Above: Original Jacob Dickert "Pennsylvania" Rifle
One of the finest books on original traditional American flintlock patched round ball rifles ever compiled was "Thoughts on the Kentucky Rifle in its Goldern Age", by Joe Kindig - published in 1960. The book's 561 pages are richly illustrated with photos of hundreds of original rifles from the 1700's and early 1800's - with each of those rifles thoroughly examined and described by the author. For years, that book was one of my prized research publications, until I loaned it to a dear friend. Both the book and the friend disappeared.
Joe Kindig is shown at left, surrounded by his "Kentucky Rifles". One thing that must have intrigued him as much as it has me was the wide range of bore sizes found in these hand-made rifles. Arms historians often proclaim that a "typical" Kentucky rifle bore was .45 caliber. Well, going through Kindig's book, which surely represented a great part of his life's work, if there is one thing one will readily realize it is that ... "There was no such thing as a typical bore size!"
Back when I first began to write about muzzleloading guns, I could not absorb enough information. When I worked at Dixie Gun Works, during the early 1970's, I would thumb through Kindig's book (and an original copy of Ned Roberts' book, "The Muzzle-Loading Cap Lock Rifle") to learn more - and was amazed at the variety of bore-sizes found in American muzzleloading rifles from about 1750 to 1850. That was due to these rifles being truly "HAND MADE" ... including the barrel - which was typically hand forged ... then hand drilled ... hand polished ... and hand rifled - using a simple wooden boring and rifling "machine" ... that was hand operated. The "bore size" ended up being what it was, following all the work it took to get as perfect a round hole from one end to the other as possible ... boring and polishing until the interior surface was slick and smooth ... then meticulously hand cutting those spiraling grooves which made the American long rifles renown for their accuracy.
Thanks to a fellow by the name of Eli Whitney, by the early 1800's, we began to see some standardization in arms making in this country ... including bore sizes. Did you know that Remington's first commercial foray into arms making was to produce high quality barrels for gun makers ... barrels that were consistent from barrel to barrel? As American shooters took more and more to the precision long-range bullet shooting rifles of the 1840's and 1850's, bore sizes became even more standard - and barrels were being made to closer established tolerances ... and more precise bore sizes.
Still, many backwoods gun makers continued to make barrels the same as this country's first gun makers of the 1700's - one at a time, with a bore that pretty much ended up as it ended up. Using a mandrel to hammer forge around, those barrels started out with something of a "caliber" in mind ... but by the time that barrel was bored, polished and rifled ... that caliber could have been off a bit ... which would explain all those .42 through .47 caliber original guns which are featured in Kindig's book. Fact is, once a customer's rifle was completed, the actual bore size was determined ... THEN a round ball mould was cut to produce the proper size soft lead ball for THAT muzzleloading rifle.
In those days, a man's rifle was just that ... that man's rifle - and could be the ONLY rifle he owned his entire life. Some of those guns were shot a lot over 30 or 40 years of service, and the softer iron used for making those barrels likely tended to wear more easily than later steel barrels. Once the rifling was worn to where it could no longer spin the ball adequately for great accuracy, it was a common practice to have a barrel reamed, polished and re-rifled to a larger caliber. A rifle which started out as a .43 caliber in, say, 1760 ... could still be providing protection from hostile enemies and putting meat on the table as a .46 or .47 caliber by 1820 or 1830. Some speculate, that with the move west during the 1840's and 1850's, quite a few rifle bores were purposely enlarged to a bigger caliber to better take the larger game those early pioneers would encounter.
Why A .40 Or .45 Caliber These Days?
When Turner Kirkland, of Dixie Gun Woks, set out to have an armsmaker in Belgium produce the first modern reproduction muzzleloading rifles back in the early 1950's, he studied the bores of the more than 100 original "Kentucky" styled rifles in his collection ... and determined that the average bore size of those rifles was right at .40 caliber. So...that's the caliber he went with ... and the rifle was named the Dixie "Squirrel Rifle". So why did those rifle makers 200 years ago produce long-barreled rifles is such a small caliber?
Keep in mind, back in the mid to late 1700's ... Kentucky and parts of Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio were "The Wilderness". Anyone settling that country was far from supplies of black powder and lead - which were closely guarded. It was purely a case of economics ... a case of "supply and demand". Powder and lead were necessities ... not to be squandered. That's also why those old Kentucky rifles had such long 40 to 44 inch barrels ... to squeeze out every bit of power that a 40 ... 50 ... 60 grain charge of black powder could muster.
Due to the demands from shooters, who wanted to take deer with the rifle, Dixie changed the caliber of those early reproduction rifles to .45 in the mid 1960's.
There are still a couple of .40 caliber round ball reproductions available. Unless someone is simply looking for a short range target rifle, I have to ask myself ... why? In most states, rifles with a bore that size cannot be used to hunt deer. Loaded with a patched round ball, they just don't generate enough energy for a clean kill. A 60-grain charge of FFFg black powder is a "hefty" load for a .40 caliber patched ball muzzleloader, like the Dixie Gun Works/Pedersoli "Cub" Kentucky rifle that's currently available. Out of the rifle's 28-inch barrel, that charge will get a 93-grain patched .395" diameter ball out of the muzzle at a fairly impressive 1,912 f.p.s. But, due to the light weight of that soft lead ball, it generates JUST 754 foot-pounds of energy ... AT THE MUZZLE. Keep in mind that 800 f.p.e. is considered MINIMUM for taking deer sized game - and that's at the distance of the target, not at the muzzle.
Original 1770's Small Bore Kentuckiy Rifle
In reality, the .45 caliber patched round ball rifles don't fare much better on game the size of deer. One of my old friends built a very nice copy of a rifle similar to that shown directly above, using a 42-inch Green Mountain .45 caliber barrel. The rifle is a tack driver with 80-grains of FFFg GOEX black powder and a tightly patched 133-grain .445" swaged lead ball. At the muzzle of the long and light 13/16" diameter barrel, the load is good for 2,144 f.p.s. - with 1,357 foot-pounds of muzzle energy.
When working with traditional rifle ballistics, most round ball shooters never consider factoring in the "ballistic coefficient" of a round ball, but it does still come into play. A .445" diameter sphere of lead has a b.c. of just .063. Even at the high muzzle velocity of my friend's load, velocity drops to only about 1,550 f.p.s. at 50 yards - where that ball hits with a not-so-whopping 709 f.p.e. At 60 yards, velocity is down to around 1,400 f.p.s., with only about 580 f.p.e. remaining. In all reality, my friend's custom .45 rifle and load is a 40-yard deer rifle, where the ball is still flying at about 1,675 f.p.s. - and will hit a deer with around 825 f.p.e.
The .50's and .54's...
The movie "Jeremiah Johnson" did a heck of a job promoting the .50 caliber Hawken rifle as a tremendous game taking powerhouse. In reality, with a patched .490" or .495" round ball, and 90- or 100-grain FFg black powder charge to get a 178- to 181-grain ball out of the muzzle with enough velocity to be effective on game ... patched round ball rifles of .50 caliber add about 15 or so yards of effective range over a .45 rifle.
When I built the above rifle back in 1983, I originally built it for shooting with the interchangeable barrels that Green Mountian Rifle Barrel Co. offered for the T/C Hawken ... and at that time one of my favorite barrels was a 32-inch 1-in-66 twist patched round ball barrel - which I used mostly for shooting in a few local matches. I also used that barrel for some of my hunting - stoking it with 100 grains of FFg GOEX powder behind a patched 181-grain .495" diameter swaged lead ball. At the muzzle, the load was good for 1,958 f.p.s. - and 1,542 f.p.e. That ball has a .070 b.c. - and at 50 yards this load has it still flying at 1,452 f.p.s., with 845 f.p.e. The load will retain right at 800 f.p.e. at 55 yards - which I always respected as my "maximum effective range" with the rifle and load.
Like those who moved "West" in the 1800's, I too felt the need to move up to a larger bore patched round ball rifle once I got settled in Western Montana nearly ten years ago. The rifle shown above is now my "serious" patched round ball big game muzzleloader - the .54 caliber Rocky Mountain Hawken from Davide Pedersoli & Co. Like the original this rifle nicely copies, this hefty built percussion half-stock has been made to consume heavy powder charges.
My favored load tends to be 120-grains of GOEX FFg behind a patched Hornady .535" diameter 230-grain swaged lead ball. At the muzzle of the 34 3/4-inch long heavy 1-inch diameter octagon barrel, the load is good for 1,889 f.p.s., with 1,861 f.p.e. At 50 yards, the load maintains 1,446 f.p.s. - and 1,088 f.p.e. Out at 75 yards, that big swagged lead ball is still moving along at 1,266 f.p.s. - and will hit a whitetail or similar sized game with 834 foot-pounds of knockdown power.
If you are serious about hunting with a patched round ball muzzleloader ... and truly want to be able to take game out past 50 yards ... never forget, if you want more range and more knockdown power ... it's going to take more powder and more lead. It's as simple as that! - Toby Bridges
This Post Brought To You By...
Featured Muzzleloader Above - Pedersoli Percussion Magnum 10-Gauge Double
Traditional Muzzleloader Hunting
This blog is made possible by Davide Pedersoli & Co., Dixie Gun Works, Traditions Firearms, Green Mountain Rifle Barrel Co., October Country, and Hodgdon/GOEX powders. The topics presented here will be devoted entirely to shooting and hunting with muzzleloading guns of pre- 1860's design.