Let’s talk about fire. For doin’ it “primitive” and casting bullets, you certainly want a hot but small fire. After all, you’ll need to be able to get real close. A small cooking fire is just about right, so keep plenty of small pieces of wood handy because you’ll find yourself feeding this little fire, probably with every ladle-full of lead you melt.
A bed of coal is very nice but not hot enough; you want some flame from those small pieces of wood to renew the coals and to lick the bottom of the ladle just to keep it real hot.
It is best to have that fire circled with rocks, but there is something more that you’ll certainly want. That is either a good-sized stone or just a fairly large piece of wood to act as a heat shield.
While melting your lead, balance the ladle across this block so the ladle’s bowl is right over the fire but the handle is shielded from the heat so it can stay fairly cool. That handle must remain cool enough for you to hold it, usually with a bare hand.
Another point about the fire is to have it in an area of very good draft or ventilation. Even though we melt lead in very small quantities while casting round balls for our muzzle-loading guns, don’t forget that molten lead gives off fumes. Because of that, I very seldom cast bullets inside a tepee and always prefer to use a fire that is outside the lodge. Also, because of the possibility of fumes, I do not cook over the fire at the same time the lead is melting.
Maybe I’m being too careful but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate a pot of good coffee being kept warm by the fire. The coffee in that pot is very well protected when compared to food in a wide-open pan being fried in the same fire. Believe me, no one appreciates good cooking more than me, but please keep your cooking separate from lead casting.
Actually, casting balls inside a tepee should be OK provided that your smoke flaps are set properly with the outside breeze in order to make for a good draft. If the fire’s smoke goes out of the tepee, any lead fumes should also go. Likewise, I do often cast round balls at the fireplace in my living room, allowing any lead fumes to go up the chimney along with the wood smoke.
THERE IS ANOTHER LITTLE THING to mention: you will want a stick, a piece of firewood, or just a tomahawk handle lying on the ground close to you while you do your casting. That is simply so you have something kind of sturdy to tap the mold against in order to get the new ball to drop from the mold.
And don’t roll the freshly cast round ball right out of the mold into your hand like we saw done in the movie The Patriot. That round ball might not be molten or in liquid form, but it is still more than hot enough to make picking one up a very memorable experience.
Tap the still-hot balls out of the mold by tapping on the stick, and let those new and very shiny balls drop into the grass.
For safety’s sake, I must mention that you simply cannot let any amount of water or moisture come in contact with your molten lead, regardless of how little lead you might have melted.
WITH YOUR LADLE FULL OF hot lead, hold your mold down on a board or a flat piece of split firewood, then hold the pouring lip of the ladle right in the open hole on the mold’s top and slowly pour lead into the mold. If you’re gentle enough, the lead will simply stop flowing when the mold is full.
If you are more like me, you’ll overfill the mold and spill some lead onto the wood that the mold is resting on. There is nothing wrong with spilling some hot lead, as long as you are prepared for it, and I seem to spill a little every time I cast some balls. Just let that spilled drop of lead cool, then add it back to the ladle, perhaps along with the sprues you’ve cut from the good, freshly made balls.
Holding the mold down on that piece of wood, or even a flat rock, will increase your steadiness and that will help reduce any spilling.
One time another ‘skinner called me over to his campfire while he was
making some .390-inch-diameter balls for his .40-caliber light Leman flintlock.
He was having some trouble and I could see a lot of lead spilled on the ground. As I said, I’ve spilled lead too, so that wasn’t much to notice, but he began to say how there must be something wrong with his mold because he was only getting a good ball every six or seven tries.
The mold he was talking about was one from Larry Callahan, and it sure didn’t look bad. Then I noticed something about his casting technique; we might say he was trying to dump lead into the mold, rather than slowly pour it in.
When he began to melt the next ladle-full of lead, I asked if I could give his mold a try. He surrendered it quickly and after I had cast three or four good balls in a row, I offered this explanation.
When he tried to pour into the mold too fast, the lead would splash across the hole and simply seal it closed. Now he pours his lead more slowly and makes a good ball with almost every try.
That was some time ago and he became a regular “casting compadre” who makes most all of his round ball bullets over a campfire. He also has
gotten Callahan molds in other sizes to feed his .54-caliber TVM Leman rifle and his short 20-gauge canoe gun. We often visit each other’s camps just to see “what’s cooking,” whether it’s meat or just some hot lead.
When I needed to take some pictures for this story that showed some bullets actually being poured, he was quick to say, “C’mon over!” I certainly do thank him for his cooperation.
A RATHER GOOD PARTNER WHO should be mentioned here is Mike Moran, an hombre who has been doggin’ this child’s trail for a couple of years now. I watched Mike take his first shots with a muzzleloader and, believe me, he has come a long way since then.
The only bad thing about Mike is that he doesn’t heed any of this old-timer’s warnings. First I told him to never fire a flintlock simply because they are so addicting; he didn’t listen and now he shoots a flintlock all of the time. Next I advised him to always buy his round balls, mainly because making them is simply too much fun. Well, he didn’t listen to that either and now Mike and I find ourselves casting beside a campfire at every chance we get.
He’s a good partner and you’ll probably be seeing and hearing more about him. If you’d like more information about a bag mold for your muzzleloader, I will recommend contacting Larry Callahan at bagmolds.com.
The Callahan bag molds are the most modern-made, and most accurate, primitive molds available. Larry can also supply ladles and other “primitive fixin’s.”
STORY AND PHOTOS BY MIKE NESBITT
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.
[su_dropcap style=”flat” size=”5″]B[/su_dropcap]lackpowder 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
[su_dropcap style=”flat” size=”5″]We[/su_dropcap] began this three-part series on blackpowder last issue, where we covered its invention, refinement and today’s four grades – five, counting a special Swiss version.
This issue we turn to loading the powder and safety, and wrap up next month with tricks of the trade.
There are a few things that you should be aware of to get best results. First, always make sure your gun is empty. If you buy a new muzzleloader, then you can put a rod down the barrel and mark the rod to establish the depth that indicates an empty barrel. When preparing to load a used muzzleloader, remove the nipple where the percussion cap would be placed, and make sure you can see clearly through to the inside of the barrel. If it is blocked, the gun won’t fire, and the only thing you will get is a small pop from the cap.
A method often used to clear or establish a clear nipple channel is by firing a couple of caps without any powder in the barrel. Simply place a piece of paper or something light on your bench, and then aim the end of your barrel at the object and fire. The piece of paper should move when your channel is clear because the percussion cap alone is enough to cause a tuft of air. Once you have established that, you have a clear barrel and you are ready to load.
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