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Muzzle Loading Shogun Propellants: True Black Powder

posted Jun 9, 2010, 1:51 PM by Peter Lucas   [ updated Oct 5, 2010, 8:07 AM ]

    This article primarily addresses the use of true black powder in muzzle loading shotguns.  Black powder substitutes are the subject of a different article.  

    
Black powder was the original muzzle loading propellant and is still the most common propellant at most muzzle loading shotgun shoots.  In fact, I was surprised to find that many of the muzzle loading shotgunners at the MNLRA Western National Shoot had never tried any of the black powder substitutes.  I was equally surprised to find that while black powder was readily available from the vendors at the event, I did not see many black powder substitutes being sold.  As discussed below, there are a number advantages and disadvantages to black powder when compared to the substitutes.   While people can debate the relative merits of the various types of powders, the reason why many shotgun shooters use black powders over the substitutes is simply a matter of cost and tradition.  

     Black powder is sold in a variety of granulations ranging from the course Fg to the very fine FFFFg. The size of the grain directly effects the rate at which the powder burns.  The fine FFFFg burns the quickest and is primarily used only as a priming powder for flintlock guns.  The course Fg burns the slowest and is primarily used in cannons and very large bore guns.  FFg and FFFg are the most common black powder granulations used today in muzzle loading shotguns. Conventional wisdom is that the courser FFg should be used in larger bores such 16 gauge guns and larger.  The thinking is that the courser powder will burn a slightly slower rate and produce better patterns with a lower peak pressure.   However, many shooters use the FFFg granulation in 12 gauge guns with good success.

    There are several different brands of black powder available. 
  • SWISS brand is a Swiss made black powder is gaining popularity with rifle and pistol shooter in the United States. Swiss powder tends to be considerablely more expensive than the other black powders. As a result, Swiss brand powder is not often used in muzzle loading shotguns.  It is imported in sporting grades Fg, FFg, FFFg.
  • GOEX brand is an American made black powder and is the  popular brand of black powder. Made in sporting grades
    Fg, FFg, FFFg, FFFFg and a variety of granulations intended for cartridges and other specialty uses.
  • KIK brand is manufactured in Slovenia and imported in the United States by Goex. KIK has a reputation for giving a  little more velocity than Goex and it generally costs less.  There are reports on the Internet that factory in Slovenia has shut down and the KIK Chemical industry Kamnik website appears to have been shut down.  However, KIK brand powder is still available in FFFg granulation from Powder Inc.
  • Diamondbackback brand black powder is manufactured by Elephant Industria Quimica in Brazil. Powder from the Brazilian factory was previously markted under the "Elephant" brand name.  Elephant brand black powder was  available for several years and received mixed reviews from the muzzle loading rifle community. The general consensus was that Elephant produced more fouling than other powders.
  • "Bulk Powders" are sometimes available at muzzle loading events.  The bulk powders generally come from China and are sold in 25 and/or 50 pound bags.

    There are a number of disadvantages to black powder.  First off, black powder is dangerous.  Black powder is classified as an explosive and must be handled carefully.  Black powder should not be used in modern reloading machines and powder measures not specifically designed for use with black powder.  Few if any of the black powder substitutes are classified as an explosive like black powder.  That is not to say that safety precautions need not be taken with black powder substitutes, however, they are generally safer to handle.

     Second, black powder is not a very efficient propellant.  The goal of any gunpowder powder is to convert the solid powder into a large volume of gas.  The gas produces high pressure in the bore which forces the projectile down range at high speed.  The fuel for modern smokeless powders is usually a combination of nitrocellulose and nitroglycerin. These compounds burn very efficiently converting virtually all of the solids in gas. In black powder, the fuel is carbon in the form of charcoal.  Only about 50% of mass of a black powder charge ever turns into gas.  The rest is solid residue that is forced out the muzzle as white smoke or left in the  bore as corrosive fouling crud.  While none of the black powder substitutes are as efficient as smokeless powder, many of the newer substitutes are significantly more efficient than black powder.

    Third, black powder is "hygroscopic" which means that black powder and its residue attract will water molecules from the surrounding environment.  The hygroscopic nature of black powder causes metal to rust rapidly.  For those of use who live in a dry climate, this is less of a problem. It is possible to let a gun sit for a day or two before cleaning it without any accumulation of rust or corrosion.   However, in humid regions,  it is necessary to clean black powder guns immediately after use in order to avoid rust.  Many of the substitutes are cleaner burning. 

       Despite these problems, true black powder continues to have two important advantages over all of the black powder substitutes: (1) easier ignition, and (2) cost. 

    Ignition: True black powder has a lower ignition temperature than any of the black powder substitutes.  Black powder ignites at approximately 570 degrees Fahrenheit, while Pyrodex has an ignition temperature of approximately 740 degrees Fahrenheit.  Sulfur (the ingredient which causes black powder smells like rotten eggs) is added to black powder primary for the purpose of reducing the ignition temperate.  Sulfur is absent from most black powder substitutes, which make them less smelly, but harder to ignite. 

    While the discussion of ignition temperatures may seem academic, lower ignition temperatures have some real world advantages for many guns. For flintlocks, black powder is really the only option as the primary ignition source.  Hodgdon, the manufacturer of both Pyrodex and Triple Seven suggests that 5 grains of FFFFG priming black powder should be placed into the bore prior to loading the main charge of Triple Seven or Pyrodex in order to insure proper ignition in a flintlock. Similarly,while some flintlock guns claim that the can use pelletized powder, most manufactures sill recommend that the flintlock guns be primed with black powder and that the a small amount of black powder be added to the charge in order to ignite the pellets.  

    Similarly, for percussion guns which have long or circuitous ignition paths, black powder remains the better choice.   An example is the Beretta Tri-Centennial Over and Under Muzzle Loader.  In 1980, Beretta sold this slick little Over and Under Muzzle Loader to commemorate its 300th Anniversary as a gun maker.   The Beretta Tri-Centennial is still the most common production gun at most muzzle loading shotgun events. Unfortunately, the ignition path to lower barrel is long and twisting.   I initially attempted to shoot my Beretta with Goex Pinnacle, a black powder substitute.  Using Pinnacle, the lower barrel would not fire on consistent basis,  I tried a number of things, including opening up the nipple on the lower barrel and still had intermittent misfires. The misfires disappeared as soon as I switched to Goex black powder.

    Because of its low ignition temperature and explosive characteristics, black powder should not be used in modern powder measures or reloading machines.  I known several people you have used black powder in machines which were not designed to handle black powder.  This is not certainly not recommend.  While the chances of a modern machine igniting a hopper full of black powder may be small, the results would be catastrophic and certainly not worth the risk.   Stick with the manufactures recommendations.  Do not use black powder in any machine which is not specifically designed for black powder.   It you are going to use black powder in a powder measure, get one of the machines which are designed to "throw" black powder.   The metering bars of the black powder models use non-sparking brass sleeves and an aluminum powder reservoir.   The life you save may be your own.

    Cost:  The issue of the cost of black powder raises a number of issues. To being with, obtaining true black powder is often a difficult task.  Most large sporting goods chains have quit carrying true black powder and instead carry the various substitutes.  The reason is that black powder is classified as an explosive while most black powder substitutes are not.  As a result, few sporting goods stores stock true black powder due to the increased permitting and regulations associated with true black powder.  In Denver, I can purchase a variety black powder substitutes from any number of sporting goods stores.  However, I know of only one outlet which sells true black powder in the entire Denver area.

    Most black powder substitutes are less dense than true black powder. Since black powder and the substitutes are equivalent on a volume for volume basis, you will get more shots from a pound of a black powder substitute when compared to a pound of black powder.  If you are shooting a 2 1/2 dram load (approximately 68.5 grains of black powder) you will get approximately 102 loads from a one pound can of black powder. However, a one pound can of Pyrodex will provide approximately 150 loads of the same volume.  Consequently, to be cheaper to shoot, black powder needs to be significantly cheaper per pound.

     If you are buying powder a pound at a time, black powder is most likely to be more expensive to shoot. In order to make black powder cost effective, you will need to buy in bulk.   The master distributor for Goex Powders is  company known as Powder Inc. (www.powderinc.com)  At the time of writing Powder Inc is selling Goex FFg and FFFg for approximately $13.60 per pound (if you purchase 25 pounds) and $10.15 per pound for Diamond Back powder.  These prices are delivered and include the hazmat fee.  In addition, it is possible to purchase bulk bags of "Chinese" powder at shoots at less than $9 per pound.  At the 2010 NMLRA National Championship Shoot in Friendship, Indiana, Chinese powder was available in 50 bags for approximately $7 per pound.

    Depending on the price of black powder substitutes at your local store, the Diamond Back or bulk Chinese powder will likely be the cheapest route to go. (Yes, I know that the substitutes are cheaper in bulk too.)   The question becomes whether the cheaper black powders are adequate for shotgunning purposes.  Rifle shooters tend to stay away from Diamond Back powder and the other bulk Chinese powders. However, it is important to keep in mind the difference between a rifle and a shotgun. Rifle shooters demand high standards of consistency.  Small variations in the powder can mean the difference by between winning and loosing at rifle event.

    The consistency of the load is much less of a factor when shooting a shotgun.  The cheaper black powders ignite consistently and produce perfectly adequate patterns.  Indeed, on a patterning board it is impossible to distinguish between the patterns produced by any of the black powders.  Finally, real world shooting results indicates that the cheaper powders will break clay birds, so long as you do your part.  Many shotgun events are won by shooters using Diamond Back or bulk Chinese powders. 

    The cheaper black powders will leave more residue n the bore.  However, all black powders will leave a significant amount of curd and you are going to have deal with it regardless of which black powder you are shooting.  The fact that there is a little more residue from cheaper black powders does not significantly change the manner in which you are going to have deal with the residue anyway.  (See the Article "Developing Loads for Muzzle Loading Shotguns, Part I for some information on dealing with black powder residue.)

    When considering the type of powder to be used in a shotgun, you need to consider the volume of powder which a shotgun can consume.  It is common to shot over 100-150 rounds per day on the shotgun range.  Depending on the load, that equates to one and half to two pounds of powder per day.  Few rifle shooters will come close to using that much powder in a day. It is much easier to insist on using the more expensive powder when you are using less than half a pound per day.

    The net result is that given the volume and nature of shooting, most muzzle loading shotgun shooters will simply go with lowest cost alternative which is presently the cheaper black powders.  

    The final factor which should not be discounted in the prevalence of true black powder is tradition.   If you are going to use a muzzle loading shotgun, why not also stick with the traditional powder.  Until someone produces a truly low cost alternative, or a powder which provides a true competitive advantage,  black powder will most likely continue to dominate at muzzle loading shotgun events.

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