Black Powder, fine to course
March 28th, 2016 by Sam Morstan

Part I of III- Invention to Explosion

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.

Black powder today is just that – black. But black powder from centuries ago used to be gray and much weaker. Today, it is common to find powders that include a mixture of saltpeter, charcoal and sulphur.

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.

A pile of coarse black powder

One big difference between black powder and smokeless or substitute powder is that the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms considers it an explosive. Smokeless powders are only categorized as propellants requiring much less effort to store and sell.

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.

Black powder cartridges are still made for all sorts of firearms. (Left to right) .50-70 left, .50-90 and the .50-140.

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:

  • FG A course powder suited for small cannons and large-caliber rifles from about .58 caliber on up.
  • 1½ FG A high-grade Swiss powder used for match shooting.
  • FFG Used for muzzle-loading rifles from .45 to .58 especially with mini or maxi balls. This powder can also be used for patched round balls.
  • FFFG Used for cap-and-ball revolvers, cartridge handguns and small-caliber rifles. This powder can also be used for blanks and shotgun loads.
  • FFFFG This is a very fine powder whose primary use is priming a flintlock. It can also be used for blanks and in small derringers.
    Man shooting with black powder

    Half of the fun of black powder is the large amount of satisfying smoke it creates. If you are chronographing your shots, however, you might consider standing back 5 to 15 feet further than you would normally so that the smoke does not obscure the screen.

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

Black Powder, fine to course

Black powder has a long history and they are not created equal. They come in an array of coarse grains as well as composition. The grains shown here are classified as (left to right): FFFFG L, FFFG L, FFG and FG R, which refers directly to their coarseness and helps identify how it should be used.

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