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Muzzleloader season right around the corner

| Friday, Sept. 26, 2008

Mornings are crisp and cool, the sun is rising a bit later every day, and tree leaves are beginning to show just a hint of fall color. Officially, it's autumn and the fall muzzleloading rifle season is about three weeks away. If you have an antlerless deer tag, a muzzleloader stamp on your 2008-09 hunting license and, of course, a "smokepole," you're all set.

While there is a trend followed by some toward modern "in-line" muzzleloaders, flintlock ignition rifles shooting patched roundballs are still preferred by a good number of black powder shooters who value tradition and true "primitive weapon" hunting. I call them the "purists."

So for newcomers to the "purist" muzzleloader ranks, properly loading a flintlock and shooting patched roundball ammo can be a bit of an enigma. One of the most frequent questions about muzzleloading shooting is how to load for optimum accuracy.

Roundball ammo is not noted for exceptional accuracy; nevertheless, when shooting at ranges of 100 yards or less, excellent field accuracy can be achieved with roundball fodder. The degree of accuracy, however, depends on at least a half dozen factors.

First and foremost is the rate of twist in the barrel. While modern in-lines designed to shoot conical bullets have a fast rate of twist, around one turn in 28 inches (1:28) or thereabouts, the best roundball accuracy is obtained from barrels having a rate of twist ranging from 1:60 to 1:72. Considering the latter, 1:72 means the rifling in the barrel will make one complete turn every 72 inches. Therefore, in a typical 28-inch barrel the rifling would make just a bit more than one-third of a full turn.

Many off-the-shelf rifles sold today have a compromise twist, 1:48, ostensibly to shoot both roundball and conical projectiles with an acceptable degree of accuracy for either. Keep in mind, the best accuracy for patched roundball shooting is obtained with slow rates of twist such as 1:60 to 1:72. However, rifles with a 1:48 twist shouldn't be discounted as viable and reliable hunting arms. We say that because of other factors that contribute to good accuracy. If you have a rifle with a 1:48 twist barrel, there's no need to run out and buy a new gun.

Accuracy is also contingent on the size of the roundball and, perhaps more importantly, patch thickness. In .50 caliber rifles (by far the most common flintlock caliber) two roundball sizes are used -- .490 and .495. Personally, I tend to shy away from the .495 simply because after two or three shots, despite a quick scrubbing, the bore becomes fouled, making running a larger size ball down the bore more difficult.

A .50 caliber rifle may have grooves cut .015 deep, essentially giving a maximum groove to groove diameter of .530. Of course, exact depth of grooves and width of lands in barrels may vary slightly depending on the manufacturer.

Basically, if we shoot a .490 roundball in a .50 caliber barrel, we need a .020 thick patch to "fill in the gap." The exact patch thickness that gives the best accuracy, however, can range from .015 to .020. Proper thickness is best determined by what works best, and that means doing a lot of careful range shooting. A patch of proper thickness will help keep the bore cleaner as well as yield better accuracy.

Visually inspecting fired patches is a good way to determine if the patch thickness being used is right for a particular rifle. Fired patches are usually found 15 to 25 feet or so from the muzzle after firing. If the patch is burned through, either the patch material is too thin or it was not lubed sufficiently.

Some fraying around the edges is to be expected; however, badly frayed patches may indicate that the patch is too thick. (Another possibility is that the fraying is caused by a rough bore, however, that is not a likely possibility. In extreme cases, a rough bore can be lapped though rough bores will gradually become smoother with more shooting).

It was mentioned that burned patches may be an indication of insufficient application of patch lube. Patch lube performs multiple duties. One, it makes running the patched roundball down the bore easier. Two, a sufficient amount of lube will prevent hot gasses from burning the patch material. It also cuts down on friction therefore giving a slightly higher velocity.

A good patch lube also helps suspend black powder fouling in the bore making cleaning easier. I guess the old-time mountain men weren't too fussy and used old-fashioned and readily available spit as a patch lube, but that's one tradition on which I'll pass. Spit just won't do the job that commerical lubes will.

A variety of patch lubes are available on the market. Shooters may also buy pre-lubed patches. If pre-lubed patches are not allowed to sit around for a while, they work fine.

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