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Muzzle Loading Shotgun Propellants: Black Powder Subsitutes

posted Jun 15, 2010, 12:17 PM by Peter Lucas   [ updated Sep 10, 2013, 9:35 AM ]
    There are a number of black powder substitutes on the market today.   Each has its own characteristics. However, most of the black powder substitutes share a number of common characteristics.  Those common characteristics include the following:    First, as a general rule black powder substitutes are not classified as explosives as is black powder.  As a result black powder substitutes are easier to find at most sporting goods stores.

    Second, most black powder substitutes are safe to throw or measure through a modern powder measures.  While you may not use a modern powder measure too often in connection with a muzzle loader, there are times when it is convenient measure out a number of powder charges and keep them in paper "cartridges" or plastic containers.  This process is made much easier by using a modern powder measure.   However, carefully check the manufactures recommendations prior to using any black powder substitute in a modern powder measure.  The life you save may be your own.

    Third, as a general rule, black powder substitutes are harder to ignite than true black powder.  True black powder has an ignition temperature of approximately 570 degrees Fahrenheit.  The ignition temperature for Pyrodex is approximately 740 degrees and the ignition temperature for Goex Pinnacle is around 700 degrees. As a result, for some guns, black powder substitutes are not an option.   As noted in the article dealing with true black powder, Hodgdon recommends that a small amount of true black powder be used to help facilitate the ignition of both Pyrodex and Triple Seven in Flintlock guns.  However, for most percussion shotguns, the black powder substitutes will work just fine.  Personally, I have used  true black powder, Pyrodex, Triple Seven and Pinnacle in my percussion side by side shotguns and cannot tell any difference with respect to ignition times or the leads required on the skeet field. 

    Fourth, black powder substitutes can be measured by volume rather than weight.  Said differently, the black powder substitutes can be volumetrically measured with old black powder powder measures.  If the load calls for 3 drams of black powder (approximately 82 grains), you simply set you powder measure for 3 drams and you will have the appropriate amount of black powder substitute.   In addition, Pyrodex RS and Goex Pinnacle are also a volumetric a black powder performance substitutes.  A three dram volumetric charge of Goex Pinnacle FFg or Pyrodex RS is very close in performance to three drams of Goex FFg black powder.  Hodgdon's Triple Seven is more efficient in turning the solid powder in gas than true black powder.  Consequently, it is recommended that use approximately 15% less Triple Seven (by volume) than standard black powder.

    The following chart compares the relative weights of black powder and black powder substitutes for various volumetric loads. 

(by volume)
Goex  FFg 
Triple Seven
Triple Seven Adjusted 15%  Pinnacle  FFg
Pinnacle  FFFg 
Pyrodex RS



     Fifth, as a general rule black powder substitutes produce less fowling that true black powder. There is wide disagreement about exactly how much cleaner the various substitutes really are. However, from my experience they all produce less fowling than true black powder.  In part, the reduction in fowling is simply due to the fact that is less mass in the powder charge. Most black powder substitutes are still relatively inefficient propellants, leaving behind close to 50% of their mass as non-combusted, solid residue. However, by weight Pyrodex is 30% less dense than black powder.  Even if you assume that Pyrodex is no more efficiently than black powder in turning solids into gas, there will be 30% less residual, by actual weight, when you are using Pyrodex instead of black powder. More directly stated, you still have about 50% of the garbage left, but you start with less garbage to burn in the beginning.

    The black powder substitutes, and in particular the newer powders, are generally designed with the typical muzzle loader in mind.  The vast majority of muzzle loaders are deer hunters who are using a modern muzzle loader which is often ignited with a 209 shotgun primer.  In rifles, Triple Seven and some of the other black powder substitutes are clearly capable of producing higher velocities (and pressures) than black powder.   While this is fine for modern muzzle loading rifles, this is really not a selling point for traditional muzzle loading shotguns. Good patterns are much more important than squeezing out the last few feet per second.  Consequently, the new black powder substitutes do not generally offer many real advantages for muzzle loading shotguns.

    In my view, the reasons to use black powder substitutes over black powder in a shotgun is three fold: a reduction in fowling, the availability of substitutes and cost.  Call me cheap, but when you are shooting a lot, perhaps the most significant factor to consider is cost.  Hodgdon's advertising has frequently pointed out that a pound of Pyrodex will go further than a pound of true black powder. Since Pyrodex is less dense on a weight for weight basis, you get more loads per pound when compared to true black powder.   A pound of Pyrodex will yield approximately 30% more loads than a pound of black power. This difference may not be too important to the casual shooter who only shots a couple of shots on an infrequent basis.  However, if you are going to use your muzzle loader on the trap or skeet range, the difference is significant.  With a 3 dram load (82 grains of black powder), one pound of true black powder will produce enough charges to shoot just over three and one half rounds of trap or skeet.  A pound of Pyrodex, will produce enough charges to shoot five rounds of trap or skeet with the same volumetric load.

    The following table compares the relative cost of shooting 25 rounds of black powder and black powder substitutes.  The "retail" prices represent the cost of the powder purchased at a local sporting good store.  The 'bulk" prices represent the price of ordering 25 pounds from Powder Inc


Price per pound

Grains per round

Cost per 25 shots

Diamond Back (purchased in bulk)




Goex FFg (Retail)




Goex FFg (purchased in bulk)




Pyrodex RS (Retail)




Pyrodex RS  (purchased in bulk)




Triple Seven (with 15% reduction)




Pinnacle FFg (purchased in bulk)





    A summary of the black powder substitutes which I have used in muzzle loading shotguns is a follows:

Pyrodex.  Pyrodex was the first and still is the most common "black powder substitute." Pyrodex is a true volumetric "performance" substitute for black powder. A three dram volumetric charge of Pyrodex RS (Rife/Shotgun) is very close in performance to three drams of Goex FFg black powder. 

    I have used Pyrodex for several years while hunting doves, pheasants and quail.  In my experience, Pyrodex produces less fowling than black powder.  This is a fairly significance advantage over black powder under hunting conditions where it is not convenient to swab out the bore or spray some water down the bore while you are loading.

    Similarly when I am shooting the muzzle loader on the trap or skeet range with shooters using modern guns, I will load up some muzzle loading shot cartridges and load the gun at each station (and twice on stations 1, 2, 6 and 7 for the doubles).. I am able to shoot a round of trap or skeet with Pyrodex without having to clean the fouling out of the barrels.  There is no way that I would be able to do this with black powder. 

    Less fowling, however, does not equate to cleaner in all respects. Pyrodex, like black powder is "hygroscopic" meaning it draws moisture if left on a gun after firing. Pyrodex is, if anything, more corrosive than black powder. It requires the same cleaning techniques as would be used after firing a gun with true black powder.

    Pyrodex and Triple Seven are both made by Hodgdon; which also purchased Goex.  

    GOEX Pinnacle  Pinnacle was manufactured by American Pioneer Powder for Goex prior to the time Hodgdon purchased Goex.  Pinnacle never caught on and following the time Hodgdon purchased Goex, Pinnacle was discontinued.  The reality is that muzzle loading pistol and rifle shooters vastly outnumber shot gunners.  Goex Pinnacle developed a reputation as not producing accurate groups in many rifles.   Goex Pinnacle is also a volumetric a black powder performance substitute for black powder.  Again, a three dram volumetric charge of Goex Pinnacle FFg is very close in performance to 3 drams of Goex FFg black powder. 

    Pinnacle was marketed as the "bore-friendly" black powder substitute from GOEX. Pinnacle is claimed to be clean-burning and non-corrosive with a low-residue formulation is designed to reduce build-up problems.

    Powder Inc. is selling out its stock of Pinnacle at very attractive prices.  I decided to purchase 24 pounds. Pinnacle worked well in my side by side muzzle loaders.  However, I experienced a number of misfires in the lower barrel of Beretta O/U.  Pinnacle did produce less fowling than black powder, with one big caveat.  Pinnacle deposits a gray or silver crud in the bore which is almost impossible to remove with soapy hot water (my standard way of cleaning black powder guns).  Moreover, since the crud is close in color to the bore, it is difficult to see. The only way that I am able to clean the crud out is with a stiff brass brush and a modern powder solvent.  Due to the problems I had cleaning the bores, I have decided to use my remaining Pinnacle for shotgun cartridges (Pinnacle can be safely used in a modern reloader).  


   Triple Seven.  The final black powder substitute which I have used is Hodgdon's Triple Seven.  Hodgdon's website originally stated that you should use Triple Seven only in a 209 primer ignition system.  However, they have now changed the website to indicate that you can use Triple Seven in both percussion and flintlock guns.  Hodgdon does recommend that you place a small amount of real black powder at the both of the charge to insure good ignition with flintlock guns.  I have used Triple Seven in a percussion shotgun without any apparent problems.   In fact, Triple Seven has produced consistently good patterns in my Pedersoli SxS.

    Triple Seven is "hotter" than true black powder and it is recommended that you reduce the charge by 15% (by volume) as compared to true black powder. 

    Hodgdon markets Triple Seven as being less corrosive than black powder.  I have no way of determining whether Triple Seven residue is really less corrosive.   However, in my experience, Triple Seven does produce less residue and it is easy to clean up.  However, it costs a lot more.   In my view,  Triple Seven does not provide sufficient advantages to the muzzle loading shotgun shooter to justify the increased cost.