Trail Boss, Not just for Cowboy Action shooters
By M.A. Hester
For some time there has been a push by various companies to produce the ultimate “all purpose” items. For example, auto companies now make sport utilities to be use on or off road. Leatherman makes multi-pliers. And of course, the Swiss Army Knife predates all of these by almost a hundred years.
Firearms and ammunition manufactures have done some of the same. Some of these combinations have been successful while others have not been. One of the most successful examples has to be the cape guns and drillings. These guns are combinations of a shotgun and a rifle on the same chassis. The downside of these is that the cost is usually very high. The other potential downside is that some shooters find them to be neither a very good shotgun nor a very good rifle. I have some clear biases on the topic but I tend to think it better to have a dedicated shotgun and rifle.
I consider myself much more a rifle guy than a shotgun guy so I have focused much more time in finding the all-purpose rifle, and until recently, this was a little bit difficult. When I say “all purpose,” I mean that in the broadest possible sense. I have in mind a rifle capable of stopping the largest angry animal on the Dark Continent and then later that day using it for some light rabbit hunting. This is a pretty tall order to have a rifle that can do both well, but I have found the answer.
If you were to ask ten people what the all-time best, all-purpose rifle caliber is, you will probably get eight different answers – mostly calibers like 30-06, 375 H&H, 7×57, 9.3×62 or maybe 300 Win. Mag. All of these are great choices for general purpose hunting and are fully capable of killing anything on the face of the earth. But would you really want to bet your life on the venerable ol’ 30-06 stopping Tembo in an infuriated, hormone- and adrenaline-filled I-want-to-kill-you charge, or conversely take the same rifle hunting for hare the following morning? If you did you would probably have more pfeffer than hasen.
Until the advent of IMR’s Trail Boss gun powder, spanning the chasm of light plinking, small-game hunting and stopping Africa’s Big Five with the same rifle was only a dream. Trail Boss was designed as a black powder substitute that is a true smokeless powder. It is a very low density powder that mimics the main characteristics of black powder to include pressures. This allows for equivalent loads to black powder without all the mess, smell and corrosion.
To date, no ammunition manufacturers load this powder for general-purpose commercial ammunition, so it is relegated to hand loaders; however, I can see a definite niche market for a small manufacturer to produce ammunition loaded with this powder.
A couple of my favorite guns are my old beater 404 Jeffery and 450/400 3”. I love these guns. I built them very light because I figured you always carry a gun much more than you shoot it. The guns weigh 7.6 lbs and 8.1 lbs respectively. Needless to say, they both beat you like a rented mule with full house loads. Even with “reduced” loads they still hit like Joe Lewis. However, with Trail Boss, I can load them both with the same 400gr bullet and have them recoil literally like a very light loaded 243, Really.
With a 400gr Barnes TSX and Trail Boss, the muzzle velocities are 1450fps and 1365fps respectively. These are full house loads with Trail Boss, if you use a start load the velocities are 900 fps and 865fps. These velocities are in stark contrast to the max hand loads I shoot at 2475fps and 2350fps, all of course with 400gr bullets.
At this point I normally get arguments from two schools of thought. The first is that it is way too slow to be any good; the other is that it is way too much gun for small game. I have counterpoint for both. For those who say it’s too low a velocity, no one argues the lethality of 12-gauge deer slugs. The only difference is that a one ounce slug is 437grs, but rifle bullets will penetrate a whole lot deeper and shoot a good bit flatter. It also runs double the energy of the “world’s most powerful handgun” – i.e., the 44 magnum. Dirty Harry eat your heart out.
For those who say it is too much for small game, the reality is that at these low velocities the bullets don’t produce massive cavitation and tissue damage like the faster stuff does. My 404Jeff does less damage to a deer than my dad’s 244 Rem. with 85gr. soft points by a long shot. You are virtually guaranteed a complete pass-through shot no matter what angle you hit it from. It makes an easy blood trail to follow. On rabbits, it works almost like a .22 Stinger as far as meat damage – i.e., very little. The down side is that you do have to be well aware of your back stop. They do penetrate a long ways.
At close range, the point of aim and point of impact are very close – close enough to hunt small game with. The loads work best in single-barrel rifles as opposed to double rifles due to sight regulation. The lack of recoil makes the sights not true for large, heavy recoiling double guns at their regulation range. There is still value at close range practice for off-hand snap shooting, which is what most dangerous game shooting is.
The economics of Trail Boss is outstanding, and when married up with hard-cast lead bullets, it is even more so. As an example, my 505 Gibbs costs around $20 per shot from Kynoch, and about $10 per shot from Norma. With both of these loads you get quality ammo but at great cost in terms of both recoil and dollars. I can load this caliber with a 525gr hard lead and 27grs of Trail Boss for about $1.25 each. My initial brass cost was $3 per case, but you can reload the stuff almost forever. All this is to say that it is cheap shooting and great training for folks who have just spent a small fortune to hunt dangerous game in Africa. Although it is not exactly the same as full power ammunition it is great for practicing the four fundamentals of marksmanship; sight alignment, sight picture, breathing and trigger control. The fundamentals are the four fundamentals no matter what kind of ammo you use.
On the other end of the spectrum are the smaller caliber rifles. If you have no need for huge guns but just want to plink or hunt small game, again Trail Boss is the answer. I just built my daughter a 6.5 TCU in a rifle with the idea of low recoil but decent power. The little rifle will shoot a 129gr Hornady at 2450fps out of a 20” barrel with 28.5grs or Win 748, which is plenty for CPX-2 / deer-sized critters. On the other hand, with an RCBS 140gr flat nose hard cast lead over 5grs or Trail Boss, I get 900fps, and over 7grs I get 1150fps. This bridges the gap between elk and rabbits out of the same gun, no small feat. As a side note, the cost for this load is around seven cents each, mostly for the primer.
Not everyone has access to reloading or the want to, but chances are you know someone who does reload. It is at least worth taking a look at loading and shooting Trail Boss. For the gun guy who has everything it is a great way to make that old rifle new again.