Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Pellet Powder Charges VS. Loose Grain Powder Charges...

Every year, I now answer close to 10,000 e-mails pertaining to muzzleloading, most specifically looking for advice on how to get a modern muzzle-loaded big game rifle to consistently punch hundred yard groups like that seen above (shot with a Traditions .50 VORTEK Ultra Light LDR rifle...charge of Blackhorn 209...and Harvester Muzzleloading saboted 300-grain Scorpion PT Gold bullet).

A very high percentage of today's muzzleloading hunters have gotten a whole lot more into seeking the absolute best accuracy a rifle can produce -and they don't mind experimenting with powders... charges...sabots... bullets...or primers to get it. One thing is for certain, and that is that today's modern primer ignition in-line muzzleloaders are the best shooting muzzleloaders of all time. I personally believe that when the time is taken to find that optimum combination of loading components, any modern in-line rifle produced today is capable of shooting inside of an inch at 100 yards. Still, the majority of those who hunt the muzzleloader seasons are quite content with 2 to 3 inch groups at that distance - since most deer shot during the muzzleloader big game seasons are shot well inside of 100 yards.

One question that comes up regularly is... "I hunt with pellet powder charges. Why don't you do more shooting with Triple Seven Pellets or Pyrodex Pellets?" Or, something to that effect.

The answer is simple...I don't care much for them. Oh, I think they may have their place. They are probably ideal for the shooter/hunter who puts fewer than 40 or 50 rounds a year through his or her rifle. You know, just enough to insure the scope is still sighted make sure the rifle is still grouping well (enough)...and maybe to take a deer or two with the muzzleloader. Then the rifle is thoroughly cleaned and put away until next year's hunting season.

However, if you're one of those shooters who enjoy shooting a modern in-line muzzleloading rifle as much as shooting any other type of rifle, and who may put 200...300...400...or more rounds a year through one, and who strives for sub "minute-of-angle" accuracy, pellet powder charges are more than likely not for you. I know for the vast majority of the test shooting I do, they are definitely not for me. Through a typical year, I put around 3,500 to 4,500 muzzle-loaded shots down range. And to test sabots...bullets...and the rifles themselves to determine what kind of accuracy they are capable of producing, the pellet powder charges simply are not precise enough. Getting "minute-of-whitetail" accuracy with them may be easy enough, but to consistently get a rifle and load to print right at that magical 1-inch mark at hundred yards can be close to impossible when loading with pelletized powder charges.

Several years ago, I was curious to see just how much variation there was in the weight of Triple Seven Pellets. So, I took a brand new box of 100 so-called "50-Grain Equivalent" pellets, opened it and set down and ran each and every pellet across my RCBS electronic powder scale. First, I examined each pellet, and found that about 10-percent had small chips out of the edges around each end. And, typically these pellets weighed in at about 31 to 31.5 grains...those without any chips along the edges weighed in at 32 to 32.5 grains. Overall average was right at 32 grains. The extreme spread of the 100 pellets ran from 30.8 to 33.1 grains - a 2.3 grain variation from high to low. That means with the popular three-pellet "150-Grain Equivalent" charges, loads could easily vary from 3 to almost 7 grains. Consistent 1-inch group accuracy with such variation from shot to shot is impossible.

Hodgdon Powder Company, who markets Triple Seven, also brought the new IMR White Hots pellets to market a couple of seasons back. While test shooting these, I also took 10 randomly pulled pellets and weighed them. The average was right at 32.5 grains - ranging from 31.9 to 33.2 grains each. They were more consistent than the "50-grain" Triple Seven Pellets, but in my mind still showed enough variation to affect accuracy.

Cost is another very big factor in loading and shooting with these pellet charges. Typical retail for a 100-count box of the "50-grain" Triple Seven Pellets runs about $30. In other words, to get a saboted 250- or 260-grain bullet out of the muzzle of a .50 caliber primer-ignition muzzleloader at around 2,000 f.p.s., the three-pellet charge needed will set you back 90-cents. A 72-count package of IMR White Hots typically retails for around $27. That's about 37.5-cents each. And despite the claims of "2,300 f.p.s." with two of the still takes three to get a saboted 250-grain bullet out of the muzzle at more than 2,000 f.p.s. - for a cost of $1.12 per charge. (Actually, $1.12.5.) New Triple Seven Magnums pellets cost right at 50-cents each, meaning a two-pellet 2,000 f.p.s. load runs $1 per shot.

Proponents of Triple Seven Pellets...Pyrodex Pellets...and now IMR White Hots pellets will argue that they are so much more convenient to use. However, to carry them in the field still means slipping two or three of the Triple Seven Pellets or Pyrodex Pellets into a plastic tube of some sort. (IMR White Hots come packaged in tubes.)

I've found the compressed pellets to be fairly fragile, and carrying them around inside those tubes for a few days tends to break them up some...and when the pellets are loaded in varying sized pieces, it affects their burning rate...which in turn again affects accuracy. In the same light, just a tad too much pressure when seating the bullet over pellet charges can fracture one or more of the pellets...again creating an inconsistent burn from shot to shot.

Consistently tight groups down range are produced by consistently precise powder charges. Not many of you reading this would continue to buy bullets that varied 2 to 3 grains in weight, and if you are looking for the best accuracy possible from a muzzle-loaded rifle and quality scope, which could have easily set you back $500 to $1,000 for the rig, you're not going to get it with powder charges that vary that much in weight as well.

Loose grain high energy powders like FFFg Triple Seven...Black Mag XP...and Blackhorn 209 will not only produce those 2,000 f.p.s. velocities with charges that cost 20 to 40 percent less than pellet charges, but will also dramatically improve the overall accuracy of any modern in-line rifle. And that is due to loading and shooting charges that are much more precise from one shot to the next. When care is taken to set an adjustable powder measure precisely to the same mark every time you go to the range or measure out hunting loads, it is very easy to keep powder charges within two- or three-tenths of a grain. And these are the charges that come closer to putting shots through the same hole at a hundred yards.
                                                    VORTEK Ultra Light LDR

Also, some shooters have found that it takes tweaking their loads to a "5-grain increment" to find the optimum powder charge for a particular rifle. And you can't do that with pellet charges.

As for "convenience", it takes ten minutes or less to pre-measure and make up more than enough speed loads for even the longest hunt. The past couple of seasons I have been using the very handy loading tubes that Western Powders has developed for their Blackhorn 209 powder. The tubes even feature a graduated scale on the side, from 20 to 120 grains, which allows a shooter/hunter to carefully pour the powder into the tube until it fills to the desired charge. A snug fitting stopper insures that the powder stays in the tube and moisture stays out.

I still rely on an adjustable brass powder measure, carefully leveling off the charge, then pouring it into the Blackhorn 209 tubes. Even so, the charge scale on the tube continues to serve a very useful purpose. Out of several rifles, I load and shoot 110-grains of the powder, out of another rifle a 120-grain charge. At a glance, I can determine which loads are for which rifle. The 110-grain charge of Blackhorn 209 I load to get a Harvester Muzzleloading saboted 260-grain Scorpion PT Gold out of a .50 caliber Traditions 30-inch barreled VORTEK Ultra Light LDR rifle at around 2,050 f.p.s., at a typical retail cost of $35 per 10-ounce container, runs 88-cents per shot. And even when carried in the tubes for months, the charges will still produce superb accuracy. - Toby Bridges

North American
Muzzleloader Huntng