What Is Black Powder? Part II of III

Part II of III – Loading And Safety

STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB SHELL

We began this three-part series on blackpowder last issue, where we covered its invention, refinement and today’s four grades – five, counting a special Swiss version.
This issue we turn to loading the powder and safety, and wrap up next month with tricks of the trade.
There are a few things that you should be aware of to get best results. First, always make sure your gun is empty. If you buy a new muzzleloader, then you can put a rod down the barrel and mark the rod to establish the depth that indicates an empty barrel. When preparing to load a used muzzleloader, remove the nipple where the percussion cap would be placed, and make sure you can see clearly through to the inside of the barrel. If it is blocked, the gun won’t fire, and the only thing you will get is a small pop from the cap.
A method often used to clear or establish a clear nipple channel is by firing a couple of caps without any powder in the barrel. Simply place a piece of paper or something light on your bench, and then aim the end of your barrel at the object and fire. The piece of paper should move when your channel is clear because the percussion cap alone is enough to cause a tuft of air. Once you have established that, you have a clear barrel and you are ready to load.

Muzzleloaders come in all sorts of varieties, calibers, styles and ignition systems. The one thing they have in common is the way they are loaded, hence the name. Fifty-caliber Lyman caplock (top left), .50- caliber Lyman flintlock (bottom left) and an original pair of 1837 French military caplock pistols (below, right).

PATCHING
When loading a round ball, a patch must be used in order for the ball to be accurate and prevent blow by, which would rob the shooter of power and accuracy. You can buy precut patches or experiment with your own. An old sheet makes good patch material because it is both tough and consistent in thickness. The patch should be placed on the muzzle, then the ball seated on top of it. It should have some resistance to seating but not an excessive amount, as you might end up with a ball stuck halfway down the barrel. There are signs that help to indicate if you are using the proper amount of patching. You can usually find the fired patches on the ground, especially if you are shooting a number of rounds. If the patch shows rifling marks without excessive tearing, then it is probably the right size. If there are no markings from the rifling, then this might indicate that the patch should be a little larger. If you do get a bullet stuck in the barrel, you can pull it out with a bullet-removing screw.
However, this can be quite a chore.

BALL LOADING
You should always use a measuring device to pour the powder into the barrel – never do it from a flask containing a large amount of powder. If there is a live spark from a previous firing, this will cause an explosion. Pouring a small amount of powder down the barrel will help minimize the harm if there still happens to be a smoldering cinder. This does happen – to the careless! There are adjustable measures made just for this operation. This practice is especially necessary if you are shooting patched balls, because some of the cloth might stay lurking in the barrel and can cause mischief. You can swab between shots to avoid that problem, but don’t count on this to thoroughly rid your barrel of hazards.
I knew a guy who participated in reenactments. He was on a crew that was operating a cannon with a 2-inch bore. His job was to swab the barrel then push the bag of powder down afterwards. The bag of powder weighed 1 pound. One time after the team fired, he swabbed and then shoved the powder down the barrel, instantly losing most of his right hand. There was still a cinder in the barrel from the previous bag, and when he pushed the powder down, it went off. The long rod with a disc he was using to push the powder down was the same diameter as the barrel. When the canon went off, the disc removed most of his hand because it became a projectile. Safety requires methodical steps and preparation.
Once the powder is in, you can seat the bullet. Initially, there will be a little resistance, but it shouldn’t be excessive. If it is, find out why before attempting to push it the bullet in too deep. A bullet stuck in the barrel is a pain to remove, although it can be done usually with a corkscrew-type device.

It is imperative that the bullet is solidly seated to the powder in the chamber. Otherwise, serious damage can occur to the firearm and shooter.

It is imperative that the bullet is solidly seated to the powder in the chamber. Otherwise, serious damage can occur to the firearm and shooter.

After you get your round started, follow through using your long rod to seat it. The bullet must be tight against the powder. If there is no resistance from the bullet going down the barrel, it might move forward creating some airspace, so be wary of that. This could destroy the gun and cause injury.
I knew someone who destroyed a .45-caliber that way. He required medical attention caused by splinters lodged into his forearm. If you are unsure, flick the rod against the load a couple of times. If the rod bounces, then it is ready to go. You can mark the rod with a piece of tape if desired for future loading once you establish your load.

Blackpowder-measuring tools were created for very specific purposes and are a much safer way to load a muzzleloader. Top to bottom above is a priming tool, powder measure and primer measure.

Blackpowder-measuring tools were created for very specific purposes and are a much safer way to load a muzzleloader. Top to bottom above is a priming tool, powder measure and primer measure.

Sometimes people forget to put the powder in first. This is a pain, but it can be resolved. Just take off the nipple and work some powder into the barrel. You should put at least 15 to 20 grains to have enough to shoot the ball completely out the barrel. Make sure that the projectile exits before trying a regular load. Compressed air can also be used to push the ball out. There are two types of people who shoot muzzleloaders: those who forgot to put the powder in and those who will in the future.

PHOTO 3A 30-30 ss 009 - CopyPRIMING
Just in case you bump or drop your gun, it is not a good idea to prime before you load. With a flintlock, just prime the  pan and you are ready to go. For this article we will stick with conventional muzzleloaders as opposed to inlines.

BACK TO THE POWDER
If you are new to this game, you might wonder how much powder to use. Ideally, a new shooter would spend some time with an experienced blackpowder user. There are also books that can help. Blackpowder doesn’t produce as much velocity as the smokeless variety, no matter how much you use. At some point the powder just won’t burn and will simply come out the end of the barrel. You can put an old sheet on the ground in front of the gun to determine if you have too much powder. This test can be very informative.
In my .50-caliber Hawkins, I use 90 grains of FFG black with a 370-grain maxi ball. My velocities run almost 1,300 feet per second, and the load is very consistent and accurate. I have tried more powder but the gain was negligible, thus wasn’t worth the extra powder. If you are shooting a .45-caliber with a ball, 70 grains is a good starting point. If you are using a .58-caliber rifle with Minié balls, then 60 grains is a good place to start. I find that lighter loads in these guns generally produce better accuracy.

Powder horns were and are still common among muzzleloaders. The horn is strapped to the shooter and stores the bulk of their powder.

Just like reloading, you might experiment with your gun to see which combination works best. There are several brands of powder out there, so if you like to experiment, try what is available in your area. If you order online, be prepared to pay a hefty hazardous material fee, so ordering a large quantity helps cut costs. I order it by 25-pound cases. There are also fees for just smokeless powder and primers, but not loaded ammo.

BULLET OPTIONS 

Bob Shell with his .50-caliber flintlock.

Bob Shell smoking up the range with his .50-caliber flintlock.

The round ball is the basic, most widely used bullet and has some advantages. It is often very light for the caliber, which reduces the amount of powder needed for workable velocities. Another advantage is it reduces recoil. Properly loaded it is very accurate and is used for all types of target shooting. For hunting, it’s OK for certain types of deer, but might lack the penetration for large, heavy-boned game, especially past 100 yards. Due to its low density, it doesn’t carry or penetrate well. However, a .36-caliber ball makes a splendid small-game round. There you have the basics of muzzleloading blackpowder. Stayed tuned for part III of What Is black Powder, where we cover tricks of the trade. ASJ

Loading blackpowder may seem like a simple process, but there are inherent dangers if steps are not completed thoroughly and methodically.

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May 25th, 2016 by