We live in an age where all types of novel ammo and reloading components are coming to the market. That is good news for shooters, as many of these products are legitimate improvements over previous offerings. One company, Shell Shock Technologies, has recently released 9mm cases using manufacturing methods not previously used, at least to my knowledge.
What sets Shell Shock apart is that the company produces a two-piece case made from nickel steel. The exact process is proprietary, therefore the methods used are not revealed. However, I recently received some cases for evaluation, along with a sizing and decapping die and a belling die so I could load and shoot them. The bullet seating is done with a normal die, which isn’t included. The sizing and belling dies can also be used for standard brass cases, which is a plus because these new cases are superior to brass but will never replace them.
According to company literature, the cases are 50 percent lighter and two times stronger than brass, with a uniform wall thickness and proprietary assembly technique that leads to reliable and consistent velocity. The bottom of the case is an aluminum alloy, while a steel part is the top, which makes the case magnetic and makes it easier to pick up at a range. I placed a number of them on the scale one at a time, and they all weighed 35 grains, with no variation. Some brass cases I weighed came in at 63 to 64 grains, so the advantage of lightweight cases would be evident if you had to carry a large amount of ammo. I also measured several of the Shell Shock cases for length and they all came in at .7505 inch with no variation. Obviously, no variation in weight and length among these cases would contribute to accuracy and consistency.
I also received 200 rounds of 9mm loads with copper 124-grain HP bullets. These are produced by L-Tech Enterprises using the Shell Shock cases, and they sent some info showing penetration and weight retention results. They are consistent in size and weight as well, so if you are not a reloader, this ammo might be for you.
FOR THE FIRST LOAD, I used ﬁve grains of Winchester 231 and a 115-grain FMJ bullet. This load is very mild and the cases were covered with soot, which is normal with light loads. Low-pressure loads don’t completely seal the chamber, which allows some powder to come back into the action. While messy, it is seldom an issue in regards to performance. The soot cleans off easily for those who like good-looking cases. Most nickel cases have that advantage, though brass needs extra cleaning if that is important to you.
So why would you purchase these cases as opposed to more conventional pieces, when most 9mm cases last several ﬁrings and are easy to obtain? Performance-wise, there isn’t any big difference. But if you wanted to carry a large amount of ammo, the lightweight case really adds value, and if you combine this case with a lightweight bullet, then it would be a really desirable product. Liberty Ammunition makes a 50-grain nonlead HP bullet, and that paired up with the Shell Shock case should make some top-rate ammo. Carrying a small amount of this ammo wouldn’t make a difference, but carrying or transporting a large amount would show a sizable advantage. I have a 60-grain bullet to work with, and at high velocity it should make a nice self-defense load.
I sized some ﬁred cases with normal dies and don’t see any problems, and the effort is the same as with the special dies; belling is normal and priming feels a little odd. I tried some once-ﬁred cases using both sets of dies and the effort appears identical, though lubing makes them easier to size. I noticed that a couple had increased the size of the groove, but I’m not sure if that is a function of the dies or a case. If you closely look at the groove, it shows that the case is a two-piece case. The inside is slightly shallower than a conventional case, but not by much (an average of .05 inch). A look at the inside of the custom die shows that it appears to be the same as a conventional one with a tungsten core.
It appears that the construction of the case is very different than a conventional piece of brass, and it will be interesting to see how they go through a Dillon or other progressive press. I am going to load cases with the same load but using both sets of dies. I have some 60-grain HP and had to size the new cases to make them ﬁt tight enough. The 115-grain cast did not need to have the new cases sized.
For testing, I used a Beretta with a 5-inch barrel, a SIG with a 4-inch barrel and a Norinco, giving us different guns to provide more info on what to expect with the cases and loads. Some of the cases have now been ﬁred seven times; there is no indication of any problems, and I am using RCBS dies only, as I don’t see a need for the special ones. That would make these cases even more desirable if it isn’t necessary to use special dies. Obviously, you should test their dies to see which method works best for you.
I RECENTLY RECEIVED SOME new powders from Chris Hodgdon that resemble some older powders such as Red Dot. Since I received the powders from Hodgdon while trying out the new cases, I decided to try a couple loads with the Shell Shock cases, starting with the Red. In these tests, the cases held up after ﬁve or six ﬁrings using standard RCBS dies. I tried many loads using the three handguns I mentioned to get a good overview of the case, along with the new powder and a variety of bullets. I made some of the lighter bullets myself (such as the 60-grainer), as they are not generally available. The Acme bullet is a cast item with a red coating that tends to make them slick and aids in feeding.
These numbers were rounded off, and you can see that if you needed to carry a large quantity of ammo, the Shell Shock cases would cut down on the weight enough to make a difference. The 60-grain CMA fared best, but still jammed on occasion in the Norinco. Of course, that would render it unsuitable for defense work, but I will try and work with the ogive, though due to the short length that may be difficult.
The 147-grain Berry did well with the heavier load of Hodgdon’s HS-6 with no stovepipes. Like any situation and gun, it is recommended that you thoroughly check out the ammo that is intended to be carried. I took the 135-grain CMA and changed the ogive to a more rounded shape to ensure that it will feed in everything. In addition, they were .354 in diameter and the reshaping increased it to .358. Since there is a possibility that they may cause some problems, I reduced it to .356. Some .357-diameter bullets (a FMJ and a cast coated, both roundnose) were swaged down to .356. The purpose is for subsonic loads. A company called Liberty Ammunition makes some high-performance ammo using lighter than standard bullets. The 9mm bullet weighs 50 grains, so I measured a loaded round. The Shell Shock case weighs 35 grains, so a loaded round with a Liberty bullet would weigh 85 grains. Several companies are currently using Shell Shock cases, and I would like to see Liberty pick them up with their 50-grain bullets.
I was also curious as to the case capacity of Shell Shock casings compared to other commercial cases. I used Winchester 572 ﬁlled to the top on each case and the results surprised me. I thought that the Shell Shock case would have more capacity based on their weight. My “nonscientiﬁc” results showed Shell Shock and PMC held 13.1 grains, Federal and Winchester 13.2 grains and GFI 13.3 grains. As you can see, they are very similar. The next step is to use the same load in both types of cases.
ONE THING I HAVEN’T NOTICED is any mention of the cases being reloaded on a progressive machine. That would be a plus, if that is the case. Therefore, I had a friend run some through his Dillion 550. Other than the requirement that they be lubed, the process went off without a hitch. With a normal bullet everything went ﬁne. We ﬁred some of the rounds made on the Dillon and they fed ﬂawlessly, so there should be no issues but they have to be lubed regardless of which dies or machine is used to load them. That would be the only downside. That new powder W-572 seems to work well in the 9mm rounds; you just need to adjust the loads.
Based on my observations and tests, these cases are here to stay. They are durable and can compete with conventional brass cases in regards to price and reloading life. I can see other companies coming out with versions of them, and hopefully other calibers will be offered. In a few years they will have a good share of the market, though they won’t entirely replace the brass cases for several reasons. They have a few upsides such as durability and price, and since they are partly steel a magnet will pick them up. I have ﬁred hundreds of rounds and had one case that split. I can live with that. The only downside is the requirement that they have to be lubed. A quick spray-on may speed up the process with a progressive machine. I would recommend that you give this product a try, and if you do, I think you will become a customer. ASJ
As you can imagine, this revolver is very large for its caliber. You’d expect a double-action GP revolver from Ruger to be large and sturdy, and it is. If you are looking for some power when you go plinking, this could be the gun for you.
According to my trigger pull gauge, the single action broke at 6 pounds, while the double action broke between 19 and 20, which is certainly extreme. It has a 10-shot cylinder, and since it is a .22, recoil is virtually nonexistent. I wouldn’t recommend dry ﬁring it much, if at all, because, as with all rimﬁres, if the ﬁring pin hits the edge of the chamber some damage may occur.
It is a massive, well-built revolver made from stainless steel, which means that weight may be an issue for those who may plan to carry it a lot. The rear sight is adjustable, and the front is a ﬁber optic, which makes it easier to pick up, especially in less than ideal lighting conditions. It comes in the durable case and, of course, the ever-present lock is included. The grips have a wood center panel and rubber on the outside where you hold it, and they are both comfortable and attractive. It also comes with Ruger’s patented transfer bar mechanism, which provides an unparalleled measure of security against accidental discharge.
SINCE IT IS SO STURDY, I’d like to see it chambered for the .22 rimﬁre Magnum, either as a replacement cylinder or as another variation of the gun. While the cartridges will chamber, it isn’t a good idea to shoot .22 rimﬁres in a magnum cylinder. The .22 LR ammo may split, and wouldn’t be accurate even if they don’t.
This gun is built so well that I don’t think it could be worn out regardless of how many rounds are put through it, especially since the .22 is a low-pressure round that enhances the life of any gun chambered for it. Because the DA trigger break was so high, I did the majority of my shooting single action. I don’t possess strong hands and can’t get any accuracy shooting DA. Hitting cans is easier using single action even out to 25 yards, and better shooters will be able to extend that range, as the gun has excellent accuracy.
The sights are easy to pick up, which is always an asset when shooting or hunting in reduced light. I have chronographed many calibers in both riﬂes and handguns, and depending on the load and other factors, velocity is commonly from 200 to 400 feet per second faster in the long gun as the shorter barrel and ﬂash gap reduces velocity. During my testing of the GP-100, the ammo was about 200 fps slower than from a riﬂe.
Making reloaded rimﬁre ammo isn’t worth the time, trouble and expense involved, so factory loads are your best bet. As with any gun, this one will show a preference to a speciﬁc load or loads, and there are a variety of good factory ones to test what this particular revolver likes.
I consider the .22 RF round as one of the most dangerous in existence. Because it is small, people tend to underestimate it. But it is dangerous at longer distances, and you should never shoot it at a ﬂat surface, as it will ricochet like any other cartridge and the shooter has no control as to where it will go.
The .22 LR is a decent small game load. I have shot a lot of squirrels and rabbits with it, especially when using hollow points. The .22 is also good for training someone because the lack of both recoil and muzzle blast will not intimidate a new or younger shooter. In addition, the .22 RF remains less expensive than centerﬁre rounds, even though they have gone up in price in the last few years.
If you shop around, good deals are available, especially for 500-round bricks. Such purchases will cut down the cost on shooting and for most uses the inexpensive ammo works as well as the pricey stuff. I have shot a good amount of rimﬁre ammo, and the cheap stuff is nearly as accurate as the pricey fodder, especially in noncompetition guns.
When it comes to having fun shooting there is nothing like a .22 rimﬁre. It is easy on the ears and pocketbook, and a family can buy a 500 pack of ammo and shoot all day. Many shooters, including yours truly, started with a singleshot .22 riﬂe.
I always ask other shooters for input during a gun test, as people tend to have different preferences. For example, I have a single six with both cylinders and I prefer it for daily carry, as it is lighter and more compact. But the GP100 could be ideal for someone who shoots often because I don’t believe you can shoot it enough to wear it out. It is one rugged design, and most of the shooters I spoke with liked it.
At the conclusion of any gun test, I have the choice to either return the gun or buy it. But sometimes someone I know will purchase it if they want it, and that is exactly what happened to this gun. 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
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
First comes safety. If the load is too hot or too light, the signs will be readily apparent. If the rounds are overloaded, it will show most of the time. One mild sign might be a shiny ejector mark on the case head. As a rule they are not dangerous, but it will wear out the brass quicker.
Hot loads wear out a gun more quickly, and except in narrow circumstances, are not necessary. A good example is the 220 Swift. I load mine to about 100 feet per second below the absolute max. The accuracy is great and the groundhogs never notice the difference, but the rifle and brass does. Hot loads will enlarge the primer pocket, which will render it useless; this is not always a reliable indication of excessive pressure, though it should be considered.
Other causes may be a soft primer, sharp firing pin or sticky extraction. If you have a sticky extraction and your chamber is clean and not bulged in any way, you have excessive pressure that is approaching the danger zone, especially in older guns. This is a good time to stop, pull the bullets, check and probably reduce the load.
When you get to the point of blowing primers and excessively hard extractions, then you are courting disaster if you continue to shoot them. The cause could be too much or the wrong type of powder, or even the wrong type of bullets. If you think you put in too much powder, check to make sure you didn’t set your scales wrong when you measured back at the shop. It’s a simple mistake but it happens, which is why it is so important to focus totally on the job at hand. Some of the powder labels look very similar; this is why you should only keep one powder on hand at a time during reloading.
Loads that are too light are inconsistent and probably won’t shoot accurately. A really light load may leave a bullet in the barrel. If you are not sure if the bullet left the barrel, safely check it out before shooting again. If there is a bullet lodged in the barrel, do not try to shoot it out by pulling the trigger again. This is very dangerous, and at the very least will ruin the barrel.
If the ammo has a different sound every time you shoot, you might have a hangfire, which can also be caused by a load that is too light. What happens is the powder isn’t evenly distributed within the case and does not burn at an instantaneous rate. It will burn slowly or irregularly, hence the hangfire. Old ammo can also cause a hangfire and should be discarded, but you can save the bullet. If you think you have a hangfire, keep the action closed for at least 30 seconds. The powder could also be unstable due to poor storage conditions.
Naturally, you want to see how accurate your ammo is. Since there are a lot of things that affect accuracy, don’t panic if your ammo is all over the target. Causes may range from loose scope mounts to poor bedding. If you have an accuracy issue, check out everything else first, including the shooter. If the ammo was loaded correctly, then it should be at least fairly accurate. Keep in mind different guns like different loads, so you may have to try a few different combinations to get the accuracy you want.
Using a bullet that isn’t designed for a gun’s rifling is a common mistake. An example would be using a heavy 80- to 100-grain bullet in a .223 rifle with a slow-rifling twist. The bullet won’t stabilize no matter what you do.
If you are able to achieve a 1- to 2-inch minute of angle at 100 yards with a bolt-action rifle, you are right where you need to be. Handguns will vary, but a decent gun and ammo combination should be able to achieve a 3- to 5-inch group at 25 yards, provided the shooter does their part.
So, if you have the desired accuracy and velocity without loads that are too hot, you have arrived. You should keep records of all of your loads, both good and bad. Keeping notes on bad loads should prevent you from repeating them somewhere down the road.
Another good way to test your ammo is to chronograph it. That way you can see and not guess at the velocity, plus you can test it against manufactured ammo of the same bullet weight to see how your ammo stacks up against the factory fodder. Caution! You might get your feelings hurt. Modern factory loads have improved a lot over the last 20 years or so. They are very accurate and consistent and will be as good as custom-loaded ammo; this is especially true with some custom hunting loads.
During the course of my work, I shoot a decent amount of factory ammo and very seldom does it not perform as advertised. The downside to factory-made ammo is the cost, and there may be a problem getting it on a timely basis.
You will get a really great feeling when you have crafted your own product that performs well, rather than having to buy it from a store. Another one of the many advantages to rolling your own is the ability to make ammo for obsolete guns. Shotguns, as well, can benefit from reloaded ammo. I took down a bear with a Lightfield slug that I handloaded. If you take an animal with your loads, this is a special type of satisfaction and there are very few things that will match it. ASJ
Story and photographs by Bob Shell
In this segment on loading your own ammunition, we will focus on cartridge cases since this is what holds the other three main components (powder, primer
All cases should be visually inspected and that includes new ones. I have bought a lot of cases from various brands and there are occasionally defective ones. While not common, they do exist and should be discarded. When in doubt, throw it out.
New cases can be out of round and/or oversized. Part of that comes from shipping when they are banged around. After sizing, I take an RCBS very low drag (VLD) tool and ream the inside of the casing’s necks. This helps seat the bullet and keeps it from catching on the sides of the case. This is especially important with some flat-base slugs. I feel that this also adds accuracy and consistency. Sometimes, I’ll even create a cannelure, which is a groove that I crimp a little to aid in feeding the bullet. All revolver ammo should be crimped, especially with the heavier loads. Failure to follow this rule will usually result in the bullet coming out and tying up the cylinder.
Fired cases should be inspected prior to any other procedure. This is really important if you pick up range brass. There may be a reason someone discarded their brass rather than take it home.
Before inspecting, you should clean your cases. There are several ways to do this. I use a Dillon case cleaner with crushed walnut hulls and some cleaning liquid. A couple of hours in there and they come out looking great not to mention defects are easier to spot.
You may encounter cases with Berdan primers, and we will talk about this in a minute, or some that were shot with a load that was too hot. This will produce swelling and should be discarded. If you see a shiny ring about a quarter of an inch above the rim, that may indicate excess headspace in the gun that fired it.
One of the most common problems is a split neck. Cases that are heated and cooled over and over cause them to be brittle and the only way to combat that is to anneal them. This means softening the case by heating it. This isn’t practical with common cases, unless you have more time than I do. The Berdan primer is generally used in foreign military, as well as some commercial ammo. It can be reloaded, but you also need special tools, and as a rule it’s more trouble than it’s worth. In a later installment I will go into more detail on this. The standard American primer is the Boxer, which has a flash hole in the center of the case and is much easier to work with.
When a round is fired the case expands, so when you are reloading, the cases have to be resized. All die sets, which we talked about in Part I of this series, have what is known as a sizing die and which accomplishes this task. If you buy new brass, it normally doesn’t need to be fully resized, though the neck may need to be squared.
After you size the case, you will need to check for proper case length. Cases stretch during firing and sizing, so you should lubricate the inside of the neck, especially with bottleneck cases. If the case is too long, it might be hard to chamber or even cause a dangerous buildup of pressure in some instances. It could also have an affect on accuracy. If you are just doing some informal shooting, mixing brands of cases won’t cause any harm. Some people may disagree with that, but mixed cases work well, as long as they are in good condition. For more serious purposes, such as a big-game hunt, I will segregate the cases by brand and the times that they were fired. The other stuff is used for sighting-in or practice. I’ll run all of my hunting ammo through the chamber and magazine because it’s easier to fix the problem at the shop than in the field. Serious target shooters sort their brass out by lot number, weight, size of the flash hole and other factors that might effect accuracy. They measure groups in the thousandths of an inch, so they have to be more particular than the rest of us.
After you have checked out everything, then you are ready to prime. The primer should have some feel going in, and if it’s too loose, you might want to discard the case. Loose primer pockets are generally a result of hot loads, which will stretch them beyond usefulness. Sometimes soft brass will also cause this problem. The primer should be seated about .002 inch below the head and be flush with the case or you will have another set of problems. If the primer is too tight, you either have a dirty primer pocket or perhaps a military crimp around the primer pocket. Either problem will have to be resolved prior to seating it. There are plenty of tools out there to resolve these problems, but I ream out military-primer pockets as opposed to swaging (a process of bending or shaping cold metal), as this works better for me. If a pocket is dirty you’ll need to clean first. While this may seem like a small detail, improperly seated primers can ruin good ammo.
After priming, it is time to seat your bullets. There should be some resistance when seating so the bullet stays in the case. A bullet that is too loose will either come out or cause an inconsistent ignition. This problem can be caused by a bullet that is too small, a case neck that is too thin or an oversized expander plug. If the bullet is excessively tight, it may not seat at all and will cause other problems. In a later installment in this series we will get into expanding and various types of crimping.
Like everything else in life, you get what you give. If you follow these suggestions, it will go a long way toward helping you produce quality ammo. The thing is paying attention to small details. ASJ
Story and photographs by Bob Shell
If you’ve decided to start handloading or reloading your own ammunition, there are some basic things you’ll need to start your new hobby. Space is one. Find a place you can dedicate to just loading. It can be a spare room or the corner of a garage, so long as you have space with good lighting. Your loading station should have a sturdy table to mount your press and other equipment, which can be quite heavy, and lots of shelving for easy access to all of your loading dies, bullets and powder. I suggest a table that is at least 6 feet long.
Once you have your work area set up, it’s time to buy your equipment. There are many different types and price ranges for each respective need, so it will behoove you to take some time and shop around. Most people get into loading to save money on their ammunition, and you will, but you will still have to make an initial investment on the equipment and supplies.
The purpose of the press is to hold the dies, which are needed to process the ammunition. It uses leverage to push the shell cases into the dies that perform the loading operations. The press needs to be securely mounted to the table so the cases can be resized. This takes some effort, especially with rifle ammunition. There are a variety of options made by various companies such as Lyman, Hornady and RCBS, Lee and Redding, and they all make great presses.
If you are a new loader, I would recommend a simple, single-stage press. There are progressive presses that are for multi-stage cases, but if you are not familiar with loading, they can get you into trouble. Progressives have several different tasks going on at the same time and you may miss an important step, potentially causing a batch of bad and dangerous ammunition. If you are serious about loading, I would recommend a heavy-duty model because you can load both rifle and handgun ammunition.
A die is a specialized tool used to cut or shape material using a press. Any caliber that you load is die-specific. For instance, if you want to load .40 S&W ammunition, you need that specific set of dies. Loading is a precise operation and trying to use the wrong dies will not work. If you are loading a modern straight-case, then I recommend carbide dies. Not only do they make sizing easier, you won’t have to lubricate your cases, and they last forever.
A powder measure and a set of scales are necessary to put the proper amount of powder into your cases and are vital in creating ammunition that is safe and reliable. This is where the manuals come in handy. You can look up the caliber you are loading and get the proper type and amount of powder necessary. This data was developed by professionals and should be followed closely. Other tools you may need are screwdrivers, Allen wrenches, possibly a lube pad, vernier caliper and a bullet puller. Overall, you are looking at a $400 investment, plus the cost of supplies. This will get you started.
If you load rifle cases, there are other tools you will need such as a case trimmer to trim the stretched cases and a vernier caliper to measure the length. It is very important that your case be the proper length, so don’t overlook these items.
You will be able to consult a loading manual for the proper length. Also, when loading rifle cases, a lube pad is necessary because if you do not lube the cases, one will get stuck in the die and this is a real headache to remove. You will also need a brush to lube the inside of the case neck. In the next installment, I will discuss the importance of all of these steps.
When contemplating whether you want to load, here are a couple of things to think about. First, loading is a very safe hobby if you follow the precautions and use common sense. Do not allow distractions to creep in. That means no texting, watching television or anything else that will draw your attention away from the task at hand. If you are not the type of person who pays attention to detail, then loading isn’t for you. I have been doing it for over 40 years and never had a serious mishap. It is a great hobby and well worth exploring. ASJ
The 1860s were an interesting and exciting time in firearms development. Countries were transitioning from muzzleloaders to cartridge rifles. The American Civil War highlighted everything from muzzleloaders to Gatling guns. Many European countries utilized various conversions, including Great Britain, which used the Snider conversion
THE ORIGINAL IDEA WAS
REJECTED BY THE U.S. … SO
SNIDER SOLD IT TO BRITAIN
designed by an American, Jacob Snider. The military quickly saw the advantages of breech loader (a firearm loaded via a chamber from the rear) versus front loader models. Besides being faster to load, the ability to do so while in the prone position meant the shooter presented a much smaller target for enemy marksmen. The British brought out the P-53 Enfield rifle in 1853. It is a .58-caliber muzzle loader that shoots a hollow-base bullet weighing anywhere between 405 and 500 grains. It was popular in the American Civil War, second only to the Springfield. During the 1860s, many countries were experimenting with breechloading rifles, and Britain was no exception. Like many nations, its military wanted to use existing stocks of rifles to save money. Snider started working on the conversion in 1862, and by 1865 it was complete. But the original idea was rejected by the US in favor of the trapdoor design, so he sold it to Great Britain.
THE WAY IT WORKED WAS, the rear of the barrel was cut out and a swinging breech block was installed. By the push of a button, the breech block would swing up, a cartridge could be inserted, and the block pushed back in place. Ejection was performed by the shooter, pulling out the empty
RELIABLE, THOUGH A STOPGAP MEASURE
cartridge or by tipping the rifle over. There was no safety, which was common among rifles of that period. The rear sight is adjustable, though crude by today’s standards, and the front is a typical blade style.
THE P-53 ENFIELD IS A LONG AFFAIR, although there was also a carbine made. One of my specimens, sporting an 18-inch barrel, is supposed to be an original carbine used in Canada by the Mounties. My other with a Snider conversion lacks the push button, which is found on later models. The system works well and is reliable, though it was a stopgap measure. The British gave it to many of their colonies, including those in Africa, India and Australia. It was loaded with buckshot and said to be popular with the Indian police for use in riot control.
Story & Photos by Bob Shell