Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Sometimes...I Wish I Didn't Know Now What I Didn't Know Then...

When I look back at this old photo, taken during a hunt in the Cumberland Mountains of eastern Tennessee, two things amaze me. First, how slim and trim I was after a stint with the U.S. Marine Corps. (That's me standing.) The other thing that amazes me is how little I really knew about muzzleloading in those days (circa 1975).

Oh, I had hunted with a muzzleloader since 1964, and had taken at least a dozen whitetails, a few pronghorns, several dozen wild hogs, a couple of wild turkeys, several black bears, an American bison, a few mule deer, and a ton or so (literally) of small game, upland birds and waterfowl with guns of muzzle-loaded design. Heck, by the time this photo was taken, I had already put together my first book - Black Powder Gun Digest. I owned and shot close to two-dozen different muzzleloading rifles, shotguns and front-loaded handguns - and in addition to that book, I had also authored close to 50 magazine articles on mastering those guns.

Yep, as my best friend Earl Barr, also in the above photo, and I headed out on this muzzleloading hunt, I pretty much felt that I knew just about all there was to know about loading, shooting and hunting with a muzzleloader. And, while I never did brag out loud about my muzzleloading expertise - I can remember feeling I had learned just about all there was to know about the sport.

Man, was I ever wrong! Muzzleloading was a much simpler shooting sport in those days. The vast majority of guns were built for shooting the patched round ball...and if a rifle had a quality barrel, working up a hunting load pretty much meant slowly upping the powder charge until you reached a point where the rifle no longer shot with accuracy - then you took the charge the other way until it was grouping again. Most considered 100 yards as the maximum effective range of those rifles...so few hunters ever bothered scoping a muzzleloader.

That rifle I'm holding in the photo was the Thompson/Center Arms "Hawken" model, one of the first somewhat modern muzzle-loaded big game rifles. And for the 10 years following this hunt, I hunted with these half-stock rifles, or custom versions of them, more than with any other rifle model. And that was due to the T/C rifle's ability to shoot a heavier, harder-hitting conical bullet with reasonable accuracy. With a scope on one of these rifles, I found I could often group five shots inside of 4 inches at a hundred yards - and was tickled to do so.

In late 1985, I became acquainted with Tony Knight, and in February 1986 I began shooting and hunting with a Knight MK-85 in-line rifle - and my real muzzleloading education began. Muzzleloading as we know it today has evolved from that day forward...and since the mid 1980s, the only thing in this sport that has remained constant has been change.

As my old friend Earl and I pondered our afternoon hunt on the porch of that rustic old cabin, if someone would have walked up to me and predicted that 35 years down the road I would be shooting a scoped bolt-action Knight in-line rifle that utilized hot No. 209 primer ignition...and loaded with a modern black powder substitute and a plastic saboted polymer-tipped spire-point bullet, the rifle and load would be fully capable of consistently printing sub 1-inch 100 yard groups, I would have laughed. Then I would have gotten away from them as quickly as I could.

The load I shoot today (120 grains of Blackhorn 209) is fully capable of getting a saboted 300-grain bullet (Harvester Muzzleloading "Scorpion PT Gold") out of the muzzle of the two .50 caliber rifles (Knight "Long Range Hunter" & "Mountaineer") I shoot and hunt with most at 2,063 f.p.s., with right at 2,840 foot-pounds of energy. And thanks to the 3-9x scope (Leatherwood/Hi-Lux HPML model) on each, the rifles will indeed, with amazing regularity, group inside of an inch at 100 yards. And out at 200 yards, as often as not, I have found that I can keep groups at around 2 1/2 inches, and at that distance the bullet still hits with 1,500 f.p.e.

When I got into this game back in 1964, at age 15, my first rifle, a percussion .45 caliber Kentucky reproduction, and the load I first shot and hunted with was good for about 1,900 f.p.s. - but the light 128-grain ball was generating just 1,025 foot-pounds of energy - at the muzzle. And that load was actually dropping below the 800 f.p.e. considered to be minimum for deer at just 30 to 35 yards. Muzzleloader energies is something I did not really begin to comprehend until the early 1970s. The first whitetail I ever shot with the rifle, at 60 to 70 yards, went more than 200 yards before going down. The second buck I shot with the rifle, at about 45 yards, went more than a half-mile...and was nearly lost.

The .50 T/C "Hawken" in the above photo, stoked with 100-grains of FFFg black powder, would get a 370-grain soft lead "Maxi-Ball" bullet out of the 28-inch barrel at around 1,500 f.p.s., with 1,850 f.p.e. The bullet has a low b.c., and by the time it gets to 100 yards, it has slowed to just over 1,050 f.p.s., and hits with just over 900 f.p.e. At 150 yards, velocity drops to 920 f.p.s., with 690 f.p.e. The load drops below the needed 800 f.p.e. for deer sized game at about 115 to 120 yards.

My first .50 caliber sabot-shooting Knight MK-85, loaded with a 110-grain charge of Pyrodex "P", would launch a saboted 250-grain Hornady XTP JHP at 1,625 f.p.s., and generate close to 1,525 f.p.e. That bullet has a .147 b.c., and at 100 yards was still good for 1,250 f.p.s. and almost 870 f.p.e. At 150 yards, velocity is down to 1,075 f.p.s. and energy is down to around 640 f.p.e. The load drops below 800 f.p.e. at about 110 to 115 yards.

My muzzleloading education has spanned 46 years, and fortunately, I'm still learning. Over on the NORTH AMERICAN MUZZLELOADER HUNTING website, I maintain between 75 and 100 articles, reports, and pages of data that shares what I've learned along the way. Likewise, in addition to this blog, I also host the Knight Muzzleloader Hunting blog, the Harvester Muzzleloading Hunter blog, and the Blackhorn 209 Hunter blog - with lots of info there.

If you have travelled the same long road I've taken to get here, or have some great muzzleloader performance information that others can benefit from...please jump in on the comment sections of these blogs and share.

Toby Bridges