Your Guide to Muzzleloader Bullets

Author:  Mike Schoby

Every bullet has a specific purpose and use and depending upon what you are hunting this fall, your choice may make the difference between filling your tag and going home disgruntled. Here is a basic rundown of what’s available to help you make the best choice this season.

On a daily basis I receive questions from readers regarding bullet selection. The questions vary greatly, but one thing remains a constant; most people know very little about bullet construction, design and desired performance. They have formed their opinion based on limited field use and slick advertising - not the best combination to head afield with.

Every bullet has a specific purpose and use. Depending upon what you are hunting this fall, your choice may make the difference between filling your tag and going home disgruntled. Here is a basic run down of what’s available to help you make the best choice.

Lead Balls
Lead balls are the original muzzleloader projectile. They are generally very accurate, with the right twist rate, but lack many of the qualities modern muzzleloader hunters need in a bullet. They are soft (to grip the rifling better) and consequently expand readily. What’s wrong with expansion, you ask? Isn’t that the name of the game? Yes and no. Expansion is only part of the answer. Expansion combined with deep penetration is the real winner. On a broadside shot at a thin-skinned, light-boned animal like an average whitetail, balls can be deadly. But if more penetration is needed such as for bigger animals or quartering shots, they fall short. Balls don’t weigh enough (a .50 caliber ball weighs approximately 170 grains-compared to the average conical bullet that weighs twice this), and they are too soft to reliably penetrate heavy bones. Due to their shape and light weight, balls drift badly in the wind and don’t retain energy very well. If you are hunting in one of the few states that requires their use, or are a dedicated buckskinner, they will work for moderate distance shots on whitetail sized game, but for every other situation there are better choices.

Conical Bullets
Conical bullets have been around for a long time. Usually made from pure lead, like balls, most have a hollow base that allows them to "upset" and grip the rifling. There are many companies that make them (such as Buffalo Bullets, T/C, CVA, Hornady and many others) in a variety of weights and profiles.

Most modern muzzleloaders with a twist rate of 1:48 or faster will shoot them well. They are a good choice for a variety of big game and are often the best choice in states that will not allow the use of more sophisticated bullets.

While they are a great improvement over lead balls they still have their limitations. Since they are made from soft lead for easy loading and accuracy, they can over expand and fail to penetrate on large animals such as elk, moose and bears if a quartering shot is encountered or a heavy shoulder bone is hit.

Since they are also "full bore" diameter, they tend to weigh a lot for a given diameter (common weights for a .50 range between 350 to 400 grains). While the extra weight does aid in penetration, it creates a lot of recoil and slower velocities. These slower velocities combined with the poor Ballistic Coefficient (aerodynamic profile) equate to a lot of drop at distances much over 100 yards.

Sabots are not a bullet at all, but many hunters refer to them like they are. You will often hear hunters commenting that they are "shooting sabots this year" or "if I was shooting sabots, I would have killed that deer." In reality a sabot is nothing but a plastic cup that holds a bullet that is smaller than the diameter of the bore. The sabot has nothing to do with how the bullet performs upon game. What the sabot does do, is allow the shooter to fire either a lighter bullet for added velocities or a bullet of the same weight, but with a much higher Ballistic Coefficient for better down range velocity and energy. The other big advantage the sabot gives a shooter is the ability to fire a bullet made from any material. Unlike lead bullets and lead balls that have to be soft to "take" the rifling, the relatively soft plastic sabot grips the rifling, regardless of bullet material. Here is a breakdown of some of the more common bullets found in sabots, their positives, negatives and uses.

There are several companies making lead slugs for sabots. They have the advantage of higher velocities over conical bullets, due to their shape and weight but will perform on par with lead conicals after striking flesh. They are a good choice in states, where "lead only" regulations are in effect, but these slugs still suffer from over-expansion problems should heavy bone or difficult shots present themselves.

Premium Controlled Expansion Bullets
Like modern rifle bullets, muzzleloader hunters can now take advantage of premium controlled expansion bullets. What this term means, is that the bullet should deliver the best mix of both penetration and expansion. Bullet design dictates, the degree of expansion and penetration you will receive.

The first category in premium bullets is simply the jacketed bullet. This is a big step for muzzleloaders. Jacketed bullets (almost always pistol bullets) expand to deliver energy but also stay together if heavy resistance (such as bones) is encountered. There are many jacketed pistol bullets commercially available in sabots, including the Hornady XTP, Speer, and others. These bullets are all great choices for most game, but if they do have one failing it is that they are designed to reliably expand at pistol velocities (roughly 1,500 fps). With some muzzleloaders pushing these bullets over 2,200 fps, over-expansion (and a loss of penetration) may occur on really heavy game, where deep penetration is required for a one shot kill.

Barnes, Swift and Nosler have all designed bullets to help reduce this problem. Nosler bullets are based on a partition design just like their famous rifle bullets. A "partition" bullet is essentially a jacketed lead bullet that has a separate (or partitioned) front and back section. Under normal circumstances, the front section of the bullet mushrooms like any other jacketed bullet. Should the bullet encounter hard resistance, it will stop expanding at the partition and the remaining core of the bullet (roughly 60% of its overall weight) will continue to penetrate, driving the expanded bullet deeper. It is a great design that has been proven time and again on large animals around the world. The main difference between the Swift and the Nosler design is that the Swift uses a pure copper jacket that is bonded to the front lead section. This combination virtually eliminates front section separation that can happen with the Nosler. However for a muzzleloader bullet this feature may be more theoretical than practical as the operating velocities are much lower than from a high power rifle, where this failure sometimes occurs.

Barnes bullets operate on the same principle, but achieve it through a different means. Their muzzleloader bullet is formed from pure, homogenous copper. There is no lead. The front section is a large hollow point to ensure expansion, while the rear is solid copper. Upon impact the front section will expand to a large diameter. Should heavy resistance be encountered, the rear section of the bullet arrests further expansion and continues to drive the bullet.

All three of these bullets are ideal for any game animal in North America, if not around the world. I would especially recommend them for elk, bear and moose.

Specialty Bullets
There are several other bullets that don’t fall into specific categories, but also work great for certain circumstances. The Cabela’s X-Tended Range Sabots are the first on this list. Essentially this is a saboted lead bullet, but what makes it stand out is the bullet shape. It has a boat tail and a polymer tip which combine to form an extremely high BC. This design rapidly expands at a variety of distances and retains an extremely high amount of velocity and energy for extended ranges. I shot a large whitetail in Kansas with this bullet and it worked perfectly. Expansion was awesome, accuracy was superb and it killed the buck instantly. This bullet is a perfect choice for deer and antelope where longer ranges may be encountered.

The CVA Power Belt Bullets are another unique bullet. The "Power Belt" is essentially a plastic ring at the base of the bullet. This ring seals the bore upon ignition while the lead bullet upsets to engage the rifling. There are a variety of bullet styles and weights available (jacketed hollow pint, jacketed polymer tip and lead). The bullets themselves perform well on all game but work especially well on whitetail-sized animals, under a variety of conditions.

As you can see all bullets are not created equal. They all perform differently and some will do a better job then others for a given task. By understanding your objectives and the given properties of the bullet you select, you will maximize your success and limit you failures.