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When Jacob Hawken ﬁrst began making his “mountain” riﬂes, he incorporated features into each gun that were well thought of based on his experience. Hawken wanted his riﬂes to be the very best available and, therefore, desired by the most people. His strategy worked, because these days, they are the riﬂes we remember the most from the early to mid-1800s.
Dan Phariss, a highly regarded gunsmith and black powder historian, may have said it best: “The Hawken, the fully evolved mountain riﬂe, be it full or half-stock, was the ﬁnal evolution of the American muzzleloading hunting riﬂe.”
In my opinion, no other muzzleloading riﬂe ever surpassed the classic percussion Hawken riﬂe.
MOUNTAIN MEN NEEDED A RIFLE that was dependable, one that could last a whole year or more in the wilderness. Generally, it had to function without the possibility of major repairs and need for replacement parts, although trapping brigades sometimes had blacksmiths or gunsmiths traveling with them. But with Hawken, that strength and dependability was built right into their riﬂes.
For example, muzzleloading riﬂes were often susceptible to damage with breakage to the stock right at the wrist. To strengthen that area, Hawken riﬂes and their replicas have the long upper tang, as well as the extended trigger plates. Those two iron or steel pieces reinforced the wrist of the stock at both top and bottom, and screws from the tang go through the stock to anchor the trigger plate.
Unlike many modern modular 70 designs, the barrel is the literal backbone of muzzleloading rifles, as it provides the foundational support for all of the other parts and pieces. With that in mind, the Hawken rifles had heavier barrels than most other models. It could be that this was because Hawkens were expected to make more frequent use of heavier loads, but that explanation isn’t as probable as the brothers simply seeking a stronger foundation for their rifles.
The locks and triggers used in the Hawken design were also the ﬁnest available at that time, and were another reason that they were the ﬁnest shooters in the world. Finally, the Hawken shop was one of the ﬁrst to embrace the percussion ignition system, and while many historians believe the Hawken brothers also manufactured ﬂintlocks, none of these have ever been located.
Some believe the role of the Hawken riﬂe in western history has been exaggerated, or that the Hawken brothers are being given more credit today than they deserve. But This if nothing else, the Hawken riﬂes were clearly recognized as being the gun to have if you could aﬀord one. That is not just because they were more expensive than most other riﬂes at the time, but also because – in the diaries, ledgers and account books of the time – Hawken riﬂes were frequently the only riﬂes that were mentioned by name.
For example, in the inventory listings of what the American Fur Company shipped to Fort Union, in what would become North Dakota, in 1834, a notation indicates “4 riﬂes, Hawkins.” Another early reference appears in a list of goods taken west by French Canadian trader and fur trapper Etienne Provost in 1829: “2 riﬂes, Hawkins ($25.00 each).” Those are just two examples (both notations appear in the book Supply and Demand: The Ledgers and Gear of the Western Fur Trade by Olsen and McCloskey). Other riﬂes were not generally named to this level of detail, but Hawken riﬂes (and some pistols) always seem to be mentioned by name. In other words, if it wasn’t a Hawken, it was just another riﬂe.
For comparison, the price of a “trade riﬂe” (a riﬂe made for the fur trade, to be sold or traded to trappers, red or white) as made by Henry, Leman, Tryon or others could be purchased for around $12. At more than twice that amount, Hawken riﬂes were truly expensive guns.
Details like these serve to remind us how respected and desirable the old Hawken riﬂes were. Those reminders emphasize the fact that Hawken riﬂes were certainly on the “roll call” at rendezvouses of the period. At today’s, the caplock Hawken is just as much at home on the good list, and much in demand. There just isn’t anything that spells “mountain doin’s” like an authentically made classic Hawken.
HAWKEN RIFLES EVOLVED OVER TIME, starting with the early J&S Hawkens ﬁrearms and ending with the S. Hawken riﬂes, which continued to be manufactured for nearly 20 years after Jacob Hawken’s 1849 death. The diﬀerences between the early and late riﬂes are primarily minor details, such as the use of a single pin to hold the entry pipe for the ramrod on the S. Hawken riﬂes in place instead of two as used on the J&S Hawken models. But the truth is that each original Hawken riﬂe was a unique, handmade creation, with no two being exactly alike.
In my 40-plus-year quest to acquire as much Hawken information and experience as I can, I’ve handled – and admired – several original Hawken riﬂes. But believe it or not, I have never ﬁred one. All of my shooting with Hawken-style riﬂes has been accomplished with more recent duplicates of these famous guns, many of which have been very exacting copies and that performed in an amazing fashion.
However, Art Ressel, long-time proprietor of the original Hawken Shop in St. Louis, once showed me six Hawken riﬂes, all laying on a bed. He let me handle them all I wanted, for as long as I needed, and asked me if I could ﬁnd the one riﬂe in that group that was not a real Hawken. Although it took me over an hour – a very treasured hour – I’m proud to say that I ﬁnally identiﬁed the imposter. What ﬁnally gave it away? The reproduction had eight-groove riﬂing while all of the others had seven grooves in their barrels.
In short, the Hawken riﬂe was a highly desired and reliable ﬁrearm of the iconic mountain men who blazed trails and helped settle the American West, and it deserves its place in the historical saga of that important period in our nation’s growth, expansion and development. ASJ
Black powder loads can certainly be ﬁred in repeating riﬂes, such as my Browning copy of the old Winchester 1886 saddle-ring carbine with its 22-inch-long barrel. The main difference between the repeaters and most of the single shots is that the single shots – such as the Sharps or the rolling block – actually have no maximum cartridge length.
On the other hand, lever-action riﬂes have a maximum overall cartridge length, generally just over 2½ inches, so the cartridges can cycle through the actions. Also, the trapdoor single shots might not accept cartridges quite as long as the Sharps or rolling block because their cartridges must be initially loaded at an angle. And those trapdoors and repeaters might actually chamber cartridges that are too long for them to eject if still loaded, so to unload the riﬂe, those long cartridges will have to be ﬁred.
During the “on duty” days of the .45-70, there were some variations in the loading of the cartridges. The ﬁrst and the oldest was the .45-70/405, which was designated as the “riﬂe load.” Because that powder and bullet combination can be considered quite a blast when ﬁred from a carbine, a “carbine load” using 55 grains of powder under the same 405-grain bullet was also used. The carbine load might sound like it is melted down compared to the standard riﬂe load, but don’t cut it too short. Carbine loads can stand on their own while offering comfortable shooting.
MAKING THE CARBINE LOAD IS SIMPLE. This can begin with new unﬁred brass which has been run through the neck expander to accomplish two things: it bells the mouth of the cases just a bit to accept the cast bullets, and it rounds out the mouth of any cases which might have gotten squeezed a bit out of round. Of course, ﬁred brass needs to be treated the same way. Then the cases are primed and ready for 55 grains of black powder. Once the powder is poured into the case, no compression is required and you can easily seat the lubricated cast bullet down over the powder.
The bullets used for these carbine loads were Lyman’s #457124, the old ideal style of grooved bullets that were the standard 405-grain slug for the .45-70. Some of the old-style bullets did have fewer and wider lube grooves, but those don’t show once the bullets are loaded into the cases.
Bullets for carbine loads are seated rather deeply, to ensure that no air space was left in the case above the powder charge and to make the carbine loads instantly identiﬁable to the shooters. For my loads, the bullets were seated just deep enough so the mouth of the case could be slightly crimped over the top of the forward driving band.
A crimp groove in the bullet is not necessary with black powder loads because the bullet is resting on top of the powder charge. There is very little opportunity for the bullet to be pushed further into the case, even when used in a tubular magazine.
IF THERE WAS EVER A CLASSIC BULLET for the old .45-70, it would have to be the old Lyman/Ideal #457124. I say that for a couple of reasons, but they can be netted out into just a couple of short statements. First and foremost, it is a very historical design, and Lyman refers to it (in their old Handbook of Cast Bullets, from 1958, the one with an engraved converted Sharps carbine on the cover) as “the regular standard .45-70 Government bullet.”
For our shooting needs these days, this remains a standard bullet, and is useful for any .45-70 riﬂe or pistol being single shot or repeater. It can be used with carbine loads using 55 grains of powder or with full riﬂe loads burning 70 grains of powder. This old standard is still an all-around bullet for the .45-70 and it can be used in most other .45-caliber riﬂe cartridges as well.
The original weight of #457124 was listed at 405 grains. I don’t think any design change has been incorporated over the years but now this bullet is most often listed at 385 grains. That weight difference is simply from the alloy the bullets are made or cast with.
My favorite use for the #457124 is in carbine loads, such as the cartridges pictured above. These are loaded with 55 grains of Olde Eynsford 2F. That is simply a nice load, good for shooting all day without cleaning as long as the bullets are well lubed. When you shoot it all day, this load leaves you with good feeling in your shoulder too. While that is the carbine load, it remains good load for hunting, perhaps for deer-sized game at ranges within 100 yards. It is not a long-range powerhouse, but it doesn’t lack much either. In fact, the above load scoots an average of 1,245 feet per second when shot out of a 30-inch barrel. That’s not bad at all.
If any .45-70 shooters out there don’t have a #457124 mold from Lyman in their gear, their “possibles” are simply incomplete. Lyman has dropped many molds from their catalog over the years, but thankfully #457124 is still on the list; it’s just too good to ignore. These quality bullet molds are available from almost any handloading supplier, and Lyman lists this one for $90.95 without handles.
I must give plenty of credit to these slow .45-70 carbine loads. My loads for this carbine and my lightweight Sharps riﬂe as well perform just as I want them to. Carbine loads will actually perform just as well if not better in any of the heavier riﬂes too. There is nothing wrong with loads that send the bullets out a bit slower than the full charges. They can actually be better if they help us make better hits. ASJ
Contact: Lyman Products Corporation Lymanproducts.com
My shooting was done using a .512-inch-diameter round ball wrapped in a .015-inch patch. The bore is tapered – just a mere .003 inch within the 35-inch length – but it is easily felt both when loading a patched round ball and when cleaning the gun. That ball-and-patch combination is relatively easy to start at the muzzle, and ramming the patched ball down to rest on the powder actually gets easier as the ball is pushed further down the
bore. At least part of the reason for that is because the tapered bores have their tightest diameters at their muzzles.
These barrels can be straight octagon up to 1 3/8 inches in width for any length out to 48 inches. FCI also offers straight tapered barrels to those same dimensions. Swamped, octagon and round barrels are also available out to 48 inches as well. Smoothbore barrels are made out to 48 inches. Burton also makes a 1 1/8-inch light bench barrel with a false muzzle, and pistol barrels too.
Burton’s barrels are made from 12L14 steel, and several calibers are standard. These include bore sizes of .30, .32, .36, .38, .40, .44, .45, .47, .48, .50, .52, .54, .58, .60 and .62 calibers. What drew my attention to his barrels is his offering of the .52 caliber, and that is what I ordered: a 35-inch barrel that is 1 inch wide with a twist rate of one turn in 66 inches, and having ﬂat bottom grooves. All barrels come with a straight or tapered tang breech plugs and the riﬂing is cut with seven grooves. Twist rates can be from one turn in 21 inches to straight riﬂed, so the buyer has the choice of just about any rate of twist desired.
SQUARE-BOTTOM RIFLING GROOVES are cut to a depth of .010 to .012 inch, while round bottom grooves are cut to .015 to .016 inch. All riﬂed barrels have seven grooves, and typical twists are 1 in 48, 1 in 57, 1 in 66, and 1 in 72 inches. But by using a sine bar riﬂing machine, Burton can cut twists from straight to as fast as one turn in 21 inches.
In addition, he hand laps and shoots all custom barrels before shipping them. My .52-caliber barrel came with a test target that was ﬁred from sandbags at 30 yards with 70 grains of FFFg under a patched .512-inch round ball. In order to shoot the new barrels, Burton temporarily breeches them to an in-line “action” and glues sights to the barrel. All evidence of the sights and the breeching are removed before the barrel receives the breech plug the customer has requested.
When it was time to sight-in my new riﬂe the day was wet and rainy, but I just wore my hat with the “Montana peak” and went shooting. For the initial shots, I posted a target at 25 yards and ﬁled down the front sight to raise the point of impact on the target. The load used for these close-range tests was 50 grains of GOEX FFFg under the .512inch cast ball wrapped in a Bridgers Best .015-inch lubricated patch.
With the sight ﬁled so the riﬂe was hitting center, I posted a pistol target for a ﬁve-shot group, and this turned out very well indeed. Those ﬁve shots, by the way, were ﬁred using the Pushing Daisies patches from October Country, cut from .015-inch ticking and lubed with Bumblin’ Bear Grease. Both are very good patches, especially for hunting. In case you are wondering, I consider both Bridgers Best and October Country patches to be equally good.
All things considered, the Burton barrel with the tapered bore loads easily and shoots very well. The small amount of shooting I’ve done with this riﬂe probably hasn’t done the barrel any real harm, but more shooting will certainly be done – and sooner than later.
Prices for Burton Barrels vary, but all are very reasonable, starting at $185 for a breeched straight riﬂe barrel, such as mine. Prices do not include shipping, and Burton asks for 50 percent of the barrel’s cost when an order is placed, with the remainder due when the barrel is received. Delivery is generally made in three to six months, as no barrels are kept in stock. All barrels are for black powder only.
To learn more about Burton gun barrels, or to place an order, visit fcibarrels.com, or call (606) 780-7709. ASJ
Lyman patented their #1 Tang Sight in 1879. The #2 followed either very shortly after if not at the same time. The only difference between those two types of sights is that the #1 had the combination apertures, with the fold-down small aperture, and the #2 came with removable discs, a feature that came to be favored by target shooters.
Putting one of these sights on an Uberti copy of the 1873 Winchester will usually require drilling and tapping for the forward sight hole, and Lyman includes directions on how to do that, including tapping the hole for 10-32 threads. I needed that to be done on my Stoeger/Uberti riﬂe, but that was the only modiﬁcation I had to make before the sight was installed. Then it was lined up with the open sight before the open sight was removed.
Let me give one tiny warning: be sure the very small Allen screw on the lower part of the upright is good and tight. That’s what holds the sight stem in place.
Shooting with the new tang sight was a blast! I used loads with 200-grain cast bullets over 33 grains of Olde Eynsford 2F black powder. My ﬁrst group was a bit high, so the sight was lowered. The next group is what you see pictured, ﬁve shots in a very tight group. I was aiming at 6 o’clock so the sights were left as is, to hit with a dead-on hold.
Lyman’s list price for one of its #2 Tang Sights is $99.95 and they are available directly from Lyman or most sporting goods stores. The sights are also made for the 1866, 1886, 1894 models, and the Marlins.
For more on the entire Lyman line, visit lymanproducts.com. ASJ
In other words, with grease-groove bullets, the lube is primarily for the shot being ﬁred, but it also leaves the bore somewhat coated with lube to keep the black powder fouling soft for the next shot. When shooting paper-patched bullets, the lube largely prepares the gun’s bore by softening the black powder fouling for the next shot.
To expand on the history of paper-patch bullet shooting just a bit, in the mid-1870s, international teams competed in the Creedmoor matches, probably the most famous longdistance shooting events up to that time. There, paper-patch bullets were the normal projectiles used and they were used without any lubrication.
In that era, hunters used tallow or wax lubricating “cookies” underneath the paper-patched bullets, so the hunter’s riﬂe barrel didn’t require cleaning as often. But at the Creedmoor matches, shooters cleaned their barrels after every shot.
WHILE GREASE-GROOVE BULLETS and paper-patch bullets are lubed in different ways, they still can use the same kinds of lubes. And although these have very slightly different actions by either lubing for the shot being ﬁred or for the next shot, they still perform the same duty (to keep the black powder fouling soft).
Black powder cartridge lube actually does the same thing as lubes for muzzleloading arms too, but the recipe for such lubes is different. That difference relates to the way it is loaded, and the higher pressures found in black powder cartridges when compared to muzzleloaders, so “stiffer” lubes are more often used. And, just like the difference between grease-groove bullets and paper-patched bullets, the reason for lubrication while shooting muzzleloaders is still the same, to keep the fouling soft for following shots.
For black powder cartridge shooters today, we almost always use lube with the bullets in our loads. That can be said as “always” with grease-groove bullets and “usually” with paperpatch bullets. One area where I’ll use paper-patch bullets without lubrication is while breaking in a new barrel. I’ll load 20 rounds with paperpatched bullets and no lubrication, ﬁring those bullets while cleaning the bore after every shot. Those dry paper patches might have a slight bit of abrasiveness to them, and if so, they’ll add a ﬁnal bit of polish to that new barrel’s bore. In loads for my general shooting, both for target and hunting loads, I use lubricants in all of my black powder cartridges.
There are several good lubricants on the market for black powder cartridges and, although they are not all alike, they are all good. The one that is the “best” for you will depend on a variety of factors, including the likely weather conditions in your area, the caliber and the amount of powder used in your loads. I can’t specify here what is best for your shooting. As with many other aspects of our sport, each shooter needs to determine what is best for them, and quite likely for each black powder cartridge riﬂe used.
I WILL OFFER ADVICE, however, on what to look for in your own riﬂe(s) to help you choose which lube to use. For instance, if you do not ﬁnd a “lube star” on your riﬂe’s muzzle after shooting, the lube is either too soft or, as with paper-patch bullets, you didn’t use enough lube.
The lube star is simply excess lube that forms the star on the gun’s muzzle, shaped by the lands and grooves of the barrel. That is excess, yes, but without it you simply don’t have enough.
Lubrication in black powder cartridge loads is one area where we can generally say that too much lube is plenty. I would rather see a generous lube star at the muzzle than a light one. That’s just a guarantee showing how more than enough lube is being used.
The different black powder cartridge lubes I have used could make an interesting list. They include Lyman’s Black Powder Gold (a “stiffer” lube designed for long-range shooting), SPG, BPC from C. Sharps Arms, DGL (Damn Good Lube), and, more recently, a new one called Vigilante Bullet Lube. All of these are good, but some are better than others in speciﬁc circumstances, and I must admit that I have not kept the notes required to make authoritative statements about which is best in what calibers during which kind of weather.
However, I know shooters who use one kind of lube such as SPG during the summer, but switch to the slightly softer DGL for winter.
As I mentioned, the new kid on the black powder cartridge lube block is Vigilante Bullet Lube. The owner of the company, Dan Highley, introduced his new lube to me while I was cruising traders row with Allen Cunniff at the last Quigley Long Range Buffalo Riﬂe match. We each received a tub of it, and I started giving it a workout shortly after returning home. That activity began with a wide list of black powder cartridges, from the .44-40 up to the .50-90. Somewhere in the middle was the .44-77, and that is the cartridge that has given me the most experience, so far.
VIGILANTE BULLET LUBE is for paper or metallic cartridges. I don’t personally know any shooters who are using paper cartridges these days, although I could probably ﬁnd some who are shooting Sharps percussion riﬂes where they could be used. In those percussion breechloaders, such as the Model 1863 Sharps, the bullets still need lubrication with or without the paper cartridge. I own an 1863 percussion breechloader, and when I get around to using it, I’ll be sure to have some Vigilante lube on hand.
First, the .44-40; my loads used the standard bullet for the .44-40, Lyman’s #427098, over 34 grains by weight of Olde Eynsford 2F with no wad between the bullet and the powder. Those bullets were lubed with Vigilante and sized to .429 inches before being ﬁred in my new Model 1885 Low Wall from C. Sharps Arms. That load worked very well, giving tight groups at 50 yards, complete with a ﬁne lube star on the riﬂe’s muzzle. No leading or evidence thereof could be found during cleaning.
The .44-77 used both “naked” and paper-patched bullets. The paper-patched 400-grain bullets were loaded over 75 grains by weight of the Olde Eynsford 1 1/2F with a Walters’ .060-inch wad, plus a 3/16-inch grease cookie of Vigilante under the bullet. Those were ﬁred in two ﬁve-shot groups, back to back with no cleaning. The last couple of cartridges began to feel “sticky” when they were chambered but not stiff, and all ten shots scored nicely.
When I cleaned my Remington rolling block riﬂe, it was obvious that the bore was still coated with a layer of Vigilante and, again, no evidence of any leading at all.
The .50-70 and .50-90 also showed a quick acceptance for Vigilante lube, showing generous lube stars.
Now before any (or all) of you remind me, let me quickly point out that all of my shooting with Vigilante Bullet Lube was done during the summer, and it was a rather hot one at that.
That’s when I learned that Vigilante Bullet Lube is available as Lube #1 and Lube #2, with #2 being a somewhat softer lube designed for use in cold weather. I’d say that covers all of the bases.
To learn more about Vigilante Bullet Lube, email Dan Highley at email@example.com. You can also check out the Vigilante Bullet Lube page on Facebook. ASJ
Pedersoli calls this side-by-side their “Bohemienne,” or Bohemian. Comparing it to the standards of today, this shotgun is deﬁnitely nonconformist, and it is good enough that we can refer to it as being somewhat irregular. It is a cut above many others, and for me it is delightful in many ways, especially with its double outside hammers.
I want to emphasize one point right from the beginning. In most gun reviews like this one, contact information is provided so consumers get more information about the gun can described, but all too often the dealers at local gun shops don’t receive guidance about how to stock them. But this ﬁne shotgun is available through the Italian Firearms Group,
a partnership that supplies the U.S. dealer network with the best products of multiple Italian gun makers.
The Italian Firearms Group was established in 2010, and represents some of that country’s top ﬁrearms craftsmen: F.A.I.R, Sabatti and Pedersoli. By going directly to IFG, dealers can make rather quick contact to get wholesale pricing and other useful information in regard to getting ﬁrearms to sell.
THE PEDERSOLI LA BOHEMIENNE is a striking piece, to say the least. It is a classically styled, double-barreled 12-gauge shotgun with double outside hammers. The 28-inch browned barrels have 3-inch chambers, and are equipped with interchangeable chokes at the muzzles. The pistol grip and the fore-end each oﬀer checkering for comfort, a good grip and, quite honestly, beauty. And speaking of, the frame is color casehardened and features hand-ﬁnished engraving. Overall length of the shotgun is just under 46 inches, and it weighs about 7¾ pounds.
The hammers are rebounding, so they don’t have or use half-cock notches. Rebounding hammers are, in my opinion, a good safety measure. If the gun is cocked and the hammer needs to be returned to its “down” position, you just hold the hammer back, pull the trigger, and slowly ease the hammer forward while releasing the trigger. The hammers cannot go far enough forward to hit the ﬁring pins unless the triggers are held back.
In addition to that, the gun is also equipped with a sliding safety, the very same as on a hammerless double, so the gun can be put on safety while the hammers are in the cocked position. The sliding safety does not move to the safe position when the gun is opened.
This gun is not speciﬁcally a black powder shotgun, not like a muzzle-loading shotgun would be. Instead, the Bohemienne is a ﬁnely made modern shotgun with modern steels in the barrels, so it is right at home with modern loads and with steel shot. While using steel shot, however, the changeable chokes should be used with only cylinder or improved-cylinder at the muzzles because the steel shot is simply not as compressible as lead.
At the same time, in my most humble opinion, this gun is such a classic that it had “black powder” written all over it, and my choice for shooting it immediately fell to black powder loads for ammunition. That ammunition came from Buﬀalo Arms Company in northern Idaho. They oﬀer a variety of shotgun loads with black powder, and the one I selected to use the most was loaded with 3 drams (82 grains) of black powder under 11/8 ounce of size 7½ lead shot.
THE BLACK POWDER SHOT SHELLS from Buﬀalo Arms Company are rather classic themselves. They are loaded in good old-fashioned paper hulls, and are nicely star-crimped at the mouth. Inside, these shells are loaded with what we might call “old style” components.
Dave Gullo, owner of Buﬀalo Arms, described the loads this way: “An important feature to our shotgun ammo is that it’s loaded with nitro overshot wads and ﬁber overpowder wads, not plastic wads, so that the shooter is not needing to scrub plastic out of their barrels when they are done shooting.”
At ﬁrst, I couldn’t help notice what I will call rather heavy trigger pulls. I know that “rather heavy” is a relative expression. I’m most comfortable with the very lightly set triggers on muzzle-loading riﬂes and my favorite Sharps, so perhaps I wasn’t the best prepared for what this shotgun required. When I called for my ﬁrst bird on the sporting clays range, I followed it until it was out of sight and the gun hadn’t ﬁred. For my next try, I was more prepared.
The trigger pulls were actually quite ﬁne, breaking very sharp and crisp, while remaining a bit on the heavy side. I realized that one reason for those trigger pulls being “heavy” is so the gun can be ﬁred while both hammers are cocked. In this way, with its associated recoil, the jarring of one barrel going oﬀ will not release the second hammer. In other words, this gun will not “double” on you, which could be a memorable experience you wouldn’t want to have.
After I “caught up” with the gun, the good hits began to come one after the other. As you can guess, that’s when the fun really took over, and using this shotgun became a delight.
Our muzzle-loading club has a target known as the “slice of pie” that is used for a particular match with ﬂintlock smoothbores during our Trade Gun Frolic. The slice of pie is used in a luck shoot where each shooter gets just one shot at 25 yards while using buckshot. It’s hard enough just to get some hits on the paper, and a shooter must be lucky to get any score at all.
Just to give this Pedersoli 12-gauge a chance, I took one shot at the slice of pie while using 00 buckshot. This was done with the Pedersoli’s left barrel, with the modiﬁed choke, and six hits are seen on the target (see photo at left) but with zero for a score. That shot was just another part of the fun.
There isn’t a whole lot more I can tell you about the Pedersoli La Bohemienne that wouldn’t simply be echoes of what I’ve already written. It is a very ﬁne classic double-barreled 12-gauge, priced in the neighborhood of $2,100. And with the black powder loads, it provides classic shotgun shooting at its best.
For more information about Pedersoli, the La Bohemienne, and other ﬁnely crafted shotguns, visit italianﬁrearmsgroup.com. To learn more about the Buﬀalo Arms Company’s black powder shotgun loads in 10 and 12 gauges, visit buﬀaloarms.com. ASJ
Finally, a mere 55 years later, Dixie Gun Works has added the Uberti Cattleman Flat-top to their catalog, and it was worth the wait. In addition to being historically correct, this is a six-gun built for accurate and ﬁne shooting.
The details of that historical correctness begin with the cartridges this gun is chambered for. Currently (although things can change), the ﬂat-top Cattleman is offered only for the .45 Colt and the .44/40. Of those two cartridges, the .45 is certainly the most common today, just as it was years ago. If all of my wishes had come true, this new gun would be offered in .44 Smith & Wesson Russian/Special too. However, with the .45 Colt and the .44/40 to choose from, one of the .44/40s was my choice.
THE MOST OBVIOUS DIFFERENCE between this target model and the standard frame guns, in addition to the ﬂat-top frame, is the sights. At the back, the rear sight sits in a dovetail and it is easily windage adjustable, with a small set screw to lock it in place. The front sight is a blade pinned into a lug soldered to the top of the barrel. Originally, the front sight could be changed, and that should be possible on this gun too (simply drive out the pin), but a new front sight blade would have to be made.
Another feature I really like is the wide trigger. Instead of the standard narrow trigger found on most Colt Single Actions and their clones, this trigger is the same width as the trigger guard. That will give the trigger ﬁnger a much better “grip” while aiming for the shot.
Interestingly enough, in reviewing some original ﬂattops, I discovered that not all of them had the wide triggers. Additionally, a few of the models with wide triggers had their triggers checkered. To me, that’s an interesting detail about the rare original Colts, and likewise for these rather uncommon copies.
Shooting the Flat-top in .44/40 is like shooting a very rare piece. As you may know, Colt originally made only 21 of their ﬂat-top Single Action Army revolvers in this caliber. (Of course, that doesn’t count the 78 ﬂat-top .44/40 Bisley Models which were also made.) Most of my shooting was done with black powder loads, but that is certainly not
a requirement. I will even admit that my best shooting was done with smokeless powdered loads.
THOSE LOADS ARE GOOD ENOUGH to mention in detail. First, the bullets used for all of my loads were cast from Lyman’s mold #427098, usually out of a soft 30-1 alloy, sized to .429 inches, and lubricated with BPC lube (Black Powder Cartridge lube from Montana Armory). Primers used were always CCI’s standard Large Pistol.
The black powder load used 33.0 grains of GOEX’s Olde Eynsford powder, which ﬁlls the Starline .44/40 cases almost to the top. Then the powder is compressed simply by seating the bullet down on it.
For a smokeless powder load, all of the above remains the same except for the powder charge. Instead of using black powder, I used a charge of 7½ grains of Unique. That is basically a recommended load, not near maximum at all, and some very comfortable shooting can be done with it. That is an accurate load too, good enough for pleasing groups and controllable enough for Cowboy competition.
To make load identiﬁcation very easy, I load my black powder ammo in Starline’s nickel-plated cases, while the smokeless load go into standard brass cases.
Both of those loads seem to hit at about the same elevation. For my “accuracy check,” I posted a couple of pistol targets at 50 feet, and ﬁred the ﬂat-top from a rest. While holding the sights at 6 o’clock, right at the bottom of the black, very good hits were made, mostly in the 10 ring. The smokeless load did produce a somewhat smaller group than the black powder loads, but I only made this comparison once, and I’m certain a lot of “human element” was involved.
WHAT WAS A LOT MORE FUN, as you could probably guess, was plinking with the black powder loads. One particular small target was teasing me, and that was a clothespin hanging on a wire at a distance of 25 or 30 yards. There was a good dirt bank backstop behind it, and I could spot exactly where my shots that missed actually hit. It took me only three tries to hit that clothespin, and it disassembled quite nicely on my third shot.
AS FOR TECHNICAL INFO about the gun, the 7½-inch-long barrel is riﬂed with grooves .004 inch deep and a rate of twist at one turn in 20 inches. The groove diameter of the barrel is .429 inch. This gun’s front sight is a silver blade that is held with a screw in the blued steel base. The rear sight is a nice wide square notch that sits in a dovetail. It is windage adjustable and it has a set screw to hold it in place. This gun measures 13.25 inches overall, and it weighs about 2½ pounds. Dixie’s price, at this writing, is only $450.00, making this a lot of gun for the money.
Shooting with the Flat-top Cattleman is, for me, a real pleasure. And now, if they’ll bring back the ﬂat-top Bisley Model, I hope my name is at the top of their list.
I also hope that I don’t have to wait another 55 years. ASJ
One attraction for me is shooting blackpowder revolvers and lever-action riﬂes from the 1870s. Of course for me, shooting those guns is rather restricted to using the newly-made copies. Regarding revolvers – which we’ll concentrate on for the rest of this short tale – my guns are mostly second- and third-generation Colt Single Actions in .45 Colt and .44-40, and the Uberti versions of the S&W Russian Model 3. For me, the .44 Russian has a particular appeal because it actually predated the Colt Single Action and, well, the S&W revolvers did make their mark on the Western frontier, didn’t they? There is evidence of the slightly older S&W .44 American revolvers being present at The Battle of Adobe Walls in 1874. Maybe I’m just trying to justify my preferences, but even so, the Uberti copies of the S&W New Model Russian 3 are very good and certainly worthy of consideration as a nice shooting handgun.
HISTORICALLY, THE .44 RUSSIAN goes back to 1871, and it was a trendsetter because inside it used a lubricated bullet with the lube grooves seated down inside the cartridge case. It was also a trendsetter because of its accuracy; it has an accuracy that other cartridges often strive for but seldom duplicate.
Joining me with his own .44 Russian revolver was Lynn Willecke, whom I’ve been shooting with since the 1950s. We shot using bullets from Lyman’s mold No. 429383, which is still being made for the .44 Russian or Special. We often remarked that the bullet shot out of a .44 Russian seemed to be made for it. It turns out that it was. We shot blackpowder loads, using Olde Eynsford 2F powder in new Starline cases.
IN MIKE VENTURINO’S book Shooting Sixguns Of The Old West, he gives the .44 Russian quite a bit of attention. He comments on the accuracy of the cartridge and he even used an original S&W Russian 2nd Model with a 7-inch barrel to test it. Venturino also used Lyman’s No. 429383 and checked load speeds using 19.0 grains of GOEX FFg at 690 feet per second. He also checked speeds using the same weight of FFFg at 740 fps.
Willecki and I chronographed the load we were using. You can consider our ﬁndings to be an extension of Venturino’s published data. Our results were not quite the same since our Uberti revolvers have 6½-inch barrels, and we shot with 20 grains of Olde Eynsford 2F powder under Lyman bullets. Olde Eynsford was not available when Venturino tested his round, or I’m sure he would have included it. The average velocity from the ﬁve shots we checked was 705.3 fps, and the extreme spread of those velocities was only 10.7 fps. The tightest extreme spread of velocities Venturino recorded was 19 fps and that was with GOEX FFFg powder. In my opinion, the data from Venturino’s book (written about 20 years ago) and what we recorded supports one another very well.
THERE WERE A FEW differences between Venturino’s test and ours. Venturino shot at a distance of 50 feet with the gun ﬁrmly rested over sand bags. That’s the proper way to check accuracy. Willecke and I wanted to test ourselves just as much as our guns, so we shot offhand with a two-hand hold, and our targets were only 12 yards out. The results were very pleasing. I complained because Willecke outshot me – again – by getting a higher score (50-3X), but he too complained because my ﬁve shots fell into a slightly tighter group. Actually, we were both very satisﬁed.
WE MOVED ON to plinking and our hits were more frequent than our close misses. Neither one of us kept track of our hits, but the blackpowder loads were just as accurate as those loaded with smokeless powder, which were mainly loaded with Unique. All our bullets were lubed with a blackpowder lubricant because with good lube, blackpowder loads don’t seem to get the gun dirty.
The .44 Russian certainly lives up to its reputation for accuracy – if you accept our judgement, rough testing and all. We enjoyed our time so much that you can count on seeing us with one of these .44 Russian revolvers again. ASJ
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
From about 1722 to 1838 the Long Land Pattern musket (Bess’s oﬃcial name) was the standard-issue long arm for all land forces in the British military. This weapon ﬁred a .75- to .78-caliber ball. As this was the era of British expansion, Brown Bess saw duty around the world. From India to Waterloo all the way over to those pesky American colonies, this was the gun that did most of the ﬁghting, and when mounted with the standard 17-inch bayonet it was deadly indeed! Think of an M1 Garand that stayed in service for over 100 years!
THE ORIGIN OF THE NICKNAME Brown Bess for this pattern musket seems to be uncertain. Some say it was an aﬀectionate reference by the British soldiers to Queen Elizabeth I. King George I was, in fact, German and did not speak English (go ﬁgure), and others think it could have been an interpretation for the German braun Buss or brawn Buss, meaning strong gun or brown gun. (Büchse is an old German word for rifle, in the sense of a hunting weapon.)
Most experts on this musket, however, seem to think it is more likely the overall appearance of the weapon: dark brown wood on the stock and a barrel that often had a brownish tint due to the method of “bluing” the metal at this time known as russeting.
History is wonderful and if you are as crazy about guns as I am, you could get lost in the details and minutiae of any ﬁrearm. I will admit, however, that there is something better than just reading about it – hands-on shooting. The feel of the gun, the burning powder in your nose and getting your hands dirty – there is no substitute for this.
So, where can you actually learn to load and ﬁre a Brown Bess musket? Glad you asked! Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, of course!
This 301-acre historic site features hundreds of restored, reconstructed and historically furnished buildings. Costumed interpreters tell the stories of the men and women in this 18th-Century city – black, white and Native Americans were all here. Some were slaves, some were indentured and some were free. When you come here, you will learn the challenges these people faced and you can also learn to ﬁre the Brown Bess!
BRAND NEW THIS YEAR, Colonial Williamsburg has opened a ﬁring range where guests can learn to load and ﬁre this treasured musket. If you enjoy history (which you probably do if you are visiting Colonial Williamsburg), take the time to feel history in your hands by shooting these historical treasures.
Even though we were visiting the colonies and not Her Majesty’s home in England, the day my wife Helen and I visited Colonial Williamsburg, we were treated like royalty. Joe Straw, public relations manager for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, and all of the staﬀ went out of their way to make us feel welcome.
OUR FIRST STOP was the gunsmith shop. To be honest, I could have spent the entire day in there. As with much of Colonial Williamsburg most of this sweeping landscape is just like stepping back in time. Try to imagine walking into an 18th-century gunsmith shop. It’s all here! The guns, the powder horns, the tools and every accoutrement that you can think of and some you might never have realized existed, all with the absolute authenticity and attention to detail that Colonial Williamsburg is known for.
I stood in awe of the blacksmith’s shop next door as a ﬂat piece of metal was repeatedly heated, hammered and forged around an iron rod, transforming it into a riﬂe barrel. I had always been curious about this process and wondered how it was even possible. There I stood as sparks danced with each blow of the hammer and black smoke rolled.
I was very fortunate to spend some time with George Suiter, the master gunsmith here. Suiter has been working in this gunsmith shop for over 30 years and after about 10 minutes of speaking with him I had already forgotten more about making these riﬂes than I would ever know. Suiter makes these Colonial-era “riﬂe guns” right in this shop and people can order their very own. The waiting list is quite lengthy, currently eight to nine years, and on average a riﬂe will fetch about $20,000.
“The best way to preserve a trade is to practice it,” Suiter told me, “ … and that is what we do here at Colonial Williamsburg.” He assured me that one would never ﬁnd tools in this shop which were not true to the time period.
I also spent some time talking to Erik Goldstein, curator of mechanical arts and numismatics. Goldstein is the coauthor of The Brown Bess: An Identiﬁcation Guide And Illustrated Study Of Britain’s Most Famous Musket. This is, at the very least, an exhaustive study of the British Land Pattern musket. I do not believe you could be a serious student nor a proper collector without owning this book.
JOE STRAW WAS ULTIMATELY ABLE to hustle me out of the gunsmith shop and took Helen and I to the musket range. A highly capable group and just as knowledgeable in their craft awaited us. You will ﬁnd this level of commitment and passion all over Colonial Williamsburg, and this is also depicted in the clothing and demeanor.
Portraying a Colonial-era militia man, armorer Justin Chapman met us at the range with a host of well-trained helpers. Chapman gave us an extensive safety and background brieﬁng on the Brown Bess, as well as a period “fowling piece.” The “fowler,” we were told, would be a muzzleloader that would have likely been used by colonists at the time. A predecessor to the modern shotgun, it could be loaded with bird shot or ball load, making it very versatile for the hunting colonist.
Both the Brown Bess and the fowler are smoothbores (no riﬂing in the barrel). They could be loaded quickly, but are not especially accurate over 50 yards. For the European style of combat used at the time, where armies marched in formation to within range of their foes and then sent volleys of lead chunks at them, the Brown Bess was a deadly weapon; for the long-range shooter, not so much. A British soldier was expected to be capable of ﬁring four shots in one minute. After a few volleys of ﬁre, a charge was ordered using those wicked triangular 17-inch bayonets. The line that could stand against such a charge was stalwart indeed!
MY WIFE HELEN HAD the privilege of being the ﬁrst visitor to ﬁre a round on the brand new musket range here. I enjoyed watching her do that as much as anything on this trip. There is something about watching a new shooter that warms the heart. The look on her face after the smoke and boom of her ﬁrst shot was priceless. When she was asked if she wanted to shoot again, she immediately replied, “Of course!”
When it was my turn to shoot, I found that it was not difficult to hit the NRA target, as the musket was more accurate than I had expected. The Brown Bess has no front sight, but the small lug where the bayonet attaches serves as one. Again, this was not meant to be a sniper riﬂe. Quick and easy to load, I could see how shooting this type of muzzleloader could be addicting. Straw had to drag me oﬀ of the range before we all froze
to death – it was a cold March day – and I shot up all the powder and ball in the county.
AT THE END OF THE LONG DAY, Helen and I would not be denied another stroll down Colonial Williamsburg’s streets. It was a blustery evening with not many visitors around. I stood and peered down Duke of Gloucester Street; nobody was in sight outside of those in period attire. Far down the street I could see a soldier in uniform hastening into the evening gloom. Trouble was coming, but in the end came freedom and the rise of the greatest country the world had ever seen. Just for a minute I imagined it was 1774, and I was there. ASJ
Story and photographs by Bob Shell
It is believed that the Chinese have been using black powder for about a thousand years and they are generally credited with its invention starting with fireworks. Around 700 years ago someone came up with the idea that if you put some black powder in a tube with a rock it would expel the rock out at sufficient velocity to make it a weapon. Another early idea was to use reinforced bamboo to shoot arrows and darts. No one knows who thought of this, but they did indeed change the world. The general consensus is the Chinese and Arabs were among the earliest to use guns in war.
The guns of the 13th century bore little resemblance to today’s weapons, and the blackpowder formula is essentially the same as it was then, although the older powders were weaker and gray in colored. One of the few improvements included making powder with water, so it could be made into a cake-like compound. That seemed to make it more reliable and safer. A popular formula today is 75 percent saltpeter, 15 percent charcoal and 10 percent sulfur. There are and have been other formulas used throughout the centuries, and as time went on they improved the formula and strength. Even today, powders are better than just a few years ago.
What are the characteristics of this ancient propellant? First, it is considered an explosive as opposed to a propellant such as smokeless powders and black-powder substitutes. This means that it is highly regulated and harder to buy. If you want to sell black powder, you have to get a special license issued by the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (BATFE or ATF), and you must have special storage containers. Many gun stores don’t want to be bothered with these burdensome regulations, so they just sell the substitutes. I imagine there are areas where it may be prohibited all together. Because of this, many muzzle-loading fans use a substitute such as Pyrodex, Cleanshot or Blackhorn 209. These substitutes work well, however, for someone who is a stickler for the authentic they just don’t cut the mustard.
Black powder is messy, so some shooters avoid it rather than learn to work with it. That is a shame because black powder is capable of producing excellent accuracy. In the 1880s, black-powder rifles produced results that are respectable even by today’s standards. In 200-yard rifle matches, it wasn’t uncommon to have a competitor shoot a 10-shot 2-inch group.
I have done a lot of chronographing and my accuracy with these loads has generally been excellent with both muzzle loading and cartridge firearms. As a sidenote, when chronographing black powder, you usually have to stand at least 5 feet further away from the start screen, because the smoke will obscure it and prevent you from getting a reading. This is especially true with the larger calibers.
When getting into black powder there are a few things that you need to be aware of. First of all it’s explosive, and you need to keep it away from open flames or sparks and even static electricity can cause a detonation. It will ignite with very little encouragement, so you need to keep that in mind. Always use nonsparking and nonstatic electricity devices when using it. Also, I shouldn’t have to say this but never ever attempt to grind black powder to make it finer. This will cause an explosion and serious injuries to anyone in the area. From time to time people have made the six o’clock news attempting such a stunt. If you are careful, it is perfectly safe and stable. Black powder isn’t for the careless or negligent so, if you are such a person I urge you not to handle it. Many shooters including myself have handled it for many years without incident. Terrifying I know.
There are four basic grades of black powder, each with their own purpose. In an effort maintain simplicity, here are the basics:
There is a little overlap in usage, but I wouldn’t deviate a great deal from these recommendations for best results. There is a Swiss powder that is graded differently, but we will get into that later. If you can’t get black powder you need to be aware of the substitutes that are available.
Pyrodex is the oldest known substitute available, and performs very much like black powder. It is corrosive, just like black powder and should be loaded and cleaned in the same manner. It offers FFG and FFFG grades as well as a cartridge grade that is made for loading obsolete calibers.
A noncorrosive powder is Cleanshot that has been around for a few years. It is a course powder, but works well and gives somewhat higher velocities than black powder and Pyrodex. Like the others, FFG and a FFFG grades are available. This powder leaves a white residue in the barrel and cases, but doesn’t seem to harm anything.
A new product on the market is Blackhorn 209. Originally designed for inline muzzle loaders, I have found that it works extremely well in cartridge firearms. It is clean burning and gives the most velocity per grain than any substitutes out there. It is mildly corrosive so cleaning is necessary. I am currently experimenting with it in a conventional muzzle loader. My only setback so far is it seems a bit harder to ignite. I mention these substitutes because in some areas they are more readily available.
One thing to keep in mind is never load smokeless powders in a black-powder muzzle loader. This is a recipe for disaster. They simply are not designed for the stronger propellants.
We will see you for Part II: Loading and shooting black powder in April. ASJ
Hunting with muzzleloaders is popular enough that most states have special or separate seasons for hunters using them. The rules for those seasons vary, so if you are setting up a hunt, even near home, do a little homework to see which guns, calibers, sights and styles of ignition are favored during those times.
In my home state of Washington, the ignition must be exposed, which means an in-line rifle that has an enclosed percussion nipple and cap are not allowed. Also, Washington does not allow scopes on muzzleloaders when used during the muzzleloading seasons. Scoped muzzleloaders can only be used during modern-rifle seasons because they are using modern sights. Washington also has a minimum bore size of .40 caliber for deer and .50 caliber for elk.
My personal choices for muzzleloaders and smoothbores are the old-looking percussions and flintlocks that follow traditional styling. Others may favor the newer in-line rifles, which are often shorter and lighter, as well as easier to carry. I won’t argue with that. What I will say is whichever style of rifle or smoothbore you prefer, do a few things to get that gun ready before heading out on the hunt, even before sighting it in.
I’m going to be very basic about this because one year, during a muzzleloading season, we saw a new hunter beside his car trying to load a brand-new in-line rifle. The box that the gun came in was on the hood of the car, and his friends were trying to help by reading the printed instructions out loud. I don’t know how things went for that group, but in my opinion, that wasn’t the best way to start.
Before taking that first shot, you should be well equipped with all of the extras you will need. Yes, powder, patches and balls or elongated bullets, plus flints or percussion caps fall into that basket, but that’s simply the ammunition, and those things are usually, I hope, already established. Some things that are often not considered are cleaning patches, black-powder solvents, and a cleaning rod or jag for the ramrod. While those things are often not given the priority they deserve, they are actually the things that are needed first. The reason is that almost any new rifle will come with oils in the barrel and in the breech of the gun. This should be wiped out before anything else! Yes, those oils will probably be burned out with the first few shots – that is, if the gun will fire. But the oil in the breech area can completely block the flash channel – that important link between the spark of ignition and the main powder charge. If the flash channel is blocked the gun will not fire. A very easy way to clear the flash channel on a percussion is to simply snap a cap or two, but be sure your gun isn’t loaded before doing so. This can be especially true if you have purchased a used muzzleloader. They are often put away while still loaded. Sounds elementary, but most accidents are.
It is a good idea to snap the first cap while aiming the rifle in a safe direction. Then snap a second cap with the gun’s muzzle close to the ground so you can watch for movement in the blades of grass, or even just in the dust as the blast of the cap comes through the barrel. Seeing something move near the gun’s muzzle is a good indication that the flash channel is clear.
On a flintlock you clear the short flash channel with a flash-hole pick. I often do that both before and after the gun is loaded. Just poke the pick through the hole and after the gun is loaded you should feel powder grains moving or crumbling as you push the pick through. With that done you know the spark from the flash pan can reach the main powder charge. In fact, do that with a flintlock any time you think it is a good idea.
In addition to wiping out the bore, swab it with a good black-powder lubricant, such as Wonder Lube. That will help break in the new barrel. You should use a natural oil rather than a petroleum product, in my opinion.
Now you should be ready to sight in your rifle. Many of the custom-made muzzleloading rifles come with rear sights which are not yet notched. Cutting the notch is left to the buyer. The reason is that each shooter prefers a different size or even style of notch. If each shooter cuts their own notch, everyone ends up satisfied.
Cutting the notch isn’t a problem, and it is certainly a small job. I prefer a narrow V-style notch and cut in it with a small knife file. While the shape and width of the sighting notch is up to each shooter, the way it is cut into the rear sight is worthy of a little discussion. I almost always cut those notches from the back of the sight with the file at an angle so the notch will be deepest at the front. When the eye looks through the notch, you will only want to see the silhouette of the sight.
You might ask me if I had done all of those things before getting my first deer with a muzzleloading rifle. Well, yes, I did. It was a fine whitetail buck taken at 125 yards on a cold snowy November afternoon, using a .54-caliber Hawken-style rifle loaded with 120 grains of FFg under the patched round ball. The .526-inch ball simply tore all of the “plumbing” from the top of the heart. Let me add that I had already been shooting for a couple of years at monthly matches and rendezvous. I will also say that I had some very good teachers, members of the Cascade Mountain Men, a muzzleloading club that is still flourishing and more than ready to accept more new members. You can visit them at cascademountainmen.com.
For those thinking about getting a muzzleloading rifle, I will quickly recommend the Lyman Great Plains Rifle. The Lyman GPR is one of the most authentic muzzleloaders on the market and it comes in either .50 or .54 caliber, with a flintlock or percussion ignition, and is available in a right- or left-handed model. I know a lot of shooters who use the Lyman GPR and they perform very well.
Now, if you take these steps before taking that first shot, you’ll be off to a good start. That good start, of course, is the real beginning and foundation for a successful hunt. ASJ
Editor’s note: For more information about the Lyman Great Plains Rifle, visit Lyman’s web site at lymanproducts.com.