Question: Tony, we know you only hunt with a muzzleloader. When we’re talking about bullet drop, what’s the difference between bullet drop from your range in Tennessee to the ranges in the mountains of Colorado or Wyoming?
Smotherman: That’s a good question. Your bullet drop will be less the higher up you go, because the higher the elevation at which you’re hunting, the less the bullet drop you’ll have. Remember, the air is thicker in the East, so you’ll have more bullet drop in most places in the East than you will in the West. Also, bullet drop will vary depending on the altitude at which you’re hunting. However, the difference when you sight-in your rifle in the East and when you sight-in your rifle in the West won’t be significant. You more than likely won’t see a 12-inch difference between these two regions. You may see a 2- or a 3-inch difference. But if you’re shooting a target, that bullet drop may be the difference between hitting in that 10 ring or hitting in the 12 ring. Again, accuracy is more important than knockdown power.
Question: Let’s talk about hunting elk. What makes taking elk so tough on a muzzleloader rifle hunt?
Smotherman: For me, it’s climbing those mountains. Too, when hunting in big, open country, you have to shoot at long distances. The hide and the hair of an elk are much thicker than the hide and the hair on a white-tailed deer. An elk has 1,000 pounds of body mass, while the white-tailed deer has only 150 to 250 pounds of body mass. That’s the reason I prefer to shoot larger bullets when I’m hunting elk. As a muzzleloading hunter, I harvest the animal with kinetic energy delivered, not velocity. Our bullets fly at about 1,800 feet per second, whereas a centerfire rifle bullet flies at about 3,000 or 3,500 feet per second. Although a muzzleloader bullet hits the animal much slower than a centerfire rifle bullet, it hits much harder due to of its weight. Therefore, muzzleloading hunters have to rely more on kinetic energy, and you need a lot of kinetic energy to knock a big elk off its feet.
Question: What bullet do you shoot, and why?
Smotherman: I shoot the 300-grain PowerBelt Platinum AeroTip Bullet, which is easy to load. Elk are such large animals that they can soak up 300-grain bullets. So being able to load quickly and getting that second shot will be extremely important to the success of my hunt. Also, I like having a 300 bullet, because it creates a lot of kinetic energy. Too, a heavier bullet at longer ranges will shoot flatter than a smaller bullet at that same distance. A lighter bullet will fly faster, but the mass and the kinetic energy of the 300 grain bullet allow it to hold its velocity longer, because it has more mass moving forward than a smaller bullet does. For example, if a Volkswagen Bug and a 1962 Cadillac are both running at 60-miles per hour, and you slam-on the brakes in both vehicles, the Volkswagen will stop much quicker, because it has less forward-moving mass than the Cadillac does. You can use this same comparison for heavy versus lighter bullets. If you’re shooting a 250- or a 300-grain bullet, the 300-grain bullet will go further and drop less energy than the 250-grain bullet will. So, for long-range shooting out West on elk or mule deer, the 300-grain bullet will have more kinetic energy and shoot flatter at those longer distances than the 250-grain bullet will.
Question: What powder do you use, and why?
Smotherman: I prefer Blackhorn 209 loose powder. This powder shoots unbelievably clean. Too, I can get better accuracy with this powder than I can with other powders in my CVA rifle.
Question: How much powder do you use?
Smotherman: I’m using the equivalent of 150 grains of powder for elk. Remember that most blackpowder guns are magnum guns designed to be able to take magnum charges and shoot 150 grains of powder. However, because of the formulation of Blackhorn 209, this powder is somewhat hotter than other versions of loose powder, and it’s harder than powder substitutes. Therefore, even though my gun will shoot 150 grains of powder, when I’m shooting Blackhorn powder, I have to reduce the charge to 110 -115 grains of powder, because the Blackhorn 209 powder is extremely hot. Blackhorn powder gives you more bang for the bucks you spend. Remember that although most magnum guns can shoot 150 grains of powder, each blackpowder gun works better at different loads and powder charges. Although my truck’s speedometer is set at 125 mph, my truck doesn’t perform its best at that speed; likewise, even though a muzzleloader can shoot 150 grains of powder, this may not be where the gun will perform at its best. So, determine at what powder charge your gun will shoot the most accurately. I can shoot the most accurately in my gun with 110 to 115 grains of Blackhorn 209 powder. I can shoot more powder, but that additional powder pushes the bullet harder and faster, thereby making the bullet not as stable as it can be and opens-up my groups (space between each shot). I get better accuracy shooting a magnum charge of 115 grains of Blackhorn 209 than I do shooting 150 grains of Blackhorn 209. Remember, it’s not how hard the bullet hits the animal that ensures a lethal hit; it’s where the bullet is placed. So, accuracy is far-more important than knockdown power. I want to shoot the maximum velocity I can with the greatest accuracy. Every one of my CVA rifles – whether I’m shooting the Apex or the Accura – all prefer a powder charge of 110 to 115 grains of powder.