Making black powder, while safe in the author’s experimental experience, can be dangerous. The author and SurvivalBlog.com do not endorse making black powder, and you do so at your own risk. Making black powder could also be in violation of the laws in your jurisdiction. You are responsible for compliance with all laws in your area. Neither the author, nor SurvivalBlog.com, are responsible for your use of the information in this article. The processes described herein are therefore for informational purposes only.
Black powder can be dangerous if there is a gap between the powder and the projectile, when the firearm is loaded. When loading a muzzle loading firearm, be sure to seat the projectile firmly, so there is no empty space above the powder. This includes cap-and-ball revolvers, which can have no space between the powder and the ball or bullet, although wads can be used to fill the space when a light powder charge is used. When loading black powder cartridges, there must be no empty space inside the cartridge. You may need to use a wadding or other “filler” over the powder to take up the space inside the case.
This article is intended to show the potential usefulness of black powder to preppers, especially in times of ammo shortages and gun bans, and to show how easy it is to make almost everything you need to keep a black powder firearm running, just about indefinitely. Please understand the repeated safety warnings: black powder behaves differently from smokeless powder, and knowing its unique characteristics is essential. You are strongly advised to exercise caution and to seek out a good black powder manual before venturing into black powder shooting for the first time.
WHY BLACK POWDER?
In a time of inexpensive AR-15s and plentiful ammo, it may seem silly to bother with black powder. It’s messy and will invite moisture and corrosion if not cleaned promptly. Black powder does not produce high velocities, and its low pressures and fouling make it incompatible with most semiautomatic firearms. It also produces a substantial amount of smoke. Outside of hunters and reenactors, many people look at black powder firearms as range toys with no applications as “serious” firearms.
On the other hand, just a few years ago, many of us were affected by an ammunition “drought,” in which .22 LR, 9mm Parabellum, and many other common types of ammunition were in extremely short supply. When ammo was found, it was often for sale at scalper’s prices. Reloading components — especially smokeless powders — were also scarce, as desperate gun owners resorted to reloading as their only source of ammunition.
Such times may come again, and without warning. Even as we see high-profile acts of violence with firearms which fit the narrative of the mainstream media and the Left (but I repeat myself), we are seeing more pushes for gun control. Attacks such as the mass shooting in El Paso will be used as justification to try to take away gun rights. Even if unsuccessful, the efforts can spawn buying panics that can result in sudden shortages of guns, magazines, ammo, and reloading supplies.
During the Great Obama Ammo Troubles (GOAT), I was able to keep shooting with black powder, since percussion caps were still available in my area, as were black powder substitutes, such as Pyrodex. I was able to conserve my stock of centerfire ammunition and smokeless powder by shooting black powder arms and by using black powder — or a substitute — in cartridges (I had stocked up on primers before the drought) for some centerfire firearms.
Even if there are no more mass murders with firearms, those days of scarcity could easily come again. Virtually every Democrat candidate for President in 2020 has made statements about wanting to ban a wide range of firearms. Some want door-to-door confiscation, while others prefer to confiscate firearms through Australian-style mandatory “buy backs” (confiscation, with compensation paid for by taxpayers). One former Democrat candidate from California even suggested using nuclear weapons on gun owners who defied the power of the State.
What will you do when gun store shelves are bare, and “gun shows” offer little more than tables of gun parts, knives and beef jerky? How will you stretch your finite stock of ammunition and reloading supplies, while continuing to use firearms to train, to hunt, and in necessary tasks, such as pest and predator elimination?
Black powder won’t work well in your Glock or in your AR-15, but in the right applications, black powder is surprisingly useful and effective. The firearms used in wars until the late 19th Century, those used in the winning of the American West, and the guns people relied upon in countless instances of self-defense, were all powered by black powder. The truth is that black powder firearms are powerful, accurate and very capable, if their limitations are understood and allowed for.
Moreover, black powder lends itself to “do it yourself” shooting. Many of the essentials can be homemade, often for very low prices. More on that, later.
First, let’s look at how black powder could be used to address some of the possible needs of people who wish to be more self-reliant in the event of some future catastrophe. We’ll examine defense, hunting, and long-range shooting.
BLACK POWDER For SELF-DEFENSE
“For its size and weight nothing is so deadly as the round ball of pure lead when driven at fairly good velocity….Major R. E. Stratton and Samuel H. Fletcher told me the .36 Navy with full loads was a far better man killer than any .38 Special they had ever seen used in gun fights.” – Elmer Keith, Sixguns, page 211
Most of your choices in black powder handguns are six-shot cap-and-ball revolvers, but careful shooters generally only load five. Cap-and-ball revolvers use loose powder or paper “cartridges” of black powder in the chambers of the cylinder, commonly topped with a round ball. Most revolvers feature a built-in rammer to seat the ball and press it firmly against the powder. Percussion caps are then seated on nipples on the rear of the cylinder.
The late Elmer Keith wrote about the surprising effectiveness of cap-and-ball revolvers in his classic book: Sixguns. More recently, Mike Cumpston and Johnny Bates, in their excellent book, Percussion Revolvers, reported velocities of over 1,100 feet per second (fps) with a .454 round ball fired from a Remington New Model Army cap-and-ball revolver, a type of gun that was used by the North and, in smaller numbers, by the South in the U.S. Civil War.
People shooting black powder in cartridges will find more convenience and reliability — especially in wet weather — and in easier and faster loading and unloading. I recommend revolvers from the black powder era, as they are generally easier to clean, but some modern revolvers, such as the Ruger SP-101, GP-100 and Super Redhawk series, can be cleaned of black powder fouling without undue trouble. [JWR Adds: I generally recommend using stainless steel guns (if available) when shooting black powder. In case there is any delay in cleaning, these are much less likely to suffer from corrosion.)
Most black powder long guns from the time of powder and patched ball are limited to one or two shots, although a few guns, like the revolving carbines, offer more firepower. The lever actions designed in the era of black powder in cartridges are very capable defensive rifles that are still among the go-to choices in places where semi-auto rifles are banned. These include the strong, handy Winchester 1892 or the fast and smooth Winchester 1873.
Double barrel, break-open shotguns were originally made for black powder. Whether side-by-side or over/under, they work very well with black powder shells and are fairly easy to clean as most of the fouling goes down the barrels. Modern, pump-action shotguns are simple and easy to clean, and their robust actions can handle black powder fouling fairly well. Shotgun performance is not significantly degraded when using black powder, as black powder velocities are similar to typical shotgun velocities, and good patterns can be achieved with careful loading. However, the high burning temperature of black powder can shorten the life of plastic shells.
HUNTING WITH BLACK POWDER
Black powder hunting is fairly popular for some good reasons. One reason is that muzzle loading rifles and shotguns work well at typical hunting distances. Some hunters take up black powder for a longer hunting season. Others may enjoy the challenge of having just one or two shots, and they focus on the skills of getting close to game and making an accurate first shot.
Of particular interest are the replicas of the Sharps rifles. The early ones were breechloaders which used paper cartridges. They are popular today and are used in hunting, target shooting, and Civil War re-enacting.
Hunting with back powder cartridges is hardly a handicap at all. A lever action in .45-70, for example, can take just about any game in North America with black powder ammo, though a cartridge like .32-20 would be a better choice for small game. Reproduction single shots like the Sharps (which were made for black powder cartridges in the later models), or more recent designs, such as the H&R Handi-Rifle, are also useful game getters, as long as the rifle cartridge chosen is one that works well with black powder.
As already mentioned, shotgunners face some challenges with black powder, but good results are possible with both muzzle loading or with “modern” shotgun shells loaded with black powder. Some plastic hulls may not last through multiple reloadings, since black powder burns at a higher temperature than many smokeless powders.
LONG-RANGE BLACK POWDER SHOOTING
The current resurgence in long-range shooting includes black powder. Don’t believe it? Check out the Matthew Quigley Buffalo Rifle Match (https://www.quigleymatch.com), held annually outside Forsyth, Montana. Though many use smokeless powder, black powder is encouraged, especially for those competing with antique rifles. Most categories in the match require use of iron sights, and targets include a “buffalo” at 805 yards!
Still not convinced? Try reading about Billy Dixon and his “Mile-Long Shot” (later measured at over 1,500 yards by a US Army survey team) with a .50 Sharps rifle, at the Second Battle of Adobe Walls on June 27, 1874. Modest velocities with heavy lead bullets mean rather dramatic trajectories, but long range accuracy is possible!
(To be continued tomorrow, in Part 2.)