Muzzleloader 101


Black Powder
Black powder is classified as an explosive. The flash point is around 350~370 degrees F. Careful handling and storage are required. The synthetics have flash points above 700 degrees F. However, the lower flash point can be a distinct advantage. In percussion, magnum primers are recommended for synthetics. In flintlocks it is best to use real black.

Designated FFg (Double F), FFFg (Triple F), and FFFFg (Four F). More Fs indicate finer granules. Generally FFg is used in 50 caliber and up and in revolvers. FFFg is used in 50 caliber and down. FFFFg is only used as priming for flintlocks.

When measuring powder, we are actually measuring volume designated as weight. For fine tuning target work, you will want to calibrate your measure using a reloading scale. For hunting the marking on the measure is close enough. It will be the same every time and consistency is the key to accuracy.

Carry powder in a horn or flask. Cow horn is the most common, but I have also seen buffalo horn, antler, wood and even a turtle shell. For a flask, avoid ferrous or other sparking materials, brass or copper are traditional. Plastic has become common.

Synthetic Powders
The most common is Pyrodex. It handles pretty much like real black. Granule size for RS (rifle/shotgun) is similar to FFg and P (pistol) to FFFg.

Pyrodex is also sold in pellet form, in either 30 or 50 grain pellets. They are sided! The side with the thin light grey layer must face toward the primer. (I found this out by accident. I put one in backwards and watched a ball of fire go for about 15 yards down range. Others made the matter clear to me though.) These are only recommended for in-lines. On sidelocks the primer flash will strike the side of the pellet, not the grey ignition coating. They are convenient in the field, but target loads cannot be fine-tuned.

777 is a bit hotter, so loads may need to be adjusted.

round ball Usually carried in a bullet pouch, open pouch, loading block or just loose in the bottom of the bag or pocket. Either cast or swaged. On cast balls the sprue must face up or down. Swaged balls are more uniform. For serious competition you may want to weigh some swaged balls to get a matched set.

Patches and Patch Lube
Lots of variety here. Pre lubed patches will need to be in a small container. An empty primer tin works well but there are lots of fancier alternatives including the patch box on the stock. A roll of ticking is a traditional method which requires a handy patch knife at each shot. Use 100% cotton or linen only. I saw one guy using a fairly thick wool patch but in a smoothbore. Silk is considered too delicate, but a few swear by it.

Do NOT use any artificial materials for patches. They melt and gum up the works. No fun cleaning them out. It is recommended that, if you use sabots, you need to use paint thinner to clean plastic from the bore occasionally.

Precut patches are available in a large variety, lubed or dry. Some thicknesses:

  • .005 is hard to find and of limited utility
  • .010
  • .015
  • .018 pillow ticking
  • .020
  • .022 denim - Be careful to get 100% cotton.
Patch lubes can be divided into two types, water soluble and grease. Spit, Balistol and moose milk are popular for target shooting and plinking. They have a cleaning function on the way down. Grease lubes are popular with hunters who do not reload frequently as they do not dry out after sometimes sitting for days. The traditional bases were suet or bear oil some times with bee's wax. Many modern ones use vegtable shortning as a base.

bullets These are typical lead bullets with the molded in groove filled with lubricant. They come with many options such as hollow base, various nose shapes, number of grooves and various length/weight choices. In .50 caliber a round ball is nominally 177 grains and with bullets weights are 275 grains to 350 grains typically and sometimes over 500 grains. Other calibers are proportional. A patch is not required, but sometimes paper patches (very tricky) are used. Many modern sidelocks have a twist around 1:35 for bullets.

Sabot Sabot is French for a wooden shoe. The name refers to the plastic "shoe" wrapped around the bullet. These are normally modern hunting rounds, which require a fast twist. The shoe provides sealing and transfers spin from the rifling. Many in-lines and some modern sidelocks have a twist of less than 1:20.

Shot, Wads and Cards
shot Shot is small round balls or pellets, usually made of lead. Most muzzleloading shotgun use today is for clay target or small birds. Shot size is designated by a number with #9 bird (0.08 inch dia.) being the smallest and double ought (00) buck (0.33 inch dia.) being the largest of commonly used and available shot. To use non-lead shot be sure to get a modern made gun. The steel in period gun barrels will not stand up to hard shot.

wadsWads are thick fiber or felt pads providing a cushion and platform above the powder and below the shot. They are just over the bore diameter and must be lubricated. Vegetable oil is good.
cardsCards are disks of card stock. Over-powder cards between powder and wad are often waterproof to keep the wad lube from wetting the powder. Over-shot cards keep the shot from rolling out.

Plastic shot cup wads like a modern shell are also available.

primers This is the ignition source. A capper full of caps is a lot easier than one at a time from a can. The higher flashpoint of the substitute powders may require a magnum cap.

For priming flintlocks some 4F should be in a priming flask.


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