Web Extra: Chosing a Black Powder
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Fuel For Front-Loaders & Black Powder Cartridges
What Should You Stoke Your Front-Loader With Anyway?
By Sam Fadala
The Hodgdon Pyrodex Family — P, Select and RS. P is a finer granulation appreciated in
revolvers, smallbore pistols and rifles, plus some of the smaller caliber black powder cartridges,
also useful for light target and plinking loads in big bore muzzleloaders.
Choosing a black powder or black powder substitute is as personal as selecting a favorite toothpaste or pizza topping. Any safe propellant is ideal for making a “good boom” at an empty tomato juice can residing peacefully in front of a berm. The only powder that’s no good, even for this modest effort, is homemade fuel, because anyone who ventures into that realm is a candidate for a hair transplant after the mixture flashes off. Cowboy Action Shooting, as one example, is accomplished at close range and there is no crying need for either superior accuracy or gargantuan power. For that work, any powder allowed on the range is acceptable. My personal powder choices, however, are based on four easily assessed criteria: energy yield, standard deviation from the mean (average) velocity, combustion properties (clean or dirty), and shelf life. The only tools required to assess these four criteria are a chronograph and a humidifier.
Black powder was originally known as gunpowder (to call it black powder before smokeless
came along would be like finding a coin dated 23 B.C.). Over time, there have been numerous
different black powders, although all were basically a mechanical mixture of carbon, saltpeter, and sulfur.
Energy yield is measured in velocity per grain (not granule or kernel, but grain weight at 7,000 grains to a pound, 437.5 grains to the ounce). This is not entirely scientific, but it works for us shooters. Black powder and all substitutes are loaded by volume, with the exception of pelletized powder, which is like a stick of rocket fuel. The chronograph quickly separates the chickens from the eagles in testing powder energy yield. Test the same rifle with the same bullet but different powders and the chronograph gives the lie to inflated advertised praise.
Example: 100-grains volume Powder A produces 1,500 feet per second in a 50-caliber muzzleloader launching a 300-grain projectile. Powder B, same exact load in the same rifle gathers, 1,700 fps. Pretty simple — Powder B produces more energy per grain weight than B, regardless of advertised puff and fluff.
Some folks don’t like standard deviation (SD) as a measure of propellant virtue because the concept is traced to psychology and education, not shooting. However, SD is an excellent measure of variance. And if it were not germane to shooting, Dr. Ken Oehler and other wizards of chronograph design wouldn’t have included it as a feature in their machines.
My major chronograph is an Oehler 35 Proof model that provides five double readouts for every string of shots: highest velocity, lowest velocity, average velocity, extreme spread — and SD variance. In a way it’s a probability question — how probable is it that shot number five will have the same or very similar velocity to shot number one? A low SD says odds of this happening are very good.
If Powder A consistently shows an SD of 150 (150 fps from the average velocity) and Powder B shows 10 fps SD, the latter is my choice for accuracy potential. While a high SD powder puts just as large a hole in that tomato juice can as a low SD powder, it’s as obvious as a bull elephant splashing in your swimming pool that varying bullet velocity equates to a larger group on the target.
Pelletized powder comes in specific sized to match grains volume. For example, the Triple Seven pellets shown here (box open and some pellets showing) is a 50/50, indicating 50-caliber size with 50-grains equivalent “loose” Triple Seven by volume. Hodgdon Powder Company also offers Pyrodex in pellet form.
Black powder is not nearly as efficient as smokeless. For example, my .30-30 with only 30-grains smokeless powder achieves over 2,000 fps with a 170-grain bullet, while my .50-caliber muzzleloader starts a 177-grain bullet at similar velocity, but it requires 110-grains volume FFg to do that. Inefficiency of black powder is great for volumetric loading, as proved by a low SD when using volumetric “chargers” instead of a bullet/powder scale. But inefficiency does nothing for “clean burning.”
Smokeless converts quite efficiently from solid to gas, while after combustion, black powder may leave behind 50-percent solids. This fouling, mainly salts, is easily removed with solvent, including plain water. But for continuous shooting and easier after-shooting maintenance, the cleaner burning powder is preferred.
I like and use several propellants in my muzzleloaders and black powder cartridge firearms. But when after-shooting cleaning is an issue due to time constraints, I rely on Triple Seven, which cleans up in about the same time required to remove powder residue from my .30-06, even less if the .30-06 bore is copper fouled. A relative newcomer to the field is the White Hots pellet, which also surrenders leftover residue quickly to plain water.
Hodgdon’s Triple Seven powder in FFg and FFFg granulations has high energy yield, low standard
deviation, and cleans up readily after shooting with nothing more than water.
Finally, there is shelf life. Place a specific amount of powder in an open container with a humidifier running for a specific period of time. If that powder provides the same, or very similar, velocity after being subjected to high humidity that is good shelf life. Standard black powder, kept dry, has an amazingly long shelf life. Guns found loaded after a hundred years have proved, sometimes to the shooter’s chagrin, capable of firing. This is not true of some black powder substitutes. One ascorbic acid based powder, which is no longer on the market, lost considerable energy after resting in its own container for only one month.
The muzzleloader and black powder cartridge fan is fortunate to have several good propellants available. A truly non-corrosive substitute powder we do not have as yet, although Triple Seven and White Hots fouling can be reduced and removed in no time with nothing more than water on a cleaning patch followed by drying patches and a light coating of metal protector in the bore.
We also have excellent products that keep fouling soft during shooting. I have found a little dab of modern paste lubricant on the base of a conical bullet, as well as inside the bottom cavity of a sabot, promotes more shots without bore swabbing, plus easier after-shooting cleanup. These 21st century creams, gels, and pastes work equally well on the roundball shooting patch.
Self-testing fuels for front-loaders and black powder cartridges is easy. The chronograph is the tool of discovery for energy yield as well as shelf life. After-shooting cleanup is the gauge for clean versus dirty powder. These simple demonstrations may not be solid scientific tests, but use them and in no time, the right propellant for the task at hand will jump up and say, “Here I am!”
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