Note: Use of the many synthetic black powders is consistent, while having different characteristics with the holy black, and should be considered as the same in the following discussions.
Black powder is considered an intimate mixture, because it is not a compound, the three main ingredients remain blended into solid little granules until ignited. Saltpeter (~ 75%) is considered the power source. It is really Potassium Nitrate, (KNO3), Charcoal (~ 15%) – the body, and Sulfur (~ 10%). This mixture may ignite at 300 to 350 degrees Centigrade. As a working rule, say that one gram of black powder, granulation not specified, yields 718 calories of heat and 270 cubic centimeters of permanent gas and roughly half a gram of solid residues upon combustion. This is the cause of fouling and why black powder guns must be cleaned with soap and water after shooting. Black powder is loaded by volume and should not be mixed with smokeless powder. Granulation of black powder is expressed as the number of F’s with Fg used in cannons, FFg being course and used in rifles and shotguns, FFFg is typically used in revolvers, FFFFg/FFFFFg is a fine granulation and used in the flash pan of flintlocks.
Black powder shooting never died in America. Smokeless powder and metallic cartridges ushered muzzleloaders into the shade, but there was always sufficient light radiating from the old (original) guns and gear to lure 19th, 20th and now 21st century shooters, that kept the sport alive. The Pennsylvania/Kentucky long rifle remains, to the eyes of many, the most handsome shooting instrument of all time.
Beauty, however, was never forsaken for function. The British found out as they battled the upstart Colonials in the new land. The battle of New Orleans comes to mind. Seven thousand British soldiers, reinforced by 10,000 more, were defeated by General Jackson with a force a third as strong. When the smoke cleared, literally, there lay dead on the battlefield British Generals Pakenham and Gibbs, with General Keane and a Major Wilkerson so badly wounded they could fight no more. The British lost 700 men killed, 1,400 wounded, 500 taken prisoner. The Americans lost eight dead and 13 wounded. It was a matter of technology where the army with the best equipment and know-how defeats the army with lesser arms and knowledge. It was the American long rifle, in this case, that tipped the scales in a crazy imbalance favoring a group of upstart colonists fighting what was then known as the finest army in the world, the soldiers of the British Empire. The rifled American rifle was highly accurate in the hands of expert marksmen up against the smoothbore British musket that couldn’t group its projectiles in a washtub at 200 yards.
Those very firearms survived into a new century, even after smokeless powder and metallic cartridges ruled. They were simply too interesting to perish from the shooting scene. However, there were not enough originals to meet the demand of marksmen who saw their brothers enjoying the old-fashioned smoke pole or reading of the adventure in magazines. In the 1920’s, a revival of the venerable muzzleloader was occurring. Not because the old time gun never perished, but because they were cheaper to shoot than cartridge guns and in the hands of competent marksmen/hunters brought home not only prize money but food for the table.
Today, excellent reproductions are being produced, from original to custom emulating, and sometimes downright copying the originals to mass produced black powder guns, the cap ‘n’ ball revolver leading the way mainly in the Remington Model of 1958 and Colt six gun of 1860, both of Civil War vintage.
Two distinct types of black powder rule: pistol (a single shot) and revolver (six shooter), the first mainly single-barrel, rarely double or multiple, in three distinct types: replica, non-replica and modern. Revolvers are too many to be listed, but the Civil War era cap ‘n’ ball types and the cowboy style (Colt 1873 Peacemaker) are examples of the cartridge type. The Old Army (made by Ruger) is unique, looking like a cross between one of the company’s cartridge revolver and the 1858 Remington cap ‘n’ ball six gun. Colt still makes exact copies of the original Colt cap lock revolvers.
The black powder shotgun is a single or double barrel, old style or modern with the 12 gauge being the most prominent. Most are cap locks, and an occasional flintlock (fowler). Some shotguns are muzzleloader and others can use the shot shell (SASS allows the use of double barrel and single barrel shotguns of the era that do not have an ejection extractor).
The most popular firearm in the world of black powder shooting. Listed here are the major categories to ponder. Unfortunately, in spite of the large array of long guns offered, there is a definite gap, and that is the small-bore. The problem is a lack of coverage in the literature. Not enough is printed regarding the 32 and 36 caliber muzzleloaders which are capable of taking wild turkey and are terrific on taking squirrels and rabbits.
The Original – Most of these are in collections of individuals and generally not used in completion or hunting. Realistically, if a shooter wants a rifle that looks and functions like great granddad’s, he will go for the replica.
Replica – No doubt about it, the replica black powder gun, especially cap ‘n’ ball revolver, was the solid little snowball that rolled down the hill, growing and growing as it gained momentum, until we have our present representation of several million shooters burning black powder and the synthetics (Pyrodex, 777, etc.) all over North America. We may think of Hawkens, and even the Kentucky/Pennsylvania long rifles as major players in the replica lineup, they are not. Various catalogs show dozens of different replicas, well-represented in handguns, both single-shot pistol and revolver, with of multitude of military-type “rifled muskets”. Navy Arms shows 11 Civil War rifles and carbines and four military flintlock copycats.
Non-Replica – A modern muzzleloader holds the record for rifles manufactured, sold and shot by big game hunters in all 50 states. The non-replica was the first to answer the call for a non-muzzleloader muzzleloader. Never happened of course because state laws called for true muzzle loaders for special black powder only big game hunts. The non-replica did fill the bill as a modern-like gun that remained legal for those big game hunts. Many are called Hawken, which they are not, but what they are is well made, reliable, accurate, and downright efficient. A prime example would be the Thompson/Center Hawken. Also, there is the CVA St. Louis Hawken, Bobcat Rifle, and Mountain rifle, all non-replicas, along with side lock models and flintlocks.
Modern Muzzleloader – The modern muzzleloader remains a latecomer on the scene, especially the latest bolt action designs. This rifle was created by the same folks who gave us the non-replica rifle and for the same reasons, only more so. If originals were too long, too heavy, too unfamiliar, they why not develop a muzzleloader that looked like a cartridge rifle, carried most of the same appointments, and handled very much like the familiar models of the day? While the modern muzzleloader may not look like a smoke pole, it is one through and through. A passing thought to consider is that while the modern muzzleloader continues to gain on the non-replica rifle, there is also a slight backlash from game department officials who believe what they read about the charcoal burners being capable of 7mm Remington Magnum power and long range effectiveness. Zealous words written by advertisers and gun writers, not hunters who know better.
The Custom Rifle – Every dedicated black powder shooter deserves one.
Cartridge Guns – Thanks to the unbelievable success of the Cowboy action shooting as well as long range silhouette matches, the black powder guns have simply flourished in the past 20 years. Guns that were considered dead as Pharaoh have returned, Colt handguns replicas abound from the 1873 Peacemakers with 44 WCF and 45 Colt chambering that spawned the 1866 and 1873 rifles with for the same calibers. Smith and Wesson had the Schofield in various calibers and then there are the conversions (Colt 1871, 1872) open top revolvers that are the precursors of the Peacemaker. The Remington Rolling Block, and Sharps single-shot black powder cartridge rifles are for the long-range silhouette game. All of these guns can be obtained as reproductions from quality foreign firms that are manufactured overseas with local distributers. Colt still makes their 1860 model black powder revolvers.
The number of gun choices is dizzying, but gratifying, absolute proof that black powder is not merely healthy, but wildly robust. Anyone who desires to take advantage of big game black powder hunts, target shooting for serious completion or relaxing, plinking, rendezvous, small game, long–range silhouette, cowboy action shooting, or simply the experience of shooting guns that blow smoke from the muzzle and the stink that can annoy others is all waiting for today’s black powder fan. It’s better than ever.
Once you go black, you won’t go back
References that I have liberally used and copied from without permission are:
1. Lymans Black Powder Handbook and Loading Manual
2. Lymans Cast Bullet Handbook
3. SPG Lubricants BP Cartridge Reloading Primer
4. The Black Powder Cartridge Silhouette Handbook
5. Loading the Black Powder Rifle Cartridge
6. How-To’s for the Black Powder Cartridge Rifle Shooter
By Louis Hansen