Ever since they came out with that newfangled smokeless powder, the American hunter’s taste in hunting guns has followed a trend to smaller bullets and faster velocities. The trend all started with the introduction of the fancy “high-velocity” cartridge – the .30-30, in 1895. Before that time, rifle bullets were big, heavy and ponderously slow. But, no one’s looking back, and that tectonic shift in cartridge design eventually led to a huge change in attitude and expectations from hunters.
When the “modern” black powder boom first started 25 or 30 years ago, hunters mostly used 54-caliber guns and sometimes 50-caliber guns for hunting big game. Most hunters understood that a muzzleloader used a different approach to killing big game than a modern, high-velocity rifle. A bottlenecked rifle cartridge may have a muzzle velocity of 3,000 fps or more, and it can depend on a complex expanding bullet and hydrostatic shock to help generate more killing power. But, the use of black powder limits the upper end of bullet velocity, and muzzleloaders have traditionally depended on bullet diameter and bullet weight for efficient game-killing ability. Power was directly correlated to bullet diameter, and if you wanted more power, then you drilled a bigger hole in the rifle’s barrel. With the limitations of the propellant, increasing velocity was difficult, but boosting bullet diameter and weight while maintaining a similar velocity was easy.
The downside is that this traditional approach resulted in trajectories with an arch that Mickey D would proudly display in front of his hamburger joint, which of course ensured that muzzleloader hunting was a close-range proposition. Not a problem in a time of iron sights and a more laid-back approach to hunting. But to the modern American hunter who demands more from his equipment and field time, this performance became unacceptable. If you are new and want to know what muzzleloaders are, you can read this article what are muzzleloaders.
Because today’s hunter equates velocity with long-range capabilities, over the past several years, manufacturers have followed the trend and raised the velocity in muzzleloaders.
This trend isn’t necessarily a bad thing as technology has mutated the long-standing rules with better bullets, sights, propellants, and rifles. Yesterday’s muzzleloader may not have been accurate enough to make a flatter trajectory relevant, and the iron sights that were common to the guns further limited the ethical hunting range. Also, in those past times, any muzzleloader bullets that may have been capable of a significant velocity increase lagged badly in terminal ballistic performance. But, things have recently changed in the muzzleloader-hunting arena. Better manufacturing techniques and a market with less tolerance for junk have raised the quality bar so that accuracy is greatly improved over the muzzleloaders of a generation back.
This change has not necessarily been a quantum leap in technology, but rather a progression. Manufacturers first attempted to wrap handgun bullets in sabots in an attempt to raise velocity and flatten trajectory. Most of these bullets never were designed for the bullet speeds muzzleloaders were capable of generating and failed miserably on big game. The bullet makers responded with bullets designed to handle the higher-impact velocities, and sabot-encased bullets became the most popular muzzleloader projectiles. Then powder charges started creeping up, and the weakest link became the sabots themselves because they couldn’t handle the higher pressure. That problem was soon remedied with more high-tech polymers designed for the higher velocity.
By this time the .50-caliber muzzleloader had established its dominance, and the bigger bores were losing market demand. Since every upward trend in ballistic performance reaches a point of diminishing returns, the .50 caliber started to dwindle. To increase velocity further would have required that bullet weights be reduced to ridiculously low levels. When examined in the light of truth, clearly the lighter bullet is the answer only in distorted marketing claims. They may leave the barrel faster, but like a gambling addict in Las Vegas, light-for-caliber bullets have trouble hanging on to their velocity.
Why A .45-Caliber Muzzleloader
The ability of a bullet to retain velocity and energy is measured in a numerical assignment called a ballistic coefficient. With all else equal, the lighter the bullet, the lower the ballistic coefficient. So, lighter bullets shed velocity much faster than heavy bullets. The other measurement that is commonly applied to a bullet is the sectional density, which is the direct measurement of a bullet’s weight relative to its diameter. The less a bullet in a given diameter weighs, the lower the sectional density. Sectional density closely correlates to that bullet’s ability to penetrate, and the lower the number, the less a bullet will penetrate. In a nutshell, light-for-caliber bullets lack ballistic performance. They lose energy quickly and will not penetrate nearly as well as heavier bullets.
But, the public wanted faster muzzleloaders, so to take it to the next level, manufacturers had to take it a step-down. A smaller-diameter bore would allow higher velocity through smaller bullets. The bullet weight dropped while retaining the ballistic coefficient and sectional density. And so was spawned the new muzzleloader boom of .45-caliber muzzleloaders.
Some reported velocity figures for the new generation of .45-caliber muzzleloaders designed for 150-grain powder charges are certainly impressive. And, even if the marketing people inflate the figures, inarguably this rifle has branched into new territory in terms of muzzleloader bullet speed.
The bullet makes a single physical connection with the targeted game. Far too many hunters focus on the external ballistics of their hunting bullets, such as speed, trajectory, and accuracy, while ignoring the equally or even more important aspect of terminal performance – what happens when the bullet hits the game. Many hunters mistakenly try to achieve more and more velocity hoping to somehow make the gun a long-range sniper rifle.
This mistake becomes even more detrimental as bullet diameter and weight shrink. Some hunters still make the same mistake with the .45 caliber that they made with the .50-caliber muzzleloader. They try to boost velocity even more by dropping bullet weight too far.
Not only do the same problems rear their ugly heads, but now with a smaller bore diameter, they become even more critical. To fully utilize the potential of a .45-caliber muzzleloader’s higher velocity and flatter trajectory, you must recognize that it’s still a muzzleloader and not a “Super Magnum” centerfire. With sensible hunting bullets, the .45-caliber does offer a trajectory advantage, and by default, an increase in effective range. With bullets of a realistic hunting weight, this new trend in muzzleloaders can extend the range beyond the previous boundaries. But, hunters who get duped into using some of the ultralight bullets promoted by manufacturers court disaster.
For hunting deer-size game, you should consider bullets with a sectional density (SD) of no less than .160 grains as a bare-bones minimum. In sabot bullets of .40 caliber (used in a .45-caliber rifle) that means at least 180 grains. Bullets of 200 grains are far better and have a SD of .179, which puts them in the class of the 250-grain .45-caliber bullets often used in a .50-caliber muzzleloader. Remember too that most (not all) of the sabot bullets currently marketed for the .45-caliber muzzleloader were designed for use in defensive handgun cartridges like the .40 Smith & Wesson. The terminal ballistic goals for their design are far different than those of a big-game bullet.
In my thinking, the PowerBelt Full-Caliber Bullets provide a better choice for the .45-caliber muzzleloader. These easy-loading, bore-filling, copper-coated bullets help reduce lead fouling. The PowerBelt Bullets feature an attached plastic wad on their base to ease in alignment and to seal the bore upon firing. Made to bore diameter, the bullets do not engrave the rifling when loading, as do most other full-caliber bullets. Instead, they obturate (swell or expand) and fill the bore to take the shape of the rifling upon firing. The fouling from a previous shot actually helps hold them in place. Designed to use in a fouled bore, these bullets are easier to load than a bullet, either aborted or conical, that must scrape through the fouling in the grooves as it is loaded. This aids in accuracy by solving one of the primary problems with muzzleloading projectiles – bullet deformation during loading.
In .45 caliber, PowerBelt Bullets are available in 195 grain, 225 grain, and 275 grain, both in hollow point and in the plastic-tipped Aero Tip, which helps to increase BC (ballistic coefficient) and flatten trajectories.
With everything equal, the .45 caliber is not a better game killer than the .50 caliber. However, unlike the .45-caliber front stuffers of old, today’s .45-caliber muzzleloader is more than up to the task of cleanly taking deer and antelope and doing it with higher velocity, flatter trajectory and less recoil than the “big bores.”