing holdovers past 200 yards were unpractical. I decided that I needed an adjustable peep similar to the one on my M1A in .308 Win, the civilian verson of the M14 7.62x51mm NATO. I'd shot with good accuracy to 500 yards with the M1A and guessed that I could do at least half that range with a muzzleloader. The only peep I found that didn't cost over $300 was the William's adjustable with target knobs.
The Williams adjustable with target knobs was easy to adjust in the field.
I went to the range and set out targets out to 250 yards in 50 yard increments. I then marked zero on the sight at each 50 yards interval. When I reached 250 yards, I found that I had still had sight elevation adjustment left and was able to mark 300 and even 350 yards before I ran out of room. I had a blast shooting at this distance using paper plates targets and got to where I could hit them every time. Just for fun, I was even able to shoot 400 yards using holdover from the 350 yard zero. As muzzleloaders lose energy faster than rifles, you need to stay within yardages where your bullet will still have enough energy to humanely kill your chosen species.
Because every muzzleloader is different, you may have to consult with Williams to select your set up. Once you have your adjustable peep, you will need to develop an accurate load with a good bullet with high ballistic coefficient (BC). Here are a few that I have used with good luck:
• Hornady Great Plains 385 Grain
• Powerbelt 348 grain
• Precision rifles Ultimate Spitzer 400 grain
I have done all my hunting with the Power Belts just because they are readily available where I am and they've worked well. Although if I can get a good supply, I will switch over to the Ultimate Spitzer as it has a much better BC and surpasses the Power Belt at longer ranges. Keep in mind these choices are for Idaho where rules require a full-bore conical. Check the regulations for the states you intend to hunt. If you can use sabots, you might be able to improve your ballistics even more.
In developing a load, choose accuracy over speed. I found accuracy best if all the powder is burned before the bullet exists. The way I can tell if I have too much powder is when I run a cleaning patch in after the shot there will be an edge of powder buildup that the patch catches on (crud ring). When I back it back down to the right amount, I can shoot several shots with no noticeable build up. This crud ring will affect velocity and you will notice vertical impact changes at longer ranges.
When shooting over 200 yards with a muzzleloader, you will need to know the range accurately. Being off just 25 yards can drop you out of the vitals. Also wind and target angle will play magnified roles. A good rangefinder and a proper knowledge of your ballistics is an absolute must. Only by shooting a few hundred rounds can you confidently start increasing your range in the field. Personally, I made cards for each zero range which included drops, angle, and wind compensations.
Hunting at Extended Range
I'm not trying to get into an ethical discussion or condone hunting at extended ranges. I will testify that with the proper practice, sights, and knowledge, a muzzleloader can be deadly on paper out to 350 yards, although I have never considered taking shots on game at those ranges. I have always closed the distance as much as possible to get the shot, and so should everyone hunting with a muzleloader. My best buck and bull, both of which I had a golden opportunity to shoot at over 200 yards, I ended up killing at 130 and 50 yards respectively. That said there were two occasions where animals were killed at 200+ yards. I killed a buck at 207 yards when it was the only shot I was going to get. I hit the buck right behind the shoulder, there was a big thwack, he dropped and I never saw him move again. The 348 grain Power belt was on the off side against the hide and expanded quite well.
The second time a long shot was needed was on my brother's bull. We had only one day to hunt and found a big herd of elk but we were pinned down by cows and spent a couple hours of trying to get closer to a bull. We ended up getting busted and soon the elk were getting ready to bail. I ranged the closest bull at 241 yards on a steep downhill. I accounted for the angle, adjusted the sight for 220 and told my brother to hold right behind the shoulder. He shot and the bull went down immediately. The shot hit perfectly but I never had a chance to find the bullet as a blizzard blew in and we had to hurry. Altough these two shots were the only ones I've taken game over 200 yards, it was due to extensive practice and the confidence in my setup.
Terminal Bullet Performance
The backstop where I typically practice is a semi-soft flat-faced clay hill with no rocks which allows me to recover bullets and compare bullet impact results with rifle bullets I've shot. This gives me a good picture of how bullet performance changes at different ranges when muzzleloaders are launching the projectile. The results with bullets such as Berger and Barnes fall right into line with effective impact velocities. With the Power Belts (which have soft lead,) I actually have seen better performance at longer ranges. At traditional ranges of 50-100 yards, the bullet did not hold together well and actually penetrated less than at 300 yards where it kept most of its weight and expanded quite nicely. Again not trying to justify hunting at extended range, but my muzzleloader carries as much energy at 300 yards as my 44 Mag does at point blank range (with which I have cleanly killed a bull elk) .
In conclusion I believe that the adjustable peep sight is the key to being able to extend your range. It is comparable to using a good scope for long range shooting. Being able to shoot at longer ranges may not drastically extend your hunting range, but it will give you confidence, make those shorter shots easier, and you will have a blast in the process knowing that you are maximizing your muzzleloader's potential.
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