The 50 Caliber Black Powder Rifle or Muzzle loader
Hunting with a Black Powder rifle or Muzzle Loader seems to become more popular each year. It offers a wide spectrum of opportunities or benefits as well as unique challenges that are generally unfamiliar to hunters that use center fire rifles. These may include; access to areas of limited entry, extended season hunts, wildlife management cooperative hunting programs, or just the plain and simple challenge of only having one shot at an animal before it runs away.
The 50 caliber is most likely the most popular sized black powder rifle being used today. The projectiles typically measure .500″ in diameter. (However, the bore diameter in some rifles can measure from .495″ to .504″.) The large bullet diameter allows for a wide selection of bullet types, structures and weights. From round ball projectiles, large solids and expanding conical bullets, the bullet weights can range from 180 grains up to 450 grains. This variety in weight and shape enables the shooter to fine tune and load exactly what they want for any hunting application.
Figure 1 “Photo” The 50 Caliber
The muzzle velocity in most black powder rifles top out at about 2,000 ft/sec. Some boast of velocities as high as 2,200 ft/sec and that is great. But 1,600 to 2,000 ft/sec velocity is sufficient for this discussion. As well as advances in projectile design, improvements in propellants are extending the range and improving the accuracy of muzzle loading rifles. Some bullet manufacturers claim to have projectiles with Ballistic Coefficients well above 0.300. With all this data floating around, some hunters trust the numbers more than experience or time at the range. This may cause several problems for them.
A quick look at the ballistics of modern black powder loads should give hunters plenty of confidence in their lethality potential.
a.) A 200 grain bullet @ 2,000 ft/sec yields 1,775 ft-lbs Energy and 57 lbs-ft/sec momentum. That is as much power potential then a hot loaded 44 Rem Magnum.
b.) A 250 grain bullet @ 2,000 ft/sec yields 2,220 ft-lbs Energy and 71.5 lbs-ft/sec momentum. That level of energy is comparable to a 30-40 Krag and the Momentum is comparable to that delivered by a 8×57 Mauser.
c.) A 300 grain bullet @ 1,800 ft/sec yields 2,160 ft/lbs of energy and 77 lbs-ft/sec momentum. This load closely replicates a soft-factory loaded 45-70 government and is slightly less than that of a 458 Socom and a 500 Beowulf.
d.) A 350 grain bullet @ 1,650 ft/sec yields 2,115 ft/lbs of energy and 82.5 lbs-ft/sec momentum. This is similar to a medium loaded 500 S&W.
e.) A 400 grain bullet @ 1,600 ft/sec yields 2,275 ft/lbs of energy and 91.5 lbs-ft/sec momentum. This level of momentum is equal to that of a stiff loaded 338 Win mag firing a 225 grain bullet or that of a 9.3×62 firing a 250 grain bullet.
I have a family friend that hunts exclusively with a muzzle loader rifle. He is the type of hunter who looks at numbers and then shoots paper. He never considers or attempts to evaluate how his bullet will perform based on the velocity and game animal. On multiple occasions he has shot and hit a nice animal only to have them run away and jump off a cliff (literally). I constantly argue that it is more important to have the right bullet for the animal and the possible angles of impact from which he may fire then it is to have a load that produces wiz bang numbers sheets. His argument always ends with; “If I can put 3 shots in a 2 or 3 -inch circle at 100 yards, I am good…” When his wounded ram jumped off a cliff after being shot in the shoulder, I felt so terrible I could not say “I told you so!!” When his wounded elk ran over the mountain and into the next range I knew I had to save my breath which kept me from saying “I told you so”. Now when I visit him, both animals are on his wall, and he always tells me, “I told you so…”
I have another good friend and work associate that has hunted with black powder rifles for over twenty years. He has enjoyed much success (as well as some comical failures) with his various muzzle loaders. He is a firm believer in finding a bullet that works and sticking with it. If he can get a little more velocity, that is great, but he knows from experience (as well as from study) that using a quality bullet based on the animal you will be hunting is a major key to success. He constantly says, “Learn to use the tools you have, then you will be successful.” Great advice! And it comes from a guy that measures success by how much you enjoy your time in the field, not by the number of trophies taken or the size they measure… He will laugh and say, “Those count to…”
Figure 2 “Photo” Nebraska Buck 2011. Picture provided by USAF Retired SMSgt Bill Bialcak
Whenever you plan on getting back into the field for a hunt, start your planning by choosing a good bullet (projectile) based on your purpose and application. Find a way to get on paper using the velocities and energies available to you. Leading out with a good bullet and building accuracy, velocity and energy around that will greatly increase your chances of success and you will enjoy the process. Good Hunting.
Author of the Cartridge comparison guide
WILD Jaeger Cartridge of the month editor
Figure 3 “Photo” The Cartridge Comparison Guide, by Andrew Chamberlain