What Is Black Powder? Part III of III

Defouling, Best Bullets, Hunting, Accuracy And Cleaning

STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB SHELL

Editor’s note: We’re wrapping up our three-part series on blackpowder, which previously looked at its invention and early usage and then loading and safety, and now finalizes this issue with a discussion of defouling, types of bullets and more.

Blackpowder fouls a lot and if you don’t dry-brush out your barrel after every couple of shots, your bullet or ball will start becoming difficult to push down the barrel. If you brush it and dump out the residue, you can shoot all day doing that. I don’t recommend any type of lube, as you might contaminate the powder and it won’t help you in this operation. Use a tight shotgun-type brush for best results. Following those procedures and tweaking them to suit you should produce a lot of hours of enjoyable shooting.

Minié balls (left) and Maxi-Balls are the two basic bullets for blackpowder rifles between .36 and .58 caliber. The former was developed by a French officer in the mid-1800s, while the latter is sold by Thompson-Center. Author Bob Shell prefers Maxi-Balls for hunting. (MINIE BALLS: MIKE CUMPSTON)

As a note, some of the very early muzzleloaders had straight rifling to help deal with the fouling that blackpowder produces. Perhaps that’s where someone got the idea to twist it to stabilize a bullet. From a military point of view, they used smoothbores because of the mess that blackpowder produces. It takes more time on a battlefield to load a rifled firearm than a smoothbore. That is because the rifling fouls quicker, which makes it more difficult to load. When I am target shooting with a front loader, the bore is dry brushed after a few shots to keep it going. During the heat of battle a soldier doesn’t have that luxury. Of course, the usable accuracy was only from 50 to 80 yards with such weapons. They generally stood on a battlefield in plain view of each other and they shot until someone said uncle. Marksmanship wasn’t a top priority in this type of battle. You just shot into the crowd and hoped to hit someone.

Shooting a cap-and-ball revolver is essentially the same. Put the powder in and seat the balls tightly against the powder. One difference is you need to put some substance over the balls to avoid all of them going off simultaneously. I use something like Crisco, which always works for me, and I have never had that happen – and would just as soon forgo that experience. After loading the powder and bullet, then put on the caps but not before. That way you will avoid a possible accident. I have .36- and .44-caliber revolvers and they both shoot accurately with balls. I have tried bullets in them, but there is no practical advantage 99 percent of the time.

THERE ARE MANY TYPES of bullets out there for muzzleloaders. Some of the new ones are sub-caliber with sabots meant to increase long-range performance. I have some of those on hand, but for the purpose of this article I will stick with the basic stuff.

The basic bullets for rifles from .36 to .58 caliber are either Minié or Maxi-Balls. The Miniés have been around since before the War Between the States. They were invented by Capt. Claude-Étienne Minié, an officer in the French army in the mid-1800s. They are a hollow-base bullet that depends on the skirt expanding to provide a gas seal and good accuracy. They generally work as advertised, as long as they are cast soft. They are prevalent in .58-caliber weapons and come in various weights, from about 450 to over 500 grains. Their grooves are designed to help clean out the fouling, and with some types of lube will also soften the crud that accumulates in the barrel. They are the fastest projectiles to load, which wasn’t lost on militaries of the period. The .58 caliber was the most prevalent rifle caliber in the American Civil War. They gave good accuracy and produced horrible wounds. Many limbs were amputated because of the Minié ball, as they tended to shatter bones; with the state of medical care in that period, it was easier to cut off than save a limb. My experience is they tend to be more accurate with powder charges on the lighter side. Here again there is room for experimentation to obtain the best results in your weapon. I have also shot them in a .45 caliber and they were satisfactory in every way.

Thirty-six-caliber cap-and-ball revolvers are fun to shoot and are accurate at 25 yards, longer with practice. They also produce a nice pile of smoke when fired.

To be honest, my favorite bullet for hunting is the Maxi-Ball. They are available in .36, .45, .50 and .54 calibers. They resemble a slug and have two or three bands that engage the rifling. Between the bands is the area where you put your lube, and I use a lot to ensure that they stay against the powder. I also use a hard lube as opposed to a semiliquid type that may run into the powder, rendering it inactive. As with the other types, pure lead projectiles work the best, as they take the rifling well. I have seen some hard-cast slugs that were very difficult to load and seldom as accurate. I have a .50-caliber TC Hawkins and with my favorite load it shoots better than I can. A friend of mine has a .45-caliber Hawkins that he hunts deer with. We were out one day and after a while, I went over to where he was. I noticed that his Maxi was sticking out the end of his barrel. Good thing he didn’t get a shot. He had some store-bought slugs that were way too hard, so I molded him some good ones and took the others and made regular pistol bullets out of them.

FOR HUNTING, WHAT CALIBER should you use? As with everything, some common sense should be used. Keep in mind that you will have only one shot and that a reload will take some time. Even with pre-measured loads, a second shot won’t get taken quickly. Your quarry simply won’t stick around for it. That should encourage you to practice enough from hunting positions to get good enough to make that first shot count.

The .36 caliber is an excellent small game and pest load. It can be utilized for small game without excess meat damage. With a Maxi-Ball it can dispose of a coyote in short order. It should never be used for large game, as it just doesn’t have the horsepower for such work.

The .45 can be used for deer-sized animals with good shot placement, which is true of all hunting. The round ball is a bit light, weighing about 115 grains, which isn’t a lot. I would use a Maxi- or Minié ball for large game and confine the round ball to small animals.

The .50-, .54- and .58-caliber rifles with Maxi- or Minié balls can be used for game larger than deer. Round balls in those calibers will work well on big game, as they have enough weight to provide good killing power when used on deer-sized animals. The Maxis would work better on such game as elk, moose and bear. Just be aware that your first shot must count because you won’t get a second chance. And in some cases, you could be mauled by an angry bear that you didn’t shoot well.

This grouping shows the potential accuracy when hunting with blackpowder firearms.

Two friends of mine went on an elk hunt in northern Arizona last year. Both have .50-caliber Hawkins rifles and were using 370-grain Maxi-style balls that I molded. Since they didn’t want the corrosion, we went with Clean Shot, which produced good accuracy at 50 and 100 yards. Anyway, Tony harvested a fine bull, but Marty had the cap go off without firing the powder charge. The elk heard the pop and was long gone before he could get off a second shot. The second cap ignited the powder charge. He was wondering what a Hawkins rifle would look like wrapped around a tree. Anyway, those things happen even if you do everything correctly, but not very often.

The old smooth bore rifles aren’t accurate enough for most hunting situations, though the bigger calibers can do the job if you manage to hit something. Many of those were around .70 caliber, so they shot a large ball. The longest practical range with a smooth bore is 75 to 80 yards. If you purposely hit something beyond that, luck played a major part. I suppose you could load some shot and make it a clumsy shotgun at close range. I have done that and it does work OK. They are best used for reenactments and target shooting. The old blunderbusses were frequently used for small game hunting. They have a big opening, making them easy to load. Early on, hunters found out it was easier to hit a bird on the wing with a shot load as opposed to a single projectile.

EXCELLENT ACCURACY is a hallmark of many muzzleloading firearms and might amaze people with preconceived notions that they are not very powerful or accurate. Nothing can be further from the truth. Like modern arms, many muzzleloaders can outshoot their owners. A .50-caliber Hawkins can easily put three Maxi-Balls into an inch at 100 yards when shot by a competent marksman. Round-ball weapons also are very accurate and many can shoot well at 200 or more yards. It just takes a little more work and preparation. Cap-and-ball revolvers also can surprise you with their accuracy. Wild Bill Hickok shot an adversary at 75 yards through the heart with a .36-caliber cap-and-ball revolver. Of course, he was an excellent shot who practiced every day, but it shows what can be done.

There’s also the challenge, which makes it more interesting and fun. I recently took two shooters out and let them shoot my .36-caliber cap-and-ball revolver. They were amazed at the accuracy and how much fun it was. I believe both will be shooting black powder arms in the future as a result of that. In spite of the crude sights, at 25 yards a 3-inch-or-better group is entirely realistic.

AND FINALLY, BLACKPOWDER is hydroscopic, which means that it will absorb moisture very readily. That means that you must clean your weapon as soon as possible to avoid rust. With my muzzleloaders I remove the nipple and run hot water down the barrel with a little dish soap. I run a brush down the barrel until the water is clear. After that I run enough hot water through it to get it hot, then I let it dry. I then run a dry patch through it to make sure there is no water lurking about. I clean the nipple and the area around it and apply a light coating of oil on the gun. That works for me and I have used that method for many years and never have any problems with rust. There are a variety of products on the market that work well, but I prefer my method. Sometimes after cleaning a blackpowder weapon, it will be left it in the sun for awhile. Living in Arizona, I know that that will really dry it up in a hurry, getting the metal so hot you can hardly touch it.

FOR ANYONE CONTEMPLATING GETTING into blackpowder, by all means go for it. As shooting is about having fun, blackpowder will only enhance it. Done correctly, it is a safe and enjoyable hobby and lets us know how easy we have it in regards to weapons. Just imagine you are on horseback in a downpour with a band of Apaches chasing you. They are planning on giving you a close-cropped haircut and you have a cap-and-ball revolver you are trying to reload. It will help you appreciate your modern handgun and its cartridges even more. ASJ

Blackpowder and its many compositions – represented here by FFFFG L, FFFG L, FFG and FG R – represent a link to the shooting world of the past and an exciting one that is thriving today.

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May 26th, 2016 by