Knock wood, but I don’t get skunked very often on big-game hunts. Many people hold the opinion that I am just plain lucky. The fact of the matter is I make my own luck by hunting hard regardless of the weather, knowing the game I am hunting, and shooting straight with a good rifle and bullet when the time comes.
There are those few times when all my efforts fail and I strike out. Like the time I hunted mule deer in northern Utah with bulletmaker Bob Nosler, his son John, and Chub Eastman, who works for the Nosler company. Few deer were there, and even fewer were good enough to shoot so everyone went home empty-handed. But the hunt was by no means a total loss simply because spending quality time in the field with old friends is far more important than taking home a few steaks and chops. And preparing for the hunt provided me with a good excuse for getting to know a new muzzleloader, a new propellant, and a variety of excellent saboted bullets.
TRADITIONS LIGHTNING LD
Even though I did not manage to bag a deer with the new Lightning LD (Long Distance) in-line muzzleloader from Traditions Performance Firearms, I did enjoy carrying it in the field because of its lightness. Utah does not allow any magnification in an optical sight used during its muzzleloader season so I equipped the rifle with a Burris SpeedDot electronic sight with a three-minute dot. That put the weight of the rifle at an easy-to-carry 7.75 pounds. For accuracy testing prior to the hunt, I used a Burris 3-9X Compact scope, which increased the overall weight to eight pounds.
The Lightning LD is available in three basic versions. The Lightning Mag comes in .50 and .54 calibers, has a 24-inch barrel, and is rated at 6.5 to seven pounds depending on caliber. You can buy that one in seven different variations, which include match-ups of synthetic stocks in black, camo, and walnut finishes combined with barreled actions of blued carbon steel or stainless steel. Some versions come with or without a muzzle brake.
The standard Lightning LD is chambered in .45 and .50 calibers, has a 26-inch fluted barrel, and comes in three combinations: black synthetic and blued steel, black synthetic and nickeled steel, or camo stock with nickeled steel. It is rated at slightly over seven pounds.
Shorten the .50-caliber fluted barrel to 20 inches and you have a third variation called the Lightning Lightweight Magnum at 6.25 pounds.
All versions of the Lightning LD utilize the same action design and come with breechplug conversion kits that enable them to use No. 11 percussion caps, the larger musket caps, or 209 shotshell primers. I decided to go with the latter for my hunt.
Pushing the bolt forward and rotating it slightly to the right cocks the firing pin and locks it into position. The system works fine, but nudging the bolt forward does require plenty of muscle behind a strong hand in order to compress the heavy firing pin spring. I had no problem with it, but my wife did. The loading port is a bit cramped for big fingers so the use of a capper in lieu of attempting to place a cap or primer into position with the fingers is a must with this rifle. If the handle of the bolt is held downward as it is retracted, it will automatically make contact with the safety lever and push it to its “On” position. This is an excellent design detail. The bolt is easily removed from the receiver for cleaning by pushing the two-position safety lever located at the right-hand side of the receiver to its “Off” position and holding the trigger down while withdrawing the bolt.
The stock is held to the barreled action by a socket-head bolt up front and a slotted-head receiver at the tang. Removal of the entire fire control system is easily accomplished by simply turning out a couple of screws that hold it to the bottom of the receiver. This greatly simplifies the cleaning chore since once the trigger is removed the entire receiver can be submerged in water. Removing the trigger also better exposes its innards for cleaning. Trigger pull weight averaged about 6.5 pounds, and even though it is adjustable, its adjustment screws were sealed at the factory.
I liked the dimensions of the stock; its 13.75-inch length of pull is about right for me when I am wearing heavy clothing. Drop at comb was high enough for comfortable use with a low-mounted scope yet not too high to allow the eye to easily align with the fully adjustable fiber-optic sights. Shooting the rifle with 100 grains of Hodgdon’s new Triple Seven powder behind 300-grain Nosler bullets did make me wish the recoil pad was both thicker and softer. The stock comes equipped with posts for quick-detach sling swivels, and that’s a plus in my book.
All told, I fired the Lightning LD 73 times. With the rifle freshly cleaned, a fired 209 primer would easily drop out of its receptacle in the breechplug as the bolt was opened, but accumulated fouling from three firings would cause it to stay in place until I gave it a nudge with a fingernail. Not once during my testing did the rifle bobble, and accuracy was most certainly good enough for shooting a deer as far away as I would want to shoot one with a muzzleloader.
HODGDON’S 777 PROPELLANT
Hodgdon now has two blackpowder substitute propellants–the perennial favorite Pyrodex and the new Triple Seven. Chris Hodgdon tells me that when the two are compared on an equal basis, the new H777 propellant generates 15 to 20 per
cent more energy than Pyrodex RS, Pyrodex Select, and Pyrodex pellets. According to Chris, when both are loaded behind projectiles of the same weight, 100 grains of 777 would produce the same velocity as 115 to 120 grains of Pyrodex. Since the quality and strength of muzzleloaders can and do vary, Hodgdon has established 100 grains as the maximum that should be used in .45- and .50-caliber rifles, although the charge can be boosted to 120 grains in .54-caliber rifles.
The new powder is suitable for use in all types of muzzleloaders, but for reliable ignition in flintlocks Hodgdon recommends dropping five grains of FFFg granulation blackpowder into the bore before pouring the main charge of H777 on top of it. It can be used with patched ball, lubed conical bullets, and saboted bullets and is also suitable for use in cap and ball revolvers. Hodgdon’s data sheet shows a Ruger Old Army delivering a velocity of 987 fps when loaded with 35.0 grains of FFFg H777 and a .457-inch ball. Hodgdon warns that 777 should not be used in muzzleloading shotguns with Damascus barrels.
Either FFg or FFFg H777 can be used in .45-and .50-caliber rifles, but Hodgdon recommends only FFg H777 for the .54 caliber. I tried the two granulations in the .50-caliber Traditions LD, and both accuracy and velocity were about the same although FFg H777, the coarser of the two powders, did seem to leave behind a bit more fouling. While preparing for a mule deer hunt in New Mexico, I tried the two granulations and observed very little difference in velocity between them–although FFFg delivered noticeably better accuracy with the 175-grain Knight Red Hot bullet I planned to use on that hunt.
So how does H777 stack up against Pyrodex? In my experience, fouling left behind by the two propellants is equally difficult to remove from metal, although any good cleaner that works well with one works equally well with the other. I tried solvents from Traditions, Knight, and Remington, and all got the job done. I do, however, find that fouling builds up more slowly in the bore with H777 than with Pyrodex, and that allows more firings between cleanings. The residue left behind by H777 will cause rust to start forming on steel rather quickly so it should be removed as soon as possible after the rifle is fired, same as with Pyrodex and blackpowder. The longer it is allowed to remain on metal the more difficult it is to remove.
Accuracy is usually the same with both propellants, but where some rifles insist that their bores be swabbed between shots for top accuracy with Pyrodex, the newer powder will deliver the same level of accuracy when the barrel is swabbed only every three to five shots. I also found that differences in velocity delivered by equal charges of the two propellants varied when they were used in different rifles and projectiles of various weights and even when they were used behind the same projectile in the same rifle. Sometimes H777 delivered higher velocities, but at other times velocity was no higher or not as high as when Pyrodex was used.
Hodgdon’s new propellant produces almost as much smoke as Pyrodex, but it doesn’t seem to hang in the air quite as long on a still day. Best of all, and the main reason I plan to switch to H777, is the odor. Or I should say lack of odor. Triple Seven contains no sulfur so it does not have the rotten-egg smell of Pyrodex and blackpowder.
Due to the incredible success of Pyrodex Pellets, Hodgdon has made the decision to offer 777 in pelletized form. Initially, Hodgdon will offer the pellets in 50-grain size and only for .50-caliber muzzleloaders. A load data sheet is available from Hodgdon.
NOSLER SABOTED BULLETS
Of course, good powder and a good muzzleloading rifle are no good without a good bullet, and none are better than those made by Nosler, Two versions are available. The S.H.O.T. (Standard Hunting Or Target Sabot) saboted bullets are offered in .54 and .50 calibers. The .54 contains a 250-grain .45-caliber bullet while the two .50 calibers offer choices of a 250-grain .45-caliber bullet or a 300-grain .44-caliber bullet. All bullets are standard jacketed hollowpoints with plenty of lead exposed at the nose for reliable expansion. I have not taken game with either bullet while hunting with a muzzleloader, but I once bumped off a very nice Alaskan moose with Nosler’s .300-grain hollowpoint fired from a Smith & Wesson Classic DX in .44 Magnum. My handload consisted of the Remington case and primer along with 20.5 grains of H110 for around 1350 fps.
The Nosler Partition-HG has the widest performance window of any muzzleloader bullet I know of. It is the same bullet you and I handload in various handgun cartridges. Most jacketed hollowpoints of conventional design have an extremely narrow performance window that rarely exceeds 200 fps. In other words, if the bullet is constructed to expand at an optimum impact velocity of 1200 fps, it may not expand at all once velocity drops below 900 fps. By the same token, at impact velocities much higher than 1300 fps, the bullet is subject to excessive expansion where its jacket and core go their separate ways and penetration suffers as a result.
A large nose cavity combined with a thinly tapered jacket up front causes Nosler’s .44- and .45-caliber Partition-HG bullets to expand to a large frontal diameter at impact velocities as low as 1000 fps, yet their partitioned design allows them to retain a high percentage of their initial weight and penetrate deeply when impacting game at velocities as high as 2000 fps. This is why they work as well at close range as they do at long range and why they work on game ranging in size from smallish southern whitetails to elk, moose, and grizzly bears.
I especially like to use the 250-grain Partition-HG in an inline muzzleloader capable of handling three 50-grain Pyrodex Pellets. Some time back I tried that combination, and it averaged just over 2100 fps for 2475 ft-lbs of energy at the muzzle. When zeroed three inches high at 100 yards, that bullet landed a bit less than five inches low at 200 yards where it was still delivering around 1000 ft-lbs. Accuracy was not as good as with the same bullet pushed along by one less 50-grain pellet, but it still delivered minute-of-whitetail accuracy out to 200 yards.
One of the most spectacular kills I have ever made on big game was with the .45-caliber 260-grain Partition-HG, but it was fired from a Freedom Arms single-action revolver in .454 Casull rather than from a muzzleloader. After exiting the muzzle of my revolver at close to 1900 fps (about what you can get from it in a muzzl
eloader), the bullet leaped across the 50 yards separating me from a very large South Texas nilgai and dropped the animal in its tracks. Through the years I have taken upwards of two dozen of those animals with about every rifle and handgun cartridge you can think of, and that was one of very few that dropped in their tracks. Regardless of whether it is used in a handgun, muzzleloader, or rifle the Partition-HG is a serious big-game bullet.
And for in-line muzzleloader hunters, the Traditions Lightning LD, Hodgdon’s Triple Seven propellant, and Nosler’s Partition-HG sabot is a combination that offers serious muscle.
|Shooting Traditions .50-Caliber Lightning LD|
|Bullet||Powder||Muzzle Velocity (fps)||100 Yard Accuracy (inches)|
|Nosler 250-gr. Partition-HG||H777||80.0||1726||2.48|
|Nosler 250-gr. Partition-HG H777||H777||100.0||1822||2.17|
|Nosler 250-gr. S.H.O.T.||H777||100.0||1830||2.29|
|Nosler 260-gr. Partition-HG||H777||100.0||1808||3.11|
|Nosler 300-gr. Partition-HG||H777||100.0||1734||1.84|
|Nosler 300-gr. S.H.O.T.||H777||100.0||1755||2.51|
|NOTES: Powder charges are by volume, not by weight. Accuracy is the average of three three-shot groups fired from a sandbag benchrest at 100 yards. Velocity is the average of nine rounds measured 12 feet from the gun’s muzzle. Remington STS 209 primers and FFFg-granulation Triple Seven propellant were used. The barrel was swabbed with one patch moistened with Traditions bore cleaner after each three-shot group was fired.|