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If you are going to shoot black powder guns you really need to know what black powder is, how to select the right black powder for you gun, and understand the differences between real black powder and the black powder substitutes that are now available.

The History

No one knows exactly when black powder was discovered but credit is normally given to the Chinese who were experimenting with explosives at least 200 years before Christ. Originally these explosives were used in ceremonies and rituals, until someone got the bright idea of shoving them down a tube and packing stone and other junk on top of it. Thus the cannon was born. It would be centuries before a flintlock rifle would evolve from these early hand cannons, and still another couple of centuries after that before the modern day firearm and smokeless powder would make their debut.

In 1252, credit is given to Roger Bacon for first documenting the formula for black powder. The Monk, Bacon, correctly identified the explosive nature of a sulfur, carbon, and potassium nitrate mix. Bacon may have been the first to write down the recipe, but historians believe that much of Europe and Asia were all using forms of black powder by well before this time.

Black Powder Today

Black powder today is still produced in a fashion similar to production methods of old. Powdered sulfur, carbon, and potassium nitrate (saltpeter) are mixed with water and denatured alcohol, the mixture is then pressed into large cakes to dry. The water and alcohol are used to prevent the powder from igniting, and help produce a much more uniform mixture. After drying the cakes are broken down into small granules. These granules are then sorted according to size, and sold to consumers.

Granular size of the powder determines the intended use of the powder. Black powder granules come in sizes from the largest grain 1fg (fg) down to the very finest 4fg (ffffg).

The sizes are all suited for a particular type of use:

1fg: This powder has the largest grains and normally is not used in firearms, but if you happen to have a cannon, this just might be the powder for you.

2fg: The actual grain size of the powder is smaller than that of the 1fg powder. This powder is most commonly used in larger bored rifles starting at about .45 caliber and up.

3fg: This powder has an even finer grain and is used primarily in pistols and small bore rifles of up to .54 caliber.

Note there is some overlap between the uses of 2fg and 3fg. My personal preference, and I make no claims that it will work for everyone, is 3fg powder in pistols and all my rifles up to .50 cal, and use 2fg in all larger calibers.

4fg: This is the finest powder and is usually reserved for use in the flash pan on flintlock rifles.

Armed with the above information the novice may feel reasonably confident in walking into you local muzzleloader supplier and selecting a tin of powder. Until they realize that a lot of places don’t stock real black powder, and a black powder substitute is necessary. The biggest reason for this is that the good ol’ US of A classifies real black powder, as an explosive and retailers must have special permits to stock it. While the substitutes are all classified as propellant and are don’t fall under the same restrictions as real black powder.

The Substitutes

So what options are available? First black powder may be hard to find, but not impossible. If you want to shoot the real stuff, check around, odds are somebody will stock it. Second, on the market today there are black powder substitutes, which are designed to be used in place of real black powder. The three most common substitutes are Pyrodex, Clean Shot, and Clear Shot, with Pyrodex being the most common.

Pyrodex as been on the market for years and really is a hybrid black powder. It produces less foulings (the junk left in your barrel after shooting black powder), than real black powder, and delivers roughly the same energy for a given load. While it does produce less foulings than black powder – it still produces it fair share, and the foulings are corrosive, so cleaning your gun is mandatory after firing.

Before going any farther let me make something very clear. All of the black powder substitutes are classified as propellants or smokeless powders. This is only a government hazardous material classification, and these powders do not function the same as smokeless powders. What this means is: NEVER USE NITRO BASED (SMOKELESS POWDERS) IN A MUZZLELOADER! NEVER MIX SMOKELESS POWDERS WITH BLACK POWDER OR THE BLACK POWDER SUBSTITUTES. If you decide to ignore this warning take a nice long look at your hands and fingers, because you may never see them again, if you are really unlucky you may never see anything again except for the roots of the lilies you’ll be pushing up.

Clean Shot and Clear Shot are the latest substitutes to hit the market. Though they have similar names and make similar claims, two separate and unrelated companies make them. Both are e a volumetric substitute for black powder, but do not produce the huge amounts of corrosive fouling common with black powder and Pyrodex. Both of these products are fairly new to the black powder scene and while there is no doubt that they produce less foulings and the fouling are not as corrosive, the jury is still out concerning their performance. Some people swear by them, others swear at them. These two powders can be a bit hard to locate, it seems neither company’s production is keeping up with demand (as of June 2001). I don’t believe this to be a long term problem, interest in their product is too great. Both of these powders will cost you a bit more than real black or Pyrodex, but may be worth it when the reduced clean up and potential corrosion is considered.

Which is the best of the four? I will only say that for traditional styled sidelock muzzleloaders I prefer real black powder. Real black powder requires less energy to ignite, and this can be an advantage in traditional guns because they typically deliver less energy from the cap or flash pan then do the modern day in-lines. For all other cases I think the powder you use is personal choice, with performance, cost, clean up and authenticity all being factors.

A new trend is to offer the substitutes in a palletized form that match the gun’s bore. Pellets are gaining popularity among hunters concerned with fast reloads. Pellets are harder to ignite then loose powder and should only be used in in-lines. The only advantage I see with pellets is their convenience makes for faster loading. I personally don’t use them for the following reasons:

1- Cost, grain for grain they cost more than loose powder. If I need speed I’ll use a quick-loader

2-Usability, if you shoot multiple black powder calibers you have to buy the different sized pellets for each one.

3-Reliabiliaty, pellets are harder to ignite than loose powder, increasing the chance of misfires and hangfires.

4-Vesitility, what happens when your gun decides it likes a load that can't be chopped up into 30 or 50-grain increments?

That said I know there are numerous people who use and love pellets and if you are inclined to use them I wish you the best of luck, I know many BP shooters love them.

Measuring Black Powder

Black powder is measured by volume not weight, and the substitutes are all designed to produce equal energy for a given volume. Do not weigh black powder and then use an equivalent weight of any of the substitutes. The substitutes are not designed to weigh the same as black powder. Bottom line, if you use a volumetric measure you should get roughly equal performance from equal loads regardless of which powder you are shooting.

If shooting real black powder or Pyrodex foulings will build up, and you may need to run a cleaning patch down the barrel every 3rd or 5th shot. This fouling is corrosive and must be cleaned out after shooting. Clean Shot and Clear Shot claim the foulings produced is not corrosive, but both still recommend cleaning when done shooting. All four powders’ foulings will clean up with hot soapy water. Many shooters like to use a solvent after water, but this is not required. After cleaning, lightly oil the barrel and other metal parts.

Swiss Black Powder

A final note, a new “sporting grade” powder sold as Swiss Powder has been getting a lot of great press. Swiss powder is a high-grade black powder that burns cleaner than most black powders. It still produces the same corrosive foulings of regular black powder (albeit less), so cleaning is still a must. Swiss Powder, because it is more efficient, produces more energy, and it is recommend that starting loads be cut by about 10% from your typical black powder load.

There you have it, everything you need to know about black powder – I didn’t say everything there is to know, but with the information contained above you should be able to make an intelligent choice when choosing between the black powder you are going to shoot. Be safe, and always follow the gun manufacturer’s recommended loading and shooting procedures.

Internet resources for Black Powder & its Substitutes:

Goex – Makers of GOEX and KIK real black powders.

Elephant – Real black powder and importers of Swiss black powder.

Pyrodex – Most common black powder substitute

Clear Shot – New substitute that produces very few non-corrosive foulings.

Clean Shot – New substitute that produces very few non-corrosive foulings.

Swiss Powder – Imported by Elephant