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12 Gauge Round Ball Loads for Big Game (Updated)

posted Aug 25, 2010, 1:52 PM by Peter Lucas   [ updated Nov 11, 2011, 7:57 AM ]
Muzzle loading shotguns were popular during their time due to their versatility.   Properly loaded, the muzzle loading shotgun could be used for hunting virtually any North American game from small doves, right up to elk or moose.  Over the years, I have hunted with a muzzle loading rifle in a number of the Colorado muzzle loading big game seasons.  However, lately I have wanted to make full use of the versatility of my shotgun and use it for hunting big game. Unfortunately, the Colorado regulations preclude the use double barreled guns during the muzzle loading seasons.  At present, I do not have a single barreled shotgun which I would feel comfortable shooting at big game.  Consequently, my desire to try shooting big game with a muzzle loading shotgun has largely been restricted to day dreaming.

    Early this summer, my brother (who is currently living in Anchorage) found a Craig's List posting for a discounted Caribou Hunt in Northern Alaska.  We both jumped at the chance to go Caribou hunting again and we booked a trip for mid-September. Since I am able to shoot any legal firearm on this trip,  I have decided to attempt to take my Caribou using a patched 12 gauge round ball from a muzzle loading shotgun. 

My first choice for the gun was is my new over/under side hammer shotgun.  The gun was recently made for my by Tom Hart of Canyon City, Colorado.  Tom has a unique side hammer or "mule ear" design for his shotguns.  As shown in the accompanying pictures,  the hammers are mounted on the side of the gun, allowing the nipple to be threaded directly into the barrels of the gun.  This results in a very short ignition path.   

    I had Tom make the receiver of  my gun from Aluminum Bronze, as I hope to get some engraving done on the receiver in the future.
The gun was made using modern shotgun barrels.  However, I am reluctant to load to gun too heavily.  The round balls which I am using are .715 inches in diameter and weigh 550 grains.  Five hundred fifty grains is equivalent to approximately 1 1/4 ounces.   Since the barrels have been proof tested with double that weight of shot, I feel pretty safe with a round ball and 3 drams (approximately 82 grains measured by volume) of Pyrodex. 

   For those of you who are looking closely at these pictures, the Hart side hammer is ambidextrous, in that the hammers can be placed on either side of the receiver.  I shoot from the left side since my left eye is dominant.  Consequently, the hammers are currently on the left side of the gun. 

   Unfortunately, the comb on my over/under is a little high and it is shooting about 18 inches high at 35-40 yards. I have mostly been shooting the gun on the trap range and this has not been a problem for trap where the bird are rising.  However, this would require too much "Kentucky Windage" for my Caribou hunt.
Note: this is the original meaning of the term "Kentucky Windage".   In modern usage, the term Kentucky Windage refers to aiming into the wind to compensate for wind drift.   However, the term originated from the use of fixed sights on Kentucky rifles. The only way to adjust the sight was to move where you aimed. I my case, I would have to aim a foot and half low in order to hit the target with my new side-hammer.  This problem can be corrected by lowering the comb on the stock.  However, that will take more time than I currently have.

Due to the shortness of time, I decided to use one of my Pedersoli SxS shotguns instead.  

Six shot group fired off hand -- three shots from each barrel.  The three shots on the left were fired from the left barrel and the three shots on the right came from the right barrel.
  I have two Pedersoli SxS guns. Both have removable choke tubes and the guns are largely identical.  The primary difference is that the newer gun has nice figure in the stock, making it nicer to look at.  I took newer Pedersoli's to the range a couple of nights ago.  I have always felt that the barrels on this Pedersoli were not particularly well regulated.   This trip to the range after work confirmed my concerns about how the barrels were regulated. The left barrel on this gun was shooting just a little low and at little left.  The right barrel, however, was shooting approximately 2 feet to right at 25 yards.  I gave up on this Pedersoli and went home very discouraged.

    The next evening I took the older Pedersoli to the range.  This gun shot much better.  The right barrel shot about 6 inches to the right at 25 yards and the left barrel was approximately the same amount to the left.  By sighting directly over the center of the respective barrels (rather than using the front sight), I was able to produce a respectable group using both barrels.   

    One interesting thing which I noticed was the effect of the chokes on accuracy.  I am shooting a .715 round ball which is approximately 14 thousandths smaller than the bore of the 12 gauge gun.  I started by using one cylinder choke and one skeet choke.  However, I noticed that the barrel with the skeet choke consistently produced better groups.  Consequently, I removed the cylinder choke (which was in the left barrel) and replaced it with an improved cylinder choke. The IC tube should have constriction of 10 thousandths, meaning that the choke is only 4 thousandths larger than the diameter of the ball.  These tolerances are common in rifles, but generally a bit tight for patched balls in a shotgun.   Notwithstanding the tight tolerances, the balls loaded easily through the IC choke tube and based a limited sample, the IC choke appears to produced better groups than the Skeet choke.

    According to my chronograph,
the round ball load with 3 drams of Pyrodex produces velocities of approximately 1250 feet per second.  I am also able to get 6-7 inch groups at 50 yards from when shooting from the bench, which I consider to be about the maximum range of the gun.   Here is are the ballistics for the load:


    I could probably load the gun a little hotter.  However, I see no particular reason to use more powder. At fifty yards, the round ball still has approximately 1400 foot pounds of energy which is more than adequate to take down a Caribou.  This is especially true given the size of the projectile. Hopefully, I will have a picture of a Caribou to post when I get back at the end of September.

UPDATE:  Unfortunately, the weather and the Caribou did not cooperate on my hunt. The weather was unseasonably warm.  It as close to 60 degrees during the day.  That is pretty warm for mid-September when you are above the arctic circle.  As a result, the Caribou stayed high in the mountains and never came close to our camp.  Our outfitter (Ram Aviation) had boasted a 98% success rate in prior years.  This year, less than half of the camps were even seeing Caribou.  Notwithstanding the lack of game, a good time was still had be all in our camp.