Harvester Components Cut Cost Of Performance Muzzleloading
by Toby Bridges
Contributing Editor

One of my biggest gripes with muzzleloading today has been the extreme escalation in the cost of shooting today’s modern in-line muzzle-loaded big game rifles. Recently, I sat down and analyzed what it costs to load and shoot some of the “manufacturer’s recommended loads” for today’s high-tech front-loaders. And when I factored in the costs of the powder charge, the sabot, the bullet, the primer and any other loading necessity, such as a carrier for the primer with some models, I discovered that many of today’s top performing muzzleloading rifles now cost between $2 and $3 every time the shooter pulls the trigger.

In many instances, today’s shooter can feed a big-bore centerfire rifle, like the .458 Winchester Magnum, cheaper than he can his or her high-performance muzzleloading big game rifle.

Well, there’s now one company out there that has also realized this same problem, and which seems to be working on keeping in-line rifle shooting costs down. That company is Harvester Muzzleloading (309 Sequoia Dr., Dept. GWK, Hopkinsville, KY 42240; phone: 800-922-6287; on-line: www.harvesterbullets.com). And they’re doing so with a line of affordably-priced sabots and bullets.

Often, it is the little changes that can make the biggest difference. When plastic sabots for loading a jacketed pistol bullet into a larger caliber muzzleloading rifle were first introduced back in the mid-1980s, that was a big change. And it took muzzleloading shooters and hunters in this country more than a decade to warm up to the idea. Today, the vast majority of muzzleloading hunters in the US currently rely on modern saboted bullets for taking their deer and other big game.

Harvester Muzzleloading
Since the introduction of muzzleloader sabots some 20 years ago, the basic design has changed very little. The best way to describe a modern muzzleloader sabot is to say that it is kind of like a very small “gauge” plastic shotgun wad, featuring a cupped base for sealing off the pressures produced by the burning powder charge and a “cup” that holds and grips the under-sized conical bullet. When loaded into a muzzleloader bore, the shooter simply slips a bullet into the cup and inserts the base of the sabot into the muzzle. The combination is then started into the bore and seated over the powder charge with the ramrod.

Unfortunately, getting some bullet and sabot combinations down the bore with the ramrod has proven more difficult for some shooters than others. Keep in mind that the small plastic sabot performs a vital link in modern muzzleloading accuracy. The base must be strong and resilient enough to stand up to the heat and pressure created by the powder charge, while the sleeves of the sabot must grip the rifling and transfer the spin of the grooves to the bullet that’s tightly gripped inside the cup. The slightest failure of either the base or the sleeves can result in horrible accuracy.

While the sabots that shooters now purchase along with their favorite hunting bullets may, to the untrained eye, look to be no different than the sabots first offered back in the mid-1980s, there have been a few minor improvements through the years. First, if you examine the inside of the cupped base, you’ll discover that there are several different designs by the few different sabot makers.

‘Crush Rib’ Sabot And the polymers (plastics) used to produce current sabots are definitely superior to the materials used to produce earlier sabots. However, the use of these more resilient materials have made it more difficult to load and seat some of the tighter fitting bullets, like the .452-inch Hornady SST.

Harvester Muzzleloading is a relatively new division of C&D Special Products, one of the country’s leading manufacturers of plastic shotgun wads. This company’s business is plastic, so when they decided to enter the muzzleloading market during the late 1990s, they did so with a variety of muzzleloader sabots.

Since then, they have refined both the geometry of their sabot base, plus they’ve gone to using a polymer composition that better stands up to the hotter loads favored by today’s muzzleloading hunter. And more recently, Harvester Muzzleloading made one of the biggest sabot improvements to date with the introduction of the company’s new “Crush Rib” sabot design.

Running full-length down each of the sabot’s four sleeves are about 20 almost microscopic ridges or “ribs.” This actually reduces loading friction by as much as 50%. And in side-by-side comparative loading tests with the standard Hornady .452-inch SST sabot and bullet, I found that even this tight-fitting jacketed spire-point can be loaded into a .50 bore with 30% to 40% less effort on the ramrod when using the Crush Rib sabot.

Enhanced Integrity
It didn’t take all that much shooting for me to realize that the design of the new Harvester Crush Rib sabot also tends to enhance the overall integrity of the sabot unit. Like most muzzleloading hunters these days, I seek velocities with a 240- to 260-grain saboted bullet that approach or even surpass 2,000 feet-per-second (fps). And it takes a healthy charge of a modern blackpowder substitute to get the job done.

When shooting magnum loads of Triple Seven or Goex Pinnacle, it is common to recover standard sabots with one or two of the sleeves torn from the sabot base. My feeling is that this can cause the sabot to cant slightly as the bullet/sabot leave the muzzle, and in some instances result in an open group.

After shooting more than 100 of the black .50x.45 and green .50x.44 Harvester Muzzleloading Crush Rib sabots, I’ve only experienced two or three instances of the sabot shedding a sleeve. And the sabots I’ve recovered are nearly always laying flat on the ground with the sleeves, still intact, folded straight out to the sides. It is clear that the sabot and bullet separated cleanly. The incorporation of the ribbed sleeve surface is proving to be one of those “little changes” that offers big benefits.

Through the Fall (2005), I regularly swapped out the sabots that came with a number of pre-packed saboted bullets, using the new Harvester Crush Rib sabot instead. As a rule, groups tightened, plus loading during a 4- or 5-hour range session required a lot less exertion on the ramrod. If the rifle I was shooting normally delivered 1&Mac249;- to 1&Mac251;-inch 100-yard groups with the Hornady SST and sabot, or the Parker Productions “Ballistic Extreme” and sabot, I found that as often as not my downrange clusters would tighten 10% to 20% when I used the Crush Rib sabot.

‘Scorpion’ Bullet
Harvester Muzzleloading retails the Crush Rib sabot for $5.50 per pack of 50 sabots, available only in .50 x .45 (black) and .50 x .44 (green) sizes at this time. The company also packages the new sabot with their very affordable .451-inch diameter “Scorpion” Funnel Point MAG bullet (for .50-caliber rifles). This is a soft lead hollowpoint bullet that features an electroplated outer copper surface. The folks at Harvester Muzzleloading claim that the “Copper Clad” plating will not separate from the lead core. This is a problem muzzleloading hunters often encounter with true jacketed bullets when pushing them out of the muzzle at around 2,000 fps.

One of the rifles I put together for my 2005 Fall big game hunts is the unique “Rolling Block Muzzleloader” produced by the Davide Pedersoli & Company firm of Brescia, Italy. The rifle is available exclusively from Cabela’s, and in itself is one heck of an affordable in-line big game hunting muzzleloader. This handy and nice handling .50-caliber fast-twist bore rifle retails for just $299.95, and easily delivers performance equal to that produced by rifles costing nearly twice as much.

The one feature of the Rolling Block Muzzleloader I appreciated most had to be the openness of the action. Even with my well-used 20-year-old 3-9x36mm Zeiss scope mounted on the rifle, there was far more room than needed to reach in with my thumb and cock the Remington-style single-shot rifle hammer back to full cock . . . swing down the breech block . . . and using just my thumb and forefinger, reach right in and insert a No. 209 primer into the rear of the breech plug.

Good Accuracy
And, after the shot, the spent primer could be pulled from the primer chamber just as easily. In my opinion, no other “drop action” or “break open” in-line muzzleloader offers this kind of access to the ignition system. This also makes it handy when it’s time to remove the breech plug for cleaning.

Shooting with either a weighed 80-grain charge of FFFg Triple Seven or a weighed 100-grain charge of Goex Pinnacle, I found that I could easily get the 260-grain Scorpion out of the 26-inch barrel at around 2,000 fps. The turn-in-24-inches rate-of-rifling-twist would consistently print the bullet at around 1&Mac249; to 1&Mac251; inches at 100 yards. And when I loaded with the 250-grain .45-caliber Hornady SST or the 275-grain Parker Productions Ballistic Extreme, using the Crush Rib sabot, accuracy was about the same.

My best group with the rifle came from a 100-grain charge of FFFg Triple Seven and Crush Rib saboted 275-grain Parker Ballistic Extreme bullet. However, I did take the time to clip off about &Mac249;-inch from the end of each sabot so the sleeve length nearly perfectly matched the length of the cylindrical bottom portion of the bullet.

This was easily done using a simple set of toe-nail clippers, a set of which are now always in my shooting box and now referred to as sabot-clippers. Several groups punched inside of 1-inch. My best, which is also one of the top-five muzzleloader groups I’ve shot in my lifetime, barely measures 3/8-inch center-to-center.

Rolling Block ML
Harvester Muzzleloading’s Scorpion bullet will shoot right along with higher-priced bullet designs, and with today’s hotter loads will take game just as cleanly out at 200 yards. A 12-pack of the bullets for the popular .50-caliber rifles, with the Crush Rib sabot, retails for under $8, while a 20-pack runs only about $10. This bullet is offered in 240-, 260-, and 300-grain weights.

(Note: The 20-pack is offered in 260-grain only. Harvester Muzzleloading also offers the Scorpion with their standard .54x.45 red sabot for use in .54-caliber rifles as well.) So, if you’ve grown tired of paying $1 to $2 per shot just for the bullet and sabot you may be shooting now, you might want to check out the Harvester Scorpion line.

During my 2005 Fall whitetail hunts, I used the Cabela’s Rolling Block Muzzleloader to take a fair 8-point Tennessee buck at about 80 yards with the 260-grain Scorpion bullet and 80-grain weighed charge of Pinnacle. The rifle and load literally dropped the 175-pound (field-dressed) buck in its tracks.

Then, on another hunt, I relied on the Pedersoli 2 “Denali” break-open .50-caliber rifle, loaded with a 100-grain weighed charge of FFFg Pinnacle behind the 260-grain Scorpion to take down a huge 250-pound (field-dressed) Missouri whitetail buck at 150-yards.

‘Power Belted’ Bullet
Loading problems with tight fitting bullet/sabot combinations have resulted in a growing number of shooters moving away from saboted bullets. Personally, I prefer a good saboted bullet over any of the so-called bore-sized conical bullets. Most designs, like the Thompson/Center Arms “Maxi-Hunter” or the Hornady “Great Plains” bullet rely on one or more surface areas that are actually slightly larger than the land-to-land measurement of the rifle’s bore.

When loaded through the muzzle, a bullet starter must be used to force the oversized band or bands into the rifling. And with some bullets in some bores, it takes a healthy whack on the starter to force the rifling to engrave the soft lead surface.

Easily the best selling bore-sized conical bullet in recent years has been the CVA “Power Belt” bullet, which actually is not a bore-sized bullet at all. You see, the bi selling point of this design is that it loads extremely easily . . . and that’s accomplished by making this bullet actually a few thousands undersized, then attaching a plastic “skirt” or gas check to the base. A hole in the center of the base literally snaps onto a short, small diameter post sticking out from the bottom of the bullet.

The only ramrod resistance when loading a Power Belt bullet is due to the narrow width of the plastic base riding in the rifling as it’s pushed down the bore. In some rifles, these bullets literally “fall down the bore!”

‘Saber Tooth’ Bullet
Unfortunately, if a bullet fits this loosely, it can “fall right back out of the bore” if the rifle is carried muzzle down. Also, to get the extremely slick outer electroplated copper finish, the manufacturer hardens the lead slightly. And quite a few muzzleloading hunters claim that the hardness makes the lead brittle, causing it to fragment when driven into a big game animal.

The new “Saber Tooth” belted bullet is Harvester Muzzleloading’s answer to these problems. This design also relies on a tough polymer base. However, the company has eliminated the center hole, which they feel sort of defeats the purpose of the gas check, and instead rely on a stepped base that fits snugly into a corresponding recess in the plastic base. Likewise, the outside diameter of this copper-plated design measures right at .502-inch, meaning that with any .500/.501-bore rifle the rifling must very lightly engrave or compress the surface during loading.

I’ve now shot the Harvester Muzzleloading Saber Tooth bullets out of a .50-caliber Thompson/Center Arms “Omega,” a .50-caliber Knight “Revolution,” a .50-caliber New England Firearms “Huntsman” and the .50-caliber Pedersoli “Rolling Block Muzzleloader.”

And in each, I found that I could easily start the bullets without using a bullet starter. Instead, I would grab the ramrod 8 to 10 inches above the muzzle, and with a short, hard downward push, the rifling would engage the bullet with a minimum amount of force. The bullet could then be seated with very little effort.

Several times I thumped the muzzles of these rifles three or four times on a swatch of carpet remnant to see if the bullet would slide forward. And when I slipped the ramrod back in to check, the Saber Tooth bullet was always still in place, seated over the powder charge.

Accuracy wise, I found the Saber Tooth to shoot nearly as well as most saboted jacketed hollowpoint handgun bullets, like the Hornady XTP. The turn-in-24-inches rate-of-twist of Pedersoli-built in-line rifles proved to be the most accurate with these bullets. Harvester Muzzleloading offers the Saber Tooth in .50-caliber only, in 250-, 270-, 300-, and 350-grain weights.

I shot all but the heavier version. And most .50-caliber fast-twist bore in-line rifles shot all reasonably well, keeping most 100-yard groups at 1&Mac251; to 2 inches. My best group was shot with a 90-grain weighed charge of Goex Pinnacle and the 275-grain Saber Tooth. That group measured right at 1&Mac249; inches.

During the Missouri muzzleloader season, I took 16-year-old Robert “Chuck” Bennett on a hunt for his first muzzleloader buck. The young shooter had absolutely no problems loading the Saber Tooth into my T/C “Omega.” And on the third morning of the hunt, he cleanly took a nice 10-pointer with a single 75-yard shot through the chest cavity.

As this was written, I have yet to recover any of the Saber Tooth bullets from game, but I’ve seen several recovered 300-grain slugs—and where they ever impressive! Thanks to a somewhat unique six-pointed star-shaped hollowpoint nose design, the bullets had expanded and flattened out to the size of a quarter. I can’t imagine anything walking away from that kind of terminal performance. Typically, in most retail gun shops you’ll find the three lighter weight Saber Tooth bullets selling for around $11.99 per pack of 15. The heavier 350-grain bullets come 12 to the package, and retail for the about the same price.

Back in early October, I spent a day with C&D Special Products founder Bill MacTavish at the company’s facility in Hopkinsville, KY. I left that afternoon realizing several things. First, the goal of Harvester Muzzleloading is definitely to provide today’s muzzleloading hunter with quality and performance delivering products at an affordable price. And for the future, this company has some very interesting ideas on the drawing boards that should be of interest to all performance-minded muzzleloading hunters.

To check out the line up of bullets and sabots now available under the Harvester Muzzleloading label, go to: www.harvesterbullets.com.

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