(Continued from Part 2.)
Introductory Disclaimer (Repeated):
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.
Safety Note (Repeated):
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.
Black powder is ignited in firearms with a variety of methods. The first truly practical technology was the flintlock. The hammer held a piece of flint, or a similar mineral. When the trigger was pulled and the hammer fell, the flint would strike the steel frizzen and shower sparks into a pan of powder and ignite the main powder charge in the barrel. Although the more ancient matchlock could potentially be more reliable, the flintlock was a cost-effective firearm that could be kept loaded and ready at an instant’s notice.
Flintlocks are often suggested for survival when the stores are closed. While it’s true that a dedicated craftsman and shooter can keep a flintlock running almost indefinitely without resupply, the flintlock can be challenging for beginners. In some places [without rocky creek bottoms], suitable “flint” is hard to come by. Additionally, the percussion system has some advantages of its own.
It’s no coincidence that once percussion technology became widely available, it began to replace flintlocks in most places, especially in military firearms. Percussion firearms use a small metal cap with sensitive chemicals in it to set off the main charge. The cap is placed on a cone, or nipple, which has a tiny hole in it, leading into the breach of the firearm. When the cap is struck by the hammer, the chemicals in it ignite and in turn ignite the main powder charge.
Percussion caps are less affected by moisture than the loose fine-grained powder used to prime a flintlock. Although a good flintlock in good hands can be very reliable, percussion is more reliable in less skilled hands than a flintlock. The action is simpler and more compact, and is generally easier to maintain and repair.
One of the greatest advantages of the percussion cap is that its small size allows it to be used in black powder revolvers. A .44 black powder revolver is a powerful weapon that can still do the job, even though the earliest successful percussion revolver, the Colt Paterson, debuted 183 years ago!
A percussion cap is also easier for the average person to make than one might think. For my experiment, I used a Tap-O-Cap tool that is nearly forty years old. It was designed to make caps from aluminum beverage cans, and I’ve made many percussion caps from soft drink cans over the years. This time, though, I used a discarded roasting pan for the caps that were used with my homemade powder. The priming material is toy paper caps (as used in old style “cap guns”).
Percussion nipples can be made by cutting a piece of a machine screw to length, drilling a hole through it, and reshaping one end to accept a percussion cap. It’s easier to purchase nipples right now, but they are relatively simple devices [for any machinist] to improvise in a pinch.
Important Safety Note: You must wear safety glasses when making or handling percussion caps!
MAKING PERCUSSION CAPS
Given the simple shape of a percussion cap, it’s not surprising that tools are available to make your own caps at home. The Tap-O-Cap, however, has long been out of production. They are difficult to find for sale, even on web sites such as eBay. A possible replacement for the Tap-o-Cap, from a company called Sharp Shooter, is their “#11 Percussion Cap Maker.” It is is now available for $44.95, but I have not had the opportunity to test one yet. It uses a product called “Prime-All” to fill the percussion caps. The company sells it as four harmless chemicals that are mixed correctly to make the priming material.
With a Tap-O-Cap, I can turn a strip of aluminum into a pile of empty percussion caps with pleated sides. The Tap-O-Cap came with a paper punch, which can be used to punch the centers out of toy paper caps. A small piece of wood dowel (I use a piece cut from a bamboo skewer) is used to gently press three toy caps into each newly-formed cap.
The caps I have made with a Tap-O-Cap over the years have worked surprisingly well, but caution must be used with cap-and-ball revolvers. Because of their pleated sides, the homemade caps cannot fit as tightly on the nipples as No. 10 or No. 11 percussion caps. It is possible that the loose fit could be the cause of a chain fire, where firing one revolver chamber sets off one or more of the other chambers. As you can see in the photo at the top of this article, there is plenty of fire present when a black powder revolver is discharged.
Because of this risk of chain fire, I load and shoot my revolver as a single shot when using homemade caps.
If I decided to carry a fully-loaded black powder revolver using homemade caps, I would probably try to squeeze each cap to ensure that it fit tightly on the nipple. I would then carefully apply a few drops of molten wax to seal around each cap, to try to prevent a spark from getting under one of the caps. I of course would not pour wax from a lit candle!
A better course of action would be to hoard my supply of Remington #10 factory-made caps and put them on four of the five loaded chambers. The chamber that was first to come under the hammer would have a homemade cap on it. If I only needed to take one shot, I would avoid using a factory cap for that shot with this method.
TESTING HOMEMADE POWDER AND HOMEMADE CAPS
I tested my homemade powder and percussion caps with an Uberti replica of the 1863 Remington New Model Army revolver in .44 caliber (actually it’s a .45). This is the gun that is commonly — and erroneously — referred to as the “1858 Remington.” The Remington “NMA” is an excellent design and is popular with Civil War re-enactors and black powder shooters. It has a solid top strap, unlike the Colt designs and hence is a strong revolver with a somewhat modern look. The Remington also has safety notches in the cylinder, allowing a fairly good degree of safety for carry with six loaded chambers. I will continue to recommend loading five and lowering the hammer on an empty chamber, however.
Ballistically, the Remington makes good use of black powder. It also has an 8-inch barrel for higher velocities. Its deep chambers allow for the larger charges of powder than some other .44 cap-and-ball revolvers. It was easy to load 35 grains of powder. I was able to load 40 grains, but the amount of powder compression was more than I consider safe. Smaller charges can be used, of course, by seating the bullet or ball deeper in the chamber to rest against the powder.
This article describes a “worst case scenario” test. I imagined a person who did not have access to the ideal components for loading the revolver. I used hardware store and grocery store chemicals, though I did purchase my charcoal from a chemical company, as I could find no willow trees growing anywhere near me. By the way, willow charcoal is widely considered to be the best.
For lead, I scavenged lead from the backstop of a local pistol range, imagining that a person might have to use whatever scrap lead they could find. The lead turned out to be much too hard and caused problems for me. More on that, later. For the caps, I tried a roasting pan that I found in the trash at a barbecue. It was used only for serving and cleaned up easily.
Non-petroleum lube is needed when shooting black powder. I made up a small batch of homemade “bore butter,” melting 1 ounce each (by weight) of olive oil and beeswax in an empty cat food can in a pan of water. I used the 50/50 recipe because I live in the Deep South and would be shooting in summer heat. The ingredients are popular, but some shooters use as much as four parts oil to one part beeswax for lube that won’t freeze solid in the depths of winter. The common recipe is one part beeswax to two parts olive oil or other fat. Don’t use a fat that contains salt, such as bacon grease.
I used a cat food can because I buy the plastic lids that fit them. These cans are great for mixing and storing various lubes for shooting. To make lubed felt wads, melt some lube in a can and stir in the wads until the lube is used up. Leave the wads in the can and let it cool, then put a lid on it. Another convenient type of can is a recycled shoe polish tin. The little, rotating “key” on the side is very handy when hands are slippery after shooting cap-and-ball revolvers!
(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 4.)