Black powder — now and then

Paul Smith
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A few weeks back, I talked about muzzleloading, black powder, and the famous Kentucky long rifle. I mentioned at the time that I was dabbling in a wee bit of traditional shooting myself, and just might attempt shooting a big, burly Newfoundland moose with a single shot muzzleloader. Not that there are any other kinds. As far as I know, all muzzleloading rifles are single shot, modern and old alike.

There was once a tradition of muzzleloading six-shooting handguns, like the Colt Navy 1851 revolver. It doesn’t exactly load through the muzzle, but a charge of loose blackpowder was poured individually into each of six cylinders. The bullets were seated in place by hand and so was a percussion cap that ignited the charge. I think that’s close enough to call it a muzzleloader.

I’ve never shot one of these things, but I’d certainly love to. The Colt Navy was Sam Colt’s first big commercial success and was used by famous military men as well as outlaws and gun slingers. The likes of Robert E. Lee, John O’Neill, Wild Bill Hickok, Doc Holiday and the infamous Jesse James at one time or another carried and shot the Navy Colt.

I should explain the difference between the terms black powder and muzzleloader and what they mean to shooters.

Black powder was the very first chemical explosive invented by humans and was the one and only propellant used in firearms up until the late 1800s. It’s a mixture of charcoal, sulfur and saltpeter. When the gun is fired, it leaves a huge puff of smoke and a whole lot of grimy residue in the barrel and chamber of the weapon.

Lots of cleaning and scrubbing is required to keep black powder weapons shooting efficiently and accurately. They don’t often portray the reality of this in the movies. All the old muzzleloaders shot black powder, but black powder’s use in guns by no means ended there.

Metallic cartridges were invented and the world never looked back. Now the powder, bullet, and cap were integrated into one unit that could be loaded into the rifle or pistol. Smith and Wesson patented the first cartridge shooting revolver in 1854. Colt followed in 1873 with its famous Single Action Army, also know widely as the Peacemaker or Colt 45.

The famous buffalo hunting guns like the Sharps single shot, designed in 1848, was in widespread use for both war and hunting up until 1881. It shot cartridges loaded with black powder and so did the Peacemaker. So the puffs of smoke in the western movies are not just fodder for effect; rather it is historically correct.

Smokeless powder was not invented until 1884 and the .30-40 Krag was the first smokeless cartridge, adopted by the U.S. military in the early 1890s. Imagine being able to shoot without a puff of smoke giving away your location.

The .30-30 Winchester, released to the shooting world in 1894, was the first smokeless high velocity cartridge designed for hunting. As many of you know it is still quite popular today, but hardly high velocity by modern standards.

Although many folks think that black powder guns and muzzleloaders are one in the same, this is most definitely not the case. Black powder rifle and muzzleloading rifle mean two different things in the shooting world. A muzzleloader must receive its propellant and projectile or bullet through the muzzle, pushed into place by a ramrod that slides into the barrel. The charge is ignited by some sort of percussion cap placed separately into the gun by the shooter.  These sorts of guns are not safe to use with modern smokeless powders. They can only safely shoot traditional black powder or one of the modern chemical substitutes like Pydrodex or Triple Seven, all of which produce clouds of smoke and dirty barrels.

What creates confusion is that many people still shoot cartridge rifles loaded with blackpowder, but these are definitely not muzzleloaders. This is an important distinction because many hunting jurisdictions only allow hunting with muzzleloaders or have a separate muzzleloading season. Blackpowder cartridge rifles would not qualify.

Actually, one of my own favourite guns, my Marlin 1895 guide gun, is chambered for an old black powder cartridge of buffalo hunting vintage. It’s the 45-70 Government, a round originally developed by the U.S. army for the 1873 Springfield rifle. It was also used extensively as a buffalo hunting cartridge along with its cousins the 45-90 and the 45-120. The first number indicates the bullet diameter and the second the black powder charge in grains. Some of the original black powder chamberings are still around and in widespread use but cartridges bought off the shelf these days are loaded with smokeless powder substitutes.

But some shooters hand load their 45-70s with black powder for both recreational shooting and hunting. In particular there’s a very popular series of competitive shoots organized for black powder cartridge rifles or BPCRs. These guys take their shooting pretty seriously, blazing away at metal silhouette targets out to 1000 yards. They use replicas of rifles from the buffalo days like the Sharpes and Remington Rolling Blocks. And they meticulously hand craft their own custom black powder cartridges.

Have you seen Tom Selleck in “Quigley Down Under”? It’s about an American sharpshooter who moves to Australia to take a ranch job but ends up in a deadly conflict with his would-be employers. There’s lots of gunpowder burned and lead slung before the final credits roll.

Selleck totes around a black powder shooting 45-120 Sharps that surely raises goose bumps on the arms of gun aficionados.

In Forsyth, Mont., there’s a BPCR shooting competition held each summer in honour of the fictional but celebrated Matthew Quigley, the quintessential frontier marksman and outdoorsman. It’s the biggest black powder event in the world, attracting around 600 shooters each year. The enthusiasm for smoking guns is alive and well.

I wouldn’t mind giving one of those buffalo BPCR irons a try, but for now I’m burning my black powder in a muzzleloader. Mine is not a traditional muzzleloader but a modern reincarnation of the form and function by Thompson Center Arms, an Encore Pro Hunter. It shoots a .50 caliber chunk of lead burning either black powder or one of the modern substitutes.

My rifle is born of modern stainless steel and high tech composite, but the drill is almost identical to that practised by the pre cartridge marksman. That’s pouring a measure of loose powder down the barrel and forcing atop this charge, a bullet, driven in place by hand with the rifle’s ramrod.

Muzzleloading and black powder is most definitely a hands-on experience and taste of another era and reality, one that has given me a much better understanding of the challenges facing the early frontiersman and mountain men.

I managed to shoot a moose with my black powder muzzleloader and I’ll tell you all about it next week.


Paul Smith, a native of Spaniard’s Bay, fishes and wanders the outdoors at every opportunity. He can be contacted at

Organizations: Smith and Wesson, Single Action Army, U.S. army Thompson Center Arms

Geographic location: Kentucky, Newfoundland, U.S. Australia Forsyth, Mont.

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Recent comments

  • Winston Adams
    October 27, 2012 - 10:41

    I have little interest in guns. I once shot a seal, and a few birds. Cleaning the seal was no fun. I tried it for sport, as my buddies in the 70s were into this. I never had the heart for it. Too one sided. I was a good shot, having once practised with a pistol while training as a officer in the military, in my university days. They gave no instruction on shooting birds. I gave up the idea of a militiay career, least I might have have to give orders to others to shoot more than birds. I had heard too many stories and knew a few who experienced war. My buddies would go to Hr Grace Island before daylight for a chance shot at a duck. Back in the 50s , anything with wings got shot at. A gull kept it's distance, and would seldom fly so close to take the codliver thrown out to attract them. Now gulls, ducks and other birds are common and much less in fear. When shooting , I perfer the camera. I once fired a 22 at a headstone from my backdoor in Bishop's Cove I got a fright . Being about 400 feet away I could see a big spot on the white marbe stone. Figured I was in trouble. Wasn't a good thing to do. I later went to look. The lead had spattered on impact. Not a dent on the stone. Now my interest in guns perked up again this summer. I visited the Twillingate Museum. They have a lot of artifacs. Upstairs in a back room in a corner there are several old guns some donated or on loan by a Peyton descentent. And there are old snowshoes. I was very much reminded of the details of the expedition when Mary March was captured and her husband was shot and killed. That was in the latter 1700s, and the guns are probably not that old. having no expertise on guns. That museum needs more heat and humidity control to protect it's large quantity of stuff of all sorts. Outport rural nfld needs this to attract tourists and preserve their heritage and history. They have a treasure of stuff. It needs to be preserved.