The first question everyone has when they get their first muzzle loader is “What is a good load to use?” The simple answer to that question is, “Whatever the gun shoots well.” Obviously, that is not really a simple answer to the question.
The best method for answering this question is to “Shoot it out.” This will require many trips to the shooting range so developing a good load is a lot of fun.
A gun being shot is a practical application of the science of ballistics. Which means that when a load is being developed for a muzzle loader, or any gun, it is a scientific experiment. As we all learned in high school science, only one component of the experiment, the variable, should be changed at a time. So when developing a load for a muzzle loader, only one component of the load chain should be changed with each three shot group. I.e. powder or ball or patch. If more than one component is changed, what caused something to happen is not known. If the results are bad, it is much more difficult to fix the problem when dealing with multiple variable changes. Finally, the experiment needs to be repeated to ensure the results are valid; i.e. compensate for human error. Hence, shooting three shot groups with each change is a good idea. The process for developing a load is meticulous but having an accurate target load or balanced effective hunting load makes the work worth the effort.
Before developing a load, it is important to determine what kind of load is being worked up. If it is a target load, maximum accuracy is important. If it is a hunting load, a balance between power and accuracy must be achieved. It is possible and even desirable to have multiple loads for a gun. Most of the rifles I regularly shoot have both a hunting load and target load.
The components in a traditional muzzle loader load are powder: charge, granulation, brand; patching: material, thickness; ball: diameter, weight, and design; cap, or priming. If a shooter wants to use saboted or conical bullets, the process is the same. Sabots and cloth patches do the same job. With conicals, various weights and designs will perform differently so several types of conicals should be tried to optimize performance.
Since only one variable can be changed at a time, the shooter must decide which variable to work on first. The most common starting point is the powder charge. When I got my first muzzle loading rifle, a Traditions .50 Cal Woodsman’s Hawkins, I started with a 30-grain load, measured by volume, and worked my way up by 10 grain increments. A 30-grain load of 2fg Goex powder was measured out and paired with a .015 patch and a .490 round ball. Three shots were fired using a bench rest at a bull target posted twenty fire yards away, and the barrel was swabbed in between each shot. After the target was shot, load data was written on the target and a fresh target was again posted at 25 yards. The powder charge was increased to 40 grains and the three shots were again fired. This procedure was followed until loads of 100 grains of 2 fg powder were being shot. Then the entire process was repeated on two subsequent trips to the range. A 60-grain load was most accurate, and groups started to open up above the 90-grain mark.
The next step in the process was to reshoot the loads with pillow ticking rather than cotton patches. During this testing phase, only the most promising powder charges were tested, the 90-grain load tightened up considerably, and the groups for both the 50 and 60 grain loads were nearly identical. The 50-grain load became my target/match shooting load and the 90-grain load became my hunting load.
The target load soon proved its worth in shooting matches at rendezvous and club shoots. The hunting load enabled me to harvest a buck and a doe before 9:00 AM on a hunt in southeastern Minnesota.
After working up a load for one rifle, I figured I had it all figured out when I began to work up a load on a Lyman’s Great Plains Rifle in .54 caliber. I started with loads using pillow ticking since that’s what the Traditions shot the best. But the Lyman didn’t like that tight patching. After many frustrating rounds of shooting, I switched to .015 cotton and when the smoke cleared there were some one hole-three shot groups.
When my oldest daughter took up hunting, I wanted to develop a load with a lighter recoil than the 90-grain load in the Traditions Hawkins rifle. I started with a 70-grain charge of 2fg Goex and then tried several patch thicknesses until the gun produced good groups. That load ended up being 70 grains 2fg Goex, a .015 patch and a .490 round ball. Using Pillow ticking produced a slightly tighter group, but it was hard to load so we went with the cotton patch. Good thing we used the easy to load patch. My daughter missed a shot at a deer, but fortunately, the deer got confused and didn’t run away, so she quickly reloaded and made a nice double lung shot for her first deer.
I have used both round commercially cut patches, square home cut patches, and muzzle cut patches when working up loads. I have found that generally the round and square patches perform equally well in guns that are .45 caliber and larger. Smaller bore guns seem to prefer round patches or even better yet like cut at the muzzle patches. That is particularly true of my .36 Pedersoli Frontier Rifle. Its favorite load is .20 gr 3gf, cut at the muzzle pillow ticking patch, and a .350 round ball.
The key to working up a load is to be meticulous in the process. Never change more than one component in the load change at a time. Keep very thorough records of the shooting sessions and the results. Having a shooting notebook is a must. Yes, even in the day and age of the computer and cell phone. Notebooks are much handier at the range. Don’t be afraid to try new loads, just put the results up against other experiments and loads. Developing a custom load for a muzzle loader is worth all the effort because there will be more trophies won at shooting matches and more meat made with the smoke pole.