Hacker's Hunting Lodge
by Rick Hacker
.54 or .58?
A few years back, I unleashed a torrent of mail, all aimed with deadly accuracy at my post office box, regarding a column in which I wrote I didn't consider a .45 caliber rifle the optimum choice for deer. Most of the most vitriolic responses came from the east coast, and the south, where the .45 has been used quite effectively for deersized game. Most of the supporting letters came from the western states, where the .50 reigns supreme. Even my old friend Turner Kirkland of Dixie Gun Works took the time to write a very gentlemanly letter explaining why the .45 was the caliber of choice for many folks in his part of the country. But perhaps the most telling letter was a somewhat caustic missive in which the writer (a non-NMLRA member, I might add) snidely concluded, ``I guess you must have bigger deer out west than we have back east.''
Well, that was exactly the point. We do have bigger deer in the west. Both whitetails and of course, mulies. And for those bigger deer, you need a bigger bullet and a heftier powder charge.
Now comes a letter from NMLRA member Robert Smith of Bellvue, Colorado. A recent convert to blackpowder hunting, he references my November 1995 column (In Search Of The Ultimate Hawken), in which I stated that the .54 was the only true caliber for big game hunting. ``However,'' he writes, ``some experienced hunters tell me that the .58 should be the minimum. Comments, please?''
Although .50 is still the most popular caliber for all around big game hunting, the .54 comes in second, according to the total number of guns sold. Ever since my first elk hunt, so many years ago, it has remained my overall choice for deersized game and bigger. Certainly there is no contest between the knockdown power of a .54 over a .50, and especially over a .45. I am not saying that these lesser calibers will not kill cleanly and humanely, if the shot is placed correctly and the powder charge is sufficient to deliver enough penetration to enable the round ball or conical to reach the vitals. Shock and killing power (i.e., striking energy) plays a big part in downing game, especially game that is spooked, is running, and has its adrenaline pumped up. It is here that the bigger balls and conicals come into play. So the obvious question Robert is asking is, if a .54 is better, then why not a .58?
A couple of answers. First, generally speaking, the .54 is far more accurate than the .58 when shooting hunting loads of 85 plus grains of FFG (depending on gun and caliber) . With a .54, average size of 100 yard bench rested groups are 2 to 4 inches. With a .58, these groups open up to 3 to 7 inches. Secondly, there are more .54s to choose from than .58s, so the hunter has a better selection to make. Third, most .54s are fairly consistent in their land to land bore size, but not so with the .58s. Replica .58 muzzleloaders exhibit a surprisingly wide variance in bore diameter (due to a widely divergent set of tolerances between manufacturers). This makes it especially difficult in working up a good hunting load, as not only must the right powdercharge be found, but also the right bullet. With a .54, it's not as critical, although finding the right bullet is a part of working up a good load. But just buying a box of .58 round balls or conicals will not guarantee the best accuracy or the easiest loading. The tolerances in most of the bigger bored frontloaders are simply too unpredictable.
So all things considered, I find the .54 to be the ideal hunting caliber, as it provides the accuracy of the .45 and .50 with far greater striking energy. The .58 simply loses out, by comparison, in the accuracy department. And because I can already hear the question being asked, my favorite .54 hunting load is 100 grains of FFG with a 435 grain conical. This will work out of most slow twist barrels; use a slightly heavier bullet for fast twists.
Now I think I'll settle back and wait for the mail from all the irate .58 hunters.
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