Black Powder Rifles
Copyright © March 1, 2014 by Robert Wayne Atkins, P.E.
(also known as Muzzle Loaders)
All rights reserved.
For Fair Use and Educational Purposes Only.
A Brief History of Black Powder Firearms
Black powder firearms were popular from the 1600s through the 1800s in the following configurations:
Three Common Ignition Techniques:
- Musket (smoothbore): Muskets were not very accurate. The musket ball was a little smaller in diameter than the inside bore of the musket and this made loading the musket easier. However, when the musket was fired the ball could bounce its way down the inside of the barrel and therefore it was very difficult to predict where the bullet would hit.
- Rifle (rifled bore): The rifling on the inside of the rifle bore imparted a spin on the projectile and therefore these firearms were more accurate than smoothbore firearms and they had a longer range.
- Matchlock: A slow burning match (or fuse) was held in a clamp and it was released by a lever (or trigger). The burning match swung down into a small firepan that contained a small quantity of priming powder. The priming powder would ignite and the flash from its ignition would enter through a small hole (touch hole) in the barrel of the firearm and ignite the main powder charge inside the bore of the firearm (combustion chamber), and this would send the projectile traveling down the bore and out the end of the firearm. This was not a dependable firearm during wet weather.
- Flintlock: A hammer spring mechanism containing a flint was released by a trigger and the flint was propelled downward where it made contact with a piece of steel and a shower of sparks would ignite a small quantity of priming powder in a small firepan. The flash from the priming powder would enter through a small hole (touch hole) in the barrel of the firearm and ignite the main powder charge inside the bore of the firearm (combustion chamber), and this would send the projectile traveling down the bore and out the end of the firearm. This was not a dependable firearm during wet weather. Misfires were also common due to problems with the piece of flint.
- Percussion Cap: A percussion cap, or primer, ignites the black powder inside the combustion chamber at the base of the rifle bore. Percussion caps are single use items and a new cap must be used to ignite the next powder charge to shoot the next projectile.
Some Suggestions for Purchasing a Black Powder Rifle
At the current time in the United States of America, a black powder rifle is not subject to the same laws and regulations as modern firearms. Therefore they are sometimes a reasonable option for individuals who live in areas that have extensive laws that prohibit the purchase and use of modern firearms by honest law-abiding citizens.
- Verify that it is legal in your area to purchase a black powder firearm.
- Verify your local laws and regulations for hunting with a black powder rifle before you purchase one. Each area will have its own laws about what type of rifle can be used for hunting, and what type of bullets can be used, and what type of black powder can be used. It would be sad if you bought a black powder rifle and then discovered that it was illegal to hunt in your area with that specific rifle for one reason or another.
- Do not buy a rifle until after you have actually held the rifle in your hands in a typical standing shooting position. The rifle must feel comfortable to you. Test the pull of the trigger. Look at how the primers are loaded and removed.
- Do not buy a cheap rifle. Be prepared to spend about $300 (or more) for a reliable rifle.
- In addition to the cost of the rifle you will also need to spend another $300 (or more) on equipment and supplies, such as black powder, bullets, percussion caps (or shotshell primers), a sling, a scope, some special cleaning solvent, and some cleaning supplies.
- Some companies that make good quality black powder rifles are (in alphabetical order): Austin & Halleck, Ballard, CVA (Connecticut Valley Arms), Knight Rifles, NEF/H & R, Savage, Thompson/Center Arms, Traditions, and White.
- Some specific factors to consider:
- Caliber: There are a variety of different calibers available but the 50 caliber is the most common choice at this time.
- Twist: If you will be shooting conical or sabot bullets then a faster 1:24 or 1:28 twist will work well. If you will be shooting ball ammo then a slower 1:60 or 1:64 twist will work well. An average twist of 1:48 is a common choice for a wide variety of ammo.
- Action: Bolt action inlines are the most popular choice today but some people prefer the plunger style action. Open actions are also available. Closed or semi-closed actions are also an option and they are easier to clean and they have less powder blowback.
- Ignition: Ignition of the black powder will require a percussion cap or a shotgun shell primer. The 209 shotshell primers are usually preferred to percussion caps. Shotshell primers are not interchangeable with percussion caps. However, many black powder rifles can be converted to use either caps or primers by replacing the breach plug. There are slight differences in the size of the shotshell primers that are made by different ammunition companies. If a specific brand of shotshell primer does not remove easily from your rifle, then try a shotshell primer made by a different company.
How to Load a Black Powder Rifle
Always follow all firearm safety rules.
Always follow the specific instructions that were included with your rifle.
The rifle is now ready to fire. Handle it the same way you would any other deadly firearm.
- Measure your powder by volume or by weight. Most shooters prefer to measure by volume. If you use too much powder then you could damage your rifle or injure or kill yourself. If you use too little powder then the bullet will not have the proper velocity to hit the target at the point where you are aiming.
- Carefully pour the powder into the barrel of your rifle. However, do not do this if the rifle has just been fired because there may still be some hot embers inside the barrel that will ignite the powder. If you have just fired your rifle then for safety reasons you may wish to swab the rifle bore with a cleaning patch that contains a small amount of lubricant in order to extinguish any tiny hot embers that may still be inside the bore.
- Insert the proper size and design of bullet into the barrel with the bullet facing in the proper direction. (If appropriate, use a wad below the bullet or a wrapping around the bullet.)
- If necessary, use a starter tool to push the bullet about one inch into the barrel.
- Use a ramrod to push the bullet down against the powder charge in the bottom of the barrel. Use a ramrod with a tip that is contoured to match the tip of the bullet that you are pushing down the rifle bore. Do not force or hammer the bullet into position.
- Open the action or breach of your rifle and place the proper size primer into its correct position. Make sure it is seated properly and then close the action or breech.
When hunting you will need to carry your black powder in one container, your bullets in a second container, and your primers in a third container.
There are two basic types of gunpowder:
Black powder and smokeless powder cannot be substituted for one another. Each powder has its own special characteristics and each firearm manufacturer designs its firearms for either black powder or for smokeless powder. Each firearm will indicate what should be used in that firearm and you should always follow the manufacturer's specifications.
- Smokeless powder is a nitrated cellulose (or nitrocellulose) based propellant. Smokeless powders are non-corrosive and they produce almost no smoke when used. All smokeless powders provide their own oxygen for combustion and they will quickly burn up. Therefore they leave almost no residue. And they generate less recoil. Smokeless powders will not explode if they are not confined but they will burn very rapidly. Smokeless powder is used inside modern centerfire ammunition cartridges.
- Black powder is a combination of 75% saltpeter (or potassium nitrate), 15% charcoal, and 10% sulfur by weight (which is a 15:3:2 ratio). When ignited it produces a lot of smoke. It is relatively inefficient since it only converts about half of its original mass into a gas that can be used as the projectile propellant. Black powder can also explode even when it is not restricted inside a confined space. Therefore black powder is more unpredictable and more dangerous than smokeless powder. Black powder is used in black powder rifles.
Although there are instructions for making black powder and smokeless powder on the internet, none of these powders are easy to make and they all require the use of a variety of commercial quality chemicals. In my opinion, trying to make homemade gunpowder isn't practical for a self-sufficient individual who wishes to avoid potentially devastating accidents. A simple mistake could result in a serious injury or death. Is this the type of risk you wish to take during a long-term hard times event when professional medical assistance may not be conveniently available?
After carefully studying a wide assortment of gunpowder recipes, I decided it was not practical for me to believe that I could make gunpowder at home in a safe and relatively easy cost-effective way.
Therefore the only logical alternative is to acquire commercially available gunpowder. Commercially available black powder is sold based on the size of the grains of powder, from large to small, as follows: F (largest grains), FF, FFF, FFFF (smallest grains).
(Note: Even if you were successful in making black powder at home, you would still need a percussion cap or a shotshell primer to ignite that powder inside the rifle. Therefore, just being able to make black powder at home is not going to solve the issue of how to safely ignite that powder inside the rifle.)
A black powder rifle should be cleaned immediately after you have finished shooting it for the day.
The velocity and the accuracy of a projectile fired from a black powder rifle will vary based on the following factors:
- Black powder is more corrosive than smokeless powder and it should not be left inside a rifle bore any longer than absolutely necessary.
- Cleaning a black powder rifle takes more time and more effort when compared to cleaning a smokeless powder rifle.
- Petroleum based cleaning products should not be used to clean a black powder rifle.
- Brand Name: That black powder that is produced by different ammunition companies can have densities that vary by 15%.
- Lot or Batch: Different lots of black powder made by the same exact company will produce slightly different results when used in a black powder rifle.
- Charcoal: Charcoal is one of the three ingredients in black powder. Different types of wood will produce charcoal with different characteristics. This will result in differences in the black powder made from that charcoal.
- Grain Size: The coarseness or fineness of the black powder grains will impact the accuracy of the rifle.
- Compression: The degree to which the black powder is compressed inside the rifle barrel by the ramrod and the bullet will impact the accuracy of the rifle.
- Bullet design: Changes in the weight or the design of the projectile will impact its point of impact.
- Number of Bullets Fired: Each time a bullet is fired there will be powder residue left inside the bore of the rifle. As this residue gradually builds up it will adversely impact the accuracy of future projectiles. Therefore is will be necessary to stop and clean the rifle bore more frequently than you would clean the bore of a centerfire rifle.
- Humidity: Black powder will absorb some of the humidity or moisture in the air. This will result in a change in the weight and the volume of the black powder when it is measured, and this will result in a change in the accuracy of the rifle when it fires a projectile.
- Dry powder versus damp powder: Damp black powder may not burn at all, or it will burn very poorly. Therefore a black powder rifle is not a good hunting rifle, or a self-defense rifle, during wet weather.
Black powder rifles are nice. However, they do have the following shortcomings:
Therefore, during a long-term hard times tragedy event, if I had a choice between a black powder rifle and a longbow, then I would select the longbow.
- Black powder rifles require diligent care.
- They require a reasonable supply of bullets, black powder, and primers.
- The black powder must be kept dry.
- Under ideal conditions a person could load and fire one bullet in approximately 30 seconds.
- A black powder rifle is not as accurate or as predictable as a modern centerfire rifle.
- A black powder rifle is not a good hunting rifle or a self-defense rifle when it is raining.
The purpose of this article was to provide a balanced perspective on black powder rifles.
- A longbow works reasonably well in a variety of different weather conditions.
- A longbow only needs an arrow to be effective for hunting. It does not need a bullet, or powder, or a primer.
- With a little practice a person could insert another arrow into a longbow and fire that arrow in approximately 8 seconds.
- If you run out of arrows then you could make your own primitive arrows if you were in a wooded area and you had a knife.
A decision to purchase a black powder rifle should be based on whether or not a black powder rifle is appropriate for you and for your specific circumstances.
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