A Gun Powder Primer
There’s A Lot More To It Than You May Imagine.
The politically caused shortages of all sorts of reloading components and even tooling should make us think about what those components truly are. It is easy to take for granted something, which we can stop and buy somewhere at a moment’s notice. When that item becomes scarce perhaps we should think of all the effort someone is making to keep it on retailer’s shelves?
There are two basic types of gunpowders being used by today’s handloaders. The first and oldest is black powder: a mixture of charcoal, sulphur and saltpeter. Sounds simple but manufacturing it requires considerable knowledge and technical support—especially in the safety arena. Every now and then some yo-yo decides to make his own black gunpowder and ends up destroying something: his kitchen, his house or his own life.
In the 1880s, arrived what are generically called smokeless gunpowders, by far the industry standard of the last century and a quarter. Again there are two basic divisions of smokeless propellants: single base and double base. The first is composed of nitrocellulose and the second consists of that plus a tad of nitroglycerine added. On top of that the actual shapes of smokeless powders vary. There are extruded types, flake types, and ball or spherical types. The British used to have (they may still use it for all I know) cordite gunpowder. It looked like strands of angel-hair pasta, which they cut to length to fit inside various cartridge cases.
In time of powder shortages Duke can live with
these two for all his handgun reloading.
In firing thousands of rounds through his World War II rifle
collection, Duke has come to rely on these two powders most.
Smokeless powders generate far higher pressures than black powders and must be loaded with considerable caution—as in frequent reference to recognize reloading manuals assembled by companies with well-equipped laboratories. On the plus side of the coin, smokeless gunpowders are very safe to handle, store and transport.
Black gunpowders are capable of generating far less chamber pressures in firearms, hence they are safer to use in firearms actually designed and produced in the pre-smokeless powder era. The negative side of the black gunpowder coin is they are far easier to ignite. Care must be taken in regards to their safe storage, handling and transport.
Today’s array of smokeless propellants is almost mind-boggling. Hornady’s newest reloading manual (No. 8) lists 142 different smokeless gunpowders with various levels of availability in this country. I’ve been an extremely avid handloader since 1966, written hundreds of magazine articles on the topic starting in 1972 and yet of those 142 listed smokeless propellants I count only 60 that have passed through my hands.
Smokeless powders are graded in burning rate from fast to slow but their names are no indication of how fast or slow burning they might be. It is up to the user to purchase the proper propellant for whatever cartridge(s) he might be handloading. Also the gunpowder manufacturers have not done much to make identification easier. For instance Hodgdon and IMR both have 4350s and 4831s—IMR4350 and H4350 and IMR4831 and H4831. They are similar but not identical in burning rates so appropriate data must be used with each. Then there are similar sounding but far different powders such as ATK’s Reloder 7 and Western Powder’s Accurate No. 7. Confusing data for those two could be deadly—I actually do know of one gent who lost part of a hand by doing that.
Similar looking powder cans also might get hurrying reloaders into trouble and even 40 years of experience can be negated in an instant. Once in a rush to meet a deadline I grabbed a can of Hodgdon Clays powder and then loaded it in .45 Colt cases to the charge recommended for Hodgdon Universal. Clays is a much faster burning powder than Universal. The result was two bulged chambers in a fine Colt Single Action Army revolver, requiring factory fitting of a new cylinder.
Black powders—at least in the United States—are graded in at least a nominal manner, not exactly indicating their burning rate but their coarseness of “grind.” They are rated from Fg to FFFFg with the more Fs the finer the powder. Fg is generally accepted as being for big-bore muzzleloading muskets or big-bore cartridge rifles, FFg is for moderate bore sizes of each, FFFg is considered a pistol and revolver powder, and FFFFg is priming powder for flintlocks.
For reloading single-shot, black-powder rifle cartridges Duke
uses Swiss 1-1/2 Fg. For smokeless loads for most antique
cartridges plus cast bullet loads for modern rifle rounds
Duke uses only 5744.
For decades I’ve lived with a storage shed about 75 yards from the house with a large array of smokeless propellants in stock. About 200 yards from the house I keep my black powder stock in another shed. So many different types of powders were kept on hand for the purposes of gathering information to flesh out these articles and columns.
Coming into my retirement years I’ve been actively working on consolidating my powders; keeping a good supply of favorites and letting stocks of the others dwindle away. Here’s what I consider favorites. For autoloading handguns I like Winchester 231. For revolver cartridges originally developed with black powder from .38 Special to .45 Colt IMR’s Trail Boss is my pick. For the majority of rifles in my World War II collection Hodgdon’s Varget works well but I also keep H110 just for .30 Carbine. For cast bullet shooting in those same military rifles and most big-bore levergun cartridges Western Powders’ 5744 beats all. And finally, as an avid competitor in the NRA’s Black Powder Cartridge Rifle Silhouette game I burn about a case of Swiss 1-1/2 Fg black powder ever year.
I always keep a plentiful stock of those six gunpowders on hand. Therefore, politically inspired shortages don’t keep me from shooting the types of guns I most favor.
By Mike “Duke” Venturino
Photos By Yvonne Venturino