These days there are many quality muzzleloaders capable of precision accuracy at 200 yards. But maximizing muzzleloader accuracy is more difficult than shooting tight groups with a centerfire rifle. You have to start with a solid platform. This means you need a quality gun. What makes a quality gun? Well, a good barrel, a solid stock and a decent trigger. Pretty much everything else is an accessory.
You need good sights, whether open sights or optics. You need a good bullet that shoots well from your gun and you need good powder. To figure out the right amount of powder, you’ll have to shoot a lot. Developing a great muzzleloader load is like developing a cooking recipe. You add a little of this and take away a little of that until it’s just right.
Tony Smotherman, a Realtree Pro-Staff member and host of “Travelin’ Hunter,” makes his living shooting a muzzleloader. He travels the country hunting different animals in new places. If he doesn’t succeed in his hunt, he doesn’t have a TV show. He has to know his muzzleloader is shooting right.
“The old phrase ‘it’s not the fiddle, it’s the fiddle player’ has never been more true than when it comes to making a muzzleloader accurate at long distance. Muzzleloading is not much different than archery in the sense that an archer has to practice a lot before he heads to the timber to hunt. I believe that muzzleloader hunters should practice as much as an archer, or more, so they really understand the complexities of their weapon,” Smotherman said.
Along with being a noted guide in Montana, Chad Schearer hosts the hunting show, “Shoot Straight.” Schearer is also a Realtree pro-staff member, and he too relies heavily on muzzleloading equipment to bring home the bacon.
“Having been a big game guide for over 20 years, I always want to take the most ethical, effective shot I can. Personally, I shoot a great amount and can stretch a shot out if needed. If you are going to shoot longer distances, then I truly believe consistency is the key to long-range shooting with a modern muzzleloader,” Schearer said.
It would take multiple books to outline the combined knowledge of these two muzzleloader hunting professionals, but we’re going to try to cover the bases here.
SWAB BETWEEN SHOTS
A lot of fouling occurs when shooting a muzzleloader. Enough, in fact, from each shot to slightly alter the direction of your bullet. You might not notice it at 50 yards, but when you start stretching out to 200 yards, the deviation increases.
“Consistency is the biggest requirement for getting muzzleloader performance out past the 200-yard mark. If you want your gun to shoot the same every time, you need to swab the bore between shots,” Smotherman says. “This will ensure that every shot is the exact same in bore resistance and chamber pressure. I know it is a pain to swab so much, but this one step will make a huge difference in down-range accuracy.”
Contrary to the beliefs of former NBA star Allen Iverson, nothing matters more than practice. If you want to be accurate beyond 200 yards with a muzzleloader, then there is no magic formula. You need to put in time at the range and experiment with different loads and accessories.
“One thing to keep in mind when you’re at the range practicing is to seat your bullet exactly the same way each time. Mark your ramrod to make sure the bullet is seated exactly at the same place against your powder,” Schearer said.
If you are going to be shooting a muzzleloader out to 100 yards, I highly recommend a good scope. Shooting at 200 yards without a good scope is virtually impossible for the average hunter. Good is defined by glass and quality is represented by price. The more expensive the scope, chances are, the higher the quality of glass. Quality matters most in low-light conditions, which just happen to be when you are taking most of your shots.
“Good optics are a must on long shots. Always buy the best glass you can afford,” said Schearer. “And ballistic reticles can really help with longer shots.”
USE A HEAVY BULLET
The bullet debate hinges on weight. Some preach speed while other preach knock-down power. Serious long-range shooters consider both.
“I match the bullet weight to the game I’m hunting. On deer-sized animals, a 250-grain bullet is very effective,” said Schearer. A lighter bullet might reach a 200-yard target a little faster, but a heavier bullet will retain more energy.
Smotherman explains, “The lighter a bullet is, the quicker it runs out of steam, and the heavier a bullet is, the longer it will carry its energy. Even though the trajectory isn’t as flat, I believe a heavier bullet is a better choice for long-range shots.”
Personally, I prefer a 300-grain bullet because I like the knock-down power and greater wind resistance.
KEEP THE POWDER CONSISTENT
Most muzzleloaders can handle up to 150 grains of powder, but that does not mean that they shoot well with that amount. “Just because a gun will shoot 150 grains doesn’t mean that’s the best load. I shoot 120 grains. It pushes my bullets fast, but not to the point that they get erratic flight,” Smotherman said.
Chamber pressure is the amount of pressure the powder builds up when it is ignited by the primer. If this pressure varies much it will cause the bullet to leave the barrel faster or slower, thus making the bullet have a different impact point on the target. Swapping from one brand of powder to another is likely to cause some differences in chamber pressure. Find a powder that delivers good performance from your gun and stick with it.
KEEP HER STEADY
At the range, you are sitting all nice and comfy on a chair or bench seat. Your rifle is on a rest and your crosshairs are steady. In the field, you just hoofed it up a long hill, so you’re sweating and out of breath. You’re trying to hold your rifle offhand, and the crosshairs are dancing like a chicken walking on lava. Don’t shoot. Force yourself to find a steady rest.
“I will not take a long shot without a very steady rest. In most hunting situations I try to find a natural rest that is rock-solid, or I use my pack in the prone position. I am also a fan of using a bipod that mounts on your gun,” Schearer said.
If you hope to be accurate with a muzzleloader beyond 200 yards, then buy the best equipment you can afford and spend a lot of time at the range. Dialing in at long distances isn’t rocket science. You can do it. But you’ll need to find the right muzzleloader and match it with the right bullet and powder charge. When you get it right and start punching tight groups at 200 yards, you’ll find the work was worth it.
Editor's note: This Realtree.com article was first published January 3, 2013.