The first deer — a 145-class mature buck — had been shot with a load of 100 grains Hodgdon Triple Seven and a 250-grain Hornady SST bullet broadside at 90 yards. The stricken buck made it 150 yards before expiring and didn’t leave a drop of blood from the entrance hole. The second buck, shot a week later with the same bullet in the same location at 140 yards with a load of 150 grains of White Hot pellets, only went 30 yards and left a blood trail from both entrance and exit holes. So which load did the best job?
This isn’t the first time and probably not the last time that I’ve seen a vast difference between muzzleloader performances on deer with 100- and 150-grain powder loads. That said, both powder loads resulted in good hits and a dead deer, and there are so many variables involved that my analysis of the results would be far from scientifically valid. It’s only personal observation based on many years of guiding and hunting whitetails with a muzzleloader.
When I first started shooting muzzleloaders, an 80- to 90-grain load of blackpowder was considered adequate, while 100 grains was a heavy load. When inlines hit the scene with superior materials and workmanship in the barrels and actions and better designed stocks, 100 grains became the minimum and 150 grains the upper end of the scale. So, which is best?
The first and foremost criteria I require for any deer-hunting muzzleloader is accuracy. If it doesn’t shoot where I want it to, consistently, then it doesn’t make a darn bit of difference how efficient the load is. Secondly, I want a powder charge that gives me the most velocity possible while still maintaining pinpoint accuracy. The increased velocity means a flatter trajectory for longer shots and increased muzzle energy for better bullet performance and increased knockdown power.
Each and every muzzleloader has its own set of idiosyncrasies when it comes to digesting powder and bullets and spitting them back out, and the only way to get the best out of a muzzleloader is by testing and tuning until you find the combination that works best. Then you practice until you and your outfit are both as finely tuned as possible.
I’ve had muzzleloaders that shot 100-grain powder loads with certain bullets very accurately and wouldn’t group worth a darn with 150-grain loads. Others have performed better with 150-grain loads than 100-grain loadings, and several of my inlines are equally accurate with either loading.
To get a comparison of the differences in 100-grains versus 150-grain loadings, I started out using my super-accurate Knight Long Range muzzleloader with the superb Hornady SST bullet and Harvester black Crush Rib sabots, since I didn’t have enough of the equally easy-loading and accurate Hornady Easy Load sabots to complete the whole test. However, halfway through the testing I experienced trigger problems with my LR rifle and switched to my equally accurate Knight DISC rifle with the same length barrel and twist rate to finish the tests. I used Hodgdon 777 FFG powder along with the new Blackhorn 209 loose powder and my favorite pelletized powder, Hodgdon White Hots, in both 100- and 150-grain loadings for comparisons. (See accompanying sidebar.)
These tests produced results very similar to previous tests I have conducted on various powders. Since I do my testing on an open range in my yard or in an open meadow a few miles from the house, there are a variety of extenuating circumstances including humidity, wind, etc., that can cause minor fluctuations in results as opposed to tests done under controlled laboratory circumstances.
In my opinion, the two most informative tests were bullet performance in ballistic gel and actual drop rates under field conditions.
Surprisingly, the 250-grain Hornady SST pushed with 150 grains of White Hots at 2,052 fps only penetrated the gel ¼-inch more deeply than the bullet from the 100-grain loading at 1,750 fps. The 150-grain load penetrated 6¾ inches of gel while the 100-grain load penetrated 6½ inches. However, the wound channel of the heavier load was twice the width of the wound channel produced with the lower powder charge. This indicated more energy transmitted from the bullet to the gel, which would result in a larger wound channel and more hydrostatic shock to a whitetail.
The highest difference in average velocity was with White Hot pellets, and this only amounted to 302 fps — which equates to approximately 50 ft./lb. of muzzle energy. This is less than half of that produced by a .22 long rifle bullet. This slight gain could easily be negated by a variety of variables under hunting conditions.
In my estimation, muzzle energy is often overrated as a criteria for the killing power of a bullet/powder combination. Bullet weight and design, sectional density and, most important of all, bullet placement, can be far more important determining factors in how a critter reacts to a hit.
Bullet trajectory under hunting conditions is the main criteria for consistent and proper bullet placement on that big buck, and this factor really separates the 100-grain loading from the 150-grain loading.
I sighted my Knight for a dead-center hit at 75 yards with a 100-grain charge behind the SST and followed the 100-grain powered shot with a 150-grain shot. The two bullet holes at this distance were almost touching with the 150-grain load only ½-inch higher. At 150 yards the 100-grain load was only ½-inch lower than the 150 loading. The 150-grain load dropped 5 inches below the center of the target compared to 5½ inches for the 100-grain load. Both are well within acceptable and effective hunting accuracy and trajectory. However, at 200 yards, the 100-grain load really fell off and was 17¾ inches below the center line on the bull’s-eye. The 150-grain load was only 9 ½ inches low.
Given the results of these tests, I feel the 100-grain powder load is adequate for whitetails under most hunting conditions out to 150 yards — provided the shooter spends time to tune his shooting ability to match the loading. However, I’ll stick to my favorite loading of 150 grains of loose powder or three Hodgdon White Hot pellets with either the Hornady 250-grain SST bullet and EZ Load sabots or the Barnes 250-grain solid copper, poly-tipped boattail TMZ bullet with a Harvester Crush Rib sabot. Both of these loads will consistently shoot 1-inch groups at 100 yards from several of my tuned deer muzzleloaders and are capable of consistent clean kills out to 200 yards.
The key to whitetail muzzleloader hunting success lies not so much in whether you choose the 100- or 150-grain load, but in how you hunt with the load of choice. Spend sufficient time to acquaint yourself with every idiosyncrasy of your muzzleloader and find the best possible powder/bullet/sabot combination for your particular hunting situation. Then practice long and hard to consistently obtain the best results your outfit has to offer. Lastly, confining shooting and hunting tactics within the limitations presented by your choices is bound to greatly increase your chances of whitetail muzzleloader hunting success.
Cooney’s 100- vs. 150-grain Test Results
3-Shot Velocity Avg. Extreme Spread Group (inches)
Hodgdon 777 ffg: 1,887 fps 8 fps 1-1/8
Blackhorn 209 1,856 fps 51 fps 1-3/8
Hodgdon White Hot Pellets 1,750 fps 39 fps 7/8
Hodgdon 777 ffg: 1,126 fps 45 fps 1-4/8
Blackhorn 209 (120 grs.) 1,992 fps 16 fps 1-1/4
Hodgdon White Hot Pellets 2,052 fps 10 fps 1
Velocity Difference Between 100 Grains And 150 Grains:
Hodgdon 777 ffg: 239 fps
Blackhorn 209 (100 vs. 120): 136 fps
(120 grains is maximum recommended load)
Hodgdon White Hot Pellets: 302 fps