Skip to main content

Black Powder and Muzzleloader Shooting Basics

Black Powder and Muzzleloader Shooting Basics
Goex is the only American-made black powder, while Hodgdon’s Pyrodex RS is an FFG equivalent. Hodgdon’s Triple Seven pellets revolutionized black powder substitutes for modern muzzleloaders.

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

Muzzleloading Basics
Muzzleloaders differ in type and projectile. Flintlocks and vintage percussion-cap firearms often require a lead ball and patch, while contemporary muzzleloader designs shoot either conical bullets or sabot slugs.

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.

Muzzleloading Basics
Depending on the type of muzzleloader, the most common ignition systems are No. 209 primers used in shotshells and modern in-line muzzleloaders and No. 11 percussion caps more often associated with shooting 19th century firearm designs and reproductions.

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.

Accessories

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.

Muzzleloading Basics
Must-have accessories include (above left to right) a bullet starter, quick loader, powder measure and a primer capper.

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. 

Current Magazine Cover

Enjoy articles like this?

Subscribe to the magazine.

Get access to everything Guns & Ammo has to offer.
Subscribe to the Magazine

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

Cameras Don

Cameras Don't Lie: Subsonic 9mm vs. .300 Blackout

In this segment of "Cameras Don't Lie," a subsonic-ammo showdown, 9mm vs. .300 Blackout fired from AR rifles.

Air Gun Reviews: Why Shoot Airsoft?

Air Gun Reviews: Why Shoot Airsoft?

In this Guns & Ammo TV segment, Gun Tech Editor Richard Nance and Pro-Shooter Jim Tarr discuss the benefits of airsoft training for uniformed professionals and armed citizens alike.

Pocket-Pistol Carry Tips and Tricks

Pocket-Pistol Carry Tips and Tricks

Pocket carry, as a method of concealed carry for a defensive firearm, can be a practical option when done right. This is especially true during the colder months when heavy outer garments can obstruct access to a traditional waistline holster. Former U.S. Navy SEAL Jeff Gonzales, president of Trident Concepts, joins G&A contributor Kimberly Heath-Chudwin to discuss guns, training and gear, including Blackhawk's TecGrip holster that can make pocket carry more successful.

Surefire XSC Micro-Compact Pistol Light: First Look

Surefire XSC Micro-Compact Pistol Light: First Look

Small, lightweight and purpose-built for sub-compact carry guns, Surefire's XSC pistol light takes on EDC illumination segment.

See More Popular Videos

Trending Articles

Springfield Armory's SAINT Edge Pistol may be the best AR pistol on the market.Springfield Armory SAINT Edge Pistol Review Handguns

Springfield Armory SAINT Edge Pistol Review

James Tarr - April 17, 2019

Springfield Armory's SAINT Edge Pistol may be the best AR pistol on the market.

The one glaring weakness in the .30-­caliber magnum cartridge lineup is best highlighted by examining the requirement around which Hornady designed the .300 PRC; the requirement came from the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). .300 PRC Review Rifle

.300 PRC Review

Tom Beckstrand - March 12, 2019

The one glaring weakness in the .30-­caliber magnum cartridge lineup is best highlighted by...

Don't mortgage the homestead to get into PRS, this is what's available from the likes of Mossberg, Tikka, Savage, Howa, Bergara, Weatherby and Remington.Starter Rifles for Under $1000 Rifles

Starter Rifles for Under $1000

Aaron Carter - May 09, 2019

Don't mortgage the homestead to get into PRS, this is what's available from the likes of...

Some guns are easier to work with than others, but the Ruger American Rifle doesn't require an engineering degree to tinker with; here's a look at some upgrade options to take your Ruger American to the next level, and make it something a bit different.Top Ruger American Rifle Upgrades Accessories

Top Ruger American Rifle Upgrades

Philip Massaro - March 15, 2018

Some guns are easier to work with than others, but the Ruger American Rifle doesn't require an...

See More Trending Articles

More How-To

To ease you into the shooting world, we've compiled a list of must-do activities and ordered them by the season — winter, spring, summer and fall.Intro to Shooting Shoot 101

Intro to Shooting

Guns &Ammo Staff - April 14, 2020

To ease you into the shooting world, we've compiled a list of must-do activities and ordered...

In this “Pros vs. Joes” segment, the “Joe” is Guns & Ammo TV's Darin Narlock who has to face an actual world champion: 16-time Gold Medalist and Taurus Pro-Shooter Jessie Harrison. Together they compete in a .22LR shootout using the Taurus TX22 and a Rossi RS22 semiauto rifle in a steel challenge featuring Revolution Targets Portable Plate Racks and Portable Plates.Guns & Ammo TV: .22 Rimfire Challenge How-To

Guns & Ammo TV: .22 Rimfire Challenge

Guns & Ammo Staff - June 24, 2020

In this “Pros vs. Joes” segment, the “Joe” is Guns & Ammo TV's Darin Narlock who has to face...

Hardened warriors don't rely on luck; they make their luck. Rely on your training. Don't rely on superstitions or a lucky rabbit's foot. Good Luck Comes With Good Training How-To

Good Luck Comes With Good Training

SGM Kyle Lamb [Ret.] - June 22, 2020

Hardened warriors don't rely on luck; they make their luck. Rely on your training. Don't rely...

Gold Medalist Jessie Harrison puts her skills up against a handicap while facing Guns & Ammo TV Cameraman Christian Hoffman in a Steel Challenge course of fire.Guns & Ammo TV: Steel Challenge How-To

Guns & Ammo TV: Steel Challenge

Guns & Ammo Staff - May 28, 2020

Gold Medalist Jessie Harrison puts her skills up against a handicap while facing Guns & Ammo...

See More How-To

Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE Arrow

Buy Digital Single Issues

Don't miss an issue.
Buy single digital issue for your phone or tablet.

Buy Single Digital Issue on the Guns & Ammo App

Other Magazines

See All Other Magazines

Special Interest Magazines

See All Special Interest Magazines

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Guns and Ammo subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit mymagnow.com and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now