theres a heap of weight difference between .50- and .54-caliber lead globes. Thats
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 dont get 130 grains; instead, weight escalates all the way up
to 516 grains.
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.
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.
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
the .54-caliber roundball is deadly at close range. If thats 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.
Thats 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.
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 thats a
lot of fuel.
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.
.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.
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.
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.
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 thats allowed a big powder charge behind a heavy bullet. Thats
just the way it is.