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Roundballs still best overall choice for flintlock hunting

  • Depending on the rate of twist of a muzzleloader rifle barrel, a patched roundball may be the better choice than a conical bullet for accuracy when hunting deer during the flintlock season.
    Depending on the rate of twist of a muzzleloader rifle barrel, a patched roundball may be the better choice than a conical bullet for accuracy when hunting deer during the flintlock season.
Published December 22. 2012 09:02AM

HAMBURG - By the time Pennsylvania's fascination with hunting and shooting muzzleloader rifles peaked during the mid-1970s, Dave Ehrig had already been shooting them for more than a decade. Today, he remains close to the sport, serving as director of the Longhunter Society, which is the big game records-keeping arm of the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association.

A nationally known outdoors writer and author of "Muzzleloader Hunting for Deer and Turkey," Ehrig presented a series of seminars on muzzleloader hunting last week at Cabela's in Hamburg. In particular, his seminars focused on the upcoming flintlock season, which opens Wednesday, Dec. 26, and of special interest was the topic of what is the best projectile for deer hunting.

"Most of the barrels in the flintlock rifles which are created for Pennsylvania's special flintlock muzzleloader deer season are designed to accurately shoot roundballs," Ehrig said. "These rifles have rifling rates of one turn in 48 inches and the even slower one in 66 inches.

"Confusion has been created in the minds of some hunters, however, because some modern flintlock barrels are designed to handle the conical lead, copper, jacketed and plastic-sabotted bullets with faster rates of one in 36. This change allows for a heavier conical bullet that carries more energy downrange than the roundball, but this increased energy comes at the cost of more recoil and reduced accuracy.

"Since accurate bullet placement anchors whitetails, not misplaced energy, hunters should be careful of the rifling rate of their barrel Velocity is important, as a deer can run at speeds approaching 40 mph, or 58.6-feet per second, so the time it takes for the bullet to reach a deer at 100 yards is critical, so the slower the bullet, the greater is the possibility that it will impact behind its moving target."

According to Ehrig, the slower the bullet, the less hydrostatic shock will be delivered and in a smaller wound channel. So, even though the cylindrical bullet has more retained energy, it may not be as accurate or kill as quickly as the roundball in a slow twist barrel.

"When a .50-caliber rifle is loaded with 90 grains of FFFg or 100 grains of FFg black powder a 180-grain roundball produces a muzzle velocity close to 1800-feet per second, with about 1300 foot-pounds of energy," Ehrig said. "This is a significant leap in energy over the .45 caliber, giving the open-woods hunter a distinct lethal-range advantage.

"In fact, the roundball lethality in a .50 carries all the way out to 80 yards, which is the perhaps the biggest reason it become the nation's favorite caliber and is usually recommend for all hunters new to the sport. That is not to say that sabotted bullets are ineffective in older rifles, such as side-hammer percussions and flintlocks.

"At distances less than 50 yards any kind of bullet will work, but it is at longer distances that gravity and air resistance begin to play tricks with accuracy, and the main consideration for shooting long slugs of lead or copper, regardless of whether they are sheathed in plastic or not, is rotation. Most flintlock and many side-hammer percussion rifles have barrel rifling with twist rates of one turn in 48 inches or slower, which is great bullet rotation for roundballs shot with velocities exceeding 1600-feet per second, not longer bullets."

Because most sabotted bullets weigh more than their counterpart roundballs of the same caliber, they will not achieve the higher velocities in these older guns unless the powder charges are increased dramatically. Attempting to compensate for this with heavier chargers is not a safe idea.

For consistent accuracy, it is necessary to experiment with different types of bullet weights, sabot types and nose configurations until finding the one that works well with a particular rifle. Soft, plastic sabots do laminate the lands of the barrel rifling and this will affect ease of loading, as well as accuracy, in future years.

To keep the plastic lamination to a minimum, cleaning with strong plastic solvents and a bronze bore brush is necessary. This lamination problem has given reason for the third group of muzzleloader slugs, the plastic gas check slugs designed for modern inline rifles.

"Gunsmiths found that the higher pressures generated by smokeless powders would sometimes blow gases by the soft lead of the slug's base," Ehrig said. "To guarantee consistent velocities, copper would be mated to the base of the lead bullet to more tightly seal the grooves of the rifling.

"Today, a plastic gas check is attached to the bullet's base to provide the advantage of sealing the blow-by of gases, ease of loading and accuracy of a lead bullet while reducing the amount of plastic laminate on the lands of the rifling. Bullets like the CVA PowerBelt, Copper Magnum Bullets, Harvester Saber Tooth and Black Belt Bullets have plastic gas checks at their base, but since they do not run a plastic bearing surface between the bullet and the bore, they are not considered sabots and are less prone to laminating.

"In most cases, these modern bullets are not needed to take a whitetail under hunting conditions in Pennsylvania. For that reason, stick with roundballs - which have been "Making Meat" here in the "Colonies" since the 1600s."

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