Black powder first appeared in China during the 9th century. It was known for supposed “medicinal” properties, but wasn’t used in military applications until the early 10th century. It continued to be developed in China and spread throughout Eurasia. By the late 13th century, black powder was established as a propellant for firing projectiles from various types of tubes. Black powder and firearms were continually developed for the next 600 years until the first smokeless propellant was created in the mid- to- late 1880s. With these many firearms and a long shooting history involving black powder, many of us continue to enjoy black-powder muzzleloading activities.
Black Powder & Substitutes
Black powder and black-powder substitutes have properties much different than smokeless propellant. Black powder does not have progressive burning characteristics like smokeless propellant. Its burning rate is essentially constant and independent of pressure. Because of this, it is limited in how much pressure, and therefore, velocity it can produce. Excessive amounts of powder in a black-powder firearm can result in decreased performance and a dirtier burn. Black powder has three- to four- times less energy than smokeless propellant, which also limits its performance.
Black powder is available in a number of different size granulations for different applications. Commonly available granulations are FG, FFG, FFFG and FFFFG. The more the “F”, the smaller the granulation. Rifle and cartridge guns typically use FFG and handguns often use FFFG. FG is used in shotguns while FFFFG is usually only used in the flash pans of flintlock firearms. Black powder can be loaded by weight, but it is most often loaded volumetrically with an adjustable powder measure. Black powder is very much like smokeless powder in one regard: One charge weight does not fit all. Just like smokeless powder, black powder needs to be experimented with at different charge weights to find the best accuracy with a given projectile.
Hodgdon Powder Company (hodgdon.com) came out with the first Black Powder substitute called “Pyrodex” in 1977. Since then, a number of other substitutes have been offered to include consolidated propellant pellets, which makes loading considerably easier.
Almost all substitutes have more energy than black powder and are bulkier. What this all means is that substitutes are loaded to the same volume of charge as black powder — not weight — to produce the same performance. The charge weights of most substitutes will be lower than black powder to produce the same performance. (Always consult a manufacturer’s recommendations for proper loading.) Black powder is very hygroscopic and, to a lesser extent, so are most of the substitutes. This means black powder and its residue absorbs moisture. It is very important to clean a black powder firearm soon after shooting to prevent corrosion.
Bullets for Black Powder Shooting
Projectiles for black-powder firearms vary to include traditional patched round balls, modern saboted copper-jacketed and solid-copper-tipped projectiles. If you are a traditionalist, a wide range of round ball sizes in various calibers are available from a number of sources.
Round balls can give very good accuracy and are available in both soft lead and hard lead, the latter for increased penetration. One aspect that has to be considered when shooting round balls is the patch material. It is a good idea to walk downrange when shooting patched round balls to recover some of your fired patches. Of course, make sure that they are still intact and have not been blown through or cut by the rifling. If this occurs accuracy will suffer. There are a wide range of patch materials available in different thicknesses and toughness. Be sure to lubricate the patches, which will aid loading and help reduce powder fouling.
The next class of projectiles are the lead conical projectiles. Molds are available for the original Minié projectiles of Civil War fame. There are also a number of modern conical lead projectiles available that are heavy, have a decent ballistic coefficient (BC) and have solid or hollow points. These bullets can give good accuracy and very good terminal performance on almost any game. Most of these bullets will require a twist rate of at least 1:48 inch.
The third class of projectiles are sub-caliber, saboted projectiles. These originally started out in the 1980s as a way to sabot pistol bullets and achieve higher velocities and flatter trajectories. They have developed into specific bullet designs for muzzleloaders that have everything from jacketed, bonded or solid copper projectiles with polymer tips and boat-tails. These modern projectiles and sabots achieve high velocities, flat trajectory and effective terminal performance. The performance of some of these saboted bullets approach that of a centerfire rifle in a modern muzzleloader.
Black Powder Firearms
Ignition of black powder firearms cover the spectrum of primitive to modern. Flintlocks, for example, use a piece of flint and a “frizzen” (i.e, roughened steel plate) to produce a spark that is directed into the flash pan, which ignites the flash pan’s charge that, in turn, lights the main charge within the barrel. As you might guess, this ignition method is very susceptible to moisture and can be unreliable. The second ignition method uses a copper cap with an exploding compound that is placed on a nipple and ignited when it is struck by the hammer. The third method is the use of shotgun primers in modern inline firearms. Many of the substitute propellants mentioned earlier are difficult to ignite and benefit from the much hotter and more energetic shotgun primers.
Firearms available today range from traditional muzzleloaders to firearms that could be mistaken for a modern bolt-action rifle. Several manufactures offer replicas of period muzzleloading rifles that range from flintlocks of the early 19th century, to replicas of most Civil War firearms. Replicas are also offered of percussion fired rifles such as the famous Kentucky and Hawken rifle. A number of replicas are also available of period single-shot pistols and almost every type of black powder revolver. Most are made in Europe and are of a very high quality. These rifles, pistols and revolvers provide the shooter an effective firearm and a true connection to an earlier era of shooting and firearms.
For those wishing to shoot a modern type of black powder rifle, there are a number of modern rifle designs available. These are typically a break-action type with the action opening to allow priming of the rifle. There are rifles that emulate a bolt action rifle featuring a faux bolt serving as the hammer to fire the rifle. Both types of rifles feature center or inline ignition with either a traditional cap or a shotgun primer. This type of ignition system offers reliable and consistent ignition. Almost all of the modern rifle designs allow mounting a scope for improved accuracy and a longer range. Many states allow the use of scoped muzzleloading firearms, but be certain to check your states regulations before purchasing a rifle.
What you choose to shoot for both a firearm and projectile will largely depend on what style of shooting and firearm interests you. Some shooters want the nostalgia of a bygone era, while others simply want a way to hunt during a season with better prospects. Whichever you choose to shoot, check with both the gun and bullet manufacturers’s recommendations for the twist rate required for what you intend to shoot. There are significant differences in twist rates from a round ball to a saboted tipped bullet.
There are far too many accessories available to discuss them all in this article, but there are some essentials that are required for shooting muzzleloaders. First, you have to have a way to measure powder charges. Powder measures work by either having a fixed volume with a calibrated scale or an adjustable internal volume for different charge weights. Second, get a bullet starter. It is a short, stiff loading rod with a handle that is used to start the bullet in the muzzle. The ramrod can be used to do this, but it can get difficult to use as the barrel gets dirty. Using the ramrod to start the bullet risks breaking the ramrod or injuring your hand.
You also need a capper if you are using caps. If you are using a firearm that only uses shotgun primers, the capper isn’t necessary. The capper holds caps for a percussion-primed firearm and allows us to easily place a cap on the nipple. One caution here: Do not buy an in-line capper. Buy a capper that holds the caps at a 90-degree angle. The in-line cappers are nearly useless for an inline primed firearm and can be very frustrating with cap-and-ball revolvers and side-lock percussion firearms.
Lastly, if you are planning on hunting with your muzzleloader, you will need a quick load, a plastic tube with a divider in the middle that is capped on both ends. It will hold a powder charge and projectile for a quick reload in the field. There are many more accessories available such as cleaning jags, patch removers and bullet pullers.
Black powder and muzzleloader shooting can open up hunting opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise be available. They are a departure from shooting smokeless centerfire firearms, but it can teach you to be careful and methodical with your shooting. If you hunt with muzzleloaders, you will quickly learn the value of accurate range estimation, stalking and making a good shot. Often, you will only get one.