Sunday, February 27, 2011

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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Do Multi-Reticle Muzzleloader Hunting Scopes Really Work?

The set up for the evening hunt was a deer hunter's dream. The series of crop fields stretched out for nearly a mile, and were almost a half-mile in width. One end of the huge open area was surrounded by extremely thick cedar and oak growth, with a few narrow grassy strips offering brush free pathways for the deer to follow out to the various alfalfa, green winter wheat and corn stubble fields that offered a variety of feed for both whitetails and mule deer.

Late the evening before, while watching over a wide strip of winter wheat, I had enjoyed a constant parade of deer coming into the field area. Most seemed to enter at the very end of the field, to feed on the last growth of alfalfa that had been left in the hundred or so acre band that crossed from one side to the other. Had I been sitting along the fence line there, at one time nearly a hundred deer were concentrated within easy range of the scoped .50 caliber Knight in-line muzzleloader I carried for the hunt - including at least four bucks which would score between 150 and 160 B&C points.

And that's exactly where I sat up for the second evening of my mid December muzzleloader hunt in northern Nebraska.

I had put off the hunt for several weeks, due to warm 50 to 60 degree temperatures. But that was about to change. A strong cold front was pushing in from Canada, and before nightfall, temperatures were supposed to drop into the teens. So, I settled down early, comfortably nestled in one of the heavily insulated camouflage body suits - with a stiff, chilled 15 m.p.h. wind blowing in my face.

As I had hoped, deer began showing up early. The first into the field were three young 8-point bucks, then about 30 does filtered in, most passing within 40 yards of where I sat back against the trunk of a large cedar. A dandy tall-horned 140-class 8-pointer stood for the longest time at the corner of the fence, before jumping the top strand of barbed wire to join the others chomping away on the alfalfa. I eased up my laser rangefinder and took a reading...162 yards. It would be an easy shot for the rifle, hot charge of Blackhorn 209 and saboted 300-grain Harvester Muzzleloading polymer-tipped spire-point. But, this wasn't the buck I was looking to take. At least three of the bucks I had glassed feeding in the same area the evening before had been heavy-horned 10-pointers.

A light snow had started to blow in the wind. And deer really began pouring in to feed. Using my binoculars, I glassed as far as the snow would allow, and counted nearly 200 deer scattered here and there - most within 200 to 250 yards of where I waited. Two good bucks jumped the fence to my left and slowly walked out into the field - both were shooters. The deer walked to where the hay field bordered the adjacent winter wheat field, and began feeding. I ranged the larger of the two at 204 yards.

I slowly eased into a kneeling position, and rested the .50 caliber bolt-action Knight muzzleloader on one of the adjustable Bog Pod rests. The muzzleloader had been sighted to print the 300-grain Scorpion PT Gold 1 1/2 inches high at a hundred yards. And from 100 to 200 yards, that bullet with a 2,000 f.p.s. muzzle velocity will drop about 11 inches. However, instead of holding high with the crosshair of the scope, I simply relied on one of three lower crossbar reticles, steadying that reticle exactly where the sleek modern saboted spire-point bullet needed to go. And when I eased back on the trigger, that 200-pound plus whitetail went down on the spot. Examination of the hit revealed that the bullet had caught the buck only about two inches above where I had held along the back edge of the shoulder. The copper-plated projectile pretty much centered both lungs, and broke the opposite shoulder - with around 1,500 foot-pounds of retained energy at that distance.

The Leatherwood/Hi-Lux Optics HPML muzzleloader scope used for this hunt is one of several multi-reticle muzzleloader hunting scopes now being offered. Nikon, Leupold, Bushnell and a few others also now have similar scope models in their line ups. And to answer the question raised in the title of this article, yes they really do work. And when the shooter closely duplicates the load used to determine the location of the additional lower longer-range reticles, these modern muzzleloader scopes work exceptionally well.

I have helped several other shooters install and sight in the multi-reticle muzzleloader scopes from several of the companies just mentioned. However, the one model that I have had extensive experience with is the scope offered by Leatherwood/Hi-Lux Optics. In fact, that company contracted me to do all of the shooting for them to determine the location of the lower long-range reticles. And over the course of six months, I easily put 1,000+ rounds down range.

All of this shooting was done with a variety of modern primer ignition in-line .50 caliber rifles, shooting a fairly wide range of equally modern saboted spire-point and spitzer style bullets of 240- to 300-grains. Most of these have a ballistic coefficient of between .210 t0 .225, a few as high as .250 to .260. Shot at velocities ranging from 1,950 to 2,050 f.p.s., I've found that with the primary crosshair sighted "dead on" at 100 yards, shots at 200...225...and 250 yards, using the proper lower crossbar reticle for shots at those distances, will put the bullet within "+" or "-" 2 inches of point of aim. And that is a lot more precise than most of us can estimate hold over at those ranges.

One saboted bullet I've shot more than any other the past three years has been the 260-grain Scorpion PT Gold, from Harvester Muzzleloading. Propelled by either 110-grains of Blackhorn 209 or FFFg Triple Seven (or three of the compressed 50-grain Triple Seven Pellets), this .225 b.c. bullet exits the muzzle of a 26 to 28 inch barrel at 2,020 to 2,050 f.p.s. - and at 200 yards, one Knight .50 caliber "Long Range Hunter" I do much of my testing with, will often keep groups at that distance right at 2 to 2 1/4 inches across. And using the 200-yard reticle of the Leatherwood/Hi-Lux scope, I've taken several very nice bucks at that range...using a "dead on" hold with the 200-yard reticle. Likewise, one large coyote at 254 yards once made the mistake of standing too long, allowing me to steady the 250-yard crossbar reticle center of its chest cavity. The hit was about 2 inches low - but nothing can live on the difference.

Two seasons back, I began doing much of my hunting with the slightly heavier 300-grain version of the Scorpion PT Gold, mostly to enjoy greater retained energy out past 200 yards. With the same 110-grain charge of Blackhorn 209, the bullet leaves the muzzle at 1,968 f.p.s., but being heavier the load is good for 200 foot pounds of additional energy than the lighter and faster 260-grain bullet shot with the same amount of powder. However, the longer and heavier version of the same bullet has a higher .250-.255 b.c., and it tends to shoot flatter than the lighter bullet once past 200 yards. Using the lowest and longest range reticle of the Leatherwood/Hi-Lux muzzleloader scope, the 260-grain polymer-tipped Harvester Muzzleloading bullet that leaves the muzzle nearly 50 f.p.s. faster tends to impact a 250 yard target about 2 inches below point of aim, while the high b.c. and slightly slower 300-grain bullet of the same design tends to hit the target about 2-inches above point of aim.

With a center hold on a whitetail at 250 yards, a hit that is from 2 to 3 inches high or low is still well within the "kill zone".

When shooting to determine the locations of the lower longer range reticles of this scope, I also relied on a number of other very popular saboted bullets, including the 250- and 300-grain Hornady SST bullets, the 245- and 285-grain Barnes "Spit-Fire" and that company's 250- and 300-grain "Spit-Fire TMZ" bullets, as well as the 250- and 275-grain polymer-tipped "Ballistic Extreme" spire-points by Parker Productions. All of these bullets have a b.c. ranging between .210 and .260. With a scope sighted "dead on" at 100 yards, and with the bullets leaving the muzzle at 1,950 to 2,050 f.p.s., all of these bullets will drop between 9 to 12 inches at 200 yards - and between 35 and 40 inches at 250 yards.

Most of that drop is out past 200 yards, where the bullets begin to slow quickly. Knowing the exact distance of the target at the longer ranges is critical, whether shooting with one of the multi-reticle muzzleloader scopes or simply trying to determine the amount of hold over when shooting with a standard single crosshair scope. When hunting open country, where shots out to and past 200 yards are possible, I always pack along a laser rangefinder, like the Bushnell Sport 600. At 250 yards, under or over estimating range by just 10 or 15 yards can result in a hit that's 5 or 6 inches high or low.

A couple of years back, one of my regular hunting buddies installed one of the multi-reticle Nikon 3-9x "Omega" muzzleloader hunting scopes on his .50 caliber Thompson/Center "Omega" in-line ignition muzzleloader. He was shooting 110-grains of FFFg Triple Seven behind the 250-grain Hornady SST saboted bullet and sighted the rifle and load to print at point of aim at 100 yards. He shot the rifle through most of early fall, and found that at 100 yards he could generally punch 1 1/2 to 2-inch groups, using the standard crosshair. Then, just before deer season, he decided to do some shooting with the lower circular Nikon BDC reticles at 200 and 250 yards - only to find that when he centered the round 6" diameter targets in the circular reticle, at 200 yards the bullet impacted about 4" to the right, and at 250 yards shots were easily 8 to 9 inches to the right.

The problem proved to be that the scope had not been mounted perfectly level with the bore. During a follow up range session, when I centered a 200 yard target in the circular BDC reticle, it was very evident that the crosshair was above and to the right of the target. I loosened the rings just enough to turn the scope ever so slightly back to the left, while he sighted through the scope until the crosshair was directly above the target. Then, with the rings tightened back in place, and with a few shots to tweak the sighting, my friend found he could keep hits on that 6" target at 250 yards.

More recently, I loosened the rings that held one of the 3-9x40mm Leatherwood/Hi-Lux muzzleloader scopes on a .50 caliber Traditions VORTEK rifle, and turned the scope barely 1/32" to 1/16" to the left. I retightened the screws, tweaked the sighting to be "dead on" at 100 yards...then shot at 200 yards, using the 200 yard reticle. The rifle printed almost 5 inches to the left at 200 yards. So, I sighted the 200-yard crossbar reticle to print the load pretty much "on" at that distance - then shot at 100 yards. At the shorter range, the bullet impacted barely 1 1/2-inch away from point of aim.

When installing a multi-reticle scope, it is extremely important that ALL reticles are in line with the bore. If the scope is turned just the slightest amount one way or the other, the farther the lower reticles will print shots to one side or the other at the longer ranges. One way to insure that the scope is perfectly level with the bore is to have a gunsmith mount the scope - using a solid vise to hold the rifle level, and a grid on which to align the reticles. If that's not an option, do it on a set of solid sand bags at the range, sighting through the scope while someone else twists the scope back and forth to get all reticles aligned with the center of a target. And when the ring screws are tightened, be sure to check the reticle alignment once more. Often tightening these screws can torque the scope slightly one way or the other.

When shooting at the longer ranges, in order for these scopes to put one of the modern saboted spire-point or spitzer bullets into the "kill zone" at 200...225...250 yards, the scope must be set at its highest magnification. I've purposely shot with the 3-9x Leatherwood/Hi-Lux HPML scope at various ranges using various powers. And to make a long story short - it doesn't work. When shooting at 200 yards with the scope set at 3x, on the target there's actually three times the amount of space between the different reticles for shooting at the longer ranges than when the scope is set on 9x. When shooting at any power other than 9x, at the longer ranges, the impact of the shot will be higher. In fact, at 4x or 5x, using the 200 yard reticle, the rifle and load will put the bullet over the back of whitetail at that distance.

While these modern multi-reticle muzzleloader scopes have been designed around shooting modern saboted spire-point bullets at around 2,000 f.p.s., they can still be used when shooting blunt faced, lower b.c. hollow points, or loads with significantly slower muzzle velocities. One just has to accept that the longer range reticles were not regulated for such loads, and the rifle and load will not have the flatter trajectory of hotter modern loads and bullets, and the reticles won't be "on" at 200, 225 or 250 yards.
I've done some shooting with the saboted 250- and 300-grain Hornady .452" XTP jacketed hollow-point bullets at around 1,800 f.p.s. These are significantly lower b.c. projectiles. The 250-grain bullet has a b.c. of .147, and the 300-grain bullet has a b.c. of .181. At the slower velocity, from 100 to 200 yards, these bullets drop right at 2 feet. With some practice, the muzzleloading deer hunter will find that even with such a load, the lower crossbar reticles of today's muzzleloader specific scopes will put shots where they need to go at around 150, 175 and 200 yards.

Before ever shooting at game beyond 100 yards with any muzzleloader and multi-reticle scope, today's hunter owes it to the game being hunted to first practice with the rifle, load and scope being used to know exactly where all scope aiming marks will print shots. With some tweaking of loads and how the rifle is sighted at the range, the multi-reticles found in these scopes definitely take a lot of the guess work out of making those longer shots during the muzzleloader deer seasons.