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Straight Shooters Cast Bullets
Rifle Magazine
May - June 2000
Volume 32, Number 3
ISSN: 0162-3583
Number 189
On the cover...
The C. Sharps Model 1874 Sporting Rifle (Hartford
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Rifle Magazine
Caliber .54

Writing a piece that may end for the reader in a few sentences is not good journalism, but this month’s epistle could self-destruct in the first paragraph. Yet the subject is undeniably important to many blackpowder shooters. It’s about caliber .54, which remains second only to the .50 in sales.

Truth is, a hunter who goes after deer-sized game only and who shoots conical bullets does not need a .54-caliber muzzleloader. A .50 is more than sufficient. Furthermore, with elongated bullets, calibers .45 and even .40 carry plenty of mass plus sufficient velocity potential to render them deadly. Going bigger than .50, however, can provide a terrific advantage for those who want to shoot the roundball. It’s easy to see why the .54-caliber “spherical bullet,” as it was once known, is fairly close to ideal for most muzzleloader hunting today in this country: It carries good weight while not readily crushed under the heavy law of diminishing returns.

A .50-caliber ball, .490-inch diameter, weighs 177 grains, while a .495-inch .50 goes 183 grains, good for deer up to perhaps 125 yards with perfect bullet placement, deadly on larger game at close range. I’ve seen bull elk dumped with one 177-grain, .50-caliber roundball in the chest cavity delivered from about 50 yards. However, a .54-caliber, .530-inch lead pill tips the scales at 225 grains, a .535-inch at 230 grains.

Obviously, there’s a heap of weight difference between .50- and .54-caliber lead globes. That’s because weight increases disproportional to caliber. Comparing a smaller with a larger ball glaringly reveals this truth: a .350-inch roundball weighs only 65 grains. Double it to .700 inch and you don’t get 130 grains; instead, weight escalates all the way up to 516 grains.

So why not go bigger than .54 with the roundball? Nothing wrong with that plan. Since high velocity as we know it is out of the question with blackpowder, bigger bullets are always better, and huge caliber roundballs have taken every game animal on earth, including elephants. But there is a problem - a little gremlin called the law of diminishing returns that allows only so much powder to burn in so big a tunnel before things begin to go south. For example, a .58-caliber, .570-inch roundball weighs 279 grains in pure lead, which is excellent, but it takes a lot of powder to shove that pill at even 1,500 fps, let alone the 1,900 to 2,000 fps possible with the .54 caliber.

Taking three real-life examples into account - the .50-caliber Ithaca Hawken, my own custom .54 and a .58-caliber Navy Arms Hawken Hunter - the .50 propels its 177-grain, .490-inch roundball at 1,977 fps with 110 volume GOEX FFg blackpowder; the .54 drives a 230-grain ball at a bit over 1,900 fps with 120 volume FFg; while the .58 shoves its 279-grain ball 1,550 fps with 140 volume of the same powder. Energywise, the .58 has the potential to whip the two smaller calibers, but only with reasonable muzzle velocity, which comes only from huge powder charges that promote considerable recoil, noise and smoke.

Furthermore, the “average” .58-caliber roundball shooting rifle is not allowed super-size powder charges by the manufacturer, so here is what happens: 100 yards from the muzzle, the .50-caliber ball delivers 485 foot-pounds (ft-lbs) of energy, the .54 almost 700 ft-lbs, while the .58 packs 589 ft-lbs, considering the velocities given each above. I rest my case for the .54-caliber roundball compared with the .50 and the .58, echoing once again, however, that if the latter can be driven at 1,700 fps at the muzzle, or faster, it will stomp on anything smaller, because the larger the ball gets, the better it retains velocity/energy.

So the .54-caliber roundball is deadly at close range. If that’s true, then the .54 conical has to be a powerhouse in a rifle allowed a healthy powder charge, and it is. Comparing two Knight rifles in calibers .50 and .54, a 385-grain conical in front of 120 Pyrodex RS by volume takes off at close to 1,500 fps from the .50-caliber rifle with a muzzle energy of 1,900 ft-lbs, while a 425-grain conical from the .54 with the same powder charge delivers 1,550 fps for a muzzle energy close to 2,300 ft-lbs. At 100 yards, the .50 delivers a 1,150 ft-lb blow, while the .54 cracks the ballistic nut at over 1,450 ft-lbs. That’s a significant difference, but because of heavy bullets available in .50 caliber, along with rifles that are allowed big powder charges, the .54 does not outshine its smaller cousin in the practical sense. Of course, it could with truly heavy missiles, just as a .58-caliber muzzleloader shooting heavy conicals whips either the .50 or .54, if the rifle is allowed a heavy powder charge.

For example, my old Navy Arms .58-caliber Hawken Hunter is sanctioned for big loads, digesting 150 grains volume RS with a 625-grain conical for a muzzle energy over 2,700 ft-lbs with a remaining energy at 100 yards of over 1,800 ft-lbs. In the .50 with the Pyrodex Pellet, which flies in a new galaxy, three pellets equal 150 grains by volume, and that’s a lot of fuel.

This is not a lynching of the .54 shooting conicals, because it does not have to burn a fistful of powder to slay the dragon. For example, in recent tests of a Markesbery .54-caliber Outer-Line rifle, maximum was held at 120 grains volume, which drove a 425-grain conical bullet at 1,525 fps muzzle velocity for a starting energy nipping the heels of 2,200 ft-lbs of energy, greater than a long ton. Put a hunter within 100 yards of the biggest bull elk in Christiandom with that load and prime eatin’ is as good as packaged when that big bullet finds the boiler room or front shoulder.

The .54 Markesbery also danced to the tune of “high velocity” (for a muzzleloader) with three .50-caliber Pyrodex Pellets shooting a 225-grain saboted bullet at 2,300 fps for over 2,600 ft-lbs of muzzle energy. Incidentally, using .50-caliber Pyrodex Pellets in a .54 is okay. There are also examples of authority with much less powder in .54s shooting conicals, including 110 volume RS in the Knight MK-85 with a 460-grain roundnose Buffalo Bullet flatbase conical for over 1,400 fps and about 2,100 ft-lbs of muzzle energy, well under the 2,600 ft-lbs delivered at the muzzle with the 225-grain bullet, but trust me: That bigger bullet is deadlier on moose or elk.

So should anyone buy a .54-caliber frontloader these days? For roundball shooting, certainly, and wherever truly heavy conical bullets are either necessary or desired. But all in all, in spite of the fact most muzzleloaders are offered in both .50 and .54, the former will get the job done.

I still like the .54, and I own that caliber for both round and elongated bullets, but hunters enjoying special blackpowder seasons have turned to the modern muzzleloader in droves. They have also gotten away from the roundball, choosing from a huge inventory of jacketed bullets encased in plastic sabots that transfer rotational value from rifling to projectile. The heavyweight all-lead conical continues to have a following as well, as it should, especially for moose and elk.

Fortunately, bullet makers figured out that on deer the projectile must open up readily for best results, and so we have a railroad car full of hollowpoints available from many sources. Some of these bullets carry nose holes that are more cavern than hollowpoint, but they work, delivering energy in the target, rather than the tree beyond, and they are accurate, sometimes surprisingly so.

In .54 caliber, these open-nose projectiles perform admirably on deer, with heavy conicals waiting in reserve for heavy-duty work. Is caliber .54 necessary? Not for deer with open-point conicals at decent velocity, nor elk or moose with a .50 that’s allowed a big powder charge behind a heavy bullet. That’s just the way it is.

Rifle Reloading Guide
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