Woe Is Me, Or, The Muzzleloading Curse
November 16, 2014
I’ve been pretty excited to try out these bismuth muzzleloader balls since they got here a few weeks ago. As I mentioned in a previous post, that wasn’t as simple as it should have been. First of all, I had to find a new nipple for the Hawken, since I’d removed the old one years ago, and as tiny-but-vital objects do, it disappeared. After a series of missteps on my part, ordering the wrong size, not once but twice, I finally found a new one and got the rifle put back together and ready to shoot.
Then, a couple of weekends ago, when I went to sight in, I realized I had no powder. By choice, I do not live in a place where I can run down to the corner sporting goods store and pick up odds and ends for my shooting and hunting habit. The Get-and-Go (our local C-store) and the hardware store carry a couple of boxes of standard ammunition, but you can forget finding anything for less common guns. As it turns out, traditional muzzleloading is anything but common around here. After an hour drive to town, and poking around the Oasis Outback (which is a pretty big store), I still couldn’t find it. The old guy at the counter didn’t even know what I was asking for, and the younger fella, on top of his game, couldn’t find anything but 777 pellets, which I can’t use in my Hawken. He told me that they don’t get any demand for muzzleloading gear. Texas only has muzzleloader seasons in 58 of its 254 counties… and Edwards, Real, and Uvalde are not on that list.
At any rate, as I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I finally bit the bullet and ordered some Pyrodex RS online, complete with the hazardous materials shipping fee.
So I got out there to shoot yesterday. I opened my box of percussion caps, and realized I was running a little low. But when I got done, I still had about 10 caps left. I stuck these in my capper (sort of a speed loader for percussion caps), and put it in my pocket with my other possibles. I went out and sat in my blind last night, but the deer came in from a different trail, so I didn’t get a shot. I pulled the cap off of the nipple, and on the dark walk back to the house, I tried to put it back into the capper with the others.
That was a mistake.
Somewhere between my house and the blind, in my effort to replace the unused cap, I managed to knock all but one of the remaining caps out of the capper. These things are tiny. Even in the daylight, the odds of finding them on the rocky ground are extremely slim. There’s no way on earth I’d have found them in the dark. I cursed the bad luck, but figured I really only need one shot. Two caps would be OK.
Are you shaking your head yet?
So I slipped out this morning, easing my way around to a different blind. I got set up, capped the rifle, and waited. It was a perfect morning, chilly and a light fog. It was the kind of day that just screams, “deer!”
Up the canyon a mile or so, I heard a rifle shot. A little later, I heard another shot from the other direction. At one point, way up on the ridgetops, I heard hogs fighting. An owl was perched on a broken oak branch… another patient hunter. It was just that perfect. On top of everything else, I had no doubt the deer would be moving and I would soon have my shot opportunity.
I was sort of daydreaming, maybe even nodding off a little, when I caught movement at the edge of the trees. A grey shape ghosted along the trail. I have to admit that I was hoping for an opportunity at that big eight point I’ve been watching, or maybe at the new, tall-racked eight point that recently showed up on my cameras, but this was a doe. Since I don’t eat antlers, and I enjoy watching those bucks as much as I would enjoy shooting them, the doe looked good to me. She was a healthy, mature animal, and she was by herself. I could shoot her and have her dragged down to the barn without really disrupting the patterns of the other animals.
I eased the rifle up, and thumbed the hammer back. Something didn’t look right, and I realized with dismay that the damned cap had fallen off. Moving in millimeters, I eased my hand into my pocket and withdrew the capper, and then slipped the final cap on the empty nipple. The doe had moved to within 40 yards, and seemed oblivious to my actions. I waited for her to turn broadside, slightly quartering away, and leveled the sights at the top of her shoulder. With a breath, I squeezed the trigger, forcing myself not to jerk it and to hold steady on my mark.
The hammer fell, and where I expected a Pop–Bang, all I got was a Pop (if you’ve never heard it, a #11 percussion cap sounds a bit like a .22 short going off)! The cap failed to ignite the powder charge… the cap and ball equivalent of a flash in the pan.
The doe’s head jerked up at the sound, but she didn’t seem too alarmed. After a moment, she put her head down and returned to whatever she was browsing. I picked up the empty capper, as if it might magically create just one more number 11 percussion cap. I looked around my feet in vain, hoping to catch the brassy glint of the lost cap. I dug through the pockets of my coat, hoping beyond hope that a cap had fallen out in there. It wasn’t to be.
I wanted to cry.
I cussed instead.
I’d left Iggy back in the yard, and at the sound of the cap going off, he started to whine (he thinks every shot means time to track or retrieve). The doe came to full alert and turned toward the house. Iggy’s whine became a mournful howl, and the doe had had enough. She high-stepped back up the trail and disappeared into the cedars.
I expect that I was a pretty dejected sight, walking back to the house with the unfired Hawken dangling useless from my hand.
So, About These Balls
At this point, it’s looking unlikely that I’ll actually get to shoot a deer with one of these bismuth balls, so I’ll share a little information that I do have.
First of all, they’re cast, round balls with a .485 diameter and a weight of 141 grains. They’re composed of 93% bismuth and 7% lead.
I forgot to ask where they got the materials to cast these things, but according to Ben (the guy who sent them to me), they come out to about 30 cents apiece to make. I know you can buy bismuth shot for reloading, and I expect this can be melted down and cast in a mold for your specific caliber. Here’s an update from Ben. The raw material for casting these balls can be found at a website called Rotometals. A one pound ingot sells (as of this post) for $19.99. Figure 7000 grains to a pound, and the balls are 141 grains apiece, so you’re looking at almost 50 balls to a pound, and a cost per ball of about $0.40. That’s a little more than twice what you pay for pre-cast, swaged, lead balls via a sporting goods outlet (appx. $17-$18 per 100). In my opinion, if you’re casting your own balls anyway, that’s really not an unbearable cost… especially since I found that the lead and bismuth shoot pretty close, which means I could practice with lead and sight-in and hunt with the bismuth.
As I think I mentioned yesterday, I’m able to get these things to group about 2″ at 50 yards out of my Cabela’s Hawken, using an 80 grain charge of Pyrodex RS. That’s as good as I’ve ever been able to get this rifle to shoot, and personally, I think that’s plenty adequate for hunting. It certainly gave me plenty of confidence.
While I was sitting in my blind last night, I found one of the spent balls from my sight-in session. I’m not sure its exact route to the floor of my blind (the blind is about 100 yards uphill from my shooting bench), but it had at least passed through a sheet of 1/2″ plywood and some cedar brush. Aside from some scuffs and one minor gouge, the ball was pretty much intact enough to be reused. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not, as I would expect a little more deformation. However, I’ve recovered lead balls in the past that didn’t show a lot of damage either, so this is probably consistent, regardless of the composition.