by Toby Bridges
Muzzleloading, as we now know it, is about to change. And this change will definitely appeal to the serious big game hunter looking for the most effective and hardest hitting muzzleloading hunting rifle ever offered. At the same time, this new direction of the sport is sure to raise the dandruff of those traditionally oriented shooters and hunters who have argued for the past decade that muzzleloading has become too modern. In several issues of Gun Week over the past year, I have given readers a sneak peek at the future of muzzleloading. For three years now, I have been shooting several custom muzzleloading rifles which have been built to shoot smokeless powder loads. And do they ever shoot!
While I'm still working on a pet load for the Model 94 frontloader, I've come up with several for the Howa-actioned .50-caliber smokeless pole. One of my early favorites was 34 grains of Alliant 2400 behind a saboted 250-grain, .45-caliber Hornady XTP jacketed hollow point. The load is good for about 2,350 feet-per-second (fps) velocity and 3,100 foot-pounds of energy (fpe) at the muzzle of the 24-inch barrel.
For about the past year, however, I've been shooting almost exclusively 45 grains of IMR-4227 behind a saboted 300-grain, .45-caliber Hornady XTP-Mag jacketed hollow point. Muzzle velocity is around 2,200 fps, but the energy produced jumps to around 3,300 foot pounds. (This is about the same energy produced by a 7mm Remington Magnum with a 150-grain bullet.) And this load consistently prints three-shot groups at 100 yards which average less than 1° inches across.
The price tag for one of Ball's custom crafted smokeless powder frontloaders generally runs between $2,500 and $3,000, depending on the action utilized and the quality of the stock. Now, at that price, I'm sure that many of you reading this simply feel you could never afford the high cost of such performance. However, what if I were to tell you that this same technology and hard-hitting accuracy can now be purchased for around $500!
Last year, Savage Arms Inc. of Westfield, MA, had Ball build one of his futuristic frontloaders on one of their centerfire rifle actions. Before delivering the gun to Savage, Ball brought the rifle with him during a visit with me, and during his three-day stay we put more than 500 rounds through the early prototype. We found the rifle to shoot every bit as good as the other custom rifle Ball and I had been shooting for several years.
This past January, Savage tooled up for the first prototype of what will be their Model 10ML muzzleloader. I was given a sneak peek at the first of these during the SHOT Show in Las Vegas in late January. The rifle was not on display, but kept in one of their booth offices and shown to only a few. To say that I was impressed would be putting it lightly.
Model 10 Action
The reusable ignition modules for this system are expendable, but not inexpensive. Three modules will be shipped with each rifle, and a package of three will retail for around $10 to $15. However, these modules can be re-primed with No. 209 primers, easily 100 or more times.
Earlier this spring, Savage shipped one of the second generation prototypes to me for testing, and to determine the range of powders which are most compatible with the system. The rifle that arrived was fitted with a synthetic stock and sported a 24-inch barrel with eight lands and grooves, with a 1-turn-in-24 inch rate of twist.
My initial shooting was done with my favored load for the Howa-actioned custom rifle I've been shooting for several years-45 grains of IMR-4227 and a saboted .452-inch diameter Hornady 300-grain XTP jacketed hollow point bullet, in both the standard and newer "magnum" configuration. (The latter bullet features a heavier jacket and slightly redesigned hollow point nose.) The Savage Model 10ML shot both equally well.
I topped the prototype with one of the excellent Simmons 2.8 to 10x AETEC scopes, using a set of Weaver-style bases and Millett windage-adjustable rings. The scope had been previously mounted on my Howa-actioned Ball rifle, and my first shots out of the Savage Model 10ML prototype were within 6 inches of point of aim at 50 yards. A few slight adjustments, and I had the rifle printing where I wanted it. With the target moved back to 100 yards, I was amazed when my first three-shot group printed just 1 inches across. My second group clustered under an inch.
Since my initial shooting with the rifle, I've worked with several other powders as well. I pulled out an old can of Winchester 571 ball powder and found that the rifle liked 30 grains of the propellant, especially when loaded behind lighter 225- to 260-grain bullets. Another powder which has worked well in the Savage Model 10ML has been XMP5744 from Accurate Arms Company.
A 35-grain charge seemed to be the most accurate load behind a saboted 300-grain Hornady XTP. While I have not chronographed this load, it tends to be very mild recoil-wise, and my guess is that the velocity is somewhere just over 2,000 fps. While not the hottest load fired out of the Savage prototype, it is very comfortable to shoot and most groups tended to be well inside of 1° inches.
While running accuracy tests with the prototype in early June, Charlie Kelsey of Leved Cartridge Company, Georgetown, TX, sent me a healthy supply of his Devel "Radially Dynamic" bullets matched with a new high-pressure sabot from Muzzleload Magnum Products (Harrison, AR). What makes this .45-caliber bullet so unique is both the nose and ogive of the bullet, plus the material it is made from.
The front end of this projectile features five relatively deep flutes which run from the nose back to the ogive of the bullet. The nose itself is flat and looks like a five-pointed star, created by the fins which separate the flutes. This is a non-expanding projectile made from a copper and tin composite. The fluted ogive of the bullet directs shock waves outwardly, creating a similar effect as an expanding bullet.
And accuracy with the bullets out of the Savage Model 10ML rifle has been phenomenal. One of the best groups fired with the saboted bullet printed into one ragged hole at 100 yards, which measured just °-inch across center-to-center. And being so much lighter, the load develops absolutely no recoil.
The light weight of the Devel bullet peaked my curiosity to see just how fast I could get the projectile to shoot and still maintain accuracy. The trouble with loading hotter powder charges in this system has been pressures too great for the plastic sabot. However, Muzzleload Magnum Products' new high pressure sabot can take considerably more punishment than the standard sabots the company produced a few years ago. With 48 grains of Hodgdon H-4227, I've gotten the 175-grain Devel bullet out of the muzzle at around 2,500 fps, and still shot 1- to 1°-inch groups at 100 yards. With this load, bullet drop from 100 to 150 yards is barely 2 inches.
The lack of recoil with any of the smokeless powder loads mentioned has to be one of this rifle's biggest selling points. Knight Rifles and Thompson/Center Arms have been promoting the use of three 50-grain Pyrodex Pellet loads (150-grain charge) in some of their newer models, which will push some saboted bullets out of the muzzle at just over 2,000 fps. However, the recoil generated by these loads can be nothing short of painful. The smokeless loads Savage prescribes for their new frontloader slightly surpass the velocities possible with a load consisting of three 50-grain Pyrodex Pellets, but with noticeably less recoil.
Obviously, one of the biggest selling points for a muzzleloader designed to shoot smokeless powders has to be the non-corrosive nature of these propellants. Here, at last, is a muzzleloader which requires little more maintenance than a modern centerfire rifle. At the end of a long day of shooting, I've found it a good idea to break the breechplug loose and remove it from the rear of the barrel. The Savage Model 10ML will be shipped with a special wrench for removing the breechplug, which can be taken out and reinstalled without having to remove the barrel and receiver from the stock.
The removable breechplug also features a removable vent, through which the .030-inch orifice runs from the chamber and into the barrel. Using a small 3/32 Allen key, the vent can be easily removed from the front of the breechplug. This allows the shooter to cheaply replace the tiny orifice if it becomes slightly eroded from the hot burning temperatures of smokeless loads. The tiny vents can be bought for a few bucks, eliminating the cost of replacing a much more expensive complete breechplug.
To insure that the breechplug and the vent remain removable, Savage recommends that the threads of each be lightly coated with an anti-seize compound. The silvery stuff available from automotive stores works great, and a small tube lasts forever. However, a small dab of this compound can cover everything, and if a shooter isn't careful when working with it, he'll look like the Tin Man from the "Wizard of Oz" in no time flat. But, it keeps things "removable."
Other maintenance generally means running a nitro solvent-dampened patch down the bore at the end of the day, followed by a dry patch. If I'm shooting a great deal, I like to break the rifle down after every 100 or so shots and run a bronze wire brush through the bore a few times. At these velocities, the sabot does leave a very minute amount of residue behind. But a few strokes with the bore brush takes care of the problem.
Since there really isn't any powder fouling to contend with, it's possible to load and load and load without having to wipe the bore between shots. However, when shooting for those minute-of-angle quality groups, I like to run a dry patch down between every shot. If not for any other reason, it gives me confidence that the bore is the same from shot to shot. Anyway, I tend to shoot better groups when I do. However, for hunting purposes, this would be a moot point.
Several muzzleloading hunters I know have voiced their concerns about whether or not game departments will allow "smokeless powder" loads. Technically, they already do. Look on the side of every can of Pyrodex or box of Pyrodex Pellets. It clearly states that Pyrodex has been officially classified as a "Smokeless Propellant."
Probably 80% of all muzzleloading hunters now shoot and hunt with Pyrodex. For a game department to allow the use of one smokeless powder and not another would be like a state department of transportation dictating that it's okay to drive a Chevy . . . but not a Ford. Such discrimination doesn't go far in today's world.
Also, just because this rifle shoots hotter smokeless powder doesn't make it a "long range" big game rifle. As already pointed out, Knight, Thompson/Center and a few other muzzleloader manufacturers have already broken the 2,000 fps barrier with the three 50-grain Pyrodex Pellet loads they promote. The hottest loads fired out of this rifle are a few hundred feet-per-second faster, at best, than the three-pellet loads fired out of many other modern in-line ignition muzzleloaders. Bullets which weigh 250 to 300 grains still have a tendency to come back to Earth quickly once past 200 yards.
Since I first fired one of Ball's unique smokeless powder frontloaders in 1997, I have put more than 8,000 smokeless loads through guns of his design. I've found them to be the most user friendly muzzleloaders I've ever shot. The rifles are enjoyable to shoot, with the accuracy and downrange knockdown power needed to hunt all big game, and without the painful recoil usually associated with hefty hunting charges in a lightweight hunting muzzleloader.
The new Savage Model 10ML should attract a new following of muzzleloading shooters and hunters, especially those who had been turned off by the dirty, smelly maintenance of traditional and other in-line ignition rifles which must be fired with black powder or Pyrodex. The muzzleloader for the next century has arrived.
For more information, contact Savage Arms Inc., 100 Springdale Road, Dept GWK, Westfield, MA 01085; phone: 413-568-7001; fax: 413-562-7764; on-line: www.savagearms.com.